After months of rumours, a delayed unveiling out of respect for Steve Jobs, and a launch that could be best described as chaotic, Google and Samsung have finally released the Galaxy Nexus — the first smartphone to run the latest 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" version of Android. The Galaxy Nexus successfully combines a superb screen, great software and excellent hardware to produce what we think is the best Android phone ever.
Galaxy Nexus: Design and display
There are a few reasons why we think the Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone on the market, but the most apparent is its strikingly large 4.65in Super AMOLED HD display. The HD denotes a high definition resolution of 1280x720, and the Galaxy Nexus displays an ultra sharp and crisp image. Its bright, vivid and clear and text is crisp and smooth with minimal visible aberrations: if we were being picky we'd say that the iPhone 4S still displays slightly crisper text, but the difference is very small and won't be immediately noticeable to a casual user.
The large size of the screen naturally makes the Galaxy Nexus great for video playback but Web browsing is the main beneficiary — the clarity of the screen makes reading Web pages and books an impressive experience. Our only complaint involves the automatic brightness feature: its often erratic and most of the time is either set a little too bright, or too dim. We suspect this is an issue that could and should be corrected by a software update.
The Galaxy Nexus is a large phone but the big screen doesn't make it uncomfortably large to handle. The unit has on-screen controls rather than capacitive keys that were previously standard on Android phones, so the Galaxy Nexus isn't too much bigger than the popular Samsung Galaxy S II. Aiding the look and feel is a curved screen and a body that has a teardrop profile — this means the Galaxy Nexus is thicker at the top and slightly wider towards the bottom. The curvature makes the Galaxy Nexus feel natural to hold and therefore comfortable to use.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy Nexus' battery cover is way too fiddly and difficult to put back on once its removed. It's only a minor issue but the fit and finish is a step behind many of its rivals including the iPhone 4S and the HTC Sensation XE — the plastic feels durable but it doesn't look or feel as sturdy as a premium device should. We also dropped our review unit and it left a noticeable chip and multiple scuffs on the plastic surface, while there is a small spot on the edge of the cover that moves when you press it, suggesting its not clicked into place properly. We love the teardrop design and the the non-slip grip that the back of the Galaxy Nexus provides, but we wish Samsung paid more attention to detail.
Two more minor issues — we hate the headphone jack on the bottom of phones and the Galaxy Nexus is no exception. It feels out of place and requires you to turn the phone around when you pull it out of your pocket. We also found the volume buttons on the Galaxy Nexus too easy to accidentally press when the phone is in your pocket, which is annoying when you're listening to music.
Galaxy Nexus: Ice Cream Sandwich UI
The hardware of the Galaxy Nexus is only half of the story. Google's latest Android software, Ice Cream Sandwich, is the real star of the Galaxy Nexus show and the changes are both exhausting and impressive.
Right from the moment you switch on the Galaxy Nexus for the first time, it's clear that the entire user experience has been improved. The interface has been refreshed to create a more uniform look and feel. There's a new typeface called Roboto. The software is faster and slicker than any previous versions of Android and is an improvement over any manufacturer UI skin that we've seen on any other device. The Galaxy Nexus feels consistent and is easier to use than any other Android phone we've ever tested.
There are too many changes to list, but there are a few key elements that make the Galaxy Nexus a pleasure to use. The first is consistency. Google has changed almost every part of the interface and the result is a phone that is easier to use. Android 4.0 still isn't as simple as iOS or as elegant as Windows Phone 7.5, but its fast, effective and easier on the eye than any previous versions of the software. In a full week of use, the Galaxy Nexus did not crash or stutter: performance is consistently excellent.
On the lock screen, you can swipe right to get to the home screen or left to jump straight into the camera. You can now access notifications from the lock screen and you can swipe individual notifications away rather than having to clear all notifications. You can also quickly access the settings menu from the notification drop down, create folders on the home screen by dragging one app on top of another, and access widgets by swiping through the app draw. We also liked the link to the Android Market in the top right corner of the app draw — a small but very appreciated touch — along with the fact that the Google search widget is now a permanent fixture at the top of every home screen. It can not only be used to search the Web, but can perform a phone-wide search, too.
As previously mentioned, Ice Cream Sandwich no longer uses hardware shortcut keys. Instead, three on-screen buttons appear (back, home, multitasking) on most screens. In some apps, further settings can be accessed when three small dots appear in the lower right hand corner of the screen. This can be a little confusing and its often easy to accidentally bump the home or back buttons, but the navigation is something we quickly got used to. We also found multitasking quite intuitive: pressing the multitasking buttons brings up a vertical, scrolling list of your most recently used apps. Tapping on an app will switch to it, while swiping an app off the screen will close it. Its the same multitasking method used on Google's Honeycomb software for tablets, but it feels far more natural and intuitive on a phone.
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