It’s the most important Android phone today. Even with Google’s ongoing purchase of Motorola, Samsung now headlines all Android smartphones with the Galaxy Nexus, currently exclusive to Verizon. And with Android 4.0, it’s the most popular Android device available today.

Hardware

The Galaxy Nexus is by no means an ordinary smartphone. It has a giant 4.65″ SuperAMOLED+ display, the same display technology behind the Samsung Galaxy S II phones. The big difference is the display resolution; the Nexus is a 720p screen, matching the HTC Rezound and LG Nitro HD. And as such a big phone, that HD display can really shine as not just a large smartphone, but as a small tablet.

The Nexus shares a lot with the Galaxy S II devices, everything except for the screen and GPU. The display technology itself is identical, using the same SuperAMOLED+ panel, but the screen resolution is vastly improved (1280×720 compared to 800×480). And as you can see in the pictures, the Galaxy Nexus has a slightly curved glass display, which is unnoticeable when looking directly at the phone but very clear when viewed from the side. The curvature of the screen doesn’t impact how the display looks or the phone whatsoever, though the rest of the phone molds to that angled design and it’s easier to rest on the palm.

From left: Motorola Droid Razr Maxx, Galaxy Nexus, Apple iPhone 4S

Internally the Galaxy Nexus has a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU and 1GB of RAM, standard for today’s Android devices, though less powerful than the recent 720p phones like the HTC Rezound and LG Nitro HD, both of which have 1.5GHz processors. The Nexus’ display is better than both for video, but the Rezound is more dense and easier to use outdoors because it has an LCD screen. Like the Galaxy S II, the Nexus is readable outside, but it’s not comfortably.

The tested model is from Verizon, which has LTE but only recently received Google Wallet. NFC is enabled, and the Galaxy Nexus is one of the first phones from Verizon to sport a MicroSIM instead of a traditional SIM card. The Nexus has a 5MP camera that’s significantly different from the Galaxy S II, and has 32GB of internal storage. There is no SD-card slot, and thus no expandable memory.

While you can read more about the camera below (see “Camera”), the hardware build and design of the Galaxy Nexus is very good, but not great. In day to day use I found that it’s too big to use one-handed comfortably, which was a problem with similar-size devices like the Nitro HD and Epic 4G Touch. There’s a certain size limit that I think we’ve already reached, and the Nexus goes a snail’s crawl past that. The curved shape helps mitigate the oversize build, but using the phone with just one hand is difficult.

What is an improvement is the removal of dedicated buttons, though the bottom bezel is so large that it’s a shame Google didn’t follow the past Palm strategy and employed swiping gesture controls with that space. Otherwise it’s just a quarter inch of extra phone that doesn’t need to be there. All that space is good for is the notification light, which blinks white in the center just like the Palm Pre did.

I’ve also had slight trouble with the Wi-Fi antenna, which may be more of a software issue than hardware. However, I tested the Nexus against other phones, and while Android devices typically have lower signal strength when connected to Wi-Fi networks than the iPhone and some Windows Phone 7 devices, the Galaxy Nexus was more likely to drop a signal or try to reconnect for too long rather than switch to 3G/LTE or switch networks. Signal strength also appears weaker.

Software

Android 4.0 is an entirely different experience from Android 2.3, the most common version of Google’s smartphone operating system. It’s so different and so vastly improved that while covering CES it proved to be more effective than Apple’s iOS. There are a number of key improvements that you can read about in my full review of Android 4.0, but here are a few key points specifically for the Galaxy Nexus.

Android 4.0 on the Nexus is smooth and fast, but does have a slight tendency to lag and stall. I’ve found that the updated OS, which this hardware was made for, is still very much “beta” software and hiccups are easy to spot. Apps sometimes won’t close, certain apps will resume video or audio playback seemingly at random (on more than one occasion this left me in a frightful position), and so on. This has improved since I first began testing the Nexus – the phone upgraded twice, from Android 4.0 to 4.0.2 – but otherwise the software works excellently for this phone. As it should, of course, as a Nexus device.

Battery Life

Battery life on the Galaxy Nexus is not as good as I’d have hoped. My first few days of use left me wishing for more, and extended use of the phone has shown that it will last a full-day with minimal to some use, but under heavy use it will run out of juice by a late lunch, even without LTE.

Unfortunately, I was unable to use the standard benchmarking tool Basemark OS for testing. However, the Galaxy Nexus averages around 6-8 hours of constant use, and 4-6 hours over an LTE network. Heavy phone users will drain the battery pretty quickly, and I did so often. I charged the phone twice daily.

Performance & Benchmarks

Perhaps the biggest improvement from Android 2.3 to 4.0 is browser speed. The Nexus clobbers every Android device previously tested, with no hardware improvements. It gets very close to the iPad 2′s scores, and the iPad 2 is a full fledged tablet. The web browser is by far the best I’ve ever used on an Android device, though not quite as good as Safari. The rate of growth, however, is unprecedented.

The browser is fully capable of running both standard definition and HD video (720p) streaming, and it can do so very well, with excellent quality and no additional buffering or stuttering. The overall video streaming quality is excellent, better than any other phone out today.

Graphics processing is where the Nexus’ weaker hardware compromises the device. It scores worse than some pretty old devices (relatively speaking) like the HTC Thunderbolt. The Galaxy Nexus was unable to run one of the more intensive benchmarks I run, like many of the recent phones I’ve reviewed. However, my experience with the device tells me that the battery hasn’t yet been optimized for more powerful graphics processing, so a more powerful GPU like the one in the Galaxy S II would have further reduced the already short battery life.

General performance of the Galaxy Nexus is superb, but with its limitations. The updates to Android create a flow that just wasn’t there with Android 2.3, something that iOS has always had and that WP7 really picked up with its 7.5 (Mango) update. In nearly every way the Nexus has flow. It’s great to jump between apps, check notifications, get instant updates, and just use the device. That flow, however, is stilted by frequent stalls and hiccups. The software is clearly too fresh from the oven, and needs a little time to simmer, and some debugging. However, I used the Galaxy Nexus more than my iPhone 4S over the course of testing and in many respects it is an overall better experience. As I wrote in my review of Android 4.0, this is really Android. Everything else was just an alpha, just a lead up to the real software.

Camera

The camera in the Galaxy Nexus is one of the other major differences from the Galaxy S II phones. Instead of an 8MP shooter, the Nexus has a 5MP camera. The major difference between the two is really in the software however. The Nexus has one of the fastest cameras I’ve ever tested. It shoots almost instantly, blasting away shot after shot without hesitation. That’s exactly the feel, as if the Nexus doesn’t hesitate to take the following shot. The quickness of each individual shutter release is what you’d expect from a DSLR, not a smartphone.

Speed may be the reason the photo resolution dropped down from 8MP in the Galaxy S II to 5MP for the Nexus, though as I’ve said many a time, the megapixel rating means nothing. It’s the quality of the pictures. Unfortunately the picture quality isn’t as good as expected from a high-end smartphone today. There is a lot of color and light oversaturation, and the lens is slow in low-light causing blurry photos. Just take a look at the sample photos below.

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Video is another story entirely. With Android 4.0 Google has introduced real-time effects. There are six facial effects and four background effects. The facial effects change how a person looks, from the size of their eyes to the shape of the head. It does this in real-time, so if you make big eyes, the eyes will move on the camera as you move them. If you blink, so does the picture on the screen. It’s not perfect, and moderate movement will disable the function until the picture is more stable, but it’s incredible nonetheless, both in terms of the technology employed and the fun factor.

Conclusion

As a smartphone, the Galaxy Nexus is a few steps beyond the line of what we consider a phone. It’s huge at 4.65″. The battery life is poor, and with only an LTE model available that battery drains ever faster. It downscales from the popular Galaxy S II models in almost every other way except perhaps the one that matters most: the software.

Android 4.0 makes the Galaxy Nexus not just a good phone, but a great phone. The software makes the phone worth getting. It makes Android 2.3 and all previous versions of Android feel old and antiquated. Android 4.0 is the true Android OS, what we should have had from day one. It’s not perfect, but it is what sets the Galaxy Nexus apart from every other Android phone out.

However, more phones will be updated to Android 4.0 in the coming months. The Galaxy Nexus is neither the most powerful nor the best Android device out. All it really has going for it is being the only 4.0 phone out. Once that passes, it’s very likely that the Galaxy Nexus will fade away as quickly as Android 4.0′s exclusivity. Other phones like the Motorola Droid Razr, HTC Rezound and Samsung Galaxy S II will easily overtake the Nexus because of this. The hardware Samsung put into the Nexus – at Google’s request – just won’t stand the test of time as well as competing phones.

That doesn’t mean the Galaxy Nexus should be forgotten, far from it. It’s a very solid device, a very capable handheld that is likely too big for some users but also more advanced and a better overall experience. Plus, with how long companies are taking to put Android 4.0 on their high-profile handsets, switching to the Galaxy Nexus seems like a safe bet if you want to remain at the top of the Android update list.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★½☆

Very Good

Bottom Line: A solid but giant phone that excels thanks to hugely improved software.

Pros:

  • Excellent performance; tops smartphone benchmarks (except for graphics processing)
  • Software is a significant step forward. You’ll never want to go back after using 4.0
  • Giant build is good for people interested in a big screen…
Cons:
  • …but too big for one-handed use
  • Display isn’t very bright
  • Battery life is poor, barely lasts a day under light to medium use



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.