Samsung Nexus S Review

Acting as Google’s follow up to the previous official Android Developer’s Phone, the HTC Nexus One, Samsung’s Nexus S carries the latest iteration of Android–version 2.3, Gingerbread–and what could turn out to be a major selling point for future Android devices: NFC. Though there are plenty of other features to consider when purchasing a new Android (like the dual-core processors that will be rolling out very soon), Gingerbread and NFC are the primary bullet points that differentiate the Nexus S in the current market. Those, and the expectation of being at the top of the list when Android updates are ready to roll out.


Gingerbread

The latest version of Android for phones is 2.3, or Gingerbread. While the UI doesn’t immediately scream “complete overhaul,” Google’s “laser focus” on updating the UI, is evident, if only in a few places. The update does give us an idea of where Google is heading with spots of a new look and hints at future changes. The overall vibe of Gingerbread is darker than previous versions, due largely to the sleek black notifications bar, which, incidentally, draws a bit less power than the almost white notifications bar on previous “pure Google” flavors of the software. The result is a sleek and subdued screen that feels distinguished and just plain cool. Other revamped elements include threaded call logs and improved text management. Hopefully, we’ll see Google’s new music player and accompanying features and UI enhancements in the next version. Perhaps the complete impact of Gingerbread’s visual makeover won’t be felt until a few core apps see a major bump.


NFC

Near field communications will let us pay checks, swap contact information, and quickly transmit medical history, all with a wave of the hand. It will be instrumental in a host of other applications, many of which might be difficult to imagine at this point. And how can we know how NFC will affect our personal mobile computing experience when it’s so fresh on the scene? NFC applications are currently limited in availability. Though you can download an NFC contact sync app, finding someone else with a Nexus S (and the same app installed) might not be as easy. Google is working to place NFC aware products in businesses (most notably in Portland, Oregon) and is actively inviting business owners from around the country to participate by ordering a Places NFC kit that will visually indicate participation and allow for all kinds of information to be transferrable via NFC. And with the recent purchase of NFC-centric startup ZetaWire, Google has made it pretty obvious that NFC will be a major focus for them in the near future.

Buying Google’s developer phone of choice does future proof your mobile investment a bit. Though the Nexus S won’t be the most impressive Android on the market in 2011, it will be one of just a few to rock an NFC chip. The downside to this exclusivity is that you might not find many places or people to use it with.


The Camera:

The Nexus S has a 5MP primary camera with a VGA front-facing cam for video conferencing. The camera software is “pure Google” and has not been significantly updated since the last version of Android. Rather than explain the quality of the images, I have embedded some photo and video samples below that represent a fair cross-section of conditions the average consumer is likely to encounter in shooting with their phone. These videos and still were taken at the highest quality setting with all other options at default. For videos, you might want to select 480p from YouTube’s resolution menu. This is the maximum resolution for video captures with the Nexus S (720 X 480 at 30FPS). The stills have been scaled down from 2560×1920. I was able to snap off consecutive shots with about three to four seconds of waiting in between, under favorable lighting conditions.

Video:

Rear cam, outside, day:

FFC, outside, day:

Rear cam, inside, dark room:

FFC, inside, well-lit room

Rear cam, outside, night:

FFC outside, night:

Stills:


Hardware & Design:

One of the first things noticeable about the Nexus S for people who are coming from another brand of Android is the lightness and plastic feel of the body. Samsung has improved on the feel of the device over the first round of Galaxy S devices, but people who found the vibrant to feel cheap might have the same complaint with the S. Still, the Super AMOLED 800 X 480 WVGA Contour Display is undeniably luxurious. The idea is that a curved display will be scratched less easily and will conform to the user’s face more comfortably than a flat screen. Face fit is an individual thing, but I can say that the Contour certainly does look nice. The 235ppi and fingerprint resistant coating result in a screen that competes with the iPhone 4. It also happens to be very sensitive and the software is responsive.

The S has a strange arrangement of buttons at the bottom of its face, with the standard Android buttons arranged, from left to right: back, menu, search, home. I would say the design was the work of a lefty, but from what I’ve heard, south paws can’t seem to make any more sense of it than I can. Just takes a bit of getting used to, I suppose. The volume rocker is on the upper left side of the phone and the power/lock is on the upper right. There is no camera button. On the top of the phone there is a notch for taking off the battery cover, and on the bottom is the 3.5mm audio jack (again, odd) and the microUSB port. Take off the battery cover and you’ll find a T-Mobile SIM slot (AT&T coming later) and a 1,500mAh battery. Inside is a 1GHz Hummingbird processor, 512MB RAM and 1GB ROM. There is no SD card in the S, but 16GB of iNAND flash memory is available. The body is surprisingly thin and skinny for all the tech stashed inside. If you like your gear dark, light and shiny, the Nexus S is right up your alley.


Connectivity:

The Nexus S is a great phone and sometimes we forget to give proper weight to that little features these gadgets get their namesake from. T-Mobile’s coverage is excellent, and while you won’t be experiencing their 4G HSPA+ data with the Nexus S, call quality is fantastic and data connectivity was never an issue for me. Voice calls have been clear on both ends and I experienced no dropped calls. What I did have some problems with was the GPS. Like the Galaxy S phones before it, though, to a lesser extent, the Nexus S has problems acquiring and retaining a GPS connection. This is has been a relatively minor annoyance for me, as the problem was intermittent. While I’m satisfied with T-Mobile’s 3G service, 2011 is the year of 4G, no doubt. The Nexus S will be up-to-date with the now sparse Android releases, but it’s almost already behind the times in terms of data connectivity. An odd problems with random reboots, which I have not experienced, is apparently being addressed.


Conclusion:

If you prefer a “pure Google” Android experience over any custom skins, and you also want to be on the forefront of Android updates, The Samsung Nexus S is worth a look. But if you regularly use your phone for navigation, and you really rely on it to get where you’re going, keep your eyes open; there are too many great phones coming out this year to get stuck with one that might leave you on the shoulder of a highway wondering if you are in the right part of an unknown state. If you are big on capturing high quality video, keep moving. That’s one are where the Nexus S is decidedly behind the quickly moving times. Dual cores and 4G are also two features that will common on the Android landscape this year, and that’s what you’ll be trading off for your pure Google experience and updates. Then again, those updates could bring significant new features to Android, like cloud music sync and new NFC functionality.

Verdict: Excellent phone with a few unnecessary spec dings that will see the latest and greatest Android that Google has to offer for the next year or so.

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