We love our iOS devices, that much is clear. However, it’s always great to check out the competition and see what’s going on. Is there another handset out there that can offer something we’re missing? I bought a Galaxy Nexus the other day to try and answer that question.
Before I start this comparison, it’s important to note that I attempted in each section to thoroughly test both handsets to come up with the most unbiased opinion possible. Granted, I write for an iPhone blog, so I know that all Android fanatics out there will want to cut off my head for each individual feature that I proclaim performs better on the iPhone. Likewise, Apple fanboys will disagree with me on areas I feel the Nexus has an advantage. I’m fine with that.
I won’t be comparing ICS with iOS 5. I’m saving that comparison for the second part of the comparison. This is purely a comparison between two handsets. Obviously, crossing over in to the software side is inevitable at some stages, but I’ll try to stay away from the Android vs. iOS comparison as much as I can.
Form Factor and Design
The iPhone 4S sports a very familiar design. It’s virtually the same as the previous generation. Its glass covered front and back, combined with the steel chassis and Aluminum antenna, makes for a very clinical and well engineered device. The Galaxy Nexus is a slimmed down, grown up version of the Nexus S. From the front it looks fantastic.
The whole black front is covered in high quality strengthened glass, which in the right light looks like one large uninterrupted dark glass panel. There are no buttons, just one large display, an earpiece and a front facing camera. No distractions: minimalist bliss.
Here’s where I get a little divided in my opinion. Although the front of the device looks incredible, the Nexus is made of plastic. The power/lock key and volume key are both grey plastic, made to blend in with the rest of the device.
Its battery door is a grippy, thin piece of – you guessed it – grey plastic. In the wrong light, it looks cheap. It’s not awful, but it’s hardly a lesson in inspired design. Good job you spend most of your time looking at the front.
The iPhone on the other hand, looks great from most angles. I only have two areas of concern with the Apple handset: the front and the bottom. The iPhone’s face has remained almost exactly the same since the original handset in 2007. Same sized display, same home key, same earpiece. It is – I’m afraid to say – starting to look very dated.
The bottom of the phone is pretty ugly too. The large 30-pin connector port harks back to iPods of 8-9 years ago, and despite the fact that Apple likes to keep everything proprietary, I believe it’s time to switch over to Micro USB. It takes up less space, and would rid us of the gormless open mouth expression that’s plagued the bottom of our iDevices since, well, ever.
That being said, it’s a good looking device overall. Its clean and simple lines add a minimalist look that other manufacturers are still trying to achieve. Build quality is also much better on the iPhone. If only Samsung had gone with a unibody design instead of leaving us with the awfully flimsy and difficult to apply battery door, it would be much better for it. It wouldn’t take much to break off any of the tiny catches that hold the cover in place, leaving it ineffective.
Ergonomics is one part of design that I find to make the difference between a great handset and an incredible handset. Unfortunately, neither the 4S or the Nexus excels in this department. The iPhone is flash, shiny and sharp making it uncomfortable to hold, and easy to drop. The Nexus, although very large, isn’t a chore to use.
It’s slightly more comfortable to hold than the iPhone, thanks to its curved edges and textured battery cover. One thing I really like on the Samsung device is the placement of the volume rocker and the lock key. Both are positioned to make them easily accessible.
When designing a large-screened device, it would have been easy to put them slightly out of reach near the top of the handset. Thankfully, the volume rocker is two thirds of the way up the left side, and the power/lock key is in the perfect place for my right thumb.
Now, although the Galaxy is more comfortable to hold, it’s lacking a little in practicality. Due to its massive 4.65″ display, you often need to adjust your hand position to reach the top of the screen (quite regularly if you happen to like accessing your notifications). It does make up for it in lightness, and I do feel, if Samsung had gone with glass and metal – like Apple did – it would weigh as much as a house brick.
This section is probably the toughest to decide on, in terms of which is better. Clearly perception of design is subjective. The Nexus may win in some areas here, i.e. the feel in hand, its lightness and the its appearance from the front. However, since the rest of the device doesn’t match up to the quality of the front panel, it doesn’t win overall.
The iPhone is made from much better quality materials, the look is consistent all the way around and it’s a much more practical phone to use with one hand, despite being uncomfortable and perhaps a little too clean. I can’t impress on you how close this one was. If only the Samsung had been at least a unibody design like the Nokia Lumia 800, it would have won this section.
The iPhone’s 3.5″ 960×640 resolution display is on the small size nowadays but its 326 pixels/inch density ensures that the images are crisp onscreen. Results are clean and clear, but often leave me feeling it’s too sterile. Unfortunately, today, size does matter. As better games come out for mobile platforms and more visual media is consumed on portable devices, you need a phone that can deliver a more immersive experience.
The Galaxy Nexus has a huge display (maybe too big), but it certainly makes up for it in performance. Turn the brightness up and show it to anyone and the first response you’ll get is “wow!” The colors are bright and vivid, the blacks are super dark, giving you a great contrast ratio and performance with a lot of soul.
It really does impress. At times, it does lack a little in sharpness despite having a resolution of 1280×720 pixels. Its pixel density is similar to that of the iPhone (only 10ppi less), clearly ever-so-slightly let down by being PenTile based AMOLED. Saying that, the sharpness is far from poor.
Viewing angles are better on the iPhone, most likely due to the curved nature of the Samsung display. I also noticed a slight blue tint on the Nexus’ screen when approaching acute angles – only noticeable when the content on screen is white. Daylight performance is equal on both. Neither shines or particularly disappoints outdoors.
Although there are plusses and minuses on both devices, the Nexus is a clear winner here. The bright colors, and immersive display mean that if I were ever to choose to watch a movie or play a game on either, I’d choose the Nexus first without a second’s thought. It’s a fantastic display.
I did a full camera comparison a few days ago. For image quality and lowlight performance the iPhone 4S’s 8MP snapper is a much better choice. Although it often has the habit of washing out colors, it delivers much more realistic results indoors and offers crisper images.
The Samsung was great outdoors, in good light. Both handsets have fast shutter speeds – something which surprised me from the Android phone. Previous Google-powered phones have hardly been known for their perfectly captured images.
Both cameras have some excellent add-on features. iPhone has HDR – a must when you have areas of bright light and dark shadows. It essentially balances out the two to create a good looking and balanced image. You can also apply grid lines to help with positioning your desired object. The Nexus has a much more customizable 5MP camera.
You can keep your lighting and white balance on automatic, or manually select the correct option. You can also change image quality, exposure and video camera quality. Both have a single LED Flash which can be switched to auto, and turned on or off. However, the Galaxy Nexus has a great feature up its sleeve: Panorama mode. It cleverly uses the accelerometer to capture a series of images as you pan across your landscape.
For me, the best camera is one which delivers the best results. The Samsung may have more features, and the ability to customize and manually change more settings, but its images aren’t as good as the iPhone’s. A camera isn’t the most important deciding factor in any smartphone – for me at least. The Nexus’ performance is still good, nowhere near as poor as some of its predecessors, and certainly not poor enough to put me off buying one.
Video samples show there’s not a great deal of difference. I shot two sample videos out doors, late afternoon. Neither is outstanding in lowlight, and have the tendency to miss frames here and there. I had some issues uploading them, I’ll include them in the post as soon as I can. Just know this: the difference was minimal.
Neither phone is a slouch. The iPhone’s dual core A5 processor handles most tasks with consummate ease. Likewise, the Galaxy Nexus’ 1.2GHz Cortex-A9 CPU makes light work of anything you throw at it. Loading similar apps is pretty much the same on both devices.
One area that really makes the difference on the Galaxy Nexus is the browser performance – it is really quick. In day-to-day use for the average web-consuming consumer, this is one area where the Android phone shines.
Another area where neither phone performs incredibly well. Both devices should get you through the day fairly comfortably. With moderate use I have to charge both every single day. Neither completely empties in 12 hours, but they’re normally down to the last 20% by bedtime. The Nexus does consume more when using a data connection it seems.
One thing that did impress me about the Samsung: battery charge time. The phone went from 14% to 80% battery in an hour. Not bad considering it has a 1750mAh juice pack. The iPhone also charges pretty quickly, but only has 1432mAh. I can’t really decide which is better. I’ll give a point to each.
Sound Quality/Loudspeaker/Call Quality
In order to test the loudspeaker I loaded the same audio content on to the Galaxy Nexus, from my iTunes library. I played them at various levels to see which gave me the best all round sound, and which distorted more when turned up to the highest level.
I listened out for overpowering bass and ear-ache inducing treble. I had them both resting on the same surface, in the same spot to ensure that neither gained an advantage when it came to a resonance boost.
Playing music would give you a good mix of bass, mid and treble on the iPhone. Whereas the Nexus tended to be a lot of treble and not much of anything else. Volume-wise, the 4S blows the Nexus away. Playing both simultaneously as loud as I could, it was virtually impossible to hear the Galaxy. That being said, I was noticing a lot of distortion when the iPhone’s volume was all the way up. The same occurred when I used the loudspeaker to call anyone.
Quality was similar, but if I was in a noisy environment and needed my phone to be loud, the iPhone 4S would be a better choice. Thanks to the built-in equaliser in the Nexus, reducing treble and increasing bass was pretty easy, but it still didn’t give the rounded sound produced by the iPhone.
Again, neither handset has incredible call quality. Neither are poor either. In the past, with previous Android phones, I’ve always been let down by a poor earpiece. The caller’s voice was often unclear, sometimes to the point of having to ask them to repeat what they said a few times.
I’ve been surprised at the improvement on the Galaxy Nexus. If either phone is better in this instance, it’s the iPhone, but not by much. Sound quality was slightly better on the iPhone.
Other bits and final thoughts:
There are some great reasons to own both devices, obviously the operating system is part of that, but I’m saving that for the second instalment of this comparison. For now, let’s just say that Ice Cream Sandwich is a far cry from older Android operating systems. The iPhone hardware may perform slightly better but the Galaxy Nexus really comes in to its own with Android 4.0.
It may seem that the iPhone 4S has won this battle, but hardware’s only one side of the total user experience. Software is yet to be compared, and I think you’ll be surprised at my thoughts on that, so stay tuned for that tomorrow, bookmark our site and check back in 24 hours.
The thing is this: most areas the iPhone performed best in were by such small margins and it shows the Apple handset is nothing like the dominant force it used to be.
Which is the overall winner? We’ll find out tomorrow. (In my opinion, at least.)