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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The Galaxy Nexus's design itself is unremarkable: a dark gray rectangle with rounded top and bottom. You're supposed to notice just the screen, because everything else about the case is nondescript. But you may notice the back, which is covered in a textured plastic material or film, because it feels weird and cheap to the touch. I'd be concerned about it peeling off from the edges at some point, especially in the several areas where the material curves up. Fortunately, the film covers only the snap-off back panel, so some enterprising company could make better-feeling replacements for it.

The Galaxy Nexus has the minimal ports -- MicroUSB and audio -- plus a volume rocker and power/sleep button. The MicroUSB port also supports MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) cables, which connect to an HDMI device such as a TV to mirror the Galaxy Nexus's screen. That eliminates the need for a separate MiniHDMI port. (The iPhone 4S also supports display mirroring through a dock-to-HDMI cable.) But missing is wireless display support as found on the iPhone 4S; the native apps at least don't support the DLNA (Digital Living Room Network Alliance) wireless streaming technology used by some Android apps and many recent TVs and Blu-ray players.

The Galaxy Nexus also supports near-field communications (NFC), a very short-range wireless technology that lets the smartphone share data with other NFC-equipped Android 4 devices in a way similar to Bluetooth file sharing. I could not test the NFC sharing feature as I had no other NFC devices available.

Finally, the Verizon Wireless version of the Galaxy Nexus that I tested supports LTE 4G cellular networks, which promise faster throughput than the common 3G networks. The Galaxy Nexus uses 3G networks when 4G is not available -- a good thing, as 4G deployments are still relatively scarce and concentrated in major urban areas. My informal testing in San Francisco, where LTE service is very recent, shows that 4G service is faster than 3G when the signal strengths are equivalent. But I typically had two 4G bars available for the Galaxy Nexus, while in the same locations for a Verizon iPhone 4, I had three 3G bars. The network performance of two 4G bars was equivalent to three 3G bars, so the Galaxy Nexus did not have better real-world performance in my test areas. If you're in a city with better 4G coverage, you should see the 4G speed difference more often.

All in all, what distinguishes the Galaxy Nexus's hardware from competing Android smartphones is its huge screen, 4G network support, and NFC support (which account for its high score in the Hardware category; see the scorecard) and poor battery life (which lowers its score for Usability). It's not quite the flagship I expected, but falls squarely on the advanced side. The rest of the Galaxy Nexus experience comes from the Android 4 OS itself, which Samsung hasn't messed up with any sort of UI "enhancement" or by larding it up with apps.

Email, calendars, and contacts
Android 4 has made improvements across the core business apps, though most are minor.

Email. The Email app now provides a combined view of your various accounts, which Android 2.x smartphones didn't do. That makes it easier to work with multiple accounts (emails are color-coded by account). It's a very welcome change, except when you want to search; Android 4's Email app can search only when you are viewing a single account, unlike iOS.

But the Email app continues to lack support for rich text, such as applying boldface, a capability Motorola Mobility added to its Android 2.x smartphones earlier this year. And although Email can show folder hierarchies for Exchange accounts, it doesn't preserve folder hierarchies in IMAP accounts. Seeing folders at all continues to require more steps than in iOS. There's also no message threading. And unfortunately, the Gmail app remains separate from the Email app used for all other types of email accounts.

Android 4 gets rid of the hard-to-read white-on-black message display of Android 2.2 "Froyo" and 2.3 "Gingerbread"; lets you create email groups (unlike iOS); and adds per-attachment controls within emails -- all imported from Android 3.x "Honeycomb." (Many Android 4 changes for smartphones in fact come from simply adopting what "Honeycomb" already provided to Android tablets.) But there's something amiss in the display of your message list: The From line overlaps the text in the Subject line -- no matter what setting your text size in either the Mail app itself or as the Android default. Someone forget to do the quality control work here.

Another positive change in Android 4 is an expanded viewer for attachments. With Android devices, you can now view Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, in addition to graphics, text-only, and HTML attachments. You no longer need a separate reader such as the basic version of Quickoffice bundled by many Android devices; in fact, Quickoffice is not bundled with the Galaxy Nexus.

Android 4 adds a dictation function in Email, where you can speak your message. Although Android has nothing like the iPhone 4S's Siri voice-controlled virtual assistant, it has voice recognition capabilities in several apps, including Email, Navigation, and Search. Unfortunately, the dictation in Email is highly inaccurate, even when you speak slowly and distinctly. At least the voice recognition in Navigation and Search are more reliable.

The improved widgets in Android 4 let you add home screen windows to show recent emails, appointments, and the like. These are great ways to see quickly what's new. They also overcome the limits in Android's notification tray, which does not list individual messages (unlike iOS 5's notifications) and tells you only how many new messages you have.

Calendar. The new Android 4 Calendar app lets you swipe among day, list, week, and month views with scroll gestures -- a simple approach that I wish were more common in the menu-oriented Android OS. The Android Calendar also has adopted several options iOS 5 users are familiar with, including home-time-zone appointment view, the ability to set a universal default reminder time, and the ability to set the time zone for each new event independently. It can also show appointments from Google Calendar (which iOS has long supported). But Android 4 continues Google's cloud-only approach to synchronization, so you can't sync with local calendars (or contacts) on your PC or Mac.

Contacts. Android 4's Contact app has been renamed People. It's now expanded to pull in Twitter followers and other social networking contacts, in addition to traditional contacts such as in Exchange and Gmail. But little has changed in the contacts themselves. As before, you can designate people as favorites, set custom ringtones (but not custom vibrations as in iOS 5), have specified contacts' phone calls be sent to voicemail, search for contacts, and quickly scroll through them, which also displays a faster slider mechanism. A nice addition (for smartphone users) in Android 4 is the abillity to create groups (unlike iOS), with a better  group-creation mechanism than that in the tablet-oriented Android 3 "Honeycomb." The UI has also been cleaned up a bit.

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