Processing power and internal storage
When the Nexus S launched with a single-core 1GHz processor back in December 2010, there were wails of discontent from some sectors of Android fandom. The next wave of dual-core handsets was on the horizon, so going with a 1GHz CPU -- the same as the one seen in the previous Nexus model -- ticked a few people off.
There's a 1.2GHz dual-core processor in the Galaxy Nexus, which is roughly the same power as the one inside the Galaxy S2 -- a phone that launched in 2011. This year's Samsung flagship, the Galaxy S3, packs a quad-core 1.4 GHz chip so the Nexus isn't a hardware trailblazer any more. However, in all honestly, its chip is more than capable, and the Nexus is at the head of the software pack.
The Galaxy Nexus purrs along nicely. I didn't witness any of Android's usual stuttering during the testing period. Scrolling between home screens is smooth and app performance is swift. In general, it feels like the entire OS has a particularly large rocket shoved up its backside. If you're used to a single-core Android device, then the Galaxy Nexus will feel positively turbocharged.
Benchmark tests show off the raw processing power inside the Nexus, as well as the improvements factored into Android 4.1. The only devices that are faster off the mark right now are the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the Asus Transformer Prime, both of which pack quad-core CPUs.
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy Nexus doesn't have a microSD card slot. That means the internal flash storage -- 16GB -- is your lot.
On the upside, all of that 16GB is available as app storage space because the phone shares your internal storage between media and apps. This is another feature that has been carried over from Android Honeycomb. It's a big step in the right direction -- Google lovers will recall that the Nexus S was also blessed with 16GB of memory yet only 1GB of apps were permitted.
It's worth pointing out that USB mass storage mode has been removed from the Galaxy Nexus. This doesn't present much of an issue if you're using a Windows PC, but if you're a Mac user, you'll need to install additional software to access files on your phone using a USB cable.
Camera and video recording
On paper, the Galaxy Nexus' camera seems like a disappointment. It has the same megapixel count as the cameras seen on the previous two Nexus devices. However, before your start massing the angry mob and polishing your pitchfork, you should know that this is a much-improved snapper.
Proof that megapixel counts are almost irrelevant when you have a good sensor, the camera on the Galaxy Nexus produces hugely encouraging results. Some shots can look a little washed-out, but most of the time the sensor does a decent job of capturing colour and brightness -- although not quite to the extent of the Exmor R cameras seen on the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S and Xperia Ray.
It's also one of the fastest cameras I've seen on a mobile. It allows you to take multiple shots with almost no delay between them. This proves to be incredibly useful if you're trying to capture a magical moment -- such as a baby's first steps or a relative tripping down some stairs -- and need several snaps to ensure you get the photo you want.
You have options for exposure, scene mode and white balance, and it's also possible to shoot a panoramic mode with relative ease.
The Galaxy Nexus supports video recording in HD with both 720p and 1080p resolutions. It achieves absolutely glorious results. Image quality is super-crisp and the colours look wonderful. Even the front-facing camera is capable of hitting 720p, which is impressive in itself. Watching your movies back on that 720p HD screen is a wonder to behold.
The Android web browser underwent a transformation in Android 4.0. It supports tabbed browsing, although in reality it works in very much the same manner as the separate windows in Android 2.3. Moreover, Android 4.1 brings some welcome speed and responsiveness tweaks.
You can now open incognito windows -- just like on the Google Chrome browser -- to protect your privacy and conceal your surfing habits from anyone else who might use your device.
Another cool feature is the ability to save pages for offline viewing, which is handy if you know you're going to be without a decent net connection for a period of time.
I like the ability to force the browser to display the desktop version of a particular site. This is especially useful if you come across a site that defaults to a disappointingly lightweight mobile-based edition, when viewed on a phone.
Backed by the 1.2GHz dual-core processor, the Galaxy Nexus' browser runs superbly, showing significant performance improvements over the Gingerbread days. There's no stuttering when scrolling around a page. Pinch-to-zoom is as smooth as a baby's bottom.
One notable omission is the lack of Adobe Flash support. Adobe has said it won't be supporting Flash on Jelly Bean, so this is the new Android world order.
With the power needs of a massive 4.65-inch screen and dual-core processor to accommodate, you'd expect the Galaxy Nexus' battery life to be dismal. In fact, I was impressed with how the phone's 1,750mAh power cell coped.
Naturally, when I first got the handset I really took it to the cleaners, pushing all of its features to the limit and barely leaving it alone for a second. After around 8 hours of near constant use with the screen on maximum brightness, the Galaxy Nexus was gasping for air.
However, when I adopted a more typical pattern of usage, the battery was capable of lasting over a day. That's something I rarely managed with the Nexus S.
The biggest drain on the phone's power is definitely the Super AMOLED screen. Dropping the brightness down a touch is a good way of prolonging its stamina. Enabling auto-brightness is tempting, but I found it was a little overzealous and dimmed the screen so much that it looked very dull.
The Galaxy Nexus remains the best of Google's Nexus-badged phones to date, offering solid hardware and a brand-new operating system. If you're bagging it to get Android 4.1 ahead of the pack, you're unlikely to be disappointed. But if you're after the most powerful Android handset, in pure hardware terms, the Nexus has been overtaken by quad-core 'droids such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the HTC One X.
Google's changes in Android 4.1 and 4.0 are commendable -- particularly Jelly Bean's speed and responsiveness tweaks. I have no hesitation whatsoever in declaring this the most intuitive and user-friendly iteration of the OS yet.
From a technical standpoint, the Galaxy Nexus also impresses. That 720p HD screen is a masterpiece. It makes browsing the web and watching videos an utter joy. Because it utilises Samsung's brilliant Super AMOLED tech, it provides the most striking picture quality you'll witness on a phone.
The design of the Galaxy Nexus is less enticing though. The plastic casing doesn't exude the impression of luxury that I crave from a phone of this stature. The power and volume buttons feel like they're about to break at any moment.
Of course, when you're talking about a phone with a 4.65-inch screen, there's also the question of whether or not you want a device of this size in your pocket. I noticed that the Galaxy Nexus' dimensions caused it to peek out of the top of my pocket on several occasions, which could potentially lead to unwanted mobile loss. Having a whopping screen is increasingly the norm when buying an Android powerhouse though, with the Galaxy S3 and HTC One X packing 4.8-inch and 4.7-inch screens respectively.
While the Galaxy Nexus doesn't quite smash the ball out of the park, it remains a fine showcase of what the next generation of Android is capable of -- and delivers all the goodness of Jelly Bean ahead of the pack. As many Fandroids will tell you, that's exactly what the Nexus line of phones is for.
CNET UK's Natasha Lomas contributed to this review.
Editor's note, 20 August 2012: We've updated this review after
road testing the performance of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Nexus.
Check out the software, Internet and processing power sections for a full breakdown of the new and
improved Android experience. Our intial rating of four and a half stars stands unchanged.
Editor's note, 2 December 2011: We initially published this phone with a two-star rating because of a serious volume bug that made it impossible to recommend. Google has published a fix, updating the phone to Android 4.0.1, which we've tested and are happy to report remedies the issue. We've therefore removed the section detailing this issue and changed the score to four and a half stars.