Vodafone kindly lent us a Samsung Galaxy Nexus for review, the new Google reference handset running Android 4.0 – Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS).

Overview

galaxy nexus lock screenThe new Galaxy Nexus is an exciting phone, it has some hardware improvements, some things that haven’t improved as much as I’d like (Camera) but its really the new version 4.0 of Android that has me really interested.

Ice Cream Sandwich is the largest update to Android ever released, and is a ground-up update to the OS, bringing phone and tablets features together for the first time since Android 3 was released as a stop-gap to improve finger input on larger screened devices.

The Galaxy Nexus is the first handset to feature ICS but other manufacturers have chimed in confirming they will be bringing ICS to current and even some older hardware around Q2 2012.

Hardware

The Galaxy Nexus is a pretty beautiful phone, its extremely thin (just 8.9mm) and but quite tall and wide (135.5mm H by 67.9mm W)  and although light (135g) it still feels large when you’re holding it in your hand.

The casing is grey and ‘plasticy’ which doesn’t have the impact of the metal and glass of the iPhone4/4S although it does feel solid enough. Buttons are fairly minimal of this, the ICS upgrade has introduced mandatory navigation soft buttons due to their shifting location (more on this below) so the front of the phone is completely clean.

The top has no buttons either, with the right side having the power button and docking connector pins, the bottom having the microUSB connector and headset jack, and the left side solely having volume up and down keys.

galaxy nexus side view dock connectors galaxy nexus bottom and side volume keys

The rear battery cover is a light plastic affair, with a recess for the rear camera. It has a series of clips that ping off, but are extremely hard to get back on with one or two always resisting leaving you worried you are going to snap them if you press too hard. Tip: I had the best success starting with the clips at the bottom (where the slight ridge starts) and working up toward the top. There is no microSD slot in the battery area either which is a disappointment, so the 16GB (or optional 32GB) internal memory is all you get.

The front of the Galaxy Nexus is slightly curved, Samsung call it a Contour Display, and the glass is strengthened but is not Gorilla Glass.

There is an LED notification light on the front, bottom centre, however its completely invisible when off. Its multi-coloured allowing you to specify certain colours for certain notification, extremely handy to see at a glance whether if the alert if for Twitter or Facebook for example.

The display measures 4.65” although only 4” is used for the OS as the Back, Home and Menu keys are now displayed in a reserved system tray area, allowing them to dynamically change as needed, and rotate along with the orientation of the device.

The HD display runs at 1,280x720px Super AMOLED resolution, and the colours look vivid and bright. Much has been made of the RGBG Pentile display, forcing pixels to share each other’s sub-pixels which some claim reduces sharpness. I can’t say this was an issue for me at all, but then I don’t stare at my phone display from inches away. If you’re picky about the display on your phone, do your research first, and go get some hands on time with a working model in your local phone store.

Other specs include a dual-core TI OMap processor running at 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM and the usual array of Bluetooth 3.0, WiFi and A-GPS. There is also an NFC chip, however this is of limited use in the UK yet, but is starting to see some traction among early adopters in the US.

Camera – my main disappointment with the Galaxy Nexus is the 5MP sensor that really needed an upgrade to keep it current to something like the 8MP shooters we are seeing on top camera phones. I know that its not all about the megapixel numbers, but they are a factor and while great photos can be achieved on the Galaxy Nexus they are predominantly outdoor in good light. Bring it inside to a less lit environment and it struggles.

On the plus side, the auto-focus is nice and quick, shot-to-shot times are extremely fast, and the on-board editing software is great allowing you to touch up images, add filters like, Warmth or Black & White, and directly upload them to Facebook, Google+, Picasa or email. There are also included panorama and time-lapse modes to help take more advanced photos.

Ice Cream Sandwich

The new Android ICS build has a number of improvements, with several new features and a general performance improvement with all the menus feeling sharp and quick to navigate. The overall colour theme has been unified into black/grey with nice blue accents.

Everything has been given the ICS makeover, with new styles applied to icons and menus. The lock screen has picked up the Android 3 tablet style with a padlock icon you drag to the right to unlock, or the left to directly activate the camera (unless you have a pass-lock on in which case the instant camera feature is unavailable.

The home screen  has animated backgrounds, and still has up to 5 screens to place widgets and icons on. A new ICS feature is folders, which like iOS you can create on the fly by dragging one icon over another. unlike iOS though a folder can have practically unlimited icons within it. Google search is now a fixed box at the top of all the screens.

Battery life – the 1750mAh should manage a day, even under fairly heavy usage, but prolonged video usage will leave you short. ICS has a much improved battery usage screen that lets you quickly see what is consuming the most juice, and close it if required.

galaxy nexus home screengalaxy nexus homescreen foldersgalaxy nexus battery detail screen 

The Apps screen now swipes from side to side instead of presenting you with a big long list of all Apps, also Apps and Widgets are now in separate sections to make managing them easier. There’s also a persistent link to the Android Market in the top right corner.

galaxy nexus settings screenThe Settings screen has been improved, grouping settings into common themes. Settings can now also be accessed from the Notifications drop-down tray.

Another new feature is the option to set data warning limits, so you can be notified when you’re approaching your plan allowance, plus a further option to force hard stops on data when you hit the limit to prevent any nasty surprises on your next bill.

Multi-tasking has changed, previously access by long-pressing the home button, its now a dedicated soft button in the tray area, showing you a mini-thumbnail of each application running.

Internal Apps like GMail, Calendar, and the web browser have also all been improved. GMail has improved offline access and redesigned controls, Calendar has been tidied up and pinch-zoom features added. The web browser is much improved over the old version, its faster and more responsive with instant zooming and greatly improved page load times. Android web browsing is now finally on a par with iOS devices.

galaxy nexus web browser landscape

Other smaller improvements include updated keyboard, improved auto-correct, better copy and paste, facial recognition device unlocking (although this fails as much as it works)

Overall

Overall the Galaxy Nexus is a great phone, and ICS is a huge leap forward for Android both in terms of features and usability. If Android devices are your thing, then this is the phone for you, with practically every bug-bear I had with Android now remedied. Some of the hardware could be improved slightly if I really wanted to find fault, but this has to be one of the top 3 handsets available across all platforms, and certainly the best running Android.

The Galaxy Nexus is available from the Vodafone online shop for Free on tariffs starting at £41/month for 24 months.