It’s almost a given that a techie traveler will be carrying a smartphone these days. The question that comes to mind is always “Which one?”
Over the past 4 years, I’ve traveled with four smartphones, three using different operating systems, and two of which were lost along the way (oh Africa…). I’m now nearing 6 months using the Galaxy Nexus after retiring my elderly iPhone 3G, and I’ll be using that as a comparison through the review
With the iPhone on the tip of many people’s tongues, is the Galaxy Nexus really the best value smartphone for travelers?
Size, Weight & Durability
There is no question. When compared to my old iPhone 3G, the Galaxy Nexus is a beast. Thanks to a screen that is 4.65in compared to the iPhone 3G’s 3.5in, it’s big for my little girlie hands. Where I felt comfortable surfing, calling, or texting with one hand on the iPhone 3G, the Galaxy Nexus is too big for me to reach all corners of the screen comfortably with my thumb. This means that if I’m on the move, I’ll usually just be scrolling pages with one hand as it can be too tricky to click links.
It’s not all bad though, as the huge increase in screen real estate comes in a thinner package. The Galaxy Nexus comes in at a svelte 0.35in deep compared to 0.48in for the iPhone 3G. The weight is virtually identical, and it still fits nicely in my pocket.
I know the iPhone can take some punishment though. Mine has been soaked in monsoon rains, splashed by mud, dropped repeatedly, and yet it has still been working OK through 2.5 years of traveling around the planet. I’ve replaced the battery once, and the plastic backing & side buttons once as well. The headphone jack also required soldering and replacement.
The Galaxy Nexus is doing well so far, with only a small tumble here and there. It doesn’t slip out of my hand easily thanks to the textured back. I don’t use a case.
The screen on the Galaxy Nexus is gigantic and beautiful. With a resolution as high as some 10”-12” laptop computers (720x1280px) it is crystal clear. The display is very bright, and with rich colors and deep blacks. Reading and surfing are both a joy, and watching videos or playing games is fantastic in comparison to the much smaller display on the iPhone options.
Unlike most smartphones, there are no physical buttons at the bottom of the screen. In their place are “soft buttons” on the screen itself. At first, I missed the physical button at the bottom (the “home” button), but after a few weeks it was no problem. Also with the buttons just being on the screen, they can disappear when playing videos to make use of the entire screen, or change depending on your screen orientation or application you are using.
The Galaxy Nexus is a 6-band, 3G/HSPA+ GSM handset. It uses regular SIM cards, and will work with virtually every GSM carrier around the world. It is unlocked by default, so you can easily slip in a new SIM card when you arrive in a new country. It’s about as much of a “world phone” as you can get.
Like all smartphones, you’re not going to get a week of regular usage. With regular usage, I can get a day out of it no problem, and I bought a second battery for $20 that I’ve used once on a long and boring travel day.
The Galaxy Nexus (in unlocked varieties) has 16GB of storage which is reasonable for most people’s usage. I find that as a traveler with a big music collection, 16GB is not as much as I would like. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy S2 we reviewed a few months back and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S3 both have microSD storage to add 32GB or even 64GB.
Ice Cream Sandwich
Not what I’m having for lunch, but the newest operating system for Android. The Galaxy Nexus is the show runner for ICS, and gives a true “Google experience” as they see it, without a lot of the fluff and add-ons that many other Android phones come with.
There are some big changes to ICS that would especially suit the travel crowd.
1) First is a built-in data usage graph which shows a summary of the 3G internet usage by application. It also give you the ability to block certain apps from using data in the background, and warn you when you’re nearing your quota.
2) The battery graph is also quite handy. It also breaks down usage by app, and a good way to see if something is eating away your battery behind the scenes. One interesting thing to be found with this is seeing just how much battery that beautiful screen uses (a lot).
3) Sharing is very well integrated and nearly anything you see be it a link, a picture, or file can be shared with any number of services with a click. Take a photo and upload it to Twitter and Google+, save an article from Google Reader to read later using Pocket or Spool, or send a map via Facebook message or to your Evernote notebook.
4) Multitasking is a snap, and clearing out old apps from the “open” list is as easy as a swipe.
5) I find that connecting to wifi hotspots, and generally accessing phone settings to be much easier than it was on the iPhone, though it took me a few days to get acclimatized to the new system.
The move to Android from iOS meant browsing some new apps. Fortunately, all of the staples that I used on the iPhone are available on Android, some with more features and better integration. What I am missing is some of the quirky indie games that I was enjoying on the iPhone that haven’t quite made it to Android yet.
In my opinion, the Google Play Store is much easier to browse than Apple’s App Store. I can use any browser to log in, and by clicking download on the computer browser, it will automatically install on my device.
The Galaxy Nexus is a multimedia machine, and it’s perfect for browsing videos, looking at photos, and playing your music library.
Listening to music on the Galaxy Nexus is fine. Just fine.
See, like the iPhone, it just has built in storage, with no ability to expand. With the iPhone however, you can sync your music with iTunes and have it transcode to a lower quality file for use on your iPhone. Confused? This just means that you can fit more music on your phone.
Not only does the Galaxy Nexus not sync with iTunes natively (you’ll have to buy a 3rd party app), there is no program I’ve found to transcode your music files automatically for you as you sync. This means that I can only fit about 1/2 of the music I normally would on my phone. This is by far my biggest pet peeve on the Galaxy Nexus and Android.
What it does have is Google Music. Google Music is a free service available in the USA (or anywhere with a small hack) that lets you store up to 20000 songs up in the cloud, all for free. When you upload your collection to Google Music via your computer, all of that music is available on your Galaxy Nexus (or other Android device) to stream, and you can choose to mark any of it for offline use. Not a perfect solution, but pretty good.
Watching video on the Galaxy Nexus is a dream. The huge, high resolution screen makes viewing a pleasure. YouTube is built in, but the device can also play any of dozens of different file types. It’s much easier to play videos on this than the iPhone thanks to its much broader compatibility.
The 5MP camera in the Galaxy Nexus has been a bit of a let down to me. Maybe I was expecting too much (I like my DSLR), but unless the light is good, the pictures are not as good as I had hoped. Good enough for Twitter and Facebook, but that’s about it. Basic photo editing can be done on the device, or on a plethora of 3rd party apps (my favorite is Snapseed).
The Galaxy Nexus also captures good looking HD video, and has basic video editing built in.
One great thing the camera has going for it is zero-shutter lag. There is no wait between hitting the button and taking a photo.
I also liked the built in panorama mode and the added exposure options that you have access to.
I wouldn’t want to go back to an iPhone (at least one that it available currently) after using the Galaxy Nexus. The ease of sharing, the big and beautiful screen, and the openness of Android have won me over.
Not without it’s faults, the lack of a good iTunes integration (that will transcode my music) was my number one letdown, followed by the camera and storage space.
One thing the Galaxy Nexus represents currently is tremendous value. If you live in the USA, you can buy an unlocked Galaxy Nexus for just $399 direct from the Google Play store. Put in any SIM card from wherever your travels take you and you’re ready to go. No contracts, no locks.
If you’re not in the USA, you can still find a deal on Amazon.com (check prices) where they are currently about $435.
What do you think? When is your next smartphone purchase coming up?