The Nexus S has popped out of the oven stuffed with freshly baked Gingerbread -- it's the first phone to run the latest version of Google's Android software. It combines Samsung's slick hardware with Android 2.3's seemingly endless features, and the result is a confection that's worth nibbling. But don't expect massive changes compared to Android 2.2 Froyo or the Samsung Galaxy S' hardware. The Nexus S is a subtly refined dessert, rather than a gastronomic innovation.
The Nexus S will be available from 20 December for free on a £35-a-month contract, or £550 without a contract, exclusively from Carphone Warehouse and Best Buy. Either way, the phone will come unlocked so you can use it on any network.
Android Gingerbread OS
The Nexus S is Google's latest flagship phone, following in the footsteps of the T-Mobile G1 and Google Nexus One. The 'S' in its name signifies its Samsung origins -- and that's a company that knows how to make some very sexy hardware. But the software that Samsung added to phones like the Galaxy S did more harm than good in places, so it's a pleasure to see pure Android running on the Nexus S.
We're happy to report that Android 2.3 Gingerbread is fabulously fast. The user interface is zippy and smooth, and Google has added some fun treats. For example, when you lock the phone, the screen blinks to black like an old-fashioned telly. Apps open quickly, too. If you've used Android 2.2 Froyo, we don't think you'll notice a huge amount of difference in the speed of the new UI, but it's a big improvement over older Android versions, and the Nexus S is faster than most touchscreen phones other than the iPhone.
If we did have to pick nits with the Nexus S' UI, we'd say that it's not as buttery smooth as the iPhone 4's.
Zooming into Web pages using multi-touch gestures, for example, is a slightly more juddery experience than it is on Apple's handset.
But the Web browser in Android 2.3 seems faster than ever, and it rivals the speed of the iPhone 4's browser. The Web pages we tested loaded quickly and accurately, and you get the bonus of Flash Player 10.1 support, so you can see every website just as it was designed to look.
In our tests, Flash worked very well in the browser. We noticed the occasional hiccup, especially when dealing with sites that weren't designed with the small screen in mind. But we think Flash support is well worth having, and we didn't find that the Nexus S crashed or slowed down as a result of this capability.
But we did run into one brick wall -- BBC iPlayer didn't recognise the Nexus S, and the site wouldn't display. There's nothing we know of that would prevent the Nexus S from accessing iPlayer, unless it isn't on the BBC's list of supported phones, so we have high hopes that the Beeb will sort this out by the time the Nexus S appears in shops.
As well as the whizzy Web browser, a few tweaks have also been made to Android's appearance -- it's darker and more handsome than before. The notification bar along the top of the screen and the background on the menu have both gone black, with refreshed icons. The curved edges of icons and UI elements such as checkboxes also now look more angular.
The changes do make Android look smart, and will definitely appeal if you're into the Darth Vader look. But, according to Google, they also have the knock-on advantage of making the screen consume less power, extending battery life. This seems like an obvious way to make the batteries in power-guzzling phones last longer, especially when they're getting ever-thirstier features on the inside, like GPS and Wi-Fi. But just turning the lights off does seem like something of a cheat, and the interface's new appearance may not be for everyone.
We welcome the refreshed interface, but one thing it doesn't do is make Android
easier to use. Compared to some rival smart-phone operating systems, Android isn't
the most intuitive software. It does almost anything that you can think
of and it's insanely flexible, but it's also a nest of menus, options and
choices. If you fancy putting in some time to tweak your phone
perfectly to your liking, the Nexus S will prove a great choice. But, if you
want a phone that doesn't challenge your brain cells, stay away.
Besides the tweaked interface, Gingerbread's most significant features might not be of much use to many users.
For example, the Nexus S supports NFC (near field communication). It's a wireless technology that lets you wave your phone around near NFC-enabled stickers to do things like prompt a browser session. The sexy side of this technology would be using your mobile as an Oyster card on the London Tube, or paying for goodies using contactless-payment systems.
But it doesn't look like we'll be able to use the Nexus S for any of those purposes over here any time soon -- NFC is, like so many cool things, mostly big in Japan. Instead, we're more likely to see NFC being used to subject us to marketing bumf -- for example, film posters that load up an associated website when you wave your phone at them. But, hey, that's how QR codes started, and now they're catching on as a way to share Android apps.
The other headline feature for Gingerbread is SIP -- the protocol that lets you make voice calls over the Internet, also known as VoIP calls. The Nexus S has SIP built in, so you can make calls over the Internet without installing a VoIP app from the Android Market. This feature doesn't use Google Voice, Google's own VoIP service, because it isn't available in the UK yet. Instead, you'll need an account with one of the various SIP providers.
We tested SIP using Sipgate, which has
the appealing quality of being free. Setting up this feature definitely isn't intuitive, and we found we had to turn to Google's retro PDF
manual. But once we fiddled around, setting up the account
in the phone's settings and getting the SIP accounts of our contacts,
this feature did work. The call quality was very poor, with plenty of delay, but you may not mind so much if you don't pay for your data.
Like tethering, which lets you turn your phone into a mobile hotspot, the networks could turn off SIP calling when Gingerbread comes to other phones. But Google wants the Nexus S to show off absolutely everything that Android can do, so it won't get blocked on this phone, no matter which network you buy it on.
SIP calling and NFC are good features to have, if you can be bothered to get them going. But we think Gingerbread won't be a life-changing update for the average user. Nevertheless, the Nexus S is undeniably fast and powerful, and its hardware makes Android better than ever.
The Nexus S is being pushed by Google on its website, but it looks and feels more like its Samsung sibling, the Galaxy S. It has the same plasticky, oddly curvacious case and gorgeous Super AMOLED screen, which manages to be as vivid as a standard AMOLED screen but not as blindingly reflective in bright light. We can vouch for Super AMOLED's merits -- the Nexus S' Super AMOLED screen is a big improvement on the Nexus One's ordinary AMOLED display, and it's even brighter and sharper.
The Nexus S has an 800x480-pixel resolution display, which amounts to 233 pixels per inch -- not as much as the 330ppi packed into the iPhone 4's smaller 3.5-inch screen, but impressive nonetheless.
We were unsure about the Galaxy S when we first caressed its curves, because we weren't used to a smart phone being so light, especially one with such a big screen. But, now that we know a phone can be both light and luscious, the Nexus S feels fine. It's much lighter than the average large smart phone, such as the HTC Desire HD, since such phones tend to have metal cases. But, if you like heavier, really solid-feeling phones, you can always slap a case on the Nexus S.
The Nexus S ditches the chrome trim that made the Galaxy S
look like an iPhone clone. When the screen is off, the
backlight on the touch-sensitive buttons turns off, and the Nexus S has
a pleasingly black, monolithic appearance.
The Nexus S has an unusual curved screen that's meant to feel
comfortable against your face. We welcome this feature, since we find
talking into a big touchscreen phone is often like pressing a fridge
door against our bonce. After a face-on test, we can't say the curve is
that noticeable -- in fact, you can barely see it. But, whether it's
psychosomatic or not, we do feel that the Nexus S is comparatively
comfortable to chat on, and the call quality also proved good in our tests.
Processing power and memory
The Nexus S follows the trend, started by the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 handsets, of not offering a memory-card slot, which is a pity. But it does have 16GB of built-in memory, which should be enough for most people. Also, with Android, it's dead easy to slap pictures, music and videos onto your phone because you can connect it to your computer like a flash drive, rather than using syncing software like iTunes.
We think we'll be using some of that memory for games, because the Nexus S could be the best Android gaming phone ever. Not only does it have a bright, 4-inch WVGA touchscreen, it's also got a slamming 1GHz Hummingbird processor -- the same one that's in the Galaxy S. Plus, it has a specialised GPU that takes the strain of cranking out 3D graphics off the main processor. Finally, the Nexus S has a gyroscope on board, which should inspire game makers, as well as other app developers, to get to work.
The Google Nexus S is basically a pumped-up Samsung Galaxy S, with slightly curvier hardware. Android 2.3 Gingerbread makes the phone a speed demon, and, because it's a pure, untouched, unskinned version of the operating system, we're likely to see Android updates on this phone before they appear on the rest of the customised crowd. That alone ensures this phone has substantial appeal for technoholics.
Android's Gingerbread refresh won't set the world on fire, and the software isn't as easy to use as some competing operating systems. But, if you've got deep pockets and a yen for a phone that's smarter than you are, the Nexus S won't disappoint.
Edited by Charles Kloet