Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
6/13/2011 9:59:52 AM
Sleek hardware and the latest Android software, as well as some fun extras
No removable storage or HD video recording capability
A new Android phone direct from Google is an event. Its first own-brand handset, the Nexus One, was an accomplished phone which never took off because it was hard to buy: by and large you had to go direct to Google. This prevented it from becoming the mass-market phone it deserved to be, and allowed HTC to steal a march by releasing its superior Desire. The Desire looked similar to the Nexus One, not least because both were manufactured by HTC.
So now we present the latest Google Nexus device, the Nexus S. This time Google has turned to Samsung to make its handset, and the styling and name nod towards Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S phone. Gone is the metallic sleeve of the Nexus One, replaced by the gloss plastic casing from the Galaxy S. It’s a less discreet, flashier-looking phone than the first Nexus but still has a strong styling inherited from the earlier Samsung handset – many felt the Galaxy S was the handsomest Android phone yet. Unlike the flat, sharp-edged iPhone 4, the Nexus S has curved, contoured edges including a bump in its nether regions which looks curious but oddly means the phone sits comfortably in the hand. Because the case is plastic, not metal, it’s particularly light compared with other high-end smartphones.It’s a good size: not much larger than the iPhone 4 but with a noticeably bigger four-inch screen – compared to Apple’s 3.5-incher – as the display makes up more of the front of the phone (though the smaller Retina Display on the iPhone is higher-resolution). Even so, the Nexus S is much more pocketable than the HTC Desire HD with its 4.3-inch display. The screen is an AMOLED display, so it’s super-bright, vivid and colourful, showing off the live wallpapers at which Android excels. This latest version – it’s 2.3 aka Gingerbread, and we’ll come on to that presently – includes one more animated background, called Microbes. Whichever wallpaper you choose the display is certainly eye-catching and appealing.
The front of the phone is entirely devoid of buttons – the four Android icons for Back, Menus, Search and Home sit in the same order as on the Nexus One but are backlit so they wink in and out of sight: they are invisible when the phone is off. Although it’s button-free, giving it a chic, minimalist effect, the front of the phone isn’t quite flat. The screen is concave, supposedly to fit your face all the more comfortably when you’re making calls. This doesn’t make a radical difference to how it feels but it’s neat enough. And maybe it’ll help prevent scratches if you put the phone down face first. Buttons are pretty scarce elsewhere on the Nexus S, too. There’s a volume rocker on the left edge and a power/wake button on the right. And that’s it. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always preferred power to be on the top, rather than three quarters up the side where it’s easy to brush with a finger. The top, it seems to me, is also the best place for the headphone socket. But here, that’s on the bottom edge. Maybe the top of the phone was too thin to hold the 3.5mm jack. It shouldn’t matter where it is, but there’s something weird about finding it at the bottom. In one of the few ways the design of the new phone is less attractive than the earlier model, the headphone jack is a separate piece of plastic rather than part of the rest of the case, which just isn’t as streamlined as the original Nexus.Press the power button and you’re greeted by a familiar screen – unchanged in the latest software – where you can swipe right to unlock or left to switch the phone in and out of vibrate mode. Once unlocked, the main screen is similar to Froyo, the previous iteration of Android and the one that almost every other recent phone is currently running. The only difference is that the tray of shortcuts common to every page (Phone, Applications and Browser) and the signal strength and Wi-Fi indicators up top now have some discreet colour in them. Oh, and the notification bar is now black, which looks good and suits AMOLED’s technology (where white uses more energy than black).The Power Control widget has also been restyled. This is the bar that lets you toggle Wi-Fi, GPS, synchronisation and Bluetooth on and off. It also enables you to change the screen brightness. It’s the same size but has gently tweaked icons.
While Motorola, Samsung and – most successfully – HTC have improved on Android’s basic spec with better icons, neater ways to navigate and so on, this phone is Android pure and simple, vanilla Gingerbread if you like. Which sounds quite tasty.And it does look good, though HTC needn’t pack up and go home just yet. Want an analogue clock on your home screen? You have just one option where HTC has a dozen to choose from. Mind you, there are over 800 clocks available to download from the Android Market, many of them free, so Nexus S owners still have choices.But there’s one little graphical extra that makes Gingerbread look cooler than cool. It’s mere eye candy but, oh boy, it’s the good stuff. It happens when you turn the display off, or when it times out. Instead of just turning the lights out, Gingerbread has a super-brief animation that snaps the screen into a white line across the centre which then disappears, like an early cathode ray telly turning off at closedown. Simple but spectacular, and enough fun to divert you for quite some time. The keyboard has been refreshed in the Gingerbread update, too. The keys are more widely spaced and the word prediction facility has been improved. Plus, if you touch a letter in the top row, which also shows numbers, you can swipe upwards to get directly to the number, which is handy. Copy and paste have also been improved, with simple-to-move cursors you can place at either end of the text you want to highlight. The system wasn’t bad before and let’s remember that the big phone software platform release of 2010, Windows Phone 7, is still waiting for any copying and pasting at all. Overall, though there are still elements in HTC’s skin that make it hard to beat, this is the first clean version of Android to really impress.
The hardware makes the most of this new version of Android. The 1GHz Hummingbird chip is speedy enough, and since Google promises Gingerbread is an efficient and faster version of Android, it’s no surprise that the Nexus S scoots along happily. There’s also a new option in the home screen menu to take you to power management, in case some pesky app is draining power unnecessarily.Although it’s a pretty impressive phone, there are a few curious anomalies like storage. There’s plenty of integrated memory – 16GB – but no microSD memory card slot. So once you fill the phone up with music or video, there’s nothing you can do to add stuff without clearing space first. Let’s be clear, every iPhone has been without any expansion capabilities, but the memory card slot was one of Android’s selling points over Apple’s flagship phone. And I suspect that the phone owners who actually switch memory cards or even have a spare card are most likely a tiny percentage. But it’s a feature that’s available on earlier Android phones which isn’t here. What next? Will Android move to sealed battery units like the iPhone or Nokia N8?The biggest problem with the absence of a memory slot is that there’s only the 16GB version available – if there were a 32GB Nexus S as well, maybe nobody would be concerned.
The camera on this phone is a decent, though not exceptional, five-megapixel model with flash, which is somewhat unusual for Android. More strikingly, there’s a front-facing VGA camera here, too. There are plenty of sophistications to taking photos, such as adjusting white balance, storing the GPS location, and choosing scene modes like Party and Candlelight as well as image resolution and special effects like sepia. Results are good, though there’s a strange omission: although you can shoot video, there’s no HD video option so it’s standard-definition quality only. Actually, the video doesn’t look bad, but it’s peculiar that HD video is missing given that it is so ubiquitous on other phones.
Other advances include NFC, that’s Near Field Communication – the sort of contactless technology used in Oyster cards on the London Underground, for instance. This would be cool if it meant you could use your phone to swipe in and out of the Tube, or your office, or make payments with it. But you can’t – not yet at least. Google is making an innovative stand putting it in the phone, but so far it’s of limited use.Other Gingerbread details include the next stage in internet tethering: you can use your Nexus S as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot so up to six people can connect to the internet through your phone’s 3G connection. And there’s internet calling built-in, so it’s easier to use the Skype app, for instance. Battery life is strong – noticeably better than on the Desire – though this is still a smartphone with a big screen, remember. Gingerbread is definitely a step forward, even if not a very big step. And the hardware is a neat but gentle improvement on the Samsung Galaxy S. If you don’t need the extra screen real estate offered by the HTC Desire HD, it’s hard to see an Android phone that matches this one.
The Nexus S is unequivocally the most advanced and attractive Android handset yet, regardless of curiosities like the absence of HD video and removable memory. And it runs on Android Gingerbread, which it shows off well. But other Android handsets are likely to be updated to this OS soon, so you may not want to buy a new phone just for this if it’s coming to your current Android handset in a month or two. But the Nexus S is a sleek, exciting phone with a speedy processor and slick operation that could ultimately prove hard to resist.