Review: Google Nexus S

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Nexus S is an excellent phone. It’s not as nice as an iPhone 4 as a complete package. But it’s a great phone on its own merits, and it does even do many things better (connectivity, media-sharing, background processes and notifications). You very well may prefer this to an iPhone, but it is not an iPhone. If you want an iPhone; you should buy an iPhone. Phew. Now g’head flame away.

The tech specs are excellent. (Get your writing sticks out, nerds, because here comes a list.) The Nexus S has a 1-GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor, a 4-inch Super AMOLED 800 x 480 display, 16 GB of flash memory, a gyroscope and accelerometer, and two cameras. There’s a 5-megapixel 2560 x 1920 shooter in the back with a flash, and a 640 x 480 front-facing cam for vanity shots. It’s got antennas for GPS, Wi-Fi, 3G, Edge, Bluetooth and most intriguing of all, NFC. Got it? Pencils down.

So how does all that work? Let’s start with the Hummingbird processor: It’s fast. Really fast. Apps fire seeming instantly, everything loads well, and we never had an issue with it hanging or stalling to process something. Yet, it does this without being a battery hog. We were very pleased with the performance and power tradeoff.

Battery life is also quite good, assuming you’re using it casually. We pulled out nearly 30 hours of battery life, using it occasionally all day to snap a few photos, browse the web, send e-mails and make an occasional phone call. (And yes, the GPS was turned on.) However, when we really hammered it with heavy internet use, media playback and the in-car navigation function and plenty of apps, we were done in just over five hours. It takes approximately forever (or three hours) to fully charge. We really dug the battery-use feature, which shows not only how much life you’re getting but also exactly how you are spending your power.

The backside camera did fantastic with night shots, so-so shooting into the sun, but in most other respects is more or less average. We were neither amazed nor turned off by it. The frontside camera is a toy. It takes mediocre snaps, that will make fun party pictures, but it’s not exactly built for precious memories. Video was likewise just OK; it’s good but not great.

Where it really shines, however, is in sharing that media. Take a photo or shoot a video, and sending it to YouTube or Picasa, or even Facebook or Dropbox, is a mere three taps away.

The display is great, but it’s not going to blow you away, nor would we describe it as beautiful. Pictures look fantastic, and text is crisp and readable. The screen is bright and colors were largely accurate. You aren’t going to want to hang it on your wall, or dive into it, but in terms of phone displays, it’s solid.

We were thrilled with reception. We had voice and data reception in numerous places in San Francisco where our phone is typically either wobbly, or has no signal. Whether this was the antenna, or T-Mobile’s coverage in San Francisco, we can’t say. But overall, it was a solid experience, and we certainly had better coverage in tough-to-cover spots (subway stations and tunnels, downtown between large buildings and among a sea of other users) than we normally do.

GPS reception was flawless when we had it, but it did have occasional trouble picking up a signal, such as in heavy cloud cover. This was as expected.

The real novelty in the hardware specs is the NFC (near field communication) antenna. Hold the phone near an object with an embedded NFC tag (like certain Google Places window displays) and the phone will recognize and import the tag. At some point, it will be able to transmit tags as well, letting you exchange them with other users. This should make for an interesting way to seamlessly exchange small bits of data. But for now, it’s mostly interesting in theory — you’ll need a lot of luck finding any NFC tags out in the wild.

All of that hardware is crammed into one good-looking phone. The most noticeable and immediate feature is the Contour Display — the parabolic glass in the front that curves slightly to meet your face. It’s a subtle, yet nice-looking feature. It feels substantial in your hand and provides a certainty when held to your face, yet is in no way distracting when you’re using the touchscreen. We loved it. One big nitpick? The audio jack is on the bottom. It’s off-putting.

But the real gravy here is the OS: The phone runs version 2.3 of Google’s Android operating system. Even better, it hasn’t been mucked up by a carrier or hardware manufacturer to add a skin or other enfeebling of the operating system. It’s just Andoid, with no add-ons or takeaways. We love this OS, and it reminds us why phone manufacturers and carriers should quit skinning up Android. Pure Android is Best Android.

And 2.3 is quite an improvement, if somewhat invisible at first. There are a lot of iterative interface enhancements that make it more usable. For example, green-lit indicators let you know what’s running at a glance, a yellow glow indicates you’ve gotten to the bottom of a list, and numerous other small changes make the phone feel instantly familiar. Word selection during text entry has been greatly improved with 2.3, and it’s now easier to edit text you’ve already entered with multitouch to select partial blocks of text. Text selection is for the first time natural, although still not graceful.

Application management is far better in 2.3. One longstanding issue we found with Android phones is that users can easily be confused trying to quit out of an application. (And it’s still confusing! But it’s better.) People end up with a phalanx of apps draining their battery and pinging away at them with notifications. This version of Android adds a dedicated “Manage Apps” option on the home menu. It essentially holds your hand all the way to the kill floor where you can switch off an app, or easily delete it altogether.

And then there are apps. Android apps aren’t nearly as slickly designed as their iOS counterparts, but they’re close. The major social media apps (Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare) were as charming as a debutante. The more sophisticated Android apps, like Layar, remain amazing.

But the cloud apps and internet services are where it’s at. Enter your e-mail address and password, and your Google contacts, calendars and, of course, e-mail all import nearly instantly. If you’re a Google Voice user, your calls and voicemails just start showing up on the new phone as if by magic.

It’s clear that Google’s cloud strategy is a winner. As soon as you enter your Google account information, you’ve got all of its app services—voice, Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger — quite literally at your fingertips. And cloud services mean more than your Google account. Thanks to Dropbox, Rdio and 1Password all my music, file storage and passwords were just there. The constant trickle of notifications, which don’t announce themselves as rudely or publicly as on an iOS device, gave the phone the feel of something that was simply embedded in the internet. A node on the digital highway.

Once again, overall this is an excellent phone. Certainly it’s running the best version of Android yet, implemented purely, and on first-rate hardware. The operating system could still be more user-friendly and intuitive, but we do not hesitate to recommend this phone.

See Also:

  • Google Debuts Android-Powered Nexus One ‘Superphone’
  • Google’s Sexy Nexus One Pushes Android to New Limits
  • 5 Lessons for Google From Nexus One’s Sluggish Start
  • First 4G Android Phone Feels Like the Future
  • Android ePad Tablet Reviewed. Verdict: Junk
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