The Samsung Galaxy Nexus and all Google Android phones are the cheaper mass-market alternative to the premium Apple iPhone, but that hasn’t stopped Google from trying to make a handset experience to match Apple’s admired smartphone. Visit Group test: what's the best Android phone?

It does so with Nexus, a name awarded to its flagship Android smartphones. These aim to cram in as many bleeding-edge features from the platform as possible. The Galaxy Nexus is the third such model. See also Samsung Galaxy S2 review and Samsung Galaxy Ace review.

Google pinched the Nexus name from the generation of rogue replicant/android characters in the cult sci-fi film Blade Runner. It no longer numbers its Nexus products as was suggested by the original Nexus One; if it had, a sixth iteration could be incurring even more ire from the estate of late author Philip K Dick. Go toSamsung Galaxy S3 release date, specs and rumour round-up.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus review

The Nexus product sets out to be a shining beacon for the best that Android has to offer. Google is said to work closely with the handset manufacturer to give a virgin Android installation, without the added bloat that many Android phones routinely pack from network operators and hardware manufacturers. See also Samsung Galaxy Note review.

Nexus phones should also offer a better level of hardware-software integration than is sometimes found from the Android platform. 

This is the second time that Google has worked with Samsung, the favoured and best-selling Android partner. This time the name is a clear nod to the Samsung Galaxy phones, and in particular the Galaxy SII, a close cousin of the Galaxy Nexus.

In the same way that Google elected to use the previous Nexus S as a launchpad for the then-latest Android 2.3 (‘Gingerbread’) operating system, so this time the Galaxy Nexus is the first outing for Google’s new Android 4.0 (‘Ice Cream Sandwich’).

As the premium model to showcase Android, it is pitched in the market against the Apple iPhone 4S, and cannot escape comparisons with the leading smartphone.

Galaxy Nexus Handset

There’s no mistaking that the Galaxy Nexus is a large handset. It dwarfs the iPhone 4S and its 3.5in screen, and is even larger than the Galaxy SII’s 4.3in display.

The 4.65in Super AMOLED screen has similarly richly saturated colours. But note that this hi-res 720 x 1280 capacitive screen is using older Super OLED rather than the newer Super AMOLED Plus technology employed by the Galaxy SII.

These OLED technology screens are quite impressive to look at, with incredible contrast ratios that make punchy images. As with other OLED screens we’ve seen, colours are rich to the point of cloying, with reds in particular looking quite surreal. When viewing photographs on the Glaxy Nexus, for instance, skintones tend toward the sunburnt.

With a just-HD resolution of 1280 x 720 on the table on the large 4.65in screen, we have a pixel density of 316ppi. That’s lower than the iPhone 4 and 4S’ 326ppi, but still enough to give a ‘retina’-like resolution that does not betray individual pixels to the naked eye.

A large screen is always welcome as a way to navigate the interface and watch video on a modern smartphone. But it also makes day-to-day use more tiresome, when it reaches the point that you can no longer control the phone with one hand. 

With any smartphone – up to around 3.5-4in screen in our experience – we can reach any touchable element with our thumb while holding the phone in one hand. Go beyond that size, and phone operation becomes a two-handed operation, just like in the bad old days of stylus input. 

For a lady’s smaller hand, the problem is even more apparent. The Galaxy Nexus essentially mandates two hands for most routine operations, more like a mini tablet than a phone.

Unlike smartphones that feature at least one hardware button on the front screen, the Galaxy Nexus only has soft keys. 

The Home key is still in the middle position, with Back to the left. To the right of Home is an overlapping square icon, which brings up an overview of all open app pages on the screen. It’s a handy way to quickly jump between different application spaces.

Galaxy Nexus Build

Construction of the Galaxy Nexus follows Samsung’s penchant for creaky plastics, although that clip-on backplate does mean you can open the phone and easily access the battery and SIM card. There’s no MicroSD card slot, so you are entirely constrained by the onboard 16GB flash storage. The 32GB version is not officially sold in the UK.

And a spare battery will be a useful asset on a phone that struggles to last a full day of moderate use. In our tests, its 6.48Wh battery let it survive 25 hours between charges, inclusive of an 8 hour overnight stretch of standby/sleeping. When the iPhone 4S lasts over 48 hours in the same use patterns, this is clearly a performance setback, if not untypical for many Android phones. 

Most of that power was unsurprisingly being sapped by the screen. The option in Android to set screen brightness automatically was not terribly useful on the Galaxy Nexus, as it set the display just too dark to read easily in normal daylight.

At 139g, the Galaxy Nexus weighs about the same as an iPhone 4S (140g). It is considerably larger, standing 135mm tall and 68mm wide. There’s a slight curvature toward the bottom, with even the screen curling in around the mouthpiece end. The thickness varies across its length, from 7.2mm at its thinnest at top, to 11.7mm maximum. In the middle, it’s exactly 9.4mm, coincidentally the same as the uniform thickness of an iPhone 4S.

Galaxy Nexus Processors

As is common with other modern smartphones the Galaxy Nexus uses an ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core processor – in this case a 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460. This is backed up with a PowerVR SGX540 graphics engine, the same as used in the two-year old original Galaxy S, for instance. 

By way of comparison, Apple’s iPad 2 and iPhone 4S use dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics. Independent benchmark tests, such as those by AnandTech, have shown that the latter graphics processor is around three times faster than that fitted to the Galaxy Nexus.

In real use, we found the interface to be slightly jerkier than even a Galaxy SII. Whether that’s due to problems with Android 4.0 or the weaker graphics sub-system is hard to call.

Galaxy Nexus Connectivity

The latest iteration of Google Android 4 did not arrive without problems on the Galaxy Nexus handset. Initial reported problems centred on defective audio (with volume spontaneously muting) and cellular reception (poor signal and dropped calls).

Our sample came with Android 4.0.2, and we were offered and applied an OTA update to 4.0.3 during the test period. We didn’t experience any of these early problems, but did note that cellular reception of the phone is far from great. In one test, we found that the Galaxy Nexus was unable to keep a 3G data connection at our benchmark City Thameslink train station stop. There is no local relay here, although an iPhone 4S can maintain its 3G connectivity at the same position.

Some overseas versions of the Galaxy Nexus include an LTE modem, although this is patently wasted in territories that are nowhere close to rolling out ‘4G’ mobile broadband, such as the UK and most of Europe.

As it stands for Britons, the HSDPA modem gives reasonable mobile data speed, if well short of the leading models.

In a controlled test over the Three network, we recorded average download and upload speeds by repeating and recording many tests through speedtest.net. An iPhone 4S was used for reference, which gave us results of 2.5 Mbps upload and 8.9 Mbps download.

The Galaxy Nexus in the same location and timeframe averaged 2.4 Mbps upload and 5.9 Mbps download. This is inline with performance we’ve seen on the Galaxy SII. In other words, in the key download test, the iPhone 4S is 50% faster in 3G data performance.

In real-world tests, we averaged 16 secs load time for the www.pcadvisor.co.uk website, and 5 secs for the mobile version of the site. On the iPhone 4S, these pages loaded in 7 secs and 2 secs respectively.

Galaxy Nexus Camera

Two cameras are fitted to the Galaxy Nexus, a 5Mp rear-facer with LED flash and a 1.2Mp for video calling. The main camera is also specified for 1920 x 1080p video. Don’t be put off by the sub-standard specification of 5Mp when other phones have 8Mp cameras – more important is the quality of the optics and the sensor. 

We put the Galaxy Nexus against the iPhone 4S, where we saw quite decent low-light performance from the Galaxy. There was still plenty of noise visible in indoor images though, and detail was obscured by some obvious noise-reduction processing. Shot-to-shot time was quite brisk.

More troubling was the colour balance. Even viewed on a PC monitor rather than the Galaxy Nexus’ over-saturated screen, pictures had unnatural colouring and poorer handling of gradients. We couldn’t deny that the iPhone 4S takes visibly superior photographs; more detail in backgrounds, better depth perspective, conspicuously sharper and more natural overall.

Galaxy Nexus Interface

Development of Flash for mobile devices has now been officially dropped by Adobe, although Flash capability is often marketed as a unique feature not available to iOS devices.

Long-standing lipsync issues with Flash were not apparent in the short time that Flash content could be seen to work on the Galaxy Nexus; but we consistently found that Adobe Flash was crashing the Google browser. In short, the Galaxy Nexus could not play many YouTube videos without quitting or freezing. If you’re relying on Flash on your mobile, the Galaxy Nexus stands as an example of why it was a lost cause that forced even Adobe to give up. 

An extra feature that Samsung has built into the Nexus is NFC, for near-field communication uses. This is still very much a proof-of-concept addition as there is little practical use for this feature today.

Galaxy Nexus Support

The Galaxy Nexus, like other Samsung phones, needs Windows in order make a connection to a PC; Samsung does not support Mac or Linux.

More development in NFC features may be found in future OS revisions and third-party apps. Since this phone is running a Google-blessed build of Android, future updates may appear more promptly than Samsung’s own; by way of example, Android 4.0 was released in October 2011, and as of Feb 2012, Samsung owners are still waiting for an update for their Galaxy phones and tablets.

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We’ve been clamouring to get our hands on the Galaxy Nexus ever since its unveiling in Hong Kong back in October. Finally, at long last, the U.S. version of the Galaxy Nexus has landed in our office. So is the Galaxy Nexus, the first phone to run Android Ice Cream Sandwich, everything we hoped it would be? Mostly, yes. The Galaxy Nexus impresses with lightning-fast performance, strong data speeds, a thin design, and, of course, all of that Ice Cream Sandwich goodness. It isn’t perfect, however. The camera isn’t outstanding, and the handset has no expandable memory slot. But as it stands, the Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone currently available.

Design

The Galaxy Nexus is one fine-lookin’ piece of hardware. The glossy display, piano-black bezel, and textured back are all standard Samsung design elements. But unlike other Samsung Galaxy phones I’ve reviewed, the Galaxy Nexus feels high quality. At 5.1 ounces, it has a nice substantial weight to it without being too heavy. As you can see from the photos, the Galaxy Nexus has a subtle curve, which nicely contours to the hand. If you have small hands like me, however, you might find the Galaxy Nexus a bit large (it measures 5.33 by 2.67 by 0.37 inches).

The Galaxy Nexus has no physical hardware keys on its face. Instead, the touch-sensitive Back, Home, and Search keys are built into the display as soft keys.

Super AMOLED Display (No Plus)

The Galaxy Nexus has a high-def Super AMOLED display--not to be confused with the Super AMOLED Plus technology found in the Samsung Galaxy S II line of phones. This 1280-by-720-pixel display is actually based on a PenTile pixel structure in which pixels share subpixels. Engadget points out that the Galaxy S II phones have full RGB displays in which the pixels have their own subpixels. This means that the Galaxy Nexus has lower overall subpixel density, reduced sharpness, and degraded colour accuracy than the Galaxy S II. But according to site FlatpanelsHD, the Galaxy Nexus has 315 pixels per inch, which is slightly lower than the iPhone 4/4S at 326 ppi.

To be quite honest, the only quality difference I saw between the Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus, and the iPhone 4S was in colour accuracy. Colours on the Galaxy Nexus had a slight yellowish tint, mainly in pictures or websites with a white background. Otherwise, blacks looked deep, while fonts and details appeared sharp. Unless you’re crazy about pixel density or have insanely sharp eyes, you probably won’t notice the slight display downgrade.

The display is a roomy 4.65 inches, but really only 4 inches of that real estate is usable. The remaining 0.65-inch space is occupied by a customizable shortcut bar that appears at the bottom of the home screens as well as some other internal screens. Even so, the screen feels plenty spacious for all of your gaming, video, and other multimedia desires.

Ice Cream Sandwich: Simply Sweet

We’ve written extensively on Ice Cream Sandwich, and will be doing much more in-depth coverage in the next few days. For this review, I’ll focus on how Ice Cream Sandwich performs on the Galaxy Nexus.

If you’re familiar with Android Honeycomb on tablets, you’ll find a few familiar features in Ice Cream Sandwich. As in Honeycomb, widgets in Ice Cream Sandwich are now resizable on the home screen. You'll also find a dedicated on-screen Recent Apps button for seeing all of your open apps; just as on Android tablets, it displays a scrollable list of running apps with thumbnail images. Flicking through and switching between apps is not as speedy as I would like it to be, however--I encountered a noticeable delay when going from one app to another.

You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz about the ability to unlock your phone with your face. The front-facing camera snaps a picture of you and then uses facial recognition software the next time you unlock your phone. It's cool, most definitely, but it's not the most secure way of protecting your phone. As Google warns, somebody who looks similar to you can unlock your phone with their face. Nevertheless, face unlock works well, and it is a pretty neat--although somewhat gimmicky--feature.

The Android software keyboard in Ice Cream Sandwich has larger, more square keys so it is easier to type on (though I still made a few errors here and there). You now have an option to verbally dictate your text, as well, though I didn’t always find it accurate. For example, “This is a test of the auto-dictate feature” translated into “Types of the otter dictate feature.”
Developers will delight in the dedicated “Developer options,” which let you access tools such as a CPU usage meter and controls for touchscreen feedback and the background process limit. It is features like this that truly make Android a standout operating system. There’s something for everyone.

The Core Apps

Gmail gets a face-lift, with a new context-sensitive Action Bar at the bottom of the screen. The bar changes depending on where in the app you are. For example, when you’re looking at an email message, you see options to archive it, trash it, label it, or mark it as unread. When you’re viewing your inbox, the bar changes to display options for composing new messages. Adding attachments from your gallery or other folders is now much easier as well. If you’re a heavy Gmail user like me, you’ll really appreciate these updates.

The browser in Ice Cream Sandwich is just about as close as you can get to a desktop one. You can now set the browser to request full desktop versions of sites, not the lesser mobile versions. You can also sync your bookmarks from the desktop Chrome browser to the Browser app in Ice Cream Sandwich. Google has added support for tabbed browsing, and you can quickly view which tabs are open, each with a live preview of that page.

Google Calendar pretty much runs my life, so I was pleased to see a cleaner, easier-to-read version of it in Ice Cream Sandwich. I also appreciate the fact that you can pinch-to-zoom in on a particular calendar event to see more information about it; previously you had to tap on the calendar event, and it would open a new window. Like all of the other core-apps updates, Google has made everything in the Calendar more efficient and easier to use.

Unfortunately, Google Wallet is not supported on the Galaxy Nexus--despite the fact that the phone’s hardware supports NFC.

Performance

The Galaxy Nexus is powered by a dual-core 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 processor, with 1GB of RAM and 16GB or 32GB of storage. The Galaxy Nexus scored well on all of our benchmark tests (which includes the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark and the GLBenchmark). Interestingly, the Nexus’s overall score was about the same as the mark of the Motorola Droid Razr, which has a 1.2GHz TI OMAP 4430 processor. The Samsung Galaxy S II for T-Mobile scored slightly higher overall than the Galaxy Nexus.

We also ran the Qualcomm-developed Vellamo benchmarking app, on which the Galaxy Nexus earned a score of 803. (The Droid Razr got a score of 1040, which put it ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S II.) This score puts the Galaxy Nexus ahead of the Samsung Skyrocket and the HTC EVO 3D. Because Vellamo was made by a competitor to Texas Instruments, we tend to take these results with a grain of salt.

We’re lucky enough to get very strong 4G LTE coverage here in San Francisco. In my tests using the FCC-approved Ookla Speedtest app, the Galaxy Nexus achieved download speeds ranging from 6.69 to 12.11 megabits per second and upload speeds of 21.18 mbps. In other words, the Galaxy Nexus is blazingly fast.

Call quality over Verizon’s network in San Francisco was consistently good. I had great coverage everywhere I went in the city. My friends and family sounded natural, with an ample amount of volume. One of my friends remarked that my voice sounded “hollow,” but other people I spoke with were pleased with the quality.

We have not yet finished our formal battery life tests, but the Galaxy Nexus survived through a whole day of heavy use before I needed to charge it again.
 

Camera

At the Hong Kong unveiling, Google bragged that the camera on the Galaxy Nexus has zero shutter lag. In my hands-on tests, I found these claims to be accurate: It processes your photo almost instantly after you press the shutter key. Another nice feature is the ability to access the camera from the lock screen rather than having to unlock and then dig through menus.

Unfortunately, the camera just isn’t of the same caliber as the rest of the phone. The photos I shot with the Galaxy Nexus’s 5-megapixel cameralooked a bit flat. Colours seemed a touch washed out, and details were a little fuzzy.

But even if your photos don’t come out perfect, Ice Cream Sandwich has your back with its suite of photo-editing tools. You get an array of filters (like your very own Hipstamatic app), the capability to adjust the image angle, red-eye removal, cropping functions, and more. Any edits you make to a photo will create a copy, in case you ever want to revert to the original.

In camcorder mode, you can record video in up to 1080p. Video in my tests looked quite good. The camera handles motion well, with no artifacting or pixelation. Check out the test clip below.

PCWorld Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a superb phone, and a great vehicle for introducing Android Ice Cream Sandwich to the world. Android has clearly come a long way, and the tweaks and updates Google has implemented throughout the operating system make a huge difference in efficiency and ease of use. Right now, the Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone you can buy.

Ginny Mies

Samsung Galaxy Nexus: Specs

  • 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 ARM Cortex A9 dual-core processor
  • 307MHz PowerVR SDX540 graphics
  • 4.65in Super OLED PenTile display (720 x 1280 pixels)
  • Google Android 4.0.3 ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’
  • 16GB NAND flash storage
  • 1GB RAM
  • 5Mp front- and 1.2Mp rear-facing cameras
  • 1920 x 1080p video from front camera
  • LED flash
  • A-GPS
  • gyroscope
  • proximity/light sensors
  • barometer
  • NFC
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • Micro USB 2.0
  • 6.48Wh removable li-ion battery (3.7V/1750mAh)
  • 135.5 x 68 x 7.2-11.7mm
  • 139g
  • 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 ARM Cortex A9 dual-core processor
  • 307MHz PowerVR SDX540 graphics
  • 4.65in Super OLED PenTile display (720 x 1280 pixels)
  • Google Android 4.0.3 ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’
  • 16GB NAND flash storage
  • 1GB RAM
  • 5Mp front- and 1.2Mp rear-facing cameras
  • 1920 x 1080p video from front camera
  • LED flash
  • A-GPS
  • gyroscope
  • proximity/light sensors
  • barometer
  • NFC
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • Micro USB 2.0
  • 6.48Wh removable li-ion battery (3.7V/1750mAh)
  • 135.5 x 68 x 7.2-11.7mm
  • 139g

OUR VERDICT

The Galaxy Nexus stands as the flagship of Android phones and the standard-bearer for Google’s new Ice Cream Sandwich OS, making it the must-have handset for followers of the platform. Yet in most respects the Galaxy Nexus is no better than the Samsung Galaxy SII. In fact, it has lower-spec cameras and screen, and the same graphics processor as the 2009 Galaxy and 2010 Galaxy SII. Its huge screen is initially impressive but it makes the phone more like a small tablet to handle, and is part responsible for killing useful running time. If battery life, build quality, stability or speedy performance are important to you, this is not the phone for you; the Galaxy Nexus trails the iPhone 4S in every area by some margin.

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