Second Look: Samsung Galaxy Nexus (yes, it can go toe-to-toe with the S III)

Needless to say, the Nexus is currently the ultimate expression of Android.

Android Kinship: Motorola Droid (2009), Samsung Galaxy Nexus (2012 unlocked version from Google), Samsung Galaxy S II (2011).
Android Kinship: Motorola Droid (2009) running some ghastly out-dated (and super slow) version of Froyo, Samsung Galaxy Nexus (2012 unlocked version from Google) running Jelly Bean (4.1.1), Samsung Galaxy S II (2011) running Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) via CyanogenMod 9.

Second time around, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus impresses even more than when I first reviewed it upon release last December (4 out 5 stars). After a few days of use, for both business and pleasure, Nexus is proving to be fast, reliable, fun. This is the unlocked version purchased direct from Google, and now running on T-Mobile’s ridiculous $30 per month bargain (unlimited data!).

Many who’ve followed my Android coverage on Stark Insider know that I’ve long been searching for a replacement of trusty OG Droid (2009). I waited, and waited, and waited… suspecting the next great Android was just around the corner. Quad-cores, which I predicted would be big in 2012, failed to materialize save for those across the pond. One thing I got right: the number of Android smartphones hitting the market, especially flagship models, has slowed dramatically. In 2011 you couldn’t brush your teeth, or even get to the second verse of  “Bad Romance” without hearing about a new — and quite generic — Android.

That’s all changed.

Now, Samsung, HTC and Motorola are putting marketing muscle behind major launches, a la Apple. Flashy flagship models aren’t merely press releases, they’re events.

The result?

Fewer Androids. More hype. And (hopefully) less consumer confusion. The new Samsung Galaxy S III is the best example. Sales are through the roof. Last I saw, the flagship phone (available on all major carriers in the U.S.) has sold over 6 million units this quarter. Reviews are glowing.

So the question then:

Why go with a 7-month old Samsung Galaxy Nexus over its darling new sibling, the Galaxy S III?

One word: unlocked. And another: freedom. As in the ability to switch to a newer model at will, without fear of early termination fees. Two years is a long time to wait for an upgrade. With a stable of OEM Nexi reportedly coming to the Play Store and an updated version of the Nexus surely landing before year’s end, the need to upgrade in the next six months will be high.

My Nexus came with Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) but an OTA to Jelly Bean awaited after a reboot.

But there’s more.

Google Now is a welcome Jelly Bean feature. I find it particularly handy for sports scores, stock prices, nav/directions and weather reports.

The GNex is an incredible smartphone. It can go toe-to-toe with the  better-spec’d S III in just about every facet. Sure the camera might not be so great, but that’s not a big deal to me. And the battery life I cried about so often on the Verizon Nexus has pleasantly surprised so far — likely due to the GSM version not requiring the juice-sucking LTE antenna.

Being Nexus, of course, means getting the latest and greatest Android revs. With so much innovation pouring out of Google these days, that’s a real plus to me.

Ultimately, these are two great phones, and stunning, real-life examples of just how far Android smartphones have come since 2009, and why, at least in this guy’s humble estimation, superior to the iPhone.

With Jelly Bean (an OTA update was waiting when I unboxed the phone, though a reboot was required to trigger it), Google has surpassed iOS. Mobile operating systems don’t get any better. Widgets. Google Now voice recognition-based search. Best-in-class notifications, now with interactivity. Unparalleled customization (third-party keyboards for instance).

If you’re contemplating the Nexus versus the S III, I’d summarize as simply as this:

Hardware wins with the S III, and software wins with the Nexus. Take your pick.

For us techy ones — the early adopters most likely to be seen in 2013 with Google Glasses… maybe — the choice is already made: Hands-down Nexus. It’s easier to root, gets more attention from Google, and is pure Android (which kicks royal butt… just say NO to bloatware and skins such as TouchWiz, Sense)

Almost a week in, here’s what I dig about GNex:

 4.65-inch screen size is just right – I can still often use it with just one hand, though several apps require two hands .

Softkeys – I’m all about the virtual keys. I’ve gotten used to them on Android tablets, and appreciate the flexibility they afford. The only downside I’ve encountered is not being able to quickly wake the phone up when its sitting on a desk with a tap on the front; instead you have to hunt around the right side.

My homescreen.

Jelly Bean – Yes, eventually others will get the update, but for now Android 4.1 is exclusive to the Nexus smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet. There’s not a whole lot of visual difference between it and Ice Cream Sandwich, but everything just seems to run smoother. Google Now (activated by swiping up on the home button) is fast, and remarkable accurate. I’ve found it useful for flight status, sports scores, weather, directions/nav, and stock prices.

Notifications keep getting better – with so many apps, social networks, real-time communications, one could argue that keeping it all organized, and alerting you to what’s really important to you, is a modern-day mobile device’s first priority. On that count, Android nails the notifications feature. It’s lightyears better than iOS. Side by side with both an iPad and iPhone, I much prefer the way Android notifies me of breaking news, emails, Facebook updates, Twitter mentions, etc. Google: please patent the hell out this, and bring bloody war to Apple come fall. Revenge. Sweet.

Google nailed the notifications feature on Android. Apple doesn’t come close with its implementation on iOS. With Jelly Bean, it gets even better. Alerts are interactive, so you can respond, take action without launching apps.

Removable battery – important, especially for long (oh-so-hard) days when I’m traveling to Napa for Stark Insider coverage, or going coast-to-coast on a flight.

That glowing notification orb – sound silly, I know, but sometimes it’s the little things. Samsung put the notification light on the Nexus on the bottom center and it slightly resembles an orb when it glows. Ok, yes, accuse me of an active imagination, already. Multi-colored LED is handy. Facebook is blue. Emails white. Messages white. This has been around for a while (my OG Droid has it), but well implemented here.

Unlocked – did I mention this Nexus is unlocked?! (and running flawlessly on a $30 T-Mo unlimited plan)

Mr. Pogo – Nexus is the only smartphone I know of (though I’m sure there are others) that has three gold contacts on its side. Known as Pogo pins they enable a connection for both data and power without the need to fiddle with a USB cable. This is an especially handy feature for accessories. Slipping Nexus into a docking cradle becomes a brilliant moment of fluidity. Same for the car dock. Speaking of the car dock, Google is not yet shipping one yet, so I ordered one direct from China off eBay for only $5.99 with free shipping. How can they pull that off? I fathom Mike Daisey knows the reason.

Universal Search – one interesting note. For all this patent talk, and courtroom warfare, the universal search feature on Jelly Bean appears to remain intact. I could be wrong, and perhaps it’s been modified in someway to circumvent Apple’s patent infringement claims. However, tapping the search bar allows me to search across the phone (apps, contacts, web pages, etc.); same as it ever was.

A slightly maddening thing…

Auto-brightness – why doesn’t it work properly on Android? I’ve had the same experience on my OG Droid, an S II, and also several tablets including the Transformer Prime and Tab 10.1; that is, Android is over aggressive and dims the screen too far in many situations, particularly outdoors. It could be a battery conservation tactic, I don’t know, but I have read others reporting similar issues. Often I just need to switch to manual, and dial in my own setting… but this is 2012, no?!

Quit tip: Form-fitting case

If you’re looking for a basic case to protect your Nexus, here’s the one I bought: Diztronic high gloss, flexible TPU case. Only $8 on Amazon and fit is snug. It’s translucent, and the materials/color of the phone show through, but dulled somewhat. It might be drab to some, for me understated is fine. It doesn’t add much bulk, and one thing I like is the added friction from the case means the phone is far less likely to slide off your desk onto the floor. They also throw in a screen protector. Damned if I’ll ever master the art of putting one on. Mine was useless in about 20 seconds after a middling “installation.”

If I were to formally review the Nexus again (the GSM version), I’d bump up my rating to a notch to 4.5 out of 5. The fact that you can buy it unlocked for only $349 direct is a screaming bargain, especially when most unlocked phones easily go for $500-600 or more. I do have minor nits. The aforementioned battery life is better on the GSM model compared to the LTE, but it’s far from the kind of stamina I’d like to see. And the display, while generally pleasing and crisp, does exhibit minor aberations when viewed closely, especially on solids such as a solid white or grey background.

Needless to say, the Nexus is currently the ultimate expression of Android.

Explore. Create. Live. Follow Stark Insider on Twitter and Facebook. Join our 9,000 subscribers who read SI on tablets and smartphones on Google Newsstand. Prefer video? Subscribe to 
Stark Insider on YouTube, the largest arts & travel channel in San Francisco.
  • Andrew Richardson

    Do you have a link for the ebay store you bought the dock from?

    • @google-9f7e6efb528c39e11653ba502eeb6983:disqus, yep:
      High volume, well rated seller. Quality of the product? Who knows… but for only $5.99 thought I’d give it a shot. With free shipping too, what is the world coming to, what with low cost China manufacturing – a sore spot no less for election year. I plan to use this one until Google has the Pogo pins one in stock … the convenience of not having to connect audio/charger each time will be really nice!

  • edemusmaximus

    Great review…couldn’t agree more…I’m typing this from my own Gnex too….now, do tell….what is this $30 unlimited everything T-Mobile an you ref to?

    • Thanks. Monthly 4G plan, for new accounts:

      FYI for those on Verizon, you can “freeze” your account for up to 90 days. During that time you can reactivate or cancel. No charges during the period. The upside for me is I’m locking in my unlimited data just in case I need that plan still.

      • DavieP

        The problem with that wM plan is apparently if you were already a Tmo prepaid customer , they wont let you get that unless you cancel your line, wait a while, and then open a new account with a brand new phone number. That sucks for someone who has had this number for a long time through contracts and contract less plans. It would be a huge liability to have to change my phone number after all these years and try to let everyone know that Ive done that

  • Rob Hunter

    Where can you buy this phone for 350?


      (and I thought we were drawing readers from The Verge)

      • Rob Hunter

        Not exactly sure what you meant by that, but I appreciate the link. I’ve been deciding between the S3 and this phone for a month before the S3 was released and this article finally set me over to the Nexus side.
        Just everywhere I’ve looked before tonight to by the phone has said at least 450. Never thought to look directly at Google for the vendor.

        • Nexus is really impressing me. I’m quite surprised by battery life too. GSM version is much better than LTE in that regard. It’ll still require a daily charge for most users, but that’s acceptable. And who knows when the S3 will get Jelly Bean? Might not matter to some, but for me Google’s latest is fantastic, and reason enough to think Nexus (plus the bonus of being unlocked/contract free).

          Regarding The Verge, just a sarcastic reference is all to the geeks that live and breathe Google Play and its devices section.

          • DavieP

            My battery lifehasnt been great, but its the volume problem that is making me regret the decision. Im still miffed that many people arent complaining about this so Im wondering whats going on to those of us that do have the issue

        • DavieP

          And to think that six months ago, this phone was selling in the 800=900 range. Im wondering how many GNexus units have been sold – I cant find that figure anywhere…but have been told its far from being a most popular handset, and Im wondering if thats part of the ongoing price drops- that and the fact that a new version will probably come out at the end of the month so people buying it now are basically already getting a year old phone even though only 1% of users are using JellyBean (and that means a lot of apps no longer work properly ; and devs tell me they dont have phones to test with – but wasnt the GN supposed to be primarily for developers?)

    • Rob
  • Rob

    Great review. I bought the LTE GNex version the month it came out. the only thing I do not like is the fact that I cracked the screen today. :( Lookup Squaretrade if you are in the market for coverage. Here is a good cover that has protected it until my fatal glass perfect pitch descent fall today . It fits PERFECTLY and will get you many nice comments to boot. I don’t like screen protectors and will continue to press my luck.

    FYI, Not that you may use it, but Google Wallet can be added to the GNex on Verizon on a custom ROM. Verizon stops it on stock.

    That $30 Tmobile plan is nice btw. I may have considered that before if I had seen it for the process I used below. 100 minutes could be rough though.

    I upgraded from the OG Droid that you reviewed as well. If you want to make it continue to be useful, here is what I suggest in not 100% order.
    I’ll keep it simple as you should be able to google how to do the following.
    find a user that wants to try a smartphone to check occasional weather, easy VOICE texting, brief internet browsing and a cheap plan, 250 minutes with the best coverage for $12-$15 a month with no surprise fees.
    Root the device and put this rom on it, chevy No.1 SS 5.6 (you could use others but this was a very solid choice for the OG Droid)I suggest to pay for the premium version of clockworkmod to install the ROMOnce Custom ROM is running and google account logged in, Download these apps:Purchase – 3G Watchdog Pro
    adfree androidDroidwallsuperuser (I’ve moved to SuperSU on GNex but know superuser works fine)optional – Opera mini web browserTake the time to set up Droidwall and 3g watchdog properly to only allow browser and news&weather to use 3g, everything else on Wifi only. That is VERY important or else Android will chunk it away somehow. Set the 3g watchdog to 10mb limit monthly. You will need to learn how to properly hit reset (to zero) when this 10mb limit is reached, do not raise to 20mb, use reset in options.Sign up with Pageplus “12” plan (set to pay monthly) and then put a $10 prepaid card (100 min card.) on the account. Basically when your 10mb limit is reached, you will reset it in 3g watchdog. This is in essence a reminder of, hey, you are using your $10 now. Once it hits 10mb again in the same month, reset again. .20 a mb means it is $2 everytime you have to reset within the monthly period. If setup correctly it will reset to 0 on new monthly date. Yes, it’s not a lot of data but it’s a great way to get someone into the smartphone era with very little upfront cost. Be prepared to spend some time configuring it correctly with Droidwall but once you have, you will have made someone very happy to be on the Verizon network with advanced smartphone functions for cheaper than any dumbphone “deal” plan they previously had.

    • Rob

      3G Watchdog Pro, adfree android, Droidwall, superuser are the apps. Also, If you want a very powerful APP for Android that can get you many brownie points in the my phone is better than your iPhone competitions, then I suggest purchasing Tasker. It is downright the most powerful app I have seen. Pent just updated to 1.3. There is a 7-day free trial. It simplifies many apps into one, such as locating your car, waking up your silent phone with noise, sending GPS when lost, autoreply if @ location, allowing dock mode on GNex without an actual dock, etc. It may seem as I’m plugging this APP but it truly makes Android… Android. Automation at it’s finest. Also give Foxfi a whirl. If you want to continue showing off the snazzy things your new phone can do, purchase some NFC tags, download NFC Task launcher and go scan happy.

  • Larry

    My daughter is on this TMO plan though she has a Nexus S. The 100 minutes isn’t really a limitation even if you talk a bit since you can use a VoIP service to make calls over 3G. At the moment Vonage is offering 3000 minutes free domestic calls a month with their free app. When that expires calls are only going to be about 1c/minute I think. For inbound calls use GV, screen the calls and call them back to use your data rather than minutes from your plan.

  • BillieJackFu

    Well I am writing this comment with my Google Galaxy Nexus that I received this past Tuesday and I must say that I am really pleased with my purchase. 5MP camera is great and I didn’t buy a phone to take photographs anyway. I had read review after review before settling on this device. Protected my investment with an Otterbox Defender case and for safety picked up a Motorola HX550 Bluetooth headset. Anyone looking for a fantastic phone get this. Oh, btw if you download the USB drivers for the Verizon Nexus you can navigate the file system by clicking on “Galaxy Nexus” in the Windows 7 computer (previously My Computer in Windows XP).

  • ki

    Excellent review and loving my GNEX no need to upgrade to S3 this phone will be fine till Google release next Nexus phone.

  • DavieP

    Clinton, are you not having problems with the volume of the phone? I just bought one and am shocked at how low the volume is at its highest level. I then Googled the issue and found dozens of forums and even Youtube videos complaining about this. Im wondering if its only affecting certain handsets because I havent seen reviewers complain about it. To me its a deal breaker to the point that Im ready to give up on Android entirely (every phone seems to have problems or bugs) and switch to iOS for good. I dont know w hat to do as there apparently is an app to increase volume but it doesnt work with Jelly Bean – and Google seems not to want to bother with the problem. It seriously is bad as I cant even stream Google Music and cant hear a ringtone unless Im at home right next to it…If youre in a restaurant or store or in public, forgettaboutit

    • You’re right, the volume of the Galaxy Nexus is weaker than most other phones. I’ve tested side-by-side with a Galaxy S II and even the OG Droid, both are significantly louder. It hasn’t been an issue for me as the alert and ringtones are plenty loud enough to hear in most situations, and in really loud environments I ensure vibrate is on. In the car I route audio using headphone jack, so again no issue there. Hopefully the new Nexus (December?) improves the speaker.