Critics' Choice: Smartphone Review of Nexus S

Google's first attempt at a smartphone, the Nexus One, had the life span of a fruit fly. Though the pure-Android phone earned good reviews, the buy-online-only strategy backfired, and Google soon pulled the plug.

With lessons learned under its belt, Google has jumped back into the contest to build the hottest Android smartphone. The Nexus S, the love child of the Nexus One and the Samsung Galaxy S smartphones, is now available in the U.S. exclusively from Best Buy on T-Mobile's network for $200 (with a two-year contract) or $530 sans contract. The phone is also available in the U.K. from Carphone Warehouse.

Early reviews have been, for the most part, extremely positive. On Time.com, Harry McCracken calls it "the best all-around Android handset I've tried to date." TechCrunch goes a step further, labeling it "the best phone on the market today." And Engadget says: "It seems like every couple of weeks we're saying something along the lines of 'x is the best Android smartphone on the market right now.' We'd like to tell you differently when it comes to the Nexus S, but the truth is, it really is the best Android device available right now."

Of course, critics are never slow to step forward. In our report on analyst reactions to the Nexus S, we wrote that "at least one analyst is wondering aloud whether Google's strategy of bypassing major wireless carriers and, at least initially, offering the Nexus S only to handful of retailers will tick off its Android partners, stymie sales in the U.S and further fragment the Android market just as it's hitting its stride."

The following is a summary of comments from McCracken in Time.com, Michael Arrington and Jason Kincaid in TechCrunch; Joshua Topolsky in Engadget, Kent German in CNET, and Mark Spoonauer in LAPTOP magazine.

What reviewers love about the Nexus S

* Display. In size, the 4-inch, 800 x 480 Super AMOLED display is "just right," says Time. "It's noticeably roomier than the 3.5-in. iPhone 4 and 3.7-in. Droid Incredible displays, without the pocket-straining XXL feel of a phone like the 4.3-in. Droid X." Time.com's McCracken goes on to say that the screen "doesn't wash out in sunlight" and has vivid colors.

* Software. Unlike other Android phones, the Nexus S is pure Android, without any third-party overlays and features. The phone includes some new software features that are worthy additions. Says LAPTOP: "For example, the modern-looking signal strength meter turns white when your Google account info isn't in sync and back to green when it does. When you get to the end of a menu or web page, you'll see a glowing orange bar that serves as a visual cue. And both the notification bar and dialer are now done up in a sleeker black, which saves battery life. We especially like how the screen zaps off like an old-school TV when you press the power button or the display times out."

* Easy set up for Googlers. "The more Google-centric your online life is, the higher the chances you'll love the Nexus S," notes Time.com. "Setting up the phone doesn't involve much more than entering your Google account name and password; Android then automatically configures services such as Gmail and Google Calendar."

* Speed. Reviewers found that the Nexus S, with a 1GHz Hummingbird processor, was super fast. The Nexus S zooms and handles running multiple mobile apps and background processes well compared to previous Android devices, says TechCrunch.

CNET adds that "we cruised through menus almost instantly, and all applications that we used opened within a few seconds. There were a couple of exceptions--the Photo Gallery took almost 5 seconds to start up--but they were rare. When we compared with the iPhone 4 in side-by-side testing, we didn't see much of a difference, which isn't surprising since the Nexus S' processor is a close cousin of the chip on Apple's device."

* Battery life. Want a smartphone that will last all day? The Nexus S won't disappoint in this department, according to reviewers' tests. Its 1500mAh battery "showed impressive signs of life in our short period of testing," according to Engadget. "In heavy use (though not tons of calling), we sustained about 20 hours of life before the phone was crying for its charger. We suspect that amount would be slightly lower if we'd spent a bit more time on calls, but it's still a solid showing considering the amount of downloading apps, screen testing, and general messing around we did with the device."

* Phone. Unlike some smartphones, the Nexus S excels in audio quality, with crystal-clear calls.

"We made several calls using the Nexus S in New York City and it delivered clear call quality on both ends of the line," notes LAPTOP. "We didn't need to raise our voice to be heard by the other person, and she told us that the quality was close to that of a landline."

Engadget's findings: "The sound quality on the Nexus S is right up there with some of the best phones we've tested. Speakerphone calls and music came through loud and clear over the external speaker, and we were downright wowed with how loud and clear the earpiece sounded. Even when we were having a conversation in a crowded room, the Nexus S pumped out audio that was crystalline to our ears. Coupled with excellent service on T-Mobile's network, we were not only able to make calls where our iPhone failed, but the clarity and volume of those calls were superb."

* Improved keyboard. Android 2.3 delivers a new keyboard design, which LAPTOP's reviewer says is one of its best features. "Although the letters themselves are smaller, the increased space between the keys and improved multitouch support allowed us to enter text faster and more accurately on the Nexus S than on most other Android phones. We found ourselves turning the phone sideways to use landscape mode less often, which is a testament to how good the typing experience is."

Mixed emotions about the Nexus S

* Contoured design. The Nexus S's design is slightly curved--to date, a unique feature among smartphones. The idea is to make it easier to cradle the phone against your face more comfortably. Time.com likes the curvaceous design, saying it "feels comfy when you press the handset to your cheek and reduces the chances of the screen shattering into a million pieces if the phone tumbles from your hand and smacks the pavement face-first."

However, CNET said the contoured design "seems like a gimmick so far," adding "the curve is so slight that we didn't notice any difference when talking."

* Support for Near-Field Communications (NFC). The Nexus S is a rarity among smartphones with this feature, which enables the phone to communicate wirelessly with other NFC objects within 4 inches. At the moment, NFC is fairly useless, except for those in Portland, Ore., where Google is running a test program that gives local businesses NFC window stickers. When you hold the phone next to the sticker, your phone will instantly display information about the business. But "NFC will be all around us eventually, and the Nexus S will be ready," notes McCracken on Time.com.

TechCrunch adds that NFC will one day let you use your phone as a credit card and easily exchange data with other phones. "This is basically future-proofing the phone, and a year from now I expect that most Android phones (and likely iPhones) will be shipping with NFC," TechCrunch reviewers predict.

* Overall design. While the Nexus S looks sleeker than the Nexus One, "its generic black plastic case doesn't exactly scream for attention," notes TechCrunch. "The case also feels somewhat cheap, unlike the solid feel of the iPhone and some previous Android phones. But it is very thin and light - just 4.55 ounces (slightly heavier than the Galaxy S). The phone's dimensions are 63mm x 123.9mm x 10.88mm (slightly thicker, taller and wider than the iPhone 4, and with a larger screen). It is significantly svelter than the EVO or the Droid X, previous generation Android phones that we thought were too bulky."

* Support for Gingerbread, the latest Android update. There are multiple versions of Android out there in the wild. Some smartphones ship with earlier versions, and then the wireless carrier drags its feet in issuing an update. Not so with the Nexus S: it comes with the latest version, Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread.

"The fact that the Nexus S comes with Android 2.3 Gingerbread is a plus," notes Time.com's McCracken. He notes that Gingerbread comes with a number of improvements, including a "cleaner, classier look than its predecessors." He says it has "an improved interface for selecting, cutting and pasting text; the on-screen keyboard is easier to use; and it provides the Nexus with its ability to serve as a mobile hot spot that can zap wireless Internet access to up to six other devices, such as laptops, tablets and e-readers."

However, count CNET among the unimpressed with Android 2.3. "On the whole, most of the updates cater to developers, whereas other upgrades won't see significant consumer traction for some time. Gingerbread isn't boring by any means--in fact, it gives the Android OS a slicker feel--but it's not as significant as the jump from Eclair to Froyo."

What reviewers don't love about the Nexus S

* Build feels a bit fragile and cheap. Though the Nexus S is attractive and has a polished look, it "feels fragile in the hand," notes CNET. "The Nexus One, on the other hand, had some metal parts, which gave it a sturdier build. We're not saying the Nexus S' construction is cheap, but we'd be wary of dropping it even once on a hard surface. Also, despite a promised 'antifingerprint display coating,' the plastic skin and the display attract smudges like crazy."

* Cameras. The Nexus S features two cameras, a VGA-quality front-facing camera and a rear-facing 5 megapixel camera. The camera shoots journeyman images and doesn't support HD quality, reviewers noted. "There is something in the quality of its photos that still feel very phone-like to us," writes Engadget. "In particular, we felt that images looked washed out and grainy even in well lit situations. It could be a fault of the auto white balance or ISO settings, but we certainly were able to produce better results with other phones in this class."


Aside from the fact the Nexus S doesn't support 4G technology, its biggest weakness is "that it can't record 720p video," says LAPTOP. "Instead, you're stuck at 720 x 480 pixels, which is odd considering that all the Galaxy S phones capture HD video." (Samsung, which makes the Galaxy S phones, built the Nexus S for Google.)


* Limited memory. Google's smartphone lacks a memory card expansion slot, an omission CNET balks at. "We remain unhappy that there's no memory card expansion slot; we've continually knocked Apple for no memory card on its iPhones, so we have to do the same here. Not only does it limit customer choice, but also we reckon that there will be some users who may just need more space."

* Battery charging time. CNET notes that it took nearly 5 hours to charge the Nexus S's battery the first time. "And that was after we turned off extraneous features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. We'll try it again--a first charge can take a long time--but it's worrisome in the meantime."

Is the Nexus S the best smartphone from Google?

We'll leave you with a few concluding remarks to ponder.

The Nexus S, like the Nexus One, is "on the bleeding edge when it comes to software, but the Nexus S' hardware is behind the curve," notes LAPTOP. "The lack of HSPA+/4G and 720p video recording are both pretty surprising for such a high-end handset. While Samsung and Google don't compensate enough for these drawbacks to make this phone an Editors' Choice winner, we really like the changes Android 2.3 brings to the table and especially what's coming with NFC."

Engadget's reviewer wishes the Nexus S were available for Verizon, rather than T-Mobile, but adds, "We'd been longing for a Galaxy S device that wasn't burdened by Samsung's sometimes-clunky TouchWiz, and in joining forces with Google, the company has more than delivered."

"If you are an iPhone user this isn't going to make you switch," concludes TechCrunch. "If you're an Android user you will want this phone more than any other. If you're currently neither, we recommend that you go with the Nexus S. It is better than the iPhone in most ways. What you lose with the slightly less impressive screen and iOS's slightly slicker user experience you will more than make up for with the Nexus S's ability to actually make phone calls that don't drop and Google's exceptional Navigation and voice input applications. The fact that the phone is unlocked and can be used abroad with other carriers is also a very big plus."

James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 90s and is the author of Traveler 2.0, a mobile technology blog for travelers.


Google, Android, smartphone, Gingerbread, Nexus S