Google Nexus S – the AL4 review

In a moment of weakness I went and signed up to a 24-month contract on O2 a month ago, with the main attraction being the “free” Nexus S that was part of the deal. I did the math, and assuming my current rate of £15 per month spent on pre pay would continue, it worked out cheaper than buying the phone outright by a significant margin. Even after the post-xmas price drop.

My previous device is a Nokia N900, with the result that my standards for usability are rather low, but my standards for functionality are extremely high. There really is nothing the N900 can’t do with enough knowledge, but compared to the Nexus S it is slow and unwieldy for even the most basic functions such as email and calendaring.

As per usual, in this review I make no attempt to provide a complete or even unbiased review. These are my impressions, nothing more, and the review will be of most interest to you if you’re currently an open-source friendly N900 user in their 20s living in London. Yeah, it’s basically the comparison that I would have wanted to read before I switched.

On with the revie… er.. comparison.

Hardware

First impression of the hardware is good. It’s light, but then the N900 is a brick. It also feels lighter than my mate’s Nexus One, yet apparently they’re 1g different. Weird. It’s much thinner then the N900 too. I no longer have a brick in my pocket.

The screen blends seamlessly into the front. It appears to be durable as I’ve already dragged it off the table via charger cable onto a linoleum floor and there are no discernible marks on the body anywhere. Plastic may not look or feel as nice but it is certainly light and durable, and these are arguably more desirable attributes.

It’s comfortable to hold in the hand and I love the curved screen. If I had any complaints, one would be the lack of a texture to grip, it’s like a bar of soap at times. The screen edge is also very close to the sides, I’ve had a few accidental touches register when merely gripping the phone. This was solved by a silicone case which I’ll mention again later.

What I do miss is the physical keyboard, and I knew I would even before I bought it. But phones with hardware keyboards aren’t nearly as pocketable, so I’ve resigned myself to making do without one. Swype seems like a fairly good replacement, however soon after installing the beta (along with Handsent SMS), the phone started doing the reboot thing.

Unfortunately uninstalling them both didn’t have any effect, and the phone still occasionally reboots to this day so I have to chalk it up to coincidence and wait for the fix from Google. Handsent won’t be getting reinstalled however, it struck me as bloated, ugly and just felt “spammy”, so I don’t think I’ll be going back.

Woops, looks like we’ve already moved on to;

Software

I don’t think I’m in much of a position to comment on Gingerbread vs previous versions of Android as other than a crap-pad running Android 2.1 I haven’t used any of them extensively, so my focus is more on the comparison with Maemo. The reality though is that there really is no comparison. The resources that Google has poured into Android make 2.3 a much more polished and fluid OS, and it works very well.

Speed is critical on a mobile device. Whereas it would take ages to open the email app and download my email on the N900, with the Nexus S I don’t even have to open email and download – because it’s already pushed to my phone as soon as it’s received. Yes the N900 can autosync but it’s still a pull sync and chews battery. Simply opening your inbox can take 5-10 seconds, with Gmail on Android it’s basically instant.

The biggest paradigm shift coming from the N900 is the way that applications are managed. Maemo behaves basically like a desktop OS. Open an app and it stays open, and is fee to do whatever it likes, sleeping requires the app developer to tell their app to sleep when it’s not in focus. On Android, this is all managed by the system.

After using Google maps and going back to the home screen, the GPS turns off, and from that point on it will use no more battery than if you had never opened maps in the first place. The exception is if you’re using something like Google Latitude or another app that tracks your location. Some ad-supported apps will demand permission to send your location to advertisers, and along with the privacy implications, this will also drain your battery faster.

If you don’t use maps for a while and open some apps, Android removes maps from memory to make room for them. And that’s the difference – the N900 required you to be smart about what apps you left open, Android is smart enough to do it for you. There is simply no need to close background apps and manage what’s running manually as you’d be wasting battery power if you have to reopen them.

I will say that I preferred the N900’s app switching mechanism. All you had to do was press on the top left and you got the task switcher. With Android you press home to go back to the desktop, and if the shortcut isn’t in front of you, you have to hold down the home button again for a couple of seconds to get to the recent apps screen. Or go digging through the menu.

The Gaps

What DOES annoy me about Android is the obvious holes in the OS that Google seemingly (and unnecessarily) leaves to third party developers. A few examples are;

  • The music player. It’s ugly and featureless, I preferred the N900’s.
  • The lack of a sync scheduler. Apparently Google assumes that if you setup a work email account on your phone you’re going to want to receive notifications 24/7 or control it manually.
  • The lack of a file browser.

The N900 by comparison has Mail for Exchange which has had peak / off-peak sync scheduling capabilities for as long as I can recall. It’s an essential feature. The music player is admittedly simple but strikes me as an honest attempt to write something people will want to use.

I could forgive the absent file browser if this was a feature phone not aimed at enthusiasts, but given the target market it’s a bit baffling.

While I’m ranting about the built-in apps, the Gallery is also quite bad. First impression is “ooh shiny”, then you realise that the shinyness is masking software with a few rough edges. While it looks nicer than “Photos” on the N900, it’s actually less functional and just as frustrating to navigate. As per usual it also picks up all the album art from my music folders. Can’t we be smart and omit folders with “music” or “audio” in the path, or at least have the option to exclude them manually?!

Battery Life

Shite about sums it up.

My worst run is just 8 hours from charger disconnection to forced shutdown, and for 4 of those hours it was basically idle. Syncing and Latitude were enabled though, and for the last 4 hours I was walking around London and on the tube using maps heavily. I also listened to an hour or so of music but I would still expect better than this.

What it means for me is that a second battery is essential, and really it shouldn’t be.

If I have navigation off, latitude off, syncing on and listen to music for 2 hours a day I can eke it out for about 36 hours but it’s basically dead at the end. The N900 did this on a smaller battery and with more left in the tank – I could get 48 hours with light use but I’m pretty sure the Nexus S would be dead even if I didn’t use it at all for 2 days.

Some notes on Android Apps

I suffer from an aversion to advertising (somewhat ironic given the industry I now work in), but here are some of the more useful paid and truly free apps I’ve come across. I should note I have no problem paying for good apps, but I do have a problem with ad-supported apps on a mobile platform.

First of all they’re not really free if you have to give up your location, personal information and submit to targeted ads. Many (actually most) applications scream “FREE!” and do not disclose that they are ad-supported in the description. Secondly, mobile phones are a resource constrained environment, particularly in terms of bandwidth and screen real estate. And thirdly I’m already bombarded with enough ads throughout the day – I don’t need that crap on my dam phone!

Anyway here are some good honest apps that have remained installed on my phone. Either they declare upfront that they are ad-supported and don’t do dodgy stuff such as location tracking, are genuinely free software, or are paid without ads.

  • Firefox
    • Yep it’s Firefox mobile, 4.0b4 at the time of writing. It’s much faster than 1.1 was on the N900, but this is probably not a fair comparison as the Maemo version is lagging.
  • Flickr free
    • Uploads to and browses your Flickr account. Has a paid version available which is basically a donation, if I used it more I definitely would but Flickr is really only for my real photos – cell phone pics only go on Facebook.
  • Facebook
    • If you use Facebook you’ll probably want to install this app.
  • Barcode Scanner
    • Also allows you to scan those QR codes you see around the web which direct your phone to Android apps. Free, no ads, appears to respect privacy.
  • NoLED
    • Helps make up for the Nexus S’s lack of notification LEDs by lighting up parts of the screen when you receive a message, missed call etc. Quite configurable, I have it set to notify only on phone calls and text messages which I wouldn’t receive elsewhere.
  • Dimmer
    • Reduces screen brightness below the default minimum of 30%. The screen is really bright in the dark, and 30% is plenty bright indoors so I have this on most of the time.
  • Dropbox
    • I switched to Ubuntu One for file syncing when 10.04 came out but I regretted it. Firstly there is an Android client for Ubuntu One but you have to pay $4 USD per month to get access to it. Dropbox on the other hand offers their Android client to free users as well. Given how mature Dropbox is and its support for OSX and Windows as well it’s a no-brainer really – sorry Canonical, I’m switching back. And if I ever do need more than 2gb of data synced online it will probably be Dropbox that gets my business.
  • Poweramp
    • Not free in any sense, has a trial version (I prefer this model to ad-supported). Poweramp is actually a really good music player, and I would recommend it as a worthwhile purchase. It seems to be the best replacement for the built-in player, and is streets ahead of anything on the N900. Has a nice black theme (perfect for AMOLED screens), and a graphic EQ. Also love its lock screen widget which allows control without unlocking the phone. It supports the headset’s built-in skip/pause button, and starts/stops when the headset is plugged in/unplugged. I do miss the N900’s virtual playlists though (e.g. playlist of unplayed songs).
  • RemoteDroid
    • Remote control your PC using your phone as a touchpad. Nice idea, useful for a media PC if your usual remote fails for some reason.
  • GPS Status
    • Ad-supported, but there is a donation app available for purchase which removes the ads so I bought it.
  • Wifi Analyzer
    • This is a good app, in fact WifiEye on the N900 was modelled after it. Unfortunately it’s ad-supported and the developer claims it will always be free. By my definition it is not. The N900 version by comparison is properly free.
  • Aldiko
    • Best vendor-neutral e-book reader I’ve seen. Has all-important night mode and can import any PDF. Also check out Amazon’s Kindle app if you’re a Kindle user or purchase e-books from Amazon.
  • MyTracks
    • Written by Googlers, this app maps your path and gathers distance and speed stats. Can upload tracks to Google maps. Useful when going running, cycling etc.
  • WordPress
    • Open source, GPL. Alarmed me at first that it wanted location permissions, but it has a legitimate reason, no ads, and if I really wanted to I could look at the code.
  • And for Londoners…
    • Tube Chaser
      • Open source client for the London Underground. Quite well polished, but it’s only useful if you know where you’re going because  it doesn’t route and doesn’t include a tube map due to license cost. But the latter is covered by the next app…
    • Bublmap london tube
      • Basically a jazzed up zoomable tube map, with the difference being that zone 1 is geographically accurate. Does what it says on the tin, it’s free and doesn’t display ads.
    • London (www.zuti.co.uk)
      • An interactive tube map which does routing, it was pretty cheap so I paid for it. Unfortunately it’s tube and overground only however, so I’m still looking for a good app that does everything the TFL site does.

Accessories

Being a relatively popular phone, there are more options compared to the N900, but it still pales in comparison to the iDevices range. What I would really like is a docking station!

Batteries

This caught me out. I searched for the model number (AB653850CU) on eBay, and bought the cheapest Samsung-branded battery matching it. I did notice that it was for another phone, and had 60mah less capacity, but the model number was the same so it must fit right?

Unfortunately the 1440mah battery used by the Omnia and 1500mah battery used by the Nexus S appear to be slightly different. This could mean that the battery I bought was a fake, fitted to a mould which fits the Omnia only, or it could mean that Samsung is boneheaded enough to use the same model number for different battery casings.

I did actually manage to get it in but had a bit of trouble getting it out again so I wasn’t comfortable leaving it in there. If you’re buying a spare battery for this phone (and it needs one), make sure it’s designed specifically for the Nexus S.

Cases

The only type I’m interested in are the silicone ones. I had a flip-case for the N900 and it got in the way, and the hard casings are too bulky and ugly. With the Nexus S I regard a silicone case as almost essential because the plastic is so smooth that it can be easy to lose your grip. With the screen so close to the edge I also found that accidental touches were common, a problem which the silicone solves.

It’s almost impossible to tell which is the best though so I brought the two which appeared to be the most common ones on Amazon:

  1. Qubits Soft Silicone Skin cover – £1.99The Qubits one arrived first. The Qubits range appears to basically be generic sort of stuff that’s acceptable quality and not absolute junk, and I think that’s what I got here. It did occasionally remove itself from the phone when I jammed it into my pocket in a hurry though, and dust and lint seemed to be very attracted to it. Overall it felt decent, did the job, and I thought it was good value for £2.
  2. Amzer Silicone Skin – £4.99The Amzer arrived much later but turned out to be the better case. It’s less “sticky”, so it’s (marginally) easier to slide in and out of your pocket and doesn’t attract dust and lint quite as much. It also stays on better, due I believe to being more rigid. So a higher price is definitely warranted but I don’t know about 2.5x higher. When you’ve spent £450 on a phone though, who’s going to quibble over £3 for a case.

So technically the Qubits is better value for money, but really not the smarter choice.

Verdict

After reading this you’d probably be thinking I hate the thing, but to be fair this review has dwelled on the negative because it’s more interesting. You can find any number of glowing reviews of this phone and Android all over the web, and you probably already know about the features you’ll like.

The short of it is that the speed and polish of the Nexus S is way ahead of the N900. It does the basics much better, particularly email (even web browsing if you ignore the lack of a stylus), and beyond the basics there is probably going to be an app for that if you submit to ad companies tracking your every move and allow popup Starbucks ads whenever you happen to walk past one of their stores…. OK so that doesn’t quite happen yet but how far away do you think it really is?

I am ignoring the reboot bug. Yes it’s annoying, it happens every couple of days or so, but apparently a fix is in testing as I type and it should be resolved soon. It’s not the kind of bug that can be left unfixed.

In the end I would have to say that if you really care about your privacy, an Android phone or an iPhone is a really bad idea. Advertising and tracking is almost impossible to avoid unless you don’t install any apps, don’t use the web browser and don’t use any Google services. But then you may as well get a Nokia 1100.

The same is true anyway if you sign in to any Google services, or even use the web with cookies enabled, so welcome to the brave new world of information marketing.

Basically, I’ve sold my soul for a gadget. But what a sexy gadget.

-Al

3 thoughts on “Google Nexus S – the AL4 review

    1. Alex

      Kinda need my phone to just work so possibly never unless the ads really get to me and no paid version is avaiable (main reason I haven’t played Angry Birds….).

      Still have the N900 to hack on :-)

      Reply
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