Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
Google's Galaxy Nexus is undoubtably the most desired Android smartphone this year. It is, after all, the first device to showcase Android 4.0 (AKA Ice Cream Sandwich) and brings a long list of improvements to the device it replaces, the Google Nexus S.
As competition in the high end handset segment gets tighter, is the Galaxy Nexus the best Android smartphone or has the competition finally caught up with this year's prime Google phone?
We spent a few days with a pre-production Galaxy Nexus which was on the Bell Network. The Galaxy Nexus will begin selling in early December at $160 for a three year contract or $624.95 for a one year contract on Bell.
Screen and updated design
Side by side, the Galaxy Nexus (left) and the Nexus S share a lot of design touches. They are both based on the Samsung Galaxy S design reference although more rounded than Samsung's smartphones. The Nexus S is pure shiny black plastic and has a similarly curved screen as the Galaxy Nexus.
One big and obvious difference is the larger 4.65 inch scree which is larger than the Nexus S' 4 inch AMOLED screen. There are no more buttons on the Galaxy Nexus as these are now integrated into the screen which makes for a cleaner device devoid of any buttons.
The 1280 x 720-pixel Super AMOLED high-definition display is suitably impressive and an improvement over the cheap looking oversaturated Super AMOLED display on the Nexus S. We found that the Galaxy Nexus' screen was a bit tinted or purposely felt like it was darker and we had to bump up the brightness up to halfway to see everything clearly. We're not sure if this was just on our review unit or a common issue, but it was certainly darker than we would have liked.
While we weren't too thrilled by the screen's brightness, we were completely blown away by its responsiveness. It could be the 1.2GHz dual core processor or the new Ice Cream Sandwich OS but this is one of the most responsive touch screens we've tried. Period.
Scrolling is instantaneous and even has the best momentum physics we've seen where the page will scroll as slowly or as quickly as you push it. Pinching and zooming is fast, precise and responsive. Ice Cream Sandwich also brings a number of subtle but useful functionalities like the ability to create app folders by dragging icons into each other.
Lightweight, thin and slightly contoured, the Galaxy Nexus is representative of the types of smartphones that have come to market late in the year like the Bell Optimus LTE as well as the Motorola RAZR which are similarly thin and light phones with larger screens and access to 4G or LTE high speed data connections.
The hardware is impressive with a 1.2GHz dual core processor (which is apparently a 1.5Ghz processor purposely downclocked) 1GB or RAM. Bell says the Galaxu Nexus will be able to download at rates up to 21Mbps.
When we were briefed by Ken Price, Vice President of Samsung Mobile Canada and Vlastimir Lalovic, Director, Wireless Product Realization at Samsung we were told that Samsung worked closely with Google on the device.
We also learned that Ice Cream Sandwich, which is still being tweaked and improved as we write this, is designed to take full advantage of dual-core processors. This explains why the Galaxy Nexus is noticeably faster and more responsive in firing up certain applications and completing tasks.
You get either 16GB or 32GB of storage but this is not expandable, which is a shame and I can't see any reason why Google, or Samsung couldn't have added a microSD card on a $700 smartphone.
We pitted the Galaxy Nexus against an iPhone 4S in webpage loading using the same WiFi connection and the iPhone 4S was faster in loading pages like Maxim and Sports Illustrated by one to two seconds faster in rendering pages.
This isn't bad considering that the Galaxy Nexus has a larger screen to render.
Against the Nexus S on the same WiFi network, the Galaxy Nexus blew away its predecessor by an average of 3 seconds loading websites like The Toronto Star and the Washington Post.
We also noticed that the Nexus S would load the entire webpage but only show a small portion but the Galaxy Nexus rendered the entire webpage just like a desktop browser would.
Camera and Features
The Galaxy Nexus ships with a 5 megapixel camera which is decent enough but not outstanding. Certainly not as impressive as the iPhone 4S' 8 megapixel camera but better than some of the utterly horrible cameras we've seen on similar phones.
There are some new features with the Ice Cream Sandwich camera app. It is easer to take a succession of photos now, there's face recognition technology built in (which is also used by the iffy face-unlock feature on the Galaxy Nexus).
We did not have enough time to really test the camera under many conditions but the panorama function, which is a sweep-style panorama where a user clicks the shutter and pans along while the camera constantly grabs and stitches the photo. The results are instantaneous and while not as seamless or as fast as the Photosynth app, it is still pretty good.
We don't understand why the Galaxy Nexus only has a 5 megapixel camera, of course, megapixels aren't everything and more pixels just equals more noise, these are valid arguments but its predecessor, the Nexus S has a 5 megapixel camera as well.
The rear of the Galaxy Nexus is composed of a patterned plastic back which peels off. Build of this cover feels flimsy. Compared to smartphones from HTC and Motorola which use interesting and more rugged materials such as aluminum an in the case of the RAZR, Kevlar, Samsung's use of plastic makes their products feel a bit lacking.
Of course we know that there are valid reasons for going with plastic. It is better for radios, it keeps weight down and some would say that plastic devices tend to survive falls better than metal, glass or other materials.
The Galaxy Nexus is the culmination of Samsung's past three years of developing Android smartphones and is a rightful heir to the spirit of innovation as well as great overall functionality of its predecessor, the Nexus S.
A year or two ago, the chosen Nexus device was usually way ahead of the competition and offered not just a preview of the latest 'Pure Google' Android OS, it also brought features and specs that no other smartphone had at the time.
Buying a Nexus One or a Nexus S was like buying next year's phone today, that's why people who desired these devices paid top dollar to get them.
That is no longer the case.
There is a lot to like about the Galaxy Nexus, no argument there. But in terms of specs, capability and features, consumers now have some very compelling alternatives that are thinner, faster, more powerful and can access higher speed networks. Even Samsung's Galaxy S II 4G smartphone seems to have comparable features to the Galaxy Nexus.
These alternatives are also available right now for substantially less money.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5