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

Homescreens

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.

 
There are 41 comments

intheb0x says:

Fresh water or salt?

intheb0x says:

probably really yellow looking with saltwater at 6500k

Both. I use the 6500K HID's over a frag grow out tank that's not set up for now. My electric bill thanks me for it :p

intheb0x says:

wow, that pretty cool.

ive heard and seen some pics on some reef forums about using HIDS.

You were right about the yellow look, and if you don't go very slow moving them down (I start 3' above, then move down 4" a week) it will burn the heck out of everything alive, but once set frags and clams grow very fast using them.

Sorry guys, I'll stop the OT. :)

gravage says:

It's not just being FIRST to get the update. It's getting it MONTHS before any phone that has been molested by the manufacturers and carriers.

That's the big draw for me. I'm tired of waiting months to get new features on my phone just because the manufacturer wants to add their own spin and the carrier wants to add a bunch of bloatware I can't remove.

If this phone had AT&T bands, I'd already be rocking it.

JayPhill89 says:

Great review, I'm sticking with my captivate and waiting for the next big leap forward in tech.

I like seeing the detailed specs such as RAM -- 512 MB, with 346 MB available at boot. How did you determine that number?

adb into the phone, or install a terminal emulator, and run "vmstat" or "top". There are some GUI tools on the market that give all sorts of info if you would rather not use the terminal. Android System Info is a good one.

NYC Dude says:

I personally have the HTC Evo 4G myself and loving it. But I wouldn't consider the Nexus S. Reasons why

1. No HSPA+ deal breaker
2. No external storage
3. No HD recording
4. No notification light
5. T-mobile
6. Samsung. You could say the GPS works but after my experience with the EPIC and everyone else talking about the SGS series I don't know if it's reliable

That's just too much negatives. And people who want their system software up to date quickly. Know that they could root and install custom roms. Most people with a android phone with 2.2 isn't worried about Gingerbread. As a matter of fact I would go even further saying most people with android phones don't even know about Gingerbread.

noszero says:

When I first got my EVO I didn't get why people wanted a pure Google phone. Now I am rooted into one. Pure Google is the only way to defeat bloatware. Nice review.

Ytown says:

I tried one for a week. I had two issues, poor wifi and no HSPA+.

Dragon546 says:

I have Nexus S since the 27th personally is one of the best Android phone I have had the looks the speed. My wifi been running excellent no real issues with it. Hey thats my observations using this Phone. I had a DHD before that but sense drove me mad ended up CM for that, then had a Galaxy S love the Multimedia stuff on that. My only improvements would be to have the samsung video player or a working version of Vplayer and the Samsung Camera drivers

Googlett says:

Guess I'll continue to stick with my Nexus One for the time being!

brian1269 says:

I don't know, it sounds like my Captivate is just as good, even better in some departments (HSDPA, microSD, 720p). Now if my Captivate just had Froyo, and the GPS worked right, and it didn't have these horrible lags that cripple the entire phone, and, wait, never mind.

duckdive117 says:

With the home button being to the far right wouldn't you hit the home button and exit any app your in instead of hitting the search button and just being able to hit back and go right back what you were doing?

Am I the only one who thinks this phone is ugly? I just don't think it compares looks wise to any of the new htc phones.

moises1204 says:

yes you the only one that think this phone is ugly.

rippley05 says:

I love the idea of another "pure google" dev phone.. but then I found out it was made by Samsung this time and I knew right away that I'll never own this one! Hopefully next year they'll come back to HTC, hell even Motorola... but god not Samsung.

I feel like this phone would have been amazing maybe in March or something but not now. The standards have been raised and this phone has not met those standards. It lacks the 720p video and no notification light along with one of the big android features which is apply storage to an sd card.

This phone had a chance to be something amazing and it came up short. I feel as though my Incredible is a better phone than this if it was pure Google like the Nexus S.

This phone should have at least been equipped with HSPA+, an 8mp RF camera, an 5mp FF camera, and micro sd card support to start with.

bjs188 says:

Why on earth do you need a 5 MP front facing camera. We all know you aren't pretty enough to be seen in that much detail. And the data needed for 5 mp video chat would be radiculous it would be plagued by stutter or be only for wifi like Face time on iPhone

cmunic8r99 says:

I pawed one in Best Buy the day it came out, and it had Quadrant and Linpack installed. I ran both three or four times each and got this pretty consistently:

Quadrant: 830-ish
Linpack: sub-15

I was less than impressed.

weird, because the CPU tests alone (100% stock) will score higher than 900. And Quadrant standard 3 or 4 times in a row? Magic, because nobody else can do that.

mcp2009 says:

don't you mean 3 axis gyroscope

Tje phone looks slick. I would definitely get one if I had T-Mobile. The pure android experience would be good. The only thing is that it isn't better than some of the phones already on the market. Put Gingerbread on my Droid X and my phone blows it away.

cea1203 says:

Not the least bit impressed with this phone , No Thanks !! and on T Mobile NO THANKS !!!

bubbernino says:

i love this phone!... that's why i got a samsung epic...
just hoping they skip the froyo update and go right to gingerbread
cause..who's actually waiting for sprint to send froyo now...if you really want it, you have it by now!

TvTechGuru says:

This seems like an awesome phone! No doubt. But I can't seem to grasp why a Nexus phone hasn't been made with a CDMA 3G radio in it for Verizon?! Doesn't Google and the phone OEM realize they are limiting it's audience to only T-Mobile or AT&T? Or do they want it that way?

I could understand with the Nexus One, but now the 2nd Nexus phone is still only for T-Mobile or AT&T? Why?! Verizon is a bigger and more popular provider than T-Mobile for sure, no? It would just make sense, after all Verizon was the provider that the original Droid phone was launched on and Verizon continues to be the biggest network of Android phones. C'mon.

Because Verizon doesn't want one. They are only interested in selling phones that are full of their V-cast crap.

ARich91 says:

Looks like my samsung vibrant will get a nice performance boost with gingerbread and a decent filesystem fix.

romanriv says:

Can anyone tell me what that clock widget is? Curiosity is driving me mad as I cant find it :\

romanriv says:

nvm, just found its GB related.

tim242 says:

F#%k it! I deleted over half of my post and the damn filter was still hungry. There was a cdma n1. Since I can't explain without the filter eating it, maybe somebody else will be able to. Stock Android sucks. Htc phones are easy to hack and get timely updates. 6 MB of "bloat" is nothing to cry over.

tim242 says:

I spent 30 minutes trying to post something very simple. Fix the damn filter, or remove it. Our time is more valuable than this bs.

jeffreynew23 says:

Coming from a Nexus One, this phone is definitely an upgrade for me. The specs don't tell the whole story. I was worried about the build quality but it actually feels great. my fiance has the mytouch 4g and we are in an area in Maryaland that has HSPA+. I have done speedtest.net several times side by side and have gotten the same speeds. The screen on this phone is amazing and gaming with this device is totally different than on the N1.

Mariodroid says:

You never mention if it's worth to change our Nexus One with S.

I hope you do a comparison between the devices when One gets Gingerbread.

cesarb says:

What happened to comments before 1.1.11?

Nirvana328 says:

Hey Jerry, what was your experience with the wifi signal strength, and also how was the multitouch capabilities of the phone? Specifically I'm referring to if it can handle multitouch well, or it has issues like the Nexus One had with those multitouch testing apps. Thanks, great review otherwise.

Multitouch (5 points) is perfect.

At first I was worried about WiFi. It's not quite as weak as the Evo, but nowhere near as strong as the N1. Unless I'm really far from the router, it seems to be fine though. Chalk it up to the low power hardware they're using -- 15-20 feet of WiFi range is lost for better battery life? I'm all for it :)

Nirvana328 says:

Hey Jerry, what was your experience with the wifi signal strength, and also how was the multitouch capabilities of the phone? Specifically I'm referring to if it can handle multitouch well, or it has issues like the Nexus One had with those multitouch testing apps. Thanks, great review otherwise.

cj100570 says:

The Nexus S is a big disappointment. The only thing it has going for it is Gingerbread. NFC isn't fully baked and the curved glass is a gimmick. There's nothing this phone does that can't be done just as well on an EVO, Droid X, Incredible or similarly spec'd phone.

rimeone says:

Samsung makes my tv not my phone.

jjfitz0 says:

An Invicta Ocean Ghost, I see you are a man of style and sophistication!