What's hot: First Android phone with Gingerbread OS 2.3, pure Google experience, lovely hardware and good speed.
What's not: Media players are dull, hardware doesn't take a huge step up from Samsung Galaxy S Android smartphones.
Reviewed December 18, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Update, May 2011: read our review of the Nexus S 4G on Sprint.
Google started the Nexus unlocked Android superphone phenomenon in early January 2010. The Nexus One, made by HTC, was designed to showcase Android on very high end hardware at a time when most carriers were offering middle of the road devices. Google also intended the Nexus One as a platform where developers and enthusiasts could get the latest OS without waiting for carrier certifications and the delays those cause. Lastly, Google sold the Nexus direct to consumers and developers on the web-- the phone was unlocked and you couldn't get it at a carrier's store or from other retailers. That last part didn't work so well in the US where customers expect contract discounts (though those were available in a limited way for the first Nexus One variant on T-Mobile) and support from the carrier and manufacturer. So Google gave up on direct sales and is offering their follow-up model, the Nexus S, via Best Buy. In my experience, given the lackluster support Google provided, that's a good thing. The Nexus S is sold unlocked (regardless of whether you buy it with or without contract) but it works best on T-Mobile in the US and abroad since the phone has T-Mobile's AWS 3G bands and 2100MHz for Europe.
The Samsung Nexus S sells for $199 with a 2 year contract and $529 with no contract-- the same pricing as the Nexus One when it came out. It easily sits in the Android superphone category, but it doesn't offer much hardware advancement over the Samsung Galaxy S family of phones (Samsung Vibrant on T-Mobile, Samsung Captivate on AT&T and Samsung Fascinate on Verizon). The Nexus S is clearly derived from the Galaxy S and it features the same 1GHz Hummingbird CPU with POWERVR graphics chip, 4" Super AMOLED display, 5 megapixel camera and HSDPA 7.2Mbps 3G cellular radio. Honestly, that's pretty killer hardware and we're not sure the world desperately needs a dual core Tegra 2 CPU or more megapixels for the camera sensor unless the sensor itself is also of higher quality.
So what's "better"? The phone runs Google's Android OS 2.3, aka Gingerbread. It's the first phone to ship with Gingerbread, and we probably won't see another phone selling with that OS for a few months. Until the Nexus S, most folks were busy wondering when they'd get their Froyo 2.2 OS update for their US Samsung Galaxy S variant and other phones. Now that seems old school, and that's how things go with Android: several models ship with an older OS and we all play the waiting game. Gingerbread isn't an earth-shattering upgrade from Froyo though, so we're left wondering if Google decided to sell the Nexus S for the holidays just to keep the OS passion alive and get a little attention.
Many of the improvements are under the hood, and that means you won't see a radically new UI or new apps. Google tends to evolve the UI slowly, and this release is a clean-up to polish looks and provide a new blacked-out theme that's clean and less demanding of CPU cycles than more ornamented themes. Still, watch out for live wallpapers, they are hungry beasts. For a full rundown on what's new in Gingerbread, visit Google's 2.3 highlights page here. Approximately 10 days after the Nexus S' release, Google let loose a software update that moves the Nexus S up to Android OS 2.3.1. We couldn't find anything different, and assume this minor release targeted bug fixes. Alas, the one really annoying Nexus S bug wasn't fixed: it occassionally resets the default ringtone and notificatons sounds back to their default.
The on-screen keyboard is revised to support chording (you can hit multiple keys at once). That means you can press the "123" button and "w" to enter a 2 without switching to the number mode first. The keys themselves are redesigned to provide more separation at the expense of slightly reduced size because Google says this allows for quicker, more accurate text entry. Personally, I still prefer Swype, even when not using the drag-your-finger from key to key style input. If you've signed up for the Swype beta, you can install it on the Nexus S; I did and it works fine.
Copy and paste now has grab handles, so you can press and hold on a word, then drag the handles to select a range of text (somewhat similar to the iPhone). This means you don't need a trackball for text selection, and that's a good thing since the trackball has all but disappeared from recent Android phones.
There's a task manager built in, and you can access it by pressing the menu key when in the home screen.
SIP Internet calling support is finally here-- very useful, though we'll have to wait for updated VoIP and video chat apps to take advantage of it.
The camera application now supports front cameras as well as the main (rear) camera.
NFC: Near Field Communications support arrives in Gingerbread and the Nexus S has an NFC chip. This feature isn't much used yet, but both Google and Apple seem to see a strong future in NFC. What is it? You could use it to swipe your phone across a movie poster to get detailed movie info, and you could use it to pay for stuff; say your next latte at Starbucks (someday).
Under the hood: Updated video drivers for faster 3D performance, an open API for native audio, APIs for popular sensors like gravity, gyroscopic and barometric sensors. There's more stuff that programmers will find useful, but we won't outline them all here.
What's new in the Nexus S Hardware?
The Nexus S sports a few nifty features, even if they aren't earth-shattering. The first is the curved Contour display. The glass in front of the lovely 4", 800 x 480 Super AMOLED display has a subtle curve so it feels nice against your cheek. The display has a fingerprint-resistent coating (mildly effective) and significant glare reduction for less eye fatigue and better outdoor viewing. Indeed, you can see in our photo to the right that the Vibrant has much more glare and reflection.
Next is the NFC chip, which doesn't do diddly now, but we have high hopes for interesting developments.
The phone has 16 gigs of internal storage (faster storage than the original Galaxy S phones too). But there's no microSD card slot.
There's a front-facing VGA camera for video calls and other uses.
It ships with OS 2.3 and you can download Flash 10.1 for native FLV Flash video playback.
WiFi hotspot sharing a la Google is built-in. That means you can use your Nexus S as a high speed wireless modem for a laptop or other device over WiFi.
What's Better About the Nexus S vs. the Samsung Galaxy S and Others?
Aside from Gingerbread with no wait, the Nexus S' advantage is its pure Google experience. We love Samsung's TouchWiz 3.0, really we do: it has much more useful and full-featured media players with broader codec support, solid social networking integration and an overall pleasing UI on top of Android. Samsung's DLNA (home network media sharing) works well and their Media Hub is a decent stand-in for the iTunes TV and movie services.
But TouchWiz makes the phone a bit daffy. Samsung's Kies USB mode and drivers on the phone wreak havoc on USB transfer mode (you have to turn on USB debugging just to get a Galaxy S to mount as a mass storage device). The Galaxy S, like most US versions of the Galaxy Tab, identify as a mobile browser and that means no full New York Times homepage for you. This change is at the system level, so even 3rd party browsers like Dolphin HD suffer from mobilitis even when set to identify as a desktop browser. The Galaxy S phones are very fast, but suffer occasional pauses as if they forgot what they were doing for a second or 2-- that pretty UI and significant customization take their toll. Quite a few apps had to be tweaked to work with the Galaxy S phones-- remember all those "doesn't work with Galaxy S" comments in the Android Market, later followed by "updated to work with Galaxy S"?
Darn but the Nexus S just works, and it's extremely fast too. USB just works, desktop browsing mode is the default and my myriad 3rd party apps have behaved well despite the new OS version.
What do you gain over the T-Mobile HTC G2? A front-facing camera and a larger more vivid and outdoor viewable Super AMOLED display. The G2 trumps the S on 4G (more on that below).
What's Not Better?
Vs. the Samsung Vibrant: there's no microSD card slot and the Nexus S main camera shoots at a max of 720 x 480 video vs. 720p. You lose Samsung's apps, some of which we really like.
Vs. the T-Mobile myTouch 4G: the Nexus S has 3G HSDPA 7.2Mpbs vs. HSPA+ 4G. In our tests, the Nexus S, like the Vibrant, is actually a little faster when used for tethering over WiFi than the myTouch 4G and HSPA+ T-Mobile HTC G2. On-device download speeds as tested with Ookla's SpeedTest app are a bit faster on the 4G devices (an average of 2Mbps faster at 3-5Mbps for the Nexus S and 5-7Mbps for the 4G smartphones). The myTouch 4G can shoot 720p video while the Nexus S for some reason only shoots 480p (odd since the Vibrant can shoot 720p).
The Samsung Vibrant (left) has more display glare vs. the Nexus S.
A Closer Look at the Google Nexus S by Samsung
If you're coming from a Samsung Vibrant or Captivate, you'll notice a few things have been tweaked. The micro USB port is finally at the bottom where it belongs, and there's no tiny sliding cover over that port. At first I loved that little sliding cover, but after using the Vibrant and Captivate for several months, I found I never remembered to slide it closed anyhow. The headphone jack is at the bottom rather than top on the Nexus S (I'm neutral on that one) and the phone is a wee bit thicker and less tapered on the sides vs. the Vibrant. That's a wonderful thing because the Vibrant, much like the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch, is too thin to easily pull out of a pocket or bag and next to impossible to hold onto. The Nexus S feels much better in hand. The exaggerated (compared to the Vibrant) rear chin also makes it easier to grip the phone and feels good in hand. That chin also creates an overall level rear cover that prevents wobble when laying on a desk.
The phone is unabashedly gloss black plastic-- something that Samsung and perhaps folks in the Far East love much more than Americans. I have nothing against the look other than the fact it gets embarrassingly grimy looking. The phone does not look cheap. In fact, the updated lines and blacked out look are downright sexy and classy. But I do miss HTC's metal and professional look in the Nexus One. Those plastics mean the Galaxy S weighs less than the Nexus One even though it's a little bit larger. It feels solid enough in hand, and it's no more delicate than the Vibrant and overseas Galaxy S sold in Europe and Asia. As with other Samsung high end Android and Bada OS phones, the back cover has a subtle pattern that's visible when you move the phone back and forth in the light. This is not a tactile pattern, it's purely eye candy.
The power and volume controls are in the same locations as the Galaxy S (near the top on the right and left sides), and that means they're too easy to squeeze when pulling the phone out of a pocket or purse. It's also hard to avoid hitting the top volume control when pressing the power/wake button. The touch sensitive front Android buttons are the usual faintly masked ones that are much easier to see when their backlighting is on. The button order is different from the Galaxy S phones... so much for muscle memory. They are the usual Android buttons for back, menu, search and home. Alas, there's no dedicated camera button, and that means you need a steady hand when tapping the on-screen focus/shutter button.
The display is as beautiful and vivid as ever. Nothing beats Samsung's super-sized 4" Super AMOLED display for brightness, color saturation and outdoor visibility. Though the respectable 235ppi pixel density is lower than Apple's iPhone 4 Retina Display, I have no complaints about text clarity and image sharpness. The touch screen supports multi-touch pinch zooming and is very responsive.
Performance is top notch. Froyo's claim to fame was significantly improved speed, and Gingerbread takes it a bit farther. The Nexus S is a very fast phone and it flies through high quality MPEG4 video playback, YouTube streaming in HQ over 3G and WiFi and it handles native Flash better than many other Flash-capable Android handsets. From the benchmarks below we see that the Nexus S is one of the faster Android smartphones on the market according to Quadrant whose tests include 3D trials. Softweg does 2D graphics only, and the Nexus S scores well overall there too. It will be interesting to see how the Nexus S does when rooted and overclocked (the Hummingbird can be a bit sensitive to overclocking) and with custom ROMs.
The Nexus S has excellent call quality and solid reception. While the db sometimes reads higher on our Vibrant for reception, the Nexus S never dropped down to EDGE during a call unlike the Vibrant and T-Mobile G2. The Vibrant, like all Galaxy S phones, has good voice quality, but the Nexus S beats it with extremely clear incoming and outgoing audio with good volume. Bluetooth behaved well, and again I thought the Vibrant sounded quite good with my BMW Bluetooth, but the Nexus S took it up a notch with even louder, more full and natural audio over the car's speaker system. Call recipients said we sounded close to landline good with adequate noise reduction.
The Nexus S is a quad band GSM world phone with EDGE and it's sold unlocked for use with any GSM carrier (T-Mobile and AT&T in the US). The Nexus works best with T-Mobile in the US, since it has their 3G bands. It also has overseas 3G on the 900/2100MHz bands, making it a capable world traveler. We recommend the Nexus S if you're a T-Mobile US customer: not only can you get contract pricing, but you get 3G. On AT&T you'll get EDGE and Google phones aren't much fun on EDGE since they're data-centric. If you're a Sprint or Verizon customer, you're out of luck since those carriers use CDMA rather than GSM networks.
GPS and Camera
Samsung's issues with the Vibrant and Captivate GPS mean that we have to test the heck out of their Android phones. So far, the Nexus S' GPS has behaved well. Cold fixes (just after a reboot when indoors) are slower than average at 8-10 seconds but once the device gets a fix, it holds onto it and positions us accurately. We'll keep testing this over the coming weeks since the Galaxy S' GPS issues didn't always show up immediately. The phone works with Google Maps, Navigation and other location-based services and it has a digital compass that's handy for walking directions. Google Maps, now up to version 5, has come a long way quickly and directions are generally spot-on and in some cases better than the gold standard, TeleNav. Google Maps, unlike TeleNav and VZ Navigator, now knows about multiple entrances to large venues and big box stores, and that means it no longer tells you to circle around the block until you reach the sanctioned entrance. 3D moving maps with illustrated landmarks are new for version 5 and we find the 3D view much easier to follow when driving.
The Nexus S has a loud and clear speaker, much like the Galaxy S phones. We had no trouble hearing it in the car, and it's downright loud indoors.
The 5 megapixel camera takes very good shots with strong, generally accurate colors, plenty of detail and sharpness that's pleasing without looking overdone. Samsung's higher end phones tend to have good cameras and the Nexus S certainly takes as good photos as do Samsung Galaxy S phones, if not better. Image quality is far superior to that of the Nexus One. Our only complaint is the lack of a hardware shutter button since it's hard to hold the phone still when poking the on-screen capture button.
Sample 5MP photo. Click on the image to see a larger version.
There are plenty of settings to tweak captured photos, and a simple slider to switch to video recording mode. The Nexus S is limited to 720 x 480 pixel video, but video quality is quite good. We do wonder why the Vibrant gets 720p video while the Nexus doesn't.
The front-facing camera is a plus for those of you who want to video-chat. The camera application can control either camera, but there's no built-in software for video chatting. We downloaded Tango and at first it worked with the front camera, but after the first 2 uses, we couldn't get it to use the front camera again (the rear one works well). We downloaded Qik via the T-Mobile tab in the Android Market, but it crashed when we tried to do 2-way video calling. Clearly, it will take some time to get the Nexus S up and running with video calling, and the newly added SIP support in Gingerbread may be part of the problem. And speaking of the T-Mobile tab in the Android Market, you only see it if you're using a T-Mobile SIM.
Battery life is the big hurt for the Vibrant, and mine lasts only a day with moderate to not quite heavy use. The Nexus S in contrast, has been hard to kill. We'll continue to test battery life over the coming weeks, but so far the Nexus S has no trouble lasting through a day with heavy use that includes calls, push email, Twitter updates, newsfeed updates and the usual Google data syncing. The 1500 mAh Lithium Ion battery is the same capacity as the Vibrant's, but it's a different physical design so they're not interchangeable.
The Samsung Nexus S Google phone isn't for everyone. Here in the US it's a solid choice on T-Mobile, but I'd pass for use on AT&T since it lacks AT&T's 3G bands. We expect support and hardware exchanges to be much smoother vs. the Nexus One since Best Buy and Samsung are backing the phone, while the Nexus had virtually no customer service support from Google, little support from HTC and no retailer to act as middleman.
The hardware is top notch even if not groundbreaking, and the phone's biggest selling points are getting Android OS 2.3 Gingerbread early, and the pure Google Android experience. The phone is very fast, stable and is a clean slate with no added manufacturer or carrier bloatware. We're big on losing the bloat and problems it can cause, though admittedly, Google's media players are weak and could use a little Samsung love.
If you're looking for the latest in Android, want a clean experience and more timely OS and application updates, the Samsung Nexus S is your best bet. Should you replace your Vibrant on T-Mobile? I've done so for the new OS (nearly a requirement for my job as a reviewer), and cleaner and more stable software. The Nexus S just works, and that's a good thing after living with the Galaxy S' various quirks. Is it a groundbreaking device as the Nexus One was in its day? No.
Price: $199 with a T-Mobile US contract, $529 without contract
Display:4", 800 x 480 capacitive multi-touch Super AMOLED display (curved Contour display) with 235ppi pixel density. Has accelerometer, proximity sensor and ambient light sensor. Has haptic feedback and 3-axis gyroscope.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
1500 mAh. Claimed 3G talk time: 6.7 hours. Claimed standby: up to 17.8 days.
Performance:1GHz Hummingbird CPU (ARM Cortex-A8) with POWERVR graphics. 512 megs RAM and 16 gigs iNAND flash storage with approx. 13.5 gigs available.
x 2.48 x 0.43 inches. Weight: 4.55 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone with EDGE 850/900/1800/1900MHz. 3G HSDPA 7.2Mbps/HSUPA on the 900/1700/2100MHz bands (compatible with T-Mobile US and overseas). Has Google's WiFi Hotspot feature for sharing 3D connection over WiFi with laptops and other devices.
GPS:Has GPS with aGPS and digital compass.
Camera: Main (rear) 5.0 megapixel with autofocus lens and LED flash. Can shoot HD 720 x 480 video. Front camera: VGA camera for video conferencing etcetera.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR.
Software:Android OS 2.3 Gingerbread. Standard Google apps including the Android Market, Google Maps with Navigation, Google Earth, Google Talk, Google Search, Google Voice, Google Talk, Gmail, Email, Voice Actions and YouTube player.
In the Box: Phone, battery, USB cable, world charger and stereo earbud headset.