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Every time Google releases a Nexus device, it is a pretty big deal. And rightly so, because the Nexus is presented as the defining standard for Android software and hardware for at least the next year. As such, Samsung's new Galaxy Nexus is a significant device for Google, Android, and the mobile market in general.

This latest iteration of the Nexus line has received a more major redesign than the last version, quite a bump in specifications, and a completely revamped version of Android. There's a lot going on, and a lot of questions about these changes.

Does the impressive on paper hardware really stack up in daily use? More importantly, though, has Google finally solved problems with both fragmentation and usability with Android 4.0? Read on past the break to find out.


Specifications

On paper, the Galaxy Nexus looks like one killer phone. It packs a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, a 4.65-inch 720p (1280 x 720) display, PowerVR SGX540 graphics, and the whole plethora of connectivity and sensors including Bluetooth, Wifi, NFC, compass, barometer, and gyroscope. Although the camera is only 5MP, but it includes an almost instant shutter, as well as 1080p video recording. It may not be quad-core, but for now it has just about every piece of hardware a phone enthusiast could ask for.

Design

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The Galaxy Nexus is made by Samsung, and decidedly so. Fortunately though, all the things I usually complain about on Samsung devices are gone, while all the good remains. For example, the flimsy plastic feel is gone, and the Galaxy Nexus feels as solid as an HTC device. Still, the Nexus manages to be light in the hand (though perhaps not quite as light as other devices), and manages to look sleek as well.

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Google's decision to forgo hardware buttons in favor of software makes the front of the Galaxy Nexus even more sparse than usual. A very thin (a little more than 1cm) black bezel is found at both the top and bottom, and the side bezel is mere millimeters thick. The only interruption of the contour glass surface is the speaker grille, which is centered at the top of the phone as usual. 

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Samsung still uses plastic on the back cover of the Nexus, but the new textured battery cover is so much better than the glossy cheap-feeling panel on the Nexus S that it's hardly even worth a comparison. Instead of feeling like cheap and flimsy plastic, the entire Galaxy Nexus feels incredibly solid, and the textured cover doesn't creak or move at all.

In fact, while we are on the topic of build quality, I may as well say something about durability. My last Samsung device was a Samsung Fascinate, which broke after a 1 meter fall onto my driveway. Despite the Gorilla Glass, the screen shattered and I was left with every gadget users nightmare. 

With the Galaxy Nexus, durability was a different story. I never intentionally try to test the durability of devices, but it just so happens that I accidentally subjected the Nexus to a fairly common accident. I left the device sitting on a jacket in the back seat of my car, and when I took the jacket out the Nexus fell about 1 meter, appeared to land on the glass, and flipped over onto before before coming to rest.

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Fully expecting to deal with the pains of a broken device, I picked it up. To my surprise, the display was still perfectly fine. In fact, only evidence that it had ever dropped at all was on the top right corner of the device, and the scratches are so negligible as to be almost unnoticable in normal use. 

Although it was unintentional, this little test really impressed me, especially with my past experience with Samsung devices. It seems clear that the Galaxy Nexus is very well and solidly built, and should stand up to daily wear and tear without any problems at all.

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Getting back to the phone's layout, Samsung has placed the power button on the right side of the phone, a design decision that almost all their new smartphones have. It makes sense in a device this big, as it means the power button is usually right under your thumb when you pick up the device with your right hand. For a right handed person, that certainly seems to make more sense than having to stretch to reach a power button on the top of the smartphone (especially one as tall as this), but I suppose some left handed people might not appreciate it.

Those three metal dots you see are contacts for a cordless charging dock, but as of yet Samsung has not released any accessories to take advantage of it. Already, though, users are hard at work making use of this inclusion, so if you are the impatient type there will likely be a way to build a dock yourself, as long as you are willing to get your hands dirty.

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The volume rocker is found about the same distance down the side of the device as the power button, but on the opposite side. It is the only thing occupying the left side of the device, and there is nothing either remarkable or concerning about it. It's a volume rocker, and it works.

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Another element of Samsung's design in this smartphone is the bottom mounted headphone jack, which sits next to a microphone and the microUSB port. Having become accustom to this placement, I have actually begun to prefer it to placing the headphone jack on the top. Of course, there are some trade-offs, if you put the Nexus in an upright dock, the headphone jack will more than likely be inaccessible.

While it looks small, the loudspeaker still provided decent sound. It was a little soft, as Samsung speakers usually are, but it was perfectly sufficient for most speakerphone calls. I wouldn't play music with it, but it works for what it's supposed to do.

Display

Samsung equipped the Galaxy Nexus with a 720p Super AMOLED display, and it is absolutely gorgeous. The 316ppi pixel density nearly matches the iPhone's 326ppi display, and on a much larger display as well. Not only that, Samsung's Super AMOLED technology means that the 16 million colors on this display really look vibrant and "pop" while the blacks are pure and indistinguishable from the bezel of the device.

Super AMOLED also helps with sunlight viewing, which was just about as good as it gets for a smartphone. As for angular viewing, the Nexus performs admirably, and I never noticed any major distortion except at nearly 180 degree angles.

What this all amounts to is the best display I have ever used on a phone to date. Yes, it is PenTile, but there is no way to tell unless you are looking very hard for it. In actual use, PenTile is a non issue. Between the 720p resolution and the vibrant colors, I am confident that the 4.65-inch display on the Galaxy Nexus is currently one of, if not the best display you can get on a phone at this time. The only real complaint I foresee is size, but with such a thin bezel that shouldn't be much of a problem either.

Camera

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Much fuss has been made over the Galaxy Nexus having "only" a 5MP camera when most high-end phones have at least 8MP, but that difference means almost nothing in regular use. As was often said when defending the iPhone 4's 5MP camera, megapxels aren't everything. In fact, they make very little diffference in smartphone cameras.

What is important is the sensor, and that is where the Galaxy Nexus falls somewhat short. The device took some great shots outdoors with bright light, but low light situations were a different story. It works like a cellphone camera, and only producces sligtly less than average pictures. 

Also, color reproduction appeared to be somewhat muted, and everything appeared a bit washed out. This was only evident when comparing the Galaxy Nexus to shots with a real camera, but even with an iPhone 4 you could sometimes tell that the color was just a bit off on the Nexus.

Back on the positive side, the shutter is seriously fast. Almost as fast as you can tap the button, the Galaxy Nexus can take a picture. The only caviat here is that the speed decreases if you have flash on, but that is really to be expected.

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Even with its flaws, the camera on the Galaxy Nexus is still very good. Well-lit images look great, and dark picturers look only as bad as the next cell phone camera. Color reproduction could be better, but I find that when I need a good camera I will still get out the dedicated device. For everything else, there is the smartphone camera. And most of the pictures, like the one above, aren't bad at all.

Performance and Battery Life

The Galaxy Nexus is fast. Blazingly fast. So much so that all doubts about the technical specs of the GPU were put to rest in my mind the first time I picked up the phone. Yes, it doesn't have the same benchmark-busting GPU that resides in the Galaxy SII. Yes, it also doesn't blow away the benchmarks. However, none of that really seems to matter.

Whether its the hardware acceleration and optimization of ICS or the power of the dual-core processor, everything I tried to do on the Nexus went smoothly. Apps open quickly, list scroll perfectly, and even the notorious homescreen transition appeared to be quite peppy. I realize that all these measures are objective, but I have found objective measures to be very important with smartphones. I've used phones that should have been fast on paper that felt slow, and phones that should have been average seem fast. In the end, the user experience is very dependent both on software and how you use the device, so results are still going to vary by user.

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With such a big display, one would naturally be inclined to think that the Nexus would drain battery. This is not the case, and the Galaxy Nexus actually performed very well in my unscientific tests. With both 4G and Bluetooth on (but not necessarily active) all day, I usually got to 7 PM with well over 50% charge. On the days when I did a lot of music streaming via Google Music that went down to about 30%, but even with fairly heavy use the Nexus makes it through a day just fine.

As always, I still suggest charging the device overnight so that you can have a full charge in the morning, but even on standby all night the device only loses about 5% charge. It is not technically the largest, but the battery int he Galaxy Nexus had enough capacity not to cause me to worry about battery life at all, and is one of the better performing batteries I have used in an Android smartphone. 

Software

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No matter how good the hardware of the Galaxy Nexus, it can always be eclipsed by other manufacturers within a few months. It may be frustrating, but that is the reality of the Android hardware release cycle. For example, HTC will probably be announcing a quad-core smartphone in a matter of weeks.

This situation is what makes software so important, and makes the Nexus brand special. Not only does a Nexus ship with the very latest of Android software, version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, it will continue to be updated for at least two years with whatever updates Google releases.

For now, though, the software is Ice Cream Sandwich, which is in itself a pretty big deal. With Ice Cream Sandwich, Google threw out much of what was found in Gingerbread, including both themes and functionality. Android 4.0 is a completely reworked version of the OS, with a new look borrowed from Honeycomb and a mission to unify and beautify the Android experience across multiple form factors.

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This all starts with the launcher, which has been tweaked and themed to be much better than what Gingerbread offered. For one, its fast and smooth, traits that in the past have been frustratingly absent from previous stock launchers. It also looks much better than it used to, with updated icons and stock widgets. 

Folders have been updated, and you can now drag and drop items over one another to create a folder. You can also create folders in the dock, as well as replace any of the icons but the app drawer. 

I am still undecided about the onscreen buttons. For one, they provide a little extra real estate when watching videos, and they do make the build of the device more uniform. 

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Applications are now launched through a horizontally scrolling drawer, which is still opened by the traditional center button. I like this much better than vertical scrolling as it makes things much easier to find, but it would be nice if there was an option to make the drawer transparent.

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Instead of a popup dialogue, widgets are now found within the app drawer if you scroll to the right past the end of the apps, or tap the widgets tab at the top of the screen. Tapping and holding a widget will bring it to the homescreen, where you can place or resize it as you wish.

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Nearly everything about Ice Cream Sandwich has been rethemed and redesigned, basic things like the dialer included. Above you can see how it has been retooled to match the blue theme, and has added flat button styling, which looks much better than it did in Gingerbread.

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Once again, the keyboard has been updated, but this time it appears to be a little more than a theme change. Multitouch does work well, and word prediction was better than usual. Still, the keyboard is pretty much an improved version of what shipped with Gingerbread.

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For the first time in many versions, the settings menu has also been fundamentally changed. Now, instead of just the list of options, you get some nice toggles, and well categorized options for the rest of the settings. This is one of the subtle changes, which, while not a big deal on the surface, really serves to make Ice Cream Sandwich much more polished than previous versions.

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In the gallery app is yet another example of much better software design on Google's part, as the previous 3D gallery has been replaced by a much sleeker 2D version that scrolls horizontally. The interface is clean, but all the options are still available if you hit the menu button in the top right corner. Overall, it is just much better design, and is easier on the eyes as well. 

On the whole, Google has nailed it with Android 4.0. There may be the occasional quirk as there always is with a reworked system, but nearly all the improvements are for the better. The Android team has listened to the complaints about ease of use on Android, and have managed to maintain the same level of functionality while making everything much more intuitive. Not only that, the entire interface also looks so much more modern than previous versions, and really has a polish and class not common to Android. Now, perhaps these opinions are partially due to the fact that I am a heavy Android user, but I think that Ice Cream Sandwich is the most accessible, functional, and beautiful version of the Android OS yet. It is more than just the usual upgrade, and it seems to be a big step in the right direction for Android.

Final Thoughts

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I've always been a fan of the Nexus line. Since I don't like manufacturer skins at all, and always like to have the latest software available, they are a perfect fit for my use case. Additionally, they usually have some cutting edge specs that will last them at least throughout the term of a two-year contract.

Some users may have been disappointed when the Nexus S proved to be only an incremental upgrade over the Nexus One, but with the Galaxy, the Nexus is back. Even with the 5MP camera and supposedly outdated GPU, I would feel comfortable picking up the device on contract and knowing it would continue to be relevant for the full two years. It ranks up there with the very best smartphones available right now, and thanks to continuous software updates will continue to be relevant for some time.