I’ve been carrying the Galaxy Nexus (let’s say “GN” for short) around for weeks, watching Android 4/Ice Cream Sandwich (let’s say “ICS”) come together. It’s a pretty nice phone. Size matters. But software matters more.

tl;dr · The best thing about the device is the new Android release. The best thing about the new Android release is the apps: Gmail, Calendar, and so on. The second-best thing is the screen. The big debating point is the size.

Hard to Photograph · Featureless black rectangles, I mean; give me pretty flowers or Japanese rock bands any day. I totally failed to take a worthwhile shot of the phone, so here’s Plan B: a Nexus S, the GN, an original 7" Galaxy Tab, and a Moto Xoom, all lined up on a shiny black piano.

Four Andoid devices in the dark

Did I Say “Size Matters”? · Well, duh. The GN is another stanza in the ongoing argument about what size you might want a phone to be. Pretty well all the high-end Android devices are now bigger than the iPhone 4S, which I guess has to be the world’s top-selling phone at the moment.

MG Siegler asserts that those who disagree with Apple on the essential rightness of the 3.5" form factor are “idiots”. Dustin Curtis avoids the junior-high catcalls while asserting that you can’t reach the whole screen with your thumb on anything much larger than an iPhone.

Actually, you can. With the GN, I can’t reach the whole screen with my thumb if I squidge the phone’s corner down into my palm. So I cradle it a little more loosely across my fingers and have no trouble with one-handed operation. This is made easier by the back’s comfortably-rough texture, so I don’t feel insecure; and also the phone is light. It might not work for everyone, I have big hands.

I’d like to prove this statement, but my attempts to use one hand to photograph the other operating the phone were hilarious failures. With 3 different lenses. But anyhow, Charlie Stross agrees.

When I switch from the GN to my Nexus S, I think “This is pleasingly compact.” Then when I switch back to the GN I think “My eyes are happy.” Because the upside, of course, is that you have a great big honkin’ huge ginormous beautiful screen!

Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4

Volume-down and power together for a half-second sends a screenie to the Gallery. Yee-hah!

Occupying that screen are 921,600 AMOLED HD pixels, 1280x720. My MacBook Pro is 1280x800, so it’s bigger; by 80 pixels, one way. Practically speaking, this means I can get more Gmail or calendar entries or Tripit details or tweets or Economist column inches on the screen, and that matters. Aesthetically, my pictures look better than on any other screen I own of any kind; but then my photography tends to lurid oversaturated colors.

Back to the size issue. The GN fits in my pocket — it helps that it’s so thin — but would be a problem if it were even a bit bigger. I suppose that in theory this should predispose me to using a larger tablet when in tablet mode, but the creaky old original 7" Galaxy Tab remains my fave device for reading books, playing games, and so on. I have two different 10" tabs around the house but (for the moment) am still reaching for my laptop when I find the 7-incher too small.

Other Hardware Stuff · It’s got a little glow-thingie for notifications; yawn. It works just fine as a phone. It’s really thin. The battery gets me through a day. I’ve got the HSPA version, and the speed is, well, whatever, I’ve decided the whole 3G/4G and forest of network-technology acronyms is pretty much bullshit. It’s fast enough. I’ll be interested to see how it copes with my world-travel orgy next month.

It looks nice! But mostly, that’s the screen.

Camera · I can’t say anything authoritative about the image quality because my GN is slightly pre-final hardware and I’m told that the camera sensor calibration may not be 100%. Today I went out for a sandwich and took ten or so random shots up and down the block, of which four were good enough to keep and a couple might be made interesting with a little Lightroom work. The unprocessed originals are over on G+ at Galaxy Nexus Microphotowalk.

The usability of the camera is massively, insanely better than any previous Android device. When you tap “take the picture” it happens right then; that’s going to improve your chance of getting a decent picture probably more than anything about the lens or sensor. It’s also got tap-to-focus and so on.

Ice Cream Sandwich · Really, this is the best thing about the phone. I don’t find that either of the Nexus S or Galaxy Nexus form-factors slam-dunks the other. I do find that I don’t want to use the S, because ICS makes Gingerbread feel kind of dumb and awkward. Just having the swipe-to-dismiss gesture work with almost anything makes a difference. And the many little fit-&-finish deltas really add up to make a qualitative impact.

To anyone who’s used a Honeycomb tablet, ICS will be unsurprising; it’s about what you’d expect if you asked some really smart people to adapt those idioms to this form factor.

One of the nicest things about Honeycomb was the standard soft-buttons for Home, Back, and Recent; this reduces the need for our hardware partners to exercise their, um, what’s the word... creativity, that’s it, in deciding which buttons to put where. With ICS, it turns out this works just fine on handsets too.

Saving the Best for the Last · But let’s not kid ourselves; we don’t spend most of our time interacting with the OS or platform, but in one app or another. I spend most of the time-that-matters in Gmail and Contacts and Calendar and Maps and Music. On ICS, these have taken big steps forward; Gmail in particular makes me wonder why all mobile-mail programs aren’t this way.

Frankly, I’m not sure how much longer our group at Google and the competition down the road in Cupertino can keep on burning the mobile-software rubber. But it’s sure fun while it lasts.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Michael Martin (Oct 18 2011, at 20:09)

I'm surprised you didn't port Ice Cream Sandwich to your Nexus S.

Shouldn't that be provided as an update to the Nexus S fairly soon?


From: Nicholas Adams (Oct 18 2011, at 20:09)

Here's to hoping they'll let me have one on AT&T for a reasonable upgrade fee!


From: PJ (Oct 18 2011, at 20:15)

I'm a little disappointed in the lack of a microSD card. What with overly intrusive border guards, it's nice to be able to put the microSD in a pocket and not have to worry about some customs inspector who's having a ad day being able to steal and/or trash your data.


From: Bud Gibson (Oct 18 2011, at 20:32)

The thing I miss from my Android days is gmail. More significantly, looking over the phone, I like the fact that you're clearly trying to make a more coherent google experience with significant quality control. I quit using Android because things would just randomly break, and I was tired of doing constant phone wipes. Keep up this streak, and I could come back.


From: Alan Little (Oct 18 2011, at 21:45)

Do you remember Ted Nelson's specification(*) for the personal computer to aspire to? A megahertz, a megabyte and a megapixel. So your phone is not quite there yet on one dimension - although somewhat over on the other two.

(*) From the book Computer Lib in 1974. I hasten to add that I read the second edition some time in the late 80s.


From: Tor (Oct 18 2011, at 22:07)

Is the gapless playback issue solved in ICS now?


From: Geoff Arnold (Oct 18 2011, at 22:21)

Yes, Tim, it all looks very nice. But I'm still waiting for AT&T to get around to updating my Samsung Infuse 4G from Froyo to Gingerbread (promised in August, already shipping in Canada). I have no idea if AT&T and Samsung will ever put Ice Cream Sandwich on the Infuse, let alone when. I read your account of the new features, but I have no idea whether it's relevant to me.

For me, this is the biggest bug in the Android business model compared with iOS: it's completely unpredictable. All of the players - Google, handset makers and carriers - contribute to the mess. And so I'm not surprised that so many apps are so unstable: the test matrix is ridiculously big.

In contrast, when an iOS release comes out, I know exactly what it will run on, and which features will be available on my device. Moreover I can install it immediately.

This summer, I decided to try life outside the "walled garden" and replaced my iPhone 4 with the best Android device then available. I have to report that so far, life outside the wall sucks. This is a shame. I guess I could hack it, but great products shouldn't need hacking....


From: Aneliese Heilman (Oct 18 2011, at 23:10)

Tim, I am sorry to have to agree with a previous commenter on my greatest problem with this new Android.

I just recently purchased a Samsung Epic 4G which is still running Froyo because Samsung has not released Gingerbread for it and won't ever.

I am sure ICS will be lovely but if the only way I can get it is to break my contract I can't afford it.

My boyfriend has a iPhone 4 and he downloaded IOS 5 with everyone else. That's why he cries and lusts after my Android all day long but stays with his iPhone.


From: James Abley (Oct 19 2011, at 06:46)

<quote>3G/4G and forest of network-technology acronyms is pretty much bullshit</quote>

I feel the same way <em>except</em>:

1. I am pretty sure that new use cases will come out which will scream with faster networks and we'll scratch our heads wondering how we ever lived without them.

2. Coverage. Good 3G is plenty enough for my current needs, but far too often, I find I'm on Edge or even G, and that completely sucks.


From: Cowmix (Oct 19 2011, at 08:37)

Please post some video examples too (if you are allowed).



From: Eapen (Oct 19 2011, at 20:54)

I am curious if Android decides for me that I cannot take a picture if my battery is less than 10%. I sure hope not... I prefer making the decision myself.


From: Sean Harlow (Oct 20 2011, at 11:43)

"I just recently purchased a Samsung Epic 4G which is still running Froyo because Samsung has not released Gingerbread for it and won't ever.

I am sure ICS will be lovely but if the only way I can get it is to break my contract I can't afford it."

Root it. Yes, there are plenty of older (and unfortunately current) devices that are not getting official updates thanks to carrier and/or OEM stupidity. The main advantage of Android though is that it's open and you can solve these problems yourself. My phone (Evo 4G) shipped with Eclair, but I had it running Froyo about an hour after getting it home. The official update came weeks later. I've been running Gingerbread since early in the year, but HTC only bothered to release it in June. Who knows if they'll release ICS for me officially, but I haven't cared in over a year and don't plan to start now.

Root it, install up-to-date software, and don't look back. Hopefully the Google/Moto thing goes through and we have at least one OEM that will keep their stuff up to date, forcing the others to keep up or shut up.


From: Mike M (Oct 21 2011, at 11:27)

Does ICS have support for network supplied caller ID name? The US doesn't have support for caller name display on the cellular network that I can tell, but up here in the great white north we do, and it's always been a disappointment that caller name display breaks when I install an AOSP ROM on my phone instead of using the Rogers firmware.


From: mobilebreeze (Oct 26 2011, at 09:06)

I think the Galaxy Nexus might be a bit on the large size but it makes up for this in its thinness, measuring at 7mm at its thinnest point, although the camera does stick out and isnt flushed in which you would expect for a 5 megapixel.

Overall this will be the first google phone to run on ICS and i think the super Amoled HD display is shown magnificently in the above image you have posted, i would definitely consider it since iphone launched the poor 4S and not the 5.


From: Jay Carlson (Oct 28 2011, at 07:09)

No removable storage, again? The Google-branded Galaxy S was the *only* one of its family to omit the microSD slot.

Low-level developers like microSD for various reasons. And if I'm replacing a portable music player, I need it. I'm well over 32G of MP3s in my "active" collection, and it's nice to be able to put in the video sdcard on the plane.

I grumbled that this was a lack of interest by Google in uses and places with badnet.

Except Samsung's "real" 10.1 Tab doesn't have removable storage either. This may be good; annoyance at this omission has kept me from buying the best device of the generation. Besides, the Tegra GPU in all the tablets (and some phones) can't play back High Profile H.264. No, I don't want to re-encode everything. Hopefully the next generation tablets will catch up with, oh, the iPhone 3GS and the Galaxy S family like the 7 Tab.


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