Google's latest developer phone brings Android 2.3 Gingerbread and new hardware, but is it the right choice for the average consumer?

Nexus S review shot

One of the biggest gripes many of us have about Android is the way manufacturers and carriers change the software.  Whether it's an OEM skin in place of the stock launcher and desktop, or value added extras like Sprint TV or V-cast, or even the removal of core Google services like search and maps -- the first thing many new phone owners want to do it remove the "bloatware."  Enter the "Pure Google" phones.  The name Nexus gets us plenty excited because we know we're in for a pure Google experience, and the Samsung Nexus S is no different.

But is it a good choice for the average Joe?  Join us after the break, and follow along as we have a look at the latest additive-free Android phone.

The best place to start is the beginning.  SPE Editor-in-Chief Dieter Bohn gives us a great first look at the device, complete with a nice video showing it off.

YouTube link for mobile viewing

If you're thinking that the T-Mobile Vibrant and Nexus One got together and had a love-child, you're mostly right.  There are some differences of course, but anyone familiar with a modern Android phone would be able to pick this one up and feel right at home.  Let's jump right in and dissect the Crespo (that's the device code name for the Nexus S, and it means "frizzy" or "curly" in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish) and see what we end up with.

Nexus S -- full shot front

The hardware

The shell of the phone screams Samsung, and that's one of my biggest gripes about the Nexus S.  If you love shiny, hard plastic, you'll disagree.  There's nothing inherently wrong with the materials, but they lack the sophistication and little touches that set other Android phones apart.  You'll find no soft-touch coating, or textured surfaces anywhere.  In fact the only thing you can feel while using it are the places where "Google" and SAMSUNG" have been screen printed on the surface of the battery cover.  As seen in the video, the power button is on the right side of the device, and has been enhanced a bit from the Galaxy S line -- it either has a slightly different placement or extends a bit more.  In either case, it makes it easier to find and operate, so that's a plus.

On the left side is the volume rocker switch, and it, too, has a small change that makes it a little easier to operate while your hand is in its natural position holding the phone.  On the bottom, is the microUSB port, the microphone, and a 3.5 mm headphone jack.  Your four buttons are capacitive, out of order, and disappear when the screen dims.  I think this is done as revenge on tech bloggers.  This layout works, having the search button on the far right leads to search popping up every time you reach across the phone (ask an Evo 4G owner), so everyone needs to copy it from this point forward.  And while they're at it, they can silkscreen an much better outline of each. 

The most noticeable thing is of course the curved screen.  We learned that the actual screen and digitizer is flat, and only the glass surface is curved, but that doesn't seem to matter.  It's very responsive, and while the curve is subtle, when combined with the reverse chin it makes the Nexus S feel more natural while using it as a phone.  Seriously, you can tell the difference, and it's a good thing.

Nexus S volume switch  Nexus S power button

USB port and headphone jack  reverse chin

The screen itself is a Super AMOLED 4-inch display, and as mentioned it's under a piece of curved glass.  I was worried how this would affect viewing the display in bright light, and I'm still not convinced it's a good design.  I'll let you decide for yourself, here's a snap of the Android Central  homepage, under 6,000 watts of 6500K color temperature Metal Halide lighting (I'm an aquarium nut, and happen to have that sort of thing laying around).  This is a very close representation of ultra-bright sunlight, and serves the purpose quite well.

sunlight screen example

Yes, it's pretty washed out, but this is a worst-case scenario.  You don't want to see a regular AMOLED screen under these conditions, trust me.  At full brightness, it's readable, but I feel not quite as readable as the screen on a Fascinate or Captivate that isn't curved.  It's subtle, and something you'll have to look at in person -- but I feel like I have to mention it, even if it's all in my head.  The rest of the internals are as follows:

  • CPU -- Hummingbird Cortex A8, ARM v7 (rev2) clocked on a sliding scale between 100.0 MHz and 1000.0 MHz
  • GPU -- Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX 540, with full support for OpenGL ES 2.0
  • RAM -- 512 MB, with 346 MB available at boot
  • Internal storage -- 1007.89 MB available for applications, 13.31 GB available from the 16 GB SanDisk NAND flash memory
  • Five axis gyroscopic sensor, accelerometer, and digital compass
  • Wireless b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, GPS and A-GPS
  • Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
  • Quad-band (850, 900, 1800, 1900) GSM, and Tri-band HSPA (900, 2100, 1700) radios
  • 3.7 volt 1500 mAh battery, in a new small form factor
  • 5 MP rear camera with LED flash, and 640x480 front facing camera, sharing the same daughterboard and connector

5 MP camera  Front facing camera

insides  battery

Rounding out the hardware is the NFC (near-field communication) sensor.  It's built into the battery cover and connects via a set of spring contacts and copper points while the door is on and closed correctly.  While it's not very useful as of yet, we hear it's Big in Japan (sorry, I had to) and hopefully it takes off.  We demoed it a little bit, and you can check that out right here.  I'll also include the video below.

NFC sensor  NFC contacts


YouTube link for mobile viewing

There's no way we could let this go on without a side by side look at the Nexus S and the Nexus One. And a the last shot in this series shows the size, as compared to the Nexus One, Evo 4G, and CDMA Hero.

end shots of Nexus S and Nexus One  side view, Nexus S and Nexus One

back view, Nexus One, Nexus S  Line up -- Evo 4G, Nexus S, Nexus One, CDMA Hero

The last shot shows something (albeit a very nitpicky something) I'm loving about the Nexus S -- the light sensor works much better.  Maybe this is software, but all four of those phones in the picture have one, and only the Nexus S performs correctly.  Toggle those superbright lights I used earlier above off in a still very bright room, and the Nexus S barely gets brighter, while the others get way too bright.  Works correctly in the dark as well.  This has to contribute to the great (in Android terms) battery life I'm seeing from the phone.  Do I have to charge it every night?  Yes, but I'm not worried that it won't make it to bedtime -- and I've been using the hell out of it. 

The GPS is fine.  I know everyone had concerns, but the chip and design has changed, and even the software is different.  It will lock reasonably fast, and stayed steady whenever it went for a ride with me, except for the same area all phone GPS seems to have trouble with -- we call that a "hollow" around here, and everything wireless hates them.  All that is missing is a good car dock.

Call quality is surprisingly good.  One friend even asked if I had gotten a new phone again, because things were noticeably better than my old Hero.  Time to port that number over to T-Mobile, and retire the old gal.  There's also the new SIP calling feature that comes with Gingerbread.  While it has some issues to work out, mainly in the user settings department deciding when it should be used and the initial setup, it works really well for a version one attempt.  Here's a quick demo, and again, the video is reposted below.

YouTube link for mobile viewing

It's a nice feature to have, already works fairly well, and isn't going to be specific to the Nexus S.  It will come with Gingerbread, and unless your carrier strips it out of the OS, you'll see it on your phone then.

What we didn't like about the hardware

Lack of a notification light -- it's inexcusable to release any phone without one.  Even if you don't depend on it, many other users do, and should be provided one.  Software solutions just aren't the same, no matter how well they are done.

No external storage -- Yes, streaming from the cloud is the future, and Google is all about the cloud, but not including a swapable microSD card seems like a step backward.  The boost in speed that comes with having your apps store data on the internal storage instead of an SD card is nice (Need for Speed Shift is phenomenal on this thing), and 16 GB is probably more than enough for the average user. But don't tout a feature (moving apps to the SD card was officially added in Android 2.2. Froyo), then take it away with a hardware change.

No 4G -- The Nexus S supports T-Mobile's HSPA data speeds up to 7 Mb/s.  That's fast, but wouldn't support for 14.4 Mb/s be better?  I'll likely never see those speeds in my neck of the woods, but lots of other people do, and would be more interested.  Nobody is really sure why it was done, but I imagine there had to be a reason, it's too big to be an accident.

No trackball or optical pad -- OK, this one's pretty subjective, and with the new keyboard that comes with Gingerbread, maybe even unneeded.  But I wish it had one, because they are pretty handy if you're used to having one.

The camera -- Yes, 720p video recording would be nice, and with the last generation of phones supporting it, we really expected it.  Maybe we will see that in an update, maybe not, but it's not the only issue here.  Stills come out OK, as long as you have enough light and hold the phone steady.

The software for the camera is pretty basic, not even offering any sort of digital zoom function.  It does have a macro setting, which is nice to see in the stock camera software -- it's a third party addition we've seen and used before and it works well.  Then there's the camcorder.  It only saves in .3gp format -- strike one.  It's jittery, both in the video department and audio department -- strike two.  The "flash mode" has no auto setting, it's either on or off, so you're forced to guess if you'll need it before you shoot -- strike three.  Don't buy the Nexus S thinking you'll be replacing any sort of camera with it.

Christmas decor  Watercolor

Coffee  macro

Click for full size raw images

YouTube link for mobile viewing

The Software


The Nexus S is the first (and only, so far) phone to have Gingerbread, unless you've put it on yourself.  This is a pretty big deal for some folks, as Android users are known as update junkies.  We need our fix, and the Nexus S delivers in this department. While Gingerbread didn't bring the monster UI overhaul many of us wanted and were expecting, there are some welcome changes.

After using Gingerbread on the Nexus S for about a week, and letting my other phones sit and cry for attention, my favorite feature of the phone is the new keyboard.  At first, it was a difficult change coming from SwiftKey and it's awesome text prediction voodoo, but I forced myself to use it, and it didn't take long to grow very accustomed to it.  We looked over the keyboard here, and again, I'll repost the video below.


YouTube link for mobile viewing

We've seen some of these features implemented in other third party keyboards, both OEM and from enterprising developers, but Google seems to have done it all a bit better.  The new keyboard is accurate, fast, and user friendly.  I can't wait to see some of the BlindType features added in the future, but even without them Android now has one of the best on-screen keyboards available.

There are a lot of behind the curtain features in Gingerbread, and we're going through them and documenting them all.  But the visual changes matter, too.  Little touches like bouncy menus that flash when you've reached the end, or crisp high resolution icons in menus -- these things are sorely needed in stock Android.

menu flash  menu shade

Menu  app manager

Notice the quick way to get to the app manager via the home screen menu.  With this, and the big speed increase the app manager itself received, I never want to hear the words Task Killer again.

Another nice visual is the way the network icons change color to show your status.  Your WiFi, Signal, and 3G status bar icons are green when connected to Skynet Google and gray when they aren't.  Having a problem getting the Android Market to load?  Make sure the icons aren't gray.  These small touches really add to the user experience.

Not connected to Google  Connected

Because this is pure Google, there is no bloatware.  When you set your Nexus S up, you'll have to hit the Android Market or other third-party software repo to get the things you need.  This is what everyone has been asking for, but I wouldn't have complained if a few handy applications like Google Reader, Listen, or Goggles had been included.  Luckily, it only takes a few minutes to fill up the empty app drawer -- which has the same 3D "Rolodex effect" we saw on the Nexus One, but running on better hardware and a faster OS makes you fall in love with it all over again.

About phone  App Drawer

Plain and simple -- if you've used any Android phone, you'll dive right into the Nexus S and set it up just how you like it in no time.  It's the perfect blank canvas.

Hackability and geek factor

Nexus S bootloader

Hacking the Nexus S, just like the Nexus One, couldn't be easier.  fastboot oem unlock (one of my favorite sayings!) is the command to unlock the bootloader, then you do whatever you like.  Whatever. You. Like.  It's the kind of freedom that handset manufacturers and carriers have taken away from us, and I'm relieved to see it again.  Strangely enough, you can lock things back up with the fastboot oem lock command.  I'm pretty curious why this was done, as it seem to remove all traces that it was ever unlocked.  Hopefully people won't abuse this and attempt warranty service for hardware they have fried using inappropriate software on it.  With great power, comes great responsibility.

In the customization "scene," most people that can and will release modifications for the Nexus S are still busy trying to get the much improved software on the Galaxy S series of phones.  With AOSP code available that drops right on the Nexus S after building, it's the perfect chance to do-it-yourself.  Trust me, the minute this review is finished I'm wiping and flashing :)

But even stock the Nexus S is no slouch -- check the benchmarks.

YouTube link for mobile viewing

As mentioned in the video, everyone's favorite benchmarking app Quadrant isn't quite ready for Gingerbread.  That doesn't mean you can't get it to run sometimes, and here's an example while I was playing around with the ext4 mount options.  Google uses a very safe method to mount things, and if you're a bit adventurous you can boost performance, and it's an actual performance boost not just an inflated I/O score.  The most important thing to see is the score for the CPU.  It appears that Android can finally use more of the Hummingbird's features and it gets a big boost from Gingerbread.

Nexus S Quadrant

With a proper overclocked and undervolted kernel, this thing is going to scream.

The wrapup

I think the Nexus S is the best Android device made to date.  It's faster than any other phone available, and I've tried them side by side.  When you take Samsung's excellent Hummingbird system-on-a-chip and the very nice Super AMOLED screen, then build the rest of the hardware, firmware, and OS to Google's specs you have the phone many of us have been waiting for.  The advantages over the Galaxy S line because of these changes really show themselves if you're not into hacking your phone to "fix" things. 

But what I want in a phone isn't what most want in a phone.  If you're not a developer, or have no interest in mucking around with code or kernels, this phone's probably not for you -- there are better choices on T-Mobile.  You'll need to weigh the disadvantages like the camera and lack of external storage or 4G against the openness that comes with a Google-phone.  Being the first to get the next update is nice, but it isn't everything.