Samsung may have been the one to launch and produce it, but the Galaxy Nexus is all about Google and its latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich. This 4.65-inch smartphone is loaded with a fundamentally new operating system, whether you've been using the Gingerbread or Honeycomb builds previously, and emphasizes lateral swipes, resizable UI elements / widgets, and high-def images wherever possible. We've just returned from our first play with it and have a thorough preview of both the hardware and software waiting for you after the break. Hands-on photos and video can also be found there.
Let's start by allaying your biggest concern: in spite of having a 4.65-inch screen, the Galaxy Nexus doesn't feel too big to be a smartphone. A good chunk of its screen size expansion actually treads into the area vacated by the row of capacitive keys that were previously standard issue on Android handsets, the result of which is that it isn't that much larger than the original, 4.3-inch, Galaxy S II. It'd probably be right to characterize the Galaxy Nexus as the natural outcome of splicing the Nexus S with the GSII. It has the same concave screen curve as the previous Android flagship smartphone, while its rear is very much inspired by the Galaxy S II, including the feather-light plastic back cover and gentle protrusion in the lower half.
Where the new Nexus differs from its predecessors is in its teardrop-like profile, starting off fantastically thin at the top and gently, smoothly expanding to a (relatively) rotund bottom. It lends the phone a very sophisticated look and also makes it easy to handle and operate. In terms of weight, the Galaxy Nexus surprises by being quite a bit lighter than one might expect from just looking at it. This is likely down to the all-plastic external construction -- which sadly didn't impress us too much -- though Samsung has installed a metallic inner frame to ensure the phone's frame is rigid enough.
The Galaxy Nexus is the first so-called HD phone we've seen yet, touting a 1280 x 720 resolution, and we've got to say that the experience of using such a device is well worth the price of admission. The sheer amount of stuff you can fit on the screen at one time is terrific and the high resolution finally gives us a large-screened smartphone that truly expands the onscreen real estate. Google's continued push toward more expandable and resizable widgets will really pay off as more phones move to this crazy new res. On top of that, the Super AMOLED panel is what you've come to expect -- incredibly bright with extremely vibrant colors.
Software / Ice Cream Sandwich
Google's bag of new tricks in Ice Cream Sandwich is seemingly bottomless. Unlocking the phone is done through automatic face recognition via the front-facing camera. You just have to face the Galaxy Nexus, hold still for a moment, and the phone unlocks itself right into the homescreen. Once there, you'll find three software menu keys -- Back, Home, and Recent Apps, a trifecta that should be familiar to Honeycomb users -- adorning the bottom of the large display and replacing the formerly necessary physical or capacitive touch buttons. The Recent Apps link brings up a visual multitasking overview, which is very similar to the design in Honeycomb and shows a vertically scrollable list of the latest applications you've opened. They're all represented by a screen grab of the last activity you had in each app and can be dismissed by being swiped out of the way. Importantly, that action doesn't shut down the app, just removes it from the list, turning the Recent Apps into a sort of launcher rather an than actual task manager. The reason for this decision, Google tells us, is that the company believes it knows how to manage apps' resource usage and doesn't want you to ever worry about "killing" them. Brave words.
Update: Google misinformed us -- swiping away an app does more than just remove it from the list. It turns out it is killing some background processes, etc.
Above the pervasive three buttons is a five-icon launcher row. Your app drawer's in the middle, as is to be expected, and it's surrounded by the most commonly used applications, like the phone dialer, messaging app, and browser. The notifications screen has seen a few nips and tucks as well, with the ability to dismiss alerts by swiping them away. Importantly, Google is saying that it's moving away from the use of the long press in Ice Cream Sandwich, it's all about swiping from here on out.
The Gmail and client have also been overhauled, both visually and functionally. You can now swipe to the side to move between different conversations. That allows you to start a mail-reading session by opening the latest unread message and then progress through the rest by swiping right, never returning to the inbox overview. It works well and struck us as a very neat addition. Another area where the side-swipes are prominent is in the browser, which features a tab management tool not too dissimilar to the Recent Apps menu. It too allows you to dispatch unwanted items by pushing them off to the side and into some digital abyss. Syncing of your Chrome bookmarks is now also built in, so if you're a loyal Google products user, there'll be almost no setup required when picking up an Ice Cream Sandwich phone -- just about everything you care to keep synced is now indeed being maintained by the Google cloud.
The new People application pulls in high-resolution images of your contacts from Google+ (provided they're on it, of course) and populates their profiles and your in-call background with them. Just another subtle little way in which Google is exploiting its extremely wide ecosystem. Also new when receiving calls is the option to respond with a pre-canned text message -- an option that Samsung and LG have built into their latest Android skins -- you can swipe to the sides to choose whether to take or reject the call or swipe up to bring a list of responses explaining your indisposition.
The camera app comes with a promise of zero shutter lag and indeed we saw a Google rep bash away at the capture button with practically no delay between shots. They weren't all in focus and the time it takes you to load up the application will of course depend on the underlying hardware, but it was an impressive demo and a sign that Google is taking the speed of photography on Android devices seriously. We've added a gallery of shots taken with the 5-megapixel camera to the bottom of the post -- as you can see, the still shots aren't all that impressive, but the panorama shot is pretty awesome.
As to overall performance, we saw a good deal of stutter in the Galaxy Nexus before us. Taps were not always recognized and there were occasional delays in performing an instruction, though in Google's defense, it was a phone fully loaded with running tasks and the software is being continually improved and optimized (i.e. it's not yet fully baked). That having been said, it unfortunately remains the case that Android isn't as swift and responsive as iOS or Windows Phone (or even MeeGo Harmattan on the N9). Or at least it wasn't on the demo phone we got a look at. The subtle, pervasive lag that has characterized the Android UI since its inception is still there, which is not a heartening thing to hear when you're talking about a super-powered dual-core device like the Galaxy Nexus.
Note: Our initial performance observations were focused on touch response and not system-wide performance, and were based on a version of the phone we saw with an earlier build of the software. The demo units during the show were definitely smoother in operation. All of them featured an early build of Ice Cream Sandwich, however, so we'll make our final calls on the phone once we have a review unit in hand.
We'll have a whole lot more on the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. For now, feast your eyes on the gallery below.
Galaxy Nexus sample shots
Joanna Stern contributed to this hands-on report.