I won’t buy the Nexus S

Chris Davies - Dec 22, 2010
I won’t buy the Nexus S

Launching in the US last week, and finally making a tardy appearance in the UK today, we already know that the Google Nexus S is a decent phone. In fact, we even called it the best Android handset on the market today in our review, and considering the strength of the competition right now, that’s an admirable place to be. Yet, despite having been using a Nexus S review unit for some time now, and having gotten on with the Android 2.3 smartphone well, I won’t be picking one up today. Let me tell you why.

As with the Nexus One before it, the Nexus S maps out Google’s ambitions for where Android should be going next. This time around, the underlying story isn’t so much pure hardware but services; ironic, then, that the headline feature, NFC, isn’t much use outside of Google’s Hotpot NFC stickers in their fledgling trial in Portland, Oregon. Still, if you adopt early then you get used to prioritizing feature-promise over pure functionality, but the compromises with the Nexus S seem a little too much.

I’ve been using the Nexus One since early last year as my everyday phone; I’ve also got a Samsung Galaxy S for when screen quality is more important. The Nexus S should be the summation of those devices – pure Android with the amazing Super AMOLED panel – but it manages to feel backward-looking rather than ambitious. Remember, when the Nexus One launched, new Android handsets with 528MHz processors were still common. The 1GHz Snapdragon was a game-changer, and it made Google’s hardware partners buck their ideas up and give Android the grunt it needed for the more graphically-intense, processor-demanding versions the search giant had in mind.

The 1GHz Hummingbird chip – Samsung’s own version of Snapdragon – is a good, capable processor, but it was capable in the Galaxy S and capable in the Galaxy Tab. It’s the same chip as we reviewed, and praised, back in June, making a re-appearance in a flagship device at the tail-end of the year. Dual-core chips like NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 are just around the corner, with CES and MWC 2011 both expected to see a flood of new smartphones using next-gen processors for the North American and European markets.

Now, I know I’ve just been saying that Tegra 2 – and dual-core processors in general – aren’t everything, but hear me out. My argument is that, in themselves, the new breed of dual-core CPUs aren’t sufficient to make devices great: it takes solid software to actually make proper use of the processing power on offer. In a tablet, if you’re going the Android route that currently presents the best alternative to iOS on the iPad, that means either waiting for Honeycomb or, like Samsung and Notion Ink have done, creating your own custom software to take advantage of the larger form-factor.

In a smartphone, Android is already up to speed. Gingerbread is arguably the biggest draw of the Nexus S, making even more of Hummingbird’s capabilities, and the refinements over Froyo – though only moderate in most places – make for a tighter, more usable OS. Within the next few weeks, however, Android 2.3 will arrive as an official update for the Nexus One, and we’re expecting performance boosts and a similar polished experience on the metal-bodied original.

As a Nexus One owner, while the Super AMOLED display and NFC chip of the Nexus S are tempting, opting for the new Googlephone would feel too much like a side-step rather than a true shift forward. Even if you don’t have a Nexus One yourself, it might still be sensible to hold back and wait for the next wave of handsets announced in Q1 2011. The new Samsung will undoubtedly pave the way for manufacturers fitting NFC into their smartphones, just as Google hopes, and I’m content to wait it out until I can get the short-range wireless paired with a more ambitious processor and camera. I’ll miss out on the slick curved fascia in the process, and I won’t have the newest device when friends are pulling out their phones, but sometimes patience is the best thing an early-adopter can, well, adopt.

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