Oct, 19 2011

It’s tough to only have half of an hour with a device yet try to develop unbreakable opinions. However, with the short time I spent with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, I’ve come to some pretty confident (and personal) conclusions about both the device itself and the brand new Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich platform on which the phone runs.

I’ll preface my detailed impressions with my main takeaways:

  • The hardware is great, but doesn’t have any killer features that blow the competition out of the water
  • The most significant changes are on the software side with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • Overall I love the hardware, software, and combination, but I don’t think the hardware improvements were enough and in some ways felt the software features were too much.

Allow me to explain: let’s start with the hardware.

Galaxy Nexus: Hardware Hands-On

The Galaxy Nexus definitely competes with other top-of-the-line Android Phones in the spec category, but the majority of improvements are incremental in nature. Think of it as a bigger and better version of the Nexus S and you’re on the right track.

The display is nothing short of gorgeous: it’s a 4.65-inch HD Super AMOLED screen with an astounding 1280 by 720 pixel resolution. Powered by a 1.2GHz dual core processor, the Galaxy Nexus also has 1GB RAM and either 16GB or 32GB of internal memory depending on the model. An odd choice (again) not to include a MicroSD slot, but I assume this reiterates the movement of data to “the cloud”. All this fits into an extremely thin frame at only 8.94mm thick and weighing 135 grams.

With a 5MP rear camera (with LED flash, auto-focus) and 1.3MP front-facing camera, Samsung didn’t improve the camera spec most consumers compare, but perhaps they didn’t need to: the 5MP Samsung mobile camera is arguably the best mobile phone camera on the market. On the Galaxy Nexus it also records 1080p HD video at 30fps. The REAL improvements for the camera come on the software side. We’ll get there.

Other typical smartphone features included are 3.5mm headset jack, Bluetooth 3.0, USB 2.0, Wi-Fi, Accelerometer, Compass, Gyro, Light sensor, Proximity sensor, Barometer, and making it’s 2nd Nexus appearance- NFC. Again, the latter of those is empowered by Android 4.0.

Don’t get us wrong… the Samsung Galaxy Nexus looks and feels like a great phone. It’s large screen is beautifully crisp and colorful. It’s extremely thin and light for all it offers. It’s got more than enough fire power to run the gun show, but the maestro of it all is Android 4.0 so let’s dive into the Ice Cream Sandwich.

Android 4.0 – Ice Cream Sandwich

Overall I like Android 4.0 and a bunch of the new features are pretty fantastic. While there is definitely a honeycombish feel, the experience is remarkably different than previous Android phones and I can’t help but think that some of it might go TOO far. But let’s start where everyone starts: turning on their phone.

I’ve already heard endless criticism about how the new “Face Unlock” lock screen could be easily manipulated and someone could break into your phone, to which I have two pretty strong counters:

  1. It’s listed as a low-security option that is still under development. If you’re that concerned, use the lock pattern or PIN option.
  2. This is more for convenience than security. If you don’t feel like dragging a complex pattern with your phone all the time, just put the phone up to your face and let the Face Unlock do the work. It might be more work now, but that’s why it’s a low-security experimental feature. In other words: see above.

Now that we’re in the phone itself, things are looking really pretty. Google is emphasizing a magazine like appearance combined with more widgets and more options in Android 4.0. Two specific features struck me as “borrowed” which I found nothing short of absolutely interesting.

  1. Expandable Widgets from MOTO BLUR. I’ve always liked this option and it’s now a default in Android 4.0. Could this have something to do with the recent acquisition of Motorola Mobility?
  2. “Cards” on the Palm Pre in WebOS. The experience of opening up “running apps” or active/recent engagements and “flicking” them left and right to get rid of them is TOTALLY WebOS but we find it here in Android 4.0 with the menu button (among other places). It was a great idea then and it’s a great idea now. It’s one reason I wish someone other than HP would have bought Palm, and sooner.

Before I jump into a boat load of awesome features included in Android 4.0, I’ve got to chime in with some slight concern/criticism you’re probably not hearing elsewhere. Anyone can regurgitate facts… but I’d also like to share my opinions and create an honest dialogue and discussion.

Android 4.0 UI & Design Updates

I love the expandable widgets and I think the “card” concept is great, but I think Google goes a little bit overboard with the “Magazine Layout” seen everywhere with huge, sprawling pictures. Compared with previous versions of Android, it seems a bit like the girl who is drop dead gorgeous without trying but wears way too much makeup and its too obvious. What happened to the eloquent simplicity? What happened to privacy?

First of all, it’s much easier to scan a text list than have postcards plastered in a grid on your screen. Second of all, what if I don’t want people nearby seeing who I’m calling or what I’m reading? Looks like those huge magazine-like contact profiles ruined it when you could see I was phoning Emma McGee from a mile away on my 4.67 inch super bright, clear, and crisp screen. DOH! This is similarly apparent in the picture gallery.

Perhaps I’m going a little overboard here or perhaps I’m nostalgic, but in my opinion, this stems from a logical progression in my dislike for the new Android Market. It too is magazine-like and I think it not only takes away grossly from the market’s ease of use, but it also reminds me of blocky Windows Phone elements. With Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, I think Google tries too hard to look pretty and it results in less functionality and ease of use – the exact staples that have made them such a successful company in the first place.

Vanilla Android No Longer So Vanilla [CHOCOLATE?]

Remember when Google’s version of “stock” Android was called “Vanilla” Android? Well it ain’t like that anymore. The experience found in Android 4.0 is so stylized and different that it can’t be thought of as “Vanilla” any more. Perhaps with Ice Cream Sandwich, Google has changed over to Chocolate. That isn’t necessarily a BAD thing; I mean, it looks awesome. But I do think smartphone newcomers and the older generation will have a harder time adapting.

In all honesty, Android 4.0 feels a little bit WebOS-ish – and I mean that in a good way – but I also mean there seems to be a bit more of a learning curve. Android enthusiasts (including me) will likely learn it, love it, and embrace it, but Android is an OS for the masses. We’ll see how the masses respond!

Time for the Good News.

Android 4.0 Camera Improvements

One of my absolute favorite features included in Android 4.0 is the camera. Whereas my whining above has more to do with UI flow and design, the camera features added in Ice Cream Sandwich should take an already awesome Samsung camera and make it… well, much more awesomer than awesome.

There isn’t a hardware camera button, but isn’t it even easier to unlock your phone directly into camera mode? Worst case scenario is that you don’t have a camera icon on your desktop so you’ve got to lock your phone and then unlock it using the camera unlock swipe. That’s still only 1 button and 1 flick.

Anyone who has used an Android phone’s camera has likely noticed a long delay in when they press the “take picture” button, when the picture focuses, when the flash goes off, when the picture finally snaps, and then when you’re able to take a new picture.

Whew- you could have said a long tongue twister in that of time! Luckily the Galaxy Nexus has zero-shutter lag meaning you press the button, it takes the picture, on to the next one. Not only does this allow you to speed up taking ONE picture but now you can  also take pictures in quick succession.

I could go way in depth with additional camera features, but until our full review, perhaps you should just trust that “Time Lapse” and “Panorama Mode” both seem awesome. The latter of those, you might be happy to learn, has a start and a stop button for when the Panorama picture starts and end- no more preset/predetermined sizes which makes it a TON more flexible and useful.

Android Beam – NFC Finally Put To Work

The Samsung Nexus S also had NFC capabilities but few people have actually been able to enjoy them. Unless you’re buying a coffee at Starbucks, the number of places you can actually use an NFC enabled device are relatively few and far between. Google is trying to change and as a nice little push along they’ve developed a tool called Android Beam that lets you beam webpages, contacts, apps, games, and other interesting content directly to someone else with an NFC-enabled Android phone.

The possibilities of NFC are endless, but until it gains traction with users, it won’t gain traction with retailers, and it will seem more of a fad than anything else. Remember, to use Android Beam BOTH users will need NFC devices on Android 4.0. At this point… that means you’ll need to have the Galaxy Nexus. Sorry for yelling “Adult Swim” on the pool of people able to use Android Beam, but that’s how it is. Let’s just hope NFC becomes a default inclusion soon, just as MicroUSB and 3.5mm headset jacks have in the past couple years.

Instant Voice-To-Text

I’m more than happy with Google’s current implementation of Voice-To-Text and haven’t felt threatened or swayed by Apple’s Siri, but it was still nice to see Google advancing their technology. Or trying to, at least. Similar to Google’s “Instant Search” for Google.com on your desktop, Voice-To-Text now fills in your sentences as you speak rather than waiting until you finish, processing, and pasting.

Both Google (during their presentation) and I had (during the below video) had trouble demonstrating the new features.

Why it didn’t work for me is understandable: I was testing it out an extremely loud room under circumstances it never SHOULD have worked. But Google’s demonstration seemed to oddly replace words and jumble things up a tad bit. I’m hoping this works out fine, and I believe it will, but I’m wondering if it requires a certain data speed to accurately function or if something else is at play here.

Regardless, I’m pretty excited for this and once they get it working properly, I feel like certain tricks will be added and implemented to make composing pretty feature rich TXTs, E-Mails, and documents even easier.

Google Calendar: Pinch-To-Zoom

This is a small feature but sometimes the little things go a long way. People RELY on their calendars to organize their entire lives. Having easy and convenient access is of epic importance and the adding pinch-to-zoom in calendar view makes it that much more epic. When you zoom in and out, details of events expand and contrast to appropriately fit the screen, giving you a really good picture of what’s going on in any given hour, day, week, month, year, decade, century, or life. Okay… maybe not the last three.

GMail Offline Search

Several times I’ve been in places where internet was MIA, mobile connection was garbage, and yet I NEEDED to search my E-Mail for an important phone number, address, or something similar. Android 4.0 now backs up to 30 days (user adjustable)of data automatically, allowing you to search through your old E-Mails from the number of days you select without even needing access to the internet. Pretty remarkable and I bet you this will save a lot of people a lot of time and a lot of hassle.

Data Usage Monitoring/Managing

Just as battery life has its own discussion about what wastes the most battery, how can you find out, should you use a task killer, etc… data usage is equally important. With expensive data plans and tons of app hogging your data automatically, Google has built a tool to let your lazer focus into what is using your data, when you’ll exceed your monthly plan, what days were high usage days, and what apps used the most data that day.

The tool looks fantastic with neat histograms but unfortunately, when we tested it, not enough data existed to test anything out. Knowing you can also set special privileges and restrictions on apps based on this data is a sigh of relief.

No Buttons – One Last Cause For Concern?

One thing I have to mention is that the Galaxy Nexus has no hardware buttons but instead, software buttons that are not only built into the Galaxy Nexus but also into Android 4.0 by default. Depending on how this is handled, I think it could diminish one of Android’s most attractive qualities: options, choices, flexibility, and personal preference.

Not everyone wants software buttons. Not everyone wants them in the same place. Not everyone wants them to work the same. While I personally think they work fine on the Galaxy Nexus, I hope Google will continue to allow customizations when it comes to the primary phone navigation. Not only is it integral to daily use but it’s also incredibly personal, suggesting options are a valuable thing indeed.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a fantastic phone, highlighted by a huge and beautiful display HD display encased in a sexy, curved, slender body. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is a powerful update, including a slew of new features users are sure to love such as Zero-Lag Shutter Camera with advanced picture editing, Face Unlock, Android Beam, and deeper widget integration. The overwhelming majority who buy this phone will be completely happy with its performance.

Still… I’m left with a slight feeling of “What now?”

While the Galaxy Nexus is great indeed, I thought it might enjoy an additional trait, spec or two to set it a bit further apart from the competition. And while Android 4.0 offers some strong features, improvements, and updates, I have to wonder if the intense focus on UI and design is properly placed or entirely needed- don’t we have this whole “open” thing going on so 3rd parties can offer these highly customized alternatives?

My criticism wouldn’t normally be so squarely placed on a phone of such high caliber, but the Nexus name also puts a target on its head… it has expectations. And on the software side, it’s an indicator of where Google is leading Android, so it’s an important release in that matter too. I won’t agree with everything they do, obviously, because personal preference is at the core of opinions. But on the same token, I hope Google continues to embrace personal preference in the OS related decisions they make and directions they head.

With all that being said, either the Galaxy Nexus or Droid RAZR will be my next phone. They are both amazing phones. But more on that comparison later.

Please note: we’re still awaiting word on a few details for inclusion in this article. Stay tuned for both updates here and for our full review.

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