Review: The Galaxy Nexus from an iPhone owner’s perspective

While I most often use an iPhone (s aapl) as my primary mobile device, I’m not an Android-hater by any means. And resisting the lure of Google’s(s goog) Android reference device is nearly impossible for an early adopter like me. This year, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is that device, and it’s the first phone to ship with Android 4, otherwise known as “Ice Cream Sandwich.” Here’s what I think of the Nexus, and the latest iteration of Android, and how both stack up to the iPhone 4S and iOS 5.

First impressions

The Galaxy Nexus feels like a very different device compared to the iPhone; almost enough that it seems like it could belong to a different device category. Of course, it’s to be expected that a smartphone with a plastic back and much larger 4.65-inch screen would feel different than one made of metal and glass, sporting a 3.5-inch display. And the screen plays a big part in the different feel, making the Nexus appear to have more in common with something like the 7-inch Kindle Fire(s amzn) than it does with the iPhone, in a lot of ways, including its suitability for consuming media like feature-length movies.

But  not everything about the Nexus impressed me off the bat. I actually managed to nick the plastic back within about 15 minutes of opening the box, for instance. Maybe I should have a cleaner desk, but maybe Samsung should use stronger materials.

Also, the display, while stunning for blacks and whites on high brightness, shows some faint criss-crossing lines when brightness is turned down on whites, or when brightness is turned up on grays. This is something users of other Samsung Android devices have complained about before, and might be easily resolved by a software update. Plus, I’ve had iPhone screen issues on new devices as well, which were fixed in time, so it’s not something I’m counting against the Nexus too much. Likewise, the volume bug some customers are experiencing, which Samsung has said it will soon fix.

How big is too big? Hint: Surprisingly, not 4.65-inches.

The Galaxy Nexus has one immediately striking difference from the iPhone 4S in terms of hardware: A screen of epic proportions. It isn’t quite as large as that found on the Galaxy Note, but at 4.65-inches, it beats the 4S by more than an inch measured diagonally. Some of that extra screen comes from a lack of hardware buttons, but the Nexus is still much larger than the iPhone, as you can tell from this image of the two stacked atop one another.

Surprisingly, however, the larger footprint doesn’t actually add up to a much bigger-feeling device, overall. Thanks perhaps to the curved screen and back, or just to smart distribution of the extra surface area, the Nexus feels comfortable both in my hand and in my pocket. It actually feels better than the 4S when you’re using it to make a call, as the curved surface wraps your face in something like a light embrace. Sound silly, but it feels good.

The Galaxy Nexus might be too large for some smaller hands, however (mine are larger than average), so be sure to get to a store and try one out before you make a purchase if you’re concerned about that.

Sparring screens

Both the Galaxy Nexus and the iPhone 4S have beautiful displays. The 4S’s Retina Display, despite being a year old, still renders text more crisply than the Samsung phone, at least to my eyes. But the Nexus does blacks very, very well. So well, in fact, that I use a basic black background as my wallpaper; icons appear to float out of nowhere on an otherwise completely powered down display as a result. Both devices boast very high pixel densities, with the Nexus managing 316ppi and the 4S managing 330ppi, so any differences are down to the use of LED backlit IPS panels for the iPhone, vs. Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology, and preference for either is going to be a matter of taste.

The Galaxy Nexus is a much better device for watching movies and video on, as I mentioned above, partly because of the deep blacks, and partly because of the huge screen size. If you use your device to watch a lot of video, go for the Nexus. If you spend more time reading than watching on your smartphone, the iPhone is the better choice.

Battle of the batteries

Switching between Android and iOS devices, I’m always reminded of just how weak most Android-powered handsets are when it comes to battery life. Even the Galaxy S II, which was strong in most respects, faltered in this one. But the Galaxy Nexus, maybe because of Android 4.0.1 power optimization, has managed to make this a much tighter race. In my use, I managed to get a whopping three days of usage out of a single charge on the Nexus, admittedly with very little movie watching, but using apps and the browser with fair frequency. Given normal use, about two days looks to be very possible, putting it on nearly even footing with the iPhone.

I’m still a little wary, since I often find that battery life on Android devices can be highly erratic depending on which apps you happen to be using at any given time, but the Galaxy Nexus definitely improves in this regard.

No contest for cameras

The iPhone 4S takes better pictures than the Galaxy Nexus. The 4S feels like an adequate replacement for most point-and-shoot cameras, while the Nexus feels like what the Nexus S was; a decent shooter for a smartphone. Discerning mobile photogs should stick with Apple, even though the Galaxy Nexus might have a very slight edge when it comes to shooting speed, but if you’re upgrading from an iPhone 4 you’ll probably appreciate the speed advantages of the Android device more, since photos are otherwise of similar quality.

Mobile OS match-up

Of course, the Android vs. iOS debate will rage endlessly, and Ice Cream Sandwich likely won’t do much to sway either side that much one way or another. But it is a solid update for Android, bringing a level of polish to Google’s platform that it hasn’t really seen thus far.

Android 4.0.1 on the Galaxy Nexus feels like it actually borrows more from Windows Phone 7.5 (s msft) than iOS, at least in terms of aesthetics, and everything in general seems to work better and smoother. That also might be the result of the dual-core processor powering the Nexus than its software. The new software buttons work well, too, and though I miss the context-sensitive Settings button among them, and don’t quite use the new multitasking tray that replaces it enough to appreciate the change, I don’t find myself missing hardware controls.

I prefer iOS 5’s notification systems to Android’s, as the lock screen still tells me very little about what’s happened while I’ve been away. Update: if you pull down the notification bar from a screen set to slide unlock, you can see your notifications in detail. But the Galaxy Nexus does get one thing I love: A notification light. Practically, it’s really not all that useful; I’m going to check my notifications on either device with about the same amount of frequency, light or no light. But it’s good-looking and provides one more avenue of feedback for users who want one.

In the end, though, Android still has the same problems it always did: it’s harder for new and inexperienced users to get into and navigate, and apps either may or may not work with the device depending on what version of Android they’re coded for and/or what devices they support.

A much tighter race

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a great smartphone that gets a lot of things right, and is more forward-looking than the iPhone 4S in a number of ways. It’s better at consuming mobile video, for one, and it features a lot of on-board connectivity options the iPhone doesn’t, including NFC and Wi-Fi Direct.

But in terms of the average smartphone user’s priorities right now, I still believe the iPhone 4S is the superior device. The iOS web browsing experience is still better (text rendering is better, the interface is more usable, and double-tap zooming is a necessity for one-hand browsing. Update: ICS supports this on the Nexus, it turns out), text looks better all around, it has a much better camera for capturing mobile memories, and with iOS 5, notifications provide exactly the right kind of information exactly where you want it.

The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android device yet, and ICS is the best version of Android to date, and they do a lot to narrow the gap between Google and Apple’s mobile efforts, but they don’t close it, at least not completely.