Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus’s primary reason to exist. The phone is here to show off the latest, greatest version of the Android operating system – to make sure no third-party manufacturers mess it up right off the bat.
Ice Cream Sandwich squishes together Android 2.3 Gingerbread for phones and Android 3.2 Honeycomb for tablets, trims off the bits that shouldn’t be there and adds some new features to sweeten the deal. For the most part, it’s great.
One of the most significant user interface changes here is that Ice Cream Sandwich no longer relies on physical interface buttons. Instead, the software nav bar of Honeycomb steps in, giving you three buttons (back, home and recent apps) that sit near wherever the phone thinks your thumb will be – and they’re part of the screen rather than the bezel.
Hold the phone upright and it sticks down at the bottom. Rotate the phone by 90 degrees and it’ll cling to a side. The orientation is very pro-right-handed, though, and there isn’t a way to flick the buttons to the other side for all the poor lefties out there.
Those transitioning from an Android 2.x phone should feel at home with Ice Cream Sandwich, as it uses the same core layout, but there’s definitely some tablet DNA left over here. Homescreen interface elements are chunky, with an immovable universal search bar at the top, and a shortcut dock at the bottom, of the screen. We have a feeling Google may have come to the conclusion that many people don’t use single homescreens to take on a great deal of different tasks, as about 40 percent of each is taken up by pre-determined elements.
That said, there’s still plenty of space on each home screen – the customisable area is a 4×4-slot grid, and you also can choose what goes in the static launcher dock. However, you can’t change the middle button in the dock. This takes you to the apps menu.
The Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard
In Honeycomb tablets, this app menu nav button sits at the top-right of the screen, and we’re very glad to see it a thumb-friendly distance from the bottom instead here. It ensures that, although this is a giant phone, it can be used one-handed without risking permanent tendon damage.
Other practical bonuses of Ice Cream Sandwich include the universal search bar, easier app folder management (just drag one app onto another), and the data counter. The OS automatically tracks your mobile data usage, and will alert you once you step over a pre-determined amount. Plenty of third-party apps do this for Android 2.x devices, but it’s great to see that Google still has the geek crowd in mind by packing native support in – complete with graphs. Now that’s hardcore.
For a less hardcore Android user, hardware acceleration is perhaps the most important addition of Android 4.0. Using the full power of a phone’s CPU is what makes Windows Phone and the iOS so quick, and there’s more of this super-slick speed in Ice Cream Sandwich than previous Android iterations.
The Settings menus in particular have been tweaked to scroll a lot faster than before – reminiscent of the blisteringly-fast scrolling of Windows Phone. There’s also some attractive visual tweaks that provide a layer of gloss Android has until-now lacked. The static nav keys glow momentarily after you press them and there’s a cute animation upon entering standby, emulating the look of an old-school TV being turned off.
We did experience a few glitches and moments where the touchscreen refused to respond but these tended to result from using third-party apps. And, let’s face it, it wouldn’t be Android without a bug or two.