A Long-Time Apple Nerd’s Review of the Galaxy Nexus and First Experience With Android

For the past week I’ve been using a Galaxy Nexus on loan from Verizon as my primary phone.

The Galaxy Nexus is the Android world’s version of the iPhone 4S. The software on it is the latest and greatest version of Android, and the hardware is Google’s newest flagship phone made in conjunction with Samsung. As far as Google is concerned, right now, the device and software I have are the best yet. This is the best possible first impression Google could hope for me, an Apple nerd, to have of their products.

I say first impression because this is the first time I have spent longer than 5 minutes with an Android device. I’ve been using the new Nexus as my primary phone to do just about anything and everything I normally would use my iPhone for. Such as: make calls, send texts, check and post to Twitter and Path, listen to Rdio and Pandora, get directions, browse the Web, and read my RSS feeds.

There were things I could not do on the Nexus that I can do on my iPhone, but they were mostly limited to the 3rd-party iOS apps which are not not available on Android Market. Otherwise the Galaxy Nexus worked fine as my full-time phone. Now, if I was impressed and delighted by the hardware and software is another question.

Read on for my review of the Galaxy Nexus and my first impressions of Android.

I. The Galaxy Nexus (Hardware)

The Galaxy Nexus is one of just a few devices that currently run Android 4.0 (a.k.a. “Ice Cream Sandwich”; a.k.a. “ICS”). For me the bigger experience was Android, which I’ll get to later in the review. A device is only as great as the software that runs on it. Moreover, what is good or bad about the Galaxy Nexus as a hardware unit, is not necessarily indicative of what is good and bad about Android. If you don’t like the Nexus you can simply wait for another hardware device that you do like. But if you don’t like Android, then you need to look somewhere else altogether.

Speaking strictly of the hardware, my overall impression of the Galaxy Nexus is that it’s fine from afar, but it is far from fine.

Ironically, the biggest shortcomings of the Galaxy Nexus are also its most-hallmarked features: the screen size and its 4G LTE connectivity.

The 4.65-inch Screen

The screen of Galaxy Nexus is noticeably larger than the iPhone. In fact, it’s larger than any other phone I’ve held or even seen since the ’90s. Every single person I showed the phone to, their first comment was, this thing is huge.

The Nexus is just ever-so-slightly thicker than the iPhone 4S, and it is just ever-so-slightly heavier as well (144g and 141g respectively). But, despite it weighing more than the iPhone 4S, it actually feels lighter when holding the Nexus in one hand and the iPhone in the other.

The huge screen size of the Galaxy Nexus actually made me appreciate the smaller size of my iPhone even more. A smartphone is a mobile device. It is meant to go with you everywhere. It should fit in any pocket on your outfit, it should be tough, it should be easy to use for a few seconds or for several hours, it should have a battery that lasts for a long time, and it should be your favorite gadget because it’s the one that’s with you 24 hours a day.

I never got comfortable with the Galaxy Nexus. I cannot comfortably use the Nexus with one hand because it is just too big. It is too tall and too wide for a comfortable grip, and so the phone never feels balanced and safe in my hand. Professional basketball players may prefer the Galaxy Nexus and its 4.65-inch screen, but I prefer the size of the iPhone.

Not only is the screen of the Galaxy Nexus bigger than the iPhone, the screen technology in the Galaxy Nexus is also different. Both the iPhone and the Galaxy Nexus have gorgeous screens, and I never felt like the Galaxy Nexus had an inferior display — it was extremely crisp — but despite its high density, the Super AMOLED PenTile screen is not a true Retina display like the iPhone 4 and 4S is.

There are two types of Super AMOLED PenTile screens. One type is Super AMOLED plus, and one type is sans-plus. The Galaxy Nexus has a Super AMOLED display (no plus). Which means that it shares sub-pixels, thus even though text looks crisp and colors are bright, if I hold it up close to my eye it is easier to make out the pixels than on the iPhone 4/4S display. This display is nice, but it’s not Retina display nice.

Also, the screen does not do well with large spots of dark color. Dark-colored websites (such as this one) seemed to have textured backgrounds. So did dark apps.

The screen has an ever-so-slight curve to it that I don’t even notice when holding. The curve helps to make the phone more comfortable when held up to my ear when on a call, or when placed in my pocket. And I think it adds a nice aesthetic to the device.

Something else of note about the screen is that it does not have a home button on the bottom. After more than 4 years with an iPhone, I kept going for the Nexus’s Home button, but there is nothing there. To turn on the display you have to tap the “lock/unlock” button which is on the right-hand side of the device toward the top. To unlock the Lock Screen you then slide to unlock the phone, similar to iOS. (You can also use a slide-pattern or even facial recognition to unlock.)

Believe it or not (I bet you believe it), the Lock button and the slide-to-unlock tap target are too far apart from one another. This drove me nuts!

The phone is literally too big to easily and comfortably unlock with one hand. It’s so big, that to hold it in one hand where I can comfortably press the lock/unlock button I am holding the phone in the middle. But in that grip I cannot comfortably reach the slide to unlock slide. And so I would have to shimmy my hand down the phone to be able to reach the slide-to-unlock tap target. Or, I have to use the phone with two hands. It would be better if the “slide to unlock” icon were sitting right underneath the time/date on the Lock screen.

I unlock my iPhone dozens if not hundreds of times per day. It’s a muscle memory at this point and it is a piece of cake. Due to the size of the Galaxy Nexus and the placement of its Lock button, I don’t feel that I have a good solid grip on the phone when holding it in such a way that I can press the hardware lock button and also reach the slide-to-unlock tap target.

This gives the Galaxy Nexus an aura that makes me wonder if it’s supposed to be a tablet that makes phone calls or a phone that you need two hands to use. I realize that’s a goofy and exaggerated statement, but I exaggerate it to make a point I am serious about: the phone is simply too big.

If this were my full-time phone, I’d be sad. It never once was fun or comfortable to hold. I would not recommend this device simply on its size alone.

4G LTE (and therefore, Battery Life as well)

Download and upload speeds on 4G LTE can be crazy fast. When I ran the Speed Test app, the 4G gave me some relatively impressive numbers, with download speeds as fast as 10Mbps and uploads of 5.5Mbps. At times, some of the tests on the 4G network were actually faster than the test run when Wi-Fi was connected — though my 4G numbers were nothing compared to the 44Mbps down and 16Mbps up that Dwight Silverman saw. On average, however, the 4G speeds on Verizon’s LTE network turned out to be comparable to the 3G speeds of AT&T’s network (at least here at my house in Kansas City).

Here are the results from speed tests conducted at my home in Kansas City. These results are the average of 5 consecutive tests I ran using the SpeedTest.net app (which has both an Android and iOS version).

Device Connection Ping (ms) Down (Mbps) Up (Mbps)
Nexus Wi-Fi 99 27.14 5.17
iPhone 4S Wi-Fi 106 28.44 5.18
Nexus 4G LTE 113 7.00 3.13
iPhone 4S 4G LTE n/a n/a n/a
Nexus 3G CDMA 159 0.22 0.33
iPhone 4S 3G GSM 229 4.34 1.68

The default of the Galaxy Nexus is to run on LTE and fallback on CDMA. But you can turn off the LTE connection altogether if you want. Which is your only hope if you like battery life.

I would assume that most Android users would like to have the option of being able to turn on or off the 4G connection at their discretion. Because it seems like that is what Android is all about: include lots of options and let the user decide what they want. You get good and bad with this because it means if you don’t like something about the OS you can probably find a hack or a 3rd-party solution to change it. But, on the other side of that coin, you get lots of design and functionality tradeoffs (both in hardware and in software).

Today, 4G LTE may be the quintessential functionality tradeoff. Fortunately you don’t have to leave the LTE connection enabled. Personally, I would like the option of 4G, but in normal day-to-day use of the Galaxy Nexus I would have the 4G connection disabled. I am usually around a hotspot and though the Verizon’s LTE network in Kansas City is pretty good it’s actually not mind-blowing.

With 4G simply being enabled, even if I am at home where I have Wi-Fi, and if I use the Nexus very little, the battery will be dead by the end of my day (about 10 hours). With 4G disabled the phone would last for more than 20 hours with light usage.

Here’s the crazy part: when I am actually using the 4G network for tasks — such as turn-by-turn navigation or video streaming — it will drain 1-percent or more of battery life per minute.

Now, the Galaxy Nexus takes about 90 minutes to charge from 0 to 100-percent when plugged into the wall. Thus, when using 4G data while plugged into the wall charger your battery is basically treading water. If the phone is plugged into a less-powerful power source (such as a USB hub or a car charger) then using 4G will actually drain your battery faster than the power source can charge it — though it will not drain at the same one-percent-per-minute speed.

Earlier this week I spent some time driving around Kansas City in order to field test the turn-by-turn navigation, the LTE network, and the battery life. At 11:30 AM I started out and the battery of the Nexus was at 43-percent. After 25 minutes the battery had drained down to 33-percent even though it was plugged into a car charger.

Think about that. If you’re on a road trip and want to use the 4G LTE network to provide you with driving directions, your drive had better be shorter than 4 hours because even when plugged into a car charger, the battery will not last.

To disable 4G LTE on the Nexus go to: Settings → More → Mobile Networks → Network mode → CDMA.

The Camera

It stinks. It reminds me of the camera on my 3GS.

Here are two pictures of our christmas tree, Doug VI. The one on the left was taken with the Nexus, the one on the right with my iPhone 4S. Both images are straight out of the phones with the default settings.

Galaxy Nexus Camera compared to the iPhone 4S Camera

The lens on the Galaxy Nexus aside, the camera software on Android has some cool features. Including exposure control, silly video effects, and a clever panorama ability.

Hardware Miscellany

  • The Galaxy Nexus is glass and plastic. The Galaxy Nexus does not feel cheap, but it does feel lighter and less elegant than the iPhone. Of course, the plastic also helps contribute to the weight. I think if the Nexus were metal and glass like the iPhone it would be much too heavy.

  • As I mentioned earlier, there is no Home button on the front. This means, if the phone is on your desk and you want to turn on the display you have to grip it on both sides and press the unlock button. On the iPhone you can simply tap on the Home button. Also, this means if you pull the phone out of your pocket to quickly check the time or see a notification you have to hold the whole phone and balance it properly in order to hit the Lock button and turn on the display.

  • The Nexus has “vibrate on touch” on by default. This struck me as annoying at first, but after a few days I got quite used to it. Though I don’t miss it on my iPhone, it is a nice feature that helps with improved typing on the software keyboard.

  • The top of the phone got noticeably warm after being on a 15 minute phone call using the 4G LTE network.

  • To take a screenshot you press and hold the Lock button and the volume down button. I had to do a quick Google search to figure this out. But apparently screenshots have not always been so easy on Android in the past. I got a lot of comments on Twitter asking how I figured out how to take a screenshot.

    What I also like about the way Android 4.0 handles screenshots is that they go into the Notification Center. If you take a screenshot that you want to use immediately you can swipe down the Notification Center, tap on the screenshot and then act on it.

  • There is no branding on the front of the device. The Typography and layout of the lock screen is pretty cool.

  • The small, LED notification indicator that pulses on the bottom of the screen is a nice touch. It flashes different colors for different apps that are causing the notification. The colors I’ve seen are white, blue, and yellow. So far as I can tell:

    • White = new email, an update is available for an app, and/or a new message
    • Blue = Official Twitter app
    • Yellow = TweetDeck
  • The speaker is pitiful. For such a large screen you would think that the device is primed for media. But it’s not. Even in my quiet living room I could barely make out dialog in a movie. Music streaming was at best light background music. If you plan on using the Nexus to watch movies, keep your earbuds nearby.

Who’s Fighting For the Users?

In short, the Galaxy Nexus seems more like a phone that its makers can brag about making rather than a device that its users would brag about owning. It has all sorts of features that seem great on posters and billboards and board meeting reports, but none of those features enhance the actual user experience.

II. Android 4.0 (Software)

As I mentioned, this is my first long-term exposure to Android. There are several great things about Android that I like, and there are several things about it which drove me bonkers. Some are related to the user experience and some are related to the design and aesthetics of Ice Cream Sandwich.

Android is jam packed with options and customizability. In some cases, these extra options are great. For example, the alarms app and its ability to set multiple repeating alarms, or the battery detail page within the Settings app. But in some cases the extra options seemed annoying .

What can I do on Android that I cannot do on iOS?

Since I’ve been using an iPhone since 2007, it’s easy to list off the slew of functions, features, and 3rd-party apps I’ve grown to rely on over the past four and a half years. But other than the apps, what about Android is different? I asked this question on Twitter, and along with some of my own observations, put together this short list of some of the highest-level things that set Android apart from iOS (not including the two different app store ecosystems).

  • Side load apps. This means you don’t have to get your apps via the Android Market. There are pros and cons to this of course. It means you can load any app you want. How many average users do this though?

  • Widgets on the home screen. This is one of my favorite features of Android. I have a clock widget, a weather widget, and a quick settings widget that lets me toggle on/off the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and screen rotation lock, and brightness levels. I like how the Android Home screen feels open and functional — it is more than just a springboard.

  • Apps are not silos. They can share information with one another and offer services. If you’re in the photos app and you choose to “share” this photo, any app on your phone that can do something with that image is available on the share list. You can mail it, tweet it, paste it into a note, send it as a text message, post it to Path, upload to Picasa, etc. The limit is only the amount of apps you have installed.

  • You can replace system apps and services with 3rd party apps, such as the Keyboard (example: Swype).

  • Tight integration with Google, and the Google apps are pretty swell — Google Voice, Gmail, navigation, maps — these are all some of the best apps on Android. I use Gmail pretty much like IMAP, so having a native Gmail client on my phone doesn’t have any extra appeal to me.

Android Market and 3rd-Party Apps

Speaking of 3rd-party apps, this is where you can really get locked in to one mobile operating system or another. If you’ve been using one platform for a while you begin to rely on many of the 3rd-party apps that are found on that platform. It’s one thing to learn a new operating system, it is another thing altogether to change your daily workflow and habits because the apps you’ve grown accustomed to no longer exist on your new device.

The Android Market is certainly full of apps, and it gets a lot of traffic. Twitter for Android, for example, has been downloaded more than 10,000,000 times.

To use the market you have to have a Google account. When you search for an app a list of common search terms begins to populate. When you get to an app’s page in the Market you see how many downloads it has had and how many ratings it has. When you download an app you are shown what the app’s permissions are (i.e. what it can access and modify on your phone). For free apps, there is no need to authenticate every time you download an app.

I did not find a single 3rd-party Android app that I felt had the same spit and polish to it as my favorite iOS apps. The Google maps and turn-by-turn voice navigation app were both very impressive, but these are not 3rd-party.

My favorite 3rd-party Android apps were Path and Rdio (which also happen to be iOS apps).

The Difference of iOS Apps That Have Android Versions

  • Twitter: The first thing I noticed about the Twitter app was the poor scrolling, and the jankiness when I pulled down to refresh. However, I think this speaks more of Twitter and perhaps less of the entire Android OS because most of the native Android apps scroll very smoothly.

    The official Twitter app does not have an in-app web browser. Thus, links to websites open in the Android browser app. To get back to the main Twitter timeline from a link in an individual tweet means I have to press the Android OS Back button about 4 or 5 times (due to the t.co redirects). Sometimes though I would’t be able to get back at all because the Back button wouldn’t switch me back out of the browser app and back into the Twitter app.

  • Path: Path is another app that has an iOS counterpart. There are many things about Path and Twitter that are different on their Android versions than on their iOS versions. For instance, if you’ve used Path then you know how your cover image moves a bit if you pull down on your timeline. On Android the timeline and cover image are static once you reach the “top”. Also the text is much smaller in the Android version than it is on iOS.

  • Rdio: I was pleasantly surprised to find Rdio in the Android Market. It is a fine app on Android and works great.

  • Square: Another iOS app that also exists on Android. There are more than just these 4 I’m sure.

The Back, Home, and App Switching Buttons

My motto for using the Galaxy Nexus became: “When in doubt, hit the back button.”

When launching an app, nearly every one would place me on the screen that I left it. I would get to an app (such as the settings or email or Twitter) and not be at the “first” screen in that app. If it had been a day or so since last coming into the app I may not have known exactly why I wasn’t looking at the starting screen for that app and so I would simply hit the Back button and see where that got me. Sometimes it would kick me back to the Home screen. Sometimes into another app. And sometimes to the previous page in the app. I’m still not sure I know what the Back button does exactly.

The Home button works as advertised. Tapping it would take you home. Personally, never did get used to this being a software button. I am so used to the hardware Home button on the iPhone, and I often find it through tactile feedback. The Galaxy Nexus’s software home button has to be seen to be touched.

I have read many past reviews about the maddening placement of the home button and how dangerously close to the space bar it is. People would be typing and accidentally hit the home button and be kicked out of their work. I never once had this problem.

The App Switching Button also works as advertised. And is actually one of my favorite little features and UI designs on Android OS. Let’s talk more about it…

App Switching

The fast-app switcher in Android 4.0 is awesome. I love the way it pops up over the screen and shows the screenshots of the apps. I also like how you can swipe an app off the screen to end its background process.

Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0 Fast-App Switching

On the other hand, when switching between apps from within apps there is no tip-off within Android to let you know that you’ve switched apps. In iOS this is done by an animations that shows one app’s window moving over and off the screen as another app’s window comes in from behind. You know that you’ve switched to a new app. But in Android there is no such animation.

For example: in TweetDeck and in the Google RSS reader, links to websites would open in the browser app, not the app I was in. There was no animation for it and so I didn’t know I was in the browser app. And so hitting the “Back” button would then take me back to the Web page I had last been on in the browser app, not the screen I was last at in the previous app.

Regarding Options

Android strikes me as an operating system that greatly values having a plethora of options and choice. In fact, if I had to sum up all I’ve learned about Android over the past week it would be about the high value placed on being able to customize your phone.

Compared to Android I can see why iOS seems so “closed” to some people. iOS values simplicity and refinement over tweakability.

Android has options for just about everything. But, in spite of all its options and ability to customize, I didn’t find Android to be more powerful than iOS. Of all the options and choices that I was given by Android, there was nothing in Android that I could not also accomplish on iOS. In fact, the options and choices usually got in my way.

Moreover, of the millions of users on Android, how many exercise this freedom of choice that is a part of the Android OS?

UI Miscellany

I do like the overall “transparent look” of the Android operating system windows. Such as the way the notification panel is semi-transparent over what’s in the background, and the way the fast-app switcher is also semi-transparent.

And I especially love the Android Home screen. Something I have always liked about Android are the way the wallpapers work on the Home screens. Not only the live wallpapers (which I quite enjoy), but also the way that even a static wallpaper will slide slightly in the background as you navigate left and right to different home screens.

I like that you can install widgets on the Home screen that allow you to do certain tasks and access certain settings. I like how many of the Home screen icons are smaller and are not all the exact same square shape with rounded edges. In fact, after using Android my iPhone Home screen felt a bit crowded.

Moreover, on Android your main home screen isn’t the left-most screen. I do not use Spotlight in iOS that often and wouldn’t mind it being two screens to the left.

The Keyboard

One benefit of the larger screen on the Nexus is that it makes for plenty of room to accommodate the keyboard. The Keyboard is one of the nicest things about Android. It felt responsive and easy to tap-type on. It autocorrected nearly perfectly every time. And, most of all, the auto-correct and quick-access bar (or whatever it is called) that sits above the QWERTY keys quickly became an invaluable tool that helped with typing.

Android 4.0 Keyboard

Notifications

The way Android handles notifications is excellent. On Android 4.0 the notification only takes over the very top status bar. It is much less graphically driven and is a simple text update. On iOS 5, if you are using it when a notification pops up, it hijacks two rows worth of space on the top of the screen. I like the Android way of doing notifications better.

Scrolling

Scrolling on the Nexus is, for the most part, very fast. Websites that have loaded, list views in native apps and some 3rd-party apps — they all have smooth and fast scrolling. The official Twitter app for Android however is a turd when it comes to scrolling. This is unfortunate because there are no great Twitter clients for Android. In fact, the Twitter mobile website scrolls better on Android than the native Twitter app.

Though Android is responsive, the overall UI still doesn’t feel fast to me. Because it’s not an issue of responsiveness but rather of consistency in design. I can fly through iOS because it’s both responsive and consistent. Android 4.0 on the Galaxy Nexus is responsive, but there are things about it that are inconsistent or confusing. Often times the same actions (such as sharing) in different apps use different buttons stashed away in different places.

Also, the size of the screen really does make a difference. As I’ve said before, I simply cannot easily use the Galaxy Nexus with one hand. That’s not a fault of Android, rather it’s an issue with the Galaxy Nexus hardware. But it does mean the device is slower to use because I cannot get a comfortable grip on it where I can access the whole screen with one hand.

Scrolling a website, like in webOS, is handled better on iOS than on Android. Take a look at this chart I drew comparing scroll behavior in webOS against iOS. Substitute “Android” for “webOS” and the chart is still relevant.

You cannot tap on the top status bar to scroll to the top of the screen. So far as I know, the only way to scroll to the top is to swipe, swipe, swipe. This is a feature of iOS I use all the time.

When you reach the top or bottom of a scroll view a glowing light appears. The scroll view does not rubber band like on iOS. The same goes for left-to-right scrolling. But not so in the Apps and Widgets adder. When I reached the end of the list of pages, the final page acted as if it wanted to turn but could not.

Final Verdict

Android should be reserved for those who know what they are getting into. If someone I know needs a recommendation for what smart phone to get, I would not recommend Android to them.

To those who want to use Android, I say go for it. I don’t think that choice is wrong — there are many fine things about the Android OS and many things it does differently and better than iOS. I can understand how tech-savvy power-users who know what they are getting into would like Android. For them, the trade-offs in certain areas are a welcome sacrifice in exchange for the customizability, the different look, and the plethora of hardware devices to choose from. At the OS level, Android is certainly much more customizable than iOS (you can install a 3rd party keyboard if you don’t like the system’s default one), you can put widgets on the Home screens, and the turn-by-turn voice navigation is killer.

But my overall impression after using Android for a week was that of being underwhelmed. Though the operating system is functional and advanced in certain areas, it still has an overarching feel of still being immature. Moreover, there was nothing on Android that made me feel more empowered compared to using my iPhone.

Sure, there are bits of the Android OS that I like and appreciate, but never once was I wowed or delighted. Which is unfortunate, because those are important elements when you are using a device day in and day out every day of the year.


More software and hardware reviews here.
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