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Galaxy Nexus latest challenge for iPhone

| Friday, Dec. 16, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — As fans of Google's Android mobile software well know, each new version is named after a sugary treat, such as Gingerbread or Honeycomb. Android is about to get even sweeter with Ice Cream Sandwich — a smooth, feature-rich operating system that will run first on the delectable Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone.

The combination of Google's software and Samsung's hardware makes the Galaxy Nexus one of the best candidates to compete with Apple's latest iPhone, though its price is steep. It is available in the United States for $299 with a two-year Verizon Wireless contract.

The Galaxy Nexus features a slim frame with a large, curved glass screen that's comfortable for chatting with friends and excellent for watching videos. There are 32 gigabytes of built-in storage space on the Verizon version of the phone, but no external slot for a microSD memory card.

The screen, a pocket-busting 4.65 inches at the diagonal, makes the iPhone's 3.5-inches look diminutive. And despite the size, the Galaxy Nexus manages to weigh just 4.8 ounces, slightly less than Apple's offering.

On it, videos and Web pages looked crisp and bright, with rich colors. I started watching a video during testing -- an HD copy of "The Help" that I rented from Google's Android Market -- and had to force myself to break away to test other features of the device.

With the latest version of Android under the hood, the Galaxy Nexus is packed with new and improved features. Many of them are great; others are simply great in theory.

Overall, the software looks fresher and less cluttered. The virtual "buttons" that usually sit at the bottom of the screen have been redesigned. There's still a "home" and a "back" button, but no "menu" button to pull up various options within an app. Instead, there's now a "recent apps" button that shows what you've been doing lately on the phone.

Other changes to Android include an overhaul of its virtual keyboard, meant to make it easier to type without messing up.

The Android browser and Gmail are updated, too. Gmail's new functions include the ability to search emails while offline, while the browser is zippier and has a "request desktop" option so you can check out webpages in their non-truncated desktop version.

One new feature that falls into the "great in theory" category is Face Unlock, which uses facial-recognition technology to unlock the phone from standby mode. To set it up, you take a picture of your face with the phone. Then, all you have to do to unlock the phone is stare at the screen after you press the power button.

Most of the time it didn't work, though, probably because the phone couldn't recognize my face from certain angles. I was also able to fool it by holding up a shot of my face on an iPhone. So much for security.

Ice Cream Sandwich also has Android Beam, which lets you share such content as a Web page, map or video between two Android phones by bringing the backs of the phones close together. It only works with phones that have this Android software and near-field communication technology, though.

More immediately useful was the phone's 5-megapixel camera, which is the snappiest I've seen on any Android phone.

Like the iPhone 4S and some other high-end smartphones, the Galaxy Nexus can record high-definition videos in 1080p -- the best resolution you can get on a consumer camera.

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