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Posted at 11:13 AM ET, 12/16/2010

Google Nexus S review

By Rob Pegoraro

Google is making another run at selling its own smartphone. The new Nexus S--like its earlier, ill-fated Nexus One--is now on sale direct from Google's site as an unlocked device with a clean, standard Android configuration.

But unlike the Nexus One, you can inspect a Nexus S in person before buying it: Best Buy stores carry the phone, which goes for $529.99 without a wireless-service contract or $199.99 with a T-Mobile plan. (That carrier--the only one on which the Nexus S supports 3G mobile broadband--doesn't list the Nexus S on its own site. Then again, the S doesn't connect to T-Mobile's faster, 4G-ish HSPA+ service.)

(2:57 p.m. While Google's site has a "buy now" link, that takes you to Best Buy's site. The Nexus One took the opposite approach, with sales confined to Google's site.)

google_nexus_s.jpg

The obvious selling point for the Nexus S is the same as for the Nexus One: You get a "pure Google" phone free of the ill-advised modifications carriers can't seem to resist inflicting on their Android devices.

The S also runs a newer version of Android: 2.3, called "Gingerbread."

The most useful and most troublesome bits of Gingerbread relate to working with text.

When you're writing, it's a lot faster to position the cursor: Tap anywhere in your text, and a large, easily moved cursor appears below. Google has finally delivered an acceptable replacement for the trackball once standard on many Android phones--but many months after manufacturers stopped including it.

Likewise, Gingerbread finally builds in simple, free-form text selection--but does so inconsistently. In the Web browser, you just hold a finger over a word for a second or two for a pair of bracketing icons to appear around it, which you can slide around at will. In the Gmail app, you have to press the menu button, select a "More" item and then choose "Select text" off the menu.

(See Joshua Topolsky's Engadget writeup for an extended rant on this.)

Other shipping Android phones should get Gingerbread eventually--although carriers often take their time to package and test Google's updates. So what sets the Nexus S apart as a phone? Speed: The loaner phone provided by Google's PR department zips along, even in such processor-intensive tasks as flying through a 3-D view of my surroundings in the Google Earth app.

My own, nearly year-old Android phone can seem intolerably slow in comparison. (This is a downside of being a technology columnist: It rarely takes long to realize the obsolescence of my own purchases.)

The only notable slowdowns I observed came when I tried to play one Flash clip in its browser, using Adobe's add-on software: This week's video segment about mobile digital TV took its time to load--and then played without any video, leaving only a soundtrack intact.

Battery life on this model looks good compared with other Android devices--it lasted for seven hours and 22 minutes with the Pandora Web-radio app playing and the screen constantly illuminated. But even with Gingerbread's improvements in power management, the S's standby time is well short of the iPhone's.

The S includes both front and back cameras; the back offers five megapixels of resolution, although the grainy photos it took didn't appear that sharp, while the front only provides 640-by-480 pixel VGA resolution. You'll have to select your own video-calling app for it.

This gadget also leaves out two standard smartphone features: a notification LED and a microSD Card slot. Here, the 16 gigabytes of onboard memory are all you get; you can't expand them later on.

Then there's something called Near Field Communication. "NFC" may sound like an item off the spec sheet for a Star Trek communicator, but it's basically a successor of the short-range wireless used in a Metro SmarTrip card.

Since very few NFC sensors are in the field, Google sent along an NFC-enabled Google Places decal that a restaurant might place in its window. I opened the Nexus S's Tags program, held the phone over the decal and the Tags application displayed a link to a YouTube clip about the Nexus S.

Like NFC, the Nexus S is more about potential than reality. In this case, the potential is not that millions of phone shoppers will go out of their way to buy it--but that wireless carriers will see how appealing an Android device could be without their usual interference. Will they take the hint? Post your prediction in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  | December 16, 2010; 11:13 AM ET
Categories:  Mobile  
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Next: Google updates Android Maps app, making iPhone maps look even older

Comments

There's an error about Google selling the Nexus S as they did the Nexus One.

Although customers may purchase the phone online, it is through partners, not through Google. People who bought the Nexus One couldn't buy it in a store; the Nexus S can be bought at Best Buy or T-Mobile or online, but not from Google's site.

Google's www.google.com/phone site used to be a store, but now it's a showcase for all the various Android phones and tablets they are promoting but not selling directly.

Posted by: BriefEpisode | December 16, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

@BriefEpisode: Thanks for the comment. I've corrected the post.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | December 16, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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