From the time it was announced, I was relatively the sure the Samsung Galaxy Nexus would be my next phone. The Nexus lines of phones are developed by Google with a manufacturing partner and are used to introduce each major revision of Android, in this case version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is one of the most significant changes the OS has gone through. As a result separating a review of the phone from the new software is almost impossible, so for the most part I won’t try.
Most immediately striking is the screen, an incredible 4.65″ 720p high definition display. Despite the size, the phone’s slim, curved build means it doesn’t feel large or unwieldy as I had feared. Many reviewers have criticised the plastic housing, but it keeps the handset lightweight and the textured back provides easy grip. The build quality is high and the moment the screen lights up, the handset feels anything but cheap.
The biggest UI change is that the front now boasts zero buttons, not even the capacitive ones that have become standard on most Android models. Instead soft keys are built into the OS, with the advantage that they can rotate based on orientation and disappear entirely for full screen video. The deep blacks of the Super AMOLED display is perfect for this, so you would be forgiven for mistaking them for old-style capacitive buttons. It’s no secret that I am proponent of buttons for their tactile ease of use without looking at the handset, but there is no denying the beauty of the flawless obsidian slab when the phone is off. The only thing I really miss from my HTC Desire is the optical trackpad for swiftly relocating a text entry cursor by a space or two.
Android has undergone a major visual overhaul that streamlines the UI while making the experience more consistent throughout, which will hopefully influence third party apps. The larger screen means more elements in the notification tray can be visual, with incoming texts and emails identified by sender photos. Multitasking is brought to the fore, with a dedicated app switching button (items can be dismissed from the list with a simple swipe). Elsewhere, such as the new People app, design cues have been taken from Windows Phone 7 with swipe-able panels. All the slick new visuals are smooth and responsive thanks to the dual core processor under the hood.
The only real negative is for those who use their phone as a primary camera. While Samsung’s own Galaxy SII has arguably the best mobile camera on the market to date, the Nexus camera does not stack up against its siblings. Its speed is certainly impressive, now boasting zero shutter lag, but the quality of the 5MP sensor is average. For my part I rarely use the camera on a phone so this one drawback did little to dissuade me.
Extra features? The lack of removable storage may ruffle some feathers but the 16GB included (with a 32GB model on its way) should suffice for most, though it does mean you may not be able to carry around your entire music library. NFC is present even though mobile payments have yet to take off in a meaningful way. Finally, face unlock is Android’s “Siri” — a feature that is great in marketing ads but a total gimmick when it comes to real world use (broadly it works but it’s likely to be slower, fails in dim light and can be duped by photographs). After a week’s use, battery life is as one would expect from any top-end smartphone: you’ll eke out a day but don’t expect more, and if you hammer it with video playback on a commute you may find yourself needing to charge up at work.
The Galaxy Nexus is without a doubt the best Android phone to date and, in all honesty, the best phone I have ever tried. There is, of course, not one ideal phone for everyone. Those who rely on their phone’s camera or need extra space for their music may be better served by the Galaxy S II, which will see an Ice Cream Sandwich update in due course. For those who are seriously into touchscreen gaming on the go, the growing Android library of games still lags behind the iPhone at present. For everyone else, I cannot recommend new Nexus, with its unrivalled combination of beauty and features, highly enough.