The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has been officially unveiled by Google and Samsung, just two weeks after Apple dropped its iPhone 4S - and if you're an Android fan, there's more than just that juicy new Android Ice Cream Sandwich to sink your teeth into. But with the Samsung Galaxy S2 and the HTC Sensation XE already winning Android hearts and minds in the field, which of the top bevvy of smartphones is for you? We chucked the contenders into our virtual ring for a battle of the specs.
Design and Build
Samsung's mobiles have lots to offer in terms of raw power and multimedia capability, but don't put a lot of emphasis on design for design's sake. We love the Galaxy S2, but of the three handsets we've played with (all except the Galaxy Nexus, so far) it lacks that premium feeling of the iPhone and the XE. The body feels plasticky and the battery case is thin to the point of flimsy, and although we've yet to try it, from the pictures and video we've seen of the Galaxy Nexus, things are much the same on the latest Google superphone. Both Sammys have lots going for them, but if rock-solid build is high on your list of priorities, you should be focussing your attention on the iPhone 4S or the Sensation XE.
The HTC Sensation XE continues HTC's tradition of stamping its phones out of single blocks of aluminium, and the result is a hefty, industrial looking handset with some cool new red highlights to compliment the Beats By Dr. Dre branding. It's the heaviest phone on test at 151g, but the added heft makes it feel solid rather than bulky, like the difference between an expensive watch and a Casio. If slick design is high on your list of must-haves in a phone, but you're no Apple fan, the XE is a solid choice.
If you are an Apple fan, however, or have no preconceptions either way, the iPhone 4S is also a beautifully designed mobile. Wrapped up in aluminium antenna band and with glass on its back as well as its front, it's extremely pretty while also shying away from the super-legera weights of the Samsung handsets. Our two gripes are that, on the outside, it's damn near identical to the iPhone 4 (there isn't even any 4S branding, just the word 'iPhone') diminishing your bragging rights for owning the latest Apple handset.. Second, that glass back is prone to shattering when dropped, something that isn't a problem on any of the other handsets.
On paper, the HTC Sensation XE has the fastest processor, bumping up from the original Sensation to a 1.5GHz dual-core chip, eliminating some of the jitteriness of its predecessor. The Galaxy S2 and the Galaxy Nexus offer 1.2GHz processors, while Apple's iPhone uses its proprietary A5 chip (as found in the iPad). In practice, however, the 4S, XE and the S2 are all beautifully smooth to use, and for everyday use you'd be hard-pressed to see a difference in performance between them. The Galaxy Nexus packs the same 1.2GHz processor speed as the S2, so we'd expect it to stack up similarly performance-wise when it's released towards the end of the year.
Apple's iPhone 4S comes running iOS 5, the latest Apple operating system that adds 5GB of free cloud storage via iCloud and Siri, Apple's talkative personal assistant. Apple claim that iOS 5 is its biggest software update in its history, with over 200 new features added to the operating system, including a new and improved notifications system which gives you updates from mail, Twitter, Facebook etc. within whichever app you happen to be using at the time.
The Galaxy Nexus will be the first Android phone to run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the first Android OS release designed to work on both smartphones and tablets. New features include an upgrade to the camera software, which now offers image stabilisation, better auto-focus, face detection and a new panoramic mode as standard. As the Nexus comes with an NFC chip, it can also take advantage of Android Beam, an Ice Cream Sandwich which allows two NFC-enabled mobiles to swap contact details, favourite websites and media by moving them into contact with each other. The most radical feature is probably Face Unlock, which does away with passwords and traditional unlock screens, unlocking your phone by scanning your face with the front-facing camera.
The HTC Sensation XE runs Android Gingerbread 2.3, but comes with HTC's own gorgeous Sense UI running over the top. Vanilla Android is pretty minimalist in its design, especially compared to Apple's iOS, so the added flare of HTC's Sense skin is a welcome addition, but like the S2, XE owners will have to wait for an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich to get their hands on all of the Galaxy Nexus' new features.
The Samsung Galaxy S2 currently only runs the vanilla Android 2.3, but expect an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich in short order once the Galaxy Nexus arrives.
The Galaxy Nexus is a little disappointing in pure numbers terms, only coming with a 5MP camera to the other three handsets' 8MP snappers. It's not totally fair to judge cameras on MP rating alone (there are other factors that make a difference to image quality other than raw pixel count), but we thought we'd moved firmly into 8MP territory by now. However, Samsung is claiming an instantaneous shutter speed and an improved panorama mode, so we'll wait to get our hands on it before knocking it too hard.
The other cameras all photograph at 8MP, as mentioned, and all four are capable of recording video at 1080p.
Each of these phones, bar the iPhone 4S, come with seriously expansive displays. The Galaxy Nexus leads the pack in sheer screen real estate at 4.65 inches, followed by the the Galaxy S2 and the Sensation XE, which both offer up 4.3-inchers. Bringing up the rear is the iPhone 4S, which sticks to Apple's standard issue 3.5-inch display.
Where the 940x640 iPhone shines, however, is in its Retina Display, which is a fancy description for its screen's super-high pixel-per-inch count (PPI) count. The iPhone 4S has a higher PPI than any of the other three handsets on test, making for a sharper viewing experience.
The Samsung Galaxy S2 has a lower resolution of 800x480. In contrast the Galaxy Nexus has a full HD resolution of 1290x720 - the highest we've seen on a smartphone, which should mean incredibly detailed pictures. In addition, both do both rock Super AMOLED displays, where colours look more vivid than on its competitors, and both handsets have large displays perfect for watching video on.
The HTC Sensation XE offers a 960x540 Super LCD screen, which suffers from being in a comparison with three other displays that all have exceptional features. Don't get us wrong, the screen on the Sensation XE is great, it just doesn't have a standout USP like the high PPI of the Retina Display or the rich contrast of the Super AMOLED screens.
The Apple iPhone 4S comes in three different storage capacities; 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, and has no option to upgrade these with external storage cards. Sadly, this means that you'll be forking over extra cash for extra storage, and the iPhone 4S base model is already a pricey enough handset as it is.
Android handsets have always been much more liberal about Micro-SD card use, so their base storage is less important. The Galaxy S2 comes in 16GB and 32GB models, with storage expandable up to another 32GB via Micro-SD, while the HTC Sensation XE comes with 1GB storage - so a Micro-SD card is a must. We don't know how much storage space the Galaxy Nexus will come packing, but again, the base will almost certainly be upgradeable through cards.