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An ’appy weekend with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus

by Marty Gabel

From an app enthusiast’s perspective, I can categorically recommend the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but with a few caveats.

Appreciating that the flagship Google smartphone is brand new, as is the OS it's running (Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich), it still did a better job than I expected. If you’re thinking of converting or upgrading, you may be pleasantly surprised. My biggest fear was expecting apps not to work properly, but so far they’ve been fine, with a few exceptions here and there.

How it feels

It’d be remiss of me not to talk about how the device looks and feels in hand. I’ll try not to harp on about this for too long as many other reviews have already discussed these things at length, but overall I was very happy. The phone is solid. Despite its plastic feel, it’s well constructed and there are no squeaks or rattles. The textured back gives your fingers some much-needed grip, and for such a large device it’s comfortable and slim.

But is it too big? Coming from a Droid Incredible with its 3.7-inch screen, the Galaxy Nexus feels huge. That beautiful, bright super AMOLED is vibrant and displays text and video wonderfully well, but even with my large hands, I had trouble pulling down the notification bar one handed like I can do with the Incredible (and, dare I mention, the Apple iPhone). This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but for people with smaller hands, the new Nexus is a lot of phone to handle. But did I tell you I liked the display? Yes, perhaps that more than makes up for things.

Ice Cream Sandwich is tasty

The look and feel of Google’s new operating system is a vast improvement on previous incarnations of Android. It’s slick, unified and classy-looking and the new ‘Roboto’ font which crops up in most apps (unless app developers choose to use their own of course) is easy to read and very crisp. The ‘pure Android’ experience offered by this Google flagship device, free of a manufacturer skin like HTC’s Sense or Motorola’s Blur, is a pleasure to use.

The Nexus with ICS is snappy. It’s fast to react to touch input and swiping between screens is smooth. Apps open quickly and the device didn’t hang and pretty much coped with anything I threw at it. This may also be due to the Nexus hardware, but if Ice Cream Sandwich runs so smoothly on all dual-core devices once updated, it’ll be very pleasing.

There are a few quirks here and there. The browser, for example, while doing a decent job, requires too many clicks to reach your bookmarks. Then, once I’d installed the bookmark widget, it failed to update with new ones I added and there was no way I could see to order them. When I chose to display my saved Google bookmarks instead, it didn’t display the folders, only the handful of bookmarks from Chrome’s bookmark bar. Of course, there’s always a third-party solution in the Android Market, but I’d like to see Google pay a bit more attention to some of this simple functionality.

I was also a little confused by the Gmail app at first due to various icons and options being in different places. There’s a bit of a learning curve required to work out what each icon means, and Google hasn't made a uniform decision to put menu options always in the same place. Such cosmetic issues will improve with time, and the UI of Ice Cream Sandwich still feels like the most pulled-together Android version so far, rather than a mere afterthought like previous Android versions.

Overall though, despite a few issues (it took me a while to learn how to pin app shortcuts and widgets to the home screens compared to how HTC Sense does it), ICS is functional, efficient and elegant. Text input was wonderful with the new keyboard, and it’s one of the best stock touchscreen keypads I’ve ever used. Voice input seemed greatly improved too.

How about the apps?

Google’s stock apps like Gmail, Google+, Calendar and others all look and run very nicely. Once again, the Android Market shines because it offers so many additional apps and components that can easily replace any of the stock apps if you don’t like them (like my issue with the bookmarks mentioned above). I easily tracked down some better calendar/agenda widgets for example, that improve on the stock offerings.

I tried a bunch of different apps and games, old and new. On the whole, I found that most ran smoothly. TweetCaster Pro, my Twitter client of choice, refused to authenticate at first, but an Amazon Appstore update the following morning took care of that. I played my new favorite game Zookeeper DX flawlessly, my beloved weather app BeWeather & Widgets Pro ran just fine (including the snazzy animations), and even many widgets I’ve used on my Gingerbread-running Droid Incredible worked OK. Personally, I’m a big fan of Amazon MP3 (sorry Google Music, but admittedly, you worked flawlessly on the Nexus, too). Loading Amazon MP3 on my Incredible is a long, drawn out process, which could be a symptom of a slower processor and less RAM. On the Nexus, it’s super fast, even with thousands of albums to display. Once again: a fast device, a faster operating system, and Android truly begins to shine.

I wasn’t so lucky with Fruit Ninja Free though. For some reason, OpenFeint wouldn’t recognize me and the game kept returning to the splash screen, but that could have been a network issue for me (talking of which — Verizon’s 4G LTE network, at least here in Chicago, proved to be a worthy companion both in speed and reliability).

Final thoughts

I’ve been fortunate to test out or play with a number of devices, both Android- and iOS-based, and I like the Galaxy Nexus the best. Despite its overwhelming proportions (I wish it came with a form factor more comparable to my Incredible), its wonderful screen and snappy performance tipped the balance somewhat, and I’d be prepared to live with its larger form factor.

Despite a few hiccups here and there, ICS and even older apps, appear to run quite well. Give it just a few months and there will be all manner of ICS-dedicated updates provided by developers of popular apps which will improve things further. Being the Google flagship device too, the Nexus will see software updates for Ice Cream Sandwich quicker than any other device while still enjoying numerous third party options.

So, when am I due for an upgrade for my Incredible from Verizon again? February you say? I think I may have already found my next smartphone.