I’ve been using a Samsung Galaxy Nexus for the last month on Verizon’s 4G LTE network. For the most part, I love the phone. It’s one of the few products I’ve reviewed where I was so enamored with it that I quickly bought one for myself. That said, it’s not really a flagship phone like previous Nexus models (arguably) were. It’s more like a reference model instead of a champion product with top-of-the-line features across the board. More importantly, there are some quirks and deal breakers that make this phone a no-go for some users. Here’s my (not a) review of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
User Interface: Like previous Nexus phones, the Galaxy Nexus is the first to offer a new version of Google Android, in this case Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. This is a pretty huge update for Android, much bigger than the previous phone update (Gingerbread). Everything looks better, partially because of improved design and partially because of a font that’s actually good looking. Everything also feels faster thanks to improvements in hardware acceleration.
The phone’s core apps have a modern look that fits in with the redesigns of Google’s web products. For example, the new Android Gmail has a look and feel that’s similar to the new web-based Gmail. The changes are mostly great, but there are some UI quirks that make you have to press more buttons than you ought to in order to achieve something.
I’m going to write a separate piece on Android 4.0 later, since I want to focus on the hardware. For what it’s worth, it was difficult going back to using the Galaxy S II, which runs a skinned version of Android 2.3. The aesthetics and UI enhancements of Android 4.0 are definitely a win.
Screen: I love looking at the Galaxy Nexus’ screen. It’s big (4.65-inches) and gorgeous (1,280 x 720). Although it only uses Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology, as opposed to Super AMOLED Plus, this is one of the best screens I’ve ever seen on a phone. It has the deep blacks and vibrant colors found across the Super AMOLED line. Text on a 720p phone screen looks brilliant. Surprisingly, the whites looked very good too. They’re not quite as bright as those found on IPS LCD displays, but they don’t have that grayish dullness that bugged me on the Galaxy S II’s Super AMOLED Plus screen.
Right now I would say that this is one of the three best phone screens on the market in terms of image and text clarity. I’d put it up there with the iPhone 4/4S’ vaunted “Retina Display” and the gorgeous screen on HTC Rezound. The display on the Galaxy Nexus is bigger and has a higher resolution than both, but there are some that would prefer the more accurate color reproduction and truer images found on those screens.
Form Factor: Of course a giant screen makes for a giant phone. When I reviewed the Galaxy S II, I noted that its large size makes it difficult for some people to use. The same applies to the Galaxy Nexus. It’s longer and thinner than the Galaxy S II. Users with small to medium-sized hands will struggle to use the phone one-handed…as far as content consumption goes.
For such a large phone, the Galaxy Nexus is deceptively comfortable to use for making calls. Part of it is its long-and-thin dimensions. A bigger reason is that it’s slightly curved. It’s pretty subtle, particularly on the Verizon version which is a tad thicker than its international GSM counterpart, but the concave shape of the phone goes a long way in terms of call comfort.
Build Quality: As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of Samsung’s build quality. Its phones can take a beating, but feel cheap. I love the feel of the iPhone 4/4S glass sandwich and several HTC phones that feature a lot of metal. Compared to the Galaxy S and Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus is a slight step up. Externally, it’s all glass and plastic, but the company claims that it uses an internal metal frame to give it more rigidity and a better feel.
While I didn’t open up the Galaxy Nexus to see how much metal it contains internally, I found that it does have a better heft than the Galaxy S II — even the 4.5-inch versions. The extra bit if weight makes it feel better in hand. That said, it’s still plastic on the outside with a battery cover that feels like it’s going to rip every time you take it off. While this phone dazzles in many areas, build quality is not one of them.
Performance: When the Galaxy Nexus’ specs were first announced, a lot of tech enthusiasts were underwhelmed. The phone’s 1.2GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 is a good processor that’s great at multitasking, but not the best in the graphics department. The PowerVR SGX540 is clocked higher than in previous versions, but it’s still an old GPU compared to what’s in the Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S.
If you like to play 3D games that require a lot of GPU resources then this might not be the best phone for you. All the games I played ran fine, but you’ll get better performance out of a Galaxy S II variant with an Exynos processor. As games get bigger and require more GPU resources, there’s a chance that the Galaxy Nexus will lag behind competing phones with more powerful processors.
The good news is that for everyday tasks, the OMAP 4460 performs like a champ. Part of it has to do with TI’s efficient memory solution and part of it has to do with Android 4.0 taking better advantage of hardware acceleration. Like I said before, using the phone is a smooth experience. If you don’t play a ton of games on your phone then you’ll quite pleased with its performance.
Battery Life: As expected, this is the phone’s biggest weak point. After a month of use, I averaged about 11.5 hours per charge. This includes a lot of web browsing, tweeting, Google Voice texting, and Foursquare check-ins, as well as a few minutes of phone calls each day. While 11.5 hours isn’t nearly as bad as the 8.5 I was getting on the HTC Thunderbolt (also LTE), it wasn’t nearly as sweet as the 16.5 hours I enjoyed on the Samsung Galaxy S II on T-Mobile (HSPA+ radio).
The big offender is the LTE radio. That’s, by far, the biggest battery drain on the phone — not the large screen or the dual-core processor. Getting crazy-fast mobile-Internet speeds sucks up a lot of juice. There are a few solutions that can help extend battery life, but they’re all varying degrees of inconvenient. Turning on the LTE radio only when needed or sticking to WiFi as much as possible greatly extends battery life. If those options don’t work for you then I suggest getting an extra battery or two. I picked up two Hyperion batteries and an external battery charger for my Galaxy Nexus…but I wish I didn’t have to.
Battery life is easily the phone’s biggest weakness, but if you’re familiar with LTE phones then you already knew that would be an issue.
Call Quality: Though some reviewers have reported signal problems, I didn’t experience that on either Galaxy Nexus I used. Calls were very clear on the earpiece and the people I spoke with all said that I sounded clear. The noise canceling works well, though not as good as the solutions found on some Motorola phones I’ve used.
I do wish the earpiece had an additional level or two of volume. If you make a lot of calls using speakerphone then you will likely be disappointed in the Galaxy Nexus’ somewhat weak output. Overall, I was very satisfied with this phone’s call quality. As always, you call quality will depend on how well Verizon covers your area.
Camera: Google and Samsung touted the camera’s speed and unique features when it unveiled the Galaxy Nexus. The camera software is certainly fast and allows for rapid shots. The sensor is five-megapixels, which really doesn’t mean much other than its lower than most high-end phones. What’s more important is image quality. This phone has been getting bashed for its camera and I think it’s being overblown. The camera is definitely not as good as the one found on the iPhone 4S or several HTC phones that feature a backside-illuminated sensor. However, it’s still very good. I was happy with the photos I snapped outdoors and in low-light situations. It’s not a cutting-edge camera or even a great one, but it’s still a very good shooter.
Internet Speeds: I’m a big fan of Verizon’s LTE network. It offers a great combination of blazing Internet speeds and broad national coverage. Check out the speed tests I ran at various locations in the Los Angeles area to see the broadband hotness. AT&T’s LTE speeds are faster at the moment, but the company has very few LTE phones on its network (theoretically speeds will decline as more AT&T users pick up LTE phones) and its 4G coverage isn’t nearly as good as Verizon’s. As for Sprint’s WiMax and T-Mobile’s HSPA+, Verizon LTE is in another echelon. Of course your mileage may vary depending on how well Verizon covers your area.
Closing Thoughts: The Galaxy Nexus has a lot of top-notch features and a few that are very good. Like I said in the intro, I see it as more of a reference phone than a true flagship. A true champion product would kick ass in every area. The Galaxy Nexus only does that in some.
Having said that, I was impressed enough with the overall offering that I made the switch to Verizon and bought a Galaxy Nexus of my own. The screen is fantastic, it runs a vanilla version of Android with updates provided by Google, the Internet speeds are brilliant, the 4G coverage is the best in the country, and the performances is great for my needs (I have an iPad and consoles for “real” games). As long as you’re not a heavy 3D gamer and can deal with the battery life issues then I highly recommend giving the Galaxy Nexus a look. It’s the best Android phone you can get today and will remain so for a good while.