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.
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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