I got my rant about the Samsung Galaxy Nexus’ one absurd design flaw yesterday. Now, it’s on to the good news: Ice Cream Sandwich feels like Android just grew up, and got handed a degree. Throw your mortarboards in the air!

Ice Cream Sandwich isn’t perfect. It still feels like design by attrition: one designer on campus, wanting to explain to a team of engineers why mucking about with the numberpad on the lockscreen isn’t the best use of their time, only for it to get bumped to the bottom of the list because there’s just soo much to do.

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Nor is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus: in some respects, it’s actually inferior to the seven month old Samsung Galaxy S2. But combined, they’re greater than the sum of their parts, and just about any other mobile phone out there right now. Like the Power Rangers Megazord suddenly pulling a giant, skyscraper sized sword out of nowhere. Where did that come from?

I don’t want to dwell too long on the hardware, because frankly, it’s the most boring thing about the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The mottled grey plastic back could be from any Samsung phone of the last three years. It’s not even that thin: like the original Nexus S, it’s curved, with a large protrusion at the bottom. More than one colleague remarked that it looked just like the “old one”: it just happens to have a nice pearl LED notification light too.

Its 4.65-inch display dwarfs it however. The Nexus S now feels like the Nexus Mini. But through some sleight of design hand, it doesn’t seem too large, though it’s barely smaller than the gargantuan HTC Titan. It just seems the obvious size for a new phone, which I wasn’t really expecting.

That display, too is spectacular. Forget any concerns about the number of sub-pixels: 1280×720 pentile pixels in such a comparatively small screen still equals stupid sharp. This *actually* is an HD phone, even if it is hampered by a too glossy glass overlay and shallow horizontal viewing angles.

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The contrast is stark, and whites greatly improved on previous generations of Samsung AMOLED displays. If anything, it’s too sharp: Google profile images in the new People address book now look woefully blurred.

It’s not something iPhone 4 or even Samsung Galaxy S2 owners need get particularly jealous of. The five megapixel camera is only so-so. The battery life is only slightly superior to the original Nexus S. The dual-core TI 1.2GHz processor, paired with a PowerVR SGX540 GPU are fast, but Samsung can go faster, and you can bet it will do soon.

Samsung might not, on the other hand, do better than Ice Cream Sandwich any time soon.

The jump to “4.0” is significant: you’ve never seen Android like this before. Only the basic structure remains. There’s a new font, a new look – AND THEY’VE GOT RID OF THE SEARCH AND SETTINGS BUTTONS.

That’s right. The search button, which was never mandatory, is now gone completely. Instead of physical buttons below the display, you’ve got back, home and taskbar buttons worked into the display. Search can now be found at the top of every homescreen, while the settings can be found in a … icon in a corner of the app (Though there’s not much consistency to this, yet anyway).

While it’s not something I agree with (This actually poses a problem of its own: any phone that tries this with an LCD screen rather than a pure black AMOLED panel is going to look horrific), it’s the first obvious sign that Google is actually thinking about these things. How many people used a button that wasn’t on every phone? Strike it out.

Android’s feel has moved from cartoony to Tron-like, and now back to something more sensible. The only elements remaining from the holographic Android Honeycomb are the multi-tasking bar, and the separate screen for widgets, to the right of your apps drawer. Now, folders behave sensibly, you can place them in the dock, and even move icons around within them to your liking.

The subtle tweaks go further than the rejigged launcher, however. The notification bar is translucent, and individual notifications can now be cleared with a swipe to the left or right. It gives you full track controls for the Google Music Player, and it’s once again ahead of iOS 5 on the iPhone.

The keyboard meanwhile is seriously smart. While the stock Android keyboard 2.3 was superb, this is better: the buttons are slightly more spacious, and auto-correction and word suggestions are much more sensible. It takes into account the words you’ve just typed as well as the one you’re typing, suggests likely words with an extra letter in case a keypress wasn’t registered at all, and splits up words where the space bar didn’t work. My Nexus S never did this.

Google’s core apps, too have had a makeover. In Gmail and Google Talk, you can use a double finger swipe to move between messages and conversations. I do wonder though how this will work on the lower resolution phones inevitably in the pipeline. The Gmail app has so many options visible at once that they can’t possibly fit on a 320×480 screen. Added to this, the tick button to deal with messages in bulk is smaller now too.

But for the most part, Google seems to get it now: there’s a flicker of comprehension. Where before it was up to OEMs to provide services on top of Android, not just apps, it’s doing them now. There’s a greater suite of Google apps than ever before.

The much more polished Google Music app is now the default music player. Google Videos, the movie download service, is pre-installed – it’s a little thing, but few would know to seek this out on the Market. On top of that, you get new filters in the crazy fast camera app, and, at last, a Movie Studio app so you can edit videos on all Android phones (Previously only available on Honeycomb tablets).

Google+ also come preloaded, which is nice if you actually use Google+, but to be honest, it feels like having a loud conversation with myself in a large, empty cathedral. The People hub, however, draws your contacts in. It’s eerily similar to said People hub on Windows Phone, letting you see what bunches of peeps are saying, and the big juciy graphics are a welcome. We do wish Google would kiss and make up with Facebook though. It actually stripped Facebook contact syncing out in a later version of Gingerbread, and it’s yet to return.

Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus isn’t perfect. The lock screen is stupid. Face unlock is quite quick when it works, but it doesn’t always work unless you hold it up right in front of your face, rather than look down at it. So then it defaults to your pin. And if it doesn’t work all the time, you just don’t use it.

Voice search and actions have barely been improved since launch a year and a half ago. You can now dictate at a slightly faster pace, although it’s still not quite quick enough to be “real time”. If Siri’s shown us one thing, it’s that voice control needs to extend beyond the screen: it’d be great to be able to send emails through a pair of headphones while the Nexus is in my pocket.

But regardless, the Galaxy Nexus gives the impression Android has come of age. It feels complete. And for just about the first time ever, that familiar Android lag is nowhere to be seen.

That bug. Make no mistake about it, that Galaxy Nexus volume control bug you’ve read about is real. As the old saying goes, there’s no gaggle of entitled early adopters complaining about glitchy, new release software without fire. Google says a fix is coming.

But if I’ve replicated it, it’s only been once, and even then I’m not sure – it was just after I turned the Galaxy Nexus on for the first time, and it could well have been on silent to begin with. I’ve been trying to force it again since, keeping it on 2G and making calls and dabbling with the music player, and I’ve not managed. The sound works just fine for me.

For its part, Vodafone tells me it’s still testing the phone as a whole, and hasn’t acknowledged this bug in particular as a reason why it’s not quite on sale yet. But you can bet no network is going to sell it directly without getting this fixed first.

I won’t be buying the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. But that’s only because I’m the sort of idiot that goes and buys a Nexus S on the day of release, SIM-free. I’m waiting for the Ice Cream Sandwich update (due before the end of the year), and getting my money’s worth. Many people are still buying the Samsung Galaxy  S2, and that’s OK. It’s more manageable, it’s arguably more beautiful, and it’ll get the update in due course.

That update is really what the Galaxy Nexus is about. If iOS and Windows Phone are easy to use, Android just became intellectual, not complex.

The thinking man’s phone, if you will.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus kindly provided by Vodafone.

  • travelsko

    Hahaha Titan what a joke! Sensation XL for mee with Beats….

    Wp7 has failed.

    Start sue the world.

  • Guri Dhillon

    it look like a article from a fanbody

    • Anonymous

      Hi Ghuri – are reviewers not allowed to like some products? I rather feel that’s the point.

  • Mikesmith

    good article, funny too

  • Mikesmith

    good article, funny too

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