The latest addition to Google’s Nexus superphone lineup is the Samsung Nexus S, and it’s the first Android handset to sport the Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS. It’s loaded with bells and whistles. Google’s Android 2.3 OS brings a refreshed user interface to the table, trimmed with new apps, new icons, and a snazzy new keyboard. Samsung endowed the Nexus S with a first-of-its-kind concave display and an NFC chip that’s capable of reading those new-fangled NFC tags that the folks over in Mountain View are starting to seed to businesses in the US. The Nexus S is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
But, the Nexus S has some big shoes to fill – the shoes left behind by the original Nexus One. It lacks certain key features that could be deal breakers for some, but makes up for it with an exclusive (for now) version of Android OS. Does the Nexus S do Google and Samsung proud as the heir to the Nexus throne? Read on to find out!
Google Nexus S
Available December 16th for $199 with new 2-year T-Mobile contract or $529 unlocked and contract-free
- 4.0-inch Concave Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen WVGA (800 x 480)
- 1 GHz Hummingbrid processor
- 5 Megapixel rear-facing camera with LED Flash
- Front-facing camera
- 480p video capture
- 16 GB of internal memory
- WiFi (B/G/N)
- Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS
- 3.5 mm headphone jack
- Beautifully sculpted concave face
- Light and sleek in the hand
- Big, bright Super AMOLED display
- Stock Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS with UI tweaks
- 4-inch display size hits the sweet spot
- 3G Hotspot feature enabled out of the box
- Front-facing camera
- Slim and slippery
- microSD card slot? What microSD card slot? Exactly
- No support for T-Mobile’s HSPA+
- 3G only on T-Mobile
- No 720p HD video capture/recording
- The lightweight composition can feel cheap in the hand
- No touch-to-focus autofocus
- No notification light
The Nexus S, like most of Samsung’s Android phone offerings, is something of a contradiction. On the one hand, its lightweight composite construction gives it a svelte and sexy feel. On the other hand, the heavy use of lightweight plastics can feel cheap and unlike the premium product that it is. It all depends on your perspective.
The internals are also something of a contradiction. The Nexus S is packed with a blazing 1GHz Hummingbird processor, a class-leading GPU for impressive 3D graphics, 3G data connection (on T-Mobile USA), WiFi (B/G/N), GPS (with compass), a 5-megapixel camera (with LED flash), Bluetooth, 3.5mm headphone jack, front-facing camera, and a 4-inch Super AMOLED display. Impressive, no? We think so too. But, the handset lacks the now-ubiquitous microSD card slot, support for T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 4G network, and a dedicated camera shutter button. On the one hand, it’s super powerful and you get some first-to-market features (NFC and Gingerbread). On the other hand, it’s like Samsung purposefully reigned in the Nexus S’s potential. Again, it all depends on your perspective.
The only physical buttons on the phone are the volume control buttons, the power button, and, well, that’s it. In keeping with the clean lines and sleek design aesthetic that defines the Nexus S, Samsung reduced the physical button clutter to a minimum. We like that – it makes for a solid handset that doesn’t creak.
The Android navigation keys are of the touch-sensitive variety and light up from underneath when tapped with a finger. The backlit, capacitive touch navigation buttons feel more refined than what we’d previously encountered on Samsung Android phones – they respond to touch immediate, with no lag. Of course, the lack of physical buttons also means the only keyboard you’ll get is the virtual, on-screen keyboard – a keyboard that has been updated in the new Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system. You’ll also be limited to using the on-screen camera shutter button, as the Nexus S eschews a physical camera shutter button in favor of the virtual variety.
The highlight of the Nexus S design aesthetic is the curved display. The Super AMOLED display is topped with a slab of glass that curves towards you. The upper and lower parts of the display glass are slightly convex, but it does not affect the actual Super AMOLED screen. The curvy display doesn’t really add any functional benefit, but it sure does look cool – in an elegant, understated sort of way.
The battery door pops off easily but stays put when you need it to. The battery door is curvy, not unlike the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, but also sports a “chin” that makes it more ergonomic for one-handed tasks. And, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S lineup of Android phones, the Nexus S has an open microUSB port. No sliding microUSB port cover here, folks. The philosophy with the Nexus S seems to be “clean, minimal, sleek.” We couldn’t be happier.
As for the display, the Nexus S makes use of the Samsung Super AMOLED display, which is really the only AMOLED display that’s readable in daylight. Most other AMOLED displays are too reflective and exhibit too much glare to work well in sunlight, but the Super AMOLED technology reduces reflections and glare enough so that the screen is decently usable in harsh lighting conditions. On top of the display, you’ll find a uniquely curved (concave) piece of glass. We’re not sure how the curved glass increases ergonomics or usability, but it sure does help the Nexus S look great.
Guts and Glory
Now, as far as the guts of the device are concerned, the Nexus S is clearly one of the top-performers in its class. With a 1GHz processor, 4-inch Super AMOLED display, 5-megapixel camera (with LED flash), 16GB onboard storage, class-leading GPU, 3G data connectivity, WiFi (B/G/N), Bluetooth, 3.5mm headphone jack, and NFC chip, the NS is no slouch in the features department.
From a performance standpoint, the Nexus S is fast and furious. But, it could be faster. To help prove that point, we ran some benchmarks on the NS. The Quadrant benchmark gives you an idea for overall system performance/speed. The Linpack benchmarks shows you how much data the processor can crunch. The Neocore benchmark tests the 3D capabilities of the GPU. Quadrant and Linpack benchmarks were each run three times, while Neocore was only run once (Neocore tends to return the same score for each run, so we thought it unnecessary to average its benchmark scores)
Quadrant (system benchmark)
The NS scored an average of 1,668 on Quadrant (across three trials). The highest score achieved was 1,813 and the lowest score was 1,581. In comparison, a Nexus One running Android 2.2 Froyo scores in the 1,300 range.
Linpack (processor benchmark)
Linpack showed consistent benchmarks scores for the Nexus S, which averaged 14.231 MFLOPS (mega floating point operations per second). This score shows that the 1GHz processor is capable of crunching 14.231 million floating point operations per second. In comparison, other Android phones powered by the 1GHz Snapdragon silicon consistently score over 30 MFLOPS.
Neocore (3D benchmark)
The Nexus S managed to crunch 3D graphics at an impressive 55.7 frames per second. Subsequent benchmark trials resulted in the exact same score (which is why you only see one benchmark screenshot below).
The downside is that a microSD card is not an option. The Nexus S has no microSD card slot to help expand its onboard storage capacity. Instead, you get the 16GB of onboard storage that Samsung put inside the handset. We’re not sure why — it could have been axed in favor of the NFC chip, or it could be Google’s play to encourage adoption of its soon-to-launch streaming music service — but the lack of a microSD card makes it that much more difficult to transport your music and videos from one phone to another. We have to assume that Google nixed the microSD card slot in order to push their streaming music service, which should debut in 2011.
The phone also lacks support for T-Mobile’s faster 4G network. It’s meant to be used with T-Mobile’s network, but the Nexus S lacks support for the newly-minted 4G HSPA+ data network. That means you’ll be limited to 3G-only data speeds on the Nexus S.
The camera is also reigned in a bit. It performs well in most conditions, but the lack of 720p HD video recording on the NS could be a point of contention with potential buyers. We don’t really feel that the lack of true HD video recording is a deal breaker — the NS records 480p video with high enough quality to satisfy most casual videographers — but it is certainly worth a mention. Especially since nearly every other high-end Android phone on market today is capable of HD video capture.
Also missing is a dedicated camera shutter button. It’s a niggling issue, but
Overall, the Nexus S hardware is good. It’s great, in fact. Just looking at the lines on the device affirms that Samsung has come a long way in their design chops since the days of the Behold. It’s almost like the South Korean smartphone maker took a few pages out of Apple’s playbook and applied them to the Nexus S. The use of lighter plastic components slightly detracts from the device’s in-hand feel. We would have like the hardware to emulate the Nexus One’s more premium in-hand feel (thanks to its aluminum unibody construction), but that’s also a subjective preference. What matters here is that the Nexus S hardware looks amazing.
If only the Nexus S had a microSD card slot… and 720p HD video recording… and a dedicated camera shutter button.
The Nexus S sports the latest and greatest software from Google. It’s (at the time of this writing) the only phone to ship from the factory with Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS. The new Gingerbread update brings an updated UI style and various tweaks to the Android platform that we’ve come to know and love.
With new color schemes, icons, and other UI tweaks, Gingerbread feels more like the cohesive mobile operating system that we knew Google was capable of producing. For the first time, Android almost feels like it was designed around a unified philosophy.
To start, the Gingerbread notifications bar has been refreshed. It’s now a black strip that runs across the top of your display. Gone is the white notification bar. The notifications bar is not really a “bar” anymore, but more like a “notifications area” that blends in seamlessly with your homescreen wallpaper. The notification icons and connectivity icons have been refreshed as well – they’re all colored green, just like the Android bot. The pull-down menu is also themed in darker hues, which makes the green-colored icons really stand out.
Everything else about the notification bar is the same. You still get all the same system updates (email, app updates, calendar reminders, etc.) that we’ve always seen in the notification bar. What we’d like to see is an integrated connectivity control panel in the notifications bar. Samsung tweaked their TouchWiz 3.0 UI (the custom Android skin used on the Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab devices) to include toggles for WiFi, 3G, Bluetooth, GPS, Orientation lock, and even display brightness controls. That would be a nice addition to stock Android.
Overall, the software — Android 2.3 Gingerbread, for those of you not paying attention — is impressive. We’d have liked to have seen a more significant UI refresh and more headlining features (Google streaming music), but Gingerbread is definitely a good update to Froyo.
Like the notifications bar, Android Gingerbread sports an updated homescreen. In keeping with the darker hues and green-on-black color scheme, the app tray and Phone and Browser soft buttons are now clad in green. It’s a rather minor change, but that’s what Gingerbread seems to be all about – small changes that help the OS feel more cohesive and natural.
You get five homescreen panes, with little white dots flanking the Phone and Browser soft buttons. These little dots let you now how many homescreen panes are on either side. For example, if you swipe all the way to the left-most pane, you’ll see four dots piled up on the right side of the screen. This feature has not changed from the last few previous version of Android.
One useful feature that deserves a mention is Android Gingerbread’s ability to switch between active apps on the fly. Simply tap-and-hold (also known as a “long press”) on the “Home” key and a “Recent” apps box will pop up on the screen. You can tap any of the apps that are currently running the background. Regardless of what app you’re currently using, you can pull up this window and quickly switch to another app. This is not a new feature in Gingerbread, but it’s handy enough to deserve a mention here.
The homescreen menu has also been tweaked. New to Gingerbread is the “Manage Apps” option that you’ll find by tapping the “Menu” navigation key from the homescreen. Prior to Gingerbread, you’d have to dig down into the menu to manage your installed and currently running apps. This new option makes it easier to see which apps are running, move apps to your SD card (which, in this case, is just the onboard storage – since the Nexus S has no microSD card slot), and even uninstall apps.
You’ll probably be getting nice and intimate with the onscreen keyboard, so you’ll be happy to hear that the Nexus S sports a new virtual keyboard, thanks to the Gingerbread UI. The darker, black and gray color scheme stays true to the rest of the user interface, but that’s just the beginning. Long press on the keys bearing ellipsis symbols (the “…” symbol) and you’ll find handy options menus. You can get quick access to settings, characters, and emoticons. You also get a dedicated “voice input” key that allows you to dictate text into any text field. It’s surprisingly accurate, but not always up to par on complex sentences.
The highlight of the new keyboard and text input system is the updated text editing capabilities bestowed upon Gingerbread. Editing text on previous versions of Android used to involve tapping your finger on the word to position the cursor. That method wasn’t very accurate, and the only way to reposition the cursor would be to tap your finger on the screen once more. With the new keyboard, you get a new text editing cursor that’s easy to drag easily reposition with your finger. You can highlight parts of words, or even highlight entire sentences with a long press on the cursor. Long press again to copy or cut that snippet of text. The new text editing and copy/paste functionality makes a huge difference.
Gingerbread comes with new apps as part of its stock package. You get the new Google Maps 5, which sports 3D buildings and offline mapping data. The ability to search maps without a data connection is a really big deal, and we’re happy to see it shipping as part of Gingerbread. The new Google Maps app also allows you to tilt and rotate the map with a two-finger gesture (drag your fingers up or down to tilt and pivot your fingers to rotate the map). As a bonus, you will be happy to here that Google Navigation will continue to operate without a data connection – even re-routing you on the fly.
Downloads are now managed through a dedicated “Downloads” app. No longer will you have to use a file manager to hunt down all the documents, pictures, podcasts, etc. that you downloaded to your phone. Once you start a download, you can simply fire up the Downloads app to manage your downloads. You can open files from within the app, as well as sort your downloaded files, with the option to delete them individually or in batches. This is one of those apps that we just can’t believe Google never thought of including in previous versions of Android OS.
Tags is another new app that handles all NFC-related matters. The NS has an NFC chip built in, which allows it to read NFC tags (hit the video below for a demo). When you bring the handset within proximity of an NFC tag, the phone will automatically fire up the Tags app and read the data on the NFC tag. That data might point you to a website for in-store promotions, it might link you to a YouTube video, it might even give you directions via Google Maps – the point is that NFC technology and the Tags app will allow you to interact with your environment more seamlessly than ever before. That is, as long as you have access to NFC tags.
Web Browsing, Multimedia, Camera
The browser is fully HTML-compatible. That means webpages load as they would on your desktop. Large pages will load in fullscreen view, not zoomed into a portion of the page. You can double-tap any part of the screen to zoom in on a bit of text or an image. You can also pinch-zoom, which is a multitouch gesture that Apple made popular on the iPhone.
And, because this is Android, you get full support for Adobe Flash 10.1. You can set the browser to always display Flash content, never display the content, or only load Flash content when you demand it (by tapping on Flash objects on a webpage). You’ll find this option in the browser “Enable plug-ins” settings option. We prefer to load Flash content “on-demand,” as that gives you the option to view rich content while still keeping battery life in check.
Music is served up by the stock Android music player. The default music player is basically unchanged from the last couple versions of Android OS. The UI is clean and easy to use, but it isn’t up to par with iOS. One of the most obviously lacking features is the ability to control your music playback without having to unlock the screen. Sure, you can control music volume while the screen is off, but if you want to check song titles or fast forward through a song, you’ll have to turn on your screen and swipe to unlock. With an iPhone, you need only turn double-tap on the “Home” button to fire up on-screen music controls (all without having to swipe to unlock the display).
That said, the Music app works quite well. The app even supports landscape mode (although we’re not sure how we’d benefit from a landscape music player). You can sync all your songs and playlists to your Nexus S with a piece of desktop software known as DoubleTwist, which makes it really simple to import all your existing music libraries to your new Android phone. Unfortunately, without a microSD card slot, transferring over a dozen gigabytes of music takes a long time – especially compared to how easy it is to simply swap microSD cards loaded with your music and other media.
Videos can be played via the Gallery app. The video player on Android is as simple as it gets. You tap a video in the Gallery app, and it’ll start playing on the screen. You can also fire up a video by navigating to it via the built-in File Manager app.
The video player sports simbple playback controls and a scrubbing bar (for skipping ahead or backwards). In fact, the video player UI is “simple” to a fault. It almost looks like it was designed as an afterthought. But, seeing as how it played most of our non-DRM videos without a hitch, we can’t really knock the video player for being too simple.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread supports the following audio/video formats:
WebM, H.263, H.264 (in 3GP or MP4 container), MPEG-4 SP, AMR, AMR-WB (in 3GP container), AAC, HE-AAC (in MP4 or 3GP container), MP3, MIDI, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP.
The thing about games on the Nexus S is that, regardless of how well the NS can handle 3D graphics, you’re still limited by the gaming titles in the Android Market. As it stands right now, Android Market has come a long way in terms of eye-catching 3D games the likes of which the iPhone and iPad have been playing with for quite some time. If you’re one of those casual “Angry Birds” type of gamer, then you’ll be more than happy with the games selection on the Market. Harder-core gamers will find lack of real 3D games somewhat disappointing. That said, those few 3D games that are available on Android Market work really really well on the Nexus S.
Thanks to Samsung’s Hummingbird GPU, 3D gaming on the NS seems to perform on par with what we’ve seen on the iPhone. For example, if you decide to download Need For Speed: Shift, you’ll discover that the Nexus S can throw out enough triangles at a high enough frame rate to please even the pickiest of gamers. The accelerometer controls aren’t as smooth as we’ve experienced on similar iPhone games, but it’s not clear if this is due to hardware or software issues.
In the end, the Nexus S is a damn fine gaming handset. The Android Market, on the other hand, may not live up to your gaming expectations.
The camera app on the Nexus S is simple and easy to use. The menu options have been updated to streamline the UI and clear up as much room for the viewfinder as possible. Most settings are easily accessible with just a couple taps on the viewfinder, which is a nice departure from having to scroll through a Settings menu. Unfortunately, the camera does not record 720p HD video and lacks the touch-to-focus feature that we’ve come to know and love on many other Android phones.
You’ll find quick-access settings for flash, white balance, geo-location, front/back camera selection, and more settings right on the viewfinder. Just tap the little icon that represents the setting you want to change and with another tap, you’re done configuring the camera. It’s that simple. The additional settings icon contains options for autofocus mode, exposure, scene mode, resolution, picture quality, color effects, and restore defaults. You can basically configure your camera without ever having to tap the “Menu” navigation key.
As for video capture, the Nexus S camcorder works well. As long as you’re expecting higher than 480p resolution, the videos are really good quality. The main viewfinder window offers up a toggle to switch between camera and camcorder/video recording modes. There’s also a Preview window that shows you your most recent picture – tap this to go into gallery mode. Finally, you can toggle between the front and rear-facing camera via the settings icons mentioned above. These are fairly self-explanatory, so we’ll leave it at that.
Overall, the camera is decent. We wish the camera had an HDR feature, like that found on the iPhone, but it’s not a huge loss. We’re also not going to dwell on the fact that a panorama mode is not offered. What’s more worrying is that the Nexus S can’t record video in 720p resolution – the bare minimum for what can be considered “HD” resolution. You’re not going to get class-leading pictures out of the Nexus S, but it’ll easily keep pace with most high-end cameraphones on market today.
Here are some image samples:
Call Quality and Battery Life
The Nexus S is made for T-Mobile USA’s network. But, since it’s unlocked, you can really use the Nexus S on any GSM carrier in the world. The only caveat being that you’ll only get full 3G data connectivity on a network that uses the 1700MHz band for 3G, as T-Mobile does. Our Nexus S is tied to T-Mobile, so call quality details will only apply to the Big Magenta network.
Calls come in clearly, but we did notice some call quality degradation inside big buildings. And, because T-Mobile uses higher-frequency spectrum, we noticed significant signal loss inside big buildings. That’s not surprising, because higher frequency radio waves have a tougher time penetrating solid objects – like cement and steel. Them’s the breaks, folks.
Overall, call quality was decent. Aside from in-building call quality snafus, T-Mobile delivered a mostly reliable calling experience.
Battery life, is likewise good, considering this superphone is powered by a 1GHz processor, has a huge 4-inch display, and is capable of continually ferrying wireless data to and fro. You’ll get one full day of fairly heavy use, which is more than we can say for other Android superphones with large displays (ahem, EVO, Droid X, we’re looking at you). You might even get away with not charging the Nexus S for a day and a half or two days, depending on how many apps you have running and how much data you’re pulling down in the background.
We setup the NS with three push email accounts, used NFC incessantly (thanks to the Bling tag that we put on the back of the Nexus S), browsed the web for at least an hour total, sent out a couple dozen emails, and had a few phone conversations lasting less than 5 minutes each. At the end of the day, the Nexus S still had some juice left – albeit the battery indicator showed that a recharge was desperately needed.
The Nexus S seemed to fair a bit better than previous Android phones that we’ve tested. That said, your own usage habits are going to drastically affect how much life you get out of a single charge. If you want multi-day battery life, get a feature phone, or a BlackBerry – but since you’re reading this review, it’s likely that neither of those are viable options for you.
Does the Nexus S live up to the “Nexus” name?
There’s no doubt that the Nexus S is one of the best Android phones you could hope to get your hands on right now. With a 1GHz processor, blazing graphics performance, a big Super AMOLED display, integrated NFC technology, and the latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS, the Google Nexus S is almost in a class by itself. And, rightly so, seeing as how the NS is the only handset available today that sports the new Gingerbread version of Android OS.
But, we have to say that it’s “almost” in a class by itself because there are a few critical features that are missing from this new Android flagship phone. Given that microSD card slots are nearly ubiquitous on most other smartphones, this is a glaring omission.
Another missing feature is support for T-Mobile’s newer HSPA+ “4G” network. Seeing as how the NS can only get 3D data on T-Mobile’s network, the lack of HSPA+ data connectivity is a bit of a disappointment.
The handset is also missing HD video recording. That may not be a deal killer, in fact we could actually care less, but we know that is going to be an important feature to some of you out there. And, really, we’d be remiss if we were to dub this handset the “best of the best” when it lacks features that other Android phones have been playing with throughout the 2010 calendar year.
Make no mistake, this phone is the latest and greatest. While the rest of the world is only just starting to talk about NFC technology, the Nexus S is already getting jiggy with NFC tags left and right. And, with the curved glass display and sleek, minimalist styling, the Nexus S proves that it’s got just as much good looks as it does brains. Lightweight plastic aside, the Nexus S is one of the most pleasing Android phones to hold in your hand. It’s also the best Android phone that Samsung has ever made.
The verdict? The Nexus S does indeed live up to the “Nexus” name. We just wish it had more of that “revolutionary” feel that the Nexus One had, but the NS is good enough to stand on its own as the successor to the original N1.