Google is behind the increasingly successful Android operating system, but generally steers clear of the hardware side of things. The original Nexus launched just over a year ago; Google's follow-up, the Nexus S, is the first available handset running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), and is a pure, unskinned offering at that. Our review sample came from Clove Technology.
The Nexus S has a more refined design than its predecessor. Taking a tip from the Palm Pre 2, it has an entirely black front when the screen is off. There is no branding, and no buttons are visible beneath the screen.
The 4in.-screen Nexus S is made by Samsung and runs an unskinned version of Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
It's only when the Nexus S is switched on that four touch buttons beneath the screen become visible, backlit by a faint white light. These offer the Android's usual Back, Menu, Search and Home functions. There are no Call and End keys, but they're unnecessary as the unskinned version of Android has a Call icon on each home screen that opens up the handset's dial pad. The Call button sits in a trio of touch buttons; the others open the apps menu and the web browser.
Nor is there a button for navigating around the screen, which is perhaps more of a disadvantage. It's easy enough to press and drag for general movement and to launch apps, but precision can be tricky with a fingertip: finding a link on a web page or tapping the point where an email needs editing is a job for an optical trackpad or something similar.
The screen is a good size at 4in. across the diagonal, and its 480-by-800-pixel resolution is pretty standard for a high-end smartphone. The screen is sharp and bright, its Super AMOLED technology making it shine out from its black surroundings beautifully. Viewing angles are good and clarity is superb: it's a high-quality screen that comes into its own particularly for web browsing.
Google says the Nexus S has an 'anti-fingerprint display coating', but we're not impressed: our review handset became covered in fingerprints in a very short time.
So far, so good, but there are a couple of less endearing features. The Nexus S has been made for Google by Samsung (the original Nexus was made by HTC), and both companies have put their branding on the back of the chassis. Neither this nor the smooth, shiny plastic backing are to our liking. We'd have preferred a rubbery finish to help with grip, and for the branding to have been less obvious.
The chassis has a slight outward curvature on the bottom of the back edge, and the smallest of curves on the top and bottom front edges. In the former respect it's reminiscent of the design of Samsung's Galaxy S. Between them these curves are supposed to make the handset more comfortable hold and fit the ear better, but the screen curvature is so slight as to have no effect at all — other than, no doubt, adding to the manufacturing costs.
The chassis materials are all plastic, and so have a somewhat less 'classy' feel than smartphones that include a fair amount of metal. Nevertheless, the build is solid: the chassis might break if dropped from a height, but it doesn't bow or twist in the hand.
Side buttons are minimal with an on/off switch on the right edge, a volume rocker on the left and Micro-USB and 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom edge. We'd prefer the latter on the top edge.
Thanks to its 4in. screen, the Nexus S measures a fairly large 63mm wide by 123.9mm deep by 10.88mm thick. Our small hands could not quite reach all the way across the screen for comfortable one-handed use. At 129g, it's a reasonably light handset.
The Nexus S ships with a stereo headset with round in-ear buds, an AC adapter and Micro-USB to USB connection cable. There was no user guide with our review sample.
Android 2.3 heads up the Nexus S feature set, but of the most notable additional features is the presence of a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip. This short-range wireless technology opens the door to all kinds of data exchange: examples include proximity marketing and access to URLs when you pass the handset near a suitably equipped location.
There's limited opportunity to use this technology at the moment, but Google clearly thinks it has potential. With the recent announcement by Everything Everywhere of a handset launch supporting NFC-based payment, Google may well be right.
Android 2.3 is not a massive leap forward from version 2.2, but it does add some nice new features. NFC support aside, it caters for dual cameras, and so the Nexus S supports two. There is a flash-equipped 5-megapixel camera on the back, and a front-facing VGA-resolution camera for video calling.
The on-screen keyboard has a number of usability enhancements in Android 2.3
The on-screen keyboard has been tweaked to make typing quicker and easier, with features like a pop-up menu of accented characters becoming available when you hold keys down, and a range of characters including '!', '?', ':' and '@' becoming available when you hold down the space bar.
You can even use speech-to-text, thanks to a link on the keyboard. We found it quite accurate, if a little slow, and on balance about the same speed as typing — slower if you need to make a few corrections to a spoken phrase.
The copy and paste feature is accessible by pressing down on any word and then dragging a selection bar. This is easy to use providing text is fairly large when you make your first press and hold so that you can hit what you want accurately.
It's now easier to manage apps that are consuming a lot of battery power thanks to a Running tab in the Manage Applications area. This provides a list of running apps along with the storage and memory they are consuming. Applications can be stopped from here.
SIP-based VoIP calling is also supported, although there was no client on our review handset — and strangely there's no video call option on the standard Android dialler. Google is clearly expecting third parties to run with SIP-based calling, but does not offer its own solution.
The new features also include a range of animation and look-and-feel tweaks, plus a shut-down animation where the screen fades to a white horizontal bar, as old TV sets used to.
Many users' ultimate Android 2.3 experience will be a skinned one that may access some of its new features via preinstalled apps.
The Nexus S is powered by a 1GHz Cortex A8 (Hummingbird) processor and we encountered no performance issues. Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth (2.1+EDR), GPS and HSPA are all present, the latter supporting 7.2Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up.
There is a generous 16GB of internal storage, but Google has inexplicably failed to provide a microSD slot for storage expansion. Microsoft received a bad press for the same failing in its Windows Phone 7 devices.
Elsewhere, Android 2.3 is very familiar. There are five home screens between which you flick with a finger sweep. The Menu button lets you add widgets, shortcuts and folders, and change wallpaper. The range of widgets available is not as great as you get with many skinned versions of Android, but we assume that third parties will add more.
Performance & battery life
We had no problems with the performance of the Nexus S. Even better news is that battery life is good.
A 1,500mAh battery is a good choice for such a potentially power-hungry handset. Google says the battery power the Nexus S for up to 6.7 hours of 3G talk and 17.8 days on 3G standby. Clearly, the recharge frequency will depend on how much you use features like Wi-Fi and GPS. A daily recharge is always going to be needed, but we found we didn't have to worry unduly about a mid-afternoon mains power boost.
Unlike network-locked smartphones (and indeed many unlocked devices from other manufacturers), Google's Nexus range gets software updates very quickly. So if you want Android 2.3 now, and need to be assured of swift updates, the Nexus S is the way to go.
Apart from the lack of a microSD card slot, we like the Nexus S, with its good performance, high-quality Super AMOLED screen and decent battery life.