Review: Google Nexus S doesn't live up to the original 'Google phone'

Summary:The Nexus S is the latest "Google phone" but it doesn't quite live up to the standard of its predecessor, the Nexus One. Learn why and what you should get instead.

Google revived its line of Nexus "Google phone" products at the end of 2010 with the Nexus S -- manufactured by Samsung, running the stock Android OS, using a standard T-Mobile smartphone plan, and sold through Best Buy.

As I noted in Google raises the white flag on transforming the US wireless industry, the Nexus S is much less ambitious than the Nexus One, which set out to move the US wireless industry toward the European model of wireless service. As it turns, the Nexus S also doesn't live up to the standard of Nexus One as a top-of-the-line Android device.

Photo gallery

Nexus S: Photos and screenshots of the new Google Phone

Specs

  • Carrier: T-Mobile (US and UK), Vodaphone (UK), Orange (UK), O2 (UK)
  • OS: Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread)
  • Processor: 1.0 GHz Cortex A8 (Hummingbird)
  • RAM: 512MB
  • Storage: 16GB built-in (no expansion slot)
  • Display: 4-inch Super AMOLED WVGA, 800x480
  • Battery: 1500 mAh
  • Ports: microUSB 2.0, 3.5mm 4-conductor headset jack
  • Weight: 4.55 ounces (129g)
  • Dimensions: 4.88(h) x 2.48(w) x 0.43(d) inches
  • Camera: 5MP with flash, autofocus, and video; front-facing VGA
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, three-axis gyroscope, GPS, digital compass, proximity sensor, light sensor
  • Keyboard: On-screen keyboard (portrait and landscape)
  • Networks: Quad-band GSM: 850/900/1800/1900, Tri-band HSPA: 900/2100/1700, HSDPA (7.2Mbps), HSUPA (5.76Mbps)
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1; Near Field Communications (NFC)
  • Tethering: USB and mobile hotspot
  • Price: $199 (with 2-year contract); $529 (no contract)

Who is it for?

For both Android developers and Android purists who want the stock Android OS without any of the skins and software layers that the OEMs slap on top of it, the Nexus S is the latest smartphone (with the most up-to-date hardware profile) to offer the native Google experience.

What problems does it solve?

Unlike the Nexus One, the Nexus S is not limited to being sold only through Google's online store and only at the unsubsidized retail price. The Nexus S is sold just like any other smartphone -- subsidized with a two-year contract -- through T-Mobile and is also available for retail purchase at Best Buy. The Nexus S offers a hardware upgrade from the Nexus One and it is also the first device to run Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

Standout features

  • Untarnished Android - By far, the best thing about the Nexus S is that it runs the stock Android OS. All of the Android vendors, from Motorola to HTC to Samsung, put their own software, widgets, and skins on top of Android in order to differentiate themselves from each other as Android device makers. In almost all cases, this additional software layer subtracts from the Google Android experience rather than adding to it (the one exception is HTC, in my opinion, which offers a few nice additions).
  • Timely Android updates - The other thing that goes hand-in-hand with having a stock Android device like the Nexus S is that it gets the latest version of Android OS updates faster than any of the OEM devices. When a new version of Android comes out, the hardware makers have to test it to make sure it works with their Android add-ons, then the carriers test it to make sure it works with their Android add-ons, then the carriers finally push it out to their Android users (and, even then, some devices get updated and others don't).  With a Nexus device, you don't have to wait for the hardware makers or the telecom carriers, whenever Google decides that an OS release is ready for mainstream use, it pushes it out to its Nexus devices. This means you get the latest Android software release in a matter of weeks instead of months.
  • Hardware refresh - The main advantage of the Nexus S over its predecessor, the Nexus One, is that it offers beefed up hardware -- an updated processor, a larger screen, a front-facing camera, the addition of an NFC chip, and some additional sensors. Although they both run a 1.0 GHz processor, the Nexus S has an updated CPU model that provides improved performance.

What's wrong?

  • No HSPA+ (T-Mobile "4G") - Since the Nexus S is locked into T-Mobile (in the US), the biggest disappointment is that the device is not equipped to take advantage of T-Mobile's new HSPA+ network, which it dubiously calls 4G. However, whether it is legitimately 4G or not, the HSPA+ network does offer a nice speed boost over its traditional 3G network. The fact that the Nexus S doesn't have HSPA+ capability means that it can't match T-Mobile's HTC wonder twins, the G2 and the myTouch 4G (both of which were released before the Nexus S).
  • No dual core - At CES 2011, just a few weeks after Google unveiled the Nexus S, the rest of the Android world unveiled a fleet of Android devices powered by the NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core. That's now the gold standard for high-end Android devices and the fact that the Nexus S doesn't have it makes it feel like it's a generation behind.
  • Too much plastic - As for the build quality of the Nexus S, I feel the same way about it as I felt about the Samsung Galaxy S models like the Vibrant and the Fascinate. It has a lot of thin plastic that makes it very light, but also makes it feel cheap and not very sturdy. This is quite a contrast to the Nexus One (built by HTC), which had a very attractive design with a lot more metal and felt like it could handle a lot more wear and tear.

Bottom line for business

Overall, the Google Nexus S feels like a step backward for the Nexus line of "Google phones," and not just because of Google's less ambitious agenda with the product. The Nexus S just doesn't offer enough important hardware upgrades from the Nexus One to make up for the lower build quality.

If you're a developer and you want a device with the stock Android OS that gets the latest updates from Google, then I'd recommend getting a Nexus One from the Android developer program or getting one off of eBay. If you're a T-Mobile customer looking for a great device, then I'd recommend the G2 or the myTouch 4G over the Nexus S. If you're a simply smartphone buyer in the market for a top-of-the-line device, then I'd recommend waiting for the Motorola Atrix 4G or the HTC Thunderbolt.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile OS, Smartphones

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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