smartphone reviews

Samsung Galaxy Nexus Aussie Review: Cutting Through The Hype

This is the phone that Android users (including myself) have been smugly namedropping into conversations. Even iPhone fanboys have been holding their breath for this one. We were drip-fed conflicting specs leaks, images, teaser videos and speculation for months, so it’s no wonder that we all started believing that the newest flagship Google phone was gonna be a gamechanger before it even became official. So does the Samsung Galaxy Nexus live up to the hype now it is fully on sale in Australia? Yes and no.

Prior to this week, your only option to get a Galaxy Nexus was to buy grey-imported stock from online retailers MobiCity and Kogan. Our 16GB review unit was supplied by MobiCity. All three local carriers have now announced pricing, and you can see all the details in Lifehacker’s Planhacker listing. The locally released model includes built-in NFC, but isn’t as yet available in an LTE variant. We also won’t be getting the Samsung Music Hub experience in Australia, since this “is a Google experience”, but Samsung is exploring how to make the service available via the Android market.

Despite those restrictions, excitement over the Galaxy Nexus here in Australia is probably more hyped-up here than it is anywhere else. The high-end smartphone market is much tighter here since we don’t get a lot of phones that are released in the US market, like the HTC Rezound. So the only real competitors that the Galaxy Nexus has here right now are the Motorola RAZR, the HTC Sensation XL/XE and the iPhone 4S.

Hardware

Most of the hype over the Galaxy Nexus comes down to Ice Cream Sandwich, which we’ll talk about in a minute, but Samsung absolutely deserves all the praise it’s getting for making a stunning phone with great build quality (unlike the cheap plastic feel of the Samsung Galaxy S II) and form factor (and it’s all Samsung, thanks very much Apple). The contoured display isn’t as pronounced as Google’s teaser video led you to believe. In fact, it’s hardly noticeable at all, which is both a relief and a disappointment. I was kinda looking forward to rocking a futuristic-looking phone that looked like it was made to follow the shape of my head and the natural curve of my hand, but then it probably wouldn’t have fit into the back pocket of my jeans. That’s where I usually carry my phone, and having the (relatively fat) butt of the phone dig into my own butt as I walked would be unacceptable.

The Galaxy Nexus isn’t just a pretty face — inside its slim body is a 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP processor with 1GB of RAM. While some may complain that it’s inferior to the Exynos processor inside the Galaxy S II, you’re not going to notice the difference in the real world. The Galaxy Nexus is quick to boot up, power down, open applications, browse the web, run games and everything else. It multitasks beautifully.

Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays are popular and have a solid reputation, but what you may not know about the one on the Galaxy Nexus is that it’s PenTile, which means that the screen tries to squeeze more pixels from the same number of dots to achieve a higher resolution and better battery life. You may not see the difference, but if you’ve ever used a phone like the Motorola Atrix, which also has a PenTile display, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It feels like there’s a dark translucent screen underneath the one you touch. The automatic brightness level is adequate but often feels too low when you’re outdoors. Having said that, I see it more as a fair trade-off than a fault. The blacks are really black, everything is sharp and beautiful, and you get a bit more juice between charges. Sadly, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t come with the scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass that we thought became standard a long time ago.

When I first heard that the Galaxy Nexus wouldn’t have any hardware buttons, I was really sceptical. No smartphone that I know of has pulled off the no-button thing. Lots of iPhone users hate having to double-click the one physical button Apple gave them and envy the four-button layout on Android phones. The minimalist look of the Galaxy Nexus is really attractive, but why try to fix something that’s not broken? The Galaxy Nexus could have had even more screen real estate if it didn’t have to sacrifice a portion of it to the new back/home/recent apps soft buttons layout in Ice Cream Sandwich.

Speaking of buttons, the Galaxy Nexus tries to make it easier to lock your phone with one hand by placing the power button on the right-hand side. But it doesn’t quite work like that. When I use one hand to push the power button to lock the phone’s screen, I accidentally end up pressing the volume button most of the time. Avoiding this problem requires more concentration that it should.

What makes the Galaxy Nexus feel so polished is in the little details. The textured back cover, the slight curve of the body and the multicoloured LED light on the front chin put this phone closer to the design ethos Apple is famous for. Notably, there is no SD card slot, but 16GB or 32GB internal memory will suffice for most people’s needs.

It’s also not as heavy as it looks — at 135g it’s lighter than the iPhone 4S despite the much larger screen. Alex described it as a large phone in his first-look video, but if you’re coming from a phone like the HTC Sensation XL or the HTC HD7, it won’t feel that much larger. The illusion comes from making the 4.65 inches of screen fit a bit longer rather than wider, resulting in a more comfortable grip for users with smaller paws.

My biggest gripe with the Galaxy Nexus is the battery life. It’s really not good. The 1750mAh battery just isn’t enough for the juice-sucking nature of Ice Cream Sandwich. With moderate-heavy usage, I can squeeze half a day out of it, but even with light-moderate usage, it tells me that I have to connect my charger by dinnertime. Most people won’t have any dramas connecting their phone to a USB port for a quick recharge session while working, but having to do that makes me shake my head in disappointment. This is one advantage that the iPhone has over any Android device — Apple makes both the software and the hardware, which means that one is likely to be optimised for the other. Powerful software requires powerful hardware, and the Galaxy Nexus’ relatively large 1750mAh battery struggles to make it through a day. But strangely, despite this glaring setback, I’m more attached to this phone than any other phone I’ve ever used. Each day, I’m forced to plug the Galaxy Nexus into the charger before I’m ready, but I roll my eyes and put up with it because the phone is such a delight to use. It’s like wearing your hottest pair of stilettos — they hurt your feet every time, but you suck it up and tell yourself that there’s no gain without pain.

If you do decide to grey-import your Galaxy Nexus, keep in mind that it’ll come with a UK plug. This is a giant pain in the arse for me as I have to share one adaptor with my boyfriend’s Canadian-issued MacBook Pro and electric shaver. And I don’t feel like buying another one just to review this phone. So if you plan on grey-importing, budget for an extra adaptor. (This won’t be an issue if you buy locally.)

Software

The Galaxy Nexus is the first device to be released with Ice Cream Sandwich baked in, and it’s come out of the oven looking great. We’ve already reviewed Ice Cream Sandwich, so I’m not going to get into too much detail here other than to say that my experience with it on the Galaxy Nexus over the last couple of weeks has been all positive. It’s much more user-friendly, everything’s prettier, and I’m in love with the font. It looks and feels cleaner and fresher… like Android’s tidied up its room and opened the windows.

However, there is a bit of a learning curve. There’s some assumed knowledge required of the icons that pop up in various apps, and even for seasoned Android users like myself there’s a bit of guessing required the first time you use certain apps and settings.

Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy Nexus camera, default settings.

The software features I appreciate the most are definitely the keyboard and the camera app. The keyboard is the first worthy competitor to Swiftkey X that I’ve seen, with impressively accurate autocorrection. While the camera app could be more intuitive and some features are tucked away, it’s delightful in its simplicity, sharing from the gallery interface is a breeze, and the zero-lag shutter is brilliant. I can take a photo and share it within seconds.

Context-specific menus are represented by three square dots in a row, usually positioned at the top right or bottom right of the screen, depending on the app you’re using. The Galaxy Nexus also does away with the search button altogether, choosing to place a transparent search bar at the top of each home screen. You can’t move or remove this search bar, but I didn’t mind so much because it looks so good. There’s not a lot of room for customisation on the Galaxy Nexus aside from changing the wallpaper. You need a third-party launcher or ROM to change the look of icons and the dock.

There are a few odd quirks here and there. There’s no quick way to see where your battery is sitting at percentage-wise from the home screen. In some third-party apps, pressing the volume button makes a grey square appear where the slider indicating volume normally would. How to answer a phone call is not immediately obvious the first time — you have to hold the phone icon before a green “answer call” phone icon and a red “reject call” phone icon appears to the right and to the left, respectively (like unlocking the phone from the home screen). When you send someone a picture message, that picture keeps popping up in the “type message” after you’ve sent it. Facebook also keeps force-closing on me, but I suspect that has more to do with Facebook for Android just being a shit app.

SAMSUNG GALAXY NEXUS
• OS: Android 4.0.1 Ice Cream Sandwich
• Screen: 4.65-inch 1280×720 Super AMOLED HD
• Processor: 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP
• RAM: 1GB
• Storage: 16GB/32GB
• Camera: 5MP/1080p HD back, 1.3MP front
• Dimensions: 135.5mm x 67.9mm x 8.9mm
• Weight: 135g
• Battery: 1750mAh
• Price: $769 from MobiCity, $789 from Kogan; Pricing Now Also Available From Telstra, Optus and Vodafone — see Planhacker.

Should I Buy It?

As an Android fangirl, I will always be its biggest supporter and harshest critic. Despite some grievances, I still like the Galaxy Nexus so much that I would actually buy it for myself once I give this one back to MobiCity, even though the battery life sucks. (I recently got given a DROIDAX portable charger to review, so that essentially mitigates the issue by giving me a spare battery on-the-go.) The magic of this phone really comes from Ice Cream Sandwich, so if that’s all you’re after, there’s no harm in waiting to see if it becomes available for your device.

You’ve got a few ways to get it. MobiCity is offering the 16GB model for $789 + delivery, including a 24-month warranty. Kogan is also offering the 16GB model for $799 + delivery, including a 12-month extendable warranty. If you don’t want to grey-import it from either of these retailers and don’t mind a 24-month contract, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone all offer it.


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