I consider the Samsung Galaxy Nexus the best Android device that I've ever put my hands on. Even so, I can't recommend that you buy one, and I'll explain why.
First let's quickly talk about what the Galaxy Nexus is and what it's trying to accomplish.
The "Nexus" brand is Google's reference design for smartphones (and the name itself is a nod to the powerful androids in Philip K. Dick's sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). With the Nexus phones, Google selects a hardware partner and then collaborates on the hardware design and the hardware-software integration to produce a device that gives phone makers an idea of Google's latest vision for Android smartphones.
For the third straight year, Google has debuted a Nexus around the turn of the year to provide inspiration for phone builders in the year ahead. The original Nexus, the Nexus One designed in partnership with HTC, set a high standard. At the time, it clearly lept ahead of the the iPhone 3GS in a number of ways (better display, great widgets, slimmer form factor). Last year's Nexus S, designed in partnership with Samsung, wasn't as much of a breakthrough since the Android ecosystem was really percolating at that point, but it was the first device to include an NFC chip.
Google chose to hook up with Samsung again to build this year's Nexus device, the Galaxy Nexus. While this one is more innovative than last year's bland Nexus S, it still isn't the ground-breaker that the original Nexus One was. The Galaxy Nexus features an uninspired design and unremarkable hardware, with one big exception — the gorgeous 4.65-inch Super AMOLED display with 1280x720 resolution.
The other big factor that the Galaxy Nexus has going for it is that it's the first phone to Android 4.0, "Ice Cream Sandwich." Like previous Nexus phones, it runs the stock version of Android without any of the additional animations, widgets, and UI modifications that the phone makers add to Android. (That's a plus since most of the additions are actually subtractions.)
Frankly, I was dazzled by Android 4.0. It smoothes out many of Android's rough edges and makes the device more pleasant, self-evident, and less complicated to use. There are still times when Google seems to think that flashy animations — rather than imminent usability — make a good UI, but Ice Cream Sandwich is absolutely a big step forward. I consider it the biggest step forward since the leap from Android 1.0 to 2.0, when the platform first came of age with the release the original Motorola Droid.
Here's the best thing I can say about Android 4.0: It makes it really tough to go back and pick up an Android 2.3 device and not feel constrained and disappointed by the user experience.
That said, here's my quick summary of my likes and dislikes with the Galaxy Nexus and my final verdict:
What I like
- The display is big, beautiful, and far better than anything out there other than the iPhone Retina Display
- Android 4.0 is a quantum leap forward
- Verizon's LTE 4G speeds (I got 30Mbps down and 15Mbps up) paired with a 1.2GHz dual core processor make the Galaxy Nexus incredibly responsive
- I always prefer the stock version of Android to the skins that the phone makers add
What I don't like
- The battery struggles to get through a full day; it maxes out at 15-20 hours (see screenshot below); but if you really need 24 hours of battery life then don't get an Android device and especially don't get one with LTE; get an iPhone or a BlackBerry
- The hardware design is surprisingly uninspired for a high-end device with so much oomph under the hood
- The plastic backplate is slippery (I dropped the device twice) and it makes the phone feel cheap
- The camera is mediocre and limited to 5 megapixels (although Android 4.0 dramatically improves shutter lag)
As much as I love the amazing 1280x800 display and Android 4.0, I can't recommend the Galaxy Nexus. At $299 (with a contract), it just makes too many important compromises. Its hardware design looks like something you'd expect from a $99 phone or a free phone. Its plastic back is cheap and slippery, and demands a case, even though its curved contour design and large rump on the bottom won't make it easy to fit into a case.
Ice Cream Sandwich is what really sets the Galaxy Nexus apart from other Android devices. When the Motorola Droid Razr gets ICS in the near future (as Motorola has promised), it will have virtually all the benefits of the Galaxy Nexus with a much better hardware design, better battery life, and a better camera. The Droid Razr doesn't have the amazing display that the Galaxy Nexus does, but it still has a very good display and most people won't won't notice the difference. The Samsung Galaxy S II will be getting Android 4.0 in Q1 2012. I'd even recommend that hardware design over the Galaxy Nexus, which is a step backwards in smartphone design for Samsung.
If your current device is dead or dying and you have to get a new smartphone this month and you absolutely want the best Android device that you can get your hands on, then get the Galaxy Nexus. Otherwise, wait until the Droid Razr or the Samsung Galaxy S II get Android 4.0 in the coming months, or wait until you see the amazing round of new Android 4.0 devices that are going to be announced next month at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.