Samsung Nexus S Review Reveals Speedy Google Android 2.3

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-12-16

Samsung Nexus S Review Reveals Speedy Google Android 2.3

Last week Google sent me the Samsung Nexus S, the first Android 2.3-based smartphone and the follow-up to the ambitious but ill-fated Nexus One launch at the beginning of the year.

With hardware built by Samsung and software built and or assigned by Google, the Nexus S launched from Best Buy's online and brick-and-mortar stores in the United States on Dec. 16.

The device costs $199.99 with a two-year T-Mobile service plan, but as with the Nexus One, users may buy it unlocked for $529. Google offers full specs here.

I've tested every Droid phone from Verizon since the original Motorola Droid last November, as well as the Samsung Fascinate and Continuum, so I'm very comfortable with Android handsets. I tested my Android 2.2-based Droid X side-by-side with the Android 2.3-based Nexus S to discern any speed changes.

Since Google boasts that every new Android build is noticeably faster than the previous one, I was anxious to put it to the test with the Nexus S Google sent me. This device was powered by T-Mobile's network, which runs well in this neck of Fairfield County, Conn.

Hardware, Assorted Specs

The Nexus S is a gorgeous piece of hardware, but I feel as if I say that about every Android handset Samsung pumps out. As with the Galaxy S line, the Nexus S uses black bezeled plastic behind a glass display.

The Nexus S display and touchscreen is 4 inches of bright, crisp Super AMOLED 480-by-800 resolution. While the Fascinate and Continuum are flat, the Nexus S is slightly contoured. Google alleges this makes it more comfortable to hold. I didn't notice any comfort boost.  

What I did notice was that the device-which is 4.8 inches long, 2.5 inches wide and less than half an inch thick-feels great in the hand. I tend to like a heavier phone, but the Nexus S has a nice 4.5 ounce weight.

The camera is a 5-megapixel, rear-facing, auto-focus gizmo of average quality, with some blurriness. The camera software was overhauled for Android 2.3, thereby providing a nice, framed user experience for picture-taking. Picture-management icons test to the right to let users adjust the feature functionality. Video capabilities, taken at 720x480 resolution, were subpar compared to my HD Droid X shoots.

There is also a front-facing VGA camera for video chats, but results were grainy. The video-chat capability on mobile devices really needs work.

Battery life, which purports to support 6.7 hours of talk time on 3G (14 hours on 2G)  proved great, as the 1500mAh unit lasted a full day with heavy use. I played a lot of Angry Birds on this phone and am pleased with the juice. The Nexus S has a 1GHz processor like other high-end Android units.

There's also 16GB of iNAND internal storage, so you shouldn't be lacking memory. But there is no external memory option, so you could really put your phone to test with enough downloads.

User Interface, Management Tools

Nexus S is the first smartphone to run Android 2.3, which in addition to the faster performance of a new operating system build allegedly has a better user interface. I tested this interface against my Droid X. Some differences were very obvious; some were subtle.

Android 2.3 was redesigned to provide a crisper contrast of letters and menus against the black background, which was readily apparent in the notification bar, menus and on the phone's dialer, where the numbers are smaller and farther apart.

The Android 2.3 soft keyboard is redesigned for faster text input and editing. The keys are reshaped; whereas the Droid X has longer, narrower keys, the keys in Android 2.3 have been shortened and given a tad more space. It's supposed to provide better typing, but I'm so used to the Droid X that I couldn't tell the difference.

There is a one-touch copy and paste feature. When entering text or viewing a Web page, you can select a word by using press-hold and then copying it to the clipboard and pasting it there.

Pressing on a word enters a mode where you can move arrows that bracket the word to new positions and then copy the bounded area by pressing anywhere in the selection area. You can slide-press to enter a cursor mode, and navigate by dragging the cursor arrow.

Google has also provided Android 2.3 with more control over power management. To save battery life, the operating system manages apps that are keeping the device awake for too long or that are consuming CPU while running in the background.

There is a Manage Applications button in the Options menu in the home screen and app launcher, which shows users applications on their phone and the storage and memory being used by each.

Nexus S a Nice Device for T-Mobile Customers


Software, Apps

This being a Nexus phone, it has all of the Google Mobile apps preloaded, including Google Search and Voice Search, Voice Actions, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Earth, Google Maps with Navigation, Google Voice, Google Talk and YouTube. There is of course Android Market, with more than 100,000 free and paid applications to choose from.

What's lacking is the bloatware associated with the Verizon Wireless Droid line and other carrier-commanded devices. That saves some space on the phone. Moreover, Google does all the over-the-air upgrades, so you don't have to wait for carriers to send software updates.

The app launcher button has a 3G scroll-thing going on for trivial eye candy. I used the Facebook-for-Android app, receiving the upgrade to version 1.5 pushed over the air as I was testing it yesterday, and Twitter for Android app.

I also downloaded the latest version of Voice Search, which is using personalized recognition to link to my Google Account, in hopes of improving the functionality of the hit-and-miss accuracy and not siphon my data. Just kidding, Google. Voice Search worked reasonably well. It has definitely improved since I started using it on Android phones months ago.

Android 2.3 and the Nexus S provided the fastest Web surfing, browsing and app-consuming device I've used since my Eee PC.

The Nexus S loaded Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, YouTube, ESPN, Google Search, Google Reader, Google News and the other dozen or so games and destinations I visited  faster than my Android 2.2-based Droid X did.

Not much faster-half a second to one second almost every time-but fast enough that I noticed it. That speed bump is a big deal for Google.

I realize that a new OS build is supposed to be fast, but I didn't expect to notice the difference as much as the jump between Android 2.1 and Android 2.2, which Google stressed was a big deal because of the new JIT compiler and faster browser.

I don't know whether T-Mobile's network was just screaming for the past six days or what, but the Nexus S performed beautifully. As a Web-surfing handset, there is no Android gadget that matches the Nexus S in speed today.  

NFC, Calls

Google also included in my test unit a "Recommended on Google" decal from its Google Places service for local businesses.

But it was no ordinary sticker. This decal was equipped with near field communications (NFC) sensors, those gizmos that enable wireless communications between devices from short distances. Android 2.3 supports NFC, and the Nexus S itself is equipped with an NFC controller chip and software from NXP Semiconductor.

When I held the back of the Nexus S up to the sticker, its tag registered on the phone, serving up a link to a YouTube video. Clicking on this video revealed a Nexus S Android 2.3 primer from Google's Android developers.

Nothing special, but it definitely worked. But almost no one else is doing NFC these days. What will be key is whether mobile apps makers will build mobile payment apps to let users swipe their phones across contact terminals to make purchases. Imagine the Nexus S as a wallet. Cool-and a little scary. What if you lose it?

By the way, this is a phone, even though it feels like a little laptop in the hand. Calls were clear, thanks to the noise cancellation software. As for T-Mobile, I saw no droppage here in my neck of the woods, but to be fair, I did not travel out of town with it. 

Bottom Line

If you're a T-Mobile customer and you've wanted an Android phone, this is the device for you. Well worth the $200 and contract.

After using the Nexus S, Nexus One and the litany of Android phones from Sprint, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, it's clear that this is one of the better handsets of its kind.

NFC will be a game-changer once apps get built and retailers and credit card companies support it. But there will be many more NFC-enabled devices on the market by then, so don't let this make or break your decision because you can't do much with NFC on the Nexus S today. As it is now, almost no one else is supporting NFC, although that's changing as Apple, RIM and the carriers ramp up their efforts.

If you're not on T-Mobile, you may want to think harder about buying the Nexus S to run on the No. 4 U.S. network-unless you're in dire need of a new phone and you want to switch to T-Mobile's network.

No phone is worth $529 if you have to take it to another carrier and then pay them to service it unless you have the disposable income. Of course, I bought my Droid X for a penny from Amazon Wireless, so maybe I'm just super cheap.

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