For the most part, Google remains content on letting OEMs do the heavy lifting when it comes to promoting and selling phones that run the company’s Android smartphone OS. There are certain times, however, that Google wants to be the big boy to show everybody how it’s done. This is where the Nexus lineup comes to play.
Nexus phones are manufactured by an OEM (The Nexus One was made by HTC and the Nexus S is made by Samsung), but are the only phones that Google actually plays any part in producing, marketing, or selling. They want Nexus to be pure and unadulterated “vanilla” Android, typically acting as the phone leading the charge into the latest and greatest Android firmware update so that developers can use the phone as a living emulator for the Market apps they are developing. No special user interfaces to mess around with and bog them down, and usually complete with the best features that mobile technology has to offer at the time. Anytime a Nexus phone is launched, the tech world looks in with great anticipation.
The Nexus One was launched last year to much fanfare for developers and tech media, but wasn’t popular with the general public. It wasn’t heavily marketed, was only available online through Google and T-Mobile directly, and when launched was available at full subsidy ONLY for brand new customers. T-Mobile upgrades were done for an extra $100. Eventually it launched on AT&T, but was only available unsubsidized for $529 and only on the Google Phone Webstore. The avenues of selling this product were niche, to say the least.
Though the Nexus One was top of the line, it ended up being considered by many to be a failure due to underachieving sales and lack of public interest.
Now here comes Google’s second attempt at Nexus. Called the Nexus S, manufactured by Samsung and renamed to avoid being an official sequel to the One and being branded more closely to the Galaxy S lineup. Heck, the “S” on the box even uses the same exact logo. It’s as if Samsung just wanted to release this phone as a Galaxy S in the first place.
But this is where it gets weird. Though there was more S branding involved on this phone, there are actually quite a few key differences between the Nexus S and the Galaxy S series.
To me, the real questions are: why is the Nexus S relevant? Why does it matter? What does it bring to the table that no other Android does? Let’s discuss the Nexus S and break it down.
In this review, I endeavor to answer the above questions, show off what makes the Nexus S unique, and my usual likes/dislikes of the device itself. Buckle up, everyone, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride.
When first laying eyes on it, I could immediately see the resemblence between the Nexus S and the rest of the Galaxy S series. In fact, the Nexus S is pretty much the same design as the Samsung Fascinate, except for Contour display and front-facing camera.
I am also intrigued by the curved display, but not so sure if it makes a huge difference to my opinion of the phone that it’s included. But to note, it’s easy to be deceived by this curved “display”; it’s not actually the display that’s curved, merely the glass above it which gives it the curved look. I myself was originally of the belief that it was the display itself. So it’s still intriguing, but more as a design concept rather than innovation in screen display technology.
For me, seeing the Nexus S for the first time was more of a “meh” experience. Sure, the inclusion of Gingerbread is a huge deal, but what else does the phone bring to the table?
Hardware and Design of the Nexus S
At least Samsung was going for something different in the design of the Nexus S, something that would make it stand out over some of the phone maker’s latest design innovations. To me, one of the big successes for the Galaxy S lineup is the fact that every single version of it uses a unique design. The Captivate, for instance, is much more square on front and sharp on the edges, along with a metal backing and very little glossy plastic; while on the other hand, the Fascinate has rounded corners, rounded on the sides, and all of it is glossy plastic.
The Nexus S goes the glossy plastic route, but adds in a few different design elements. The major one is the “Contour” display. In theory, the phone’s contours allow for an easier one-handed experience on the phone. Having the inward curve would also seem to make it more comfortable to hold it up to your ear. I didn’t see a noticeable improvement on either.
One quick note on port placement: while the power button on the right and volume keys on the left are a natural fit in my hands, the headphone jack is on the bottom next to the MicroUSB. This completely confuses me, and just doesn’t feel like it should be there. I understand the desire to have the design be as minimal as possible, thus keeping the top of the phone totally clean and port-free, but I always prefer the 3.5 mm jack on the top of every phone I use because it’s out of the way. Placing the port anywhere else makes the headphones feel intrusive.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread Software on the Nexus S
The biggest reason for the phone’s very existence is that it’s the first phone with Android 2.3, also known as Gingerbread. Both Nexus phones have been geared toward developers because this is a great way to test out the latest firmware updates on a real-life emulator before it becomes available on any other device.
Why should we care about Gingerbread? Just like every other Android firmware update, several improvements and added features get thrown in, making the Android experience better each time. Here are some features and improvements that come packaged with Gingerbread:
NFC: Near-Field Communications, aka NFC, is a relatively new concept to mobile phones outside of Asia. But with Gingerbread now allowing the feature, look for NFC to start exploding in popularity over the next year. NFC is similar to Bluetooth in many ways, but on an even more secure basis. Right now NFC tags can be found in certain restaurants and retail shops, and when you swipe your phone across one of these tags it will download coupons, advertisements, and other information. Once it’s running at full speed, however, NFC-equipped phones can act as your wallet, making transactions and completing payments. There are many possibilities with NFC, and it certainly will be a huge part of the future of smartphones.
Improved copy/paste: With Gingerbread it’s now much easier to copy and paste, because you can now easily select a word or entire phrase by dragging a set of “bounding arrows” (similar to the blue dots found on iOS when doing copy and paste) to your preferred selection.
New and improved keyboard: There are a few improvements in the keyboard. First, the keys are reshaped and repositioned. This makes the keys larger and easier to see. It also adds in a built-in dictionary, with the ability to correct your words from dictionary suggestions, and even gives you the option to switch from text input to voice input when replacing that word.
Finally, the new keyboard also enables multitouch key-chording. This means that you can enter entire strings of numbers and symbols by just holding down the ?123 button as long as you need, and then just let go when you need to go back to letters. This will allow for faster typing when letters, numbers and symbols are all involved. There are also certain keys that when held down, a pop-up menu will appear that offers several different symbol and character options.
Improvements in gaming development: Gingerbread offers gyroscope support, 3D vector detection, and several other gaming-related APIs for developers to create even better and more realistic and challenging games.
Internet Calling: Gingerbread now supports SIP calling through VoIP apps. It also lets you choose between answering a call through Skype or the phone when it’s one of your Skype contacts calling.
Access to multiple cameras on one device: Developers will now be able to take full advantage of both the rear and front cameras.
Improved power management: The Nexus S has much better battery life than its Android brethren, mainly due to improvements in the way Gingerbread manages running apps. It uses a smart app manager program that will shut down background apps if they’ve kept the device awake too long or are just using up too much CPU. This same app also gives you more access to those running apps, letting you see exactly how the battery is being used.
Subtle orange light when at end of list: This may sound trivial, because it is, but I love it. Scrolling to the bottom or top of a list, you’ll now see a small orange light on either the bottom or top of your screen, showing you that you can’t scroll any further beyond that point. Again, a small thing, but yet a clever addition to Android.
Here are some other screenshots of Gingerbread.
Specs and features of the Nexus S
The choice of hardware components for the Nexus S is confusing. In some ways the S is portrayed as a top-of-the-line phone with best-in-market components, but there are a few specs on the Nexus S that aren’t even as good as the Galaxy S.
Front-facing Camera: Yes – VGA (Galaxy S has none)
Rear-facing Camera: 5 MP with LED flash
Video capture: 480p; no HD video capture (Galaxy S has 720p HD)
Processor/RAM: 1 GHz Hummingbird; 512 MB RAM (both same as Galaxy S)
Internal memory: 16 GB (MicroSD adds 32 GB max)
Battery life: superb (much better than Galaxy S)
High-speed internet: Max 7.2 Mbps; no 4G (HSPA+ or LTE) access
HDMI: None (Same as GS, but Droid X, EVO 4G, and Atrix 4G all have this)
Mobile hotspot: Yes
Where Does the Nexus S Miss?
When the Nexus S was officially announced, there was an impression amongst the tech community that this would be Google’s true flagship device, throwing in the best that Android has to offer all into one handset. The simple truth is, however, that it isn’t top of the line at all.
Sure, it has Gingerbread, the Contour display, and the front-facing camera. But look at the upper echelon of Androids announced at CES two weeks ago: most have dual-core processors, front-facing camera of at least 1.3 MP, some sort of 4G technology (LTE, HSPA+, or WiMax), and there were some that added in HDMI support and full 1080p HD video capture. Oh, and a few of them will come Gingerbread, the rest will likely be upgraded to it within a few months.
The Nexus S doesn’t have HDMI. It doesn’t have 4G of any kind. Heck, it doesn’t even have HD video capture. You may argue that you don’t care to use any of those things anyway, and that’s acceptable. The reason I find it a frustration (besides the fact that I do use them, and on a regular basis) is because this is supposed to be a top-notch phone but doesn’t offer many specs that are already prevalent in several other Android phones. What can the Nexus S offer me that these other phones cannot, besides Gingerbread? Within a couple months after launch, the Nexus S is already becoming obsolete.
I noticed it was very easy to transfer music over to the Nexus S, as it just involved dragging and dropping files in my Windows Explorer. I could easily find it in the stock Android music player, but was disappointed by the lack of audio EQ capabilities. No huge issue, though — my solution to the problem was to download one of many music players available in the Android Market. Doing so allowed me to have easy access to EQ settings as well as a plethora of other audio preferences.
Where does the Nexus S Hit the Spot?
On the other hand, one area where the Nexus S holds a special charm over any other Android phone is the fact that it’s completely vanilla Android. In other words, customizable. There isn’t a proprietary UI getting in the way of you being able to fully enjoy your own Android experience exactly the way you want it.
And the Gingerbread really is a significant update to Android. The battery life, if nothing else, make the Nexus S experience a great one. Not to mention the improved multi-touch keyboard and gaming improvements. Plus the Gingerbread UI is the easiest and most robust of any other vanilla Android version out there.
Overall impressions of the Nexus S
When reviewing phones I prefer to be as fair as possible. Every phone has its good and bad points, and it’s only fair to make sure I mention both sides. All that truly frustrates me about the Nexus S is the fact that it should have better specs than it actually does. It’s actually a great phone — processor speed is faster than usual because it runs vanilla Android, battery life has improved, and call quality was perfectly fine — and it just happens to use Gingerbread and have some cool design elements. But the hype on this phone was completely over the top, and unfortunately it just doesn’t live up to that hype. If the expectations were lower, the outlook of the Nexus S would be much more highly regarded.
I was very impressed by the performance of the Nexus S, as mentioned above. One thing that I enjoyed about having Gingerbread on the Nexus S is that this is arguably the best stock Android experience I’ve seen so far. I didn’t miss having any special UI experiences at all, because the stock user interface was well polished.
But it may not be enough. If you’re looking for the latest and greatest, be on the lookout for some of those devices announced at CES: the Motorola Atrix 4G, the LG Revolution, the Droid Bionic, to name just a few. I can, however, recommend the Nexus S to developers who want Gingerbread right now to test their apps, to Android purists who prefer to put their own customizations on their phones instead of letting the OEMs do it, and to anyone wanting a great quality Android phone without caring about the nitpicky hardware specs.
For more information and visuals, check out my video below:
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