I've had the Galaxy Nexus for a week now. These are my thoughts.
I’ve been using my Galaxy Nexus for a few days now, time to give an opinion about the device. For the people that don’t know; it’s the latest Nexus device, meaning that updates to Android are handled by Google themselves. The version of Android it runs is how Google has designed it, as such there are no modifications in the software done by the likes of HTC, Samsung etc. (All major mobile handset manufacturers make these modifications, so Android can look / behave radically different on different devices). The device has a dual-core 1.2Ghz processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of on-board memory, a 4.65 inch curved(!) HD Super AMOLED 720p display and can be bought as of last Thursday for £529 at Phones4U in the UK.
I’ve been into mobile technology for years. I’ve had different i-mode phones (http://goo.gl/7tuOK), a Nokia 7710 smartphone (http://goo.gl/2ihUX), an iPhone, and the list goes on. I bought the first Nexus phone, the Nexus One, as soon as it came out, and despite the Android experience being pretty rough it was showing some strong potential. By the looks of it Apple only picks, let’s say, 5 features for their phones, polish them really well, take them endlessly through user testing, and then releases them. I have the impression that Google does it the other way around - they release their phones with 30 rough features, and they polish them over time. But that was two years ago. Both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have been around for a few years (Android was purchased by Google in 2005, and iOS was first unveiled in 2007) and right now I would say that both operating systems are quite on par when it comes to stability, speed, the quality of the user interface and the overall user experience.
There are a few things that I don’t like about the phone. In the olden days of Android there was no multi-touch. Zooming in and out of Google Maps, websites etc was done through on-screen buttons which remained in Android until Honeycomb (Android 3.0) came out. Honeycomb was made for tablets, which you usually hold in two hands, so there it wasn’t really noticeable. But in Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), the brand new version of Android that runs on the Galaxy Nexus, these buttons have also disappeared. Again, on a tablet this isn’t really a problem, but on a phone which you usually hold in one hand, I think it is. This is probably subjective (hey, thoughts on something are always subjective, aren’t they?) but I find it annoying that certain standard interactions demand two fingers. Which leads me to something else: the size of the screen. My friends usually freak out a bit when they hear that the screen is 4.65 inch in size. The screen takes up a considerable amount of space on the phone’s surface though, and generally speaking the phone is only a little bit bigger than the Samsung Galaxy S II. But again, it’s sometimes hard to control the phone with just one hand. That said, I have the impression that the majority of non-tech people always use their smartphone with both hands - and I will probably get used to it, but during these early days I find it a bit frustrating.
Another thing I noticed is that the gyros don’t work properly when the phone is held upside down. A use case: one of the first things I do when I wake up is checking my phone. This means that I’m lying in bed and I hold the phone above my head with the screen facing downward. Whenever I read websites that are best viewed when tilting the phone the gyros don’t seem to pick it up. On all my previous phones this worked perfectly fine so initially I was worried that the gyros didn’t work properly at all. But I found out that, whilst holding the phone in a ‘normal’ position, they worked fine. I hope this gets fixed in a software update at some point. And there are a few other things that definitely need a software update. As of yet Adobe Flash is not available on Ice Cream Sandwich, which I think is ridiculous. This is not Google’s fault, it’s software owned by Adobe after all, but I can imagine that for some people this is a deal breaker since you’re missing a significant plug-in that is still used by many websites. (update: Adobe has now confirmed that Flash will be made compatible with Ice Cream Sandwich before the end of this year) Another part of the phone that can be a deal breaker is the fact that there is no memory card slot. The phone is only available with 16GB of on-board memory. There is a 32GB version coming but it will only be released in the US and that will be for LTE networks only, so that wouldn’t work in the UK. Sure, Google is great when it comes to cloud storage and the phone is fully prepared to make good use of that, but not everyone is ready to make that step.
A lot of people have asked me about the battery life of the Galaxy Nexus. For reference, the battery in the Nexus S is 1500mAh and the iPhone 4S has a 1432mAh battery. The Galaxy Nexus has a massive 1850mAh battery though, and it’s noticeable. Despite the screen being significantly larger in size the phone seems to actually last me a little bit longer than my Nexus S. For me this equates to a full day of regular usage, but I have to mention that I’m a relatively heavy user. Which brings me back to the cloud-sync story - I had a ton of apps on my previous phone (the Nexus S) and as soon as switched on the Galaxy Nexus and entered my Google log-in details it instantly synced back everything from the cloud. I didn’t have to connect it to another computer or had to select vague options, it just worked which is great. And Ice Cream Sandwich in general brings so many other new great things to phones. Despite it being a bit rough on the edges I genuinely loved the Gingerbread version of Android. But Ice Cream Sandwich is a whole different beast. It’s insanely fast, really polished and the first version of Android of which I would say that it is actually better than iOS. There’s a reason why so many people jailbreak their iPhone: they want more functionality and more customizability. Android has always had this but it required a bit of experimentation, which probably scared away the more casual user. In Ice Cream Sandwich all of the functionality and customizability is still there, but it’s brought to the user in such a friendly way that it instantly makes it one of the key features that the competition is missing.
I don’t know what it is with Ice Cream Sandwich, it almost feels like the whole operating system has been re-built from the ground up, but I know this isn’t the case. All the menus look really slick featuring nice transitions, and everything you do on the phone for the first time gets accompanied with a friendly explanation on how it works. I would give this phone to, let’s say, my mum (who called me last week to ask what a browser was) and I would know that she easily would figure out how to use it - it really is that good. And fast. I did a direct comparison with the iPhone 4S and there are some interesting things that Google has done when it comes to gestures and other slide interactions. Previously Android always struggled a bit with this, since there was a slight lag. These interactions on Android are now hardware accelerated however, but they still are different in speed when compared to how they work on the iPhone. I might be wrong on the motivations behind it, but this is how I think it works: on the iPhone Apple has put much care in making your finger having a direct 1:1 interaction with the screen, in order to make it feel like you’re moving something physical. So when you move your finger you will notice that the screen moves at exactly the same speed. In Ice Cream Sandwich this isn’t the case, sometimes the screen goes either faster or slower than your finger moves. This isn’t a hardware limitation, but actually just a different implementation. When I’m in the ‘app drawer’ that gives me an overview of all the apps it detects how fast I move my finger and guesses what I want to do. If I move it fast it will scroll through the apps very rapidly, if I move it slowly the app drawer actually moves slightly slower than my finger. For someone who could let old Nokia phones crash by going through menus too fast this is a very welcome implementation, but I can image that Android converts coming from iPhones are a bit puzzled by this at first. I also wonder what new Ice Cream Sandwich users will think of the face-unlock feature.
When I heard about the face-unlock feature I was having a casual chat with some of the computer vision programmers in Sony and the first thing they said was that they wondered how easily the system could be cheated by just using a photo of the phone’s owner. Now once the phone is out it has become quite widespread knowledge that it’s true that the phone can be easily tricked with a photo. When you activate the setting on the phone it gives you a message saying that it’s not a proper secure method so I don’t think this is as big of a problem as some people make it out to be. The phone still allows users to unlock the phone by either entering a pin code, a password, or a swipe gesture - so choose that if you’re worried about the security of your phone. Face-unlock is just an additional option and far from the only method of securing your phone. It’s a fun gimmick, and that’s it.
The face recognition technology in Ice Cream Sandwich also makes its way into the camera app. There is an iPhone app called FatBooth which for quite some time was ridiculously popular amongst my friends. It allows you to take a photo of someone and to ‘make them fat’. The camera app in Ice Cream Sandwhich roughly does the same thing, but all in real-time whilst you’re recording a video. There’s a whole series of fun and hilarious effects; large eyes, small eyes, big mouth etc, and I think these effects appeal far more to the average user than all the efforts that are being done in trying to recreate DSLR cameras on mobile phones. Additionally, the photos and videos look absolutely stunning on the 720p screen. It really is super sharp. Samsung's mobile screens are known to be among the best out there and it shows. The screen is very similar to another Samsung phone, the Galaxy S II, but because the Galaxy Nexus has a much higher pixel density (316ppi vs 218ppi) I would give preference to the Nexus.
All of these features make the phone so much more accessible to a wider audience, but let’s not forget that the Galaxy Nexus is also intended to be the de facto Android developer phone. With Google controlling updates for Ice Cream Sandwich you always know that the phone will have the latest version running, but this time some additional features have made its way into the OS. I’m not sure if this will make its way into other phones that will run modified versions of Ice Cream Sandwich, but for developers it’s nice to know that you can easily enable screen overlays that show CPU usage or visual feedback for touches. Additionally you can manually control the speed of window animations, enforce GPU rendering and there are a ton of other options available.
All in all I would say that this is a substantial leap over any other Android phone that was created before the Galaxy Nexus. Whilst I think that future Nexus phones all should come with a Micro-SD slot Google at least could make it easier for people by clarifying how they can easily sync their photos, videos and music with the cloud. This should be an important part in the overall Android communication, but right now it’s lacking. I’m also not entirely sure if Google (and Samsung) really see the Nexus as a consumer phone, but they really need to get out there and build a strong brand identity for Android. Which is hard, with all the manufacturers redesigning Android as how they see fit, but it’s important if they want to keep on expanding their market share. There are many people that will never consider leaving the iPhone, and Windows Phone 7 is a worthy competitor that shouldn’t be underestimated.
I also think it would be wise for Google to do something about the Android Market. There are almost 600,000 apps on the Market, and there’s a good team that looks at curating and promoting quality content. But many people that have never touched the Android Market still think it’s the same as two years ago - where there were hardly any apps and were it still was difficult to find the best ones.
The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone so far, and I would easily recommend it to any user. Android has lost its ‘this OS is only for tech geeks’ behaviour and in the end everyone benefits from that. If you want to get this phone I think the only real competition you have is the Galaxy S II and the iPhone 4S. The Galaxy S II is very similar to the Galaxy Nexus when it comes to specs, but the fact that the Nexus runs a ‘pure Google’ version of Android and will always have the latest version of the OS can play a large role in the decision on what to buy. On the other hand, the Galaxy S II is £100 cheaper than the Galaxy Nexus. The iPhone 4S is a whole different beast - it’s an amazing phone but I consider the OS to be less advanced (with the exception of Siri). iPhones are also more expensive but I do think they give a much better experience when properly integrated with other Apple devices (such as a MacBook). If you are a typical user of Google services such as Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail etc then you will have an amazing and vastly superior experience with the Galaxy Nexus though.
Note: I originally wrote this here on Google+ but considering that so many people are eager about every bit of information about the Galaxy Nexus I thought I would copy/paste my story here as well.