Galaxy Nexus: First Android 4 Smartphone Triumphs -- Almost

A gorgeous screen, business-class security, and Android 4 push this smartphone to a new level. Too bad about the several flaws

At long last, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is here, the first smartphone to run Google's Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" release. There's no question: When you first get your hands on the Galaxy Nexus, available in a 4G LTE version in the United States on the Verizon Wireless network and in 3G GSM models in Canada and the United Kingdom, you'll likely drool over the huge, bright screen. It makes the 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone feel tiny and cramped, and argues that it's time for Apple to make an iPhone with at least a 4-inch screen.

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But spend a bit of time with the Galaxy Nexus, and you start to discover some of the cracks in both the hardware and the Android 4 OS that keep the Galaxy Nexus from topping the iPhone 4S as the best smartphone for business users. It's really too bad that Google and its hardware partners continue to skimp on quality assurance and holistic design, focusing on gloss instead.

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The Galaxy Nexus surpasses in many respects our previous picks among Android smartphones, the previous generation's Motorola Mobility "business-ready" series, such as the Photon 4G and Droid Razr. If you don't want an iPhone 4S, the Galaxy Nexus may be the smartphone for you. But you might want to wait until a few more Android 4 smartphones come on the market before taking the plunge.

Hardware Before looking at the changes brought by Android 4, let's look at the Galaxy Nexus hardware itself. As I mentioned, the screen is huge and vivid, thanks to its 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display, yet it still fits in a shirt pocket. Well, mostly -- it sticks out the top a bit, so be careful when bending forward. It has a typical processor for current-generation devices: a 1.2GHz dual-core ARM chip.

A big reason to wait for more Android 4 competitors to emerge is the Galaxy Nexus's poor battery life. It eats up power quickly, giving you four to six hours of life when using a lot of network access, such as for downloading apps, surfing the Web, and loading information through apps, whether they be social networking or multiuser games. Even when the Galaxy Nexus sits unused (but connected to Wi-Fi), the battery runs down within 36 hours. Except for that small minority of iPhone 4S users who've had battery-life issues, iPhone owners can get a good workday out of their smartphones and several days in standby mode. Complaints about poor Galaxy Nexus battery life are all over the Web, both in formal reviews and user complaints, so the issue appears to be widespread. You can stretch an Android device's battery life by using a third-party utility, but a smartphone should be able to go at least one full workday on its own.

The Galaxy Nexus comes with a 5-megapixel rear camera capable of still and video photography, as well as a flash, with autofocus, panoramic stitching, 1080p video resolution, and low-light image-capture sensors -- par for the course with current smartphones in the $200-and-up contract price range. But it's not as capable as the 8-megapixel, high-precision-optics camera in the iPhone 4S. The front camera is also typical, with 1.3-megapixel resolution.

The fact that the rear camera is centered horizontally does make snapping photos -- especially tight close-ups and bar-code scans -- easier compared to using the iPhone's offset camera. Note that if you use a PIN- or password-protected lock screen -- required by many businesses' Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, there's no way to take pictures on the Galaxy Nexus without logging in, as the iPhone's iOS 5 allows. You also don't get music playback controls from the lock screen, as on an iPhone. Your notification tray is unavailable as well, which can be annoying but is very secure.

The Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus comes with 32GB of internal storage, the same as the same-price iPhone 4S ($649 without contract, $299 with two-year contract). And like the iPhone 4S (and unlike some other Android models), the Galaxy Nexus has no SD slot for storage expansion. For most users, 32GB is fine. Do note that the Canadian and British GSM models have just 16GB of internal RAM, which is too skimpy.

The Galaxy Nexus's design itself is unremarkable: a dark gray rectangle with rounded top and bottom. You're supposed to notice just the screen, because everything else about the case is nondescript. But you may notice the back, which is covered in a textured plastic material or film, because it feels weird and cheap to the touch. I'd be concerned about it peeling off from the edges at some point, especially in the several areas where the material curves up. Fortunately, the film covers only the snap-off back panel, so some enterprising company could make better-feeling replacements for it.

The Galaxy Nexus has the minimal ports -- MicroUSB and audio -- plus a volume rocker and power/sleep button. The MicroUSB port also supports MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) cables, which connect to an HDMI device such as a TV to mirror the Galaxy Nexus's screen. That eliminates the need for a separate MiniHDMI port. (The iPhone 4S also supports display mirroring through a dock-to-HDMI cable.) But missing is wireless display support as found on the iPhone 4S; the native apps at least don't support the DLNA (Digital Living Room Network Alliance) wireless streaming technology used by some Android apps and many recent TVs and Blu-ray players.

The Galaxy Nexus also supports near-field communications (NFC), a very short-range wireless technology that lets the smartphone share data with other NFC-equipped Android 4 devices in a way similar to Bluetooth file sharing. I could not test the NFC sharing feature as I had no other NFC devices available.

Finally, the Verizon Wireless version of the Galaxy Nexus that I tested supports LTE 4G cellular networks, which promise faster throughput than the common 3G networks. The Galaxy Nexus uses 3G networks when 4G is not available -- a good thing, as 4G deployments are still relatively scarce and concentrated in major urban areas. My informal testing in San Francisco, where LTE service is very recent, shows that 4G service is faster than 3G when the signal strengths are equivalent. But I typically had two 4G bars available for the Galaxy Nexus, while in the same locations for a Verizon iPhone 4, I had three 3G bars. The network performance of two 4G bars was equivalent to three 3G bars, so the Galaxy Nexus did not have better real-world performance in my test areas. If you're in a city with better 4G coverage, you should see the 4G speed difference more often.

All in all, what distinguishes the Galaxy Nexus's hardware from competing Android smartphones is its huge screen, 4G network support, and NFC support (which account for its high score in the Hardware category; see the scorecard) and poor battery life (which lowers its score for Usability). It's not quite the flagship I expected, but falls squarely on the advanced side. The rest of the Galaxy Nexus experience comes from the Android 4 OS itself, which Samsung hasn't messed up with any sort of UI "enhancement" or by larding it up with apps.

Email, calendars, and contacts Android 4 has made improvements across the core business apps, though most are minor.

Email. The Email app now provides a combined view of your various accounts, which Android 2.x smartphones didn't do. That makes it easier to work with multiple accounts (emails are color-coded by account). It's a very welcome change, except when you want to search; Android 4's Email app can search only when you are viewing a single account, unlike iOS.

But the Email app continues to lack support for rich text, such as applying boldface, a capability Motorola Mobility added to its Android 2.x smartphones earlier this year. And although Email can show folder hierarchies for Exchange accounts, it doesn't preserve folder hierarchies in IMAP accounts. Seeing folders at all continues to require more steps than in iOS. There's also no message threading. And unfortunately, the Gmail app remains separate from the Email app used for all other types of email accounts.

Android 4 gets rid of the hard-to-read white-on-black message display of Android 2.2 "Froyo" and 2.3 "Gingerbread"; lets you create email groups (unlike iOS); and adds per-attachment controls within emails -- all imported from Android 3.x "Honeycomb." (Many Android 4 changes for smartphones in fact come from simply adopting what "Honeycomb" already provided to Android tablets.) But there's something amiss in the display of your message list: The From line overlaps the text in the Subject line -- no matter what setting your text size in either the Mail app itself or as the Android default. Someone forget to do the quality control work here.

Another positive change in Android 4 is an expanded viewer for attachments. With Android devices, you can now view Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, in addition to graphics, text-only, and HTML attachments. You no longer need a separate reader such as the basic version of Quickoffice bundled by many Android devices; in fact, Quickoffice is not bundled with the Galaxy Nexus.

Android 4 adds a dictation function in Email, where you can speak your message. Although Android has nothing like the iPhone 4S's Siri voice-controlled virtual assistant, it has voice recognition capabilities in several apps, including Email, Navigation, and Search. Unfortunately, the dictation in Email is highly inaccurate, even when you speak slowly and distinctly. At least the voice recognition in Navigation and Search are more reliable.

The improved widgets in Android 4 let you add home screen windows to show recent emails, appointments, and the like. These are great ways to see quickly what's new. They also overcome the limits in Android's notification tray, which does not list individual messages (unlike iOS 5's notifications) and tells you only how many new messages you have.

Calendar. The new Android 4 Calendar app lets you swipe among day, list, week, and month views with scroll gestures -- a simple approach that I wish were more common in the menu-oriented Android OS. The Android Calendar also has adopted several options iOS 5 users are familiar with, including home-time-zone appointment view, the ability to set a universal default reminder time, and the ability to set the time zone for each new event independently. It can also show appointments from Google Calendar (which iOS has long supported). But Android 4 continues Google's cloud-only approach to synchronization, so you can't sync with local calendars (or contacts) on your PC or Mac.

Contacts. Android 4's Contact app has been renamed People. It's now expanded to pull in Twitter followers and other social networking contacts, in addition to traditional contacts such as in Exchange and Gmail. But little has changed in the contacts themselves. As before, you can designate people as favorites, set custom ringtones (but not custom vibrations as in iOS 5), have specified contacts' phone calls be sent to voicemail, search for contacts, and quickly scroll through them, which also displays a faster slider mechanism. A nice addition (for smartphone users) in Android 4 is the abillity to create groups (unlike iOS), with a better  group-creation mechanism than that in the tablet-oriented Android 3 "Honeycomb." The UI has also been cleaned up a bit.

Applications

Messaging alone isn't what smartphones these days are used for. They're also surrogate computers and game players, and such use has been long one of Android's aims to satisfy.

Apps. The apps bundled with Android 4 are essentially the same as in previous Android versions: Books, Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Camera, Clock, Earth, Email, Gallery, Gmail, Google+, Maps, Market, Messaging, Movie Studio, Music, Navigation, News & Weather, People, Phone, Places, Search, Talk, Videos, and YouTube. The Photo app adds an editing mode very much like the facility in iOS's Camera app and Photo Booth app to straighten and crop images, as well as apply color and silly special effects. The Maps app provides simulated 3D views of buildings when you zoom in, and the Videos app supports 1080p HD-resolution movies rentable from Google.

The calculator has no scientific version as in iOS, nor is there a task-management or note-taking app as in iOS 5. There's no document-syncing protocol like iCloud either, nor are there the same rich business and creative apps as available for iOS. However, business users can work with moderately capable apps like Quickoffice and Documents to Go from the Android Market to do word processing, spreadsheet editing, and light presentation touchup. Avoid the Google Docs app -- it's only able to edit plain text in an awkward interface, and it's no better than using the limited Google Docs mobile service on the Web.

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