Hands on: Google's Galaxy Nexus and Android Ice Cream Sandwich

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next generation of Android.

Google Galaxy Nexus, Android Ice Cream Sandwich

Google officially unleashed its Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS on Monday, and now, the flagship ICS phone is finally making its debut. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus went on sale in the U.K. Thursday morning and is expected to launch on Verizon Wireless within a matter of days.

I've been spending some hands-on time with the Galaxy Nexus and Android Ice Cream Sandwich this week. I'll be putting together in-depth reviews of the phone and the operating system soon, but I wanted to share some of my early impressions with you now.

Getting to Know the Galaxy Nexus and Android Ice Cream Sandwich

First, I should point out that the Galaxy Nexus unit I have is not the Verizon LTE edition; it's an HSPA+ version of the phone that'll be sold globally. The phone, provided to me on loan from Google, is connected to T-Mobile's network. It could also work with AT&T or any other compatible HSPA+ carrier anywhere in the world.

To be clear, Google says the LTE edition of the phone is the one that'll be available at launch here in the States (the official timing estimate is still "sometime in November"). As of now, no U.S. carriers other than Verizon have announced plans to offer the device, though that could obviously change in the future -- and there's no reason you couldn't buy an unlocked HSPA+ model and use it on another carrier, too, if you're willing to pay the unsubsidized price.

Got it? Good. Now let's move on to some thoughts based on the hands-on time I've had with the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich so far.

Galaxy Nexus: The Body

Make no mistake about it: The Galaxy Nexus is one slick-looking device. The phone's form reminds me somewhat of the Samsung Galaxy S II, particularly the Sprint model. It's not identical, mind you, but the two devices definitely look related. The Galaxy Nexus has more rounded edges and a nicely contoured display. It's also larger than the GSII, given its supersized 4.65-inch screen. 

Here's what's interesting, though: For as large as that screen size sounds, the Galaxy Nexus is surprisingly not bulky. I was initially skeptical as to whether a 4.65-inch display would make the device seem too big to hold and lug around in my pocket all day. As soon as I actually had the device in my hand, those worries went away.

For some perspective, the Galaxy Nexus is actually about equal in width and thickness to the Sprint Galaxy S II and just 0.2 inches longer in length. The Galaxy Nexus is 2.7 x 5.3 x 0.4 inches; the Sprint GSII is 2.7 x 5.1 x 0.4 inches.

Galaxy Nexus: The Display

Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Speaking of displays, a lot of folks have been wondering how the Galaxy Nexus would stack up next to other Android phones when it comes to screen quality. The Galaxy Nexus uses Samsung's new HD Super AMOLED technology, which is a change from the Super AMOLED Plus seen in the Galaxy S II line of devices.

Let me put your fears to rest: The screen on this thing looks mighty fine. The display is crisp and bright, with brilliant colors that really pop. I haven't noticed any jagged edges or pixelation in my usage so far. With a resolution of 1280 by 720 -- compared to 800 by 480 in the Galaxy S II -- this phone more than holds its own.

Ice Cream Sandwich: First Impressions

The Galaxy Nexus hardware is one thing, but the even bigger story is the phone's software -- you know, that little ol' thing called Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. We've been hearing about Ice Cream Sandwich for ages now, so what's it actually like to use it?

Based on my initial impressions, it's pretty damn impressive. Using ICS feels like using a prettier, more polished, and more powerful version of Android; it's close enough to what we know to be familiar, but evolved enough to be exciting.

[UPDATE: Android 4.0 upgrade list: Is your device getting Ice Cream Sandwich?] 

ICS gives you five home screens with a customizable favorites tray that stays in place when you swipe between panels. The favorites tray features four icons -- which can be set to any app shortcuts or folders you want -- along with a centered icon that takes you to your phone's full app drawer.

The app drawer is also now your one-stop shop for home screen customization. It contains all the apps and widgets installed on your phone, and all you do is long-press any item there to drag and drop it onto any of your home screens. This takes a little bit of getting used to, I found, but having played with it for a while, it really strikes me as a far more simple and intuitive approach.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Home Screen, Apps

Ice Cream Sandwich: The Buttons (or Lack Thereof)

As you've probably heard, Google is moving away from physical navigation buttons with Ice Cream Sandwich; instead, you get on-screen buttons that appear as needed and rotate automatically to match your phone's orientation (like what we've seen on tablets running the Android Honeycomb OS). After years of using Android phones with four permanent physical buttons, I expected this to be a major adjustment -- but it's actually been pretty painless. Since the new on-screen buttons appear when you need them and where you need them, it's really a natural transition and doesn't feel the least bit odd.

(With phones that do have physical buttons, by the way, the buttons will continue to work as they always have; see my Ice Cream Sandwich FAQ for details.)

One thing I wondered with this new setup is how search and particularly Voice Actions would work. I've grown accustomed to being able to long-press my phone's search button, after all, and then speak a command or search term. The answer is that Ice Cream Sandwich places a search box at the top of the home screen that -- like the favorites tray on the bottom -- stays in place as you swipe from one panel to another. You just tap the main part of the box to launch a standard text search (which covers the Web as well as all sorts of content on your phone) or tap a microphone icon at the right of the box to launch a Voice Actions prompt.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Search

Ice Cream Sandwich: Everything Else

It's going to take some time to fully explore all the improvements and added features Ice Cream Sandwich delivers. You've got everything from a completely revamped settings menu (long story short: massively improved) to the new facial recognition system for unlocking your phone (very cool, even if not 100 percent perfect). The OS is filled with loads of subtle new flourishes, too, ranging from a reimagined folder system to a bevy of nice-looking new animations and transitions.

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There's also stuff like a brand new browser with instant Chrome bookmark syncing, a souped-up Camera app with panoramic capabilities and zero shutter lag, and fresh-looking new versions of apps like Calendar, Gmail, and Google+. Ice Cream Sandwich introduces whole new interfaces for notifications and multitasking, too, as well as an expanded "People" tool (formerly known as contacts) and a bunch of new scrollable, resizable widgets for your home screens.

All this, and I'm still barely scratching the surface. I'll be diving into Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus in much greater detail in the days and weeks to come. Stay tuned for my full in-depth review and plenty of other bite-sized tidbits I'll be sharing along the way (follow one of my social media accounts, linked below, if you want to catch it all). 

This is the beginning of a new era for Android, my friends -- and believe me, our journey is just getting started.

UPDATE: Android 4.0 and the Galaxy Nexus: My in-depth reviews 

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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