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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
It also isn't clear that the grid numbers you see next to a widget in the app tray (1x1, 2x4) 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Editors' note: This review has been updated with the FCC's digital SAR rating for the Galaxy Nexus.