Android

Reflections from a distant Galaxy (Nexus)

After a few months with the Galaxy Nexus, Deb Shinder highlights some of the pros and cons about this powerful device.

I've been using the Galaxy Nexus as my personal smartphone for a few months now, and I've had the opportunity to get well acquainted with the hardware and software. At this point, I feel qualified to discuss what I like and don't like about Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich - ICS) and the Nexus itself.

The phone is a nice device. In general, I've always liked HTC's phones more than Samsung's in the past; they're sturdier and feel less "cheap." The downside of that is that they tend to be heavier and thicker. I've heard some users complain about the thin plastic back cover on the Nexus, and I was concerned about it the first time I took it off, too. But so far, it's been pretty durable -- and while it might feel cheap, it certainly doesn't look cheap.

I like the overall size and shape of the Nexus and the way it feels in my hand. For a phone with such a large screen (4.65 inches), it's surprisingly compact. It's sleek, slim, and -- unlike Samsung's Droid Charge -- its profile doesn't suffer from a weird "chin" at the bottom (on the other hand, I do miss the Charge's hardware buttons that reside in that odd-shaped area). Something I've always preferred about Samsung phones is the power button on the right side instead of up on top; it makes it a lot easier to operate the device one-handed.

The display, like all of Samsung's Super AMOLED screens, is lovely, and the expansive screen real estate makes for a better viewing experience, whether you're browsing web pages, watching videos, or just reading email.

It's the software, though, that makes the Nexus truly special.

Savoring the sweet, silky taste of an Ice Cream Sandwich

Of course, one of my primary reasons for getting a Nexus (rather than an HTC Rezound or Motorola Droid Razr) was to be one of the first to taste Ice Cream Sandwich. In some ways, I felt similar during the transition to ICS that I felt when I started using Windows 8 CP (which is now my primary, everyday desktop OS). The most difficult thing was giving up components I had come to rely on in my computing experience. In the case of Windows 8, that was the Start button/menu. For ICS, it was the Search and Menu buttons.

In both cases, there was a lot of confusion and frustration at first. However, after a short time, I discovered that I can still do everything I did before but without those buttons. Yet, I still sometimes wish they hadn't been taken away.

Nonetheless, once I got used to ICS, I didn't want to go back to Gingerbread. When I did have to use a device with Android 2.x, it seemed clunky and inelegant.

What's nice

I'm a big fan of multitasking. It's one of my favorite things about Android, but I always longed for the equivalent of ALT + TAB -- that is, a way to quickly jump between the apps that were open on my phone. ICS granted that wish. I may have lost the Search and Menu buttons, but I gained an all-important "Recent Apps" button that shows me the running programs and lets me tap to go directly to the one I want, as seen in Figure 1. Figure 1

Something I use extensively on my Windows desktop computer is folders. I like being organized. You can put folders on your Gingerbread devices -- but it's not obvious how to do it, and once you do figure it out, it's a bit of a pain. First, you have to tap and hold on the home screen, then select Folder, then tap and hold the title bar to name it, then create shortcuts outside the folder, and then drag them into the folder. When you're done, you have a plain folder sitting on your home screen. Every folder looks like every other folder. Only the name indicates what's inside.

With ICS, the folders are both easier to make and work with after they're created. As you can see in Figure 2, the folders are now circles (Google likes circles, as anyone who has used Google+ knows) that show you their contents rather than plain manila file folder icons. Figure 2

Making a folder/group is simple. If you drag the icon for one app onto the top of another app, it automatically creates a folder. Tap the folder to open it; tap the name ("Unnamed Folder" by default) to change it. Really, it doesn't get much simpler than that.

The Favorites tray is a nice addition, too. Some vendor overlays (such as Samsung's) provided this functionality in Gingerbread, but others didn't. This tray is the row of app shortcuts across the bottom that's persistent across all of the home screens. You can customize it to put apps that you use most often or want to be able to get to most quickly here (for me, that's the phone, email, browser, and camera).

The circle in the middle of the tray with the six small rectangles inside is the Apps Launcher button. That takes you to the traditional pages of all your apps. You can see the All Apps page in Figure 3. Figure 3

But the App Launcher has been improved, too. Look up at the top: It's now tabbed, so that you see your Widgets on a separate tab, as illustrated in Figure 4. Figure 4

Even better, you can resize the widgets to fit where you want them, to take up two icon spaces on each of two lines (forming a square), four spaces across, two spaces horizontally or vertically, or whatever works best for you. This is something we had before on Honeycomb tablets but hadn't seen on the phone. Once you've put the widget on your home screen, press and hold it. You'll see a border form around it with little "handles" on each side (as shown in Figure 5) that you can use to make it smaller or larger. Grab the handle and pull to shrink or expand the widget in that direction. Figure 5

There are many more nice features in ICS on the Nexus. As a writer of articles about smartphones, I definitely appreciate the ease of taking screenshots. I'm not going to go into the improvements in the built-in apps, but I really like the camera app, which includes some pretty sophisticated editing capabilities and features zero shutter lag. Once you've become accustomed to the latter, every other phone cam feels excruciatingly slow. The email client is also better, with the "quick response" feature (stored boilerplate text) and much better management of mail folders.

Finally, it's nice that the lock screen now allows you to go directly to the camera without having to find its app on your home screen or App Launcher. Unfortunately, that's only true if you use the default "Slide" locking option. If you choose to secure your phone better by locking it with a PIN or pattern, then of course you'll have to access the camera the old way.

What's not so hot

Nothing's perfect, and that includes the Nexus with ICS. Hardware-wise, the biggest sacrifice I made in exchange for all the goodies above was the microSD card slot. In fact, that came close to being a deal breaker. Only the generous 32 GB of internal storage -- and the fact that I probably will carry the Nexus for less than a year (until the Galaxy Journal, which does have microSD, comes out on Verizon) -- convinced me that I could live without it for a while.

The lack of a dedicated storage partition also means no support for USB Mass Storage mode (UMS). ICS supports UMS, but the Nexus doesn't. This isn't much of a problem for Windows users, since Media Transport Protocol (MTP) provides a similar experience. It's a bit more problematic for Mac and Linux users.

The search function is well integrated into the apps and the Google search bar is at the top of each home screen, so that isn't really an issue -- but as I noted above, I do miss the Menu button. The app creator has to build the menu function into each app, and there's a lack of consistency regarding where it ends up. Represented by three dots (...), it sometimes appears next to the three soft buttons, sometimes in other places. This may not be a really big deal, but it is annoying. If it annoys you enough, you can root the Nexus and install a custom ROM that lets you make the menu location persistent. The custom ROM lets you add a persistent Search button, as well.

As for the software, the biggest disappointment was the lack of built-in Swype or ICS support for Swype at the time I got the Nexus. I've come to depend on that type of input on my phone and absolutely hate doing the one-key-at-a-time thing. However, while I was still testing the Nexus, I discovered something in Google Play called the TouchPal keyboard app, which is basically the same as Swype, and it works great on the Nexus. Swype itself is now available for the Nexus, too.

I've recently started having a problem with my Nexus occasionally losing both Wi-Fi and 4G signal. This happens maybe once every two or three days. Both the Wi-Fi and mobile network indicators in the notification bar go gray. Through trial and error, I've learned that going to Settings, then turning Wi-Fi off and back on restores both signals (and their bars turn a nice blue again). I don't know whether this is a hardware or software problem.

Summary

None of the annoyances I've encountered with the Nexus and/or ICS outweigh the vast improvements over other Android phones I've used. This is by far my favorite smartphone ever, and I've used most of the top models and loved many of them. Of course, what's best today is sure to be surpassed by something else tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to the Next Big Thing. Until then, I'm happy carrying around my Nexus, and I'm pretty sure my husband will be happy with it when I pass it along to him the next time I switch.

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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

2 comments
jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

That's not new. I've got that in Froyo. It doesn't show the screens like in ICS, but it presents up to the last eight apps used.

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