Galaxy Nexus / Ice Cream Sandwich First Impressions

For my job, I ordered the new Google Galaxy Nexus phone a few days ago, and yesterday it finally arrived. After having used the Nexus One as my main phone for years, I knew there’d be a big difference in the phones. But of course, the Galaxy Nexus is also the first phone to ship with the new Ice Cream Sandwich Android version.

In a way, I don’t care much whether I’m going to review hardware or software differences here, as from a user’s perspective, it’s the overall usability that matters. So without further ado, on to my first impressions.

Liked

  • The screen. It’s huge. You can really read stuff on it, as opposed to older phones, where you still felt a bit like too much content was crammed into too little space.
  • The weight. This thing is so light, it sometimes feels a bit unreal. The odd thing is that according to Wikipedia, the Galaxy Nexus weighs 135g, with the Nexus One weighing 130g. It might be the size of the screen, or the resulting weight distribution, but the Galaxy Nexus actually feels lighter.
  • Updated Google software. Finally you can move emails from an IMAP folder to another. Finally you can group contacts. Really, the list of small but important improvements is too long to go into here.
  • App folders. It’s not that big of a deal thanks to the multiple home screens, but app folders still let you organize your stuff better.
  • Camera effects via face recognition. It’s a minor gimmick, really, and not something I’ll use often – but it’s fun.
  • Video editing software. Ok, ok, it’s so rudimentary it’s almost pointless, but it’s a step in the right direction.
  • Contact merging. Finally it’s safe to import contacts from all sorts of apps, as you can merge duplicates on your phone.
  • Panorama camera mode. I have no idea how often I’ll use this, but it’s a cool little feature.
  • Video chat via Google Talk.
  • Phone encryption.
  • The mail and calendar widgets.
  • The speed. This device is seriously fast.

Disliked

  • The screen. It’s so huge, you can’t really use it with your thumb alone any longer. Or at least I can’t, with my hand size. The biggest problem here is that it doesn’t feel as securely in my grip when I use the phone.
  • The soft keys. They make this rant more relevant than it already is. Granted, the Nexus One had touch keys, but I didn’t like those either.
  • The lack of trackball. Editing text is a pain without, getting to the relevant section in the text by touch alone is a bit like brain surgery with gloves. Or so I imagine.
  • The new Android Market. It’s already out on other Android versions, but it wasn’t great then. Keeps getting disconnected, and the navigation is decidedly worse.
  • The crashes. In the last day, I reported two or three freezes/crashes in stock Android software already. Altogether that gives me the impression that ICS is a bit beta at the moment.
  • The phone encryption seems a bit pointless. Granted, this issue might well be fixed; Google isn’t particularly good about providing feedback on what has been worked on.
  • Can I mention Google’s less-than-lacklustre approach to communicating bug fixes to the community?
  • How cumbersome contact merging is. For one thing the options are quite well hidden, for another it seems impossible to merge three or more contacts in one go. Usually I get the same contact through a number of different social networks, though, and need to merge several at a time.
  • The lack of SD card slot. One of the best features of previous phones.
  • USB connectivity. It’s nice to know that you can now choose between two different protocols for file transfers, but it seems that the device is now automatically mounted, whether you want it to be or not. Also, it’d be good if the MTP was supported under Linux.
  • Lack of camera button. Unlocking a phone and going through several clicks to shoot a snapshot means you’re almost certainly going to miss the shot you wanted to take. Sadness ensues.
  • Lack of menu button. Sure, they blend it in in older apps, and in newer apps there tends to be a reserved button somewhere. But it was one of the major usability bonuses of Android to have a standard button for accessing more functionality; now it’s worse than iOS because there is no standard placement for the thing. And the new placement seems to be on the top, so further out of thumb-reach than before. This is a real step backwards. Fire the guy who thought that up.

Undecided

  • Battery. I’ve not used it enough to know how long it lasts.

Verdict

The mobile phone world is in a rather sad situation at the moment. On the one hand, new devices come with so much incredible power that it really feels as if the future of computing is going to be mobile, and it’s going to be one hell of a ride. On the other hand, all the features that actually enhance the usability and usefulness of a device seem to go the way of the dodo, and fast. I was incredibly excited when I got my first Android phone, the G1 developer phone. It had everything a mobile device should have: a keyboard, trackpad, touch screen, SD card reader, haptic hardware buttons for essential stuff, even a dedicated camera button. Plus, it fit so perfectly into your hand that it’s a joy to use even now.

Where’s all that stuff now? It really seems that smart phones are moving towards features that have a great wow factor, but do not stand up to daily use very well – at the expense of features that do. The Galaxy Nexus is just another step in that direction. As the software matures, the hardware degrades. Very beautiful, but also disappointing.

  • Andy

    Very nice review here; it’s quite obvious that you work as a professional in the field of mobile. But one thing, do you really consider the bigger screen a pro *and* con? I’m the – proud – owner of a Samsung Galaxy S2, which has I think (without looking it up) the same, or very close to it, screen size Google Galaxy Nexus. Given that so much more content is now consumed on mobile devices, the larger screen makes video and text pages that much more enjoyable to view/read. I think the larger screen is what is driving more content to be consumed on these devices. Would I want a screen larger than this? No, I feel they’ve really got it right with the dimensions they have now, and I know I would not want to go back to something smaller than this. I think personal mileage will vary on this form factor issue as the benefit of a larger screen for content has more weight to it than spanning the screen with your thumb.

    In the immortal words of Steve Jobs – “You’re not holding it right”! :)

    One thing I definitely think you’ve got right is that the future is going to be mobile. When you see the trend in processing power / memory / storage on smart phones they are all following the same curve that applied to computers starting in the mid 80′s. More, better, faster, cheaper; but in generation cycles that are much more compressed compared to PC hardware.

    Personally I’m waiting for the day that my smart phone has the equivalent capability of my daytime Ubuntu desktop workstation and can wireless connect to a state-of-the-art pair of Oakley sunnies (sunglasses for the non Antipodeans) and continuously run AR information to the HUD, along with whatever natural language query results I would be gibbering about. Like, “which stores currently have Mass Effect 10 on sale in this part of town”? And, “if Jesus really did exist, could he get a verified Twitter account”?

    Andy.

    • http://www.unwesen.de/ unwesen

      Haha :)

      Well, when I speak about the screen to be a pro and a con, things get tricky. What it comes down to is a) hand size, and b) usage. To be honest, I think it’ll be easiest if I write a separate blog post on that in reply.

      From a pure presentation point of view, the screen is awesome, and yes, just the right size. It’s just about still pocket sized, and just about large enough that you don’t need to squint any more.

      I suppose if I had a device with the same screen, processor, memory, etc. that also had haptic buttons, a trackball, a slide-out keyboard and an SD card slot, I would totally forgive it that I can’t easily reach all parts of the screen with one hand.