We first reviewed the Nexus in December 2011 when it arrived with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but since this notable Google blower is the first to run the swanky new software, we've taken it out for a spin again.
The handset's hardware features are still impressive, including a 720x1,280-pixel resolution 4.65-inch screen and a 1080p video camera. But now the 1.2GHz dual-core processor has been bettered by a new crop of quad-core phones, is the Nexus still the draw it once was?
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Nexus?
If you've already owned the Nexus One or Nexus S, chances are you already know the answer to the question above and have dutifully placed your order. The allure of getting the latest flavour of pure Android is temptation enough for many dedicated fans to purchase the Galaxy Nexus.
Make no mistake, the Nexus is a seriously impressive handset. It trumps the Nexus S in every conceivable manner. That 4.65-inch Super AMOLED screen has to be seen to be believed. It offers a 720p HD resolution with unbeatable viewing angles.
We were blown away by the speed and slickness of the Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) software on the Galaxy Nexus back in December 2011. Now the latest version, Jelly Bean, has landed and performance is even slicker. Google has obviously sweated buckets to improve responsiveness, especially with web browsing, where Android phones are all too often irritatingly laggy.
On this Android handset at least, web pages respond to your swipes and taps as if they're glued to the ends of your fingertips. It's impressively quick and feels effortless. A+ for Google on that score.
While the Nexus shames practically every previous Android phone in terms of responsiveness, it struggles in some key areas. The all-plastic design is disappointing when placed alongside the iPhone 4S and HTC Sensation.
Samsung has a habit of avoiding the use of brushed metal on its phones. In this instance, I'd have liked to have seen a little more sophistication in the case design -- especially when you consider the Nexus retails for around the same price as the aluminium and tempered-glass iPhone.
When the Nexus arrived in the UK, it suffered from a deeply annoying bug that dropped the volume when we were using 2G, meaning it was almost impossible to make calls. That meant we couldn't recommend it initially, but Google quickly fixed the problem.
There's little doubt the Galaxy Nexus is a very compelling phone -- Android purists would doubtless say it's the best handset money can buy right now. However, Samsung's quad-core behemoth, the Galaxy S3, should get a Jelly Bean update fairly soon -- so some Android lovers may prefer to opt for the latter, more powerful handset and keep their fingers crossed.
Of course, the advantage of owning the Galaxy Nexus is not just getting Jelly Bean right now -- you should receive future Android updates, such as the mooted Key Lime Pie, before other 'droids.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus' cachet is that, as a Google-branded blower, it's first in the queue for Android updates. It was not only the first phone with Android 4.0 (an OS that's relatively new and still only on less than a fifth of Android phones), but the Nexus has already been updated to Jelly Bean, Google's codename for Android 4.1. It's the latest and greatest edition of the company's mobile operating system.
If you're familiar with the basic, Tron-esque look and feel of ICS, you won't see an immediate change with Jelly Bean as Google's kept the same look of 3D panels and ice blue highlights. Likewise, swiping around the home screens, apps and widget menus feels fast and slick.
Headline ICS features such as Face Unlock, which let you unlock the Nexus by looking at it, and full device encryption are still present and correct. But Jelly Bean builds on ICS with new features and improvements in speed and responsiveness. Google's claim is that Android 4.1 delivers "buttery graphics" and "silky transitions". Flicking around the Nexus certainly feels slick.
Google has added triple buffering to Android's graphics pipeline to give smoother, more consistent rendering. It's also enforcing a consistent frame rate across all drawing and animation so on-screen elements remain speedy and in sync.
When you swipe or flick the screen of the Nexus Google, it now makes an informed guess on the trajectory of your fingers to improve touchscreen responsiveness. Add to that, if your phone has been idle, the CPU gets a little booster kick so it's wide awake right off.
These are all very welcome tweaks -- and it really does feel that the OS's reputation for dragging its feet has been given the heave ho, on this Android device, at least.
Another area that's had a speed boost with the 4.1 update is the camera. After snapping a shot, you can now swipe straight from the lens view to the gallery view to see the photo you've just taken or view all your shots. Snapping is also instantaneous, with no discernible lag between pressing the shutter and the picture being grabbed.
After this speed injection, the headline feature of Jelly Bean is Google Now. This is a new service that analyses your emails, calendar appointments, location info and search history to act like a virtual butler, pushing cards of relevant data out to the phone in an easily digested, easy-on-the-eye form.
Cards refers to how the data is presented: on a square, typically with a photo and a few bits of basic info. Tap on the card to drill down further and view a more detailed web page. The cards also let you tap to check into places. If you check in, you'll be broadcasting your whereabouts via Google+ to either the general G+ user or specific circles of buddies.
Examples of the sort of cards Google Now pushes in your direction include cafes and restaurants in your immediate vicinity. You have to enable location in the settings to use Google Now because it needs to know where you are to serve up relevant stuff. For example, using the Nexus at CNET Towers in Southwark, I'm shown the weather for London and five additional cards, four of which are local eateries, while one is a hotel.
The hotel isn't a very useful card to be shown since this is my place of work, ergo I'm not a tourist. But Google Now is supposed to improve over time as it gleans more insights into your daily grind. After a while, it will apparently start pushing more sophisticated cards in your direction -- including squares containing recent match information about the sports team you support; flight data showing the departure and arrival time of flights you've searched for; and traffic info showing how long it will take to drive home.
To view cards, you either tap on the Google search bar on the home screen, or swipe up over the bottom bezel of the phone at any point. The latter can be a little fiddly to trigger at first, but once you've got the gesture in muscle memory, it's second nature. Cards appear in a scrollable stack, concertinaed together if there are several for you to flick through (as shown above).
Jelly Bean also makes use of cards in certain instances when you're using voice search -- taking inspiration from Apple's Siri. For example, ask the Nexus how old Kevin Costner is and you'll be presented with a card showing a mugshot of Costner's beaming face, next to age info and an option to read more about him. If you just want to see normal Google search results, you can scroll down past the card to see the standard text-heavy search results stream.
Google Now seems like a really neat feature to cut through info overload by presenting (hopefully) relevant data in a clean, easy-to-digest format. It remains to be seen whether it will get super-savvy as it gets to know more about you.
As a quick, elegant way to find a restaurant when you're out and about, it already looks handy. Tapping on the 'more details' link on a restaurant card brings up a full page of info including the address, website and user reviews. You also get a button to view the location on a map, a button to get directions (either by car, walking or public transport options), a button to call the place so you can book a table, and a button to write a review. There's also a tab to view a grid of photos of the place and an option to upload your own snap.
Jelly Bean's extras don't stop with Google Now. The notifications tray has been given a spit and polish, with extra info added to each new item in the stack -- such as the subject line of an email -- and visual items like photos allocated extra space. These large notifications can be collapsed down to the standard bar manually, or they'll squeeze up as the tray fills up.
That's not all. Google has tweaked the widgets in Jelly Bean so they're more dynamic. So, for example, you can flick widgets off the top of the screen to get rid of them. If you're trying to add a new widget to a home screen that already has some on it, the existing widgets will make room for the newcomer by moving out of the way -- a civilised touch. If there isn't enough room for the new one, the existing widgets won't excuse themselves by shuffling onto another home screen, you'll simply get a message saying the screen is full.
Another Jelly Bean tweak is a more advanced predictive keyboard to better guess the next word you're typing. Word prediction also improves the more you use it, according to Google. And if you want to speak rather than type your missive, Jelly Bean adds supports for offline voice typing, so you don't need a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to dictate emails or messages.
The browser has had some TLC too. As well as improved rendering speed, scrolling and zooming -- part of the general Jelly Bean responsiveness improvements -- you also get slicker HTML5 video support, with touch to play or pause and smoother transitions from embedded to full-screen mode.
Google has updated the YouTube app, with a column of channels on the left and a video stack you can drag over at the right-hand edge.
Google+ has been refreshed. The basic look presents posts in a very readable form, which resembles a stack of Google Now cards. Jelly Bean brings some general app changes too -- developers are required to make app updates leaner, so there's less for users to download every time they update.
Elsewhere, if you're familiar with Ice Cream Sandwich, using the Nexus will mean you're on home territory. But if you currently own a Gingerbread-flavoured phone, then you'll have the shiny new look and feel to get accustomed to, plus changes such as with contacts and the ability to preview widgets.
Simplification could be the keyword to describe the changes ICS has ushered in (and Jelly Bean continues). Google has nipped and tucked wherever possible, changing the layout of the settings menu and generally attempting to make the entire OS more user-friendly.
On the whole, these changes are an amazing success. There are loads of neat little tweaks such as being able to decline a call with one of several stock text message replies. You can also access the camera directly from the lock screen. This feels like the most intuitive Android yet.
However, there are still some little problems. There's no native Android file manager in 4.1, which seems like a really odd decision when you consider that most third-party manufacturers are adding them to their own user interfaces.
Google's high-ranking developers have publicly stated that they want users to move away from messing about with files on their phones. There are bound to be times when you need to access certain files and can't -- unless you download a dedicated app like Linda File Manager or OI File Manager.
I'm also disappointed you can't mute the phone from the lock screen any more. Instead, you have to unlock the phone and then long-press the power button to bring up a separate menu. This allows you to silence the device, but it will feel like an incredibly long-winded process if you're an Android veteran.
Samsung has a reputation for producing predominantly plastic phones. That hasn't changed with the Galaxy Nexus. There's no trace of brushed metal or aluminium anywhere on the casing. While this makes for a surprisingly lightweight phone (135g, in case you were wondering), it also creates an unwelcome impression of cheapness.
When you consider that the Galaxy Nexus is contesting the same turf as Apple's gorgeous iPhone 4S -- and that it costs roughly the same SIM-free -- you can't help but feel that Samsung's challenger isn't quite dressed for the fight.
That's not to say it's an ugly device -- far from it. From the front is looks like an enlarged Nexus S, while the back panel calls to mind the Galaxy S2. There's also that trademark Galaxy bump on the back of the phone towards the bottom. This aids grip and makes the Galaxy Nexus comfortable to hold.
Although the Galaxy Nexus has retained the distinctive curved profile of the Nexus S, it actually feels a lot less pronounced this time around. The curve is supposed to make the phone more comfortable to use for calls, but I can't say I felt any tangible benefit.
The slightly rubberised battery panel also takes inspiration from the Galaxy S2, and snaps away from the main body of the phone with considerable click. Although it's made from super-flexible plastic, getting it back on again is harder than it should be. You have to line it up perfectly before the panel will locate, and even then there's some serious massaging required to get it to lock into position.
Like the Nexus S, you'll find no physical buttons on the front of the Galaxy Nexus. However, unlike the previous Nexus handset, there are no capacitive inputs either.
As I've already mentioned, the face buttons are actually part of the screen itself. When it's powered down, they vanish from sight. In this state, the Galaxy Nexus resembles a slab of black plastic. Thankfully, there's a notification LED at the bottom of the screen and this springs into life when you get an email or text, reminding you that your device is fully functional.
Physical inputs are at a premium on this handset. Aside from the power/lock button and volume rocker, you won't find any other keys to press anywhere on the phone. In keeping with its rather cheap feel, these two buttons appear to be a lot less robust than their equivalents on the Nexus S.
The only other items of note from a design perspective are the micro-USB port located on the bottom of the device, the 3.5mm headphone socket placed alongside the charging port and a row of metal dots on the right-hand side of the handset. Similar to the connections on the HTC Rhyme, these allow you to charge the Galaxy Nexus when it is placed inside the dedicated dock -- which, of course, is sold separately.
Remember the first time you witnessed the iPhone 4's retina display? Brace yourself for an even more jaw-dropping experience with the Galaxy Nexus.
With an HD resolution of 720x1,280 pixels and a pixel density of 316ppi, this is effortlessly one of the best screens I've ever seen on a mobile phone.
It's not just the number of pixels that impresses -- after all, the iPhone 4S squeezes more pixels into an inch at 330ppi -- the Galaxy Nexus uses Samsung's world-beating Super AMOLED technology to give an unparalleled picture quality. Colours are bold and bright, while viewing angles are fantastic. You'll also notice that dark areas are especially convincing, because AMOLED screens actually turn off pixels to represent black.
The only negative thing you could possibly say about the Galaxy Nexus' screen is that it doesn't use the Super AMOLED Plus tech seen in the Samsung Galaxy S2. Instead, PenTile tech is used. This gives the display a dot-like effect when viewed very closely.
The reason for this is that Super AMOLED Plus isn't currently capable of achieving the HD resolution required for the Galaxy Nexus' screen.
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.