When Google pulled the plug on the acclaimed Nexus One, it was only getting out of the game of selling phones itself. The concept of a pure Android experience lives on in the Samsung Nexus S ($199 at Best Buy with a two-year T-Mobile contract), a smart phone that combines a head-turning curved display with Google's new Android 2.3 software. Codenamed Gingerbread, this OS packs plenty of enhancements, including a faster multitouch keyboard, improved cut and paste, and interface tweaks that add up to a more polished experience. Plus, the Nexus S has an NFC chip built in, which will let users instantly look up or exchange information with a tap. But is this enough to crown this handset the new king of Android phones?
At first glance, the Nexus S looks very similar to Samsung's Galaxy S phones, but when you pick it up you notice that it has a slightly curved shape. Samsung calls this a Contour Display, which is supposed to give the device a better feel in your hand and against your face. We didn't notice much of an ergonomic improvement, but we have to admit that's it's a nifty aesthetic touch.
Despite the fact that this black glossy phone is all plastic, the 4.5-ounce Nexus S feels solid. It sports a welcome ridge on the back side toward the bottom that makes the device easier to grip. Just beware of fingerprint smudges. A volume rocker lines the left side of the device, and the right side houses the power button. We would have preferred a camera launch/shutter button as well. Some might wish that the headphone jack were located on top, but we don't mind that it's on the bottom with the microUSB port.
Four capacitive buttons sit beneath the eye-popping, 4-inch Super AMOLED display (800 x 480 pixels). From right to left, there's Back, Menu, Search, and Home. While responsive, these buttons aren't easy to make out when you're outdoors. The display itself is just as brilliant and rich as the panels found on Galaxy S phones.
The Nexus S sports two cameras: A 5-megapixel shooter with LED flash sits on the back, while a front-facing VGA camera rests above the display to the right of the earpiece.
Android OS 2.3 and Interface
Google wants the world to know that it has paid great attention to detail with its new software, and it shows. For example, the modern-looking signal strength meter turns white when your Google account info isn't in sync and back to green when it does. When you get to the end of a menu or web page, you'll see a glowing orange bar that serves as a visual cue. And both the notification bar and dialer are now done up in a sleeker black, which saves battery life. We especially like how the screen zaps off like an old-school TV when you press the power button or the display times out.
On the more practical side, you can now manage applications more easily just by clicking the Menu button from the home screen. From there you can see what's running and stop any resource-hungry apps. If you want to drill deeper and see which apps are using the most power, the retooled battery use utility provides a neat visual readout with a graph and percentages.
Google provides a total of five home screens, which you can easily customize with widgets. We also like the new selection of live animated wallpapers, including the trippy and colorful Microbes. We'd like to see the ability to toggle the Wi-Fi, 3G, and other wireless connections right from the notification area, like you can with Galaxy S phones.
One of the best features of Android 2.3 is the new keyboard design. Although the letters themselves are smaller, the increased space between the keys and improved multitouch support allowed us to enter text faster and more accurately on the Nexus S than on most other Android phones. We found ourselves turning the phone sideways to use landscape mode less often, which is a testament to how good the typing experience is.
Google has also tweaked the suggested word area so that the options are easier to read and select. Plus, you can enter numbers and other special characters just by long pressing one of the keys in the top row and then sliding your finger to the desired choice. Same thing goes with the punctuation key.
Copy and Paste
Google has done a nice job revamping text selection within Android 2.3, but its implementation isn't consistent throughout the OS. In the web browser, pressing and holding on the screen launches an improved text selection tool with two markers you can easily drag. Clicking again copies the text to the clipboard. Too bad you can't select text using this method when reading an e-mail; you need to click Reply before the markers show up. In the Messaging app, the markers don't show up at all; you have to select the menu button and then hit Copy Message Text.
Touch your phone to a sticker outside a business and get info about the place instantly. Exchange your business card with someone else with a tap. And swipe your phone to pay at the register. These are just some of the scenarios the Near Field Communications chip inside the Nexus S can enable, but it will be a while before the ecosystem is in place. For instance, right now Google is distributing Recommended on Google stickers to businesses in Portland, Oregon as part of a trial, and it hopes more users will take advantage of its Hotpot service to rate places. The idea is that you'd get these tips and recommendations without having to look anything up in the browser.
To show off NFC's potential, Google shipped us a small poster with an embedded NFC transmitter. All we had to do was place the Nexus S close to the poster, and the device launched a YouTube video providing the backstory on the phone. A dedicated Tags app helps you organize things you've scanned.
Specs and Performance
Although the Nexus S has the same 1-GHz Hummingbird processor as Samsung's Galaxy S phones, the handset felt snappier. For example, opening the camera took just a little over a second, and we noticed little to no lag when switching between applications. The only exception was Angry Birds, though we blame the incessant ads.
When we ran various benchmarks, the Nexus S delivered above-average scores but didn't always beat the competition. In Linpack for Android, which measures CPU performance, the device turned in a score of 13.48, above the Samsung Fascinate (7.9) and Epic 4G (8), but behind the T-Mobile G2 (28.7) and myTouch 4G (36.5). Where the Nexus S pulled ahead of the field--though not by a lot--was the An3DBench graphics benchmark. The phone notched a score of 6,853, while no other device has cracked 6,700.
Over time, the Nexus S should improve on the gaming front as developers sink their teeth into new performance features in Android 2.3. These enhancements include better touch response, less app pauses, and updated video drivers. The Nexus S' built-in gyroscope will also be better integrated into games.
Users have 16MB of flash memory at their disposal, but you won't find a microSD card slot for expansion.
Web Browsing and Hotspot App
Other than the improved cut and paste functionality and welcome bars that appear when you reach the end or beginning of a page, the browsing experience on the Nexus S is similar to Android phones running an older flavor of the OS. In fact, this device is not as advanced as the myTouch 4G or T-Mobile G2 because it doesn't have HSPA+ data. In other words, it's not a "4G" device.
In our tests, the Nexus S downloaded mobile sites such as CNN.com (8 seconds) and ESPN.com (11 seconds) fairly quickly but took a lengthy 33 seconds to pull down the full version of NYTimes.
Where you really notice the speed delta is when you use the Nexus S as a portable hotspot. We saw download speeds on our ThinkPad T410s range from 200 to 500 Kbps, and upload speeds from 200 Kbps to 400 Kbps. The myTouch 4G is capable of speeds in excess of 2 Mbps.
It's also annoying that there isn't a dedicated mobile hotspot app, as is there is on most other Android phones with this feature. You have to dig into the wireless setting menu to turn it on and off.
If you've ever owned an Android phone, you'll appreciate that the Nexus S will automatically install all of the apps you downloaded previously. In addition, the Android Market now lets you check a box that enables automatic updates for apps, which is convenient.
Bundled Google Apps include Maps (with free spoken turn-by-turn directions), Voice Actions, Google Voice, Google Earth, and More. The Market stocks more than 100,000 apps, and all most our favorites--Pandora, TweetDeck, The Weather Channel--worked well.
Camera and Camcorder
After the lack of 4G, the Nexus S' biggest weakness is that it can't record 720p video. Instead, you're stuck at 720 x 480 pixels, which is odd considering that all the Galaxy S phones capture HD video. When we shot a clip outdoors, the color accuracy was fairly good, but we noticed serious choppiness.
The 5-megapixel camera took a decent landscape shot outdoors but had trouble keeping up with even slightly moving subjects, especially indoors. And while the flash works well, it only adds more time to processing each photo. Another drawback: The subtle camera setting buttons along the right edge of the screen are difficult to read outdoors.
A separate VGA front-facing camera is there to accommodate two-way calling services such as Qik--and presumably Google Talk, when that gets rolled out. However, we weren't impressed with the quality when we recorded ourselves with the camera app.
Music and Video
Google still lacks a true competitor to iTunes, so you'll have to rely on Amazon MP3, YouTube, Pandora, and others to get your entertainment fix. The good news is that the Nexus S supplies plenty of volume, and the Super AMOLED display's bright colors and wide viewing angles are tailor-made for watching video.
Call Quality and Battery Life
We made several calls using the Nexus S in New York City and it delivered clear call quality on both ends of the line. We didn't need to raise our voice to be heard by the other person, and she told us that the quality was close to that of a landline.
The phone's 1500mAh battery is rated to provide 6.7 hours of talk time on 3G. In our testing the Nexus S lasted over 12 hours on a charge of light to moderate usage, which included playing games, surfing the web, and checking e-mail and Twitter. You should be able to get through a full day before reaching for an outlet, but we'll update this review with the formal results of our battery rundown test.
When Google released the Nexus One, it was easily the best Android phone on the market and remained king of the hill for many months. Its successor is also on the bleeding edge when it comes to software, but the Nexus S' hardware is behind the curve. The lack of HSPA+/4G and 720p video recording are both pretty surprising for such a high-end handset. While Samsung and Google don't compensate enough for these drawbacks to make this phone an Editors' Choice winner, we really like the changes Android 2.3 brings to the table and especially what's coming with NFC. Whether you choose this handset over a more feature-packed device such as the similarly priced myTouch 4G really comes down to how much you desire an unadulterated Android experience.