It’s a funny thing, Android. It’s open source, but it’s not. You can use the code to do whatever you want with it, for free, but if you want all those Google apps like Gmail, Google Maps and the Android Market download store, you need to agree to play ball with the search giant. To keep the experience great, and prevent fragmentation, Google needs to keep strict control over this eco-system, and that’s where the Nexus phones come in. Even if they don’t sell in droves, the Nexus line, which started with the HTC-made Nexus One back in January 2010, is about setting the bar for manufacturers. It’s a blueprint for any manufacturer which reads “this is what Android is meant to be, this is what
you can do with it – now show us what you’ve got”.
It just so happens that its bleeding edge status is coveted by early adopters as well. With the Samsung powered Galaxy Nexus, that’s more true than ever. Its enormous 4.65-inch screen is designed for those for which believe bigger equals better. Its 1.2GHz TI OMAP dual-core processor is perhaps even faster than it needs to be. And it runs the very latest version of Android: it’s a gadget-fiend’s wet dream.
And here’s even better news for everyone: Android 4.0 ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ makes Android more accessible than it’s ever been before.
The Galaxy Nexus might have been made in South Korea, but there’s no doubt it’s been built with the American market in mind – It’s huge. There’s even a 4G, 32GB version on the way for America, which will sadly never see the light of day here. It’s huge. The 4.65-inch screen width makes the Galaxy Nexus one of the biggest phones on the market. Strangely though, it’s not as off putting as you might think. Without another phone by its side to compare against, it just seems normal. Perhaps that’s because the Android control buttons have been worked into the display itself, leaving very little but screen on the front of the device. What might put you off however, is the material fit and finish. A curvaceous device with a thin profile and contours galore might cast a sexy silhouette, but that doesn’t count for much when it’s made out of plastic. The frame is sturdy, and it’s comfortable to grip, but the back panel flexes an awful lot when pressed.
Really though, the Galaxy Nexus is about the screen. You’ve probably heard the phrase HD bandied around regarding phones before, but that was just marketing spin directed to TV playback functions. At 720×1280 pixels, the 16 million colour Galaxy Nexus screen can play 720p resolution video. It really is the first HD phone in the world. Strangely, it’s still not quite as sharp as the iPhone 4 and 4S Retina display, simply because it’s so much bigger. We struggled to see any pixelation, and more to the point, the colour reproduction is phenomenal. Whites on the older Nexus S are a creamy beige by comparison. Blacks are the deepest we’ve seen. Given just how many pixels it needs to deal with, it’s remarkable that the 1730mAh battery lasts as long as it does: a full day and a half on a charge with regular use. Let’s pull no punches here: this is the best smartphone screen ever. Screen aside, there are a few things to be wary of with the Galaxy Nexus hardware: 16GB of internal storage can’t be supplemented by microSD card – that’s your lot. The phone doesn’t mount as USB mass storage for side-loading files either. Instead, it uses a method called MTP. On Windows 7 machines, you won’t notice the difference, but it does mean that to work with Macs, you will need to install some extra free software to transfer files. It isn’t quite plug and play. It’s easy to overlook any minor issues with the hardware for the Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, however: that’s really what this device is about.
The Galaxy Nexus is the very first phone in the world to run Android version 4.0, also called Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s been a year since the last big update, Gingerbread, a modest update which only changed things behind the scenes, and this is a vast overhaul by comparison. It’s one Google badly needed: Android is famously over-complicated. But Ice Cream Sandwich is refined and pristine. The work of Palm’s former UX chief, Matias Duarte (who Google poached in 2010) is finally showing, and paying dividends. A few examples: Android’s notification tray is now so much smarter. Pull it down from the top of the screen and you can control your music, remove individual alerts with a swipe, and even see the contact picture of whoever’s messaged you. Those swipe gestures have been applied across Android. Tap the control bar, and you can see images of all your open apps. These too can be removed with a swipe to the left or right, making closing apps incredibly easy. Head into the core Google apps, such as Gmail and Google Talk, and you’ll find two finger gestures let you swipe through chats, and even zoom in and out of months of the calendar. The keyboard may look like it hasn’t changed, but under the bonnet, it’s been greatly improved. Its spelling corrections are context sensitive for the first time, and displays a huge array of alternatives with a long press.
While Android has always packed in a few core Google services as apps, they’ve been greatly expanded in Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s great news, as typically, manufacturers would try and fill the gaps afterwards. Here, you get them out of the box, and they’re fantastic. Google Music for instance, is a beautiful music player you’ll actually want to use for the sake of it, with glossy cover art and track controls which can be accessed even while the phone is locked. It also incorporates the ability to store 20,000 songs in the cloud and stream them on demand for free: it’s a US only feature for now, but can easily be accessed with one quick use of a proxy browser to register.
Google Videos lets you download movies and then there’s People, the new contacts book. Contact cards are now huge windows with a large profile picture, and all the latest from your friends on Twitter and Google’s own social network, Google Plus. Ice Cream Sandwich also plays host to a video editor, Movie Studio, and a greatly improved camera app, which lets you edit shots an (and 1080p video) after you’ve taken them, and is very, very fast.
It’s a pity, because not only is the Galaxy Nexus sensationally fast but it’s rather wasted on a mediocre camera. Auto-focus wasn’t always on its guard, and images seemed dull and lifeless. That’s the thing, though: Google wants others to improve this. Other manufacturers will make Ice Cream Sandwich phones, with better cameras. And soon. Right now though, on software alone, the Galaxy Nexus is as good as it gets in Android land.
Ice Cream Sandwich may have a silly name, but it’s a deadly serious, deadly smart operating system that makes you feel like you’re carrying a proper computer in your pocket – sets a new standard for Android phones.