Google and Samsung produce the clearest vision for Android yet. (December 11th, 2011)
Product Manufacturer: Samsung
Price: $300 (2 yrs, Verizon), $160 (3 yrs, Bell)
- Android 4.0 a big leap, cohesive, and polished.
- Pure: no carrier or OEM interference.
- Outstanding 720p screen.
- Surprisingly good battery life.
- Fast interface and browsing.
- Easy to wield despite its size.
- Good call quality.
- NFC futureproofing.
- Built-in storage is unified.
- Fast camera focus.
- So-so camera in photos and videos.
- Some apps don't like Android 4.0 yet.
- No microSD card slot.
- GPS accuracy somewhat hit or miss.
- Voice recognition not on Apple's level.
The Galaxy Nexus is arguably the first official Google phone whose appeal isn't just confined to hardcore Android fans: even those who only know the iPhone by name are taking notice. With a massive 4.65-inch, 720p display, a near-instant camera, and most importantly Android 4.0, it promises not just to be a powerful phone but the most cohesive expression of what Android can be. But can it cross over into the mainstream in a way that previously only Apple could? Our Galaxy Nexus review settles that question.
We're not usually fans of extra-large smartphones. It's not just that they often stretch the limits of normal hands; it's that they're often such slaves to the large screen that clever design is sacrificed in the process. The quintessential example for us is the HTC Vivid, where the design is so generic that it looks like the prototype for a phone rather than the phone itself.
Not so the Galaxy Nexus. Right away, the slight curve on the screen, carried over from the Nexus S and now a Google signature feature, gives it a look that's easy to remember. On a larger phone, it's arguably more important, too. It cups more naturally in the hand and makes sure that you don't have to press the phone that closely to your cheek to get the earpiece and microphone close.
Samsung has also gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of a big screen on grip. The bezel is considerably narrower than on most other phones this size, and the finely textured back is more reassuring; it's mostly the same texture as on the Galaxy S II. The shape is notably weighted towards the bottom, too, and in our experience there wasn't any fatigue from holding the phone for a long period of time. Admittedly, it's not as necessary in the first place, since the new Nexus has that characteristic Samsung lightness. The plastic build isn't as premium-feeling as an iPhone, but it still comes across as solid and durable.
Keeping that in mind, there's no denying that the Galaxy Nexus is a big phone -- very big. An iPhone 4S next to it looks miniscule, even though Apple makes a very usable smartphone. The height may be the biggest factor for shallow pockets: at 5.33 inches, it's almost a full inch taller than the iPhone and still taller than most big-screened Android phones. Tight jeans won't have a problem, though, since the 0.37-inch Verizon LTE model and 0.35-inch HSPA+ world version are both fairly thin.
Spinning around the phone shows some attention to detail in controls and ports. The power and volume buttons are well-placed at the upper sides, and we're fans of both the center-bottom micro USB port (with MHL video out to HDMI through an adapter) and the bottom headphone jack. They both make docking easier and keep headphone cords from draping over the top. The right side has what Samsung calls a pogo pin connector for accessory docks, and there will be both a multimedia dock (for $69) and a vehicle mount ($50) that should give a rare level of direct accessory support that we expect will be fairly broad.
We did find ourselves periodically hitting the volume buttons by accident when the phone was being used in landscape, and it's noteworthy that there's no dedicated camera button or hardware shortcut here.
As the first Android 4.0 phone, the Galaxy Nexus might be a few shocks for long-time Android fans in what you won't see. There's no front hardware navigation buttons. All of Android's usual controls are moved to the touchscreen. We'll touch on the impact for software later, but in hardware, it's mostly a positive since there's less to break and less chance of accidentally brushing against a button, since the phone's chin is less occupied. What sits there is only a stealth notification light that's both nicely subtle and color-coded, making it possible to tell whether it's a new Twitter message or new e-mail.
The other shock isn't as pleasant. Although you can replace the battery, there's no microSD card slot at all, so you're limited to whatever built-in storage is on the phone. Google's Dan Morrill has given an explanation that it's needed for uninterrupted space; key changes in Android 4.0's file handling and the absence of a card slot means that you can use all free storage any way you want. It's a rare concession that Apple may have had the right idea, and that too many Android 2.x phones have 16GB of total space but waste gigabytes of it because the OS limits what can be installed in certain areas.
Unfortunately, that still means that whatever storage you get is what you'll have forever. On the 32GB model that isn't much of a problem, but the Verizon model is limited to 16GB of space. USB Mass Storage mode doesn't work because of the unified space, either. If you use a 16GB version, you'll have to thrive on Google Music or other cloud media services, since it may not be enough to keep everything locally. And certain integrated modes that need USB Mass Storage, such as in-car audio and TVs with basic media loading, won't work the way they do on the iPhone.
Having said this, it's not quite the end if you need to get files on or off. Windows systems can still see the Galaxy Nexus as an MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) device. On a Mac, you have access to Android File Transfer, which isn't much more than a basic browser but is enough to get the job done. Google is of course hoping that you'll use Google+ to share your photos, YouTube for your videos, and Google Music to stream your song collection. They work well and are probably the future. All the same, Apple is still the king of local media sync.
The Super AMOLED HD display
The Galaxy Nexus isn't the first 720p (720x1280) smartphone. HTC's Rezound, LG's Optimus LTE, and Samsung's own Galaxy S II HD LTE (the basis for the Galaxy Nexus) were all there first, if just by a matter of weeks.
That doesn't dilute the impact of the 4.65-inch display in Google's new reference phone. Quite simply, it's one of the best mobile displays in the field, and that's after overcoming what some see as a setback. Samsung uses what it calls a Super AMOLED HD display. Although the screen uses RGBG (red, green, blue, green) PenTile, a technique that shares green pixels that has led to some poor displays like that on the Motorola Droid RAZR, the output is very pleasing. Having such a high pixel density, 315 pixels per inch, eliminates the fuzziness and creates an iPhone 4-like level of fidelity. The large screen size here works in its favor, too, since it's easier to appreciate the extra detail in a movie or an e-book than on the iPhone.
Colors are vivid, although it's here that Apple, HTC, and LG have a slight advantage. Like the Super AMOLED Plus of the Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus' color behavior is occasionally exaggerated. Reds and greens are occasionally punched up too far. Some like that slightly bolder look, though, and it's still visibly more neutral than on the original Galaxy S.
As for the curved glass, it's a slight angle and doesn't affect the interface. Samsung isn't using Gorilla Glass, but it's using toughened glass that should guard against casual scratches. We wouldn't quite trust it to stay intact after a steep drop. Our biggest issue is with the ambient light sensor settings. It's aggressively tuned to dim faster than it should, so you may want to flip to manual control if you don't mind using more battery.
It's odd to consider that Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, is the first truly major change to the interface on smartphones almost since Android was overhauled for touch before it launched in 2008. For us, it's long overdue. Even in Android 2.3, where Google started considering OS polish an important feature, the platform always came across as utilitarian. It was functional and often had more features, but not elegant and at times rough.
Just on a casual glance, it's clear the new OS is at least more visually consistent. Google's user experience head Matias Duarte has been focused on interface consistency and polish ever since Android 3.0 reached tablets, and it's much more apparent here. While it's not the "holographic" look, it has a sparing, modern appearance that stands out, especially with the much more distinctive Roboto font.
More importantly, it's going for a much more consistent interface. The app tray, many built-in apps, and other parts of the interface are all navigable through a swipe-oriented interface that's easier to understand. We most of all like the improvements the swipe concept brings to multitasking and notifications. Finally, you can clear individual notifications just by tossing them aside, and the thumbnail-based app switcher from Android 3.0 has been given a much-needed ability to quit apps directly, instead of having to duck into the settings or a third-party app. Apple has had direct app quitting since 2010 and clearing notifications from individual apps for a few weeks, but it's good to see that Google has drawn even and (through thumbnails) pulled slightly ahead.
Moving basic navigation buttons to the touchscreen, on devices like the Galaxy Nexus that don't have hardware buttons, proves to be a smart decision in practice. The buttons are now context-sensitive and only show what's needed, if they're needed at all. Watch video and they hide away. Rotate the screen and the buttons rotate as well. Going this route, along with making a 16:9 wide aspect ratio the preferred ratio, encourages developers (including Google) to put more interface elements on the home screen instead of burying them in Windows PC-like menus.
There are numerous minor but important touches. Folders have existed in the past. It's only in the new Android version, though, that they're truly intuitive. Google here is taking a page more directly from last year's iOS 4 here: it only takes a drag-and-drop between icons on the home screen to group apps together. Widget resizing has carried over from the tablet to the phone for those who want more news, bookmarks, or other features, and it's easy to manipulate. We're not so keen on Face Unlock, one of Google's party tricks; it's a fresh way to unlock your phone just by staring at it, but it takes a few seconds to launch and can be thwarted by a photo. Google has admitted it's not strong security, but a pattern unlock is arguably both faster and more secure, especially if you're in a nightclub.
So many of the apps have been given fundamental makeovers that it's almost difficult to know where to begin. The browser is the most appreciable. Android 4.0 finally takes advantage of multi-core processors and leaps from trailing at about half the load time of an iPhone 4S to just as quick, if not slightly more. It now has a much-needed built-in support for Chrome Sync to carry over bookmarks and save pages for later, both parallels to Apple's longstanding bookmark syncing and its more recent Reading List. Real tabbed browsing isn't possible because of the screen limits, but the tabs are shrunken and can be swiped out. There's still some choppiness when scrolling, and we're still somewhat irked by Android's text reflow features, but pinch-to-zoom and other notorious choke points have been cleared up. Samsung's TouchWiz-modified browser is slightly more responsive. Still, it's enough to change the stock Android browser from being somewhat awkward to a tool you want to use.
The improvements go on. Gmail is basically the Android 3.0 app, but actually improves through the smaller space: it uses swipes to drill down from the top level to individual mail threads, and it's considerably faster either than the tablet or Android 2.3 apps with auto-completion for contacts and many more of the common controls in one concentrated area. The calendar uses multi-touch to let you zoom in and out of the daily schedule, and unifies multiple calendars with apps having freedom to add their own events. Swiping makes Google Talk conversations easier to manage. Google's notion of a contact list has also been replaced with People; in a part nod to Windows Phone's People Hub, it focuses more on tracking what people are doing, such as their Google+ updates, rather than just their addresses and contact information.
Photography has been given an improvement as well, but we'll address those features with the cameras themselves. A new Data Usage app may be the most practical app in a time of shrinking bandwidth caps and overage fees. It not only gives a timeline of data use and the ability to set warnings and hard cutoffs at certain bandwidth levels, but lets you track and manage use by the individual app. Discovering that Google+ Instant Uploads are using too much bandwidth or that you might need a lower-bandwidth radio stream is helpful, and here it's generally easy.
Input itself deserves some mention, as Android 4.0 and the Galaxy Nexus may represent the first time a stock Android keyboard has been genuinely desirable. It now has a more accurate and intuitive system for auto-correcting words, and has a smart auto-suggestion system. Again, it still feels like a bit of a catch-up, but it takes Android from often practically demanding a keyboard set like Swype or SwiftKeysX to being very usable on its own. We can fly through long messages with a minimum of mistakes. It will even restore words to their original if you meant to type them that way by backspacing after an auto-correct, although this occasionally backfires and undoes a correction you wanted to keep.
Voice recognition has been given a boost, although here it's an instance where Google has more clearly dropped back. Android 4.0 has an "open mic" system that now lets you dictate a whole message and provides ready-made hot links to correct any mistakes it made. At its root, though, it's still the same basic Voice Actions system we saw as far back as Android 2.2. While useful for basic searches and commands, it's not nearly as clever as Siri on the iPhone 4S. Apple's dictation is generally more accurate and, importantly, understands natural language commands. You can ask Siri "will it rain tomorrow?" and get both a direct answer as well as the following day's detailed forecast; Android 4.0 tends to take a much narrower list of commands and doesn't string commands together very well. Between Apple and Google, Apple has the voice system we're more likely to regularly use.
All told, Android 4.0 is generally a big step forward and feels whole -- something we couldn't entirely say of 2.3, or even 3.2. Our only major jitters for now are over how it might appeal to a casual user. As improved as it is, the Android 4.0 look may seem too science fiction-inspired and put off those who might like the friendlier look and feel of an iPhone. And while fans might claim that the iPhone is too simple, it's often still the easiest to use for those who just want to get to an app with a minimum of fuss.
Side-notes: the barometer, GPS, and NFC
The Galaxy Nexus marks the introduction of an unusual addition to the list of sensors found in a smartphone: a barometer. Rather than help check the weather, though, it's to help improve the accuracy of the GPS by checking the local pressure and verify the altitude.
While potentially helpful, we had a mixed result with GPS on the Galaxy Nexus in practice. It's very fast in finding the position when on Wi-Fi, but away it was either hot or cold, accurate or only generally in the right area. Compare that to the iPhone 4S, which is usually accurate on GPS alone and takes just a few seconds to go from a cold start to on target. You can still depend on the Nexus for directions, but it's the difference between having to guess or being certain.
There's also one feature that we'd have liked to try but couldn't, or NFC (near-field communications). This showed up in the Nexus S last year, but it's now being used for an Android 4.0-specific data sharing feature known as Android Beam. All that's needed is to put two NFC-equipped Android 4.0 devices next to each other when looking at an app, a website, or a YouTube video, and one tap sends the content to the other phone. Apart from making it easy to share the most common content, future apps could use it to send specific data or start up an event like a game.
The problem with Beam is, along with features like Wi-Fi Direct, that it requires everyone involved be on the same page in hardware and software. No other smartphones will have Android 4.0 before sometime into 2012, and NFC isn't a guarantee. Even though Android 2.3 has been available for a year, only the Nexus S and a handful of other phones have NFC built-in. We hope that changes; for now, it's a feature for the sake of having it.
Performance, third-party apps, and Google Music
We tried getting hard benchmarks for the Galaxy Nexus, but it's here that the newness of Android 4.0 starts to work against it. There's a 1.2GHz TI OMAP4460 processor inside, which should make it at least as competitive as Motorola's fall 2011 roster. From synthetic benchmarks, though, you'd think you were either using an older processor or that it couldn't run anything. Quadrant gave a 1,709 score, or about half what the Galaxy S II manages. Nenamark2 is also rather middling at 24FPS, and Qualcomm's Neocore test wouldn't run at all: it just crashed.
Some of this is owed to the choice of graphics. Samsung's hardware uses the PowerVR SGX540, which was fast in 2010 but isn't nearly as fast as the ARM Mali-400 in Samsung's own Galaxy S II, let alone the class-leading, dual-core SGX543MP2 in the iPad 2 or iPhone 4S. It feels like a bit of a mismatch, especially given the 720p screen, although it's better than it sounds.
Subjectively, it feels faster, and that can be credited to Android 4.0. Wider graphics acceleration in the interface prevents some of the common Android flaws, such as choppy transitions; interface elements pop and swipe in very quickly. The infamous Android lag is much less in evidence here. We did notice one slow transition where there was a brief lag in drawing the home screen after leaving the browser, but it was an exception. As a whole, there isn't quite that one-for-one responsiveness like on the iPhone, but it's good enough now to feel fluid without needing the deep customizations that Samsung worked into its Galaxy S II line.
Current games and other visually intensive apps have no problem in spite of the lower visual benchmarks. Dungeon Defenders, Wind-Up Knight, and other 3D games, even if not the maximum test of the Galaxy Nexus, run nicely even after factoring in the higher resolution they're often made to run at. The phone can handle up to 1080p video, although there's not much point to going beyond the screen's own 720p. Regular 2D apps tend to benefit from the hardware acceleration and extra screen size, especially if they're intended to show a large amount of text, such as an e-book reader or a social networking app.
Right now, though, Android 4.0 is a double-edged sword as far as app compatibility and performance. The core interface runs beautifully. Some apps, like Twitter 3.0, actually tend to be sluggish rather than faster. And, as we noticed earlier, other apps just don't like the OS to start with. We mentioned Neocore crashing on startup, but we also had problems with Slacker Radio crashing a few tracks into a playlist. No doubt this is because developers have had just weeks or even days to test real Android 4.0 hardware. It does mean that you'll either have to accept that a few apps may not run properly, if at all, or else allow some weeks after the launch for key updates.
We've addressed the modern Android Market before, so we won't delve into too much detail other than to say it's gone a long way towards app discovery but isn't quite at the level seen in Apple's combination of iTunes on the desktop and the App Store portal. More and more, it now also has to do double-duty as a shortcut to media stores as much as it is apps. We're not so sure that's the right strategy, since it tends to dilute the experience on the home page as apps have to fight for attention with e-books and movies.
That Google now has a complete ecosystem is almost noteworthy on its own. You'll only get the full experience if you live in the US, but it's finally possible on Android to shop for e-books, movies, and music without having to guess at which third-party services might be on tap. Google has lost much of its advantage in cloud sharing now that an iPhone user can expect to buy anywhere and (if they want) have it auto-download elsewhere, but the Galaxy Nexus owner will have the advantage of buying and using their content from any browser.
Google Music, the cloud service, is billed as one of Android's advantages; we're not so sure about that anymore, however. On the surface, it's a free way to store your music and know you'll have access to it as long as you've got a reasonable Internet connection. It works easily enough, and you can 'pin' tracks to a device temporarily if you can't download them permanently from Google's music store or another source.
It's not, however, on the level of iTunes Match. Not having a cost is important; Google's service carries some significant limitations for going that route. You're capped at 20,000 songs no matter how much you're willing to pay. Any songs that Google recognizes but which aren't MP3s are transcoded, hurting the image quality on the way up.
Most importantly of all, the lack of remote song matching means that every track has to be uploaded. Those with significant collections could take days to upload their whole collections at first, and it means an upload every time you get a new album or song. You can only upload from a Mac or Windows PC, too, so you can't buy from Amazon MP3 and put it on Google Music. We'd consider Amazon Cloud Player instead if you need more capacity, and if you're not tied to Android, Apple's iTunes Match. The $25 yearly fee may be worth the saved effort and having much more room for music.
Camera apps and image quality
In the run-up to the Galaxy Nexus, camera lag was becoming enough of a problem that it became the butt of Apple's jokes: VP Phil Schiller suggested that the several seconds in getting to the camera and between shots on the Motorola Droid Bionic were enough for owners to go "get coffee." Although Google wasn't waiting for Schiller to tell it what to do, the stock camera app in Android 4.0 is focused around speed.
Google and Samsung chose a fast five-megapixel camera sensor to help get there, but there's no question that the shot-to-shot time is much faster. Starting up isn't quite as nimble as implied, but because there's now a camera shortcut on the lock screen, you now have a chance at catching that spur-of-the-moment photo before whatever's happened has passed you by.
The app itself is conspicuously better than those from earlier phones with the stock Google camera interface, although it's not quite a full power user's control scheme. You can't adjust ISO sensitivity or prioritize macros, but you can adjust exposure compensation, white balance, and scene presets. Google has importantly rolled in tap-to-focus, so it's finally possible to compose off-center shots without having to point at the subject and tilt away. The layout is simple and works well.
Afterwards, you can now finally apply some basic edits in the Gallery app. Some of the tweaks are clearly for the Instagram and Picplz generation with effects filters. Others are comparatively sophisticated and let you tweak levels, crop, rotate, and remove red eye effects. The features are mostly on par with what's seen in iOS 5, but it's nice to see one more area in Android that doesn't need a third-party customization.
A pair of more creative photo modes are available as well, although they're not especially new. Time lapse lets you set the phone to snap photos at regular intervals and stitch together in minutes what might take hours. Panorama shots use familiar the sweep-to-compose method and can produce some great results, although it requires being slow and that the scene have a minimum of movement if you want to avoid stitching artifacts.
Image quality, though, is something of a letdown. The camera can produce solid shots in well-lit areas, and the raw speed in both shooting and autofocusing can be useful for capturing multiple shots. Quality quickly degenerates in low light, though, and it produces periodic blur and poor dynamic range even during a late fall afternoon; anything darker required the flash to avoid becoming a porridge of a shot. We get the impression that Google was either willing to trade pure image quality for speed or else that the design of the Galaxy Nexus was going to preclude a larger sensor or higher quality optics. The front 1.3-megapixel camera is somewhat more justifiable; it's not high-quality either, but it wasn't expected to be.
We're not terribly convinced a sacrifice was necessary. The Galaxy S II is even thinner and has a noticeably better camera, and the iPhone 4S is very nearly as fast but produces much sharper images (helped by a five-element lens) and uses a back-illuminated sensor that can produce decent shots even in some nighttime scenes. If you're looking to have a phone that stands in as a point-and-shoot camera, the Galaxy Nexus just isn't it where Apple's device very well could be.
Some of that translates to video as well. Not helped by 1080p at 24 frames per second rather than the 30 on other devices, it tends to blur the image when there's any significant panning in the scene, even if image quality while stopped is fine. Audio isn't spectacular as it's recorded in basic mono.
The video recording side of the camera app suite does bring a pair of touches that are handy, although not game-changing. Live Effects (also found in Google Talk chat) are borrowed from Apple's Photo Booth and iChat AV, and let you distort someone's face or insert a custom backdrop. Movie Studio is more interesting: Android finally has a built-in way to edit videos. It's no real competitor to Apple's iMovie or to some of the better third-party apps on either platform, though, as you can only really join together multiple clips and add a soundtrack. There's no transitions, titles, or trimming. We suspect Google will use some of its recent acquisitions to change that, but a delve into Android Market will be needed for more substantial on-phone editing.
Video edited in Movie Studio; backing song is "Meteorites" by London Elektricity (iTunes)
Call quality, data speeds, and battery life
Voice, which given the sheer focus on data feels almost incidental to the phone, is generally good. Calls are loud and easy enough to understand, although they're not as distinctly clear as they are on the Droid RAZR. The curvature and size of the phone help by putting the earpiece and microphone closer to where they ought to be. Samsung has put in a second microphone dedicated just to noise cancellation, so your recipient tends not to hear the city street outside.
Data reception depends heavily on which version of the phone you have. Our tester was the HSPA+ version, which theoretically peaks at 21Mbps downstream. We generally got the same signal strength as we did on the iPhone, and surprisingly, also the same data speeds. In spite of the iPhone 4S having 'just' a 14.4Mbps link, the iPhone was actually slightly faster in real tests at 5.8Mbps down, 1.2Mbps up to 5.5 down and 1Mbps up on the Galaxy Nexus. The Galaxy S II was faster downstream at 7.5Mbps, so we suspect it's either particulars of the design slowing the Nexus down or else the network load at the time.
The LTE edition on Verizon had yet to ship as of this writing, but it's one you'll likely want in the US. Verizon estimates real speeds of 5-12Mbps down and 2-5Mbps up, which we'd expect to carry over, although those who live either close to the cell tower or in a lightly used 4G area could easily get more. We've seen real tests getting 20Mbps or even 40Mbps down, at which point you're competing with a good landline connection.
Where Samsung has managed a rare feat is the battery. Having a Super AMOLED screen means no backlight needed, and this in turn leads to a very energy-efficient device. In a day of heavy use that included significant amounts of downloading, photos, video, and the occasional call, we got about 15 hours. It's possible to kill the battery faster -- in one session that almost exclusively involved editing and uploading both photos and videos over 3G, we dropped it down to five hours -- but the Galaxy Nexus in HSPA+ form doesn't suffer from that characteristic power-thirstiness of Android, even with that massive display. More moderate use should get at least a few hours extra; we'll see how LTE impacts longevity, although it's also getting a slightly larger lithium-ion pack.
It used to be that the Nexus phones were almost an afterthought in the smartphone world. As much as the Nexus One was beloved by hardcore smartphone fans, it sold poorly and was quickly overshadowed by the HTC Desire that it spawned just weeks later. The Nexus S fared much better, but it was always the cognoscenti's phone, the one you got when you were willing to give up a dual-core processor and a larger screen for the sake of the 'pure' Android experience.
The Galaxy Nexus changes that. While it may be eclipsed in a few months by faster dual-core or quad-core phones, there's no doubt that it's a bleeding-edge phone and a well-designed one at that. We'd have no hesitation recommending it over the Droid RAZR, Raider, Rezound, Vivid, and in some cases Galaxy S II variants. Witness the frenzy over the Galaxy Nexus' launch date on Verizon. Android fans have been genuinely excited.
More importantly, it's coming just as something of a backlash is occurring against customized versions of Android. Google tried to get an anti-fragmentation promise from its hardware partners, but we've seen discontent among those who realized that even buying a Rezound in November might force a wait until spring thaw before a software upgrade is ready. The Galaxy Nexus may have an unintended monopoly on Android 4.0 for the near future, and while app compatibility so far rough around the edges, there's no doubt that OS updates will come as soon as Google can post them. Essentially, going to stock Android gives more of the iPhone user's streamlined experience without all the Apple policies that make some Android fans bristle.
Does it wrest the title of best smartphone from the iPhone 4S or Galaxy S II, depending on who you ask? Not quite. The sub-par camera and the tighter limitations on media sync for the Galaxy Nexus both make it less of a media powerhouse than the iPhone; it's nice to have one device that can be a good camera, a media player, and a smartphone all in one. Likewise, the Galaxy S II's Exynos chip is more powerful for gaming and certain interface elements, although we'd trade the slight performance edge for timely updates any day.
What you do get, though, is the first officially blessed Android phone that feels like it has a complete package. We found multiple areas where Google had filled in a feature gap that in the past often led to a less than ideal customization job from a hardware partner. The interface is overall more cohesive, responsive, and simply nice to use. Having it all mated to a gigantic phone with a great screen provides a good canvas.
The price is even right. In the US, an LTE Galaxy Nexus should carry a stiff $300 contract price, which while high is on par with other LTE phones and arguably worth it given how much faster web browsing is in software. Canadians have to deal with three-year contracts, but at $160 on those terms on Bell, Virgin Mobile, and eventually Rogers, the Nexus is no different than buying a similar iPhone 4S or most Android hardware. It only gets expensive if you want an unlocked phone, which for now is only available through an expensive European import.
Accordingly, then, it really comes down to your platform allegiances. In our view, the Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone as of late 2011 because it mates excellent hardware with the real potential that Android promises: it's your phone, not the carrier's or the hardware maker's. It's the first pure phone that could appeal to a casual user. We don't see Apple executives having sleepless nights, but if there was any Android phone that could make an iPhone owner consider a switch, the Galaxy Nexus would have to be the one.