By Brandon Miniman | December 28, 2010 3:25 PM
The Google Nexus S, like the original Nexus One, isn’t intended to awe the tech community with late-breaking technology and huge leaps in, well, anything. Instead, it’s intended to represent the best possible experience for the Android operating system at this given moment in time. It’s not weighed down by the often heavy interfaces that HTC, Motorola, and Samsung like to use on their Android devices, and so what you’re left with is a light installation of Android backed by some pretty compelling hardware.
If the Nexus S is anything like the Nexus One, we have a winner on our hands. Not only was the Nexus One a fast device with terrific battery life and a crisp screen, but it won the support of the development community, paving the way for a plethora of custom ROMs and tweaks available for the device, even one year after its release. And, with promised updates by Google on a regular basis, the Nexus series of devices won’t become obsolete, even when successive devices are released. Read on for our full review of the Nexus S!
While unboxing the Nexus S, you’re greeted with the Google yellow/red/blue/green colors surrounding the device. Beyond the typical accessories, there are no other surprises in the box, like a pouch (which was included with the Nexus One).
In 2010, we didn’t see many jumps in smartphone technology that would have paved the way for a technological advancement for the Nexus S, so it’s no surprise that the specs are quite similar to what was found on the Nexus One of last year. Inside we have the same Samsung 1GHz Hummingbird chip found on the Galaxy S smartphones, supported by 512MB of RAM. The Nexus S sadly lacks expandable storage, but with 16GB of capacity, you should have enough space to grow. We find the typical radios in the Nexus S, like WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, and GSM with T-Mobile UMTS (with no HSPA+). In terms of sensors, the Nexus S has a gyroscope, accelerometer, proximity sensor, light sensor, and Near Field Communications (NFC) sensor (which can be found on the back battery cover). For imaging, there is a 5MP camera on back capable of 720×480 video (a software upgrade should allow for full 720p HD recording), and on the front, there is a VGA camera. Powering the device is a 1500mAh battery.
The display on the Nexus S is quite different than the Nexus One. Not only is it curved (more on that later), but it is larger at 4″ (versus 3.7″) and it uses Super AMOLED technology instead of AMOLED, providing unparalleled contrast and sharpness. The screen resolution stays the same at WVGA 800×480.
We’ll be the first to admit that before getting hands-on time with the Nexus S, we thought the curved display was a big deal. The truth is that the curved display, known as the “Countour Display” in Google’s marketing material, is just that…marketing material. The curve is so slight that it makes no difference in everyday usability, although we have to admit that it’s pretty sleek and different.
Like the Galaxy S smartphones (and the Samsung Focus), the Nexus S has a subtle blue tint when the screen is off thanks to the Super AMOLED panel. Here on the front we can see the light and proximity sensor on the left of the earpiece, and the VGA camera to the right. Also notice that the buttons below the screen are hidden except when backlit. Keeping with the clean look on the front of the device, the Nexus S has no branding marks here on the facade.
The back cover is made of slippery plastic with little dots. This gives the device a somewhat unsteady feel in the hand, but it’s helped by a little ridge towards the bottom of the device. This ridge acts as a ledge which helps when typing in portrait.
Here’s a closer look at the backing. Here we can see the 5MP camera sensor with LED flash, plus the speaker. The microUSB and 3.5mm headphone jacks are placed on the bottom of the device, which is a deviation from Samsung’s recent devices like the Focus and Galaxy S.
Taking off the battery cover we see the SIM card slot and the 1500mAh battery. What you won’t find back here is a microSD memory slot, because the Nexus S doesn’t have one. Also back here you’ll notice the NFC sensor, which is attached to the backing.
On the left side of the device we have a very pronounced volume up/down rocker. The depth of the Nexus S is 10.8mm compared with 11.5mm on the Nexus One. That said, due to the curvature of the screen, the Nexus S feels a bit thicker than the Nexus One. Still, overall, it’s a pretty thin device.
And on the right side of the device is the power/standby key. Missing is a dedicated camera button — like on most of the Galaxy S variants — which is a shame.
Browsing the web on the spacious four-inch Super AMOLED screen is a fantastic experience. Outdoor screen visibility was terrific.
The best way to understand the software on the Nexus S is by comparing it to the Nexus One. Quite simply, the main difference between the two devices is the addition of Android 2.3 on the Nexus S.
Gingerbread, or Android 2.3, contains a host of behind-the-scenes changes to make Android more compelling for developers, especially with respect to gaming. You can read the entire Gingerbread changelog here, but for all intents and purposes, let’s take inventory of how Android 2.3 is different from an end-users perspective:
- A refreshed UI with more green colors, flatter checkboxes and buttons, and updated visual effects
- Improved on-screen keyboard
- NFC support to allow local business, for example, to enable patrons to find more information about their product or service through a special tag placed in a store window
- Integrated VoIP which will allow developers to integrate internet voice servers directly into the dialer app
- Gyroscope and native multiple camera support
- Download manager to help keep track of web downloads
- Support for higher resolution screens
As was the case with Android 2.2 Froyo, which added a cluster of buttons on the bottom of the homescreen, Android 2.3 also has a hallmark visual change: the cluster of buttons now are less 3D, plus they are colored with green. Beyond that, you’ll notice modest changes on the homescreen, such as an updated Google search widget, green icons on the top (plus a black notification area), and some others.
Contiuing with the theme of modest visual changes, check boxes have been changed in Gingerbread. Also, when you scroll to the bottom or top of a list, instead of getting a “bounceback” effect, you get a brief glow of orange to let you know you’ve reached the end.
Here’s that download manager. The more you use your device and accumulate items downloaded from the web, the more useful this section becomes. Gone are the days where you’d have to re-download something because you forgot where it went.
Google has finally changed the all-important on-screen keyboard for Android. Granted, you can swap keyboard on Android pretty easily (and there are some great options out there like Swype, SwiftKey, and others), but many don’t want to spend time trying out keyboards–they just want the stock keyboard to be great. This new keyboard adds more separation between the keys, better prediction, and multitouch support. Does this really make for a better typing experience? In my opinion, no. In fact, I think I liked the old keyboard better, which had taller keys. In the end, whether you like an on-screen keyboard is determined by the size of your fingers, the way you type, and other variables, so you might love this keyboard.
Also new to Android 2.3 is a better way to select text with larger selection “handles” that makes it easier to copy and paste. This also obviates the need for a D-Pad or trackball to help with cursor movement.
While the camera on the Nexus S is plenty capable of recording in HD, it doesn’t out of the box. The resolution maxes out at 720×480, and the video quality is medicore, though the audio was crisp. As was the case with the Nexus One, which also didn’t do 720p video recording out of the box, a software tweak should make HD video recording possible.
In terms of still shots, the Nexus S takes photos at 5MP. The quality of the shots were reasonable, but not great: colors were dull at times, and the camera had trouble focusing on close objects. Here are some samples: indoor macro, night, outdoor.
The Nexus S is a fast Android smarpthone. It feels about 10-15% faster than the Nexus One with Froyo, which, while nice, isn’t enough of a jump in performance to get us excited given that the Nexus S is supposed to represent the best Android experience. Multitasking was handled with ease on the device, and even Flash video played a bit more smoothly than found on other Android phones.
CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED
We tested the Nexus S on T-Mobile and on AT&T. Call quality on both networks was crisp and clear, and we experience no dropped calls. Over T-Mobile 3G (but not HSPA+) network, we clocked about 2.5mbps down and 1.7mbps. On AT&T’s EDGE network, expect to get achieve down speeds of around 200kbps and up speeds of around 100kbps. No word on whether there will be an AT&T 3G version of the Nexus S. If we were to make a bet, we’d say “yes”.
Thanks to the Super AMOLED screen and large battery, the Nexus S is a winner in terms of battery performance. With heavy use, expect to get through a day and half on a single charge. With light/medium use, you’ll be able to spend two days away from the charger.
PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY
Best Buy Mobile is the only firm in the US selling the Nexus S at the moment. It’s going for $199 with a new two-year agreement on T-Mobile, or $529 unlocked with no contract.
In the UK, you can grab the Nexus S from Best Buy or Carephone Warehouse.
If you recall, the Nexus One sold for the same price unlocked, and a bit less with a contract at $179.
+ Terrific performance
+ Gorgeous Super AMOLED display
+ Great battery life
+ Runs the latest version of Android
+ Curved display looks interesting
- No dedicated camera button
- Curved display serves little purpose
- No microSD storage
- No HSPA+ for T-Mobile
- No AT&T version, yet
I can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed by the Nexus S. While it takes the cake as one of the best (if not the best) Android phone available today, it’s not exactly a huge leap beyond what we got just last year with the Nexus One. But given that we have yet to see Android be tethered to a super high-resolution screen or multi-core processors, this is to be expected.
That said, you can feel confident in buying a Nexus S knowing that not only is it a fast and capable device, but it’s a little bit future-proof with promised updates from Google, and the likelihood of robust developer support should you want to swap ROMs or make any other software modifications.
If you’re on T-Mobile and want Android with a hardware keyboard, the T-Mobile G2 is a great choice.
We rate the Google Nexus S a 4/5.