For its third foray into the handset market, Google has finally moved away from HTC.
Samsung is the search giant's new best buddy, and the result is the sensually curvaceous Google Nexus S. In fact, Google’s new baby is based on the Samsung’s Galaxy S, which is why the phone might have a familiar ring to it.
This is generally a good thing: the 4in 480 x 800 screen uses Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology, which means it’s eyeball-searing in its brightness and amazingly colourful, and the touchscreen itself is sensitive and accurate. With a 1GHz processor under the hood, too, the Nexus S feels very responsive.
We have the same reservations about the phone’s build quality, though – the rear panel is made of glossy, insubstantial-feeling plastic, and the whole thing seems just a little cheap. It isn’t a patch on the iPhone 4, nor any of HTC’s high-end Android handsets.
There are subtle differences, though, and the headline here is the Nexus S’s curved screen. Look at it from the side and you’ll see that it’s very slightly concave, the idea being that it’s more comfortable to hold to your face than a standard, flat-screened phone. Alas, it isn’t; we asked four PC Pro staff members to blind test the Nexus S against an HTC Desire HD, and they all said the latter was more comfortable on the ear.
The phone’s much-trumpeted near field communications (NFC) chip is another red herring. Swipe the phone over an NFC tag and the phone can read data from it or write data to it. When Google demonstrated it to us at a press event, a spokesman used it to read a web address from a label, automatically launching the Android browser in the process. That’s very impressive, but it’s a technology in its infancy, and we can’t see many Nexus S owners (in the UK at least) finding much use for it.
In a more baffling move, Google has chosen to ship the Nexus S without a micro SD card slot. Instead, there’s 16GB of integrated storage; we’d expect 32GB for the sort of money Google is asking for this phone. And in another backward step, it’s only capable of shooting 720 x 480 video, which is double odd since the Galaxy S shoots 720p. In fact the only clear advantages the Nexus S has over its cousin is an LED flash for its camera and, matching the iPhone 4, a three-axis gyroscope to go with its accelerometer.
The biggest advantage to any Google phone is that owners are always ahead of the curve when it comes to operating system updates, and that hasn’t changed with Nexus S. It’s the only smartphone on the market right now to sport Android 2.3 (aka Gingerbread), and when the next version rolls along owners won’t have to wait on their network.
Elsewhere, the changes are worthy, but equally small. The apps downloaded on a previous phone are installed automatically when you first sign into your Google account. Some UI elements have been darkened in an effort to save battery life, the Running services screen is now incorporated as a tab in the Manage apps view, and the latter is now a lot easier to get to – just hit the menu button while on the home screen and tap Manage apps.
The standard onscreen keyboard has been improved, and not before time. The keys have a new look, their position has been rejigged and it’s now a lot easier to hit individual keys. Word suggestions appear above the keyboard as you type, while individual word selection, and copy and paste are much improved. We only wish the word suggestion would work in the Google widget search box.
Plus, there's now native support for making and receiving SIP VoIP calls through Android’s standard phone app, though the benefit of this is diminished somewhat by the fact it’s limited to Wi-Fi connections
One of the final claims Google makes for Android 2.3 is that it manages background tasks more closely, taking a proactive role in shutting down unnecessary processes. It’s good to see Google paying attention to this area, as rogue processes and poorly designed apps can kill an Android phone’s battery fast, but we can’t give our verdict yet. Only once more Android 2.3 handsets appear will we know if Google’s tweaks have improved matters in this regard.
What we can say is that, even if you manage your phone carefully, you’ll still not get very impressive battery life out of this phone. In our 24-hour test, in which we download 50MB of data, make a 30-minute phone call, force the screen on for an hour, listen to music for an hour and finally leave the phone in its default email checking state for the remaining time, we recorded 50 percent capacity on the gauge.
As with the Nexus S’ cousin, the Samsung Galaxy S, it’s below average and a step behind the iPhone 4 and a whole army of Android, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and Nokia phones.
Despite this, we do like the Nexus S. It's light, quick, has a lovely screen, and Google's backing ensures you'll always be ahead of the curve when it comes to Android OS updates, even if this one is a little underwhelming.
It’s expensive – but a recent price drop and a nicer screen means there’s just enough appeal for early adopters to consider it over the Nexus One.
NB - Australian pricing has not been announced as yet.