Katherine Boehret

Galaxy Nexus: An In-Your-Face Android Phone

Thanksgiving is coming, but techies are salivating over something that doesn’t involve turkey and stuffing: Ice Cream Sandwich—the operating system of the newest Google phone, the Galaxy Nexus.

The Galaxy Nexus from Samsung is the first device to run Google’s Android 4.0 operating system, known by its dessert code name. Ice Cream Sandwich is designed to be a blend of the Android phone and tablet operating systems that irons out many geeky wrinkles. Android’s former annoying reliance on menus to perform tasks is reduced with the inclusion of more user-friendly icons, and these dynamically change according to whatever program is opened.

It has familiar swiping gestures across apps, of which there are over 300,000 available in the Android Market, as well as playful new features like facial recognition to unlock the phone. Several existing Android devices from HTC and Motorola will receive free software updates so that they, too, can run this OS.


The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is stylish, with it’s 4.65 inch display and svelte profile.

There’s much speculation that the Galaxy Nexus will be available in the U.S. in the next two weeks, since its release in the U.K. last week. A Verizon spokeswoman says it will be out sometime before the end of the year and it will run on the carrier’s 4G network. It could cost as much as $300 if it’s treated like some other recent Android phones considered flagship models.

I got my hands on a U.K. version of the Galaxy Nexus and enjoyed using Ice Cream Sandwich, which is the most well-rounded version of Android yet. My phone’s battery lasted nearly a full day under heavy testing.

But some of Android’s inelegant traits remain, like the confusing way it organizes Widgets (icons representing programs) and restricts their placement on home screens according to the icons’ various shapes and sizes. And its folders for apps look cluttered.

The Galaxy Nexus itself is stylishly designed. Its giant 4.65-inch display may be overkill for some people. But its svelte build, which measures just over three-tenths of an inch thick, balances it out. Its rear- and front-facing cameras capture 5- and 1.3-megapixel images, respectively, and it records video in full 1080p HD quality. A built-in barometer helps with more precise GPS detection, and an NFC (near field communication) chip enables swapping data with other NFC-enabled Android phones, a process called Android Beam.

I found the facial-recognition feature to be unreliable. To set this up, I held the Galaxy Nexus up as if I was about to take a photo of myself with the front-facing camera, and a traced image of my face appeared on the screen. I also set up a back-up unlocking option: tracing a pattern on the screen. Whenever I wanted to use the phone, I held it up to my face and if facial recognition worked, it unlocked.

But this only worked half the time, sometimes because of low lighting, whether outside at night, in restaurants or even in my own kitchen. Other times it just didn’t recognize me. When I stood on city streets and held the phone up to my face to unlock it, I looked as if I was taking a photo of the people around me. And it’s impossible to slyly check your phone under the table during meetings or dinners using this unlocking method.


A facial-recognition feature unlocks the phone.

Google warns users this isn’t necessarily the safest method for locking a phone. Case in point: I was able to unlock the phone by holding a photo of my face up to its lock screen. But a Google engineer noted most people who find lost phones don’t know what the phone’s owner looks like.

Like Microsoft’s Windows Phones and the iPhone, the Galaxy Nexus can be unlocked just for using its camera, or unlocked fully to access the rest of the phone’s features. When calls come in, a large image representing the caller appears on the screen along with options to drag an on-screen icon to ignore, answer, or send a text reply.

In Ice Cream Sandwich, app folders can be created by dragging app icons on top of one another. These icons seem to stack up in a messy pile; in one folder I made, called “Social,” only the blue beak of Twitter’s bird icon was visible.

In place of the Android Menu button, a small three-dot icon appears in all apps and this opens the menu. More icons at the bottom of each app screen perform actions, such as an envelope with a plus sign beside it in Gmail that opens a screen for composing an email. A Multitasking soft key displays all opened apps in one tap. Small images show the screen last opened on these apps like a webpage or a search term in a box. And the Android Market icon is now easier to find in the top right corner of the App Tray.

The photo gallery feels more lush and magazine-like than the text lists of albums in previous versions of Android. Thumbnail images representing albums appear side-by-side and fill the phone’s screen in a checkerboard fashion. Albums from my Flickr account were automatically pulled in here, and any photos I captured on the phone were automatically sent to my Google+ account using Instant Upload, a feature also available on other iterations of Android.

Ice Cream Sandwich has more options for photo editing and adds silly effects and backgrounds to videos. You can even make a time-lapse video.

Typing on this phone felt more accurate than in the past, and text can be dragged and dropped to different places using a gesture to swipe down and up. Items in the drop-down Notifications menu can be deleted with a swipe right.

If you’ve been curious about Android, the release of Ice Cream Sandwich will mark a good time to jump in.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com

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