For its next-generation Nexus phone, the unlocked Nexus S made by Samsung (but usually sold with a T-Mobile subsidy for $199.99), Google has produced what can be best described as an advanced basic smartphone. It features some bleeding-edge technologies such as a 4-inch AMOLED screen, Android 2.3 Gingerbread, NFC tag reading, a front-facing camera, and both tethering and mobile hotspot capabilities. These advanced features are undercut, however, by its lack of soon-to-be-standard features for smartphones of its ilk, such as high-definition video recording, HSPA+ 4G to fuel its mobile hotspot, and no pre-installed video chatting app. It makes a fine introduction to Android, but is unlikely to appeal to more advanced users moving to their second or third smartphones.
If the Nexus S looks vaguely familiar – that’s because it’s a slightly redesigned version of Samsung’s Galaxy S phone for T-Mobile, the Vibrant. The Nexus S is molded with slightly rounder corners, lacks Vibrant’s silver perimeter band, and moves the microUSB and the headphone jack from the top to the bottom of the phone. They both have a distinctive rear bump on the bottom, and a 4-inch Super AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) screen. This one is brighter and more colorful, although it does tend toward the greener part of the spectrum. Otherwise, physically, they’re the same phone.
Inside, while both sport a 1GHz processor, the Nexus S runs Google’s latest and fastest Android OS, v2.3 Gingerbread, while Vibrant runs 2.2 Froyo. Both phones include a 5-megapixel camera, but the Nexus S includes an LED flash. The Vibrant includes 720p high-definition recording, while the Nexus S mysteriously records only 720 x 480.
The phone’s singular breakthrough is the inclusion of NFC, near field communication. Wave the Nexus S over an NFC tag, such as an RFID (radio frequency identification) code, from an inch or two away to initiate or perform all manner of functions. NFC can be used as electronic money, sort of like a Blink credit card. An NFC-endowed phone can be used as a ticket, a hotel room key, or for information exchange between devices. It can be used to quickly pair a Bluetooth headset. It can link you to a Web site or activate a function or download.
In other words, there are lots of potential NFC usages, and one day all cellphones will be so endowed. But right now, there are few NFC tags to be read anywhere in the U.S. (Google has initiated a pilot program in Portland, OR). By the time NFC tags become ubiquitous, the Nexus S will be an ancient smartphone.
Similarly undercut is the Nexus S’ front-facing VGA camera, by the lack of QIK or other video-chatting software preinstalled. While there is 16GB of memory built in, like the iPhone, the Nexus S lacks a microSD slot for additional memory.
With its bright, crystalline Super AMOLED screen, the Nexus S makes a wonderful video viewer. YouTube videos load automatically in full screen at high quality. Out only quibble is the screen’s slight green-or-yellowish discoloration, sort of like the tint you see on old displays. Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as bad as the gray sheen that seems to overlay all images on Vibrant.
Google supplements output from the earpiece with a small but loud speaker on the rear. It’s got a tiny guard over the grille, which means music still sounds loud with only a hint of muffling when the phone is placed on its back.
The Nexus S provides plenty of volume, but voices sounded muted and muffled at both ends of cell-to-cell calls, a little less on calls to and from land lines. The excellent rear speaker provides just as much volume for voice as it does for music, lying face up or face-down.