Review of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus


The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the third in a line of Google phones that runs a pure undiluted version of Android. The first was the HTC Nexus One, followed by the Samsung Nexus S. This new model is the first phone to get Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

Last Updated: 29-Jan-2012

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

My original review for the Galaxy Nexus was posted in late November and it was based on a short (less than 24 hour) intensive session with the phone. I have since been given the opportunity of re-testing the Nexus without the heavy time restrictions. In addition I have since purchased a Samsung Galaxy S II LTE as my day-to-day phone to replace my aging Samsung Galaxy S Captivate. Subsequently I have a much more powerful phone to compare the Nexus to, and as a result the review has been updated to reflect this.

Both loaners were courtesy of Howard Chui. You can check out his review on HowardForums at:

www.howardforums.com/content.php/803-My-Galaxy-Nexus-Review

I started out with very high hopes, because the Galaxy Nexus had been hyped as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I therefore expected it to blow me away, but what I discovered instead was a fairly capable device, but not something (that at the time) Iíd want to replace my Captivate with. Now that I have something more powerful than the Captivate, the underwhelming feelings I had about the Nexus only got worse.

Iím going to shake up the usual order of my review to cover the points about the phone in the order of importance, which means (not surprisingly) I will begin with the screen.

Display: The Galaxy Nexus sports an eye-popping 1280 x 720 resolution on a 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display. To say that this is one of the best displays ever made (including the iPhoneís Retina display) wouldnít be understating things in the least. Like the Retina display, the text on the Galaxy Nexus is so free of detectable jaggedness (even on extremely tiny characters) that it seems almost painted on. The overall clarity of text on this display is shocking, and the depth of black provided by the AMOLED technology is striking.

Now having said that, I didnít find that the display was markedly better in any meaningful way to the 800 x 480 display on my S2 LTE. Before you get your knickers in a twist over that, let me clarify what I mean.

I pulled up identical web pages on both devices and I shrunk them enough to make the text so tiny that I had to rely on my ability to focus up close when I removed my glasses. This is a feat anyone with myopia (AKA short-sightedness) should be quite familiar with. I could read the ultra-tiny text on both displays, though the characters on the Galaxy Nexus screen looked much cleaner, obviously.

However, Iíd expected Iíd be able to read much smaller text with the higher-resolution screen, but that really wasnít the case. The screen could indeed go to much smaller font sizes and still render recognizable characters, but by then they were so small that no one with normal human vision could ever hope to see them anyway. So effectively there was no advantage to the higher resolution other than the cleaner-look to the characters.

Pictures donít look noticeably better either. Looking at a 5 megapixel image (natively 2560 x 1920) scaled down to fit the screen in question, I didnít find that 1280 x 720 display provided much more identifiable detail than the same picture displayed on a screen with just 800 x 480. Unless you are looking at your screen through a magnifying glass it is highly unlikely that youíd really be able to appreciate the difference between the two photographs.

Donít get me wrong, the Nexus display is stunning, and when examined very closely it is astounding. However, in real-world day-to-day viewing I rather doubt that most users would really be able to appreciate the difference. Present apps don't take full advantage of the higher resolution, but perhaps once they do things may change somewhat.

Camera: Many people have already complained that the Galaxy Nexus only comes with a 5-megapixel camera, whereas many other high-end Android devices (including Samsungís own Galaxy S II line) come with an 8-megapixel camera. Letís begin by noting that megapixels are largely a marketing gimmick and donít necessarily result in better pictures. At the end of the day, a 5-megapixel picture that has the same overall quality as an 8-megapixel picture is not inferior. Compared to the camera in my S2 LTE however, the Nexus one does come up a bit short. It produces more noise and it's pictures are less sharp.

My big issue with the camera in the Galaxy Nexus is that it appears to be IDENTICAL to the one in the aging Captivate. This is based on careful examination of pictures taken with both phones of the same subjects under the same lighting conditions. The noise is the same, the color is the same, and the overall quality of the picture is the same. In other words, itís the same device (or as close as makes no difference). Now I like the camera in the Captivate well enough, but I expected the imaging device in the Nexus to be a cut above and at least a match to the camera in the iPhone 4S or the Samsung Galaxy S II, but alas that is not the case.

Ice Cream Sandwich does make picture-taking easier by providing virtually instantaneous shutter response, but this isnít a Nexus-only feature and it should apply to all future phones that get ICS. The same goes for the panorama feature. Besides those two new twists, the camera app provided with ICS is uninspired. It provides very few settings above and beyond the usual stuff like white balance, resolution, etc, and so Iíd be looking for a replacement for it anyway. The camera apps provided by Samsung in their Galaxy S II line are vastly superior (instant shutter response notwithstanding).

The Galaxy Nexus can shoot 1080p video at 30 frames per second, but donít expect these videos to match those from your camcorder or digital camera. The issue is the same with all current smartphone cameras in that each frame of the video is a separate ďphotoĒ which provides none of the transitional blur that makes professional video look smooth (even at lower frame rates).

Additionally, the 1080p videos from the Galaxy Nexus are a bit jerky, suggesting that the dual-core processor isnít able to keep up with the video and has to skip frames from time to time (especially when panning). At 720p the videos look much smoother, and again almost identical to 720p videos shot with the Captivate (though to be fair, the Captivate sometimes skips frames, which is no doubt a result of having only a single-core processor).

To its credit however, the video app uses the entire sensor in all resolutions. It is common to use only the center pixels of the image sensor, which produces a less clean image, but requires less processing power. The Galaxy S II LTE uses the entire sensor as well, but not for 1080p videos.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

RF testing was performed primarily against my S2 LTE in HSPA mode. Both phones were tested on the Rogers network in the same locations. Like the camera, it seems that the RF components in the Galaxy Nexus are more-or-less identical to those in other high-end Samsung phones. Subsequently the overall performance is virtually the same.

The L2 LTE is hardly a superior example of an HSPA radio, and neither is the Nexus. As Howard Chui said in his review, the RF performance is average. However, donít confuse this with BAD. The performance is certainly acceptable, but for a top-of-the-line smartphone, it is a bit disappointing.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Galaxy Nexus in this department is its penta-band HSPA radio. In Canada that means the same phone will work on Bell, Telus, Rogers, Wind Mobile, and Mobilicity. In the US it means the phone will work on AT&T and T-Mobile.

Audio Performance

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

Yet again, we find that the overall audio quality is suspiciously similar to that of the S2 LTE and the Captivate, suggesting that the same audio components are being used. The earpiece is a bit quieter than the S2 LTE, but a bit louder than the Captivate, but overall the sound is so close that you wonít really be able to tell the difference. Subsequently Iím going to borrow (for the most part word for word) from my original review of the Captivate.

Tonal Balance: Compared to the Nokia N95 (my phone prior to the Captivate) some voices sound a little bit harsh, but others sound positively astounding, and so this one is a bit difficult to call. The N95 sounded good, but if you read my original review of it youíll see that I was a bit leery of giving its tonal balance unreserved praise. The same can be said of the Nexus, but for slightly different reasons. Iíve been impressed with the tonal balance of the Captivate (and hence the Nexus) far more often than Iíve been disappointed, but I wish it had a bit more low-end.

Sound Reproduction: While the tonal balance was a tough call, the sound reproduction was not. The Nexus is exceptional in this respect, beginning with its startlingly natural reproduction of all nuances of speech. However, here is where the Nexus definitely differs from the Captivate and S2 LTE, and not in a good way. While the Captivate and S2 LTE have an eerie, almost total absence of background hiss and noise during a call, the Nexus suffers from a fairly annoying dose of it. When I ran a call through the stereo in my car the background noise was really noticeable.

Outgoing Audio: To test outgoing audio I had Howard Chu (thatís HC Ė No ďiĒ, and not the Howard Chui whoíd lent me the phone and runs HowardForums) call me from the Galaxy Nexus and then from his Galaxy S II. I took both of the calls on my Nokia N95 so that those calls were recorded (the call recorder in the N95 makes very high-quality recordings).

We both felt that the outgoing sound on the Galaxy Nexus was slightly tinnier than it was from the S II, but after Iíd played back those recordings numerous times (through my stereo) I decided that the difference was slight, at best. In the end, the Nexus is pretty much the same as the other Galaxy phones offered by Samsung.

Loudspeaker: The single speaker on the Nexus doesnít match the quality and volume of the stereo speakers on the N95, but very few phones can say that. The maximum volume isnít high enough to use this feature in much more than a moderately noisy room. Fortunately the speaker works quite well in multimedia situations and itís quite acceptable for watching videos. Iíve even listened to music quite comfortably using this speaker. Just the same, it could do with sounding a tad less tinny.

Support Features

Ice Cream Sandwich: The big feature of the Galaxy Nexus (at launch at any rate) is that itís the only phone that comes with Android 4.0 operating system. However, this exclusivity wonít last for long and there may even be other Ice Cream Sandwich phones on the market by the time you read this. For that reason I canít really include any of the features available in the new O/S as being reasons to choose the Nexus over anything else.

Since my original review quite a few popular apps have been updated to work with ICS, and so my original misgivings about the incompatibility of numerous apps is no longer a concern. There are still a few things that don't work quite right, but I suspect they'll be corrected in short order.

One aspect of Ice Cream Sandwich (as implemented in the Nexus) that might disappoint some people is that WiFi Direct isn't quite what they were expecting. While ICS is the first version of Android to natively support an API for WiFi Direct, Google has not actually implemented the API in any of the apps that come with the O/S. This is in stark contrast to what Samsung does in their Galaxy S II line, in which WiFi Direct is fully functional in their version of Gingerbread. A Galaxy S II provides mechanisms to share files over WiFi Direct, whereas the Nexus does not.

As a pure Google phone however, the Nexus runs a completely unmodified version of Android, which means rapid release of new versions and no manufacturer-added overlays (like Samsungís Touch Wiz interface). Depending upon your point of view however, the latter point may not necessarily be a good thing. Witness the full implementation of WiFi Direct on the Gingerbread in the Galaxy S II line, as well as the above-average camera app also provided in those phones.

Data Speeds: Sadly the Galaxy Nexus you'll buy to use in Canada is not an LTE phone. There is an LTE model out there, but at present it supports only LTE and CDMA and will only work on Verizon in the United States. Given that there is presently no voice-over-LTE, you'd need to fall back to a different network technology to make voice calls. The LTE/CDMA model won't work with a UMTS network.

The Nexus does however support 21 megabit HSPA+, but as I noted in my review of the Galaxy S II, this isn't really a big deal, because to get HSPA+ speeds you need to be quite close to a site. If you aren't, the data speeds and ping times you'll see are virtually identical to a standard 7.2-megabit HSPA device. The highest speed I ever saw on the Nexus was just over 11 Mbps. On average, the speeds were in the range of 3 to 6 Mbps with ping times of around 100 to 140 milliseconds (which was no different than on my old Captivate).

Browser: The browser in ICS is supposed to be the best ever, but after comparing it to the one in the S2 LTE (which runs Android 2.3.5) I have my doubts about that. For starters, I discovered a rather worrisome problem with the browser and ping times. I ran side-by-side comparisons of the Nexus and the S2 LTE, both connected to my home WiFi. On the computer, tests reveal consistent ping times of 10 to 15 milliseconds. When I ran the Speedtest.com app on the phones I got approximately 20 to 25 milliseconds of latency on each. However, when I ran web-based speed tests (specially I used the one at speedtest.primus.ca) I found that the S2 LTE retained the 20 to 25 millisecond performance, while the Nexus turned in disappointing results of around 50 milliseconds. The test was repeated countless times to ensure it wasn't a fluke.

I was curious whether this increased latency would occur on an HSPA connection (where ping times are markedly poorer to begin with). I found that on average the Nexus browser added 25 to 30 milliseconds of latency to a connection compared to the S2 LTE, which is consistent with the results I got when making the tests over WiFi.

I'm not sure what it is in the browser that adds the increased latency, but the result is noticeably slower loading times of complex web pages on the Nexus vs the S2 LTE (when they are both connected through the same WiFi connection). It's unclear if the browser on the S2 LTE is stock Android or a modified version provided by Samsung. Regardless, the S2 LTE has superior browser performance to the Nexus, even though it runs an older version of Android.

For some reason the browser in the Nexus (and perhaps ICS in general) doesn't come with native support of Flash. If you're like me, you probably thought that meant you were out of luck. However, I installed the Flash Player from the Android Market and it worked just fine. Flash content that wasn't working before suddenly worked without a hitch. Go figure.

WiFi Performance: While I was performing the browser tests I noted above I discovered something troublesome about the WiFi. When I ran speed tests when I was quite close to the router both the Nexus and S2 LTE could turn in similar transfer rates. However, as the signal got weaker the S2 LTE could provide transfer rates that were up to 1.5 to 2 times faster.

This strongly suggests that the RF performance of the WiFi chipset in the Nexus, or the design of its WiFi antenna, is inferior to that of the S2 LTE. This is quite disappointing, because I suspect most use of the Nexus in WiFi mode will take place in a different room from the wireless router.

Storage Space: Like the Nexus S before it, the Galaxy Nexus does not include a MicroSD slot. This means you'll have to make do with the storage space that comes with the phone, which in all likelihood will be 16 GB. There is reportedly a 32 GB model, but that MIGHT be just the LTE/CDMA model sold by Verizon. If you buy a Nexus then, you should be prepared to live with the approximately 13 GB that are free for your use. Without the external card slot, you can't go beyond that.

Battery Life: I found the battery life on the Nexus to be a bit of a mixed bag. In pure standby, with the screen off, the phone used far less power than my S2 LTE, but that might merely have been because I didn't have anywhere near the number of background apps running on the Nexus. When the phone is actively used however, I found that it burned through battery power a little quicker than the S2 LTE, even when that phone operated on the LTE network (which is reportedly a battery killer).

In addition, the back of the Nexus gets quite warm during prolonged used, while the S2 LTE doesn't seem to get very warm at all. This might simply be due to the Nexus being thinner at the top where the process appears to be located.

Audio Chipset: In previous iterations of this review I'd stated that the Nexus, like the S2 LTE and the standard S II (and probably the Nexus S as well), uses a Yamaha audio chipset for multimedia audio. However, I have since discovered that the Nexus uses an audio chipset manufactured by Texas Instruments.

This chipset produces excellent audio when played through an amplifier and speakers, but it suffers from slight (though certainly noticeable) ticking and popping sounds as you do things with the phone while the chip is idle. This doesnít seem to apply when you are actually listening to music, but if you have earbuds on, or have the phone connected to an amplifier while you arenít playing music, youíll hear these sounds constantly as you do things with the phone. The Wolfson Microelectronics chipset used in the Captivate doesnít produce these noises at all.

Conclusions

The problem with the Galaxy Nexus is that once you take Ice Cream Sandwich off the table (because plenty of other phones will have this version of Android in the near future) youíre left with just the hardware, and with the exception of the high-resolution screen there really isnít anything in the Nexus that isnít available, or is implemented better, other models. The 1.2 GHz dual-core processor is matched by numerous other phones and there are models with even faster CPUs. The RF, audio, and camera components appear to be identical to those used in the older Captivate, and 1 GB of RAM is pretty much standard on high-end phones these days.

So throughout my extensive testing I went from wanting a Nexus to being glad I opted for the S II LTE instead. I donít blame Samsung or Google for this state-of-affairs, but rather the rumor mill that turned this phone into something it isnít, long before it hit the market. This phone is NOT the greatest thing since sliced bread. It is NOT the second coming of Christ. It is just a very capable smartphone that is a natural progression from the model it replaces. If seen in that light, the place it holds in the grand scheme of things becomes much clearer, as should your head.
 

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