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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Life with the Google Nexus S by Samsung Smart Phone

We used to think that the Nexus One was going to be the first and last phone in a series. A noble experiment at providing a pure Google phone to those interested in the experience. Roughly one year later, we have the Google Nexus S built by Samsung. This phone does not set the tone in hardware like the Nexus One did, but it does bring a totally new version of the operating system at a time when manufacturers are more invested in their custom UIs than ever before.

We've spent some quality time with the Nexus S over the last few weeks, read on to see what we think of this curious device.

The Hardware

If you have ever touched a newer Samsung smart phone, you can probably imagine what the Nexus S feels like. It is a completely plastic design, and feels a little less expensive than some other handsets. We hesitate to call it cheap feeling, because frankly, it isn't. It is plastic-y, but feels solidly put together. When you squeeze the phone, there is no give and the casing emits no creaking noises. On the outside and in, the Nexus S feels mostly like a Galaxy S phone.

The phone feels very good in the hand actually. Because of that plastic body, it is very, very light (only 129g). It is really unexpected when you pick it up. The back has a gentle curve that makes it more comfortable than some of the Galaxy S phones. There is a slight bump at the bottom, but it doesn't get in the way. Our only complaint about this part of the construction is that the plastic body is prone to scratching. We already have a few on the back of our unit. The front is dominated by the screen. When the phone is off, you cannot even see the buttons, which are only visible when the individual backlights are on. The button labels are not printed on the phone at all. It gives the handset a "2001 monolith" vibe when off, and we kind of dig it.

The power button is on the right side of the phone, and the volume rocker is on the left. Overall, we love having the power switch on the side of the phone. It is the most convenient placement of any we can imagine. The bottom of the phone is where the USB port, mic, and headphone jack is. This is unusual placement for the headphone jack, but we've gotten used to it, and it's actually convenient when you're listening to audio while using the phone as the cord doesn't get in your way.

Everything you've heard about the so-called Contour Display is true. It's kind of neat, but we don't really notice a big boost in usability. Similarly, it does not conform to your face in any meaningful way. The display itself is Samsung's fabulous 4-inch Super AMOLED screen at 800x480. We like these screens more than standard AMOLED. Despite using the pentile subpixel arrangement, they do not seem as blurry up close as standard AMOLEDs. Also, the colors are not as blown out. Reds and oranges are still a little warm, but overall the screen is very accurate to our eyes. All this with the amazing black levels is a real win.

Other specs include a 5MP rear camera, VGA front-facing cam, 1GHz Hummingbird SoC, 512MB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, and an NFC reader. The phone has 3G frequencies for T-Mobile US and most international carriers. It runs on 2G only with AT&T. The 3G radio does not support HSPA+, but tops out at the traditional 7.2Mbps. Some phones like the G2 are capable of 14.4Mbps. In practice, we are seeing speeds closer to what we see with HSPA+ phones than T-Mobile would probably like. Over 4Mb down in speed tests is not uncommon with the Nexus S. The G2 is usually not much faster than that. We also feel like the radio holds signal fairly well. It is noticeably better than the Nexus One at sticking with a 3G signal.

The front facing camera takes reasonable images and video for its purpose and we have no complaints. We also like the rear-camera, though the lack of 720p video is a shame (especially considering the sensor is probably capable). The stills we get are of high quality, though. The phone acquires focus quickly and in highly variable light conditions.
The lack of an SD card slot is upsetting; no two ways about it. We wish it was here. That said, the 16GB storage is managed smartly (more on that in the software section). We are also noticing a speed bump in moving files around and accessing the internal storage. Having memory soldiered to the motherboard seems to make it more snappy. Not really a surprise.

One concern we have with the hardware is related to the capacitive buttons. This is probably a rare issue, but we had to swap phones because of it, so it bears mention here. On the original unit, our home button liked to trigger itself. Just by holding the phone while touching the lower right corner (sides and back, not near the button), it would register the home button as pressed. This got worse over time, and eventually happened every few minutes.

The Software

The real star of the show here is the software. The simple, understated hardware seems designed to melt away in your hand to bring Android 2.3 Gingerbread to the forefront. This phone is about the software, and Gingerbread delivers for the most part. Like with Froyo, there are some cosmetic and UI changes, but a lot of behind the scenes changes have been made too.

One thing users will notice right away, is that the home screen has been tweaked a bit. The launcher at the bottom now has a slate gray background with sharper corners. The icons for phone and browser are now green and black. That same color scheme is carried on in the status bar. It is now black with green icons for signal and battery. Though, the color of the icons can change, more on that later. The black theme here makes a lot of sense with the Super AMOLED display. Since these black pixels are just off, the status bar blends into the phone's bezel and produces a really cool effect of icons floating on the phone's surface. The notification panel is now redone in darker grays and black as well.

The color of the icons in the status bar are now used to relate some important information. Green signal bars and connection icon (cell data or Wi-Fi) indicate that you are connected to Google servers, and can access services like Talk, Market, and Gmail. If those icons turn gray, something is wrong. You could be on a Wi-Fi network that only allows HTTP access, or your connection quality is too poor to maintain a connection to The Big G. This is a great user experience tweak that we find very useful.

One thing that doesn't get a lot of attention is the look of the buttons and popup menus. These have been heavily tweaked in Gingerbread. The buttons now have sharper corners and the gradient effect is gone. Similarly, the menus use darker headers, and sharper edges. The result is a flatter and more modern look in Gingerbread. Since these system elements are used in many apps, it really helps spruce up the OS as a whole. When you are scrolling in Gingerbread, you will also get a visual queue when you're at the end of a list. The end of the scroll will glow orange. This is a nice addition, but it's more eye candy than anything else.

The new keyboard in Gingerbread might be our favorite feature. The stock Android keyboard was just always a little too slow and inaccurate for us. With Android 2.3, Google has completely redesigned it adding multi-touch, a better layout, and handy shortcuts. It adopts the gray on black visual style seen in a few places in Gingerbread. In our testing, it is dramatically more accurate than the Froyo keyboard, and totally bests all the third-party keyboard replacements out there. The autocorrect system feels much smarter now. We can type at full speed and get very few autocorrect fails.

With the new keyboard, also comes new text selection and cursor control. This improvement has made us almost forget the phone lacks a trackball. By tapping in a text field, you get a handle to move your cursor around. Stopping in any word will give you autocorrect options for it as well. If you want to select text, Android will give you two handles to drag to select the block of text you want. These handles are a little unattractive, but they work much better than the old method. Since trackaballs/trackpads were really the best way to perform either of these actions, we really wanted phones to have them with Froyo. Now, we could take them or leave them.

There's been a lot made of the new Manage Apps menu option. Contrary to popular belief, Google did not add a task manager to Android. It's always been there. They just spruced it up, stuck it in the main app management interface, and added a link to that menu on the home screen menu. Manage Apps will automatically bring up the tab with all your apps listed. This is a good place to take stock of all your apps, and the space they use. A little bracket at the bottom gives you a visual of how much memory the apps you're viewing take up. Over on the USB storage tab, the story is much the same. The last tab here is the Running apps (task manager), but it is mostly unchanged from Froyo.

The USB storage is your internal 16GB block of storage. About 13GB of it is user accessible. The remainder is used for the 1GB of app storage, and the OS. This interface is much better for moving apps to the USB storage (on other phones with will be the SD card). You get all the apps listed with app2sd enabled, and a checkbox next to them if they are actually storing data on USB storage. You can organize them by size, and we find this really handy. This is all managed very well. Gingerbread treats the USB storage just like an SD card, so we got up to speed quickly. It's easy to forget these are just partitioned bits of the same storage.

In daily use, Gingerbread is fast on the Nexus S. part of this is thanks to the Hummingbird SoC, which when unencumbered by TouchWiz, can really fly. It may not be a Tegra 2, but The Nexus S feels like the fastest Android phone we've used. Everything from the app list, to the menu feels very smooth. Gingerbread does "concurrent garbage collection", which means it is constantly moving unneeded code out of memory. The result is fewer weird system hangs. We almost never get the hiccups common on older Android builds in Gingerbread.

Clearly there's a lot to like about Gingerbread. But we did encounter some off-putting issues. First, the browser has some lag problems. It's so strange that a phone as snappy as the Nexus S is occasionally brought to its knees by a webpage. We're not sure what's causing it, but it doesn't happen on every page. We suspect Google just needs to do a bit more optimization for the Hummingbird SoC on Gingerbread.

We're also getting some home screen crashes that are presenting themselves as, well, non-crashes. About once every few days, the home screen gets very laggy. Laggy to the point of seeming frozen almost. It seems like the home screen wanted to force close after encountering an error, but it doesn't. It just stops working properly. Long-pressing on a few icons will usually get it to force close. Then it pops right back up, good as new. We've seen this happen on multiple units, so it is definitely a Gingerbread bug.

Is it right for you?
The Nexus S is a great phone. It is missing some features that people might expect these days, but it is pure Google. You can't buy another phone with Gingerbread right now, and it's that sort up bleeding edge software that you get a Nexus for. The hardware is certainly competent, but the software is where it's at. Gingerbread is a solid experience. It cleans up the UI, adds some new features, and runs smoother than Froyo.

Despite a few bugs, we would recommend the Nexus S to most Tested Android fans. When Google rolls out one more OTA bug fix, it could be great for an Android novice as well. People that want the fastest updates on their Android phone would do well to look at the Nexus S seriously. If you've had any hands-on time with the Nexus S, let us know how you liked it.

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