Sea of Troubles

A Week With the Galaxy Nexus

About six months ago, I noticed that we were making lots of decisions at work about the Android ecosystem, without having the benefit of lots of first-hand experience. In particular, I was making decisions about the security characteristics of the platform based on documentation, rather than having used one for more than a few moments. So, I bought the Nexus S on Vodafone.

Carrying it for a few months, I learnt a lot about how Android works in real use, and about the security functionality built into the platform. It was an interesting device, with a lot of promise, but it was never compelling enough for me to give up my iPhone; I found that it increasingly spent most of its time in my bag rather than in my pocket.

Android on the Nexus S felt like it was frozen in time; the development effort in the platform seemed to be going into Honeycomb, and as a phone user I was locked out of that innovation. When Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus were announced, I was tired of waiting.

So, about a week ago, I bought the new Galaxy Nexus. In the time since, I’ve been using it as my primary phone wherever possible. When at home, I’ve left my iPhone on my desk and carried the Galaxy Nexus.

The hardware

Compared to the Nexus S, the Galaxy Nexus feels like an artefact of an advanced alien civilisation. Where the Nexus S felt slow, high latency, the Galaxy Nexus is fluid and responsive. Apps load quickly. Network speeds on wifi are dramatically better.

It is, however, huge. I have pretty big hands, so I can just reach the opposite corner with my thumb, but I can see most people struggling to use the device one-handed. Shawn Blanc has written an extensive review, and discusses the physical ergonomics of the device, arguing:

The phone is literally too big to easily and comfortably unlock with one hand. It’s so big, that to hold it in one hand where I can comfortably press the lock/unlock button I am holding the phone in the middle. But in that grip I cannot comfortably reach the slide to unlock slide. And so I would have to shimmy my hand down the phone to be able to reach the slide-to-unlock tap target. Or, I have to use the phone with two hands.

I imagine a lot of owners will be using this phone two-handed.

I’m impressed, though, at how light the device feels; it’s surprisingly thin. I concur with Shawn when he says that it feels lighter than the iPhone 4, even if it isn’t. The size, though, does cause some small problems—the edge of the phone sticks out of the top of my jeans’ pocket, and won’t fit in the holder on my bag’s strap.

After a day of heavy use, the Galaxy Nexus usually still has 20% of its battery; the Nexus S would be long dead after this much use, and be much of the way through its second charge. This is the first Android device I’ve used that had comparable battery life to an iOS device, and therefore could be usable as my primary device. That said, the company-issued BlackBerry 9780 still leaves both in the dust, routinely getting more than two days of life off a single charge.

Shawn’s review goes into lots of detail about the screen on the Galaxy Nexus—it’s a Super AMOLED display. The unintended texture in large blocks of colour, particularly dark colours, is present on my unit too. I’m finding, though, that I’m steadily noticing it less.

The software

ICS is much nicer than Gingerbread.

Google have put multitasking front-and-centre in this release of the OS, dedicating one of only three soft keys to Android’s Alt-Tab equivalent. This replaces the “hold the home button” equivalent in Gingerbread. While it doesn’t seem like much, I’m finding that when I’m doing something inherently multitasking heavy—like reading XYDO brief in the morning—I reach for the Galaxy Nexus instead of the iPhone.

Prior to ICS, all Android phones had four dedicated hardware keys: home, search, menu and back. I nearly never used the search button, so don’t notice that it’s gone. The menu button, however, always felt like a key part of the Gingerbread OS; rather than iOS’ strategy of putting buttons into an app’s main UI, Android apps universally hid these details behind the menu button. Given this, ICS had to come up with a way to expose this functionality without a dedicated button—what Danny Sullivan calls the “triple colon” was born.

Danny’s review goes into a great amount of detail about the use and misuse of these menu-button-substitutes, and you should read his review. The net effect, though, is very frustrating. Given how fundamental the menu key was to most Android applications (although often inconsistently or confusingly), I would much have preferred that it be kept. This would have left four buttons, with search replaced with the multitasking key.

This inconsistency—getting some details so right, but tolerating some really painful user interface compromises— continues elsewhere. In side-by-side testing, the Galaxy Nexus’s browser is consistently faster than Safari on iPhone 4, but the difference isn’t noticeable in normal use. The Galaxy Nexus’s browser, though, makes it very hard to change/close tabs: you have to slightly scroll down to reveal the title bar with the tab button, and then quickly tap the button before it disappears again. This doesn’t sound like much, but it drives me crazy.

Face Unlock, though much maligned, is pretty neat. As Andy Rubin argued, it’s intended to sit between nothing and a PIN in the security spectrum. That said, it only seems to work for me about one time in two, in optimal conditions. Often, it will complain that it can’t find my face (particularly if the background is a neutral colour or red), or that it doesn’t recognise me. While my reading glasses don’t seem to bother it, sunglasses throw it completely. When it doesn’t trigger immediately, the end-to-end unlock process usually takes much longer than entering a pattern/PIN, which is frustrating. It also looks a bit silly to raise your phone in front of your face in public.

iPhone, to me, feels like an audio-visual consumption device as much as an app platform plus browser; it has a native application for managing music, podcasts and video, and keeps its library in sync with a bigger library on my desktop. I declare my preferences in the form of smart playlists and the system automatically ensures that the right media is always on my device. Buying media on an iPhone is effortless and nearly instant.

By contrast, Android doesn’t seem optimised for those uses at all. Connecting the Galaxy Nexus to my desktop, OSX users have to install Android File Transfer before it will speak to your phone. Once done, I was presented with a simple file system, into which you dump files. There’s no concept of syncing with a library, and you are required to manually determine which files should be on the device.

There’s no pre-installed way to play video. Seriously.

If you want to anything more sophisticated with podcasts than treat them as songs, you’ll need a podcast client. Google’s Listen disappointed me, so I’ve switched to Pocket Casts, which I also use on the iPhone.

The bottom line

I still prefer my iPhone 4 for most things; I would not replace an iPhone with a Galaxy Nexus. I’m deeply invested in the iOS ecosystem (apps, most of my music, much of my video), and Android’s idosyncracies are still not my native tongue.

If, however, I was coming straight from a feature phone, the Galaxy Nexus is pretty compelling. For tinkerers (Hi, Dad) and those who can’t stand Apple (Hello, colleagues), Android’s ICS is the best alternative I’ve used yet, and the Galaxy Nexus is a good way to get it.