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.

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