Every once in a while, Google “shows the way” with a “pure” Android device, and by pure we mean “without carrier intervention”. This time, the Nexus S becomes the hardware reference platform for Android 2.3, also known as Gingerbread. The Nexus S is taking over the spot held previously by the Nexus One. Nexus One, had its share of problems (battery…), but it was well received, and has built a loyal following. It is fair to say that the Nexus S surpasses its predecessor in every way and that Google has found a very powerful hardware partner in Samsung. But how good is the Nexus S in the field? What does Android 2.3 really bring to the table? Most importantly: what can it do for you?
Usage patterns are different for each of us. We all have our own and that’s why it is often impractical to write a dogmatic review that simply says “buy/don’t buy”. I found it much more useful to tell you what I do with these devices and how they worked for me. From there, I sincerely hope that you can guess how things will work out for yourself.
I typically check my email often with Exchange, and I reply moderately because with the virtual keyboard, I don’t want to type long emails. I browse the web several times a day to check news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I run apps: mainly social networks and a tiny bit of games. I don’t call much: maybe 10mn a day, if at all. This usage pattern will affect the battery life and my (and yours) perception of which features are important or not.
We don’t say that often, but the Nexus S does have a beautiful design. It’s a matter or personal preferences, but the proportions look good and it does feel just right in my hand. It has a slight curvature on the screen that is supposed to make it feel better against your cheek when you’re calling. I’m not buying the whole “feel better during calls”, but the curvature does look great. In the back, you don’t have the usual “leathery plastic” so common to smartphones. Instead, there is a shiny plastic piece with a nice textured pattern.
The Google and Samsung logos are in the back, leaving the front as a pristine glass surface: great idea, it looks so much classier that way. You have the photo gallery to form your own opinion about the design, so drop a comment to share your thoughts.
On a more practical side, I really like the micro-USB port at the bottom – it’s great when I use the phone while it is charging. The 3.5mm audio jack at the bottom might not *seem* like the best idea, although I usually don’t use it enough to know. You can argue that someone listening to music would probably drop the phone “top first”, so the bottom positioning does actually makes sense.
As usual with Samsung, the Power button is placed on the (right) side of the phone, and I found it easy to use with either hand (index for left hand, thumb for the right hand). That’s all we’re asking from a power button, but believe me, this is not a skill that has been mastered by many handset makers…
The Nexus S feels very light, but at 130g (4.6 oz), it is only slightly lighter than the iPhone 4 ( 4.8 oz, 137g).
The only thing that the Nexus S design comes short on is that “plastic feel” that is often associated with Samsung handsets. There’s nothing wrong with using plastic, but I much prefer glass and metal as they do feel a lot better against the skin.
The Nexus S comes with a Samsung Super AMOLED display (480×800). The screen is 4” in diagonal and uses a capacitive touch sensor. Just like the Samsung Epic 4G, this display can output nice, contrasted and saturated colors. This type of display is fundamentally better at contrast and saturation because the light is being emitted by each pixel, instead of being emitted from a back light, then color-filtered.
But Super-AMOLED also tends to have color hues that don’t reflect the “true” colors of the original content. Things often appear over-saturated. It’s a good thing for Samsung that most people think that more saturation is better… The contrast however, is great because a black pixel is simply a pixel that is turned OFF. On an LCD display, it’s very hard to have (truly) black pixels because the back light is still ON. Super AMOLED will beat the contrast of LCD-based displays every time.
Display power usage
Proponents of non-OLED technologies like LCD IPS (the display type used in the iPhone 4 and the iPad) will point out that Super AMOLED consumes more power to show a white image, than a black image. This doesn’t sound so bad, except that a black AMOLED image consumes as much power as a white image on IPS (ouch). Maybe that explains why Samsung likes black so much in its user interfaces.
Display pixel density
You may have heard a lot of about the display pixel densities recently (expressed in pixels per inch, or ppi). Adding more pixels into the same surface area makes reading easier on the eyes because details are finer. IPS display manufacturers say that Super AMOLED can technically match the pixel density of IPS, but not within an acceptable power budget and that’s not likely to change in the next year or so.
What’s new in Android 2.3 (aka Gingerbread)?
We’ve always said it: the real value of a smartphone is in the software, and Android 2.3 is the star of the show here. So, what new really new besides the overall “performance & stability” improvements?
1/ App Manager
because users install more and more applications, Google has added an “app manager”. With it, you can inspect the storage used by an app (and delete it), you can stop the app and also uninstall it. You could do similar tasks in Android 2.2, but this is arguably a more convenient way to get the job done.
2/ New Keyboard layout
the new layout of the virtual keyboard uses square keys instead of rectangular ones. I really like the new design, because it is clean but I was a bit afraid that the smaller keys would lead to more typos, but fortunately, it does not. The only thing that I question is the relatively low-contrast of the keys, but it’s a minor detail.
3/ Better Copy/Paste
Out of the box, Android 2.2 had a wacky copy/paste behavior. Android 2.3 does improve it, starting with how you select the text. Two little markers will help you with that process. After the marking phase, a tap on the screen will copy the text to the clipboard. Things work OK, but it’s not really “smooth” yet. For instance, you have to tap at the top of the marker to move it around – by doing so, your finger covers the text too and that makes the selection process more cumbersome (Maybe developers were emulating it with a mouse cursor on their computers…).
Also, the copy/paste doesn’t really work in GMail (!#$%^&*). Isn’t GMail the place where I would really want to paste from/to to begin with? (Yes!) And if it doesn’t behave consistently in GMail, you can bet that this will happen in other apps too. If that’s of any consolation, HTC sense has the same issue, although “it doesn’t work there too” is not that type of consistency that we were looking for :(
4/ Power management
Android was arguably a little bit too lax when it comes to leaving apps running in the background, and the version 2.3 (Gingerbread) is a bit more involved when it comes to keeping an eye (or a lid) on apps. Google says that Android can now close apps “if appropriate” – whatever that means. Android 2.3 should also give you more details about where the power is going, thanks to an updated Battery Utility app (more on that later).
5/ Internet Calls
SIP voice over IP (Internet Protocol) is now supported. While many businesses are using it, it’s not really a consumer thing for now. Ask your IT folks to see if that’s something that your company uses. As an example, “Skype for businesses” uses SIP.
6/ Near-field communications
NFC is this is a technology that enables small data exchange at very close range, or on-contact. The technology itself is already widely used in Asia or Europe, as it powers public-transportation cards and e-money payment systems. Its use in mobile phones has been discussed for a long time, but its adoption has been slowed, not by the technology, but by the bickering about which company is going to get billions of dollars worth of transaction fees (for decades to come). As of now, there’s really nothing to use it for (in the U.S), but we can only hope that apps will show up sooner rather than later.
7/ Developer stuff
This is mostly invisible to regular users, but Google has made developer tools better, and provided new libraries and interfaces to help developers. Ultimately, this should translate in better applications, and particularly in better games – one of the area where Google did work a lot. More about Android 2.3 for developers
Let’s go back to practical information now. A great smartphone has to be a great phone first, so let’s cover some of the basic stuff to make sure that’s the case.
No problem there. The Phone app is right on the home screen, and upon launching it, you have a few tabs to choose between the virtual numeric pad, the recent calls, your contacts, or the favorites. I tend to use the favorites a lot, and for my most-frequently-used contacts, I drop a dialing shortcut directly on the home screen: this is the fastest way. I also really like that my Favorites are saved (and restored) when I go from one Android device to another.
Find a contact
You can either scroll up and down (which is great if you have only 20-30 numbers), or you can tap the Search button and search by name. I think that Google should always have a search box in the contact list screen: There’s ample room for it on the screen, and that would save time for folks with a very long contact list. It would also be OK to make the search box go away if the user starts scrolling.
Wireless (3G, WiFi-N)
The Nexus S doesn’t support any form of 4G. Instead, it can reach 3.5G speeds (a *theoretical* 7.2Mbps). On the home networking side, there’s WiFi-N, which is the fastest flavor of WiFi available today. For short-range communications, there’s Bluetooth 2.1+EDR and NFC obviously.
If you wonder about the network quality, I would say that it mostly depends on where you live. If you’re close enough of a cell tower, life will be good (ok, maybe not if you’re too close). Anyhow, check with your friends. If you travel a lot, average network quality starts to matter more as you want to increase your odds of getting a decent coverage.
Call audio quality (excellent)
Even with 1 bar (out of 4) on T-Mobile USA, the audio quality is surprisingly good. It is better than most smartphones we’ve tried recently. It is loud enough and clear – although it’s a tiny bit on the muffled side. There’s no background noise, so yes. we’ll call that “excellent” and it’s a term that we don’t typically use for call audio quality. The Nexus S sounds better than the (AT&T) iPhone 4.
Web Browsing (very good)
The Nexus S browses the web very well – just like most recent Android phones, but the Flash 10.1 support makes it even a little bit better.This is no “desktop browsing” yet, but for something that’s in your pocket, it’s very good. Flash performance will need further improvements, but being able to go to your favorite DIY site and watch tutorial videos is something that is worth mentioning.
Adobe Flash 10.1
The performance for Flash video is good, but Flash games (and other Flash apps) can be a hit or a miss, depending on how heavy the graphics are. Keep in mind that most of the Flash content has been designed for desktop machines, and what is perceived as “light computing” for a PC might not be so for a mobile device. Flash support is something that might sway users towards Android as Apple has wowed not to support it.
Google Docs (Editable)
Since Android 2.2, you can edit your Google Docs directly in the Android Browser. Google has adapted the user interface so that even spreadsheets can be modified more easily from a small display (good call, we need the extra help). As you can guess, it’s not the ideal way of editing your Google documents, but having the option to do so is great.
Email / Accounts Sync (very good)
Android comes with a decent support for Exchange. I’m glad, because I use Exchange as my main email workhorse. The exchange stuff is not as good as in Windows Phone 7 (duh), but let’s say that it is good enough, so I never complain about it. If you have the proper setup information, it’s quite easy. If you don’t you’ll have to ask for your IT person or read the support page of your exchange provider. I hope that Exchange auto-discovery will be added shortly. With Exchange auto-discovery, all you need is your email address and password. Without it, you need to provide a server, a domain and a username (which is not your email).
Other email services
Most web services like Yahoo, Hotmail and others are well supported, and adding your account is as easy as entering your email and password. If you use an old email service that is only based on POP (an email protocol), the support might be more shaky, but it should work. Just make sure that you leave emails on the server so that your desktop machine can download them too.
Not surprisingly, GMail is much better than the Yahoo Mail app (so sloooow), and it is the one email app in which you can “tag” and “star” emails. Exchange could theoretically do some of this, but not with the current messaging app. Maybe Microsoft should create one… (cough, cough).
Out of the box, the Nexus S has very few accounts options, namely: “Corporate” (Exchange) and Google. That said, all you have to do is to install your favorite app (like Facebook) and you’ll see yet another account in Settings>Account Manager.
USB Email Sync
“Can I sync my emails with outlook over USB?” is one of the most popular question. The answer is: no. At least, out of the box, you cannot sync with your email over USB. Unlike HTC phones that come with a utility to sync your contacts and calendar items, the Nexus S doesn’t have any mean to synchronize those things without external help. I’ve seen apps like Sync Android with Outlook, but I have never tested any, so I can’t provide an opinion on that. If you have, please drop a comment.
Computer Connectivity (file/internet sharing)
Connect via USB
Just like other Android phones, the Nexus S will appear as a USB drive as soon as you plug it in. That’s actually the only USB mode. There’s no “charge-only” or “3G modem” mode to choose from.
Depending on your taste, managing files over USB can be a blessing or a curse. If you are familiar with copying files around etc, this can make life very simple, and put you firmly in control of your content.
However, if you are not comfortable with the many file types, and file drives/locations/folders, or if you simply have a huge collection – managing the files “by hand” instead of having a utility like iTunes can be daunting. I personally have few files to synchronize, so I’m very OK with the idea of doing all this manually. Now, there are also Android apps like WinAmp that can help you with this task – you’ll have to install WinAmp on your computer too, but it even plays nice with iTunes.
USB Internet Sharing (easy)
With Android 2.3, Google has made it really easy to use your phone as a wireless broadband modem. Before that, you often had to install a driver (that was often bundled with other “utilities”). Now, every Windows 7 PC can use the Nexus S as a USB modem without pre-installing anything. That’s great. Just plug the USB cable, go to Settings>Wireless&Networks>Tethering> and check USB Tethering. In seconds, you will be browsing the web. Android’s tethering is now as hassle-free as it is on the iPhone 4 – except that as far as I know, you don’t need any carrier support.
Mobile Hotspot (easy too)
Starting the Mobile Hotspot function is very easy. Just go to Settings>Wireless&Networks>Tethering>Portable Wifi Hotspot and check the box. If you have not setup your Wifi hotspot yet, you will have to choose a name and a password (or not) before you can start browsing. This worked flawlessly, and without any particular carrier support either. Note: 8 devices can connect to the HotSpot at once.
Photo & Video Capture
The Nexus S takes good photos, and even in difficult lighting situations (like the one below), it stands its ground when compared to the iPhone 4. When viewed in a reduced form on their respective screens (ort in this page), the iPhone 4 photos do look better because they are brighter and because the iPhone 4 IPS display is so sharp. However, if you download the photos onto a computer, you can notice that the iPhone 4 photos shot in dim lighting are *very noisy* and that the Nexus S photos are smoother, but darker. View the full-size photos on Flickr (iPhone 4 comparison shots included) – this is a must see.
Dim lighting: Overall I would say that if you plan to use the image for web purposes (Facebook, web pages…) the iPhone 4 will do better because the noise will basically go away when images are reduced in size. The Nexus S will provide photos that are *much* less noisy, and more suitable for a high-resolution use (desktop wallpaper…).
Bright outdoor lighting: Both are doing quite well, and it’s hard to find a clear winner. Again the iPhone photos tend to be a bit noisy (even in broad day light), but they tend to be sharper. It’s a trade off that you will have to choose. I can help you by uploading full-size photos to Flickr and let you decide for yourself.
Video capture yields very similar results to photo capture: in good lighting conditions (see video above), the Nexus S will shoot good videos. In dim lighting, it will have a hard time to capture what’s going, and the iPhone 4 is the clear winner (by far) if you want to shoot videos in a relatively dark environment.
Performance (very good)
Performance is a game of numbers, but before we show you the graphs, I’d like to point two things out:
1/ “perceived performance” is much more important than “synthetic” performance because Perceived Performance defines the actual user experience.
2/ “measured performance” is derived from benchmarks that might or might not be representative of the real-world. Often, they can indicate the strengths or weaknesses of the underlying hardware or OS. It took a decade on the Windows platform to get decent benchmarks, and although I fully expect to have good suites at some point on smartphones, we’re not quite there yet. However, what we have is still much better than flying blind. Note that peak performance is becoming more and more important because the ability to execute tasks fast has a direct impact on battery life.
The Nexus S might be a hot phone, but it has a hardware platform that is relatively common: it uses a 1GHz Samsung system on a chip (SoC) that uses a central “Hummingbird” processor based on ARM’s Cortex A8 design. This is the same (or very close to) SoC found in the Samsung Galaxy S family of smartphones. The performance is very good, but not “out of this world”. More recent hardware like NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 in the LG Optimus 2X can easily challenge Samsung’s SoC.
Photo gallery (very good): the photo gallery works well. it has several modes that lets you sort photos as a grid, or by the date at which they were taken. Going through the photos is fast whether you are in “thumbnails” or “fullscreen” mode. This is great, in fact that’s the first time that I find the Android photo gallery to be as fast as the iPhone 4’s – and there are more options.
Video Playback: As you can guess, with such a Super-AMOLED display watching videos is very nice. As I said earlier, the contrast and brightness of Super-AMOLED is unmatched by any other technology. That said, a higher resolution would help a bit because videos on the iPhone 4 can look noticeably sharper and colors on the IPS LCD are “truer” to the original content..
Online Videos: Just like their offline equivalent, online content will look very good, as long as you have the proper network connectivity. I recommend WiFi, but with any luck, you might find decent content over 3G as well. In any case, the phone hardware won’t get in the way – it’s all about the network.
Speaker Quality: The audio quality is good in a relatively quiet place. Because the speaker is placed in the back of the phone, people standing in front of you might actually get a better sound, so be mindful of this when using this in public.
eBooks: As it is the case with other Android phones, eBooks are readily available via Kindle, Nook and other applications. You can certainly find apps that will read eBook files as well, and because it’s so simple to copy them to the internal storage over USB, reading seems like a “problem solved”. Of course, reading on a small display isn’t as comfortable as doing it on a tablet. However, if you read by small chunks here and there, I found it to work fairly well.
Gaming: The Nexus S is a powerful phone that is very capable of gaming. I tried games like Raging Thunder 2 (race cars – see above) and the Nexus S ranks up there with the best Android phones in terms of speed and image quality perception. Tegra-2 devices should start to shake things up (it has begun), but right now the Galaxy S hardware platform still shines.
Battery Life (good)
The battery life of the Nexus S is fairly good and most definitely much better than the Nexus One. With my usage, I can get through a day easily, but not through a second day. In practice, this means that I have to charge it every night, or be trouble sometime in the day after. The display is the main power user – this is usually the case, so keep that in mind, and try to use the auto-brightness, or adjust it with the Power Control widget.
Replaceable battery: although I think that replaceable batteries are less and less important to most people, I also realize that it matters a lot for some of you. The Nexus S can be opened and you can change the 1500mAh battery inside. I usually tend to favor USB batteries because I can use it with other devices that I carry. USB batteries can also be made to be relatively big. In my experience, having such a battery can be great to make sure that your device stays charged during a long international flight, without having to ration your entertainment. The Nexus S is also the proof that you can have a great design with a removable battery.
Improve your battery life: We’ve put together a “how to improve your Android battery life” article that contains easy steps that everyone can follow to improve their power usage. Check it out.
Things that could be better
4G: Among the few things that are missing on the Nexus S is the support for the next-generation networks. It’s true that it came out in early December, but if it’s going to be the reference for Android 2.3 devices, it would have been nice. AT&T’s 4G will come out later this year, so Google could not wait for that, but Verizon’s 4G shows impressive numbers.
MicroSD: There’s also no room for storage expansion with a Micro SD card. While this might not be a big deal to most users, it is something that some of you might expect, so just be aware that it’s not an option.
Android or iOS?
A lot of people ask us if they should go for Android, or if they should choose an iPhone (sorry WP7, your UI is great, but we don’t get asked about WP7, yet). The answer is not an easy one, but we usually start by asking: “what do you want to do with your phone?”.
The general answer is: the iPhone still has a more polished user interface and still has more apps. The average high-profile app quality is also better on iOS at this point.
However, Android phones can be technologically more advanced (mainly because a dozen are announced each month). For instance, some support 4G now – this won’t arrive to the iPhone until June, at the earliest. Android also has very strong apps. Google in particular has a solid suite of apps like Google Voice or their navigation app. There are also other apps that might not be available on iPhone.
Without knowing more details about your particular usage, here’s my recommendation: if you care about strong navigation, voice search, Google Docs, Google Voice and other Google Services, go Android. If you don’t know or care about the things above, go iPhone 4. If you want, drop a comment at the bottom of the page and ask more questions.
Android is “open”: in our circles it’s hard to not hear this a few times a week. Hey, it’s true, Android is open, and I’m all for openness etc… But when it’s review time, my question is: what does openness really brings to the end-user? In most people’s daily lives – not that much. It comes down to what apps you want to use, and how you consume apps, games etc… being in a “walled garden” might sound bad during a smartphone debate, but in that garden, the grass might be greener, the pool’s water warmer and the food better… in the end, a short stay might not be so bad. Think about what you want/need. Each platform has great advantages and some pitfalls, but leave the politics aside and pick something that will actually make your life better.
The Nexus S is a great Android smartphone. To most people, the most visible improvements from Android 2.3 will be the Adobe Flash support, the new keyboard and the overall performance. At the moment, there are no NFC applications so, while NFC is cool – it is also a non-issue.
The Nexus S comes network-unlocked, which is great if you travel (or if you decide to change carrier): you will be able to insert a local SIM card and use local minutes, on any GSM network in the world. This is huge for frequent world travelers who don’t want to deal with the hassle of hacking their phones to get the network unlock going. Also, keep in mind that even if you do have an unlocked iPhone, many countries have “special data plans” for that particular device and that often require a different activation.
This smartphone has the finest Android handset design (body) and even if it does not have all the bells and whistles that other Android phones may have (4G, dual-core…), we do know that it will have timely Operating System updates. 4G is probably the part that I will miss the most.
I hope that this Nexus S review has shown you what this phone is made of. If there’s something that I have not covered, or if you want to share your opinion, please drop a comment at the bottom of the page. I’ll try to reply asap.
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