Paul's Android Adventures: Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Quick Take)

While I won't be writing a full review of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, I did want to provide a few notes about my first few weeks of using this new Google flagship handset, and the first to utilize Android 4.0.

Paul Thurrott

January 19, 2012

9 Min Read
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While I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense for me to review the latest official Google phone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, I have been using this handset for the past couple of weeks and would like to at least provide a quick overview. Put simply, I do prefer the "pure" Android experience offered by this device over the sometimes heavily modified versions sold with other phones, and certainly Android 4.0 is the best version of this mobile OS yet. But I don't see anything here to sway my preferences for Windows Phone.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is an interesting combination of Samsung and Google DNA. If you're familiar with recent Samsung devices like the Focus S or Galaxy II, you see some familial similarities like the super-thin, peel-off back and the edge-to-edge glass. And as the latest flagship to carry Google's official mark, it's mostly devoid of the crapware and, more important, the bizarre UI changes that accompany some other Android devices. It also means no more of the standard hardware buttons that adorned previous Android versions too.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Physically, the Nexus is big and heavy. Compared to the Focus S I prefer, it's wider and longer, quite a bit thicker (.37mm vs. .33), and much heavier (5.2 ounces vs. 3.9). The back is gun-metal gray instead of the all-black of most Samsung devices. Hardware buttons include volume on the left and power on the right; but that's it, there's no dedicated camera button, which I'd prefer. Even more oddly, the headset jack is on the bottom, near the micro-USB port. And while the device does sport 32 GB of internal memory, it's not expandable like most Android devices. (To be fair, neither is the Focus S.)

On the hardware front, what draws people to this device is the screen, which at 4.7 inches is huge and with a 1280 x 720 HD resolution is likewise beautiful. This resolution bests the iPhone 4S's amazing Retina display, which features 960 x 640 resolution, though with a much higher pixel density due to its relatively tiny screen. But specs don't really explain the strengths of either display. They're both beautiful and crisp.

The processor is also allegedly pretty impressive, a 1.2 GHz dual-core unit. There's 1 GB of RAM, double the 512 MB in my Focus S, and both combine for what is clearly excellent and smooth performance.

Another hardware draw, of course, is the Nexus's support for real 4G compatibility courtesy of its Verizon LTE antenna. I haven't had much of a chance to test the speed of this network, and to be honest, most of my heavy downloading--like Android Marketplace movie rentals--occurs over Wi-Fi. But I'm told it's a big improvement over AT&T-style HSPA+ ("pseudo-4G") or EVDO. I suspect it's biggest contribution to the device is killing its battery life. This is another area I won't test fully, but if this were my day-to-day phone, I'd buy a second battery immediately and stay near a power source. This thing doesn't last even half a day from what I can tell. It's embarrassing.

Before I get off the hardware, let me also point out that the Nexus's 5 megapixel camera is disappointing. I expect 8 or more these days, and while the quality is good to very good depending on the conditions, it's not as good as the version in the Focus S and nowhere near the quality of the iPhone 4S's camera. In fact, I have yet to see a smart phone camera outperform the one in the iPhone 4S. I had hoped this would be the one. (There's a front-facing camera for you checking-off-the-feature-bullet-points junkies. I don't care about it and will never use it.)

OK, so all this stuff is really leading up to the real reason I got this device: It's the first to include Google's Android 4.0 mobile OS, and will likely be one of the few Android 4.0 devices that includes that pure Android experience that's devoid of add-ons and crapware. That makes it very interesting to me indeed.

I have a lot to say about Android 4.0, but it's so full of fit and finish improvements when compared to the most common, 2.x, versions of Android, it's hard to even know where to start. If you're familiar with Android 3.0, which was only made available to tablet devices, you'll be right at home in Android 4.0, as much of the user interface improvements that debuted in that release are present now on the phone in 4.0 as well. This includes new software-based system buttons for Back, Home, and Recent Apps, as well as the Menu button, which can (somewhat annoyingly) appear in slightly different places onscreen, depending on the app. I thought the move to software buttons was going to be controversial or at least confusing, but it's honestly pretty natural and works well.

Android 4.0 retains the same odd five-screen home screen; I'd like to be able to configure that (I'd use just one or possibly two) or have it auto-add screens as needed as is the case with iOS. The combination of icons and widgets is better looking but similar functionally to how it works in 2.x. I'm sort of mixed on this approach, which sits in the middle between iOS's terrible icons and Windows Phone's potentially more expressive live tiles. Of course, the problem with Windows Phone is that a lot developers don't use live tiles well enough, so users are stuck with the equivalent of giant, square icons. And from a customizing standpoint, Android is pretty nice, arguably better than even Windows Phone (it's much, much better in this regard than iOS).

On Android, of course, you use a Google account as the central gatekeeper to your online activities, much as you use your Windows Live ID on Windows Phone or your Apple ID on iPhone. This works well, and since this is a Google-branded phone, it's preloaded with a ton of apps tied to Google services such as Google Books, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Docs, Gmail, Google+, Google Latitude, Google Music, Google Search, and You Tube, plus some that aren't clearly Google tie-ins, but are, like Videos, which plays rented and purchased movies from the Android Market. 

Android 4.0 includes a new People app that is modeled after the People hub in Windows Phone and provides a nice, pretty interface to something--contacts management--that by all rights should be dull and boring. Like Windows Phone 7.5, you can create contacts groups, and like iOS, you can "favorite" certain users too. What's missing, of course, is the deep social networking integration you get with Windows Phone.

As with other smart phone platforms, Android 4.0 comes with its own app store, in this case the Android Marketplace. This has gotten a lot prettier than it was just a year and a half ago and now provides a much nicer on-device experience with apps, music, books, and movies availability. But it's still the same old lousy Android Marketplace: Google does absolutely no proactive curation of apps that appear in the market, preferring only to remove offensive apps after the fact, when users complain. This is an embarrassment, I think, and a problem. But fortunately, with Android, you can choose to install apps from other sources. So I do: I install the Amazon App Store and install apps from there when available. The Amazon store is a much better, and safer, experience. It's nice to have the choice.

As with previous Android versions, Google curiously includes a Gmail app and then a separate and less functional Email app which works with other email account types. This latter app is so lackluster that Microsoft created its own Hotmail app, which I was eager to try given my recent conversion to Hotmail and some rave reviews from users. But while the Hotmail app is available for Android, it won't install on Android 4.0 (or 3.x for that matter): A great example of how Android fragmentation can cause issues. (More on that in a future article, of course.)

And while I complained about the quality of the camera previously, it's worth pointing out that the camera app is actually pretty decent. It features tap-to-focus, which is nice, but not as nice as would be tap-to-shoot.  It has a dedicated panorama mode in addition to the more traditional still and video modes. And while the options are hard to find, there are some decent scene modes in there that really do make a difference.

Here, we see some good social networking integration too. When you view a photo you've taken, you can share it via Picasaweb, Messaging, Google+, Gmail, Facebook, and more, which is a nice touch, and quite a bit simpler than sharing on iOS. And while I like how Windows Phone works in this regard, there are more options in Android, at least on this phone.

Finally, while this isn't new to Android 4.0, it's worth pointing out that the notification system, which slides down from the top on this device (it slides up from the bottom on 3.x tablets) is top-notch and no doubt the inspiration for what Apple added to iOS 5. Apps of all kinds register notifications in this slider, and you can act on them or delete them individually or clear the whole lot in one tap. Looking at the phone now, I see a calendar reminder, an app update, a Google Talk friend request, some Facebook updates, and more. It's very useful.

Overall, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus seems like a fine phone, and certainly Android 4.0--which I'll be writing a  lot more about in coming weeks--is the star of the show. Could this be my daily use phone? Yes, of course, though again I'd want an extra battery and would be mindful of usage, something I don't think about on on the iPhone or Windows Phone. I may be a bit too experienced with Windows Phone to be able to see past the differences between the two, though. Where Windows Phone is stark and simple, Android 4.0 is busy and animated, even to the point of having horrible animated wallpapers. It's a matter of style, I guess. But i do understand the draw of Android. After all, it's the same thing that drew people to PCs over rival platforms decades ago.

But more about that soon.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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