First Look: Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich

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For all the attractions of Google’s Android mobile operating system, many smartphones based on it have a quality to which no gadget aspires: They’re less than the sum of their parts. The hardware can be clunky. Device makers slather on modified interfaces that hurt rather than help. Wireless carriers add pesky junkware. Did I mention that Android phones are frequently stuck with obsolete versions of the operating system?

Google knows about these issues, and its “Pure Google” Nexus handsets—which offer great hardware, nicely integrated with unsullied, up-to-date versions of  Android—have aimed to sidestep them. Upon their release, both the Nexus One and the Nexus S became the best Android phones on the market. The only problem was that Android in its purest form was still nowhere near as refined as an iPhone.

(MORE: 50 Best iPhone Apps of 2011)

Now there’s the Galaxy Nexus, a new Pure Google phone which is, like the Nexus S, a collaboration between Google and Samsung. It’s the first handset to feature Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Google’s ambitious new upgrade. Judging from the brief time I’ve had with a unit loaned to me by Google, Ice Cream Sandwich makes the Galaxy Nexus a bit of a breakthrough. This phone lives up to its potential in ways that even the Nexus One and Nexus S did not.

The Galaxy Nexus that Google provided is an HSPA+ version that works with T-Mobile, but the first one to go on sale in the U.S. will run on Verizon Wireless’s zippy 4G LTE network. As I write, Verizon hasn’t announced availability and pricing; my guess is “real soon” and “$300 or thereabouts,” respectively.

(MORE: Ask Techland: What’s the Deal with 4G? Is the New iPhone 4G?)

One of Android’s defining features is the openness that permits device manufacturers to put it on phones that vary widely in features, size and style. Despite that, most major Android handsets are actually pretty darn similar. They’re big touchscreen slabs, with displays that dwarf the iPhone’s 3.5″ screen.

If that’s the kind of phone that appeals to you, you’re going to like the Galaxy Nexus. It has a 4.65″ Super AMOLED screen—expansive even by Android standards and packing 1280 by 720 pixels for true HD capability. As with the AMOLED displays on other Samsung phones, this one offers remarkably vivid colors; it’s much crisper than the one on Motorola’s Droid RAZR. It also retains the Nexus S’s subtly curved glass, which adds to the general feel of refinement.

Big-screen phones aren’t better than smaller ones by definition–in fact, they can be a tad unwieldy, especially for one-handed operation. (There’s a limit to how far your thumb can stretch.) But I enjoyed this one, and found that its roominess permitted some of the most error-free typing I’ve ever managed using an on-screen keyboard.

Thanks to Ice Cream Sandwich, the Galaxy Nexus dumps what was until now a signature Android feature: Its reliance on hardware buttons. Previous Android phones have had four of ’em: One took you to the home screen, one let you step back to the previous screen, one pulled up menus and one was for search. It made for a cumbersome interface, especially since Google and phone makers kept changing their minds about the ideal order for the four buttons.

(MORE: Android Ice Cream Sandwich Explained)

Like Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets such as Motorola’s Xoom, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t have any dedicated buttons on its front at all. Instead, there are on-screen ones that appear as needed and which swivel when you rotate the phone. They include the home button and the back one, plus one which pulls up thumbnail images of the apps you’ve recently used so you can bop between them. (A menu button appears when apps require it, but Google seems to be trying to wean Android programs off their reliance on menus.) All in all, the software buttons make for a much more streamlined feel than their hardware-based predecessors.

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A few other notable features of the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich:

General interface tweaks. The whole Android experience just feels less convoluted. Apps such as Gmail and Google Maps haven’t changed radically, but they’ve been spruced up in ways that make them faster and easier to use. For instance, both of those programs now have icon bars that let you get at major features with one tap.

Folders. In a much-needed addition that mimics the equivalent feature in the iPhone’s operating system, iOS, you can put multiple apps into folders by dragging their icons on top of each other.

Camera tricks. The photos I took with the 5-megapixel rear-facing camera on the Galaxy Nexus weren’t as nice as ones from the 8-megapixel model on the iPhone 4S, which is almost incapable of producing bad shots. I did, however, appreciate how amazingly snappy the Nexus’s camera is–when Google claims it has zero shutter lag, they’re serious. And a fun panorama feature, similar to the one on some Sony cameras, lets you create 360-degree views by sweeping the phone around you in a circle.

Media improvements. Google’s movie service now lets you rent HD movies that take advantage of the Galaxy Nexus’s 1280 by 720 pixels of resolution. The phone supports the new Google Music service, although there’s no way to buy music on the device itself yet (though Google’s promised it’s coming “over the next few days”). And a new program called Movie Studio lets you shoot video, then edit it right on the phone.

Beaming. The Galaxy Nexus has Near Field Communications (NFC), an instant-data-transfer feature which, among other things, lets it exchange contacts, apps and other items with other NFC-equipped Android phones by brushing the two devices against each other. NFC, which is also the technology behind Google Wallet, remains an exotic feature; lacking a second NFC-equipped Android phone, I wasn’t able to try Beam out.

Face unlock. Android now sports a facial-recognition feature: When you turn the phone on, it can use its front-facing camera to identify you and let you in. It’s more of a party trick than a serious security measure, though. I was able to duplicate the results of a popular YouTube video that showed that you can break into a locked Galaxy Nexus by holding up a photo of yourself to the camera. (If that rattles you, you can use an old-fashioned passcode.)

With “Pure Google” phones even more than with garden-variety Android handsets, the urge to compare them to the iPhone is irresistible. It’s easy to identify worthwhile features that the Galaxy Nexus has that the iPhone 4S does not, such as the oversized display and the Verizon version’s LTE connection. It’s also obvious that the iPhone 4S has some features that the Nexus lacks, such as the Siri voice-controlled assistant. (The Nexus does have Android’s existing, less imaginative voice-input feature.)

(MORE: Top 20 Must-Have Android Apps)

But mundane feature comparisons only tell you so much about how two phones compare. With smartphones more than almost any other type of gadget, it’s the overall experience that counts, as defined by the way its hardware, software and services mesh together. Apple is brilliant at overall experiences. Have the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich caught up with the iPhone and iOS?

No. Let’s face it: Nobody does Apple-style polish and integration like Apple does, and it’s unlikely that anyone ever will. iOS remains slicker, simpler and more consistent than even this new-and-improved version of Android. It has a better selection of music, movies and other content, and more seamless tools for getting them. Its App Store still handily beats the Android Marketplace for both quantity and quality of software, and some blockbuster applications, such as photo-sharing favorite Instagram, remain iOS exclusives.

For the most part, the Galaxy Nexus’s 1.2-GHz dual-core processor makes for a fluid experience, but I did encounter some instances when the phone briefly ignored my taps and swipes–a usability glitch that’s pretty much unknown in the Apple world. And it’s not hard to find instances where Android is less humane and helpful than iOS. (If you accidentally try to go online when the Galaxy Nexus is in airplane mode, Android simply declares that it can’t find the Internet; iOS, by contrast, points out that you’ve shut off the wireless connection and offers to assist you in turning it back on.)

Then there’s the fact that the Galaxy Nexus is, for the moment, the only phone blessed with Ice Cream Sandwich. When Apple rolls out a new version of iOS, it’s immediately available for existing iPhones going back several generations. But even purchasers of brand-new phones such as the Droid RAZR are going to have to wait for the update, and some handsets will never get it.

Still, for now, this new Pure Google device is, once again, the best Android smartphone so far. It doesn’t beat the iPhone at its own game, but it’s certainly a worthy rival in a way that previous Android phones have not been. And every other new Android device that runs Ice Cream Sandwich will benefit from the new software’s many improvements. Let’s just hope that hardware makers and wireless carriers resist the temptation to muck around with it too much.

MORE: Android’s Fragmentation Mess–and How to Fix It

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