The long-awaited, much-hyped, Android 4.0 flagship is here at last. You already know we like Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but what about the first phone to bear it? We've talked software, it's time to hit the hardware.
Note: Original testing was conducted on the European version of the Galaxy Nexus. We have now reviewed the US Verizon version, and you can see those specific notes at the end of this post.
It matters because it's a Nexus. Nexuses (Nexii?) are designed by Google (and a manufacturing partner—in this case Samsung) to be the standard-bearers, to show what's possible from the Android OS. In this case, it was designed specifically to show off Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Not only is it currently the only phone that has ICS, but it's probably one of the few phones that will ever have a pristine version of Android the Fourth, unspoiled by manufacturers' unpleasant skins.
Again, I just want to point out that this is a hardware review, not a software review. You can and should read Mat Honan's full review of Android 4.0 to hear all about the software. I'll add a bit here and there, but as much as possible—and it's not entirely possible—I'm going to be isolating the hardware from the software.
The phone is big, but surprisingly light—without feeling cheap. The iPhone 4S feels tiny in comparison, like your fingers suddenly grew at little bit. But don't let that big 4.65-inch screen scare you. The phone's body is almost exactly the same as the HTC Rezound, which has only a 4.3-inch screen. And actually, most of the time, the usable part of the screen is the same as a 4.3-inch screen, with the bottom area being used for a revamped set of navigation buttons that are no longer separate from the screen. But switch on a video or a game, and the nav buttons fade away leaving an awesome full-screen experience in their place. There's more metal on the phone than there is on a typical Samsung device, which makes it feel more solid than usual. Also, despite its size, it's actually 5 grams lighter than the iPhone 4S (4.76 ounces vs. 4.94). It's thinner, too: 0.35 inches vs. 0.37.
The micro USB port is centered on the bottom, right where it should be. But then—what the heck?!—the headphone input is down there too. The bottom of the phone is actually its thickest part, and there's a glowing LED notification light down south as well (taking a page from the trackball on the Nexus One). It's almost as if you're supposed to keep the phone upside down in your pocket. The phone lacks a dedicated camera button, which is profoundly stupid and drives me crazy.
The screen is gorgeous. It's the first Super AMOLED HD screen (with full 1280x720 resolution). It doesn't have quite as high a pixel density as the HTC Rezound (316 ppi vs. 342 ppi), but it makes up for it by being far brighter, having more vivid colors, and inky, deep blacks. What about against the iPhone 4S? The pixel density is slightly lower (316 ppi vs 330 ppi), but the colors are more vivid, the blacks are blacker, and it's more than an inch bigger. For watching an HD movie or playing an HD game, the Nexus has the best screen you can get. Call quality (both for myself and the receiver) was absolutely superb. It also packs an NFC radio, so it's ready for the mobile payments revolution which may or may not be on its way. And it has a barometer! Nobody really knows what that's about yet, but it's still cool. Oh, and battery life is fantastic. Now, bear in mind that this isn't the CDMA/LTE version of the phone, which is generally tougher on batteries, but in 3G mode (on T-Mobile's network) I almost always got through a whole day despite very heavy use. The other new Android heavies, Droid RAZR and the HTC Amaze 4G, simply can't compete in this department.
Speed. It is very fast, but this is where we get into murky territory. Because the Galaxy Nexus is currently the only phone natively running Android 4.0, it's tough to tell whether these speed enhancements are coming from the new OS or if the hardware's a smoker. And judging it against other Android phones is comparing apples and oranges. That caveat aside, here's what I found: The user experience is extremely fast and fluid. Scrolling around webpages is quicker and smoother than any other mobile browser I've used (and with all of its new enhanced features, I would call ICS' version of Chrome the best mobile browser out there). It also has the fastest camera shutter out there, easily beating even the iPhone 4S and the rest (in speed).
What gives? If I were a betting man, I would say that the combination of the Exynos processor with the superior Mali 400 GPU in the S II is just simply way faster than the OMAP processor and SGX 540 GPU in the Nexus. Why didn't Google/Samsung use the Exynos/Mali in the Nexus? Good freakin' question. Some speculate that there are compatibility issues, but I haven't seen compelling evidence for that yet. All that said, you're not going to feel a speed deficiency in the Galaxy Nexus unless you're doing some really heavy gaming. In which case, you don't need a cellphone anyway because you're 13 years old and nobody calls you. (I kid, I kid.)
And I've resisted, but it must be said, Android 4.0 is better in almost every single way. It's still supremely customizable, but it's way more intuitive, more user-friendly, and, as Mat said, "more human" than any other Android version by a tremendous margin.
The Galaxy Nexus is one of the few Android devices that doesn't have a micro SD card slot, which means that you're stuck with what you've got in terms of storage. The volume on the external speaker is sub-par. The LED notification light pulses too slowly and subtly, making it easy to miss. The lack of a physical camera button is maddening. The only other thing is I just can't shake the feeling that they should have gone with the Exynos/Mali processor/GPU you find in the Galaxy S II.
And for all of Ice Cream Sandwich's improvements, it ain't perfect yet. Not all of your old apps are going to play nicely with it (yet). Some just have small quirks, others force-close like a mofo. Other anomalies:
• Under "Accounts and Sync" you have the option to add a Facebook account, but pressing that button doesn't do anything.
• Face Unlock is a cool feature, but it only worked about 40% of the time despite my righteous and recognizable Movember 'stache (update: it works about 90% of the time on the Verizon version). If you're at all backlit (which you usually are, when you're looking down at your phone) the camera adjusts to the brighter light behind you, instead of the light on your face.
• Though generally pretty good, Google Music integration has some bugs. Sometimes it just fails to go to the next track, seemingly for no reason.
Oh, and the worst thing about this phone: The camera, the camera, the camera! Sweet Jesus Diaz, what were they thinking? When I heard they'd gone with a 5MP sensor instead of the now-standard-on-high-end-phones 8MP sensor, I promised I'd reserve judgement until I'd tried it. The camera does pretty okay in bright daylight, but it doesn't come anywhere near its competition, plain and simple. Colors are washed out, low-light shooting is a noise-fest, and it's not nearly as sharp. Why would you totally revamp your camera software, make it fast and awesome, include time-lapse, panorama, and really fun face-morphing video features, and then put a piece of crap camera in there? It's utterly baffling. Don't take my word for it, though. Check the full-res results of the 4-way camera comparison I did with the Nexus, the Galaxy S II, the iPhone 4S, and the HTC Rezound.
Watch the video in 1080p, if you can.
Yes, you should buy it. The only truly bad thing about this phone is the camera. Even with that, I'm comfortable calling this the best Android phone. But that's only because it's the only Android phone you can get with a clean build of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and that supersedes all of its faults. The improvement over Gingerbread really is that big a deal. But it needs to be said: This phone shouldn't be getting bitch-slapped by a previous-gen handset from the same manufacturer. If that's Google's idea of a flagship, it should consider whether it wants to take its armada to war.
UPDATE: The above was written for the international version, but I've now spent the last week with Verizon's 4G LTE version, and here are my findings.
The phone is thicker than the Euro version but almost negligibly so—about the same as a Galaxy S II, which is plenty svelte. As you would expect, Verizon's 4G LTE is deliciously fast. I have seen peak speeds of 23Mbps download and 12Mbps upload, which is face-melt quick. Even in an area where I only had 1-2 bars of 4G reception, I still averaged 9.94Mbps download and 5.36 upload speeds, which is would be a very good day for most networks with 4 bars.
We expected the battery life to take a significant hit on the 4G LTE network, but I'm happy to report that it wasn't as bad as I expected. With 4G on I was able to make it most of the way through the day, even in less than good reception areas, which tend to strain the battery. When I switched to 3G-only I was able to power through the whole day, which phones like the RAZR and Rezound still struggled with. 3G is plenty fast for most things, and it's easy to flip back and forth using an app like LTE Switch. Overall, I'd say battery life on the Nexus bests the other 4G phones on Verizon, though perhaps that will change when they get their own Ice Cream Sandwich updates.
Unfortunately, and I did notice some of the signal issues that've been reported. It was rare, but it happened. Toggling Airplane Mode on and off (under the power button menu) fixes it. It's slightly annoying but it's by no means a deal-breaker and Verizon is working on a fix. Also, while Verizon has done its best to keep Google Wallet off the Nexus, I'm happy to report that it was easy to install the hacked version (no root required), and it works like a charm. Props to the XDA-Developers!
Everything else is the same. Same lovely screen, same sub-par camera, same really nice experience. I will say that this version's facial unlock works much better than it did on the other version, and it recognizes me about 90 percent of the time. I don't know if this is something that came in the 4.0.2 software update or if it just didn't like my hideous Movember moustache. Regardless, this phone is still very recommendable.[Verizon Wireless]