Thursday, December 8, 2011

REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Nexus 4G with Ice Cream Sandwich


Google’s latest smartphone is a marvel to use and offers plenty of new features with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Arguably (one of) the most anticipated phone of the year, the Samsung-manufactured Galaxy Nexus running the latest incarnation of Google’s Android operating system is set to hit shelves today. To celebrate, Samsung held a free outdoor concert at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square yesterday where consumers could try out the Galaxy Nexus and grab a scratch card to hopefully win one.

Those of you who were diligent enough to accomplish the Bell Twitter preorder should be receiving a delivery shortly. Others can head to their nearest Bell store, Future Shop, Best Buy or other wireless retailer to (try to) get your hands on the latest Google phone.

Each iteration of Google’s smartphone has brought with it new changes and features and the Galaxy Nexus is no different. The biggest draw to the Galaxy Nexus is the new Ice Cream Sandwich operating system (Android v4.0). It brings together what used to be disparate user experiences for smartphones (v2.x) and tablets (v3.x) into a single, unified experience. Those familiar with Android-powered tablets will be familiar with the permanent button to access settings as well as the application switcher (for multitasking).


Other notable features of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) include near-field communications (NFC) support, facial recognition unlocking of the phone, and the swapping of hardware buttons on the face of the phone for capacitive buttons (volume and power are still physical). NFC was present on the last Google phone, the Nexus S and gets an incredibly useful, new feature in Android v4.0: “Beam”.

This feature allows any two NFC, Ice Cream Sandwich-equipped phones to instantly share what they’re doing with one another simply by tapping the backs of the phones together. This can be anything from a YouTube video to a website to exchanging contact information (anyone remember sharing vCards through infrared on the Palm Pilot?). It makes cumbersome URLs and complicated pairing a thing of the past. Applications such as PayPal already make use of this and allow users to instantly send money to each other.

Being a Samsung phone, the Galaxy Nexus sports one of the best, if not THE best display currently available on any smartphone. It’s a gorgeous 720p (1,280×720), 4.65”, curved display featuring Samsung’s unparalleled Super AMOLED technology (which is only bested by Samsung’s Super AMOLED+, but frankly, it doesn’t matter). A welcome addition that was missing from the last generation Nexus S (which also had a curved display) is the upgrade to a fortified glass. As you can see in the video below, it is practically impervious, making screen protectors a thing of the past and eliminating any fears of putting the smartphone into a pocket with keys.

Sharing the gorgeous image is also quick through the MHL-equipped (HDMI mirroring) microUSB port on the bottom of the Galaxy Nexus (also used for data connectivity and charging). Around the back is a 5MP backside-illuminated camera (better low-light performance) that also shoots full 1080p HD video at 24 FPS. Samsung has incorporated a “zero lag” shutter and I can confirm that it is indeed instant and not just marketing hype. While the 5MP is a downgrade from higher resolution shutters such as on the Samsung Galaxy S II, the images are less compressed and typically less noisy than others. However, quality-wise, it won’t be replacing a dedicated point-and-shoot still camera just yet. The still camera also features a panoramic mode as well as filters and simple on-camera editing. The video camera features “live” effects such as superimposing images onto the video – think fake moustaches and the like.

All of this hardware is powered by a 1.2 Ghz dual-core processor to ensure that everything hums along smoothly. Again, like the camera, this isn’t the best processor currently available but it still handles everything with aplomb. Multitasking has always been Android’s strong suit and while it can be a double-edged sword (too many open tasks slows down a phone), Ice Cream Sandwich handles it better than any Android version I’ve used to date. Switching between a web browser with multiple windows open to the camera is takes less than a second and I had no issues keeping all my social networks, instant messengers and other applications running. The Galaxy Nexus sports a 1,750 mAh battery and has what I would call “average” battery life. This is mostly due to the large screen which can suck up anywhere from 40-60% of the battery. I found myself having to recharge after about 15 hours of steady, regular use (i.e. web browsing, approximately an hour of phone calls, lots of texting, not constantly streaming YouTube, etc.). Depending on the availability of a USB port, wall or car charger, this could not be enough for some users. A note to those considering purchasing a 2nd/backup battery: if you do not purchase an original Samsung Galaxy Nexus battery, NFC may not work because a non-Samsung battery may interfere with the NFC radio.


For wireless connectivity, it comes with WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n (both 2.4 Ghz and 5.0 Ghz bands, with hotspot capabilities and WiFi Direct), Bluetooth v3.0 and GPS (as well as NFC, mentioned above). For cellular data connectivity, it runs on 3.5G here in Canada (HSPA+) so expect speeds from 3,000 to 8,000 kbps. Ice Cream Sandwich also features a built-in data monitor function, allowing users to carefully monitor their cellular and WiFi data usage. Users can disable specific applications’ data access as well as background data. However, more granular control is not yet available. E.g. disable cellular data during certain times or in certain locations like home. (While roaming, data is disabled by default so users won’t receive a nasty bill on their return.)

Finally, we get to the software itself. By and large, everything is better in Ice Cream Sandwich. Shortcuts have been revamped and functionality such as text selection, copy/paste, notifications, and widgets have all gotten a facelift. The entire operating system has been optimized with more touch gestures and users will find themselves swiping, pinching, and interacting with the screen in a much more intuitive manner. One thing that took getting used to is the virtual menu/options button, which is now represented by three stacked dots. On previous Android phones, there was a dedicated (hardware) button to bring up options/secondary menus. On Ice Cream Sandwich, it is virtual so each program may place it in a different spot.


Widgets on the home screen can now be resized meaning users can display as much or as little information as they want. For example, my calendar takes up one whole home screen while my social networks each get one third of another home screen. Notifications from each application can now be removed individually by tapping the “x” or swiping it off either side of the screen. One feature that I wish had been implemented natively is control over the multicoloured LED that sits at the bottom of the screen. However, this is remedied with the free/paid Light Flow application which allows users to set different blink rates and colours for many individual applications (e.g. text messages are one colour, emails are another, missed calls yet another and so on). As well, a permanent Google search bar appears at the top of every home screen. This search widget can be set to index everything from text messages to data inside individual applications (I have it indexing my Dropbox).

Inside the app drawer is the stock, unmodified Ice Cream Sandwich launcher which has all the user’s applications. Swiping left and right brings up the next/previous panes (with a nice fading animation) and no customization such as reordering of icons is available here. Swipe all the way to the right (or click the tab at the top) and it switches from applications to widgets. At the very top right sits a permanent icon for the Android Market. While I would have preferred more customizability, there are enough (free) launchers in the Android Market to address this. (Google’s phones are always “stock” or “vanilla” and Google does not allow manufacturers to customize it with their graphical overlays such as HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz.)

All of the standard Google applications have also been updated for Ice Cream Sandwich. Gmail and Calendar make ample use of the screen resolution and new gestures, making interacting with your data much quicker and easier. For example, users now have the ability to set different (sound) notifications for each Gmail label.

With all the improvements, one area that hasn’t kept up is the phone dialer. After all, this is a phone, used to make phone calls. The stock dialer doesn’t automatically/intelligently look up contacts/numbers as you type them which is disappointing considering Google is all about search. (Your contacts do show up in the Google Search widget results, if you choose to index them.) Call quality itself is excellent but the earpiece volume could stand to have a higher maximum.


All in all, the new Galaxy Nexus is an incredible phone with a polished operating system that makes interactions with applications and data much easier and accessible. However, it doesn’t have the best hardware (aside from the screen) backing it up and once other Android smartphones get their upgrades to Ice Cream Sandwich (different manufacturers have different timelines but most should have it out by Q2), it will lose this distinctive advantage.

That said, if you’re currently in the market for an Android smartphone, the camera isn’t your highest priority and you aren’t patient (to wait for a software upgrade on your existing Android smartphone), do not hesitate to get the Galaxy Nexus which is available through Bell and Virgin Mobile now. Once you do, be sure to check out the extensive FAQ with tips and tricks on the Galaxy Nexus over at XDA Developers.

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