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Samsung Galaxy Nexus

The good: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus marries the power of the Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS with the speed of Verizon’s LTE network. The phone’s beautiful screen and internal performance are top-notch.

The bad: The Galaxy Nexus lacks a slot for expandable memory, and the 5-megapixel camera isn’t Samsung’s best. There’s no support for Google Wallet, and several Ice Cream Sandwich features take some getting used to.

The bottom line: As the first U.S. phone with Ice Cream Sandwich, Verizon’s Samsung Galaxy Nexus takes a coveted, solitary step forward. However, once other premium handsets receive the updated Android OS, the Galaxy Nexus will lose some of its competitive edge.

Editors’ note: We recently reviewed the unlocked version of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus intended for European markets. Due to the phones’ similar build and components, applicable portions of that review will also be used in this Verizon-specific evaluation.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

When Samsung announced the Samsung Galaxy S II line for every major carrier except Verizon, we knew something was up. That something is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Verizon’s ace-in-the-hole 4G LTE smartphone, and the first of its kind in the U.S. to introduce Google’s Android 4.0 operating system, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich.

In the weeks since reviewing the unlocked version of the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich (henceforth known as ICS), we’ve come to really enjoy both the handset and the OS, and the two of them together.

The Verizon version has erased at least two complaints–its Galaxy Nexus is substantially weightier than the unlocked GSM version and it doubles the internal storage capacity. Yet, no phone is perfect, and the Galaxy Nexus has its flaws. We’ll get to those later, but they include camera performance that was less than Samsung is capable of delivering, no expandable memory, a disjointed OS that requires some study, and no support for Google Wallet.

On the plus side, LTE speeds are impressive. When you add up the screen, the exciting (but still not totally perfect) ICS operating system, the nice in-hand feel, and the fair cameras, you have one compelling phone that vies with the likes of the Motorola Droid Razr and the HTC Rezound, Verizon’s other two killer phones of the season, though you should also consider the drawbacks.

What’s different
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a few notable differences on Verizon. First, it runs on the network’s 4G LTE network. Second, it’s thicker: 0.37 inch versus 0.35 inch thick for the unlocked version. (The LTE chip accounts for the extra girth.) It’s also a heavier 5 ounces versus 4.76, which felt especially light for the phone’s size. It still isn’t an astoundingly hefty device, but I appreciate the more solid build. Fourth, it has 32GB of internal storage versus 16GB. The battery is also larger, 1,850mAh versus 1,750mAh for the unlocked version. Finally, there are a few Verizon applications preinstalled, and no support for Google Wallet, one of Google’s main NFC scores.

Design
A few years ago, we used to joke that Nokia kept building the same phone design while slightly tweaking it for each subsequent model. These days, however, we’re more likely to apply that jest to Samsung. Ever since the company started making Galaxy devices last year, many of them have looked a lot alike. Indeed, the Galaxy Nexus has much in common with its predecessors, especially last year’s Nexus S (a Galaxy device if not by name).

You’ll see the same dark color, tapered edges, and “contour” shape that’s supposed to follow the curve of your head. The handset is large (5.33 inches long by 2.67 inches wide) so it may be too much for some users to handle. Samsung, however, squeezed off every inch it could to make it as thin as possible (0.37 inch for this LTE version).

 

The Galaxy Nexus fits comfortably in the hand (as long as you have large paws), but it feels too fragile.

It’s eye-catching, yes, but like other Samsung phones before it, the Galaxy Nexus also looks and feels like it’s just on the wrong side of fragility. Luckily, the thicker Verizon version is also stouter, weighing 5.1 ounces, unlike its trimmer unlocked cousin at 4.76 ounces. Here again we fear that we have to be extra careful not to drop it even once on a hard surface. A case is an option, but that would fatten up the phone. The “hyperskin” material on the back cover adds some texture, but it’s not quite the Kevlar material that’s on the Motorola Droid Razr.

On the right side you’ll find a power control/lock button and three metal contacts that will be used for a future dock accessory. Over on the left side is the volume rocker and on the bottom end are the Micro-USB charge/syncing port and the 3.5mm headset jack. We’d prefer if the jack were in a different place. The camera lens and flash sit on the top end of the back cover.

Display and interface
The display measures 4.65 inches, though on the home screen only 4 inches of that space is usable given the programmable shortcut tray that sits at the bottom (the tray also shows up on some, but not all, internal screens). Even with that quirk, the display is plenty big for a smartphone, but not quite big enough for ICS. We’ll explain in the ICS section.

With a 1,280×720-pixel Super AMOLED resolution, the HD display is wonderfully bright and vivid with eye-popping colors. Everything looks great, from graphics to photos to menu icons, and you can customize the five home screens with the Google Search bar, menu icons, and widgets. ICS brings new folders and new widgets, but we’ll get to those later. The main menu shows the traditional icons, and internal menus have the familiar list structure. This is a clean, elegant design that especially shines in the texting and e-mail apps, where it’s dead simple to append an attachment, audio, video, and photos. Bravo, Google.

Like other Nexus devices, the Galaxy Nexus has a pure Android interface that isn’t hidden by a manufacturer or carrier skin. It’s great for users and developers alike as it lets Android’s true glory shine through. Developers also will love the dedicated “Developer options” in the main menu, which offers access to such features as showing CPU usage, setting a background process limit, and activating a visual feedback for the touch screen. Truly, personalization options like these set Android apart.

Though we were hoping that it would be different, the Galaxy Nexus still has that slight laggy effect that we’ve seen on other Android phones. Indeed, you’ll notice it here when scrolling through lists. It is better than we’ve seen on previous models, so it doesn’t ruin the touch interface, but you do notice the difference when switching from an iOS or Windows Phone 7 device. You can change the brightness, backlight time, and font size. The display also has an accelerometer, which you can turn off, a proximity sensor, and a light sensor.

At the very bottom sit three touch controls for moving backward through a menu or feature, returning to the Home screen, and opening your list of recently viewed screens. Yes, you lose the dedicated search button that’s on earlier Android phones, but that’s a trait that the Galaxy Nexus inherited from Honeycomb (the search field is available in almost every native app and home screen). And as in Honeycomb, these ICS controls will fade in some apps to three points of light, until you tap them again. What’s more, the controls rotate 90 degrees when you reorient the phone.

Touch this new navigation button to see the apps you recently opened.

Otherwise there are no physical controls on the front of the phone. Yet, you’ll notice a glowing indicator light when you have a call and receive messages, e-mail, or notifications. Besides it being rather soothing, we’re just glad it’s there since that was a big omission on the Nexus S.

The virtual keyboard takes up the whole width of the display, whether you’re using it in portrait or landscape mode. The primary screen has three rows of alphabetic keys with main punctuation just above. On the bottom row there’s a huge spacebar smack in the center with a voice-activation key just to the left (when entering an e-mail address an “@” key takes its place). You’ll need to click through to the additional keyboard for more punctuation and numbers, but the keyboard is spacious and easy to use. Unfortunately, it does not support Swype. The dial pad shows huge numbers, but tiny text.

Basic features
The phone book size is limited by the available memory. Each entry holds multiple fields for phone numbers, as well as e-mail and street addresses, a company name and title, an instant-messaging handle, a birthday, a nickname, a URL, and notes. You can pair contacts with a photo and organize them into groups. Unfortunately, pairing individual contacts with one of the 25 polyphonic ringtones is another nonobvious feature. You’ll have to open the person’s profile “card,” then tap into the Menu to set the ringtone or send all that person’s calls to voice mail.

Of course, the Galaxy Nexus has all of the other essentials you’d expect from a smartphone, like text and multimedia messaging, e-mail syncing (both Gmail and not), calendar syncing (both Google and not), a calculator, an alarm clock, and a news and weather widget. Also onboard are Bluetooth 2.0 (with A2DP), Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n), and a download and file manager. We’re not pleased, however, that even though ICS supports USB mass storage, the Galaxy Nexus does not. However, it does let you transfer images and connect as a media device. The speaker-independent voice commands let you do just about anything using only your voice. They work fine as long as you speak clearly and use the phone in a place without a lot of background noise.

Google features and apps
Google fans have plenty of Google apps and services to use and explore. The list is no different from the handset’s Nexus ancestors, but they’re worth repeating: Google Talk, YouTube, Google Search (with voice), Google Latitude, Google Places, Google+, Google Maps with Navigation, and Google Messenger.

Maps also gets a little more 3D treatment with ICS. Zoom in far enough (with two fingers) and you’ll see the buildings start to get some 3D shape. Glide two fingers up and down the screen to tilt the screen for a better view.

The headset jack and Micro-USB port sit on the phone’s bottom end.

GPS features performed well, though we were a little wary given the GPS issues that have plagued previous Samsung Galaxy devices. On the first try it located us about a block away from CNET’s offices, which is normal. On the second try, however, it pinpointed our location precisely. For the best experience, you should activate Wi-Fi and the GPS location feature in the Settings menu. The Galaxy Nexus has a gyroscope and a compass and a big leg up over the iPhone: it supports real-time turn-by-turn voice directions out of the box. The built-in barometer could be partially to thank for that, as its purpose on the Galaxy Nexus is to assist with GPS locking.

With a pure Google experience, you have the freedom to use whichever apps you want through the Android Market. Almost. Verizon adds a few apps of its own, including a backup assistant and MyVerizon. While you can disable these to make the icons disappear, you won’t actually be able to uninstall the apps. Just keep in mind that the Verizon’s Galaxy Nexus has 32GB. Yes, that’s a lot, but we say “just” because the Galaxy Nexus does not have an external memory card slot.

Camera, video, and music
The main camera has a 5-megapixel resolution, but you also can shoot in 3 megapixels, 1.3 megapixels, QVGA, and VGA. There’s also a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for photos and video calls.

The shooters come with a fair, but not overwhelming set of editing options you can use while taking the photo (more options are available in the photo gallery). You’ll find a digital zoom, face detection, location tagging, four white-balance choices, seven exposure settings, and four “scene” modes (action, night, sunset, and party). The flash on the rear side is powerful to a fault. In dim environments it can wash out the lighter colors. You can set the flash to auto, keep it always on, or turn it off completely.

ICS brings a host of camera improvements, which we’ll discuss in more detail below. We’ll say here, though, that the lack of shutter lag is remarkable. In fact, when took the first photo, we didn’t realize that the shutter had closed. Believe us when we say it’s really that quick. Nice work, Google.

We’re glad to see Google investing in photo-editing tools.

More interesting and useful in our eyes is the full suite of built-in editing tools in the photo gallery: cropping, red-eye reduction, face glow, straightening, rotating, flipping, and sharpening. There are also effects you can add like warmth, saturation, and sepia tones. In total, there are 16 color and style effects, and another four options for adjusting lighting. Google could have easily stopped short and continued to let the manufacturers add their own filters, but onboard editing makes the Android OS that much stronger on its own.

The camcorder shoots clips in three resolutions: 1080p HD, 720p HD, and 480p. You can adjust the white balance, you can use the flash as a recording light, and ICS added zooming while recording and several time-lapse intervals, from 1.5 seconds up to 10 seconds. Exactly how much you can record will depend on the available memory.

If you really want to get creative, the camcorder has several effects that will add some zaniness to your videos. Some of the options are nothing but fun–the sunset, disco, and space effects will add a background to your clips–but others are weird and pretty freaky. For example, a “big nose” effect will give your subject an enormous honker, “big mouth” will do the same for the smackers, and “big eyes” will give your friend vaguely disturbing bug eyes straight out of a Lady Gaga video. Here’s one great hidden feature: you can tap the screen while recording a video to capture a still shot.

Photo quality on the Galaxy Nexus was mixed. Our standard studio shot showed muted colors.

Photo quality was mostly satisfying, but color accuracy was uneven. In some shots the brighter hues were faded, while in other pictures, we had too much saturation. There was also some questionable focusing from time to time. You can see some comparison shots with the iPhone 4S, Samsung Skyrocket, and HTC Vivid.

Videos were a mixed bag. HD clips were crisp and bright, though quick motions were blurry. Lower-res clips are usable in a pinch, but nothing appropriate for your wedding. The Galaxy Nexus also has an integrated Movie Studio app for creating your own video projects.

When you’re not using the camera, the Galaxy Nexus has a Slacker radio app and a music player (MP3 and AAC files) that’s linked in with the new Google Music. Features aren’t extensive, but it’s easy to use, and loading music on the phone is a seamless process, either wirelessly or using a USB cable. We’ll explore Google Music in a future post.

We love the new video rental store that operates through the Android Market. We haven’t plowed through the store completely, but the selection appears to be broad and the prices ($3.99 for a standard title and $4.99 for HD) are fair. In any case, an easy way to get videos is something Android has badly needed for a long time. Google Books also gives you access to plenty of titles.

Browser
The basic shell of the Web browser is the same, though ICS adds “Request desktop site,” which opens the full version of a Web site and syncs with your bookmarks. You also can save Web pages offline, view your browsing history, share a page, and find text on a page, and use up to 16 tabs. And in true Android fashion, you can change the browser’s settings down to the smallest detail. All of this adds up to make a useful and powerful mobile browser that’s very much like one you’d use on a computer.

Another new feature is an “incognito” mode that allows you to browse pages without them appearing on your history or search bar and without leaving traces like cookies. Third-party apps have done this before, but now Google has baked it right into the browser.

Even with all the new features, the browser user experience doesn’t feel too different. The interface isn’t cluttered or difficult to learn. Both mobile and full versions of Web pages look great. There’s pinch-to-zoom multitouch, you can change the text size, and you can change how far you’d like to zoom when you double-tap.

Ice Cream Sandwich
By all accounts, Ice Cream Sandwich is the Galaxy Nexus’ star attraction. More a full-on revamp than update, an OS bump this deep and broad brings with it a truckload of new goodies that (as we’ve said before) make Android 2.3 Gingerbread look like a stale cookie. However, Google has somehow missed the cherry on top. But more on that later.

Ice Cream Sandwich is so packed with such a laundry list of detailed changes that it’s easy to drown in the minutiae. As a result, we’re going to keep this review focused on the bigger-picture features that are new to ICS, including that crowd-pleasing favorite, Face Unlock. Later, we’ll expand the review after some more time getting to know the OS more fully. As for the rest of the additions and enhancements–of which there are many–we think the pictures in the screenshots gallery will be worth several thousand words.

New look and feel: Say goodbye to the Android you thought you knew. Google has all but transformed the visuals, leaving almost no screen as it was before. Instead, it blends many Android Honeycomb tablet sensibilities–the navigation buttons, tabs for recent apps, darker colors, and a more assertive look–with reworked Android flair.

The Galaxy Nexus has a thin profile and a contour design that’s slightly curved. On the left side, the power control rests above three metal ports for a future dock accessory.

Google’s goal is to unify the smartphone and tablet designs, so that Android looks like Android at any screen size. From a features standpoint, it seems to work. From a design position, much of the new look is simple, elegant, grown-up, and, dare we say, sexy. Just look to the new menu button and menu lists, the redesigned notifications pull-down, the highly organized settings menu, and the photo-editing Gallery app for examples.

Yet, there’s also a side of Ice Cream Sandwich that suffers from conflicting design ideologies, like a Honeycomb Mini that’s also trying to make sense as a smartphone OS.

Interface and home screens: Right off the bat, the default home screen is just gorgeous. It’s the first place you’ll encounter a new typography called Roboto–it looks crisp and clean as promised, but unless you’re looking for changes, most users won’t notice a huge difference.

From the top to the bottom of the main home screen, other ICS changes include a transparent search bar, a stylized clock, and a round icon denoting a folder that’s been filled with Google services. You can create and name your own home screen folders by dragging app icons on top of one another. The implementation is easy to use and looks terrific.

The new home screen is just gorgeous and clean, and we love the folders.

Resizable widgets are another Ice Cream Sandwich addition. You can drag and drop them onto the home screen from the app tray (more later), and press and hold the widget to surface the selection handles. Most of the time, a widget will resize when you drag it on the X or Y axis, but some widgets, like the one for the photo gallery, don’t resize. Overall, the home screen’s look is clean and familiar, but also new, and it pushes Android into edgier, less cutesy territory.

Sharp-eyed smartphone fans will notice that Google appears to have borrowed some touches from a few of its competitors. The main menu control (the only icon in the shortcut tray that isn’t editable) looks very BlackBerry, for example. Also, in another touch from Honeycomb, the pop-up menu control disappears entirely and is replaced by a very cleanly designed menu button that looks like a triple-tiered colon (that’s a page from the Windows Phone 7 design book). We have to gripe, though, that this control moves to the top or bottom of many apps, which can be hard to track. It would be better if it were consistently at the top.

The main menu has a simple, easy-to-use interface.

The apps launcher looks essentially the same as Gingerbread’s, though it has a slightly different layout and a fancy graphical transition as you swipe horizontally through your apps. We really like that the Market app is persistently accessible on the top of the screen, and that the app launcher has expanded to include widgets. However, the “tiled look” for widgets that Google proudly showed off at the Ice Cream Sandwich launch event looks cluttered and confusing.

Screenshots: If you like this screenshot tour of Ice Cream Sandwich, you can thank, well, Ice Cream Sandwich, and its new native screenshot capability in particular. Late to the game compared with Apple’s iOS (and even some Android phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S II), the feature is nevertheless a boon for app developers, for us journalist types, and for anyone who wants to diagnose an error or save a snap of a game for bragging rights.

The trick is pressing the hardware combination of the volume-down button and power button in the right way to trigger the native screenshot tool. Unfortunately, it took time to get the feel for it on the Galaxy Nexus. The action was awkward, and not always successful, especially at first. The ease of snapping screenshots will vary by a handset’s individual proportions.

The new panorama mode works well, but is it worth turning into its own mode?

Cameras and video: The panorama feature in the Ice Cream Sandwich camera was one of the first secrets to leak. Several Android-bearing phones have seen the feature before, but only as an addition to a Samsung or HTC camera, never as a blood-and-bones part of Android. Now, Google has made it front and center, one of your three camera “mode” choices, in addition to the standard camera and video.

As helpful as it is that the software instructs you as you shoot (telling you to slow down, for instance), we wonder how many people will take panorama shots often enough to warrant its prominence in the app. At any rate, the tool worked smoothly in our tests.

The joint photo and video gallery gets a few tweaks, most notably the “magazine tile” look we also saw with widgets. This time, the photos are even more cluttered, a barrage of thumbnails with little room between them to let your eyes take it in. In addition, when you open an image, you’ll also see a ticker of other gallery images along the bottom. The utility of being able to scroll through them is nice, but the visual noise it creates is not.

The newly redesigned calling screen puts contacts front and center, but may also make them blurry.

People and calling: Google has completely reworked the look and feel of its Contacts app–down to the color and layout–and we like it. Photos are more prominent, a good thing so long as they’re higher-resolution or you don’t mind a little graininess. The drop-down menu lets you set the ringtone or send all calls to voice mail. Gone is the alphabet on the right-side rail, though if you touch the scroll bar while scrolling quickly through your contact list, you’ll still be able to skip through your contacts.

When you place a call, the photo enlarges. The colors here are bold, with strong color blocking, a deliberately hipper look than what we’ve been seeing for the friendly green Android. While everything feels more open and breezier, it also doesn’t feel like it visually mirrors the rest of the Ice Cream Sandwich design. This may not bother you on a day-to-day basis and it doesn’t impede usability. Nevertheless, it’s an oddity of (in)cohesion that shouldn’t exist in a polished OS.

The virtual keyboard is big and we like the clean design.

One thing that is missing is the ability to long-press a contact’s name while you’re in the phone view to see options for sending a text–something you could do in Gingerbread. Instead, Google has replaced this with a different kind of behavior. Now, to text, call, and even e-mail contacts from any native communications app, just tap the photo icon. The logic is easy to follow once you remember it, but it isn’t immediately apparent.

Google+ integrates with ICS, of course. As a perk for your Google social network, contacts you have starred as “favorites” will show up with a high-resolution image, so long as “sync contacts” is enabled in the separate Google+ app. (Warning: using a lot of high-res photos can affect data usage.)

E-mail: Many small changes add up to a smarter, cleaner, more stylish, and overall improved Gmail experience. Fresh icons and space to read certainly help, but it’s the new way that your contacts’ e-mail addresses (and photos) pop up that we love, along with the ability to drag and drop highlighted text along the screen without first using onscreen controls to cut and paste. Gmail will now also let you search offline messages dating back to 30 days.

If you misspell a word, you’ll have the usual options to let Android autocorrect, or to pick from an autosuggested word right below the composition window. With Ice Cream Sandwich, you can also tap the misspelled word (it’ll be underscored in red) and choose from a selection of related choices, or even add a new word to the dictionary.

Facial unlocking is the fun, but not particularly secure, way to unlock your ICS phone.

Facial unlocking: We’ve known since last May that Google’s facial-tracking software would make it into Ice Cream Sandwich one way or another, and here it comes in the form of Face Unlock, a security option that lets you unlock the phone by holding it up to your face for a few seconds. It’s one of those quirky features that’s fun to play with, but even Google’s copywriters warn in the software that it’s less secure than a PIN or pattern, adding that someone who looks like you may succeed in unlocking your phone.

In fact, we were able to hold up a photo of a face (taken with the HTC Rezound) to the Galaxy Nexus to unlock the phone. If the facial-recognition engine fails, however, you’ll still have a four- to nine-digit PIN or a traceable pattern as a fallback.

We should note that neither a pattern nor facial unlocking works if your IT group requires a PIN in order for you to access your corporate e-mail. For security purposes, every time you disable Face Unlock, you’ll have to set it up again in order to use it. It worked in the dozen times we used it.

The back of Galaxy Nexus has a ‘hyperskin’ material. The camera lens and flash sit up top.

Android Beam: One of the most interesting new features in Ice Cream Sandwich, Android Beam uses NFC to transfer things like maps, contact information, and the name of a running game or app between two compatible phones within the same proximity. To make it work, go into the Settings, and find the More menu under Wi-Fi. Make sure NFC is enabled, and that Android Beam shows that it’s ready to transmit. Learn more, and watch a video of Android Beam in action.

Visual voice mail: Remember the visual voice mail demo from the ICS launch event in Hong Kong? So do we. We have not been able to test this yet for the simple fact that the Google Voice app in Android Market does not yet use the compatible developer API. So stay tuned.

Extra stuff: Other ICS additions include the ability to swipe alert messages away one by one from the pull-down notifications menu, recent apps list, and Internet bookmarks (they call it “gestures”); double-tapping the clock on the home screen to set an alarm; new Gmail messages that flash the name of the sender in the notifications bar; and more options for deflecting unwanted incoming calls.

For now, at least, the Galaxy Nexus is a Verizon exclusive.

Where Ice Cream Sandwich soars, falls short
Nobody can accuse Google’s Android team of putting forth a weak or insubstantial OS update. ICS has tweaked Android’s style from head to toe, giving it a far bolder identity than ever before, often with a polished look. For the most part, Google has succeeded in splicing together Gingerbread and the tablet-centric Honeycomb OSes to create a single experience that can work identically on both phones and tablets. It can’t have been easy merging two OSes with different identities, and unfortunately the seams sometimes show.

On the one hand, the OS has surfaced many previously buried features, like adding the Market icon on the top of each screen in the app tray, making the search bar persistent, making it easy to call up recent apps via a navigation control, and moving widgets to the app tray where they can be seen. The long-press will still unearth more features at times, but Google is moving away from that common complaint overall.

On the other hand, there’s that recurring issue of cohesion and occasional clutter (which the tablet design will surely resolve for larger devices). Ice Cream Sandwich is a patchwork of visual themes, and one that lacks flow throughout the entire experience. The elegant home screen and notifications menu have one motif, the crowded photo and widget tiles another, and the high-contrast address book and calling screens a third. It’s as if three separate groups of designers came together in the 11th hour. No, the sometimes disjointed look and feel don’t detract from Android’s usability (unless you find it confusing), but it’s also not a problem you see in iOS, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry OS 7, as tame as it is.

Moreover, even as Ice Cream Sandwich simplifies some actions, it also adds other features that aren’t obvious. True, Android always tucked aside hidden features to reward power users, and we’re not talking about Easter eggs. For instance, there’s no indication that you can swipe away notifications in the pull-down menu, and that action isn’t persistent across the OS.

From left, the Galaxy Nexus, the Motorola Droid Razr, the iPhone 4, and the Samsung Galaxy S II.

It also isn’t clear that the grid numbers you see next to a widget in the app tray (1×1, 2×4) correspond to a grid that shows up on the home screens when you move around app icons and widgets. When you answer a phone call, it isn’t until you press the incoming ring button that you can drag it to answer, hang up, or reply in a text. Our point is this: though Ice Cream Sandwich solves some problems with the learning curve, it also creates a few others.

The first piece of good news is that these are all issues that Google can tackle in successive updates, while also working to make the back end more powerful still. The second piece of good news is that there’s plenty of room for invested hardware makers like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola to continue creating custom graphical shells to run on top of Android. Ice Cream Sandwich is no longer plain old vanilla, and we suspect its design will be more polarizing, not less.

At the end of the day, Ice Cream Sandwich does succeed in moving Google forward, and establishing it as having staying power in the mobile OS space. As conflicted as the OS’ personality may be, it’s also emblematic of Google leaving less of its cultivation to the handset makers, and taking a stronger stand on defining its ‘Droidy personality.

Processor
The 1.2GHz dual-core processor is a big step above the Nexus S’. Menus opened instantly and most features took a couple of seconds to power up. Even the photo gallery, which took about 5 seconds to open on the Nexus S, was up and running in 2 seconds. The phone also kept up during a day of heavy use. We switched between applications quickly and without any hiccups.

When we tested the Galaxy Nexus next to the iPhone 4 we got varying results. Some apps, like messaging and maps, for example, opened faster on the Galaxy Nexus, while other features, such as the camera, opened faster on the iPhone. And to make things even more confusing, it was a tie between the phones for the settings menu. We’ll dive deeper into the processor over the next few days.

Call quality
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Samsung Galaxy Nexus in San Francisco using Verizon’s network. Call quality was respectable on the whole. The volume was plenty loud and voices sounded natural, though a little garbled. At one point, volume temporarily dropped off on a call. However, we appreciated the otherwise clear line. On their end, callers said volume was great and the line was clear. Although we sounded a tad flat, we were easy to understand.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Verizon) call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone volume was slightly lower, but there was no background noise. Voices did acquire a tin can effect, however: a little hollow, echoey, and tinny. For their part, callers agreed about the slightly lower volume and unmistakeable speakerphone quality, but also thought it was a relatively positive experience, without any background noise.

Data speeds
The Galaxy Nexus supports Verizon’s 4G LTE network, which promises download speeds ranging from 5Mbps to 12Mbps. Speeds were impressive in our early tests, consistently ranging from 6Mbps up to 17Mbps using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app. The New York Times’ mobile-optimized site loaded in 7 seconds, with the full site arriving in just 6. CNET’s own mobile site was ready to use after just over 8 seconds.

Battery
We’re still checking with Samsung to get the rated talk and standby battery times. Of course, we’ll also conduct official tests with CNET Labs. According to FCC radiation tests, the Galaxy Nexus has a digital SAR of 0.63 watt per kilogram.

Conclusion
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is unmistakably an Android phone. It’s powerful, you can tinker with it down to its core, and it offers some features the iPhone can’t touch. Without a doubt, Android fans will see the Galaxy Nexus that way and they’re likely to savor every morsel of Ice Cream Sandwich. Without ICS, the phone is more or less just a Nexus device, but with it you’re looking at a sleek and powerful smartphone that soars on Verizon’s network.

As we said, ICS is a big leap forward in making Android friendlier to entry-level users while satisfying the pros. Google has struggled to find that balance in the past, with some devices being too simple and others being too geeky. The trouble is, though, that iOS and Windows Phone, with their manual-not-required interface and attention to the user experience, are waiting to scoop up consumers who find the new Android to be too much. By taking a step forward, ICS will win a few of them back, but it also keeps a foot in Android’s cluttered past.

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22 comments on “Samsung Galaxy Nexus

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