The Galaxy Nexus is the most heavily anticipated Android phone of the year. It represents our first experience of Android 4 – Ice Cream Sandwich – and also serves as a reference design, showcasing Google’s idea of what an Android phone should be. The Nexus range is as close as we’re likely to get to an actual ‘Google phone’, but does that automatically make it the best Android phone?

Initial impressions are certainly a little anticlimactic. One of the new features in ICS is the presence of virtual buttons that appear (and occasionally disappear) at the bottom of the screen for the standard Home and Back functions as well one for a new task switching function as well. This renders fixed physical or capacitive buttons obsolete and as a consequence leaves the Nexus looking almost entirely featureless. Volume buttons on the left, a power button on the right and microUSB and headphone ports on the bottom are all you’ve got.

Even the promised curvature in the design only amounts to about a millimetre at its deepest point. You won’t notice it either in your hand or in your pocket. Thanks to its thinness the phone sits in your pocket comfortably enough, although there is no escaping the fact that this is a large handset. We hope other manufacturers don’t follow this trend too closely next year.

It’s when you turn on the Galaxy Nexus that you really begin to discover what it is all about. For experienced Android users the newly revamped user interface will come as quite a shock. Most significantly the Menu button that has appeared on every single phone to date has gone altogether, replaced instead by another on-screen button, signified by a column of three dots, that appears as and when needed to indicate there are further options available. Curiously this button sometimes appears at the top of the screen, sometimes at the bottom, and sometimes within the button bar itself.

There is barely a part of the interface that has not been touched. The Apps pane now swipes sideways, and widgets are now tacked on to the end of this rather than accessed through the home screen; apps on the home screen can be grouped into folders by dropping them on top of each other; notifications can be removed one at a time by swiping them away; all of the Settings have been tweaked and redesigned.

There are also new features, including new versions of most of the Google apps, with particularly good improvements made to the Calendar and Gmail apps. The contacts app has been replaced by a new People app that not only shows contact information but keeps you up to date with your friends’ postings on various social networks.

The browser has been improved and makes tabbed browsing much easier, although while it will support Flash in future this had not been implemented during the time we were testing the handset. Other impressive changes include the addition of a surprisingly detailed data manager that not only enables you to set limits on how much data you use, but also enables you to bring your most data hungry apps under control.

Best of all is the new task switcher. A quick tap of the button shows a vertical list of the apps you’ve used recently and have running in the background, with an image showing the exact position the app was in when you last left it. Swipe it off screen to close the app.

It is perhaps to the phone’s credit that it doesn’t feel all that powerful. It is: there is a 1.2GHz dual-core processor and 1GB RAM in this device, but it never feels like it is being stretched. Performance throughout was buttery smooth.

The screen is stunning. The 720×1280 pixel resolution is the highest we’ve seen in a phone, and the 316ppi pixel density comfortably within the iPhone’s Retina Display territory. Whether you are watching videos, reading text or playing games it is awesome, and very easy on the eyes.

The lag-free camera also has to be seen to be believed. We continually found ourselves pausing while we waited for a shot to be taken, only to remember that it already had been. Quality from the 5MP sensor is very good but not exceptional, and the same can be said for the 1080p video recording.

Other highlight features include Android Beam, the NFC capability that will become more important over the next year, and the face recognition locking system, which worked but felt gimmicky.

The Galaxy Nexus is not perfect. We encountered numerous bugs in the software, mostly minor but a few more significant, although we would expect these to be ironed out with updates. We’d also like an update to make the auto-brightness setting a lot brighter.

And there are some things that can’t be fixed, such as the lack of a memory card slot which leaves the phone with only about 13GB of space (there will also be a 32GB version of the device available in some countries) right out of the box. Or the phone’s lack of support for mass storage mode, which makes transferring your content to and from the phone harder than it should be, especially on a non-Windows computer. We also encountered a few apps not yet ICS-ready, and the battery life was inevitably mediocre. Heavy users will want to keep a charger on hand at all times.

Ultimately, what we took most from the Galaxy Nexus was a sense of renewed excitement about the other Ice Cream Sandwich phones that will appear over the coming weeks and months. The Nexus is ‘pure’ Android, it is fast due to its lack of customisations and will no doubt be first to receive updates in future. Yet like the other Nexuses before it it feels like an early adopter’s phone, and it will be the likes of Samsung (freed from the restraints of this Google cooperation) and HTC that deliver the real consumer favourites.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is available now, SIM-free, from www.clove.co.uk.