First Look: Google Nexus S

The Google Nexus S is the second Google phone to hit the market, the first Android 2.3 device. It has been designed and built by Samsung, whereas its forebear, the Google Nexus One, came from HTC. The Nexus One quickly appeared in another form as the HTC Desire with some minor tweaking, we’ve yet to see whether Samsung will launch a successor to its Galaxy S handset. We suspect it will.

Comparisons so far have been drawn between the Samsung Galaxy S and the Google Nexus S because it seems the most obvious choice. They bear some resemblance physically, as well as technically, but it’s not that simple. Get both phones in your hands and it becomes instantly obvious that they’re different. They feel different, they look different.

However, everything that sets the Google Nexus S apart from the Samsung Galaxy S seems like a logical evolution. The Google Nexus S is more rounded on its body, the screen is slightly curved and the bulbous bottom we saw on the Galaxy S is now slightly larger. The Nexus S measures 63 x 123.9 x 10.88mm and weighs 129g.

But this isn’t just design for the sake of design. When holding the Nexus S it was balanced and nestled down into the palm of your hand ready to be put into action. The squared cut of the Galaxy S just doesn’t feel as comfortable now, and the bulbous bottom on the Nexus S fits into your hand giving the phone support. Perhaps we’re a little over-excited about this, but it felt like the phone had been custom made to our very own hand. They say that cars are sold on basic things - the sound of the door closing, the feel of the steering wheel, the action of the seat belt pull. If Google wants to shift phones, then we think it's already taken a step in the right direction. That is if Samsung doesn’t then sell an identical version of its own.

From discussions that have emerged around the Internet, some are disappointed that the Nexus S doesn’t push the hardware boundaries forward. Some are calling for a 1.2GHz or dual core processor, some are dismayed by the lack of upgradable storage - you get your 16GB and you better be happy with it.

But the real point here is about performance. If the Nexus S can do everything you want with the hardware it has, do you need to wind up the numbers? Digital cameras ramped up their megapixels in incremental steps, but it didn’t always translate into performance. We’ve always argued that sheer processing power isn’t the be all and end all. Yes, it will step over a shoddy OS (like the HTC HD2 did with Windows Mobile 6.5), but it is software refinement that is more often the key to a device that works. The question that some will have is whether a device that toes the line at the top of the smartphone pile at the moment, will be able to hold its own as we ask more of our phones in the future.

The Google Nexus S runs the new Android 2.3. Visually it doesn’t look drastically different, but there are some slick little touches here and there that make Android a little more refined. There are also a few new changes to accommodate hardware and the inclusion of NFC support is the biggest change overall. Of course you need to be able to put this to some sort of use (which we didn’t get the chance to do in our hands-on) and at this point in time, we wouldn’t say it is a reason to buy a phone - not until there is a commonplace real world benefit.

But the little touches you will notice are things like pressing the standby button - and the screen blinks off like an old cathode ray tube. Get to the top or bottom of a list and you get a yellow burst to accompany the slight bounce you get. It’s a small detail, but effective at telling you that you’ve reached the bottom of that particular menu. The status icons across the top of the screen have been redesigned too.

A more substantial change is the keyboard. Android keyboards come in many forms and the default that we’ve been using across past generations has been good. HTC’s Sense keyboard always offered more, as do the likes of SwiftKey and various others. Google has tackled this for themselves now and created a keyboard that feels more complete. It feels as though it acknowledges the sorts of thing that people are writing on a smartphone. Access to numbers is much better and the fresh look is welcomed too. We can’t really identify all the quirks in the keyboard with only a brief hands-on, but we came away feeling positive about it. 

One of the new features is the way text is selected and highlighted. Individual word selection happens in a flash, with draggable markers so you can easily place them where needed. The cursor placement gets a marker too. In truth, adding these sorts of features brings the stock keyboard up to date, with other platforms already offering this sort of convenience.

The Google Nexus S is also fast. Menus move with a fluid grace, apps open and close with barely a pause. Browser pages render, drag and zoom with the sort of elegance that you’d expect from a top-of-the-range smartphone. Of course, this was an unsullied device, it wasn’t loaded with contacts and apps like a device in the real world will be, so we’ll have to wait and see what the result is when it really gets put to work.

Around the back of the Nexus S you’ll find a 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash. There is a front facing camera too supporting 640 x 480 pixel resolution capture and strangely Google list the video resolution of the rear camera as 720 x 480. When we checked the device it didn’t state the resolution in the settings, so we’ll have to wait and see exactly what the deal is when we get a review sample in.

One of the other features that Google has been making noise about is the 3-axis gyroscope, aimed at giving developers something else to get to grips with, and should provide some interesting game support.

Verdict

It’s easy to like the Nexus S, but we’re sure it will have its critics. It hasn’t leaped forward with screen resolution or processor speed, but that might not matter. The screen is an absolute star. It doesn’t have the resolution that the Apple iPhone 4 does, but we’re also quite glad that Google didn’t just step into a stats battle with its Cupertino rivals. Remember too that newer generation processors are more powerful than previous hardware clocked at the same speed, and the Android operating system is getting more refined all the time.

We still want to check out the little details like camera performance and how Android 2.3 performs when we actually get it integrated in to real life, but on first impressions, the Nexus S looks like a serious contender.