Galaxy Nexus: First Android 4 smartphone triumphs -- almost

A gorgeous screen, business-class security, and Android 4 push this smartphone to a new level. Too bad about the several flaws

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Web and Internet
The Android 4 browser has a new option to request a desktop version of websites that display downsized pages to mobile devices, a nice choice when you don't want the often inferior mobile version of the site. But the browser doesn't always render websites accurately, especially those that have multiple columns (the InfoWorld.com website is one it misrenders). It also doesn't always handle mail links that include variables such as Subject fields correctly.

Google's user agent string for Android makes it hard for websites to differentiate between smartphones and Android 4 tablets. Rather than have a clear label such as "smartphone" or "tablet" in addition to the "Android 4" label, it lists the specific model for each device, forcing webmasters to keep a log of which items should get a mobile-optimized smartphone version and which can stick with the standard desktop-oriented site. My random check of websites showed that most saw the Galaxy Nexus as a tablet, not a smartphone. Thus, many websites will be hard to use on the Galaxy Nexus, at least until website developers figure out how to identify Android 4 smartphones.

The Android 4 browser supports more HTML5 capabilities than prior versions of Android. In the HTML5Test.com benchmarks, it scores 230 (out of 450 points), versus 222 for Android 3, 184 for Android 2.3, 260 for BlackBerry OS 7, and 141 for Windows Phone 7.5. But iOS 5 far outperforms Android 4, scoring 296.

Google has also borrowed some capabilities from Apple's iOS in the Android 4 version of its mobile browser: You can now search within a Web page and you can now add a Web page as an app-like icon to your home screen.

User interface
The Android 4 UI is smoother and feels more consistent. As previously noted, Google has improved the widgets and home screen interface, making them more useful and flexible.

Operational UI. But there are plenty of cracks and mismatches, an unfortunate signature of Google's development approach. For example, apps place their menus in different locations, and some use icons, where others use menus for the same basic features; you can't rely on the equivalent of motor memory. Some of the revamped apps have adopted the Windows Phone 7 tiles look, while others are menu-heavy, almost in a retro way that seems odd for a touch-savvy device. Perhaps this conservatism and look to Microsoft reflect caution given the heated legal battle with Apple over design patents. But it means a lot of mental mode shifting for users.

The bright AMOLED screen in the Galaxy Nexus is quite appealing, but you need to be careful with screen brightness -- text is easily "blown out" and made fuzzy if the screen is set to high brightness. Fortunately, a handy widget lets you quickly switch brightness levels, so you can have it superintense for games and cartoons, then a bit subdued for text and movies.

But the biggest usability issue for the Galaxy Nexus is poor battery life, one shared by other Samsung Galaxy smartphones. This flaw explains why the Galaxy Nexus's Test Center usability score is below that of Motorola's Android smartphones, even though the latter group uses an older version of Android.

Text selection and copying. As is common with Google's products, the interface favors small text difficult for those in their 40s and older to read. Fortunately, Android 4 has added controls to increase the text size, which helps notably. The new text-correction interface, in which multiple suggested corrections appear beneath the text as you type, is inspired -- and much better than Apple's approach. Text selection and cursor positioning are also easier, as the text cursor is now more responsive as you tap into text.

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