Matt Hamblen

Galaxy Nexus on Verizon LTE; maybe the bigger battery isn't really needed

December 28, 2011 11:36 AM EST

One of the biggest worries with new smartphones such as the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus is whether they will have enough battery power to get through a full day of work or school, much less play movies and music long enough to satisfy an average media-savvy user before needing a charge.

This concern has increased with new smartphones running over 4G LTE wireless, which Verizon Wireless has rolled out to nearly 200 U.S. cities on several smartphones, including the Galaxy Nexus. AT&T is offering its separate 4G LTE network in 15 cities so far.

LTE can greatly increase download and upload speeds (sometimes 10x over 3G), which helps immensely in loading Web pages and videos, but can sap a battery quicker than inexperienced users might expect. Makers of the latest smartphones and carriers have taken to selling larger batteries, separately, to boost battery life, often at an added cost of $50 or more.

After conducting informal tests of a review unit of the new Galaxy Nexus running on Verizon Wireless 4G LTE for a few days, I concluded that average users probably won't need the bigger battery being sold separately. The bigger batteries add a bit more weight and thickness, which to me is the antithesis of a svelt new smartphone, although some reviewers have actually appreciated the greater thickness with the Galaxy Nexus upgraded battery.

Not needing a bigger battery might come as a relief to some potential buyers of the hot new smartphone, the first to run Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. (By the way, ICS is way cool and worth checking out, at least in a Verizon store. Many reviewers have approved of ICS, including Computerworld's J.R. Raphael. More on that below.)

Verizon was recently selling the bigger 2100mAh battery at $25, half the price of the normal $50, so arguably it is still a good idea to invest in the bigger battery anyway, since that's an incremental cost atop the $299.99 purchase price. The 2100mAh is a 14% boost in power over the stock 1850mAh for the LTE version of the Galaxy Nexus.

In my case, however, I'd take that $25 to buy some better ear buds for the Galaxy Nexus. The black ones that came with my review unit were horrible. I couldn't make the black rubber attachments fit into my ear canals, so I pulled them off and turned them around and stuck them back on the cords, gaining a better fit in my ears. But the sound quality for listening to music, movies and calls was still not as good as simply taking my iPhone ear buds and using them instead.

But I digress....Here's a summary of my Galaxy Nexus battery and performance testing. I did these informal tests from a house in a residential neighborhood in Pacific Palisades, a Los Angeles suburb, where I could only get two bars of 4G LTE at the best over several days of trying. Often the signal would drop to one bar or to 3G just a few feet from the windows of the one-story frame house. (Verizon said shortly after the phone was released on Dec. 15 that an update would be coming to fix the Galaxy Nexus' signal strength indicator to make it work the same as its other wireless devices, so perhaps my two bars was really stronger, but I had no way of knowing.)

The question of the LTE signal strength indicator is interesting, since carriers may say they have a city running LTE, but never say how densely they have deployed it within a single city. My location was just a quarter mile from a major high school on Sunset Drive on a large flat plain devoid of any tall buildings, an environment which would seem conducive to three or four bars of reception, instead of one or two.

LTE is supposed to propagate well inside of buildings, as compared to earlier wireless network technologies, but I didn't find that to be the case with my reduced signal just a few feet inside the house where I conducted tests. Also, Verizon and other carriers have faced the same civic opposition to cell towers in Pacific Palisades as they have in suburbs across the U.S. and can't easily keep up with the growing demand for broadband wireless.

So, with that signal at two bars of 4G LTE at best, I was regularly able to receive more than 10Mbps download speeds, when using a bit rate measurement tool from speedtest.net. In repeated tests from that stationary residential location, the best speed I ever got was 13.3Mbps down and 6.2Mbps up. These tests obviously factored in the entire trip to a server in downtown Los Angeles less than 20 miles away, not just the trip to the nearest LTE cell tower. (Only a fraction of the wireless network is truly wireless after all, something that's easy to overlook.)

Before I did any of my tests, I charged the battery fully while the Galaxy Nexus was powered down. While receiving those same maximum two bars of 4G wireless, I played music over the Internet using Pandora with the sound at one-fourth full volume. I turned down the display and other settings on the phone to the lowest power drain settings possible.

Here's what I got for battery life on the stock 1850mAh battery in the Galaxy Nexus: After nearly five full hours (4 hours, 45 minutes exactly) of playing Pandora over the Internet with two bars of LTE, I still had 54% of the battery power left, according to the phone's battery meter.

That amount is well ahead of some other smartphones I've tested for battery life, including the HTC ThunderBolt on Verizon 4G LTE tested in March 2011 http://bit.ly/hVo9R0

That HTC device, with a 1400 mAh stock battery, averaged just 4 hours and 22 minutes of total battery life for all kinds of uses, including voice calls, texting, Web browsing and emailing, but also heavier downloads of video and music. (That was well below the published 6.3 hours of battery life for the HTC ThunderBolt. Verizon hasn't published any numbers for battery life for the Galaxy Nexus on 4G LTE data.)

Of course, the stock battery in the Galaxy Nexus is 32% bigger than the battery in the HTC ThunderBolt. In the nine months between the time Verizon launched the two phones, engineers clearly figured out that they needed much bigger batteries for media-hungry users.

Wanting to push the battery in the Galaxy Nexus further beyond its 54% capacity after nearly five hours of playing music, I turned off the music stream and then downloaded the movie Sherlock Holmes (2008) for 99 cents. Doing so, I got a warning it might make sense to download via Wi-Fi to avoid added data usage charges, but used LTE instead for the purpose of the test. I quickly saw the battery capacity drop to just 40% of total in just 15 minutes, then down to 15% of total in just another 30 minutes. At that point, I got a warning to plug in the phone for power and did so.

At a point 45 minutes into an LTE download, I had still only loaded about 15% of the 128 minute movie. In all, it took one hour and 45 minutes to download the entire film, which measured a collossal 3.7 GB in all as measured by the excellent data usage measuring tool in ICS. (Probably that movie file total includes a small amount of software not related to the film as well as its HD quality, although I was not able to verify any of those details.)

After my download, I restored the battery to full power and watched nearly all of the film except for the credits, which lasted more than six minutes. In all, after about two hours of viewing the film on the large 4.65-in. HD Super Amoled touchscreen (1280 x 720), the battery was drained to 62%.

My experience with the stock 1850 mAh battery in the Galaxy Nexus over LTE led me to believe that size battery would be good enough for most of my average needs. If I could remember to download movies, and especially HD movies, only over Wi-Fi, it would be easy to rely upon the stock battery especially if five hours of playing music only drained it by half. Email and Web browsing wouldn't likely cause a greater drain.

More likely, movie downloads over LTE would be limited by any data plan I would choose. Verizon is offering double data plans for a limited time, which provides 4GB for $30 a month, up from the normal 2GB. In other words, that means one HD movie download could cost you $30 if you aren't careful. Not exactly worth it, unless you are forced to take a long flight and haven't got a good book to read!

As for the Galaxy Nexus and ICS, aside from the LTE network, I'd say it's the best Android phone I've seen and used. It doesn't feel as big as the large screen size might suggest, and the HD video quality on the Super Amoled screen is crisp and smooth.The HD video on that screen is actually nothing short of amazing.

I found the overall browsing and maneuvering inside of ICS much better than previous versions, but I especially liked some of the enhancements such as the data usage meter.

I don't care that Verizon has not supported Google Wallet for use for NFC in-store payments, but found it interesting that I could register my credit card quickly and easily on the phone using what was called "Google Wallet" to buy the 99-cent film over the air. Apparently, Google is still processing some Internet-based payments on the Galaxy Nexus, and Verizon and Google are cooperating a lot more on payment technology than news reports have indicated.

If you don't mind paying $100 more for the Galaxy Nexus than many new Android smartphones and can police your data usage to avoid going broke, it's certainly worth testing it out at the store. Some people won't like such a large phone, so that's why it's mandatory to spend a few minutes with one, even to lift it, manipulate it and type on its on-screen keyboard. If you can, get a handle on how well LTE will work over the device in your home or work place by asking another user or by (horrors!) buying the device and returning it if you are disappointed and don't mind the hassle of time and paying any penalities.

If you decide to keep it, you can boost battery life by making sure you remember to download movies and big files over Wi-Fi and to turn down display and other settings as well as to disable little-used apps that are updating constantly in the background.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen or subscribe to Hamblen RSSMatt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.