Samsung Galaxy Nexus: Pure Google, pure delight

From its gorgeous HD display to its screamingly fast speeds, Samsung's Galaxy Nexus shows off just how good an Android phone can be.

In the world of Android, we see a lot of new phones -- and inevitably, some of them are destined to be forgotten. Samsung's new Galaxy Nexus is not one of those devices.

Samsung's Galaxy Nexus
Samsung's Galaxy Nexus

The Galaxy Nexus, available now in the UK and coming soon to Verizon Wireless, is an exceptional phone, arguably the finest Android handset to date. It's the first device to run Google's just-released Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, and will serve as the flagship phone for the platform. The Nexus name means Google had a close hand in developing the device, and that level of involvement certainly shows.

I've spent several days using the global HSPA+ version of the Galaxy Nexus, which is compatible with both AT&T and T-Mobile. Neither carrier has announced plans to sell the phone so far, but you could theoretically buy it unlocked and use it on either network, provided you're willing to pay the unsubsidized off-contract price.

Verizon, which will sell the Nexus, will sell a slightly different model made to run on its LTE 4G network; that version was not available for review at the time of this publication. Thus far, no U.S. pricing specifics -- on contract or off -- have been announced. There is also no official release date yet.

Body and display

First things first: The Galaxy Nexus is no small gadget. The phone measures 2.7 x 5.3 x 0.4 in., thanks in part to its jumbo-sized 4.65-in. display. Despite those daunting figures, I haven't found the new Nexus to feel the least bit bulky; the phone is sleek, thin, and light -- weighing in at just 4.8 oz. -- and perfectly comfortable to hold and carry around.

It's worth noting that the LTE version will differ somewhat in its dimensions: Google lists that version of the phone as being 0.02 in. thicker and 0.5 oz. heavier than the HSPA+ model I've been testing.

Size aside, the Galaxy Nexus has a look reminiscent of Samsung's Galaxy S II phone -- in particular, the Sprint GSII model. The Nexus has more rounded edges and a contoured display, but those distinctions aside, the phones could almost be brothers.

Like the Galaxy S II, the Galaxy Nexus has a textured back, which reveals itself to be a surprisingly thin piece of plastic when you pull it off to access the battery compartment. The plastic panel feels somewhat flimsy when removed, particularly compared to the solid metal casing on a device like the Droid Razr.

(You can find a feature-by-feature comparison of three recent smartphones here: Galaxy Nexus vs. Droid Razr and HTC Rezound.)

That said, the phone itself feels quite solid and doesn't strike me as being especially fragile. On the front, the Galaxy Nexus's screen has what Samsung describes as "fortified" glass. While it isn't the Corning-brand "Gorilla Glass" that's been popularized in many recent smartphones, it seems to be comparably protective and resistant to scratches. One brave blogger even put it to the test:

A blogger risks his phone to test the display's durability.

Speaking of screens, the Galaxy Nexus' display is absolutely top-notch. The phone features a 720p (1280 x 720) screen based on Samsung's new HD Super AMOLED technology, which -- despite early concerns from some Android enthusiasts -- is every bit as impressive as the Super AMOLED Plus technology used in previous Galaxy models. The phone's display is like a feast for your eyes: Colors are rich and brilliant, and images and text are crisp and clear, with no detectable pixelation or jagged edges.

The Galaxy Nexus has an LED notification indicator on its front, centered just above the device's lower edge. This is a nice touch I miss in many modern smartphones; it enables you to glance at your phone and immediately see if you've missed any kind of activity. The LED indicator flashes different colors for different events, too, so you can quickly learn if you've missed a call, for example, or received a new email or tweet. And of course, the LED function can be disabled altogether if you'd rather not use it.

Buttons, ports, and connectivity

One thing immediately noticeable with the Galaxy Nexus is its lack of physical navigation buttons -- the menu, home, back and search keys that have previously been a hallmark of Android phones. With Android 4.0, Google is moving away from those buttons and focusing instead on virtual on-screen alternatives.

I talk more about this in my review of Ice Cream Sandwich, but in terms of hardware, the buttons' absence creates a compelling visual. The phone is essentially one giant, smooth surface -- a uniform and uninterrupted slate. It's a striking effect.

The Galaxy Nexus does have a couple of buttons along its sides: a volume rocker on the left, about a third of the way down, and a power switch on the right, roughly an inch from the top. The bottom edge of the phone has two ports: a 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port. The micro-USB port doubles as an HDMI out-port with the help of an adapter (which is not included with the phone at purchase).

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