Editors' note: We updated this review on December 16, 2010, with more testing results.
It was almost a year ago that Google unveiled the HTC Nexus One to great fanfare and high expectations. As the much-anticipated "Google phone," the Nexus One took the OS in a new direction by offering a straight Android experience, a new version of Eclair (2.1), and a unique sales model that required customers to buy the phone from Google. Though it delivered on the first two promises, it was that sales model that ultimately sunk an otherwise satisfying device just six months after its birth.
At the time we weren't sure if Google would try the concept again, but Monday's release of the rumored Nexus S shows that the company is back for more. Samsung made the hardware this time around, but the similarities between the Nexus S and its predecessor go to the core of the phone. Instead of a manufacturer's custom interface, you'll find direct access to the full set of Google features--don't even think of looking for a Bing search--with no carrier-installed apps to get in the way. As we said with the Nexus One, this is a handset for Android purists.
Behind the fairly standard candy-bar design--there are few differences that we'll discuss below-- the feature set is interesting without being exciting. On the upside, the Nexus S is the first handset with Gingerbread (Android 2.3), and it offers a few improvements like a second camera, an NFC chip, and a three-axis gyroscope. Performance is promising as well, and we can't help but admire its shiny looks. Yet, even in these early days we're not completely in love. It doesn't offer that many upgrades over its predecessor, and we lament its lack of a memory card slot and support for T-Mobile's HSPA+ network.
The Nexus S is available December 16 for $529 without a contract or $199 if you're willing to stick with T-Mobile for two years. As with the Nexus One, both versions are identical and sold unlocked. And as before, the Nexus S is compatible only with T-Mobile's 3G network. Luckily, Google is pursuing a smarter, yet still limited, sales strategy. You can't buy it through T-Mobile, but the Nexus S will be sold in Best Buy stores and online.
The Nexus S' candy-bar design takes many cues from its Galaxy S siblings, which puts it worlds apart from the Nexus One. It's larger (4.88 inches long by 2.48 inches wide by 0.43 inch deep) and lighter (4.55 ounces) than its ancestor, and it sports an all-black plastic skin with a very faint design on the rear face. We're a bit divided on the result, however. It's shiny and pretty, and it has a more polished profile, but the Nexus S feels fragile in the hand. 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.
Below the display are the four Android touch controls (menu, search, back, and home); all offer vibrating feedback when touched. Unlike with the Nexus One, you don't get a navigation trackball. Yes, the Nexus S is in good company in that regard--most of the Galaxy S series dispensed with the trackball as well--but we missed it just the same. The protruding lens on the Nexus One always made us a bit nervous, so we were glad to see that the Nexus S' lens is almost flush. It sits on the rear face next to the bright flash. The second camera lens is on the front side just above the bright display. Other exterior features consist of a thin volume rocker on the left spine and a power control on the right spine. The 3.5mm headset jack and Micro-USB port rest on the phone's bottom end. Though it's not a huge deal, we'd prefer those ports to be up top.
Samsung is highlighting the Nexus S' "contour" design in its promotional materials. To you, that means that the front of the device is slightly concave. The idea is to make it more comfortable to hold the phone against the side of your head. We're not so impressed, though. The curve is so slight that we didn't notice any difference when talking. We may feel differently after long-term use, but the curve seems like a gimmick so far.
Display and interface
The Nexus S' display supports 16.7 million colors and 800x480 pixels. Though that's the same resolution as the Nexus One, Samsung's display offers a few advantages thanks to its Super AMOLED status (HTC's display was just AMOLED). We noticed straight away that it's distinctly sharper, with richer colors, deeper and better graphics, and a wider view angle. It's also just a bit bigger (4 inches versus 3.7 inches), and it's more visible in direct sunlight. Like the Galaxy S handsets, it holds up well in initial comparisons with the iPhone 4's ballyhooed Retina Display. We'll send it to CNET Labs for a deeper comparison over the next few days. You can adjust the brightness and the backlight time, and a proximity sensor will shut the display off when you raise it next to your ear for a conversation.
The capacitive touch interface was pleasantly responsive. As with most Android phones, you can't change the display sensitivity, but it took only a slight touch to register our commands. When using the display, haptic feedback isn't available for all commands, though you'll find it when using the numeric keypad. Five home screens are available for customization with widgets, app shortcuts, and folders. Seven home screens would be nice, but it's not a big deal. On the other hand, we suspect more users will miss the ability for LED notifications. We certainly did.
The pop-up menu on the home screen offers the usual shortcuts for wallpaper, the settings menu, display customization, search, and notifications. Gingerbread, however, adds a couple of welcome tweaks like an all-black background and a shortcut for managing apps. Along the bottom of the display you'll also find three touch controls for accessing the dial pad, the main menu, and the Web browser. And over on the far left home screen are the convenient shortcuts for activating feature like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. The phone dialer features spacious keys with large numbers, though the text is a bit small.
The main menu has the "Star Wars"-like "crawl" design, where icons disappear into the background. Make no mistake that the Nexus S is a phone for people who want the Android OS served up straight and simple. We've always been fans of "letting Android be Android," so we're not going to fault Sammy and Google for going this route. Even with Gingerbread, seasoned Android users will find few new changes from Froyo devices apart from some minor interface tweaks in the secondary menus.
We explored the full details of the new OS in this post, but we'll detail the highlights here. 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.
The first feature we tried was the new copy and paste. When using a long press to select words in a paragraph, you're now given an option to select just the word you're touching rather than the whole block of text. Then, you'll see new arrows for grabbing just the words you want. It may sound like a small change, but it makes a huge improvement in usability.
The virtual keyboard also has some small-but-welcome tweaks. The individual keys are more rectangular and are spaced farther apart. Google promises that the new arrangement gives people a faster text-editing and input experience. Indeed, we noticed a difference even after a few minutes. Also, word suggestions from the dictionary are now displayed in a more vivid yellow text, and the top row of keys shows both letters and numbers. Unfortunately, the Nexus S does not support Swype out of the box.
As for other keyboard changes, you now can use the voice input feature to correct individual words in a block of text. First, select the word using the method described above before pressing the voice control and saying the new word. We also welcome the multitouch changes that allow you to type numbers and capital letters quicker. For example, by holding down the Shift key, you can type a capital letter without switching to the separate uppercase keyboard. Similarly, by holding down the "?123" button, you can type a number by pressing the corresponding alphanumeric key on the top row.
The revamped app manager is another Gingerbread highlight. On the surface it looks about the same, but a new "Storage Use" option shows you which apps you're using. Also, under the "Running" tab, you can switch between the used and available RAM. And if that's not enough, a separate "Downloads" option on the main menu shows all the titles that you've downloaded in one convenient place. We very much welcome the new "Battery Use" menu that shows a visual representation of how much power each feature is using and how much time the battery has left.
The addition of NFC (near field communication) support means you'll be able to use the Nexus S for wireless transfer of data between two devices. Though still a new technology in the United States, NFC will allow users to use the camera to scan "tags" embedded in posters, stickers, and even other devices. The tag will then transfer information about that object to the phone for storage. Once you've stored tags on the Nexus S you can access them in one convenient menu. Mobile payments are another possible benefit of NFC, so we'll have to see how this develops. We'll report back when we can perform a proper test.
Other Gingerbread additions include support for the WebM video compression standard, VoIP calling via SIP, enhancements for game developers, new audio effects for developers (like sound mixing), support for VP8/WebM video compression, and API support for the gravity, the barometer, and the new gyroscope.