Is the Galaxy Nexus Simple, Beautiful, & Beyond Smart?

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus: the third iteration in the Nexus line, and the sixth Google device to hit the market. While the Nexus One aimed to revolutionize the market – which it did – the Nexus S, along with Gingerbread, was a very evolutionary step towards the improvement of Android. The Xoom, coupled with Honeycomb, created some disturbance as it felt unfinished, rushed, and simply not a good sign of what was to come if this transition to an “easy to use” Android continued on the same path. And now, we have the Galaxy Nexus carrying the weight of introducing possibly the most drastic change Android has ever seen. Android 4.0 doesn’t look anything like Gingerbread and it would even be stretch to say that it looks like Honeycomb. I tried to keep my hopes low because of the disappointment I felt with Honeycomb, but it was tough to stay grounded after hearing so much about this device. So, the moment I got this phone in my hands I began hunting to see if Google reached their goal: making a mobile OS and device that are simple, beautiful, and beyond smart.

The Galaxy Nexus

The first time I used the Galaxy Nexus, it was not my personal device. It was Daniel Bader‘s, a Senior Editor at MobileSyrup. Immediately, I was struck by it’s large form factor and was nervous about whether or not this phone was even portable. As I took the device into my hands, I immediately knew it wasn’t going to be a problem. The Galaxy Nexus simply slipped onto my hands and settled itself into my palm. The first thought I had – and anyone else who I’ve seen hold this phone for the first time – was, wow, that’s light. And it is. The Galaxy Nexus is a slim figured, lightweight, and comfortable phone. Although the outer shell is built of plastic, you can tell that it’s a sturdy, solid device that could handle a little wear and tear over the next couple of years.

The one thing that really stands out, however, is the screen. Vibrant, large, and absolutely stunning. The Galaxy Nexus is literally meant to watch videos and play games on. Watching YouTube on this device is spectacular; holding the screen in landscape, the video goes full screen, hiding even the onscreen buttons for a complete full screen experience. Amazing, and definitely a big nod for the on-screen/non-hardware buttons, something I was highly skeptical about initially. And then there’s the curve; originally introduced on the Nexus S, the curve is a subtle yet major part of what makes this phone possibly the most seductive device on the market. But it’s not all about looks – the contour screen makes for sliding your fingers down the screen a pleasure and while holding the phone to your ear, the screen stays away from your face as to avoid any smudges. Like I said – subtle but quite possibly the key to what makes this phone so much easier to use than others regardless of it’s size.

I’ve been gaming a lot more on this device than I ever did on my Nexus One or my Galaxy Tab. The large, detailed screen really attracts me to game a little bit, regardless of how little I game regularly. The smaller-than-tablet form factor and the amazingly vivid screen has made me download more games than I’ve ever had. Games just sort of smack you in the face as you play them as the 720p resolution immerses you into it completely. Maybe that’s why we see so many iPhone gamers – games just have to be played on crisp resolution screens; it just needs to be done.

A lot of people have questioned the battery of the Galaxy Nexus. I’m going to put it on record that I haven’t had any problems with the battery on this device. I can go full day on one charge (1 day and 1.75 hours to be more precise) without any problems. Obviously, things like gaming and video watching drain it slightly more, but for the most part this battery has been great. I’m not getting the same amount of time I did with my Nexus One, but the battery on the Galaxy Nexus is far from sub-par.

But, like any device, there are definitely some things that I would change. At times the device feels a bit too big. Whenever there’s a control on the corners of the device, it can be a little difficult to reach. And with the action bar becoming a regular part of the app interface, the top-left corner button is going to be regular. Maybe it’s something to get used to, but it frustrated me to play finger gymnastics a few times to reach buttons. The back camera is also quite disappointing. Sure, I can take 10 pictures every two seconds, but if only one comes out somewhat properly, it’s not a good thing. That being said, the video quality seems quite top-notch. Then again, I don’t understand photography all that well, nor do I take too many pictures; this really isn’t a big deal to me. Unfortunately, for most people it is and I think this is a fair warning: before buying this phone, try out the camera and make sure it’s the kind of quality you want. I personally wasn’t very impressed by it and chances are neither will you. One last hardware gripe – the back cover. I’ve taken the back off two or three times now and, without fail, it’s been frustrating to put back on. Snapping each nib into it’s place can be quite a challenge and usually takes more than one try. Other than these little annoyances, the overall feel of this device is definitely great.

Ice Cream Sandwich

And now it’s time for the main event. Obviously, the big deal in this release is the brand new, re-imagined Android that everyone’s been waiting for. After Matias Duarte, who essentially spearheaded WebOS’s unique and clean user interface, joined the Android team, it was obvious that Ice Cream Sandwich would come with a touch of beauty and simplicity. Anyone who’s seen Ice Cream Sandwich will agree that they really hit the mark this time around. Although there were quite a few cues taken from Matias’s WebOS (swiping away multitasking applications), along with Windows Phone (People, Android Market UI, quick-jump to camera), and iOS (creating folders UX), there’s a lot to be amazed about. Android 4.0 comes packed with some pretty amazing features from the bottom up. Non-hardware buttons to a whole new launcher, the first successor to the Gingerbread-Honeycomb split is quite the looker. The overall OS has gotten significantly speedier and some parts that needed some shine have definitely become smoother. I don’t want to go too deep into it because I’m sure you’ve already heard about all the features in Ice Cream Sandwich; instead, I want to talk about some new features that wow’d me and others that disappointed me.

After signing into my Google account, my phone began to sync. I was expecting a few paid apps to pile in from my Nexus One and all my Google services to quickly set up for me. But there was more. Much more. My wallpaper from my Nexus One was already set, my WiFi accounts were good to go, all my bookmarks from Chrome joined the party, and every single app – yes, all of them – found their way into my apps drawer. My brand new Galaxy Nexus picked up right where my Nexus One left off. Needless to say, I was impressed right from the start.

One of the first new compelling features is Face Unlock. Simply look at your phone and it’ll unlock for you. Well…sometimes. Face Unlock works probably around 75% of the time, if even that much. I guess it’s a work in progress, but it’s definitely a cool feature. That being said, it’s far from air-tight and is definitely just one of those “cool to have” features; in fact, I’m more excited about the face recognition APIs this opens up. I’m sure we’ll start seeing some apps that use FR technology, and I can’t wait to see what people come up with. But overall, Face Unlock is nothing more than a fancy feature that needs a lot more development

One huge annoyance for me – I don’t care how trivial – is the fact that the app drawer now scrolls horizontally. I’m going to make a deep assumption and say that they did that so they could merge the app drawer into this combined apps-and-widgets list. I hate it. I liked the continuous scrolling motion Android has always had instead of this clunky, page-to-page list that I have to keep swiping through. It really slows me down whenever I open it. Luckily, I organized my most important apps into folders on my homescreen so I can avoid the apps drawer altogether. And I’m going to say it – I’m so glad Google blatantly ripped off iOS for the folder UX. The old way of making folders was an absolute pain, and Apple really got folders done right. Plus, after the way Apple stole the notifications tray without shame, I think folders is really a minor offence.

One big plus about ICS is the data usage tracker. I’m unfortunately on a tiny 500MB plan, so I have to use my data quite sparingly. I rarely get close to being over, but it’s still always in the back of my head that I have to keep track of what apps are sucking up data. With the data usage tracker built right into the OS, I can track how much data I’m using and which apps are using up the most. And not only that, I can track it down to a time period of my choice, set warning levels, and even tell the phone to shut off data once I hit my monthly cap. Yeah, there were tons of apps that did this on the Market, but it’s nice to see Google making this a standard part of the Android experience.

The OS just works a whole lot better. The keyboard has improved much more, speech recognition has taken a large leap forward, and Android 4.0 is generally just a pleasure to use. So far, I’ve only experienced one crash (thanks, Facebook) and other than that things have been smooth sailing. There’s hardly ever any lag – tap and go, just what you’d expect out of a touch screen interface. And the best thing about it is the fact that it still has the powerful underlying framework that lets third-party developers make the OS even better. Google really hit the mark with this iteration of Android, and I’m glad they’ve shifted their focus on simplicity now. Android has always had the upper hand in functionality, and now they’re trying to also make the power look beautiful. Things like swiping away items from your multitasking list and notifications drawer is an example of this simplification of otherwise complex and annoying experiences. There’s still work to do, but Ice Cream Sandwich is an astonishingly big leap towards a simple UX.

So…should I upgrade?

This question has been asked by every person I’ve met since I got this phone. And my answer? It really depends. I want to break this down into two sections…

Image courtesy of pocketnow.com

The Nexus One Generation

The first Nexus device really changed the Android landscape. Google set a bar that, arguably, set the stage for Android’s success today. Every phone that came out set to beat the Nexus One in hardware stats, even though it wasn’t a popular phone. And although it didn’t have much of an affect in sales, it definitely changed what people expected out of Android phones. After two years, my Nexus One still feels like I picked it up yesterday. It’s still fast, still reliable, and does more than what I would ever need. It is still, to date, my favorite phone I’ve ever used and it’s been hard to find a successor that I find suitable. That being said, Google has decided to deprecate this phone and it will not get an official build of Ice Cream Sandwich. From a developer standpoint, it makes quite a bit of sense – deprecate a device every two years, and pick up the latest and greatest. If you have Nexus One, or any of it’s generations devices, it’s probably time to upgrade to a new one. But should you get the Galaxy Nexus? Yes. Clean Android never looked so good, and I highly doubt that any hardware manufacturers are going to beat this kind of software. If they ever even send up the upgrade. Just saying.

The Nexus S Generation

The Nexus S was very different than the Nexus One. While the first iteration tried to change the market as a whole, the S was a small, evolutionary improvement. Slightly faster processor, front-facing camera, and NFC were the major improvements in this Nexus release. I never ended up picking it up because I’d just gotten my Nexus One shortly before, but I didn’t mind not having it. However, the Nexus S is a powerful device and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. I’ve used it a couple of times and have been greatly impressed with every use. And the fact that it has NFC makes it good to go for the next year or so. So should you upgrade to the Galaxy Nexus? No. First off, you’re going to get Ice Cream Sandwich anyways so it’s not like you’ll be behind in the software. The second, and more important, reason is because if you wait another year, you’ll get the evolutionary step of the Galaxy Nexus. An “improved” Galaxy Nexus if you will, just like the Nexus S was an “improved” Nexus One (for the most part). Instead of shelling out 700-800$ a year, I recommend going on a 2-year cycle and picking up the next Nexus device.

What if you don’t have a Nexus device from this generation? I recommend an upgrade. Carriers and hardware manufacturers are going to take their sweet time upgrading you to Ice Cream Sandwich (if they ever will) and you want Android 4.0 as fast as you can. This brand new OS is going to blow your mind and will be worth the update.

Conclusion

And this brings me to my original question: are the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0 what Google wanted them to be? Well, they’re definitely beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. But simplicity is still a problem Android will have for a very long time. The basic fact is that when you put so much functionality into software, it gets more and more difficult to make it easier to use. As an out-of-the-box OS, it’s definitely a lot more simple than before; but to make users wrap their heads around things like replacement apps and widgets is still entirely too difficult. Couple that with the fact that it works nothing like it’s predecessors and you possibly have a recipe for disaster. Android is getting closer to becoming simple, but I think it’ll take a lot more than one iteration to succeed in this endeavor.

The being said, The Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich are beyond smart, there’s no doubt to it. Things just tend to work significantly better on this device. Easier multitasking makes for tasks done faster and Android has finally implemented a smart multitasking tool that matches it’s back-end intelligence. Getting things done on the new Android is significantly faster and it’s made me more productive than ever. It may be premature, but after what I’ve seen in Ice Cream Sandwich, I think I’m already excited about Jellybean and the future of Android.

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