Having waited for goodness how long for the latest iteration of the iPhone, and being surprised, yet not surprised at the gentle evolution of the apple halo device I found myself looking at other platforms that were available as I fancied a change in what I use on a day to day basis. I’ve long been a fan of Apples devices but often sat there wondering what its devices software would be like if people could actually play with it a bit more.
So with the impending arrival of the latest Google Android software 4.0 – code name Ice Cream Sandwich – or ICS for short, I decided to wait a few weeks and dip my toe into the android waters, the HTC Sensation XE was also available at the time, but according to my research, HTC are a bit slow at releasing their updates so decided to wait for the Galaxy Nexus, Google’s “reference” phone for ICS.
What were my first impressions of the Google powered Nexus device? – massive screen but feels cheap. It felt not very solidly built in comparison with my colleagues iphone 4, which is a smidge heavier but has a smaller screen. The Nexus device is built by Samsung, as the snap on back plate shows but this is the only place on or in the device that it is obvious who makes it unless you go look in the settings menu for the model number.
Once I’d removed the relevant stickers from the front of the screen and installed the battery and sim card from my iPhone 3GS, the Nexus then started to feel a bit more solid in my hands. the power on button is on the right hand side of the chassis, and the volume up/down are on the left – these are the *only* buttons on the phone, and very different positions to my iPhone – still getting used to the on/off being on the right. The micro USB port is on the bottom used for data communications and charging, interestingly next to the headphone port, Samsung obviously felt that the bottom of the phone was the best place for the headphone port, even though it felt a bit alien to me coming from an i device.
The spec of the phone is not really what’s important about this phone – the important thing is that its running ICS, but the hardware definitely is one of the more powerful models out at the moment. The standout feature has to be the screen itself, a 4.65” super amoled screen – much has been said about this display and the fact that its not a super amoled *plus* screen and it’s a pen tile display – but to my relatively untrained eye it looks fantastic – it also has an excellent resolution – full 720p. Blacks are black and the colours pop at you so much more than my old iPhone 3GS, and even my colleagues retina display iPhone 4. Long and short of it, the display is nice and you’d have to be being really *really* picky to not appreciate it. The rest of the phone is pretty much standard fare – dual core 1.2ghz processor, 1gb ram and 16gb storage. there is a front and aft camera – which honestly I’m not really that impressed with despite using it for a couple of weeks now – 5 megapixels and not that good. if you want a very decent camera phone, I suggest you start looking at something a bit more fruity.. and by that I don’t mean a blackberry…
On to the software then….. when powering on the phone, you’re presented with the most psychedelic display while the phone boots, it lasts for about 20 seconds and then you’re presented with the setup menu which includes entering your Google account (which is an apps account, with my billing details on) – so I didn’t have to do anything more. a few mild irritations later after I discovered my contacts had been imported and the phone was ready to use. The homescreen was almost instantly familiar to me, all the icons were exactly where I expected them to be, most importantly obviously is the phone icon on the left, handily in the same position that it is on my iPhone.
It took a few minutes to figure out what was where, and how to use bits – like multitasking – a very similar implementation to Apple’s IOS, but then these things are all getting similar in their ways of doing things – making the transit from IOS to Android was really quite easy. there are three buttons on the bottom of the screen which are software buttons, back, home and multitask – pressing the back button wherever you are (apart from the home screen) gets you back in whatever app, all the way to the home screen, home gets you… surprise, home… and the multitask button reveals a list of recently used apps, all of which can be “thrown” off either side of the screen and discarded – actual real world use is much better than apple’s implementation where you need to hold down an icon until it jiggles, then press the x button.
Applications were very easy to install – interestingly there are no passwords to enter once you’ve entered your Google account – unlike apple’s system, which means you’d be prudent to put some kind of security onto your device, such as a screen lock with a pattern or.. maybe even face unlock – yes, you can unlock your galaxy nexus with your face. impressive pub trick that it is, it *can* be fooled with a photo, but if you’ve lost your phone, it’s unlikely that they know what you look like so I’d probably feel comfortable using this – just as long as you back it up with a decent pattern or even a passphrase/key, and I imagine this is what Google based their inclusion of this software on.
What other neat features does this phone have? Well, you can do a lot more with your phone with Android as there aren’t so many restrictions that may well hinder your experience like apple have always claimed about IOS, so you can download separate keyboards, dial pads and generally interact more with your phone at a level that’s impossible with Apple – I guess the best example I’ve found of this so far is Llama – which pulls mobile phone mast ID’s to give you location profiles, something that would be kicked out of the apple app store without even getting past the gateposts. I also love the fact you can get a Wi-Fi hotspot up without having to jump through hoops, just one of those little things to make your life a bit easier.
Other things I like about the phone – when you put the phone into standby it blinks out like an old TV set – and also if the screen goes blank while you’re waiting for something to load or just forget for a moment, it gives you about a second to fumble for the power button and if you click it in time, you don’t have to unlock your phone again, something small but makes a real world difference.
Pitfalls. battery life. to be honest I’ve not really tuned my phone as much as I could have – I wanted a base line for what I’d get on a worst case scenario so I’ve almost been running it into the ground on a daily basis, at the moment of writing this article its 10.20 pm and my battery is at 46% and it had a top up in the day and there are things that I could do to make this better, but I’ve not persevered with it yet. Build quality, I’m yet to see how good or bad it is, but if you search for iphone4 drop tests vs. Samsung Galaxy s2 you get an idea of the durability of Samsung’s builds – the problem is that it just doesn’t *feel* like a premium product which is a shame.
Camera, I already touched on this, but I’m actually confused why they didn’t put their flagship sensor (8mpix) into the nexus – the Galaxy S2 has it – why not drop it in this, there must be a reason and I’d like to know it. so you’re left with a somewhat lacklustre 5 megapixel affair, something my trusty old Nokia N95 had back in 2007 – and yes, megapixels aren’t everything, but they do help. Its slightly redeemed by the camera app itself – a really snappy thing, but I think this is more to do with ICS than the hardware itself. in good light, the images are pretty good, but drop the light levels and it’s just rubbish. In addition, the LED flash when you look closely at it, has some refractive clear plastic parts in it, to spread the light, but this ends up reflecting the colours that seep out from the side of the LED – mainly yellow (see attached photo) – it’s a bit weird, but since this is my first phone with an LED flash in it, I can’t tell you if this is something normal or not.
So, would I recommend this phone to anyone – in a word yes, but I’d maybe wait for a couple of updates, I’ve had a few crashes which require removing the back panel and battery…. Also I’d like to see what the competition do with their custom skins: Samsung’s Touchwiz, HTC’s Sense and Motorola’s Motoblur skins all transformed the previous iterations of Android into something usable and added some much needed functionality and some nifty features. ICS has managed to close the gap very well to Apple’s own eco system, and exceeding it in many ways, but despite this it still feels a little like it’s a developers phone rather than a ready for the mass market device. don’t get me wrong, I like it, and I’m not a developer, but I’m not sure many people would be happy to enable 3rd party sources and download file managers just so they can install a piece of software – because it’s not in the Android market yet, or because it’s not compatible with ICS yet, I guess these things will come with time.