Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two Years with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Nearly two years ago, I made my first foray into Android (and smartphones in general) with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Verizon. What I first thought would be just a fun new gadget to carry around with me has become an integral part of my everyday workflow. Instantaneous access to information was something I had long taken for granted, but having that access not only whenever you want but also virtually wherever you want is truly life changing. This article is not meant strictly as a review, but more as a look at how carrying the Galaxy Nexus with me every day for nearly two years has affected my day to day life. 


The Best of Google

While I have used numerous Google services for many years, I discovered that I wasn't using any of them to their fullest potential until I started using Android. From A-Z (or Authenticator to Zeitgeist) I had barely scratched the surface of what could be done with Google's wide array of offerings. The services that have most ingrained themselves into my day to day routine are Gmail, Calendar, Maps, and YouTube.

Gmail

I used to approach Gmail as a passive way to communicate. The act of turning on my computer and sitting down specifically to check my email was never a prospect that was particularly attractive to me, so as a result, I only got around to it once every day or two. On the occasion that I was waiting for an important email to come through, it meant that I had to impatiently wait near a computer until it arrived, preventing me from leaving the house to get anything else done.

Can anyone beat the gun offer?

Now that I am notified of an email the second it arrives, a whole new world of communcation has opened to me. While I have always had a quick way to communicate with friends via SMS, email always seemed clunky and slow when I needed to use it. Now with email I am essentially able to communicate with the same speed and ease as SMS, but with people who I don't want to give my number to. For example, I recently was looking to sell my Nexus 7 (2012) on Craigslist, and I could immediately respond to offers from people looking to trade me their .22 Derringer for my tablet (true story).

Google Calendar

In my group of friends, I am notoriously flaky and unfortunately that is a hard-earned reputation. I just don't have a head for dates, and without an effective way to keep track of it, you can be certain that I will forget your birthday. In previous years, I had tried to use Google Calendar from the web but never developed the habit of checking it regularly. So in effect, it was just as useful as writing down our lunch date on a piece of paper and then losing it immediately.

I won't forget your birthday this year, mom.
Now whenever I make plans with a friend, I immediately pull out my phone and make a new event in Google Calendar. After I started using the most basic function in Calendar, I began discovering the other great tools that were at my disposal. I created a calendar specifically for events happening around Minneapolis and shared it with my close friends, so any of us are able to add new events as we find them. I even found a calendar someone had made listing every special event in Animal Crossing: New Leaf and imported it into my calendar. It's my guilty pleasure, so don't judge me!

Google Maps

Along with my other sterling qualities, I also have possibly the worst sense of direction of anyone I have ever met. While I haven't yet found myself in the wrong state, I am not known for taking the most efficient routes possible. Before having constant access to Google Maps, I was forced to rely on printed paper maps when driving some place unfamiliar, and if you're like me the last thing you need is another distraction when you're angry and lost.

Biking directions have probably saved me from getting hit by a car.

Now while I could haphazardly navigate my home city, after recently moving to Minneapolis, Google Maps has been an absolute godsend. When I want to run to the nearest Best Buy to see if they finally have the Chromecast back in stock, I just fire up Maps on my phone, pick my route, and hit "navigate". And even better than driving directions, biking directions not only get me quickly to my destination, but also route me along streets with bike lanes! And if I'm not feeling like driving or biking, getting public transit information couldn't be easier. In just five minutes I can find myself riding downtown sitting next to a homeless man.

YouTube

Since YouTube's premier, I had never considered that I wasn't utilizing it to its full potential. I had always just followed links from around the internet, or did a search for a specific video I was looking for. The downside to that method is that finding obscure videos you once viewed is practically impossible. I'm still sad that I'll never again find the channel of the ten-year-old doing toy reviews.

Now I can make sure to like, comment, and subscribe.
Now that I have discovered the usefulness of channel subscriptions, I not only find myself using YouTube more frequently, but I also find YouTube more useful. I have stumbled upon a wide variety of quality channels over the past year, and I love sneaking in a quick video or two when I have spare time. I am able to keep up with tech news, gaming announcements, music videos, and even YouTube exclusive shows with little to no effort on my part. Now I understand why vloggers have been begging me to subscribe for years. Strike that. It's still annoying.

Hardware

Now it's time to take a look at the device I've been using to take advantage of all these great (and free!) services. Since this isn't a review of the Galaxy Nexus, but rather a look at its usefulness in everyday life, I won't be taking a deep look into its admittedly aged specs. What I will do, however, is look at how well it performs the everyday tasks that I throw at it. The three aspects of the hardware that I notice most in regular use are the screen, the camera, and battery life, so let's take a quick look at each of those.

Screen

When I first got my Galaxy Nexus, I loved everything about it. The display looked bright and crisp, and I loved how deep the blacks were on its AMOLED display. The clean black look that was achieved by using software buttons gave it an appearance that no other smartphone had, and its 720p resolution was pretty cutting-edge for its time.

Unfortunately, the display has not withstood the test of time as well as I had hoped. Those deep blacks that I once loved so much have left me with some burn-in where the navigation keys and status bar reside. I don't notice it most of the time, but when I'm watching a YouTube video it is especially apparent. The screen has also developed an almost fabric-like pattern with horizontal and vertical lines sort of "checkerboarding" the screen. It is difficult to notice with the brightness turned up, but once you get it below 25% it is hard to ignore.

Something I didn't notice until I had another device to compare it to is how ridiculously over-saturated the colors are on the display. When comparing colors on the Galaxy Nexus to the Nexus 7 (2013), it is really easy to see just how differently colors appear on the two screens. Where the Nexus 7 shows very true-to-life colors, the Galaxy Nexus exaggerates them to an almost cartoonish degree. Even the default Android "holo blue" color looks completely different between the two displays. On the Nexus 7 it is looks sort of cyan, whereas on the Galaxy Nexus it looks like a dark turquoise.

At the end of the day, all of these critiques are pretty nitpicky. Sure it would be nice to be rid of the burn-in and fabric pattern and have the colors be a bit more accurate, but none of these things prevent me from using my phone how I want to. Would my experience be better without these problems? Absolutely. But I'm not left dwelling on any of these things throughout the day, and that is the most important aspect of a screen as far as I'm concerned.

Camera

The phone I carried prior to my Galaxy Nexus was the LG Env2, which boasted a full QWERTY keyboard, music player, AND a 2-megapixel camera! For me, the camera was useful for nothing more than snapping a picture for a quick reminder since the low resolution made it practically unusable for anything else. The prospect of carrying a 5-megapixel camera with me wherever I went meant that I could finally capture some quality photos on the go.




Let me first say that I am not a photographer in any sense of the word, and I do not take pictures very regularly. Something out of the ordinary has to be happening for me to take a picture, and I usually have ample time to frame a shot. My camera usage is very different from those who rely on their smartphone camera, so the way I view it may be completely atypical.

Having said that, the camera has performed the job I want from it most of the time. If you are in ideal lighting situations, it is easy to get a great shot, like the one of the baby bunny above. Fine details can be easily seen, such as the fine hair on the bunny, and the colors are pretty accurate to my eye. But that can be said of almost any camera these days.


Introduce some clouds to the situation, and getting a clear shot becomes difficult and annoying. The camera has a hard time adjusting to areas with differing amounts of light, so the resulting shot is often fuzzy and lacks fine detail. Even worse, the camera seems to have a hard time focusing at times, so you may find yourself taking three shots just to get one that is usable.


The picture above was also taken on a cloudy day, but this time the camera decided to actually take a pretty good shot. That is to say, the camera is just plain unpredictable. If you are someone who relies on their phone to produce at least consistent quality between pictures, you will be left wanting. If the camera decides it wants to take good photos, it is capable of capturing some great shots, but if it decides like taking the day off, then you will be left to fend for yourself.  

Battery Life

As mentioned above, I had previously carried the LG Env2, and since it could barely be called a feature phone, I only utilized it for SMS, phone calls, and the occasional photo. Since it spent most of its time sitting in my pocket, I had no problem of regularly getting two to three days of use without a charge. I had never really considered how much of a problem that battery life could be for a smartphone, but I soon found out.

I knew going in that battery life was a concern of nearly every reviewer on every website I looked at. However, the claims made about battery life were all over the place, with some people reporting only 8 hours on a charge and other claiming they could get a "full day" of use. So where did that leave me? Somewhere in the middle, like most people fall in any battery life claim.

Since I have no way to do a controlled test of battery life and because there are many great tests already available from sites like Anandtech and The Verge, I will only comment on my specific use case. I hope that by this point you have a basic idea of my smartphone usage. On a typical day, I check my email periodically, spend maybe 15 minutes on the phone, browse Reddit for an hour, read my Twitter stream a couple times, read my RSS feed, and listen to podcasts for a couple hours. That is far from a demanding workload, but I still come up short on battery almost every day.

I have had varying degrees of success extending the longevity of my battery through the use of custom kernels, most notably Leankernel, but none of them consistently delivered a vast improvement over stock. In my experience, the benefits of custom kernels are far outweighed by the instability they introduce to the entire device. The best thing you can do to extend the use of your phone is to simply carry an extra battery with you at all times. In the end, the battery remains the weakest link of the Galaxy Nexus, and no amount of tweaking and adjusting will be enough to change that fact.

Software

Fortunately the Galaxy Nexus' software has fared much better than its hardware. Thanks to the openness of Nexus devices and the guarantee of updates straight from Google soon after their announcement, my phone has been receiving a steady stream of improvements since I first received it. On the downside, I purchased the Verizon model, which has shifted the burden of updating its software over to me by being forced to install AOSP based ROMs built by the community if I want to stay current.

The process is relatively painless though, and after jumping around from AOKP to Cyanogenmod, I have finally settled on a near-stock experience called Shiny ROM. Having said that, my software experience could differ slightly from yours, depending on what ROM you are currently running, but I would say my use is fairly typical of the average smartphone user. With that all out of the way, let's look at the three elements of smartphone software that most impact everyday use: performance, reliability, and the overall polish of the OS.

Performance

I have never been big on looking at benchmarks results as a means to judge performance, because I have found that it doesn't translate well to how I actually use my phone. Throughout the day I will usually check my email, read my RSS feed, browse Reddit, skim Twitter, and watch YouTube. I do not run any graphically intensive games or attempt to use my smartphone as some sort of supercomputer, so I don't need bleeding edge hardware for most of what I want to accomplish. As long as my common tasks can be performed without any fuss from my device, I'm happy.

From Ice Cream Sandwich to the latest iteration of Jellybean with 4.3, my phone has been snappy and responsive most all of the time. UI performance took a bit of a hit with 4.2, but all the little hiccups and snags have been ironed out with the latest update. Animations are fluid and snappy, emails load quickly, YouTube videos buffer instantly, and scrolling and typing are a generally smooth and pleasant experience. In fact, I usually don't even notice the software getting in the way of what I'm doing, which is exactly what the goal of a modern mobile OS should be.

However, there is one big elephant in the room when it comes to software performance: Chrome for Android. I am a heavy user of Chrome on my personal computers, so when I first heard that Chrome was coming to Android I was really excited. I could easily access all of my bookmarks, and syncing tabs across different browsers was a dream! Unfortunately Chrome's performance on older devices is shoddy at best. Pages take forever to load, scrolling is choppy and unresponsive, animations are laggy, and every time you multitask back into Chrome, it needs to reload your tabs. I have tried switching back to the stock AOSP browser on a few different occasions, but I always find myself missing out on all the useful features of Chrome. When running Chrome on newer devices, such as my Nexus 7 (2013), all of my problems are alleviated, and I can see exactly where the Android team is going with Chrome. That is to say, once I purchase my next phone all these things will become a non-issue. It's just unfortunate that those of us with older devices are receiving a sub-par experience.

Reliability

With any smartphone reliability is key. I need the confidence to know that when I need to check an email, I am able to, and when I need to make a call, that nothing will prevent me from doing so. Smartphones are meant to be a tool to get things accomplished quickly and efficiently, and any hindrance to that goal is a major hit to the usefulness of a device. 

On different Android forums across the web, I frequently see people complaining of freezes and random reboots, but my experience with the Galaxy Nexus on this front has been nearly flawless. Almost every time I've needed to use my phone for two years, I have been able to do so without any struggle with the software. Notifications appear instantly, phone calls are crisp and clear, and GPS lock is quick and accurate.

The biggest roadblock to reliability is not a software issue, but a hardware issue. As I stated in the battery section above, I consistently come up short on battery almost every day. And that is a huge shame because of how well all the software works together. If you can overcome the battery issue with extra chargers and spare batteries, then the Galaxy Nexus should always be ready for you when you need it.

Polish

The old addage "beauty is only skin deep" may be true, but it fails to mention that beauty is still very important to most people. Over the past few years, people have seemed to start valuing good design more and more, and they will steer clear of using anything that isn't pleasing to the eye. And I don't blame them! Every time I'm forced to use Windows XP, I have a terrible experience, and not because it's a bad OS by any means. It's mostly because of how dated the whole design is. It gets in the way of using your computer instead of staying out of the way and letting you do what you need.

Over the past two years, Android has really come into its own when it comes to design. Apple used to have a huge advantage with iOS not because it was anymore useful than Android, but because it was more beautiful than Android. Now that Android has a visual style that is both attractive and unique, all the major mobile operating systems are arguably on equal footing aesthetically.


One of Android's strong suits has always been the ease in which it can be customized. Just take a trip over to MyColorScreen to see just how customizable Android can be. And that's a great thing! If you want to, you can make your phone look exactly how you want. But whereas in the Gingerbread days and before, theming was a must if you wanted an attractive looking phone, now it is just a plus. The default theme is simple and attractive with its flat elements and subtle animations. My homescreen above was created with minimal effort, and it provides me with everything I need at a glance, thanks to DashClock.

But polish goes further than just the look of the default theme. It's the attention to detail that really makes the difference between looking good and looking great. I could go on all day about the many design and UX choices made throughout Android, but to stay within the scope of this article I will keep it very brief. Apps launch with a subtle scaling animation that originates from the position of the icon on the screen and close with a satifying fade effect. The notification shade provides all the most important information from anywhere in the OS, and starting in 4.1 you can even interact with your notifications without ever having to enter an app. With 4.2 came the introduction of the quick settings menu, which allows you to toggle frequently used settings without ever having to drill into the settings menu. How convenient!

It is these incremental and steady improvements that keep me excited to see what will be introduced with each new version of Android. The design language of modern Android was defined in Ice Cream Sandwich, but has been slowly evolving ever since, culminating in their most recent paradigm of the "cards UI" introduced with Google Now. From Google Music to Keep to Drive to YouTube, Google has really been stepping up their design game with each release. Who knows what will be introduced by the end of the year? All I know is that I'm excited to use it.

Conclusion

The Galaxy Nexus was a great introduction to Android for me. I got to be among the first to experience the new design language introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich, and I have been able to be among the first to try out the new features introduced in the last three iterations of Jellybean. It not only showed me what a mobile OS could do, but also got me excited to see what smartphones will be able to do in the future. I didn't expect to find myself reading articles about the latest improvements to Google Now or showing off the latest and greatest phone on the market in my spare time, but here I am.

Most of all the Galaxy Nexus showed me that a smartphone could become an invaluable tool for accomplishing the things you already do, by making them so much simpler. From Gmail to Maps to Calendar, my everyday tasks have been made much more enjoyable.

While it's easy to become accustomed to any item you own, and it's easy to dwell on the annoyances that any piece of technology brings with it, it's important to remember just how amazing any smartphone is.

7 comments:

  1. Great first post! Are you going to document your experiences moving from the 2012 N7 to the 2013 model?

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  2. Replies
    1. It's actually from a set that my girlfriend designed. You can check out here other work from her website and download a full resolution copy of my wallpaper from this post. She'll be glad to hear you liked it.

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  3. THAT is your 'customized' android after 2 years? I could forgive for not using a Custom ROM, but not even a screen wrapper?
    Comeon, please........
    http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/cool-android-homescreens/

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    1. I used to have a much more customized homescreen using Nova launcher and UCCW, but it didn't allow me to get the things done I needed to as quickly as I wanted. I like to keep it a simple as possible now and not spend 4 hours customizing my phone. I've been tempted though after seeing some other people's creations!

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  4. How easy was it to root?my galaxy nexus is still on 4.0.4 and ota update keeps failing? Not sure why but when did RIL check it said basebands don't match? Any advice on where to start?cos its bugging the hell outta me not be able to run jellybean.

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  5. I really appreciate it that you shared with us such a informative post. Thanks for sharing.324g mobiles

    ReplyDelete