Google Nexus S Review

Jonathan Morris
December 11, 2010

The Google Nexus S is the second Google Nexus handset, and this time gets to introduce Android 2.3 to the world. But, is the phone much of an improvement on what’s already on the market, and is Android 2.3 a big update?

A while ago, LG said that a future model was a ‘secret’ (which would turn out to be the actual name of the phone) and we all laughed hysterically. Then, Google proclaimed that there would be no Nexus Two. Oh, how we laughed when they revealed that they simply meant there would be no Nexus Two but they never said anything about not making a Nexus S!

But what does the S stand for anyway? Surely it wasn’t just Samsung adding ‘S’ because Apple did with the 3G? Oh no, of course it wasn’t. So, following the Galaxy S comes the Nexus S, a phone based on the former with a few upgrades and the same confusing ‘S’ name.

Regardless of what they called this phone, a lot of us thought that Google would sit back and let other manufacturers get on with making their own handsets, and applying their own customisations. In 2010, there was no shortage of companies doing just that and there are now some 300,000 Android devices (tablets or smartphones) being activated every single day.

Does Google really need to market its own phone? Is there any market for the Nexus S? Or is it nothing more than a reference design to market to developers, with a few going on sale to the public willing to pay the (high) price through the high-street exclusivity agreement with Carphone Warehouse and Best Buy? Android 2.3 is only a minor update and the OS will eventually arrive on other models, both existing and to-be-announced models.

It gives the phone a relatively short shelf life and the clock is ticking.

But, the Galaxy S was/is a great phone. While it had some issues relating to memory management, causing some situations where the phone would seemingly freeze for long periods and no real reason (later fixed as the roll out of Android 2.2 began), it was a solid phone that had an exceptional display and loads of processing power. The main disappointment was the lack of a flash on the camera.

The Nexus S has retained everything from the Galaxy S, except the memory card slot. Instead, it has 16GB of integrated storage and that’s your lot. Given Samsung has a tendency to include card slots in even the most basic handsets, smartphones or not, it would seem that Google specified this change. It’s something of concern if this is how they’re going to try and move the market forward. Does it mean Google will want to ‘do an Apple’ and sell the Nexus S (or later models) in a range of configurations that aren’t upgradeable? Will we get the 16, 32 and 64GB Nexus S models, plus a choice of colours?

Much as I love Apple products, having to choose the model you want from day one and then stick with it is something I don’t want to see repeated, especially when memory cards are affordable and offer other benefits like being easily transferred from one device to another. What’s more, if this does happen (and there’s no concrete evidence to say that it will), I think I can speak on behalf of the networks and phone resellers by saying that it won’t be popular move in terms of managing stock.

For now, I’ll just say that we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, there’s only the one model and it’s not as bad as it could have been if it had shipped with only 4 or 8GB. You can still fit on plenty of albums, picture galleries and movies – especially if you re-encode them as necessary (although if you don’t, the Nexus S will happily play almost every file you throw at it).

The screen is impressive in two different ways. Firstly, it has a large 4-inch screen that isn’t quite as big as the HTC Desire HD, but is a perfect compromise between a normal phone and a tablet. I’d go so far as to say that with the curves of the phone casing, it is easier and more comfortable to hold in the hand than HTC’s large-screened phone, and it feels less likely to want to slip out of your hand.

In fact, the size makes it perfectly usable as a phone, but equally nice for enjoying multimedia, playing games or viewing the web. It uses Samsung’s Super AM-OLED display and appears to have a filtered (perhaps polarised?) cover that Samsung states will allow through a quarter of the glare you’d get on other screen types. Perhaps we’ll get to put this to the test against Nokia’s ‘Clear Black Display’ technology, as used on the N6-01, in the future to see how all of these new screens really do work outdoors.

The display is curved inwards too, although it is not as curved as the prototypes that were seen earlier in the year. It is hardly noticeable and doesn’t really serve much purpose, beyond giving both Samsung and Google the ability to give it its own name; ‘Contour Display’. In an industry where buzzwords and clever names and phrases lead to sales, it will help Google take on Apple’s ‘Retina Display’ technology – although I have to admit, the iPhone wins on both colour accuracy and definition.

But 480×800 pixels is still decent enough, and my bigger concern is with the colour accuracy. Whites are anything but white on the Nexus S, and have more of a green/yellow tinge. Due to the way OLED displays work, it is possible to have high saturation (in addition to an amazing contrast ratio) that looks nice for pictures, or games, but isn’t so good for reading text or whenever you have a white background instead of the black background favoured by the user interface. And, it isn’t pixel perfect as with a traditional LCD display, so there’s interpolation of the pixels which arguably means it isn’t really showing the full 480×800 pixels. Again, this only really becomes an issue when viewing text and, even then, only on small text or pictures with fine detail.

The brightness is also too low when left to decide the brightness by itself. If this is to conserve battery power, you might accept it for a better overall performance (Sony Ericsson X10 users must suffer the same), but the temptation will always be there to ignore the auto brightness setting and ramp it up. Doing so improves the user experience considerably, but will have an impact on battery drain.

On the back of the phone, some of you are going to breathe a sigh of relief to see that Samsung has now added a flash next to the camera. About time! Was this a Samsung decision or pressure from Google? Who cares, but now you can actually take photos in more situations than before.

The camera is only 5-megapixels, but it takes better photos than the original HTC Desire or the Motorola Milestone (Droid) and DEFY with noticeably less noise and more definition. (Update: 14 December 2010; as I use the phone more, I find that images in anything but good light are actually a lot noisier than I thought)

The camera interface now makes it easier to adjust settings without having to open separate menus, and there’s a new feature of Android 2.3 that lets you choose different camera sensors if they exist – namely the rear camera or the front-facing one that is geared more for video calling. However, the level of camera options are minimal, to put it mildly.

> You can see an example of photos and videos from the Nexus S here

What is quite surprising, shocking even, is the lack of HD video capture – although this may be down to the stock Android camera interface and something that could be added in a later update (or a third-party app). It’s hard to believe the hardware isn’t capable.

The large screen and the camera might take attention away from the fact that this phone is cased fully in plastic, and lacks the overall build quality of an iPhone. I feel compelled to apologise for making comparisons with the iPhone (and I’m not going to get into a Android vs iOS debate here) but at this position in the market, that’s the phone Google is pitching this against.

Thanks to the speedy 1GHz Hummingbird processor and graphics co-processor, moving around the phone and using menus is as near to instant as you’re ever going to get before artificial intelligence starts to open menus and dialogues before you’ve even picked up the phone. When browsing web pages or Maps, zooming in and out is lightning quick.

Android 2.3 is one of the main selling points of the Nexus S, and it’s the first phone to get the Gingerbread treatment, but Nexus One owners won’t be far behind (in fact, they’ll probably beat most customers of this phone, as stocks are going to be limited at first). There are a number of subtle changes, such as the change of the notification bar to remove the grey or white background – and make it look more like a Windows Phone 7 device where the icons and text appear to be part of the normal screen. Some of the icons now remain on, but ‘greyed’ out when not in use.

However, this is little more than a different theme and other Android 2.3 devices may well decide to keep things as they were, or let you choose. HTC is almost certainly going to have more options if if brings 2.3 to the Desire or Desire HD, and so a different theme is not really enough to have you rushing to get this phone.

Other changes are when you’re in a menus and flick scroll up and down. There’s now a little coloured flash that appears when you hit the stop at the top or bottom. Again, it’s nothing amazing – but it does give you something to show off to others, if you think they’ll be suitably impressed by such trivial things.

A better improvement is the new native-Android keyboard. It now supports full multi-touch natively, so you can hold shift and press a key at the same time like an ordinary keyboard, and more options to customise how it works. Any Galaxy S owners that upgrade may long for the inclusion of Swype, but the Nexus S is a stock Android device and has nothing else pre-loaded. Nor will it have any network customisation when you buy this phone to connect to any of the four big networks.

With no preinstalled apps that can’t be removed (without rooting) and no colour schemes and boot-up animations for your network, it’s a dream phone for people who want total freedom. Nor will you find any type of SIM-lock or restrictions, and the phone is well equipped as a quad-band GSM, tri-band 3G phone with HSPA support for data speeds of up to 5.76Mbps up and 7.2Mpbs down. Good luck getting those speeds in the UK though. Wi-Fi supports 802.11n, but there’s no support for Bluetooth V3, which could have brought higher speed data transfer with it.

Having had the phone for such a short time, battery life isn’t something I can yet comment on. However, Google has claimed a series of power management optimisations for Android 2.3. In addition to that, the phone has a huge 1,500mAh battery, plus the auto-brightness control keeps the screen about as dim as you can get it without struggling to read what’s on show. If I had to make a n educated guess, I’d say that the battery is going to be better on this than other high-end smartphones with a similar specification. Nevertheless, I will be continuing to monitor the battery and come back and warn you if my experience changes significantly over the coming weeks. (Update: 14 December 2010; As I thought, the battery life is indeed proving to be excellent)

Near Field Communications is a technology that is being used with limited success in the UK today, but the Nexus S is ready for when it takes off as a means of delivering information to users without taking pictures of barcodes or receiving data over Bluetooth. While Londoners will almost certainly own an Oyster card (a smartcard for use on public transport), people elsewhere are probably yet to embrace the technology. Banks offering contactless payment cards are still finding that it the usage is minimal, partly due to the lack of establishments set up to accept them.

I’m not sure that we’re going to see a huge number of establishments using NFC technology for some time, but the phone is ready for when they do. So far, the likely use will be for holding the phone up against an advertisement poster to get a link to a website, videos, electronic voucher or exclusive content – and not as a means of replacing your credit card or season ticket.

It’s not fair to say that this technology is a gimmick because it most definitely IS the future, but for now it’s hard to see what real value it has or is going to have.

As a result, it’s hard to conclude that the Nexus S is a revolutionary phone that is. In fact, it’s merely evolutionary. It’s clear that Google is pitching this phone as a flagship Android device to fight alongside the iPhone, or at least be perceived by the public as the direct competition. In reality, you have the Desire HD and the Galaxy S as equally good top-end models, while Motorola’s DEFY is another worthy contender with the added benefit of its ‘life proof’ properties.

What’s more, the hefty price is also something that would make me seriously consider waiting to see how the pricing changes in the new year. £549.95 is too much to pay for something that really isn’t much of an improvement over the Galaxy S, especially given its $529 price-tag Stateside. Not only that, but it’s more expensive than a Galaxy Tab!

The price improves if you take it on contract, being free on a £35 per month contract (over two years) but we’re not far away from both the Consumer Electronics Show in January and Mobile World Congress in February. At both events, we’re guaranteed to be shown some new Android devices that will offer all of what the Nexus S has and more, such as dual-core processors, improved screens, better cameras, Full HD video recording and more. The only advantage here is that the Nexus S is out now, and these will be a few months away at least.

But, if you’re not fussed about what the future holds and want the best model on sale right now, the Nexus S isn’t going to disappoint. If you have the money, have decided on Android and want something that’s the best on offer as of today, Google has got the phone for you.


The Nexus S is available exclusively through Carphone Warehouse (UK), Phone House (Europe) and Best Buy (US and UK) stores, as well as online, but stock is likely to be limited to those who pre-order and full supplies aren’t likely until the middle of January. By then, we might see a price cut (at least in the UK) but you’ll be at the back of the queue.

The phone is being aimed primarily at early adopters who can’t wait to get their hands on Android 2.3, despite it most likely being a short time before it appears on other models. NFC is not yet something to get too excited about, and the rest of the changes are quite insignificant, like a different theme, one new live wallpaper and other minor tweaks. It’s certainly not the full-blown user interface redesign some people hoped for, and this will be saved for Android 3.0.

But, taking a Samsung Galaxy S and making relatively few changes isn’t a bad thing when the original phone was so good. If you can live without the ability to expand the memory and always longed for a camera flash, this is the perfect phone – but one you’ll have to pay dearly for the privilege to own.

Ratings (out of 5)

[wpgalleryimage title=”Editors-Choice-4Star” float=right]Performance: 4
Features: 5
Usability: 5



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