So recently I switched to an unlocked Nexus S as my cell phone of choice. It’s my first time dabbling in the field of unlocked phones, and things are going pretty well so far. The Nexus S definitely provides a different experience from other phones I’ve had, so I thought I’d write up a post on it.
In simple words, the Nexus S is the closest an Android enthusiast is going to get to having an iPhone 4-like experience. The two are similar in many ways. Aside from hardware bullet points like a gorgeous screen, dual cameras, internal storage and a 1Ghz processor (more on all of this in a bit), they’re both currently the flagship devices for their OS’s.
As both an unlocked phone and Google’s flagship, the Nexus S ships with a completely vanilla version of Android 2.3. That means no skins or overlays—i.e. the Sense UI you see on HTC phones, or TouchWiz on Samsung phones—and no carrier provided apps; like the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone however, it also means shockingly few apps to start with at all. Having come from an HTC Shift 4G (and an HTC Aria before that), I had come to take for granted some of the features Sense provided, with the assumption that it was just “re-arranging” standard Android features. Nope! Gone were my Scenes, gone was my ability to sort contacts into groups, gone was Friend Stream, and gone was extra extra bit of customizability with sound profiles. Even the simplest bits of functionality that HTC provided, like a reliable flashlight app or a simple stopwatch were nowhere to be seen on the newly unboxed and unwrapped Nexus S sitting in my hand. I was a little astonished.
But mind you, I’m not really complaining. What I’m driving at here is that vanilla Android offers a different experience from versions that have overlays and skins plastered over them; one that you are expected to build from the ground up by yourself, for yourself. Once I got over my initial surprise, as a tech enthusiast I was unperturbed—and even a bit impressed—by this. But it’s something to keep in mind. So off to the Android Market I went, for once to do some actual shopping, and not just browse idly.
And Android 2.3 is worth getting to know. It’s a slick and lean-feeling OS. It comes with a built in app manager that you can use to observe running processes and cut ones that get too bloated. Unlike in earlier versions of Android however, very rarely do I ever feel the need to implement a task manager, as I seem to get a respectable amount of battery life without one. Android 2.3 also comes with built-in hotspot and tethering functionality—alongside the regular slew of wireless communications options like VPN, Airplane mode, Bluetooth and Wifi—so you can use that freely if you happen to have a mobile data plan associated with the SIM card you stick in your phone. As an unlocked phone, the Nexus S also has useful options regarding mobile data networks, ensuring you’re able to text and surf the web reliably. Little usability touches like the app library animation and the screen lock mimicking the look of an old TV turning off go a fair way in making both the OS and phone running it a joy to use.
Though as of this writing the Nexus S is getting on in age in the veritable arms race that is the mobile industry, it’s still a very capable phone hardware-wise, and it shows in its performance. The device is pure black, save the chrome-rimmed camera lens, flash LED, and gray engravings on the back for Google and Samsung (the latter of which manufactured the phone). There are no sharp angles to be found on this phone; it has a very rounded shape, from the soft edges and corners to the inwardly curved screen, dubbed the Contour Display. I guess the curve is supposed to make watching movies more awesome. Personally, I don’t think that’s really case, but it’s a cool and unique touch nonetheless. On the right side there’s a small but very easy to use power/screen wake/unlock button, on the left a large and similarly comfy volume rocker. Meanwhile, the bottom edge is occupied by a micro-USB slot, the mic hole, and the 3.5mm headphone jack—incidentally, the phone came with a luxurious-looking set of in-ear earbuds, though I’m having trouble using them to good effect.
Unfortunately there’s no notification LED to be found on the Nexus S. It was surprisingly useful feature on my HTC phones of past, telling me at a glance when I had a new email or text. While I do miss it, I certainly get on fine without it.
Inside, the Nexus S is packing the standard smartphone stuff like WiFi, Bluetooth, but throws in a surprise or two in the form of a 16GB helping of internal flash storage (a la iPhone), and an NFC chip (attached to the inside of the back cover). For those of you who don’t know, NFC—otherwise known as Near Field Communications—is a form of close range, extremely low power wireless communication that is currently all the rage in Japan. Capable of dealing in small amounts of data, NFC works in a couple different ways to make certain actions less mundane. To give some examples of it, you could wave your phone near a cash register to instantly check out and be on with your business, or hold it near a receptacle to receive a coupon on your phone. To my knowledge it hasn’t really caught on at all in the US yet, but it’s a pleasant addition nonetheless.
I know some people really like having expandable storage via microSD cards, but 16GB is way more than I ever had on my other phones, since I never wanted to put down cash for an expensive storage card. I actually like having the internal storage; it simplifies things.
As mentioned before, the Nexus S also comes with a 1GHz processor. Furthermore, it comes packing 1GB of RAM. By today’s standards that’s by no means makes it a blazing stallion, but this is the smoothest Android experience I’ve ever had. The Nexus S is easily the first phone I can safely say equals the iPhone 4 in sheer smoothness of the user experience. Everything just works, and the extra hardware helps make navigating the phone fun and intuitive.
The Nexus S also has one of the best cameras I’ve seen on a phone. I’m no photography aficionado, nor have I tested out dozens of phones or cameras in my time, so I guess my opinion doesn’t count for much; I’m just saying that the pictures that come out of this phone’s 5MP back lens come out surprisingly clear and vibrant. The tracking is smooth too; more so than most phones, but not quite up there with the iPhone 4 or even the iPod Touch. The front facing camera is as good as you’d expect a front-facing camera to be—that is, not very good. But it’s there, and it’s a pleasant addition. The Nexus S’s camera is interesting to me in that it does not autofocus until you press the capture button. All cameras I’ve used before, you would get your picture ready, try to steady the lens, and then the phone would automatically autofocus, something that you would wait a bit for before taking the shot. Here, pressing the capture button begins the focusing process, and then the phone takes the shot automatically when it’s done. The camera software comes with an acceptable number of photo taking options, including exposure level, quality (and resulting file size), and a couple of filters. I would like to give special note to the included image gallery software, which is pretty rad. It reminds me a lot of the photo gallery app on the PS3; flashy, but functional.
Call quality on the Nexus S seems to be pretty good. I didn’t run any tests whatsoever, but I’ve not had a single person ask me to repeat what I said or say they’re having trouble hearing me in the 3 months or so that I’ve had the phone so far. I would like to say that the ambient light sensor on this thing is probably the most effective one I’ve ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with. The screen shuts on and off with perfect timing when I hold it up to my face, and it adjusts its own brightness automatically just as well as any Apple product.
Being mostly plastic, the phone may feel surprisingly light and cheap to some people. I can understand that complaint, especially coming from an Evo Shift, which was a pretty bulky, heavy phone for all its bells and whistles. Personally, I think the Nexus S’s sleek piano black finish and elegant curves make up for the materials it’s composed of.
The Nexus S is probably the best phone I’ve ever had, to be frank. There were a couple trade-offs coming from my Evo Shift 4G—mainly a physical keyboard and HTC Sense—but for a phone as smooth (both in operation and design) as this, I think whatever misgivings I might have are far outweighed.