Fragmentation: it's not a good word to hear, unless you're making shortcake. When it is used in relation to a mobile operating system (OS) that is meant to be all things to all people, then it is a serious worry. But addressing fragmentation is exactly what Google hoped to do with Android 4.0 code named Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS).
The sandwich element is supposed to reflect the bringing together of Honeycomb, which was the tablet optimised Android version 3 and the pure phone elements of Android 2. The idea was that phone manufacturers in particular were dragging their heels with updates and being slow to update the OS images for particular phones (known as read only memory images or ROMs), many adding custom apps and bloatware that few wanted. The result was that a range of very capable devices were being hamstrung by older ROMs that although stable, were not the latest greatest and did not benefit from more developed features and bug fixes-hence the fragmentation of the OS system.
Android 4 or ICS was meant to address all of that by unifying the platforms for tablet and smart phone and encourage manufacturers to process the ROMs more quickly for deployment to devices that support it.
As usual, Google cooperated with a manufacturer and produced a reference device for ICS, which was Samsung again, as it had been with the previous reference device the Nexus S.
The Google Galaxy Nexus, by Samsung, shares much of its hardware with the Galaxy S II, though with notable external differences. It sports the ICS operating system unvarnished, as Google produced it, so there is no overlay or major skin treatment as can be found with the likes of Samsung's own TouchWiz or HTC's Sense. Our review device, which will be used as a base reference for comparing other devices, is the Galaxy Nexus supplied by Vodafone Ireland, where it is available on various price plans from free to €199.99, usually with a 24 month contract.
On boot up, ICS requires a Google account, so one must be created or an existing one can be used to sign in. New at this point is the option to link up with Google+ services. Once signed in, if there is an existing account, synchronisation will take place for contacts, calendars, pictures etc, if you avail of these various services. Be warned this is best accomplished over Wi-Fi as the initial download could be extensive.
The phone is still usable while this is happening in the background, thanks mainly to its Arm 7 dual core CPU and 720Mb of system RAM.
The first thing that strikes one on using ICS is the refinement of the visual interface. A blue and grey theme with heavy use of translucence is refreshing and different from both Gingerbread (the previous phone version) and Honeycomb. Secondly, icon folders are now available. If you wish to create an icon folder no one of the five familiar home screens, simply drag and drop one icon onto another and name it. This is already done for a Google folder where maps, Gmail, Calendar, Google+, Music, Market, Talk, YouTube, Navigation and Messenger+ are included. Of these core apps, almost all have had a significant update, both in terms of the visual theme and capabilities.
The music app for instance, now has an equaliser and effects options. There are also core settings such data usage mapping where limits can be set by various parameters such as time and date. The camera is much improved and now has a panorama mode that stitches multiple images together into a 180 degree scene, near instantaneously. The notification bar has increased capabilities also, with the inclusion of a Settings shortcut, which is very welcome.
From a pure business perspective, there are improvements in handling for the likes of Exchange mail, but issues have been reported too. One of the key missing elements though is increased virtual private networking capabilities. While the options have been expanded over previous versions, compatibility with certain services is still lacking. In testing, we tried just about every variation possible and could not connect to our test SonicWall VPN gateway, though that may reflect the age of the gateway.
Despite the dual core CPU and healthy amount of system RAM, the ICS equipped Galaxy Nexus does not trump the speed stats, and, according to the AnTuTu benchmark, scores between the Samsung Galaxy SII and the Samsung Galaxy Note, but well below the Asus Transformer Prime. This has been attributed to the processing overhead of the new interface which uses a lot more effects in normal operation. In reality, the handset feels very smooth and fluid in its operation, both in terms of native and market apps.
In general, ICS has been slow in coming for many devices and the Galaxy Nexus is still the most widely available device that carries it. It is a very pretty, well thought out update to Gingerbread that is likely to attract the same level of usage, though not as quickly as its immediate predecessor.
As regards the Galaxy Nexus, it is a beautifully built, aesthetically pleasing handset that is hugely capable and likely to be useful for several years. However, Google may not have expected it to have had quite the exclusivity of ICS that it has thus far enjoyed. This may help its sales overall, but possibly to the detriment of ICS.