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Samsung Galaxy Nexus first impressions: Ice Cream Sandwich makes it sparkle

There's a lot of information to digest about the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and its best feature: Google Android 4.0. But when you leave out Ice Cream Sandwich, does the phone lose its luster?

It's been a wild day in Android land. Earlier this morning, Motorola and Verizon pulled back the curtain on the sleek, gorgeous, and positively anorexic Motorola Droid Razr, only to have the spotlight stolen by the double-whammy of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS. (Compare the specs here.)

The phone is bound for the U.S. and parts of Asia and Europe, starting in November.

Now, Samsung spent most of the day tripping over its own leaks with regards to the looks and specs of the phone, but that didn't dampen our admiration any. It's a phone that any carrier would be proud to offer, from the HD screen and 1.2GHz dual-core processor to the 1080p HD video capture and playback, to the barometer and NFC chip embedded within.

We'll know more when we get our hands on the device in due time, both in Hong Kong with CNET Asia and here in our San Francisco headquarters. For now, here's what we think.

It starts with a huge 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD display (1280 x 720 pixel resolution.) Samsung makes some of the best screens on the market, with colors that pop, and a way of reproducing light that uses no power on black. That's better for battery life and also tends to improve contrast.

Although there is HD resolution, the screen size verges on the enormous, so there's a chance that pixel density may not be the absolute highest around, nor the absolute sharpest or clearest, but do expect some impressive screen quality.

Body and design
Samsung toed pretty close to the Nexus S party line with the phone's design. It hosts those familiar rounded edges, dark color, and slightly curved face that's intended to hug your cheek when you hold the phone to your ear. This time though, the Galaxy Nexus has no buttons on its face, and comes with a "hyperskin" substance (we'll dig into this as we learn more.)

While not as skeletal as the Droid Razr, the Galaxy Nexus is rakishly thin in its own right, just 0.35-inch thick (compared with the Droid Razr's 0.28-inch width). The contoured edges should help keep the Galaxy Nexus from feeling too sharp and flat in the hand. It weighs 4.8 ounces.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Camera quality is becoming ever more advanced on smartphones, and that leaves us scratching our heads a bit. The 1.3-megapixel, front-facing camera is something we'd expect on a Google flagship phone, but the 5-megapixel, rear-facing camera isn't exactly a show of force.

Now, it's true that the number of megapixels can only take you so far, and the camera's light sensor and software processing also plays a hand. However, Samsung already has phones with great 8-megapixel cameras on the market--the entire Galaxy S II lineup--so this 5-megapixel camera feels like a backtrack. Still, Android 4.0's new camera software could make up for it, and could even surpass the 8-megapixel camera in image quality and photographic satisfaction, but this is a deep hands-on test for another day. Samsung also boasts that there's no shutter lag.

Speed, 4G, and other specs
If you feel the need for speed, the Galaxy Nexus promises to deliver as all good premium phones should. It's got a 1.2GHz dual-core processor (not the absolute top-of-the-line, but it's right up there) and will have support for both HSPA+ and LTE, depending on the market. At the event, Samsung only announced one carrier (Japan's NTT DoCoMo), but soon after, Verizon declared that it'll offer the Galaxy Nexus.

It sounds like the Galaxy Nexus will come with either 16GB or 32GB internal memory, globally, a spec that indicates there's no external SD card slot for adding more memory of your own. For most people, that should be plenty, though we'd prefer to see the 32GB version if there's only one choice.

As with the Galaxy S, the Galaxy Nexus also has support for NFC, which will let you use it to tap to pay for items at participating terminals. Interestingly, there's also a barometer on board, as with many more devices today. Bluetooth 3.0 handles your connection needs. It's just too bad that Samsung didn't manage to incorporate Bluetooth 4.0 like Apple did with the iPhone 4S.

You'll find a 1750mAh battery taking care of your power needs; it should deliver at least a day of life--we hope.

In sum
There's no mistaking that the Galaxy Nexus has all the ingredients it needs to be a terrific phone. There's also no mistaking that its hands-down best feature, and the one that's surest to wrest sales away from the Motorola Droid Razr, is the presence of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Without Ice Cream Sandwich, the design and specs are all very good and nice, but do little to astound. After all, we've essentially seen this phone before in the guise of the Nexus S. Had they both the same operating system, the Razr's design, dramatic thinness, and 8-megapixel camera would doubtlessly edge the Galaxy Nexus, at least in terms of "wow factor" alone.

Motorola Droid Razr Samsung Galaxy Nexus
Display 4.3 inches, Super AMOLED Advanced, qHD 960x540 resolution 4.65 inches, Super AMOLED HD, 1280x720 resolution
Dimensions 130.7 x 68.90 x 7.1mm (5.14 x 2.71 x 0.28 inch) 135.5 x 67.94 x 8.94mm (5.33 x 2.67 x 0.35 inch) for the HSPA+ model
Weight 127 grams (4.48 ounces) 135 grams (4.76 ounces)
Processor 1.2GHz dual-core processor 1.2GHz dual-core processor
OS Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
Rear camera 8-megapixel. 1080p HD video capture 5-megapixel, with zero shutter lag. 1080p HD video capture
Front camera 1.3-megapixel, 720p HD video 1.3-megapixel
Storage 16GB on-board; 16GB card pre-installed. Supports up to 32GB microSD card 16GB or 32GB on-board. No word on if there's room for microSD storage.
Battery 1780mAH; not removable 1750mAH; unknown if removable
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0 Bluetooth 3.0
NFC No Yes
Barometer No Yes
4G LTE LTE or Pentaband HSPA+ (depends on market)

Chart created by Nicole Lee/CNET

Yet as Google's flagship phone for showcasing Ice Cream Sandwich, the Galaxy Nexus becomes something special and unique, and that's a draw that will likely sway people deliberating between the two, especially if the Galaxy Nexus finds itself on Verizon alongside the Droid Razr.

Until we get them side-by-side for some serious deliberations and tests, we can only guess. One thing we can tell you is that will be an exciting day here at CNET.

Article updated: 10/27/11 at 9:40am PT with details that Verizon will carry the Galaxy Nexus.