Galaxy Nexus and Nitro HD Get Torture Tested

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People who want to be nice to their phones don't take them to the Consumer Electronics Show. Overuse and overloaded airwaves leave mobile devices reeling.

But it's instructive to see a gadget perform in a hostile environment. With that in mind, I took a Samsung Galaxy Nexus loaned by Verizon Wireless and an LG Nitro HD from AT&T to the show, and used both in place of my own phone to see how they would perform.

Five days in Las Vegas and follow-up tests afterwards were unkind to these devices, but in different ways.

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The Galaxy Nexus — more expensive at $299.99 for new or renewing customers — displayed singularly weak battery life. Its 4G LTE radio and 4.65-in. screen routinely forced a recharge by lunch at CES. Back at home, it sustained just under four hours of Web radio with that enormous display on full-time. It did even worse in my other standard test, expiring after 11 hours with its screen dark while checking e-mail, Twitter and Facebook in the background.

That last result may reflect a rare bug in the Nexus's software, to judge from reports on Reddit. Plus, my brother bought one and hasn't had this issue.

The $199.99 Nitro HD won an unfair edge in Vegas: a glitch kept it off AT&T's new LTE service, prolonging its battery life. But having to try online tasks again and again on a maxed-out 3G network often negated that advantage, requiring a recharge by early afternoon.

Back in the Washington area with LTE engaged, the Nitro allowed 4 1/2 hours of Web radio with its 4.5-in. screen lit, then had 64 percent of a charge left after 24 hours idling. That's still bad.

On both phones, LTE drove shockingly fast downloads — usually at least 10 million bits per second, maxing out at 26.6 Mbps on AT&T. But it's often hard to discern that extra speed on the screen.

Software set these phones apart more than anything else.

The Nexus is the first U.S. phone to ship with Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. That change may confuse Android veterans: ICS replaces the traditional back, home, menu and search buttons with a new lineup of back, home and recent shortcuts at the bottom of the screen.

That simplifies multitasking; just tap the recent button to see and switch among thumbnails of open apps. But since apps must now provide their own menu and search commands (sometimes, ICS wedges a tiny menu shortcut next to the three main buttons), Android feels less consistent.

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On the Nexus, ICS was also less than stable. Twice at CES, I had to remove the battery to reboot an unresponsive phone.

The Nitro HD avoided crashing but suffered from LG's clumsy customizations to Android 2.3: The company combined the menu and search buttons, overlaid proprietary home and app screens and even subbed in an ugly system font.

Verizon left ICS's interface alone and inflicted less bloatware than usual on the Nexus. But the carrier indulged in a different sort of interference by keeping Google Wallet off it: Blocking that pay-by-phone system renders the Nexus's near-field communication (NFC) chip useless for now.

As on other phones, the Nexus and the Nitro's cameras delivered mediocre results that belied their 5 megapixel and 8 MP resolutions. I enjoyed the Nexus's clever instant-panorama mode, but not its bizarre failure to time-stamp several photos.

The Galaxy Nexus does retain one lingering advantage over the Nitro: As the latest in Google's flagship Nexus line, it has better odds of getting updates to future Android versions than most phones running this operating system.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery