With less than a month left in the year, Samsung’s final phone for 2012 has been made available, the first smartphone in Australia with the next generation of Google’s Android operating system.

The third phone in the Google Nexus lineup – preceded by the Nexus One made by HTC and the Samsung-made Nexus S – the Galaxy Nexus sets the benchmark for Android phones in the new year.

Available before 2012, this handset gives us a preview of what we can look forward to in new Android handsets.

In the hands, you can feel that the Galaxy Nexus is a mishmash of the design seen in the Nexus S and the Galaxy S2. Both were excellent phones, and a design inspired by each manages to work well here. There’s a textured plastic back and a nice curvature to the handset that we like.

The screen is something new: a 4.65 inch 720p HD Super AMOLED display that looks vibrant, sharp, and very pleasing to the eye. While it doesn’t have the same pixel density as Apple’s iPhone 4/4S Retina screen, it’s still excellent and supports a resolution greater than any other currently available phone has.

Under the hood, Samsung has equipped the Galaxy Nexus with a dual-core 1.2GHz processor which it says should be more than enough for running apps, games, web browsing, and multitasking between these activities. The story capacity is limited to 16GB with no microSD storage, though – a fact that’s left us a little disheartened.

Most people won’t be bothered by this, however. For many of us, 16GB is ample storage, with enough room for just the right amount of music, photos, apps, and movies to take with us. If you can do it on an iPhone, you can do it here.

There’s also Near Field Communication built into the Nexus Galaxy, a feature that allows wireless transmission from two devices very easily. We’ve recently seen CommBank’s Ka-Ching use this technology – also known as NFC – to allow iPhones wireless payment of product at cash registers, and it’s also made its way into three other commercially available phones, including the Nexus S, Nokia N9, and the BlackBerry Bold 9900.

Up until this point, however, it’s never been used the way the Galaxy Nexus uses “beam”: if you want to share a photo, app, contact, or webpage, simply put two of the handsets back to back and they’ll beam the file to the other phone wirelessly. It’s that easy.

The technology from the handset is impressive enough, but then there’s Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich, the next generation of Android.

Seen as the consolidation of the Android platform, Google Android 4.0 – also known as Ice Cream Sandwich or ICS – brings aspects of both the smartphone and tablet editions of Android together, making them into one operating system.

There’s the look of the OS, reminding us of Google for tablets – Honeycomb – in a heart beat. Much like the tablets released this year, there are no real buttons on the front of the handset, going instead with software buttons that stay in the same place but can change based on what app you’re running at the time.

These buttons also fade away when not in use, stopping your eye from look away from the screen.

Widgets are now a part of the applications menu, just a tab away.

The menu layout has changed too, with apps and widgets now found in the same screen and an easy to use left-to-right swipe making everything work so well.

From our brief hands-on, it’s easily one of the better navigation experiences we’ve had on the Android platform, and we’ve tried ’em all.

Android’s camera has changed too, moving to a system that has literally no shutter lag. Simply hit the shutter button in the camera app and the shot is fired, the 5 megapixel image saved. Just like that.

A panorama feature has been added too, with a simple panning motion all that’s required to get an ultra-wide image of your surroundings. You can’t do this quickly, though, so it’s something to be aware of.

We won't ask why the Galaxy Nexus doesn't include the 8 megapixel camera from the Galaxy S2. We'll just be happy with the 5 megapixels on offer.

One feature is sure to impress at parties, though, and that’s face unlocking. Anyone with a smartphone knows what it’s like to swipe their finger across the screen to unlock or type in a code, and that’s still here. But now you can just look at your phone and it will unlock if it recognises your face. We haven’t done much playing with this, but when we saw this in action today, it was speedy and quite impressive.

While we obviously need more time with the Galaxy Nexus, it certainly brings together some very interesting technologies in a nice package. We’ll be keen to review it shortly, as we’re not sure how long the battery will last for, among other things. Overall, though, it’s an impressive experience, one that could easily make the smartphone game a lot more interesting.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is available in stores this week for $799 RRP outright, and available on a multitude of plans from Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone.