Review

Galaxy Nexus review: the sweetest aftertaste

Today I have my hands on the latest phone from the Google/Samsung camp, running the newest version of Android. It’s called the Galaxy Nexus, and it’s powered by delicious and futuristic Ice Cream Sandwiches.

I’m quite confident that Google’s vision for the Galaxy Nexus was to make it the destroyer-of-all phones, running the absolute best operating system they have ever made and running on the best hardware that their partners Samsung could find. Most of this vision has made itself to the Galaxy Nexus, but as you’ll find it’s not a completely smooth ride.

As always, thanks to our partners over at Mobicity for providing this phone to review. It’s quite a joy to wake up on a Monday morning, horribly sick (at the time), to find a Galaxy Nexus awaiting my testing and review. Please note that this review was carried out on the HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus, and while most aspects covered in this review will be the same with the LTE version, some aspects will be different such as the design and battery life.

Specifications

Samsung have almost gone all out with the Galaxy Nexus, fitting it with a 1.2 GHz TI OMAP dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM and the impressive 4.65” Super AMOLED HD display. NFC is also on-board, along with penta-band HSPA radios and LTE depending on your region. It’s also quite curved.

  Galaxy Nexus
Product Codes GT-I9250 (HSPA+ model)
i515 (LTE model)
GSM Bands 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G/4G Bands HSPA 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100
LTE 700 (LTE model only)
Display 4.65-inch 1280 x 720 Super AMOLED HD
316 ppi pixel density
8-point capacitive multi-touch
Processor TI OMAP 4460 chipset
1.2 GHz dual-core CPU
ARM Cortex-A9 based
Graphics PowerVR SGX540
RAM 1 GB
Storage 16 or 32 GB internal user storage
Connectivity WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n (dual-band)
Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP
A-GPS
DLNA
NFC
Camera 5 MP rear camera with autofocus and LED flash
1.3 MP front camera
1080p video recording (rear)
Ports MicroUSB (charging, data)
3.5mm audio jack
Dock connector contacts
Sensors Accelerometer
Magnetometer
Gyroscope
Light sensor
Proximity sensor
Battery Li-ion 1,750 mAh removable
Launch OS Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich"
Launch Date November 2011
Size & Weight 135.5 x 67.9 x 8.9 mm
135 g
Price Unlocked & Outright: ~US$750
On Contract: US$299 (Verizon; estimate)

Unfortunately I do notice a few things just from the specifications that appear to be missing. I would have liked to see a microSD card slot here to expand the 16 GB of memory included, because if you’re loading the device with 720p videos the space can be used quite quickly. Another thing is the camera is only 5 MP, and while I understand that megapixels aren’t everything, for a top-of-the-line phone I was expecting 8 or even 12 MP.

Contents

  1. Introduction and Specifications
  2. Design & Display
  3. Software
  4. Performance & Battery Life
  5. Camera
  6. Media Playback & Calls
  7. Video Overview & Conclusion

Design

In many ways the Galaxy Nexus looks like a love-child between the Nexus S and the Galaxy S II. The front is completely dominated by a curved display with not much else, similar to the Nexus S, while the back is beautifully textured by Samsung to feel similar to the Galaxy S II line of devices.

At first I wasn’t sure that the curved nature of the device would actually have that much to do with the comfort, but in actual fact it’s really quite clever. The Galaxy Nexus is the single most comfortable phone I have ever tried for making calls, and the shape fits perfectly in the hands without the 4.65” display feeling overbearing.

One problem I do have is that the bump and tapering give an illusion that the device is thicker (and thinner) than it actually is. The top end is quite thin and the curves on the side make it feel even thinner, but the bottom is occupied by an unnecessarily large bump. I do admit that the ridge on the back due to the bump makes it easier to hold, but it’s massive and ruins otherwise beautiful curves.

Other features of the device I really like. The power button on the right-hand side is an absolute must for a phone of this size, and I’m glad that Samsung (as usual) has included it in the right place. The volume buttons on the other side are also in a perfect location. They are further down than you would expect, but this means that in a normal holding position you won’t accidentally press them.

The speaker on the back of the device is in a good position right at the bottom and is out of the way of obstructive fingers. The camera is also in a good spot and looks great in its place. I’m not quite sure that the 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom is the best spot: I prefer the top, but looking at it, it wouldn’t be possible to put it there because the top is too thin.

There might be some minor annoyances with the design, but honestly I don’t care at all. I love the design of the Galaxy Nexus: no unnecessary branding on the front, fantastic textured back, curved design, massive display and little else to ruin it all. You’ve got to thank the Google-Samsung collaboration for another fantastically-designed Nexus device; cheers guys.

Note: The LTE Galaxy Nexus is slightly thicker than this HSPA+ version, but most other design elements remain identical

Display

Now the actual size of the display on the Galaxy Nexus is 4.65”, but as the buttons are included on the screen rather than having separate capacitive buttons, the actual usable screen space is closer to 4.3”. The benefit of having buttons on the screen is that you can make them disappear for certain apps, such as the video player, to utilize all the available space while still keeping the actual phone quite small.

The display itself is quite impressive, as you would expect if it’s packing a 1280 x 720 resolution on a Super AMOLED panel. I am aware that this the supposedly worse PenTile subpixel RGBG matrix as opposed to the better RGB Stripe, but at this pixel density the arrangement of the subpixels is essentially irrelevant as your eyes will not notice the difference.

There really is nothing to complain about the display on the Galaxy Nexus. It’s big when it needs to be, and because it’s a Super AMOLED it’s simply beautiful. Once you experience the eye-popping colors, rich, deep blacks and stellar vibrancy and contrast you won’t want to go back to your standard LCD-type display. The pixel density is also outstanding: you won’t be seeing individual pixels at all without a magnifying glass.

I also noticed that Samsung have fixed the white balance so that pure white is no longer blue tinted. With the display on the Galaxy Nexus, whites are very white; at full brightness a white image on the Nexus makes my computer’s desktop display looks much warmer (as in, slightly tinted yellow). This just goes to show the advancement of AMOLED displays are countering the problems found on earlier displays in the original Nexus One and Nexus S.

At times the Super AMOLED display can be hard to see in direct sunlight, but it’s actually better than a standard LCD display as I believe the Super AMOLEDs include a special layer that reduces the effects of incoming light to make the display easier to see. It’s not exactly eInk quality for reading outside, but it does an alright job.

I think you would find it hard to hate the massive Super AMOLED display, as Samsung have done a fantastic job choosing and implementing a great quality screen. In fact it’s hard to remember a Samsung product with a poor display; items like my Galaxy S, the Galaxy S II and the Galaxy Note I recently reviewed all have superb display qualities.

Software

I was writing the software part of this review and realized I had written an enormous amount of stuff on Android 4.0, so I decided to split it out and dedicate an entire review just to Ice Cream Sandwich. There really are a huge amount of new features included in ICS, so I highly suggest you check that out.

Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” review

Here’s a rundown of the new features for those of you who would rather not read another eight-page review:

  • Brand new, consistent theme/layout/design
  • On-screen buttons
  • Action Bar for easy app function access
  • New widgets, new wallpapers, new apps
  • Resizable widgets
  • Improved notification pane; accessible from lockscreen
  • Face unlock; unlock to camera; lockscreen music controls
  • New settings layout; data usage graphs and controls
  • Visually improved Contacts app with large contact images and quick profiles
  • Respond to a call with a message in Dialer
  • Improved Messaging layout

  • New browser design; easy access window manager; offline browsing
  • Brand new camera app design; zero shutter lag
  • Panorama, time-lapse and instant effects in the camera app
  • New Gallery with built in photo editor
  • Movie Studio app lets you edit movies on your device
  • New ICS Music app; equalizer settings
  • Vastly improved Gmail app
  • Minor updates to Calendar, Maps, YouTube, Google+ and Market
  • Android Beam for easy sharing over NFC
  • Native screenshot support
  • Keyboard improvements; new copy/paste functions; improved spell-checker
  • New speech-to-text featuring as-you-go style output

See, it’s a lot to cover, so again I highly recommend you check out the full Android 4.0 review for an in-depth look at everything above.

Performance & Battery Life

The Galaxy Nexus sets itself up to be a decent performer. Under the hood you get 1 GB of RAM along with a TI OMAP 4460 chipset: a 1.2 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9-based processor, a PowerVR SGX540 graphics processor and pentaband HSPA+ radios. This is all helped by the fact that Android 4.0 is hardware accelerated, meaning the GPU will help out rendering the interface.

As a result of the great software/hardware combination there is no operating system lag at all. None. No mystery lag that I heard people whinging about close to the announcement. Everything is so incredibly smooth it deserves a commendation, but honestly I was expecting nothing less than smooth considering the hardware.

Along with no lag in the operating system I experienced no lag in any apps I tried. The browser was the fastest experience I have ever witnessed on any Android phone, again due to improvements on the hardware and software side. It only struggled on super-image-intense sites like The Verge, but then again it was better than I have ever seen it on a smartphone. Multitasking is also incredibly fluid, with a huge amount of apps remaining “open” without performance or battery life degradation.

Gaming performance is fairly good, although I was sceptical that the older PowerVR SGX540 graphics would be enough to power intense games at the 720p resolution necessary for the display. I use a SGX540 on a regular basis in my Galaxy S and it’s no slouch, but suffers in games like Dungeon Defenders where I have seen other GPUs (like the Adreno 220 and Mali-400 MP) excel.

However, it looks like the chip first released in 2007 is still holding up when alongside a dual-core chipset and 1 GB of RAM. All the games I tried with moderate graphic levels ran fine, but judging by the benchmarks below I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a graphics powerhouse.

Now for the usual synthetic benchmarks, starting with SmartBench 2011 to give an rounded processor performance number. The Galaxy Nexus scores quite well, beating the 1.2 GHz MSM 8260 in the HTC Sensation and the 1 GHz Tegra 2, but falling behind the Exynos. Also worthy of note is the performance difference between 1 GHz and 1.2 GHz OMAP 4 series chipsets: a 20% higher clockspeed only yields 7% better performance according to the benchmark.

When it comes to running the graphics benchmark GLBenchmark 2.1 there is good news and bad news. The bad news is the SGX540 is the slowest GPU in a dual-core chipset today. The good news is that despite having to render 140% more pixels, the results show it’s only 4% slower than the Galaxy S. That means the other components are really helping out to ensure the GPU isn’t left behind.

Comparing it to other devices, it’s 12% slower than a Tegra 2 and 27% slower than the Adreno 220; it’s not really in the same league as the Mali and SGX543MP2. As the Tegra 2 is quite capable of delivering good graphics and the Galaxy Nexus is only slightly slower, I wouldn’t be too worried about the Nexus struggling in games. However if you’re a heavy gamer looking for a graphics superpower I would look towards an Exynos 4120 device like the Galaxy S II or Galaxy Note instead.

Despite all this power you get a reasonable battery life from the Galaxy Nexus. With the usual amount of moderate usage, involving around an hour of texting, several hours accessing data for web browsing and social networking plus some camera usage and light gaming, I achieved 32 hours on battery before it required a charge.

With more intense usage I would imagine it would need charging every night, but as I achieved a good two days (effectively as you pull off the charger one morning and don’t return it until the following night) I would say the battery life is quite good. With full-blown gaming or video watching my estimates would place the battery life around the usual 6-7 hour mark, but I didn’t fully measure this.

Note: The Galaxy Nexus with LTE will have slightly different battery life due to the higher power consumption of accessing LTE towers and larger battery included.

Camera

Just on the software side the Galaxy Nexus has a great camera. You get support for panorama shots and time-lapse videos, instant video effects, face detection, unlock to camera and quick sharing, not to mention the zero-shutter lag. As I mentioned in the Android 4.0 review, you can take a shot from a locked Nexus in around 1-2 seconds thanks to the combination of unlock to camera and zero-shutter lag.

Zero-shutter lag is actually really amazing to use. In the very instant that you press the shutter button the image is captured; no delays and no wait for focusing as that is done quickly before you take the shot. The only time zero-shutter lag doesn’t fully work is when using the flash, as there is a tiny delay as the flash has to fire, but it’s still very quick.

Depth of field imagery and close-focus shots are amazing on the Galaxy Nexus as the device can focus quickly and closely to objects. I managed to take a shot as close as 4 cm from the subject, and text appears very crisp and sharp when the correct focus point has been achieved. I was actually surprised at how well some of the focus test images I took turned out when I viewed them on my computer.

Color quality is also very close to reality, especially with outside shots. Images that feature a predominant color, such as of flowers and the sky, appear vivid and vibrant, while contrast and balance still remains solid on mixed-color shots. White balance indoors is somewhat off and can lead to washing out when the lighting isn’t correct, but this isn’t a show-stopper.

When it came to taking wide shots I was surprised again at how well they turn out. Often an issue with smartphone cameras is that they don’t handle contrast between light and dark areas very well, leading to over- or under-saturated shots in some areas. This didn’t seem to be an issue with the Galaxy Nexus; the shot of the car park below accurately portrays the scene, and 100% crop crispness is good for a small sensor.

The Galaxy Nexus also has a flash to accompany the camera, which as you would expect from a LED flash doesn’t spread light out very well at short range. It does illuminate mid-range targets well and prevents grain where there is not enough light, but it definitely won’t replace a point and shoot with a proper flash for dark indoor shots.

I was a bit disappointed with video recording on the Galaxy Nexus after such a fantastic experience with still shots. For some reason the picture appears very unstable and somewhat warped, as if there is no anti-shake or stability processing occurring; to make matters worse you don’t notice the issue on the device’s video preview. The picture at 1080p is also not particularly crisp, however it captures color and audio quite well along with good results from continuous autofocus.

Media Playback & Calls

For a top-notch Samsung device I was also expecting some top-quality Samsung audio through the 3.5mm audio jack. I’ve had nothing but brilliant experiences from the Galaxy S line as well as the Galaxy Note I had reviewed previously, so the stakes were set quite high for the Galaxy Nexus.

I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The audio through my headphones was easily as good as through my “perfect” Galaxy S, and with some slight tweaking thanks to the adjustable equalizer in the ICS Music app I got it to sound simply amazing. With stock settings it pushes out quite a lot of bass combined with great mid- high-range tones, and tuning this to match your music library enables fantastic audio quality.

Unfortunately the same amazing performance has not fully carried over to the video playback. Below are the results from my seven-part video test

Medium Result
Cordy Gameplay
SD 640x360 WMV
WMV3 video, WMA2 2ch audio
Surprisingly not recognized; most other devices I have used support WMV so this would be a first
The Big Bang Theory
SD 624x352 AVI
XviD video, MP3 2ch audio
Recognized but no playback. It appears as though the Galaxy Nexus does not support AVI files
Epic Rap Battles of History 7
HD 1280x720 MP4
H.264 YouTube video, AAC 2ch audio
Perfect playback
TRON Legacy
HD 1280x720 MP4
H.264 video, AAC 6ch audio

Recognized but no playback. Like most phones the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t like 6-channel audio, but instead of just playing video it doesn’t play at all

Black Swan
Full HD 1920x800 MKV
H.264 video, DTS 6ch audio
Briefly plays the MKV file but then stops after it decides it doesn’t like DTS audio. This is disappointing, but I believe 2-channel MKVs (and 2-channel MP4s) will work fine
THX Amazing Life
Full HD 1920x1080 MT2S
H.264 video, AC3 6ch audio
Recognized but no playback. Not a surprise considering the filetype
MysteryGuitarMan
Full HD 1920x1080 MP4
H.264 YouTube video, AAC 2ch audio
Perfect playback. As the TI OMAP chipset supports 1080p recording and decoding, as long as the filetype is supported (which MP4 is) it will be fine

It is disappointing that out of the entire suite of videos, only MP4s really worked well; only if they are encoded with 2-channel audio that is. For some strange reason neither WMV or AVI files worked at all, both of which should be supported by every new phone on the market due to their popularity. I was glad to see some MKV support, but make sure you downcode your 6-channel rips to 2-channel to get them to play.

The reason why it’s so disappointing is because, as I mentioned before, the Galaxy Nexus has a fantastic display. 1280 x 720 is perfect for watching movies, and with the disappearing on-screen buttons, you can watch movies using almost the entire front area of the phone. If it had AVI and 6-channel support, which I have seen on the Galaxy Note, it would make for an amazing experience like with the audio. Alas, it isn’t.

Finally we have the call quality. As always with modern devices, the Galaxy Nexus has fantastic call quality on both ends. Due to active noise cancellation technology, the receiving end can hear you clearly in a variety of noisy environments. Also, the built in speaker is crisp and audible, so no complaints at all from the Galaxy Nexus’ call quality.

Video Overview

Don’t feel like reading the past few pages? Want to see most of the hardware features of the Galaxy Nexus in the one sort-of-short video? Well I’ve compiled a video overview here that goes lightly over the aspects of the Nexus I’ve discussed previously.

If you want more detail I would highly recommend checking what I have written previously as I do go into a lot of depth, especially when you combine it with my previous Android 4.0 review.

Conclusion

If you are thinking about buying a Galaxy Nexus you should think no longer: the new Google phone powered by Android 4.0 is one of the best Android devices on the market right now. The hardware is well crafted and very comfortable to hold; the display is large and simply beautiful; the camera takes amazing still shots.

Even better is the software that accompanies the hardware. The sheer wealth of new features, design improvements and usability enhancements is staggering, bringing Android 4.0 to a consistent and modern era. Google should be proud that the software they have delivered on the Galaxy Nexus, without an OEM skin, is finally ready for the consumer.

Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” review

The device also performs very well despite the somewhat old graphics hardware. The OS is hardware accelerated to deliver the smoothest Android experience to date with absolutely no lag anywhere, ever. The browser is more responsive than ever, the camera is supercharged with zero shutter lag and gaming performance is good considering the SGX540 and display resolution.

The Galaxy Nexus retails for approximately US$750 unlocked and outright, and when it comes officially to the United States on Verizon (with LTE) it is expected to go for US$299 on a 24-month contract. Considering how good this top-of-the-range device is and how much development the OS required, I would say this is a fair price leaning on the expensive side. Buying one is not going to be cheap, but it’s not overpriced either and the product you are left with is no disappointment at all.

If you are going Google, go Galaxy Nexus: the purest of Android experiences is ready for primetime and leaves a sweet, Ice Cream Sandwich aftertaste.

Big thanks again to MobiCity for providing the Galaxy Nexus for both this review and the Android 4.0 review. Your continued support of Neowin is simply fantastic and we really appreciate it.

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