Saturday, July 21, 2012

Galaxy Nexus with Jellybean

I've been hesitant to recommend the phone I have for a fairly major reason which I'll come to in a moment, but I'm going to give a cautious thumbs up to it now that I've updated my Galaxy Nexus to Jellybean (Android 4.1.)

Here's the deal. The Galaxy Nexus is a "pure" Google phone, which means that it runs a version of Android that gives you what Google considers to be an ideal Android experience, or at least as close as possible as Google can manage.

The GN is a deceptively simple device with three buttons - Volume up/down, and Power on/off - together with the touchscreen itself. There's a headphone jack, and a micro USB port (that can also serve as an HDMI out.) The screen is a totally beautiful 720p (1280x720) affair with excellent color resolution, and there's front and back cameras. 

Why only three buttons? Well, since 3.0, Android tried to move to a buttonless user interface. The functions of the older Home, Back, and Menu keys has been moved to icons that are semi-permanently on-screen. I'm not sure whether this is a great idea in practice, but Google probably wants to simplify the hardware Android runs on, and improve the look and feel of Android devices at the same time. Me, I personally would like to see a hardware "End call" button, so reducing the number of buttons seems like a retrograde step, but the buttons being removed aren't that important.

Jellybean? Love it. While the jump from Honeycomb to ICS wasn't as dramatic as I'd read it would be, ICS to Jellybean is a huge step. It's much faster (or at least slicker), there's some great new functionality, such as Google Now, which attempts to provide constant relevant information (from weather forecasts to driving directions and times) without the user needing to ask for it. The Notifications bar is much more useful, providing more information (such as summaries of received emails) than simply one line notification counts.

The camera UI has been completely revamped and it now feels much more intuitive and much less clumsy than previous UIs. The GN was already good when it came to taking pictures, they're almost instant. You can easily take a lot of photos in quick succession, almost by accident, and you can swipe left to get the photo you just took. It's easier to see the improvement if you use the phone than it is to understand from the description!

Essentially the impression I get is that real thought went into Jellybean from the point of view of asking "How can we make this more helpful" rather than a simple "Let's add a feature that'll be hidden in some app somewhere" approach as might have been done in the past.

So... what are the downsides? Well, I have one big one, and two smaller problems.

Minor problem: No SD card slot. None. All the memory is on the phone. If you reset the phone, you wipe the "SD card" equivalent (something that doesn't happen on a phone with a removable card.)

Less minor, important to about 50% of the population: No keyboard. I'm sorry, but while on-screen keyboards are becoming excellent, there are still times I find myself pining for a real pull out thing, one where if you press a key, that's the key that'll register, not the one next to it, and not one that some software keyboard thinks you meant to type.

Really important: OK, here it is, the big reason I didn't want to recommend this phone at first, and still the issue that makes me wary of giving it a full recommendation: the battery is awful. Utterly abysmal. How bad is it? Try TEN HOURS with moderate usage. Not over the top usage. Just, say, 15 minutes of calls, the web for ten minutes during lunch, and occasionally checking emails or text messages.

It's terrible. Reportedly when one Google exec was questioned about the battery, he admitted to carrying a spare. Why, Google, would you bless this design when you know damn well that the battery life is this bad?

My solution to this is to buy a new battery. I bought the QCell Samsung Galaxy Nexus GSM i9250 3850mAh Extended Battery (sponsored link) which means the phone can last just over a day with moderate usage without running out of juice. Amazon lists a range of extended life batteries, all I can tell you about this one is that it works. It does, however, require its own battery cover, which adds a small bulge to the back of the phone.

Even this battery didn't quite last the day when my daughter was born. After a lot of calls and quite a few photos, the battery was close to dead by early evening. Fortunately I took a charger...

So, a qualified thumbs up. The battery thing is important. Get a long life one when you order the phone. Otherwise you'll probably hate it.

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