galaxy nexus: some first impressions

It was nearly two years ago that I got my first Android phone, a HTC Desire, so I figured it was time for an upgrade, so this week I picked up a shiny new Galaxy Nexus. While it’s not quite as fast as some newer phones, it’s a massive upgrade from the Desire, it’s affordable, and it should be more than fast enough to see me through the next two years.

Hardware impressions

The first thing you notice is its sheer size, and the second is that amazing screen. It’s large enough that it’s a little difficult to use one-handed, but I’m definitely getting used to it — the Desire already seems tiny in comparison. It’s surprisingly light, but not so much that it feels cheap, even though it’s mostly plastic. The textured back panel feels good, but doesn’t provide the same grip that the Desire’s rubberised back does.

Compared to the Desire, the performance is ridiculous. The Desire’s Achilles heel is its minimal internal storage, which leads many people (myself included) to install a custom ROM that moves internal application storage on to a special partition on the SD card; it’s a clever solution, but it can make the phone feel sluggish, because loading applications puts you at the mercy of your SD card’s performance. While I’m sure the substantially faster CPU and extra RAM help, I suspect it’s the faster internal storage that makes the Nexus feel so much faster in use.

ICS changes

I was running a hacked ICS ROM on my Desire, so the Nexus wasn’t a software upgrade for me; it was somewhat odd, in a way that I’m sure iPhone owners must be familiar with, to find my shiny new phone running the same OS as my existing phone. ICS really is a major upgrade — beyond the extra features, it just looks and feels much more distinct and consistent than any previous release.

The Nexus uses on-screen soft keys instead of hardware buttons, and the traditional menu button is not among them. In apps updated for ICS, the menu is available through a button within the application UI, while in older apps, a small menu button gets added to the soft keys; the newly-revamped Android style guide has all the details. I think it’s a good move — when I started using Android, I had to get in to the habit of hitting the menu button in every app just to see what it revealed, so making menus more discoverable is a plus.

Storage matters

One thing I really like about the Nexus is that it has unified internal storage — there’s still sandboxed application/data storage and shared virtual SD card storage, but they’re both on the one partition, so there’s no fixed division between them. The upshot is that the Nexus doesn’t support USB mass storage, since it can no longer provide direct block-level access to the internal storage. Instead, it implements the PTP and MTP protocols for file transfer.

Most photo apps (including Shotwell and iPhoto) support PTP, several music players (including Banshee and Rhythmbox) support MTP, and Nautilus supports them both, so if you just want to copy files, that’s easy to do, too. Windows also has built-in MTP support, but for general file transfer on OS X, you’ll need the Android File Transfer app. Another option is to use AirDroid, which lets you transfer files over Wi-Fi using your browser.

It’s clear that Google sees USB transfers as an archaic solution when you can store your photos and music in the cloud instead. I signed up for Google Music when I was last in the US, and I’ve since uploaded my music collection to it, so it was all accessible on the Nexus as soon as I signed in to my Google account. The photos from my Desire were all there, too, thanks to Google+’s instant upload feature.

Why not something newer?

The Galaxy Nexus has some obvious competitors now, such as HTC’s One X (and the smaller One S) and Samsung’s Galaxy S III; they’re both of a similar size and have newer, faster hardware. There were a few reasons for going with the Nexus — cost was a factor, as was the fixed battery on the One X (I’ve already bought a spare battery for use on our next holiday) — but my main motive was to get a stock Android device, without vendor customisations.

Both HTC and Samsung insist on some pretty heavy-handed meddling with the OS, undoing a lot of the great design work that went in to ICS. It also means they’ll be less likely to get updates in a timely manner — they may all run ICS today, but Android 4.1 looks set to be revealed as soon as next week, and there’s no telling how long it could take for HTC and Samsung to release their own upgrades.