Sunday, 15 September 2013

Experience with a Telstra Samsung Galaxy Nexus Google Phone

I've had my Telstra Samsung Galaxy Nexus (I-9250TGSMH) for almost a year now (it's September now, and I bought it the January before last). Overall I'm happy with it, but there are also some things I'm not entirely convinced by or thought should have come standard...

The generally good...


Stock Android, Unlockable Bootloader

First and foremost, the thing that drew me to the phone was that it runs stock Android. As a Google co-designed phone, if Google release a new version of Android, it's likely to have access to that for quite some time, and very close to the time of that version of Android coming out.

Indeed, there's a page on Google where you can download the latest released firmware for Nexus devices.

Additionally, as essentially a developer phone, it's designed to have the bootloader unlocked, it has the binary drivers available for the components that are under NDAs should I wish to compile my own OS, and other vendors, such as Ubuntu have even released completely different operating systems for it.

Not having manufacturer specific overlays, such as Touchflow, Touchwiz etc. etc. means that it "just works" with my Google Apps account, that updates to the OS aren't delayed (though that's less of a concern now that Google are running their functionality updates through their system shim, "Google Play Services") and there's less complexity atop the core OS to go wrong or to interact badly.

When I first got the phone, it came with Android 4.0 and since I've had it, I've upgraded it using a mix of OTA and downloaded updates. I noticed that on the stock Telstra firmware, it came loaded with a more complete office application and an Australian dictionary which I have not been able to find in the Google released firmware (only offering US and UK English, myself choosing the latter). I've also noticed that occasionally the phone will, when upgrading between versions using a total reflash, fail to properly reload all my apps and settings from Google's cloud storage, often resulting in me resetting the phone and disabling the restore option, then re-installing the apps one by one.

Screen, Connectivity, Filesystem access

The screen is nice and big compared to the average iPhone, and whilst the display resolution may not be as high, is just fine for what I need it for. It has Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi and USB tethering (which sometimes I have used to establish a USB network connection back to the phone when transferring large amounts of data and my home WiFi's been a bit flakey). I like the fact that with Android, I can install a file browser such as AndExplorer or OI File Manager and interact with files on the system between most applications without having to bounce things back and forth between different cloud silos like iOS. That's one thing I hate about iOS, that there's no formal user exposure to an on-device filesystem. Rather, it's all about the cloud. Google is all about the cloud too, but gets people there by making the experience a positive one that people will want to use, versus one that you HAVE to use to get a positive experience (I mean, it took them HOW many releases to be able to upload photos and videos from the web browser rather than needing to use a separate app or email? ... and you still can't select any old file, just pictures in the camera reel).

Using applications like AirDroid, AndSMB and AndFTP, I can pull files from local networks I'm connected to, or encrypted across the general internet from Windows Servers through to FTP and SFTP servers. If I'm out and about taking photos, I can push the pictures I take home, rather than via some intermediate cloud service. I do admit that I have some misgivings about AndFTP as I'm not entirely sure it verifies the host key of SFTP servers it connects to, possibly allowing an MITM attack. That said, as the apps are on the Google Play market and therefore distributed by Google, a US company, they are subject to potential NSA tampering (but I'll talk about my feelings on PRISM and the like later on in another post). I'll speak more about AirDroid in another post, as I feel it warrants a review of its own.

With ConnectBot, I can SSH to home and various other servers to get shell level access. It hasn't been updated in ages, however, and therefore has issues with external bluetooth keyboards (which sucks.. I have a nice keyboard from Aldi that would make longer shell sessions out and about soooo nice). I'm considering giving JuiceSSH a try to see how it fares with a bluetooth keyboard.

User removable battery

It's VERY easy to remove the battery from the phone - the back cover basically peels off. Under the cover is the SIM slot, the battery compartment, and even an external antenna connector for the phone radio.

Navigation

Google Maps and its related navigation feature are very handy, and excellent for a free option. That said, clearly it's all about data mining for Google, and its offline capability is woeful. Being a "Google Phone" means that it doesn't come with the offline satnav options frequently bundled with manufacturer focussed handsets.

Ability to disable USB data connection whilst still charging

Particularly after researchers developed a trojan charger for the iPhone, but even prior to that, I always felt a little dubious about how blasé people can be about plugging their USB devices into whatever USB port they could find to charge their device, never considering that there's potentially a data connection involved also. On the Galaxy Nexus, I can go into the storage settings and disable MTP, PTP, and USB pairing and debugging support. The operating system doesn't see a data enabled device being connected (I checked in Linux, *nothing* in dmesg) and the phone only acknowledges USB charging and nothing else.

720p HDMI output

With the optional MHL HDMI adapter, the phone can put out a 720p signal suitable for a vast array of display devices. It rotates everything into landscape display, EVEN the homescreen (the home screen NEVER rotates into landscape unless it's connected to the HDMI adapter OR docked).

The bad...

For all the sunshine, happyness, light and cute kittens, there has to be a dark side or at least, a not so happy side to the device.. and yes, this has that. My previous phone experiences have been a Hyundai-Curitel CDMA HGC-310e, a  Nokia CDMA 2280, a Nokia GSM/3G N70-1 and a Nokia GSM/3G N95 (4GB) and so my main use comparisons are based around this. I have also used iPhones before and have had to wrestle with the odd Blackberry (pre v.10 OS).

Battery life


The battery life on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, with the stock battery it came with (EB-L1F2HVU 1750mAh), is pretty poor. Whenever viewing the Android battery graph, the screen power draw is higher than anything else on the device ALWAYS, to the degree that I wish you could drill down in the battery details and eliminate the battery graph, as having one item so far above all others in battery consumption skews the graph. I have a third party extended life battery on order (which will stick out the back of the phone and comes with a third party cover to accomodate it).

Right now, I can last for the train trip into the city, and the train trip home, having it charging whilst I'm at work, and overnight when I go to sleep.

The camera

The rear camera is WOEFUL. It's basically a webcam - it has really really really poor low light response and can be really blurry in low light. It has a LOT faster shutter time than the N95, but the N95 had Carl Zeiss optics and took MUCH better photos. It also had a shutter that protected the lens whilst the camera was not in use. The 3D sphere and panorama modes are cool, but again require LOTS of light to work properly. Apparently more recent Google phones have a better camera, but this phone, it felt like Samsung was keeping the best hardware for its own phone and phoned in a token effort on the camera here.

The front camera is even worse!

The speaker

The speaker is also woeful - a single speaker for mono sound, poor response and really quiet compared, again, with the N95's stereo setup which was SIGNIFICANTLY louder with a much better frequency response. Again, they phoned it in with this effort. There was NO WAY I could sleep through the alarm on my N95, but with the Galaxy Nexus, I frequently realise I've slept through an initial alarm without waking.

No memory card slot

The phone has only the storage built into it. Whilst it supports USB OTG with an appropriate cable, it can't do OTG whilst charging or connected to the MHL HDMI adapter. Clearly Google want people to be using the cloud for their storage and not carrying their files from them, so this is a design decision on their part, but otherwise, it's a standard feature in the Android world to have a MicroSD slot.

No USB mass storage support / Reliance on MTP/PTP

This one is kind of understandable. As the storage is no longer partitioned into separate areas for apps and data, if the phone were to allow the partition to be accessed by another device, such as a computer, via USB mass storage, it would have to lock out the applications from making changes to the partition during operation to prevent corruption of the partition. The problem is that instead they rely on MTP. MTP support, unfortunately, only comes standard in Microsoft Windows. Apparently software is available for Mac and Linux, but whenever I've tried MTP support in Linux, I've been met with all sorts of bugs. In the end, I use SMB, SFTP and/or AirDroid to transfer files to and from the phone and my desktop. I do feel, however, that going over WiFi is probably slower than going over a simpler USB protocol. There is the possibility of using USB debug mode with the Android Debug Bridge push and pull features, but this is clunky and only really useful for pushing things like SuperSU when rooting (getting full admin access) the phone.

No iView access

This isn't really the phone's fault as much as Android and the Android hardware environment's fault. As the environment is not as homogenous as, say, Apple's environment, it's harder for people like the ABC to code suitable video acceleration that will work across a multitude of devices whilst maintaining the level of DRM that various content providers require. That said, other public broadcasters, such as the BBC (who is a major content provider for the ABC) as well as ITV (also a content provider to the ABC) have their own Android apps. One wonders if a lot of the content providers have their own apps, why the ABC is not considering similar technology. In the meantime, it means no iView on Android 4.1 and later devices without sideloading an ancient flash version and finding a cooperative browser or going for an unauthorised third party solution..

Overall...

Overall, I like the phone. It's flexible enough to let me install what I want, how I want. To let me tweak if I want to. I'm not locked into using all of Google's cloud if I don't want to. I can change the battery if I want to..

It does feel like some of the hardware was a bit cheap - the speaker, the cameras, the rear camera optics and the flash.

I don't regret the purchase and reckon, with the new battery on its way, the phone will continue to do what I need to do for some time yet (I don't *need* 4G).

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