Samsung Galaxy Nexus 4G LTE Phone Review



Filed under : Android Phones, Smartphones

On December 15th, there were two types of people in the world; ones that had never even HEARD of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone and ones that were ready to burn down the nearest Verizon store if there were any other delays in releasing this device.

The consumer’s anger toward Verizon’s handling (or mishandling) of this phone is actually mitigated and completely understandable – especially as the story began to unfold.  The phone’s release dates were leaked by “reputable” sources, only to come and go without release.  Some dates appeared to be purposefully changed immediately after they were leaked; as if Verizon was saying “Now now now … no peeking .. and just for that, we’re going to delay it another week – just to teach you a lesson”.

In the end, the phone shipped a full month later than the first “solid” rumor date.  The pure “de-notice” stance on Verizon’s part didn’t help matters any; nobody knew anything.  Even Verizon’s region rep (that I cornered like a hungry beast at Best Buy) claimed “Black Friday” was the release day.  Like every other leaked date, it came and went with no Nexus love.

Of course in the end, it was all about money and control (depending on which story you believe) – either that Verizon spent a long time negotiating with Google to remove their Wallet app (they are backing a different product, you know) or that they purposefully delayed the Nexus to avoid conflict with their Motorola bedfellow’s Droid Razr or just because the Nexus (as a pure Google phone) was devoid of the after-market Verizon shill apps that generate post sales income for the Red V.

Regardless of the true story – the phone finally released with pretty much ZERO fanfare on the part of Verizon (and devoid of any pre-advertising; be it print or multimedia) to unusually high demand – including the iconic release lines forming at many stores (big and small) around the country – even the selling out of the device in some markets.

All this for a phone that no one had heard about or seen advertised.  Not bad, Team Nexus.

Why The Nexus?

Those following the loyal (and rabid) fans of this device have just one question: “Why the Nexus?”

After all, there are some sexy new phones out there – the Droid Razr getting the lion’s share of Verizon’s advertising budget (you can’t drive anywhere without seeing 10 billboards for the device here in Phoenix) and turn on the telly and you’ll see Verizon’s commercials en masse discussing the Razr or maybe the Stratosphere.

Surely most phones sold in the last six months will see the heavily promoted and highly desired “Ice Cream Sandwich” operating system (aka Android 4.0), right?  The specs on the Razr are comparable (even exceeding) to the Nexus. It doesn’t even have Gorilla Glass(tm).

What makes this phone the Holy Grail amongst the geeky mobile phone audience?

The same reason Verizon treats this phone like the red-headed stepchild at a family reunion – control.  Owners of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus are offered a level of control and option that is synonymous with the “Nexus” brand name.  There are three main appeals to the Nexus over the Razr.

First, it’s a pure Google device, designed to be a “reference” point for developers.  This means that it has no manufacturer “shell” like Motoblur, TouchWiz or Sense baked on top of it.  These shells are what stall updates from Google.  While non-Nexus phones can wait upwards of six months to get the latest updates (and benefits) from Google’s OS repository, Nexus devices receive these updates directly from Google.  The Motorola Razr, for example, requires Motorola to get the latest code from Google, bang and hammer their shell on it (working out all the kinks), then let Verizon test and bolt in all their aftermarket money-making apps – and finally the update gets to the end user.

This process is expensive and time consuming – which is why there are still phones running Android 1.6 out there.  No one wants to spend the resources updating a legacy phone.

The Nexus guarantees the latest updates with the fastest turnarounds – and (while it isn’t a sculpted plate of mashed potatoes) that is important and it means something.

Second, every phone comes with something called a “bootloader”.  This is code that executes when powering up the device that hands over control to the Google OS.  As you can imagine, this code is locked down so that only the vendor or manufacturer can get into this boot processes.  This boot process is also the key to installing and running custom OSes on a phone – something that the geeks love – namely because of the first reason mentioned above; updates take forever.  In a custom OS environment, hackers and hobby developers can fix issues and even ADD features to the phone without waiting around for the vendors to “get around to it”.  The bootloader on the Nexus – while being delivered out of the box as “locked” – is intended to be UNLOCKED (and is done so quite easily) making the phone an open playground for developers, hackers and hobbyists.


Finally, the phone comes with Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box.  To a lot of people, that means nothing.  But in reality, ICS is not just a minor incremental update to the aged Google Android OS – it is a huge milestone in the development of it.  The custom shells put on by manufacturers were designed to beautify and extend the functionality of the original Android OS.  With ICS, this is no longer needed (although manufacturers are still – even as you read this – welding on their custom shells onto ICS … tragic).

Plus you get all of this in gorgeous, powerhouse hardware that is just as sleek and sexy as any other phone out there – and at the same price as the Droid Razr.

Now that you have the back story and the “why Nexus” answered, let’s get on with the review.

The Hardware Overview

Click for higher quality imageGalaxy Nexus LTE 4G device comes with the biggest display available in a conventional mobile phone today – a massive 4.65″ AMOLED screen featuring HD graphics at 1280×720 resolution (we have PCs at my workplace that have lower resolution).  The powerful dual-core 1.2Ghz CPU with 1GB of RAM keeps the sleek ICS operating system running without the hiccups, pauses or stutters of phones you’ve probably seen in the past.  While the phone does not have a microSD slot (as per all Nexus phones), it’s loaded up with a stunning 32GB of memory – ready to accept your apps, music and video.  Augmenting the hardware are two cameras – a 5MP incredibly fast rear facing camera and a respectable 1.3MP front facing camera.

The whole enchilada comes wrapped up in a sexy looking, thin body measuring only 5.33” x 2.67” x .37” (I’ll explain how that is possible in a minute).  The structure of the device is plastic, but doesn’t feel overly cheap or flimsy in the hand.  The screen is slightly curved like its Nexus S brethern, giving the phone a unique, pleasant look.  It doesn’t feel like the iPhone 4S tank, but it still feels solid and durable – especially if you introduce an extended battery into the equation (more on that later).

Rounding out the hardware, you’ll find a remarkably powerful LED flash on the rear camera, a power button on the right upper side and a volume rocker on the left side, slightly off-center.  Both the microUSB port and the headphone jack appear on the bottom.

Notice the purposeful omission of physical buttons like HOME, BACK, MENU and APPS.  This phone has none.  More on this in a bit.

The Screen

See, it isn't THAT much bigger than the iPhone 4sObviously the biggest elephant in the room here is the screen.  4.65″ is closer to a 5″ Dell Streak than it is to a 3.5″ iPhone 4s screen.  But with the removal of the physical buttons, the phone (while still bigger) isn’t nearly as big as you would think it would be.

But, a large screen with low resolution isn’t much bang for the buck – fortunately the resolution is a stunning 1280×720 – and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen HD video being played back on this thing.  With the ability to drag and drop (more or less – we’ll cover MTP later) and great apps like MX Video Player, you can watch your own videos (unconverted or compromised) without any third party process getting in the way.  Colors are gorgeous and warm – like a plasma TV vs LED … blacks are … black – thanks to the AMOLED display.  In a word?  Gorgeous.  But what about whites?

Remember the elephant I mentioned earlier?  That would be the PenTile AMOLED display.  While it makes HD video possible and true blacks on the screen (did I mention it uses like 30% less battery than your regular screen?) – there are those that will take issue with it.

PenTile displays have been accused of “revealing pixels” – that is, break out a magnifying glass and look at the Nexus screen.  Yes, you will see pixels.  The good news is that unless you’re TRYING to see them like a jilted Apple iPhone lover – the likeliness you’ll notice them is low.  If you want to read the “religious discussions” surrounding PenTile displays, Google it.  You’ll get all the information you need and then some.

On lower brightness settings, white tends to look gray.  In fact, it almost looks TEXTURED.  Sometimes that look is actually ok – but other times, it simply looks washed out.  Of course, if you’re willing to crank your brightness up to 30-50%, it goes away.  Unfortunately Samsung chose to keep the screen a bit too dim in AUTOMATIC brightness control (my biggest beef with the screen).  In lower light, you’re going to see that gray … a lot.  In good light, the phone will kick up to the requisite 30-50% and in broad daylight, the screen performs considerably better than most of its brethren.  The good news is that if you keep your theme and applications running on darker backgrounds, you’ll never notice this issue – even in very low light conditions … and of those that don’t, even fewer will probably care.  It is hard to show this effect in a screen shot or picture or I would have provided one.

My recommendation?  Check out the screen for yourself.  My guess is?  You’ll LOVE it.  So will all your envious friends.  Don’t believe all the hate you read; fashion your own opinion.

Oh, don’t buy into that whole “What?? It doesn’t have Gorilla Glass!?” facade either.  Samsung phones use fortified glass that is made in a similar fashion.  In internet fan tests, the fortified glass actually stood up as good or better than Gorilla Glass.

Battery Life

Let me explain something about battery life right up front.  Battery tests are bogus.  The bottom line is – the more you use your phone, the less time the battery lasts.  That seems to make COMPLETE sense to most people.  Right, so if your phone does more work for you than your neighbor’s phone does for him – you would expect the battery life to be shorter, right?


That being said – there are people getting 24 hours of battery life from the stock Nexus battery – and people getting 8 hours … and lots of people in between.

Apple iPhone users got a rude awakening recently when their phones finally started being able to get notifications – and their batteries took a huge hit in performance.  Truly, one of the greatest innovations of Android – Notifications are a godsend to people on the go.  Especially people that consume a lot of information over the course of the day.  But those notifications come with a price – and the price is battery life.

While we’re on the topic of things that suck the life out of your battery – let’s talk about Verizon’s LTE 4G.  Having a faster connection than most people have at home on broadband is really something.  But it sucks the battery dry.  Not as bad as, say, the GPS unit – but it ranks right up there after.  Your screen is obviously the biggest power draw, then your GPS – then finally 4G.  Those of you coming from 3G smartphones or “dumbphones” – like the iPhone users – are in for a rude awakening with regards to battery life.

The good news is that the Nexus comes with a pretty beefy 1850 mAh battery which will likely get most basic users through the entire work day.  If you’re a information junkie, you might get a couple hours less.  It is completely reasonable to expect about 10 hours out of the phone with basic, casual use – eight hours if you really have to have up to the minute notifications.  It just goes down from there.

For $50 (if you got lucky and got in on the sale; $25) you can get a 2100 mAh “extended” battery that will give you another hour or two over the projections above.  It will thicken up your phone a bit, essentially taking that ridge out of the bottom rear of the phone.  It adds a bit of weight of course, but more people report to liking this extra girth and even the weight reportedly gives the phone a beefier feel overall.

The bottom line?  This is a dual-core HD phone connected with insane speed to the internet.  Expect some degradation of battery life from your last generation of phone.

The Camera

Click for full sized imageThe other big “Nexus Elephant” in the room is the camera.  You read right, earlier.  It is only 5MP on the backside and 1.3MP on the frontside of the phone.  How can that be?  The Motorola Razr and even the iPhone 4s have 8MP.  If you think this is a step backward for the Nexus it really isn’t – because the Nexus has some insane features on that 5MP camera.

Let me answer the unasked question up front.  Does it take “better pictures” than the iPhone 4s?  No.  My research has shown that the best pictures from the iPhone are better than the best pictures from the Galaxy Nexus.  But picture QUALITY, while important, isn’t everything.  Here is why.

There are two things you can guarantee about almost every cell phone picture you’ve ever taken.  One, you probably didn’t get the shot you wanted because the subject was moving too fast or you didn’t get the EXACT shot you wanted because it took too long to get the picture.  Two, you were taking pictures in “less than optimal” lighting.

Low light action photography represents a large portion of what I call the “mobile shutterbug movement”.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  If you were PLANNING a shot, you PROBABLY would have brought a REAL camera, wouldn’t you?  You PROBABLY would have chosen a good, well-lit location too.  Unfortunately, the mobile shutterbug tends to be taking photos of opportunity most of the time.

The Galaxy Nexus is easily the fastest mobile phone camera I’ve ever seen.  Hell, it outperforms my point and shoot with no problem.  Insanely fast focus, insanely fast picture snapping.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken MULTIPLE pictures of the same thing because I simply didn’t believe the LAST photo I took actually TOOK.  Couldn’t have happened that fast, could it?

Most camera phones do well close up and with good light.  The Nexus is no exception.  Macro type shots are detailed and full of color.

Click for full imageClick for full image

Along with insane shutter speed, the extremely capable LED flash is actually USEFUL.  I know, I said it.  The flash really works – and not just from two feet away.  It definitely produces better LOOKING flash pictures, too.  Check out these two pictures – one with NO flash, one WITH flash – and this is a considerable distance for an LED flash.

Low light, no flash

Finally, low light work on this camera is great (as you can see from the left Santa above).  On most cell phone cameras, if you’re not shooting in direct sunlight, you’re going to see huge patches of grain, horrifyingly noisy blacks – making the photo almost unusable.  While this isn’t pro-photographer equipment here, you’re going to very likely see a HUGE improvement in your low light shots.  The grain is minimized, and the blacks are darker and richer than even my point and shoot in similar low light.  Look you’re not going to shoot for Vogue with this phone – but your photos of opportunity just got a whole lot better.

Click for full sized imageAnother bonus feature is the panoramic shooting.  Much like the recent “360” camera from Sony, this feature will let you just click the shutter button and slowly pan around .. painting your panoramic photo in front of your eyes in real time.  Once you are done, there is a short “post processing” time when the camera tries to clean the shot up (so the “instant panoramic” isn’t a complete truth).  You don’t have to follow any sort of guided instructions, but the camera will complain to you if you move too fast and I have had the pano software shut down more than once for being a bit too aggressive in moving (hey, it’s 1.0 – I expect it to get better).  Overall, though, no-restriction panos are pretty impressive.

The camera mode gives you some basic control.  You can choose a scene; Auto, Action, Night, Sunset and Party – which tries to configure the camera settings for you.  Exposure compensation is here along with some white balance settings (Auto, Incandescent, Daylight, Florescent and Cloudy).  You can turn the flash off, on and in auto.  Finally, you can change your resolution down to 1.3MP up to 5MP.  There is also an option to turn off geolocation stamps on the picture’s metadata.

The video camera feature allows you to record video from 480p up to 1080p.  Similar white balance options are available along with the ability to turn the LED flash on during shooting.  You can, of course, shoot from either the rear or front camera.

Sample Videos 1: 480p | 720p | 1080p
Sample Videos 2: 480p | 720p | 1080p

One of the interesting bonuses included is Time lapse shooting – with intervals from 1 to 5 seconds and several options between.

Lastly, the phone is powerful enough to offer some “real time” effects as it records.  These have been around with web cams on PCs for some time, but it is impressive seeing it on a phone.  Squeeze, Big Eyes, Big Mouth, and Small Mouth are just a few of the effects.  You can also create your own backdrops if you can keep your phone still enough (and you have a disparate background – think genlocking).  Just shoot the background without you, then step in.  A fun neat feature that probably no one will use.

Both the camera and “camcorder” offer digital zoom, but prepare to have severe quality hits.

The Photo Editor

One of the big selling points of Ice Cream Sandwich is the native photo editor.  You get the basics like cropping, rotate, etc. but also some niceties like Red Eye Removal, Sharpening, Straightening (way cool), Flipping and more.  You don’t have to muck up the original picture – you can save a second copy with your changes.

Color and lighting post processing is included as well – helping you to retouch the quality of your photo in post.

You can’t paint happy faces, hearts and speech bubbles – but if you are looking for more serious tools – then you get them for free, built into ICS.  Most impressive.  Unfortunately, there is no video editing software included – not even a simple cropping tool.

Ice Cream Sandwich

Of course, no review would be complete without looking at the heart and soul of the new Nexus phone – the latest Android 4.0 operating system.  We’ve touched on the camera portion, but there is much more to see.

Because it is THAT big of a change, I could fill an entire article up with an ICS review.  Instead, I’m going to cover what NEW it brings to the table and why it makes a difference.

Right away, you can tell it’s gorgeous.  A lot of people truly dislike the core Android OS look and feel (known as AOSP – Android Open Source Project).  This was likely why manufacturers started making shells like TouchWiz and Motoblur; to compete with the high gloss approach taken by Apple.  For a lot of Android zealots (aka “fandroids”), functionality comes before looks.

Fortunately, the Nexus has both.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Nexus physically is the lack of “real buttons” – that is there is no HOME, BACK, SEARCH or APPS buttons.  The phone’s face is devoid of any physical inputs – other than the gorgeous screen.  Instead, as you see in the screen capture to the right, the buttons are graphically inserted onto the screen.  I won’t lie to you – this takes some getting used to.  After using the phone awhile, I TOTALLY love it.  ICS can move those buttons off the screen, giving you MORE real estate to watch movies with.  The buttons rotate with the screen too.  For those missing your beloved SEARCH button, once you unlock the phone’s bootloader and grant yourself “root” access – you can put the button back into the input area like you want.

A lot of people were worried that ICS would just be a cell-phone version of the Honeycomb OS (Android 3.0) that rocks almost all the high end Android tablets out there.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While you will see a few similarities here and there – only the best stuff was taken from Honeycomb and put into ICS.

I think Google’s idea with ICS was to remove the need for third party UI shells and launchers and pack the phone with features usually offered only by those after-market add ons.  Immediately you’ll see things like a revised launcher bar … stackable icons (essentially folders) … the ability to uninstall by dragging an app from the Apps screen to a trash can.  The venerable “power bar” that third party tools like Extended Controls offers is built right in.  Even the ability to changes from 3G (CDMA) to 3G/4G (CDMA/LTE) is built into the Settings now – no need for a tool like LTE ON/OFF.  Widgets are now a tab off the App drawer (like Honeycomb) and it makes much more sense.  You can even access settings from the Notification window (sound familiar?) …

It really makes for a more complete experience WITHOUT having to install 10 things or more when you first get your phone.

The widget selection is not as robust as I’d hoped.  HTC has a PLETHORA of widgets for it’s Sense UI, as does Motorola in its Blur UI.  I couldn’t even find a satisfactory clock/weather widget I wanted to use (some were offered).  The screenshot above shows the HD Widgets app.  A lot of people have their own favorites anyway – like Beautiful Widgets – maybe Google figured the widget market was rich enough already.

Almost all the main Google apps have been ICS-ized.  They are vast improvements over their Gingerbread counterparts.  Gmail looks great – with built-in offline support.  The browser has improved – with bookmark syncing to your Google account.  You can tell that Google wanted this to be the best possible set of first party apps.

Swiping is the big deal with the Big G right now.  Almost every app has been “swipe-ized” – adding functionality where there was none before and enhancing it if it already existed.  The one that gets all the press?  Swipe dismisal of Notifications in the window shade. Swipe dismissal of Apps off the Apps button (no, it does NOT close the app – Google has explained time and time again why you shouldn’t be trying to close and manage apps on your own – manually or with a task killer).  It is slick – and I like it.

We discussed the new camera/video features – another complete overhaul from previous Android OSes … including Honeycomb.  Unfortunately, as a “1.0” release – I’ve had a few issues with the camera “hanging” (only once so far) and the app closing during the panoramic process (a couple of times).  Overall, the extras more than make up for the rare issue.  I think some issues can be caused by third party tools that access the camera (likePaper Camera and others) and don’t release it properly.  Always more testing to do.

The browser gets a paragraph of its own.  It’s much snappier now – be it new code or hardware – and it doesn’t matter.  I like it.  Page shuffling has a dedicated easy to use icon now.  Incognito mode exists now.  You can force the browser to report as a desktop browser – to avoid mobile sites – right from the menu.  New accessibility features too – including one that lets you invert white sites to be more “dark friendly”.  This feels like a REAL browser now – not a bolted on mobile browser.

The cheesy Android music player has been replaced with Google’s own cloud based Google Music app.  It works both locally and on the cloud – quite transparently too.  It is a welcome upgrade from Gingerbread’s player full of features and options.

The Gallery app has been overhauled for ICS too.  It’s slick and fast – and while people are still going to replace it with their own favorites like DroidIris or JustPictures, it is considerably more functional out of the box.  Of course integration with Picasaweb is a given (sorry, Google Photos now) and works quite well.  Unlike Gingerbread’s Gallery, you won’t be trying to sideload the CoolIris Gallery app instead.

The rest of the apps got minor updates too – Calendar (pinch to zoom!), Maps, Navigation, People – everything appears to have been touched .. and all for the better.  The keyboard has even been improved – with better spell checking and more accurate typing (so long Swype).

One of the best new features is the enhanced voice to text.  Dictation is done in real-time – no more long server callbacks to get your voice to text.  And, it works pretty much anywhere the keyboard works.

A special thanks to Google for making my screen shot application (and its required root access) completely obsolete.  Simply hold the power button down and quickly hit the Volume Down rocker – and POOF – instant screenshot – and it does it with style.

View this full sizedOn the phone side, you can actually send pre-canned text messages back to the caller if you choose not to take his call – another app you don’t have to buy and install.

YouTube has been revamped to make use of your insane 4G connection, HD screen and powerful hardware.  If you live and die by YouTube, this is the absolute best implementation I’ve seen of it so far (including consoles).  Check out the image to the left in its full glory size – and you’ll have a good idea what you get to expect.  Incredible.

Finally, forget about being envious of FaceTime on the iPhone.  We got it.  It’s called Hangouts – brought to you by the Google+ app integration with the phone.  Google+ is huge – not just as “another Facebook” either.  The integration of Google+ with the OS is very important to the Google strategy and frankly, all it really does is benefit consumers.

Wait, you want me to talk about Face Unlock?  Fine.  Thanks to the insane speed of the camera and the sheer processing power of the phone, you can now use your own face to unlock your phone instead of a PIN code or pattern.  I did try it … and it works.  Far faster than the demos you may have seen in videos.  In fact, if you power up your phone while pointing the front camera at your face – you may not even SEE the lock screen – that’s how fast it is.  There is plenty of debate about the security of the app (can it be beat with a photo?  Sometimes …) – go Google it if you want more information.  I don’t use a locking mechanism myself – so it’s largely wasted on me.

The Nexus hardware was made for ICS.  EVERYTHING runs silky smooth.  Everything pops into place.  You won’t be dying to over clock your CPU the moment you get the phone with this baby.  Wait not, want not.

Gaming

There isn’t much to say here.  The big screen and vibrant colors make gaming a true joy on the device.  Compatibility has not been much of an issue so far.  A couple of titles have had to push out a few ICS related updates, but overall – the standard “cell phone fare” like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope have been fine out of the box.

Worth noting .. one big title – the Grand Theft Auto III anniversary re-release had some ICS issues initially but are now fixed.  The reason I mention this game is because it is truly stunning to look at on the Galaxy Nexus.  I credit the AMOLED display and the warm, rich colors for the experience – along with Rockstar’s painstaking attention to developing properly for the platform and not producing a shoddy port.

Some users have reported some multi-touch issues in a couple of games – we’ll talk about that at the end of this review.

Near Field Communications / Google Wallet

One of the touted (but most misunderstood) features of ICS and the Nexus is that of NFC – Near Field Communications.  If you’ve ever used the app Bump (where you “fist bump” your phones together to trade information), then you’ve used something similar to NFC.  But, instead of being a software trick (like Bump), it is a true hardware chip within the Nexus (its battery, actually) that can talk to other NFC devices.  This means OTHER Nexus (or NFC compatible) phones or point of sale vendors like Pay Pass (via Google Wallet) that use the technology to do payments right from your phone.

This has been BIG news in recent times (despite the fact that this tech has been at the gas pumps for years under the name SpeedPass) – namely because the frontier of “NFC financial transaction” is largely unclaimed, and EVERYONE wants a piece of the pie.  This includes Verizon (all carriers, actually) and Google (along with at least dozens of other companies).

Google wants us all using Google Wallet (which uses Pay Pass from MasterCard – who already has a remarkable presence at retailers already) and already has the crazy monolithic Google power and infrastructure behind it.  Verizon and other carriers want you using ISIS.  Regardless of who wins, your Nexus phone will be ready for the future – being NFC ready.

During the launch of the Nexus, Google offered up $10 to anyone who installed Google Wallet on their device.  That’s right – $10 absolutely free.  No strings attached; you don’t have to give up your financial information or anything.  Just sign in with your Google account, and a free gift card is sitting in Wallet – ready for you to spend it.  Thanks to this freebie, I was able to try out NFC and Google Wallet.  It works exactly as promised.  Check out my Google+ post for a more detailed look at my experience.

Google Wallet does NOT come on the Galaxy Nexus by default.  Rumor is; Verizon wanted it off and Google wanted it on (it IS a Google reference phone, after all – it should be there … you might as well have Dell telling Microsoft NOT to put Internet Explorer on their Windows computers) and this “debate” held up the Nexus phone from launching.  Fortunately, you can easily install Google Wallet without unlocking your phone or having root access.  Get the APK here.

The Phone

Yes, right … what about the phone?  After all, you can’t have “smartphone” without PHONE in there. 🙂  I am personally not thrilled with talking to humans much – especially on the phone.  I’m an IM/Text/Email kind of guy – so my time on the phone is actually limited to a couple minutes a day with my wife and maybe once a week with someone else. I can honestly say the phone has given me no difficulty at all.  The audio is clear and loud.  I haven’t dropped a single call yet (more than I can say from my Thunderbolt).  The phone dialer in Ice Cream Sandwich is well done and organized in a way that makes it easy to use.  That’s really all you can ask for in a phone, right?

The Dark Side of the Nexus

With all the greatness and love in this review, you might be wondering … What’s the catch?  Can this be the One Phone To Rule Them All?  Alas, no – it isn’t a perfect world …

First up – the signal strength.  Verizon has already gone on record as saying there is nothing wrong with the signal on the phone.  Much like the touted iPhone AntennaGate scandal, they are blaming “inaccurate bars” for the apparent signal derogation.  Coming straight from another 4G phone (the Thunderbolt) I attest and swear that the Nexus has a poorer signal than the Thunderbolt and it’s on the same network.  Of course, Verizon might just be covering their asses; and the signal reduction was due to infrastructure problems around launch time.  They DID have two nationwide 4G outages the month before the Nexus released.  My current verdict is – the signal strength is not as good as on some other 4G phones.  That’s not to say it is BAD signal strength – I work in the basement of an eight floor parking garage.  I get 2 bars of 4G most of the time.  That’s through a lot of concrete.

Because I’m a heavy user, I stay on 3G most of the time by choice – which seems like a good idea.  Not just where battery life is concerned, but because when you lose 4G on Verizon, it tries to “downshift” to 3G – which not only eats battery – but also leaves you without data connectivity.  Normally not a big deal, but it is if you’re driving in an unfamiliar place and are 100% reliant on your GPS solution.  I know, I know … what a waste.  You have the greatest 4G phone on America’s Fastest Network – and you have to run in 3G for reliability.  This being said, that the 3G I get on an LTE phone is considerably better than the 3G I got from Verizon when I was a Droid X user.  When I got my Thunderbolt, I saw a 6x increase in data transfer in “LTE” 3G than in standard 3G.  They are different networks.  That’s why when your 4G phone data connection goes down, your buddy with a Droid Pro still has 3G.  This appears to be a regional thing.  In other markets, 3G = 3G regardless of network.  Here in Phoenix?  You’re in for a treat; 3G or 4G.

Besides – having 4G when you want it is fantastic – especially if you plan on buying (or poaching) a tethering plan.  Your laptop will feel like it is running on your home network – and that’s not an exaggeration.

More of a niggle than a negative – but a “real” nexus phone shouldn’t have any carrier bloatware on it.  Despite the two items installed by default on your Nexus (Verizon Backup and My Verizon apps) and despite the fact they can BOTH be removed WITHOUT rooting and without unlocking the bootloader – there is something creepy about having Red V apps on my GOOGLE NEXUS phone. Previous Nexus phones were devoid of carrier apps.  Fortunately, nothing is safe from removal thanks to ICS’s application manager.  Score another point for Google.

Another issue probably deals with build quality of certain lots of Nexus phones than a “global” issue.  Search Google and you will find many people complaining about “dark bars” on their screen.  This is different than the dark spots on the pure white backgrounds with low brightness settings.  Those are normal for AMOLED technology.  But these bars are something else.  So far, Verizon has been very good about exchanging them – and those that do exchange get good replacements.

If you skipped past the camera areas above, you probably missed out on a couple of “infant software” issues with the camera – I’ve had one or two poor occurances with using the panoramic software (force close) and one case of the camera not being “available”.  Reboot fixed the latter.  These are rare, but journalistically responsible to report.

Users are also reporting some sort of “multi-touch screen” issue – where a certain zone goes dead playing certain games.  I haven’t seen it myself – but apperently it is real and reproducable.  I’m positive it will be software related and my guess is that there will be a fix out probably by the time you read this.

That said, I did notice something odd.  On my Thunderbolt, when I disconnected a Bluetooth device (stereo headphones), my Subsonic music player would stop on its own (much like when you unplug the headphones from the jack).  Now, the phone transfers the audio back to the speakers instead of stopping the source.  This may have something to do with the custom rom I was running on the Thunderbolt, or this might be an issue with Nexus/ICS.  Certainly no deal killer – but I found it odd, so I brought it up.

Another shortcoming that phone geeks like to complain about is the lack of USB Mass Storage device drivers within the Nexus.  At first, I was quite upset with this as well.  One of the greatest selling points of Android is that it is not tied to some sort of money-harvesting walled garden environment like iTunes.  With an Android device, you can plug it right into your PC, have it show up as a USB drive and just copy files on and off of it just like a flash drive or USB hard drive.  No third party app required.  Unfortunately, the Nexus shows up as an MTP (Media Transfer Protocal).  This means that instead of an actual drive letter, your system will see it as a “Samsung Galaxy Media Device” under My Computer.  You will notice that when you open the device, it doesn’t EXACTLY behave like a regular drive.  You don’t have the sort of control over it that you would have if it were an actual USB drive.  Can you still get files on and off the phone?  Yes.  But if you’re a power user – one that likes to use a third party file manager like Directory Opus or Total Commander – the limitations of MTP are going to bother you.  My solution?  Simply use theFile Expert app’s FTP sharing over the wi-fi.  You get back the control, it is just as fast and you’re back in the driver’s seat again.

Lastly, the “auto brightness” is a notch too dark.  This will probably be fixed by the time people start reading this article, but it is definitely worth mentioning and you will find plenty of other people feel the same way.

Summary

With a couple of minor exceptions, the Nexus is as close to perfection as we’re liable to see in the next 18 months (keep your eyes on the Samsung Galaxy S III).  The pure Google experience is already being stomped on by all major phone manufacturers (and their custom shells) including Samsung themselves.  Chances are, if you buy any other phone this year – sure, you’ll get ICS; but it’s ICS with a big fat shell bolted on top of it.

Don’t let the 5MP camera keep you from considering this phone as your next purchase.  The quality is very good and I think the faster shutter and good low-light handling is far more important than another 3MP.

Phones are very personal devices and as such, I HIGHLY recommend you go to a Verizon store with WORKING demo units and spend some time on the phone for yourself (that goes for ANY phone you are considering).

Now that you know what to look for … Touch it.  USE IT.  Take some pictures.  Surf on 4G and see what it is like – then knock down to 3G and see if you can handle that.  Try the new Google Apps.  See how sexy ICS is (you aren’t gonna miss Motoblur).

At the end of the day, personal experience is king of the road with cell phones and remember – Verizon has a 14-30 day return policy (seems to keep changing) if you find out you really don’t like the phone.

I’ve had a good number of cell phones in my life.  So far, the Nexus is the best phone – from hardware to software – that I’ve owned.  Despite the niggles, I’d recommend it to anyone regardless of their usage – be it phone, surfing, social networking, casual picture taking and of course playing games.

I’ll be thrilled to answer any questions on the product – even take more pictures with different settings, etc. to help you better decide if this phone is for you.  Hit me up on Google+ and maybe my answers can help others too.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+

2 comments to “Samsung Galaxy Nexus 4G LTE Phone Review”

  1. Trinh Duddy says:

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