Samsung Nexus S Review – Or.. how an iPhone fan came to try Android
For the past decade, I’ve had very little patience for any one mobile phone prior to the iPhone. They always had a fatal flaw which a newer model addressed so substantially that I’d always end up upgrading in short order, and frequently a few times per year (for the sake of providing the readers with good reviews, of course).
That sort of petered off when I got an original iPhone back in 2008. It was so good and so above and beyond what others were doing that all the other options just seemed dated in comparison. Since then I’ve upgraded to the 3GS and have been happy enough with Apple’s updating all the phones to the same firmware that I’ve felt happy enough waiting for the iPhone 5 and skipping the current iPhone 4 with its funky antenna.
Since the launch of the original iPhone and subsequent launch of the Android platform, however, Android phones have progressed quite nicely and it has continually irked me that I’ve become so ‘fat and happy’ with iOS ecosystem that I had not yet spent enough quality time with an Android phone to really get the ‘feel’ for it. So in a recent trip to the USA, I bought the new Nexus S for ‘experimental’ purposes.
The Nexus S is Google’s spec for an Android reference phone (following on the footsteps of the Nexus One). Why didn’t I get another Android model you ask? Well, carriers LOVE to configure phones they deploy and thus, you end up with phones that are somewhat burdened with craptastic carrier-specific software and customizations as well as slow update cycles. Basically, if you want to stay on top of the latest Android OS releases when they are released by Google officially, you will need to have either the Nexus One or the Nexus S.
The phone wasn’t cheap, but on the other hand it was tri-band UMTS, which my iPhone was not, so I was able to get 3G coverage in the USA via T-Mobile (1700mhz) and now in the UK (2100mhz). As a side note, now that I’m back in the UK, I can say that my experience with T-Mobile USA’s 3G was quite good.
So onto the phone itself -
The Hardware (Pros)
The Nexus S is designed and manufactured by Samsung (in contrast to the Nexus One being made by HTC). In the hand, the Nexus S feels less ‘solid’ than the Nexus One, but still feels quite good in a light-plastic kind of way. There are two hardware buttons, one for power and one for the volume. They are both relatively easy to press and I haven’t had them fail on me yet. I do think that the overall effect of the Nexus S is quite aesthetically pleasing and feels great in the hand though. The haptic feedback is useful and the smoothness of the buttons (real and virtual) feels great as well.
However, the biggest positive attribute of the Nexus S is the screen. It is gorgeous. Not as accurate as the iPhone’s Retina Display, but pretty damn close, with a rich color spectrum and a nice feel to it. I must say, going back to my 3Gs after this display feels restrictive. However, the display is probably one of the Nexus’s biggest Achilles’ heel as well, but I’ll cover more of that later in the section having to do with battery life.
The phone’s camera is also worth noting as a major positive in that the pictures are quite nice and the flash works quite well. I’m quite satisfied with this feature as it lives up to my expectation.
Lastly, in terms of sounds quality and phone reception, it is pretty good. Calls sound nice and rich and the reception (both 3G and 2G) is better than that of my 3GS iPhone.
The Hardware (Cons)
As for negative points on the hardware side of things, the biggest weakness is the battery life of the Nexus S. It just isn’t good enough. I’ve tried the phone factory clean (after re-install), with apps, without them, with all services turned off (auto-sync, wifi, GPS, 3G, brightness at low, etc) and consistently the battery drains at too far a pace. I’ve even had the phone in airplane mode for a long flight and have seen the drop in battery life just from the OS being on standby!! To make things worse, the phone takes twice as long to charge as the iPhone. Yes, the iPhone’s battery life isn’t great either, but at least if you plug it in for like 30 min, you get a substantial battery improvement almost to full. The Nexus S feels like for everyone 1 min of time you lose you need 1 min to charge.. which can take forever. Partially, I think the screen is to blame and perhaps partially the Android OS itself. I say the screen because a large part of the battery usage drain (according the handy battery usage meter provided within Android’s settings) is attributed to having the screen on. I keep the screen on at the lowest brightness, but basically using it to text or browse really makes the Nexus S take a hit.
From a design perspective, I also think that Samsung didn’t really address the battery issue either by allowing for easier swapping of batteries (the door is hard to remove and likely to break over time with multiple openings) and/or an option for a bulky extended battery that some people (like me) would opt for over the slim profile.
Another negative point is that the Nexus S comes with a fixed amount of onboard memory, 16GB to be exact. All other Android phones have support for micro SD cards, so I’m left scratching my head as to why they’d have this huge omission which creates quite a restriction considering the amount of media I’d like to create with the awesome camera and music I’d like to carry with me. ARGH!!!!
Lastly, on the hardware front, I get the feeling that the touch accuracy isn’t that great on the Nexus S. It’s not way off, but sometimes, clicks particularly, on the web-browser are registered above or below the one I want. Mind you, I’m not new to touch interfaces, so yes, I AM being careful and it still isn’t 100% hit rate.
The Software (Cons)
Now, onto the Android OS and my general thoughts on how it is implemented on the Nexus S. For your reference, I’ve manually updated my phone to 2.3.3 (it came in the box with 2.3.1). To end things on a positive note, let’s start off with the things that I don’t like about where Android is before I go into the things I do like.
1) Touch on Android is weird, perhaps due to the lack of multi-touch? Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t.
2) Android’s Marketplace is difficult to use. Discovering apps is tough, but furthermore, the quality of apps is all over the place leading one to be fearful that you’re installing something that will be detrimental to your phone. An example is a Live Wallpaper that wanted access to my facebook account.. now why would a wallpaper app want access to my social data? Dodgy. Lastly, billing is another tough one, I set up my American Express card, but then when I tried to pay for something, it didn’t work because I guess the developer didn’t take Amex and then needed to input my other credit card. Argh. Also, I have two Google accounts (work/home) and it chose my work one to bill the apps to, argh… Google needs to clean the Marketplace up to inspire more confidence in the platform.
3) Copy & Paste is difficult and annoying and full of bugs. There were times when I could select things only in one direction, or it ignored a vertical drag upwards (to capture word wrapped text). There is also no choice on cut/copy just copy, and you can’t do select text on all apps in the OS, some will only copy the full text of the message, then you need to take that to the notepad app (you have to download one) and then paste it there, then copy the piece of the text you want to reuse. Let’s just summarize this point in saying that it needs substantial work.
4) Inconsistent behavior of core apps / bugs. The core apps (address, calendar, etc) are still unstable and have erratic behavior. As an example, and I have tested this one numerous times and in front of others, I get inconsistent behavior from incoming calls that I want to add to my address book to a contact that is already there (add to contact). Sometimes when I edit the contact, the number I want to add is added in as it should, and at other times, it is omitted and only a blank field is shown. Quite bad. UPDATE: This was fixed from my transition from 2.3.1 to 2.3.3
5) Removal of Facebook integration with 2.3.3 – Ironically, the biggest strength that I found in the Android platform when I got the phone with 2.3.1 turned into its biggest omission in 2.3.3, namely the Address Book. In 2.3.1, Facebook integration was awesome. I could go to a contact, have their contact information from Facebook appended to my address book’s contact info on the same person + it would include their latest Facebook update in the address book. It was a great thing to have. Now, however, it was removed in 2.3.3 and for reasons which are not technical. I hope the two companies can work together again to re-instate this feature.
6) Inconsistent and or confusing UI with redundancy of features. I’ve found that Android’s UI leaves many options for doing the same thing, leading to some redundancies in process flow as well as sometimes burying settings too deep into menus. Additionally, sometimes the way settings are done can be inconsistent across apps (UI consistencies are probably less enforced in dev than iOS) an example is of increasing something (volume) by swiping right for volume up. It throws you off when you have to swipe left to increase the volume. Lastly, on the Nexus S, the back button is horribly close to the ‘Archive’ button on the default email client leading to issues if you get caught by surprise or are typing one-handed.
7) OTA updating vs Manual via an app like iTunes – As I mentioned, when I bought the phone, it came with 2.3.1, however, 2.3.3 had been out for at least 2 weeks since then and whenever I went to ‘update software’ in the settings menu, nothing would show up. As I wanted to not only have the latest firmware, but also see if I could get rid of some of the annoying bugs, I went out to do it manually, which is not for non-techies. The first time I did the process (which isn’t hard, but just not the thing I see the mass market doing), the update failed. Turns out that you need a different file if you’re going from 2.3.2 to 2.3.3 than if you’re going from 2.3.1 to 2.3.3, again, these little details are what make this experience so frustrating. Once I was able to get the right file, it was relatively smooth sailing.
8] Great Gmail client crappy other email client (try K9, Maildroid, or Enhanced Mail from the market place as an alternative) – Lastly, I find that while the GMail app for GMail accounts is great, the built in Email client for all non-Gmail accounts is quite sub-par. I’m not going to enumerate the various reasons why since that’s not the scope of this review, just trust me on this one. This Gmail client + other email client format for Android kills the unified inbox vision that the iPhone has nailed down solid.
9) App CPU/Memory management is still a very manual process – Although with Gingerbread (2.3) app killing isn’t as necessary as it was with previous versions of the OS, certain apps, can still get out of control and really be a drain on your battery if not stopped manually in time.
10) I wish that I could synchronize the contact book / calendar with other accounts (exchange or otherwise) than Gmail accounts. Overall, I can see why Google would want you to have a Gmail account (after all, Apple requires you have an Apple account), but with Google, it feels far more enforced than with Apple (with Apple, it would be the equivalent of having to sign up for a Mobile Me account and email, even if for free).
The Software (Pros)
Now onto the things that I really like about the Android platform…
1) Socially integrated address book – Before 2.3.3, the integration of Twitter, Skype, and Facebook into my address book was awesome. Before calling someone, I could see what their last tweet and Facebook post was. It was awesome, but alas.. it is gone now, at least the Facebook integration is.
2) Widgets, shortcuts, and layout of the front page. I love the widgets and shortcuts of the front page. I have my Spotify player, settings shortcuts, and the key apps I use all in a very friendly layout. It makes customizing your phone far more fun than the iPhone could ever be.
3) Applications can intercept phone events. I love how in Android (for good of for bad) all apps can control the platform up to a point. For example, you can have an App intercept a phone call that is about to be made and make a decision about it (is it long distance? If so, use Skype or Rebtel). The possibilities are endless on this one.
4) Adding of words to your personal dictionary – no more ducking ducks, so to speak.
5) Sharing feature -In Android, all apps that can share something or have something shared into them integrate into the ‘sharing menu’. This allows you to do stuff like share anything into an email, or on Facebook, etc. Very well integrated into the OS so any app can share into any other App. This isn’t always possible with iOS (with a few exceptions).
6) Add attachments in email – Again, it’s the little things. In iOS, I can’t create an email and add attachments. In Android I can. Very useful.
7) All Google Apps (navigation in particular) are very polished and with features that aren’t available in iOS or any other platform. The best of these being the Maps/Navigation apps + the Calendar app (I hate how in iOS, for example, clicking on the location of an event in the calendar, does nothing, in Android it does).
Android is coming along nicely. Whilst it lacks the maturity of Apple’s iOS, it is quickly catching up and it has a DNA that is potentially more innovative and powerful than what Apple has designed to appeal and train the tech masses on the merits of Smartphones. If Google can make their Marketplace as seamless and pleasant an experience as the Apple App Store and in the process capture the bulk of the best developers (something they are starting to do due to Apple’s overly draconian and spotty application approval process), Google may quickly succeed in solving one of the biggest drawbacks of the platform, App availability, App quality, and App ease of purchase. Then, if Google can sort out the Android bugs and make the experience just a little bit more seamless and intuitive for the layman (particularly when it comes to maintenance issues), I think that Android stands a good chance of dominating.
I’ll keep my Nexus S for a while longer to see how the platform progresses beyond 2.3.3. I want to want to champion Android after the promise that I’ve seen it has, but I don’t think it’ll be replacing my mom’s trusty iPhone just yet.
Update: I still have my Nexus S, and I’m liking it more and more every day. I’ve put my 3GS up on Ebay, but I do wish battery life were better.
- The Nexus S: Unadulterated Android (technologizer.com)
- The difference between Apple iOS 4.3 and Android 2.3 Gingerbread (differencebetween.com)
- What’s the best Android phone on T-Mobile? (geek.com)
- Samsung to release Nexus S across all Canadian carriers (reviews.cnet.com)
- Samsung Nexus S: The Next Google Phone Is the First With Android Gingerbread [Video] (gizmodo.com)
- Nexus S: Using the Best Google Android Phone [Video] (gizmodo.com)
- Android 2.3.3 wrecking Nexus S color accuracy? (electronista.com)
- Fred Wilson’s Nexus S Review (avc.com)
- The Nexus S: Is this the Android version of a Cr-48? (thenextweb.com)
- Editorial: The Nexus One: One Year Later (androidpolice.com)