Even Apple's detractors have to admit there is an attractive simplicity to the California company's mobile ecosystem, which is composed of just a few devices and one evolving operating system.
Google's Android platform – with its hodgepodge of OS versions, interface overlays and seemingly endless device variants – often proves confusing and off-putting to casual consumers. Many have trouble figuring out which, if any, Android device fits their needs.
Thankfully, the Android picture snaps into focus with the release of a new Nexus handset. Nexus devices feature the very latest version of Google's operating system free of third-party modifications running on cutting edge hardware. These phones are for a while the pinnacle of the Android mobile experience, and a relatively simple way for everyone to see what it has to offer.
Come December 8th, Samsung's Galaxy Nexus – the latest of these devices and the first handset in the world to run Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich – will arrive in Canada via Bell (other providers will sell it at a later date).
On its surface, it doesn't look much different from Samsung's current Android offerings. Measuring a wafer-thin 6.7 millimetres at its thinnest point and weighing just 135 grams, it's as sleek – and is as fragile feeling – as other Galaxy-branded devices.
But there are some subtle technological differentiators.
For starters, it lacks Android's traditional hardware keys for functions like back and home. These keys, along with a new one that calls up recently viewed screens, now only appear in virtual form on the display.
What's more, the screen is very lightly curved, a feature that purportedly makes the touch interface more comfortable while mitigating reflections in sunny environments. I don't put much stock in the former claim, but outdoors on a bright November afternoon I could see some truth in the latter.
The luscious 4.65-inch display is among the very best you'll find in a mobile phone. With true HD resolution (720-by-1280) and a density of 316 pixels per inch, it's impossible to distinguish individual dots from a comfortable viewing distance. Plus, Samsung's Super AMOLED technology delivers blacks so deep and colours so vibrant that you feel like you have a top-of-the-line LED TV in the palm of your hand. It's a mobile movie lover's dream.
Of course, the hardware is merely a window into Nexus' real attraction: Ice Cream Sandwich.
The latest version of Google's mobile phone operating system brings it closer to the company's tablet-centric Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). It features a lightly animated desktop background, a cleaner primary font and simple icons that give it a mature and elegant feel. The text, email, phone and download notifications appear in a bar at the top of the home screen and are easy to spot and sort through. A lightly redesigned virtual keyboard is large, tidy and gratifyingly responsive.
But there's a lot more to the OS than these immediately evident alterations.
Face Unlock, the feature that's somehow become Ice Cream Sandwich's signature bit of functionality, is actually a little anticlimactic. You simply look at the phone's camera to unlock it. There's nothing more to it. It will prove useful to anyone tired of entering PINs and patterns (though they should be aware that it's a much less secure form of protection), and may even get some people who don't normally lock their phones to begin doing so, which certainly isn't a bad thing.
Face Unlock is, in some ways, indicative of Ice Cream Sandwich as a whole: Evolved and improved, but still much the same. It doesn't fundamentally change how we think about or use our phones.
For example: The five-megapixel camera isn't the most powerful out there, but pair it with Ice Cream Sandwich's zero shutter lag feature and you have a nicely enhanced picture popper. Image quality isn't improved, but the likelihood of capturing fleeting, memory-worthy scenes and subjects grows substantially.
There's a lot more to Ice Cream Sandwich that's worth exploring. It's optimization for dual-core processors like the Galaxy Nexus' 1.2 GHz Cortex-A9 CPU, should prove a real boon for multi-taskers. Support for near-field communication via Android Beam will make transferring information between other NFC phones a piece of cake (eventually, once more compatible devices are released).
The browser is extremely quick and offers some great new features, such as the ability to store pages offline for later viewing (handy for those about to board airplanes) and an option to request the full rather than the mobile version of any site – which, given the phone's huge, highly resolved screen, you'll likely want more often than not.
Widgets crammed with important information – like your calendar – can now be resized by grabbing and pulling side handles, which allows users to efficiently dictate how much home screen real estate each widget consumes. The Data Usage screen lets you set mobile data usage monitoring cycles and megabyte limits to help ensure you don't end up with a nasty surprise at the end of the month. It also breaks out the amount of data used by all of your phone's apps in a given cycle, making it easy to spot any potentially covert data-sucking programs and shut them down.
All in all, I think it will prove a simpler, more powerful and more intuitive experience for casual users. I let a friend who had until now only ever experienced iOS and Windows 7 smartphones have a go for a few minutes and she didn't ask a single question as she quickly figured out features ranging from voice commands to email to 3D map manipulation.
It's safe to say that Samsung's Galaxy Nexus with Ice Cream Sandwich is the sweetest treat yet dished out by the Google camp. It may not be revolutionary enough to sweep up the competition, but it further entrenches Android as Apple's most potent rival.
It's worth mentioning that the pre-production demo unit I tested sometimes ran very hot, even when performing a task as simple as rendering Web pages. Perhaps not coincidentally, the phone also had a disappointingly brief battery life (the power cell was completely drained after a weekend of casual use). I've seen similar problems in other pre-production devices that I've tested, so I'm not terribly concerned. Still, I'll be interested to hear battery life reports from Canadians after launch.
The Galaxy Nexus will be available from Bell December 8th for $649.95, or $159.95 with a three-year contract.