updated 07:50 pm EST, Mon November 14, 2011
We go hands on with the first Android 4.0 phone
We were given a brief first opportunity to play with Samsung's Canadian variant of the Galaxy Nexus on Monday afternoon. The reps on hand included Ken Price, Samsung Canada's Director of Marketing for the Mobile Communications Division and Vlastimir Lalovic, Director of Wireless Product Realization. They gave us a quick run-through of some of the handset's unique features, while dropping hints that a more official announcement is coming a little later in the week. Hopefully, this includes pricing, but thus far, they kept mum. They were willing to say in advance that the Canadian model only supports HSPA+ networks, while the US version will support the higher-speed LTE, with this being the major and perhaps only difference between the devices.
The reps quickly reiterated that the Android 4.0 OS (also known as Ice Cream Sandwich) was optimized for dual-core devices such as the Galaxy Nexus to take advantage of its 1.2GHz processor. The developers took the best of Android 2.3 and 3.2 and integrated it here, they said.
Lalovic quickly pointed out the handset is 8.84mm at its thickest point, and the design both has a slight curve to it and is slightly bottom-heavy to make it more comfortable to handle. When we held it, it felt surprisingly manageable in the hand, important for a phone with a large 4.65-inch display. It won't be quiet as manageable as a current iPhone, which looks absolutely miniscule in comparison.
He then went on to show off the ultra-fast five-megapixel rear camera that allows shooting as quickly as the user can press the shutter button; it's actually slightly faster than on the iPhone 4S, although not by much. It can also shoot 1080p videos and has has a sweep panorama feature that we've seen before on phones but hasn't been built into Android until now; it's simple, but it works. There wasn't any particular revolution in Google's approach, as we still saw the usual stitch lines and other imperfections. Time lapse is an option, but as you might imagine wasn't an option during a quick test.
The front-facing, 1.3-megapixel camera also has its own party trick with the Face Unlock feature. Rather than tracing their finger to form a pattern, a quick set-up of the owner's face can do it instead. With our face as an example, we set it up while wearing glasses, but the phone recognized still recognized it with glasses off. The whole setup process took about ten seconds and was late more effective than the flawed original demo in Hong Kong, but we didn't try pointing it at the others in the room to see if their face would unlock the device. As we've seen before, Google still builds in the familiar connect-the-dots pattern unlock as a failsafe in case poor light or a change in your look breaks the recognition. We're not as sure that we'd use Face Unlock, since it's not always as fast as or as secure as a PIN code or the pattern.
The browser was sped up and is said to be 120 percent faster than in the previous 'pure' Android phone, the Nexus S; some of that comes from a long-overdue support for multiple cores in the browser, a lack of which has meant that the iPhone 4S is currently the fastest on the web. It now has a handy offline mode for saving web pages to read outside of data range; unfortunately, though, each page of a multi-page article needs to be saved manually. It's said there are no size limitations as long as the 16GB of internal memory can hold it -- there's no microSDHC slot, we should note, which might be a setback for those who don't keep their media in the cloud. Users can now force the desktop version of a page, too.
Google integration is even more present throughout than it has before, with Google+ preloaded with a home screen widget; it's clear the company will try to push its use on mobile as much as possible. We also liked a feature that Google might have to reluctantly admit was done sooner on iOS: the home screen can now be customized with folders quickly and intuitively just by dragging apps into each other. Folders had existed in Android before, but they weren't as intuitive.
We were briefly given a tour of Android Beam, Google's new extension of its NFC short-range wireless to use it for device-to-device sharing. It can share URLs to websites, contacts, maps, app links or YouTube videos with other Galaxy Nexus handsets simply by bringing them near each other. It may eventually be backwards compatible with other Android devices with an NFC chip; we wouldn't rely on it. Price compared it to Bluetooth, although he stopped short of suggesting it might be used for device pairing the way Nokia does on the N9.
Much ado has been made of the 1280x720 Super AMOLED HD display. It achieves a 316ppi pixel resolution and has a 0.01ms response time: the fastest in the industry, the Samsung team reminded us. In practice, we can attest that it's a very nice display; although it's PenTile and could produce the notoriously "fuzzy" look on a lesser resolution, the sheer density eliminates that flaw. Viewing angles are effectively limitless, as you'd expect with an AMOLED; there's no backlight like on an LCD. We'll need to do a side-by-side comparison with an iPhone and other Android phones to be certain, but it's potentially a very good canvas for the web and video.
Personal hands-on time was very limited, but did reveal a smooth and fast OS; there was little of the signature Android lag. The streaming HD YouTube video didn't so much as hiccup on the cellular network. We liked the contextual not needed to maximize screen real estate, which is efficient. The visual multitasking is also long overdue on the phone side of Android, and that they can finally be closed in the app switcher (here, through a swipe) is a long overdue feature that iOS, Symbian, and Windows Phone (as of 7.5) already have. One minor trait we appreciated was the toned down haptic feedback: most such phones try too hard to remind you that they have vibration motors, but this was was so gentle as to nearly be undetectable.
On getting supporting docks for the "pogo" pin side connectors, Price told us that these and other accessories should launch shortly after, if not at the same time as, the Galaxy Nexus itself.
Canadians can buy their own at Bell and Virgin Mobile stores early in December, with Rogers following in January. The US may get theirs as early as this week, though Price claimed the launch will be synchronized across all regions. As the mid-November launch dates for the handset in the US have lately been cast into doubt, he might be right.