Until now, Verizon Wireless was the sole U.S. carrier to receive the coveted Samsung Galaxy Nexus. As the first Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) phone, the Galaxy Nexus quickly won fans for its stock Android OS and the power it packed under the hood. Indeed, ever since the unlocked version went on sale late last year, I've had a soft spot for this device.
So now almost four months after its CES debut, the handset arrives at Sprint. It's just as powerful. It's compatible with Google Wallet (Verizon's phone is not), and it has the pure Android experience that we enjoyed on the
Ten years ago, the big joke was that Nokia kept building the same phone design while slightly tweaking it for each subsequent model. These days, however, it's Samsung that's consistently guilty of this design faux pas. Ever since the company started making Galaxy devices, many of them have looked very similar. Indeed, the Galaxy Nexus has much in common with its predecessors, especially the Nexus S (a Galaxy device if not by name) and even the upcoming
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).
It's eye-catching, yes, but like other Samsung phones before it, the Galaxy Nexus also looks and feels fragile. Luckily, the thicker LTE version (both Verizon and Sprint) is stouter than the GSM model (5.1 ounces vs. 4.76 ounces), but I dreaded dropping it even once on a hard surface. Of course, 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 Maxx (Verizon) or anodized aluminum of the upcoming HTC Evo 4G LTE.
On the right side you'll find a power control/lock button and three metal contacts to support dock accessories. 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. That's not the best place for them, though, and I wish that they were in a more convenient place like the phone's top edge. The camera lens and flash sit on the top end of the back cover.
Display and interface
The Galaxy Nexus's display measures 4.65 inches, though 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). But even with that quirk, the display is plenty big for a smartphone, but not quite big enough for ICS.
With a 1,280x720-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 I'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 add an attachment, audio, video, and photos.
Like other Nexus devices, the Galaxy Nexus has a pure Android interface that isn't muddled by a manufacturer or carrier skin. It's great for users and developers alike, as it lets Android's true appearance shine through. Developers also will love the dedicated "Developer options" in the main menu; it offers access to such features as showing CPU usage, setting a background process limit, and activating a visual feedback for the touch screen.
At the very bottom of the phone's front face sit three touch controls for moving backward through a menu, jumping to the Home screen, and opening a list of recent apps. 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.
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. 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. You can transfer images and connect as a media device via a USB cable, but I don't like that even though ICS supports USB mass storage, the Galaxy Nexus does not. Bad news, Samsung.
Otherwise there are no physical controls on the front of the phone. Yet, you'll notice a glowing indicator light which pulses when you have a call and receive messages, e-mail, or notifications. It may seem like a minor touch, I'm 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 alphabet 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 alphanumeric dial pad shows huge numbers, but tiny text.
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. And as I said above, Sprint gets points for actually letting us use Google wallet.
Maps get 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.
GPS features performed well. On the first try, it placed me about a block away from CNET's New York offices, which is normal. On the second try, however, it pinpointed my location in the office 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 Google Play store. In fact, while its Verizon cousin has annoying Verizon apps you can;t uninstall, I couldn't find a single Sprint-branded piece of software here.
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 I'll discuss in more detail below. Importantly though, that the lack of shutter lag is remarkable. In fact, when I took the first photo, I didn't realize that the shutter had closed -- it's really that quick. Nice work, Google.
I found the full suite of built-in editing tools in the photo gallery more interesting: cropping, red-eye reduction, face glow, straightening, rotating, flipping, and sharpening. You also can add effects 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 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.
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 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.
The video rental store that operates through the Play store offers a selection which 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.
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 built 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.
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. I switched between applications quickly and without any hiccups.
When my colleague Jessica Dolcourt tested the Galaxy Nexus next to the
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Samsung Galaxy Nexus in New York using Sprint's network. Callers said that while they could tell I was calling from a cellular connection, my voice came through loud and clear. Likewise, I clearly heard people I called, and the earpiece produced a good amount of volume, as did the speakerphone. In fact, I had to dial things down a couple of notches below maximum to enjoy a comfortable setting.
Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Sprint) call quality sample Listen now:
One of the most compelling attributes of the Verizon Samsung Galaxy Nexus is its fast 4G LTE connection. Unfortunately at the time of this writing, I couldn't test this Sprint variant's LTE prowess since the carrier's network didn't exist yet. Sprint says it will roll out its 4G LTE infrastructure by the second half of 2012. In the meantime, the phone provides slow 3G data speeds. I measured an average download throughput of 0.54 Mbps at multiple locations in Manhattan and Queens, NY. Upload speeds were better, with the phone achieving an average of 0.93Mbps. Still these numbers are a far cry from what the Verizon Galaxy Nexus was capable of. Paired with Big Red's LTE system, the phone managed downloads ranging from 6Mbps to 17Mbps.
Samsung rates the Sprint Galaxy Nexus' 1,850 mAh battery to provide 6.25 days of standby time and 12 hours of usage time. In my anecdotal tests the handset managed to play a 720p HD MP4 video file continuously for 5 hours and 12 minutes. That's consistent with the battery life I experienced, with the Nexus consistently lasting through a full workday but not much more. According to ICNIRP radiation standards, the device has a digital SAR rating of 1.04W/kg.
The $199.99 Samsung Galaxy Nexus is unmistakably an Android flagship phone. It's incredibly powerful, offers a pure ICS experience, and you can tinker with it down to its core. While it's a sleek and powerful smartphone, it sadly needs LTE to soar like its Verizon counterpart. I hope we won't have to wait too long for Sprint's advanced 4G network to arrive. If you can live without ICS, the $99.99