Even in concept, this device fails the most basic tests.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Will the real Samsung Galaxy Nexus please stand up? Sadly, a Nexus smartphone made specifically for one network -- in this case Verizon
Wireless in the U.S. -- cannot be a proper Nexus. The Nexus name used to imply a device not tied to any one carrier, none. It comes with no carrier-specific applications, blocks no applications and receives its updates directly from Google -- not from the carrier.
As General Maximus said in the movie "Gladiator," speaking of how Rome had evolved into a circus of games: "This is not it."
There is another Rome, however: almost any place outside of the U.S., where the "Euro-spec" Samsung Galaxy Nexus, working on GSM/HSPA+, is sold by established channels -- carriers and/or otherwise. You can import this device into the U.S., and it will cost you approximately $675, but it is not yet available from any of the major U.S. channels, such as Best Buy or Amazon - let alone any of the carriers. As a result, most consumers who are worried about warranties prefer some big brand name or a large but local store, don't yet have this much better Galaxy Nexus option.
The predecessor to the Galaxy Nexus was not sold directly by AT&T and T-Mobile USA either. But you could buy it from Best Buy. The Samsung Nexus S used to be available from Best Buy, and you had the choice of the T-Mobile USA version, or the AT&T/international version. Either way, the price was $530. The new international version of the Galaxy Nexus is now compatible with the HSPA networks for both AT&T and T-Mobile USA.
I am going to rip into the U.S. market model for selling smartphones further down in this review, but before I get too confrontational, negative and generally cranky, let's start with the actual positives about Verizon's version of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, shall we?
Here is the bottom line for the purchasing decision. If you fit all of these five criteria, there is not even a shadow of a doubt that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus LTE is the right smartphone for you: You are fine being beholden to Verizon's restrictions of software. You don't need international GSM/HSPA capability. You don't need a keyboard. You can live with what seems like a very poor battery life. You are OK with a very large smartphone.
The Galaxy Nexus being the first Android 4.0 (so-called "Ice Cream Sandwich") smartphone, anyone fitting all of these five criteria need not consider any other Android smartphone. You can just stop reading right here and go pay Verizon immediately.
That said, let's look at the characteristics of the phone itself.
1. Size of the device: The Galaxy Nexus is huge. I've got big hands, but even for me the Galaxy Nexus is at the very edge of breaking the size budget. Adding insult to injury, it is also very slippery. It would greatly benefit from a case such as the very rubbery Impact series from Otterbox. The bad news here is that adding such a case makes it even bigger, but having such a case is a necessity, in my opinion.
To illustrate how negative the impact of the huge size is on the user's experience, I found myself reaching for my BlackBerry Bold 9930, also from Verizon, whenever I needed to do something where the Galaxy Nexus didn't clearly excel, such as reading a Twitter feed. The BlackBerry feels so many more times better in the hand, especially with the Otterbox case.
Samsung's own Galaxy S2 (AT&T version), which arrived on U.S. shores approximately three months ago and was reviewed here, feels a lot better in the hand. That screen is "only" 4.3 inches (a size unheard-of two years ago) and is also thinner. Both devices are relatively and characteristically Samsung-featherweight in comparison with almost any other new high-end smartphone on the market.
2. Screen: The Galaxy Nexus' 4.65 inch screen with 720x1280 resolution is the best screen I have seen on any smartphone. Full stop. Don't even compare it to anything else. Think about it -- it was only in, say, 2004 or so, that the best television sets had this resolution, 720x1280. Every time I look at the screen of the Galaxy Nexus, I almost have to laugh: It's that good. Web sites, Twitter feeds, Google Reader -- all your important apps just show that much better on the Galaxy Nexus, compared to any other smartphone in the market.
3. Battery life: I have not established my findings with any scientific precision yet, but generally speaking it's not looking good. Of course, we have to put this into perspective. The range of battery life for every single Android phone I have tried on market ranges from bad to are-you-kidding-me bad. Basically, the range is one to six hours, and this Galaxy Nexus LTE may be on the upper half of that range, but that's a little bit like saying that you're among the world's tallest midgets. When completely idle, my early tests suggest you get six hours, then two to three hours with moderate usage, and one to two hours under heavy usage.
Some people are always reporting much better battery life than I find, while using and testing smartphones. Why? I have all devices on full brightness, no auto-dimming, every app synchronizing as often as technically possible, WiFi running at most times, GPS on, Bluetooth, and many other settings at the least favorable from the battery life perspective.
Some say about my anti-battery-life settings: Are you crazy? Make sure your settings are to conserve power! I say, Rubbish! It would be like driving your car at night with your lights off, to save power and eek out an extra MPG. I want my emails right away, thank you, and I don't want to go blind in the process -- or get an imprecise GPS fix either. 4. Radio performance: Verizon's 700 MHz LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus performs like most other 700 MHz LTE devices on this network, which is to say: Outstanding. The speeds and latency tend to average 40 ms ping, 20 meg down and 10 to 15 meg up. This kind of performance was unheard-of as late as 55 weeks ago for any kind of mobile device, and trumps devices from all competitors: Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile USA.
It is true that AT&T recently launched 700 MHz in its 15 initial cities, which will be followed by dramatic geographical expansion in 2012 and then nearly 100% coverage by the end of 2013. It is also true that I have not yet been able to test one of these new AT&T devices, partially because of the fact that I have not yet been in one of those 15 cities where AT&T has launched this service at this point. I am told by people who have done so, that performance is almost as good as Verizon's. Give it a few months, and AT&T will be largely competitive, it seems.
5. Software: This is where the meat of the Galaxy Nexus experience is, given that it's the first and only Android 4.0 device in the market. So what is the main point with Android 4.0, as opposed to its predecessors 3.2 (tablets) and 2.3 (smartphones)?
In the pre-4.0 versions of Android, everything seemed very fragmented from device to device. The four buttons at the bottom were in a different order on Samsung's own Nexus S on Sprint, when compared to the AT&T version of the Galaxy S2, for example. Yet other Androids -- the 3.0+ versions of the tablets -- did not have any hardware buttons at all.
I think the main point with 4.0 is the unification of all smartphones and (what will soon be) tablets. This new paradigm builds mostly on Android 3.2, because it has no hardware buttons. This should lead to a better way to adapt to different screen sizes, which would make it easier for developers to quickly bring to market optimized apps. These benefits should start to become evident within six months from now.
There could be an infinite amount I could write about the little ways in which Android has changed its UI (user interface) paradigm when compared with its predecessor operating system versions, but it makes more sense for you to go try those for yourself in the Verizon store. My main impression is that 4.0 represents a nice improvement of Android, but it is still an OS mostly for the geeks, when compared to the competition from Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry, all of whom are much easier to use.
Despite all of the tremendous class-leading strengths of the Galaxy Nexus, I generally don't recommend it to anyone who isn't a hard-core techie whom I know will enjoy spending a lot of time customizing the smartphone experience and is willing to dig deep to figure things out. Android, even in this improved 4.0 form, isn't for normal people who just want something that works and basically figures itself out.
Here is one example: Google makes a big deal out of how Android 4.0 has improved its widget support, and that they are re-sizeable. I asked 20 random people who are not techies/nerds if they even knew what a widget is in the context of smartphone software. All I got back were blank stares. Not a single person has the first clue what I was talking about. Widget? The Android marketing department might as well have been speaking in Greek.
In other words, Google, if you want regular people to use your stuff over time, you had better learn a thing or two from Apple when it comes to dealing with normal people. Android just isn't suitable for anywhere near a majority of Americans today.
6. Notifications: All I want in terms of notifications is that a big red light blinks when I get an email. Does the Galaxy Nexus provide for this most basic requirement? No. Verdict: Fail. When I put my BlackBerry on the table, sofa or bed one or two arms-lengths away, I know when I get an email because the big red light starts blinking.
The idea in Android -- and for that matter iOS -- that it counts as a "notification" that I have to pick up the device and swipe down from the top, so that it tells me that if I've got an email, is equivalent of a missile warning system that tells us that New York City just blew up from a nuclear bomb. In other words, the whole point of a notification system is so that I don't have to pick up the device and touch it in order to find out. And I don't want any sound/noise, or anything to vibrate either. Just a big red blinking light that I can see at least a half room's length away. BlackBerry has this down to a science. Why can't Android and others learn this most basic requirement?
7. International GSM/HSPA support: No. In other words, the Verizon LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus is a non-starter for many people. Seriously... Buy an Unlocked Carrier-Neutral Smartphone
As promised, I am ending this review with an indictment against the U.S. model for selling most smartphones, and against the apparent lack of intelligence on the part of the U.S. consumer. In the end, you will see how this applies particularly to the Galaxy Nexus situation.
A smartphone consumer will spend anywhere from $50 per month to $100 per month on a combination of services, including data, tethering, SMS and circuit-switched voice. Over a two-year period, which is the length of a standard U.S. contract, that is anywhere from $1,200 to $2,400, or a difference of $1,200.
In other words, there is already today most likely some space for arbitraging carriers against each other for a savings of up to potentially as much as $1,200 over two years, depending also on how you modulate your usage. Now pair this with the upfront subsidy that locks you into a two-year contract. The iPhone 4S has the highest subsidy at $450 ($650 minus $200), and this Galaxy Nexus is at $350 ($650 minus $300). A typical subsidy for a two-year contract is somewhere close to $300.
In other words, for $300 to $450, you reduce your flexibility essentially down to zero. Adding insult to injury, most smartphones sold in the U.S. are built specifically for one carrier, which means it's loaded with spyware (such as Carrier IQ, which has been referred to as a keylogger) and will probably be very delayed in terms of OS upgrades. It may also prevent some apps from being installed, as in the case of Google Wallet with this Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus.
The problem in the U.S. market is that both Verizon and Sprint have unique networks requiring special handsets. So on these networks, you essentially have no choice but to buy your handsets from those carriers.
However, all handsets on AT&T are the same as those sold around the world, or at least they could be, up through the HSPA speeds (700 MHz LTE is another matter). As far as T-Mobile USA goes, a few devices there also support the same bands for HSPA as AT&T and the international carriers. The international version of the Galaxy Nexus is just such an excellent example.
Where am I going with this? In my opinion, we are hoping that the completely carrier-neutral Galaxy Nexus is made available through some reputable channel in the U.S., such as Best Buy, Amazon or even AT&T or T-Mobile USA themselves. This would be the Galaxy Nexus to get, whether at $650, $675 or some other price.
You could save a lot of money by running it on T-Mobile USA as opposed to some of the other carriers, more than enough paying for the lack of a $350 subsidy. Saving $20 per month on an insane tethering fee alone more than pays for the purchase of the unlocked device; $20 per month is $240 per year, or $480 over two years. And that does not even take into consideration how much cheaper T-Mobile USA is when compared to AT&T overall!
The Galaxy Nexus LTE is not a businessman's only smartphone. It can't be. A businessman can't afford a device that is out of battery after an average of three to four hours. It could be a complementary device to, say, a Dell Venue Pro running Windows Phone 7.5, or a BlackBerry. Many people would also strongly prefer a device which notifies the arrival of an email with a big red blinking light.
That said, the Galaxy Nexus LTE does have the best screen of any smartphone in the market today, and it's the only smartphone running Android 4.0. The LTE network on which it runs is simply the best. Clearly, this bill of goods does fit somebody out there, particularly if it is used as a companion device with a BlackBerry, Dell Venue Pro or even an iPad.
I can't really give this Verizon LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus one grade. If you fit the suitability criteria, this is at least a nine out of 10. If you don't, the grade will be extremely low. You just have to re-read this review again, go play with the device in the Verizon store, and then figure out who you are and what your needs are.