Google Nexus S 4 Stars

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When Google launches a new Android phone, it’s a big deal. The first Google phone was the Nexus One, but it never really made it because it was hard to come by, as you had to buy it direct from Google. So, it never was the mass-market success it should have been and HTC managed to edge ahead in the market with its more desirable Desire. In fact the Desire and the Nexus One both looked pretty similar, unsurprising as they were both made by HTC.

Looking good

Back to the present however and here’s Google’s latest Nexus handset, the Nexus S. This time around, Google has enlisted Samsung to make its phone, which is apparent from both its design and name, which owe much to the Samsung Galaxy S. The first Nexus One boasted a metallic casing, but the Galaxy S is finished in glossy plastic.

The Galaxy S is not as flamboyant as the first Nexus, but it still features strong styling – the Galaxy S was lauded as the best-looking Android phone to ever come onto the market. The Nexus S has curved and contours – unlike the iPhone 4 – and has a rather strange bump at the bottom, which actually allows for the phone to sit in the hand comfortably. And its plastic (not metal) chassis, means it’s a lightweight compared with other high-end devices.

The Nexus S is a decent size – it’s not much bigger than the iPhone 4 but still manages to boast a 4in display (Apple’s phone has a 3.5in screen) – thanks to the fact that the screen takes up more of the front of the device (note that the iPhone’s display has a higher resolution). The display is of the AMOLED variety, which means it is colourful and bright and shows off Android’s live wallpapers at their best. The phone also sports the latest version of Android – Gingerbread – which has the benefit of an animated background called Microbes which is particularly well suited to the display.

Back to basics

There are no buttons on the front of the device – the four Android icons (home, search, back and menu) appear in the same order as they do on the Nexus One and are also backlit, which means they blink on and off – and you can’t see them when the handset is switched off. It may be free of buttons, but the device isn’t completely flat on the front.

In fact, the display is actually concave, which is apparently to make it fit your face when making phone calls. We didn’t feel it made that much difference, but it’s a neat feature nonetheless. And it may have the added benefit of avoiding scratching the screen if you place it front side down.

In fact elsewhere on the device you’ll be hard-pushed to find buttons either. The left edge has a volume rocker and the right side a power/wake button. And that, as they say, is that. We’d have rather seen the power button in the more traditional location on the top of the device, as sitting three-quarters down the side means that it is easy to nudge with a finger. We also like to see the headphone jack on the top of the device, but on the Nexus S it is placed on the bottom edge, which we find a bit strange. We’re also a bit disappointed that the jack is not part of the case as it was on the original Nexus, but is instead a separate piece of plastic.

Turn on the handset and you’ll see a familiar screen – it has remained unchanged since the last incarnation of Android. Swipe left to turn the vibrate mode off or on, and right to unlock it. The main screen is pretty similar to that of Froyo, which is the version of Android most other phones are sporting. What is different is the tray of shortcuts that sits on each page (for browser, apps and phone) and the notification bar, which is now black and works well with the AMOLED technology (apparently white uses more energy than black on AMOLED screens).

You’ll also see the Power control (the bar that allows you to switch between Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS and alter the brightness of the display) is different. It has been altered slightly athough it remains the same size.

Android OS

Samsung, Motorola and most notably HTC have all managed to tweak Android to offer better navigation, improved icons and so on, but the Nexus S still sports an unadulterated version of Gingerbread.

And it does still impress, although HTC has done a particularly good job in customising it. For instance, HTC handsets allows you to choose from a dozen analogue clocks for the home screen, whereas the vanilla Gingerbread offers up just one. Having said that, there are more than 800 different clocks on offer from Android Market, so there’s plenty for Nexus S owners to opt for if they so wish.

However, one really nifty little extra that Gingerbread serves up is what happens when you turn off the screen. A quick little animation sees a white line snap across the middle of the display, rather like those TV sets of old. It’s simple but hugely effective and is good fun.

The keyboard gets a refresh too – you’ll find the keys have more space between them and the word prediction has been improved as well. Try touching a letter in the top row (whose keys also sport numbers) and you’re able to swipe up to input a number, which is a nifty little addition.

Also on the improved list is copy and past – easy-to-use cursors can be put at each end of the copy you want to highlight. The original system certainly wasn’t hard to use, and bear in mind that Windows Phone 7 doesn’t even sport this facility yet.

While HTC has made an Android skin that is difficult to improve upon, we were really impressed by this unadulterated version of Gingerbread.


Memory and speed

The hardware also works really well with Gingerbread. Under the bonnet is a 1GHz Hummingbird chip, which, combined with the speedier and more efficient Gingerbread, means that the Nexus S performs well. On the home screen menu you’ll also find a power management option, which is useful if one of your running apps is a power drainer.

While we were pretty impressed with the Nexus S, there are a few oddities. For instance, there’s no microSD memory card slot, although there is 16GB of onboard memory. It means that if you fill it up with video or music, you’ll have to delete some content before you continue. Having said that, the iPhone has no allowances for expansion, but this facility is what sets Android apart from the Apple offering. And while many phone users probably never use the facility for swapping cards, it seems strange that it isn’t on offer on the Nexus S. What will we see next? Android handsets with sealed battery units like those in the Nokia N8 or iPhone?

One of the biggest bugbears is that as well as having no memory upgrade options, there is no 32GB version of the Nexus S, just the 16GB version.

Snapper

The snapper is decent enough – it’s a five-megapixel version with flash – plus there’s a front-facing VGA snapper as well. There’s plenty of control on offer, such as GPS location, white balance and scene modes such as Candlelight and Party as well as the chance to change image resolution and add special effects such as sepia. We were impressed with the result too – although disappointed that there’s no option for HD video recording. Having said that, the video looks pretty good – it just seems strange when most phones in this price range have HD.

Android Gingerbread

New features include NFC (Near Field Communication). Like the Oyster Card used on the London Underground, this is a form of contactless technology – eventually you’ll be able to use this on a phone to use it to get on the Tube, make payments – even get in and out of the office – but until that is available it has few real-world uses.

Another new feature is internet tethering: which lets you use your handset as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot for up to six people - who can connect to the net through the Nexus S’s 3G connection. You’ll also see that internet calling is built-in, which makes it simpler to use the Skype app, for instance. Battery life is decent too – longer than on the Desire – however, a smartphone with a large display will never be low on power usage.

Gingerbread is a move in the right direction for Google, even if it is not a huge one. And the hardware is a small step up from the Samsung Galaxy S. If you’re not in desperate need of the larger screen of the HTC Desire HD, you’d be hard-pushed to find an Android handset that is equal to the Nexus S.

The verdict

The Nexus S is most definitely the best looking and most advanced Android phone to date, despite the strange omission of HD video recording and the facility to expand the memory. And it does a good job of showing off Android Gingerbread to its best advantage. However, as other Android phones will get the benefit of Gingerbread soon, you might want to hang fire if you already have an Android smartphone. However, the Nexus S is a stylish handset with a slick user experience and powerful processor, which may be hard to resist.

Pros:
Stylish hardware and the latest Android OS, plus some fun added extras.
Cons:
A lack of removable storage and no facility for HD video recording.
Rating:
  • Look and Feel 4 Stars
  • Ease of use 4 Stars
  • Features 4 Stars
  • Performance 5 Stars
  • Battery life 4 Stars

Final verdict: 4 Stars

Review by Mobile Choice