An iPhone Lover's Take On The Nexus S

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There’s a scene in Iron Man 2 in which Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) shows off the mechanical soliders he has been working on — his would-be “Iron Man-killers”. Unfortunately, while they may look somewhat impressive, his machines malfunction and the demo goes horribly awry. His knock-offs are junk. This scene reminds me a lot of what the first Android phone, the G1, was like when compared to the iPhone. Luckily for Google, things have improved substantially since then — and without the help of a Russian Mickey Rourke. Well, presumably anyway.

We’ve already done a big, comprehensive review of the Nexus S, the latest and greatest Android device. But as I like to do (see: the bottom of this post), I’m going to look at it from the angle of an iPhone diehard. After all, this is widely considered to be the best Android device yet. So will it be enough to make any iPhone user jump ship? And since this is currently the only device running Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”, what’s the overall state of the OS?

First of all, the Nexus S is a great smartphone. I’ve been using it for a little over two weeks now and I think I can safely say that in a world where there was no iPhone, this is the device I would use. While I like a number of fundamental things about Windows Phone more, Android is more mature. And more importantly, the ecosystem is far more built-out. Plus, the Google apps on the device are enough to entice anyone.

Previously, I’ve held firm on my belief that the Nexus One was the best Android phone out there. In my mind, this was true even as dozen of other Android phones came to the market more recently. The Nexus One was the best because it was pure Android. Unlike the Droids or the EVO, it wasn’t loaded up with crapware from the carriers. And they weren’t able to manipulate the core experience of Android with their awful skins. The Nexus S is the second “pure Android” phone. But it’s faster. And so it takes the crown from the Nexus One.

Hardware

Having said that, I still prefer the build quality of the Nexus One (HTC-built) a bit more than the Nexus S (Samsung-built). Like the Windows Phone model I used (a Samsung Focus), the Nexus S feels a bit too plastic-y for my taste. It’s the same reason I liked the original iPhone design more than the iPhone 3G and 3GS. The plastic backs just feel cheap to me. And they’re awful to try to remove. It feels like I’m ripping the phone apart each time.

I am glad the Nexus S doesn’t feature that stupid ball that many Android phones (including the Nexus One) used to like to include. And the main feature of the device, the screen, is clearly nicer on the Nexus S versus the Nexus One. (Though the AMOLED display is still far too hard to read in sunlight, in my opinion.)

I’m not sure why the Nexus S feature a small nub that jets out of the back. I assume it’s for ergonomic reasons, but it seems pointless and looks silly, in my opinion.

The camera is great on the Nexus S. Not iPhone 4-great, but I’d say the second-best smartphone camera I’ve seen yet. Plus, the Nexus S also has a front-facing camera, something the Nexus One did not.

This is the fastest Android device I’ve used yet, but it’s not clear if that has more to do with the hardware specs (1 GHz Hummingbird processor) or because of Android 2.3. Scrolling seems smooth and I haven’t noticed any major lag aside from a few apps, which for now I’ll assume is more their own fault.

The touchscreen on the Nexus S also easily seems to be the best I’ve used on an Android phone so far. That has been one of the little things that the platform hasn’t been able to nail when compared to the iPhone. But here, they come very close. (Again, it’s hard to know if that’s the hardware or Android 2.3 in particular — likely a combination of the two.)

Sadly, perhaps the coolest hardware feature of the Nexus S, Near Field Communication (NFC), doesn’t have much use yet. But when it does, that could be huge for things like payments. Something tells me Apple might be deploying that feature as well in the future.

The few calls I’ve made on the Nexus S were rock solid. Unlike the iPhone, I didn’t experience any dropped calls, even when going indoors. Of course, the Nexus S is on T-Mobile while the iPhone is on that carrier that shall not be named. So it’s hard to compare the two.

The battery life of the Nexus S is pretty good, but not great. While it’s nowhere near as bad as the EVO, the Nexus S still seems to use way too much juice when it’s idle. Others have noticed this as well. As far as I can tell, this is a result of certain apps running the background. Android 2.3 brings improved app management, but that’s not a good sign if it’s still not killing processes in a way to preserve battery life.

Software

And let’s talk about the Android 2.3 Gingerbread software. While we had heard this past Summer that that Android team was “laser-focused” on improving the user experience of Android with 2.3, it would appear that this work has been pushed until Android 3.0 instead. Why do I say that? Because Android 2.3 really doesn’t look that much different from Android 2.2 at all.

Sure, there’s a little bit of polish here and there, but overall it’s the same Android you all know and tolerate.

To me, the key to Android 2.3 is that it does seem to run significantly smoother than its predecessors. And that’s saying something because Android 2.2 ran significantly smoother than Android 2.1. The Android team is clearly making good improvements in this regard quickly. Overall, the system is still not iPhone 4-smooth. But it’s getting very close.

In their review, Mike and Jason talked a bit about the keyboard improvements with Android 2.3. There is no question that the keyboard is better. But it’s still well behind the iPhone keyboard, in my opinion. It’s also behind the Windows Phone keyboard. It’s a little baffling to me that Google still hasn’t nailed this feature that is so key (or why they just haven’t bought a company like Swype).

And it’s not just typing. It’s the fact that they software keyboard often pops up over key portions of apps and doesn’t do a good job of directing you to the next input box which is probably being covered. I’ve seen this happen time an time again in Android. And 2.3 is sadly no different.

Sure, many of my issues throughout the years with Android may seem like little nits (and many are), but they are annoying little aspects that would stop me from switching from the iPhone to an Android phone. Apple is very good at nailing the small stuff. Google, it seems, is still working on overall larger polish and hasn’t moved on to many of the little things. Hopefully by Android 3.0 we can expect some of that.

The Google-made apps continue to be the killer apps of Android. Gmail, in particular, continues to be better than it is on the iPhone simply because there is no native iPhone Gmail app (though the rich mobile web version is very good). Things like Navigation and Voice Search also give you capabilities that you can’t get on the iPhone. Google Voice finally just came to the iPhone, but it’s still much better on Android because it’s seamlessly integrated into the entire system.

And then there’s the newest version of Google Maps. This is perhaps my favorite aspect of Android now. The latest version, which includes 3D buildings and the ability to spin maps around, runs loops around the iPhone version of Maps (which also uses Google Maps).

With the speed of Nexus S + Android 2.3, games seem to run more smoothly than ever on Android. I’ve tested out several popular games like Angry Birds, SliceIt, and Fruit Ninja, and all basically look and perform like they do on iOS. I will say that there is some lag though on games like Fruit Ninja for no apparent reason. Also in that game, it drives me insane when I swipe my finger across the screen and hit the soft home button on the Nexus S, dumping me out of the app.

A couple of the apps I use the most on my iPhone: Twitter and Foursquare, still lack to polish of their iOS counterparts. Twitter, even though they’ve made it look more like the iOS version, is still far behind it in terms of usability. The same is true with Foursquare. It just feels slower and I find myself hesitant to use it because of that. Instead, I dig for my iPhone. That’s not a good sign for Android.

The Android browser, meanwhile still suffers from weird zooming issues. Whereas when you double tap an area in Mobile Safari and the iPhone gracefully zooms in, on Android’s browser, it seems to stutter-step in. Further, I don’t get why Google still includes those silly plus and minus soft buttons for zooming into webpages. I get that it was for one-handed use, but you should be able to double-tap an area with your thumb to zoom just like you can on the iPhone.

All in all, the browser, while a million times better than the awful browser bundled with Windows Phone, still lags behind Mobile Safari.

My favorite part of the whole package from a software perspective may be the “off” animation. You click the side power button, and the screen shuts off as if it were an old television set. Pretty cool.

Intangibles

When Jason heard I was getting a Nexus S to try out, he (half) jokingly asked if I had already decided what I wouldn’t like about it. The truth is that I do try to go into using these devices with an open mind — but I also realize it’s an inherently biased one. I’ve been using the iPhone for well over three years now. I’m so accustomed to doing certain things on it that it is hard to try and do some things the “Android way”.

But I’m well aware of that. And I’ve logged plenty of Android hours. Sure, I’m more accustomed to the iPhone, but I could switch anytime I wanted to. But that’s the thing, I don’t want to. The iPhone experience is still overall a better one in my mind. It’s that simple.

Nexus S and Gingerbread continue the trend of Google improving Android as a steady pace, but they are still behind where Apple is with iOS 4.2 and the iPhone 4. This is true in both hardware and software. On paper, the devices line up nicely. In use, they still do not. As I said above, there are still too many small things that the iPhone nails that Android doesn’t even seem to think of at all. Google still seems more focused on getting the larger areas (like the Market) up to speed. Maybe that will change with Android 3.0 before the iPhone 5 hits, maybe it won’t.

Again, the Nexus S is a great device. And I would highly recommend it to any and all people who want an Android phone. One of the most striking things about it to me is just how much better it is than the crappy Android experience on devices like the EVO and Droid 2, compliments of the carriers.

In fact, it’s hard for me to believe that anyone would choose an Android device other than the Nexus S. Having a physical keyboard is the only excuse I can somewhat see. Maybe Verizon’s network — maybe. Otherwise, this is absolutely the one to get. Don’t buy the bullshit Verizon Droid marketing.

Droid doesn’t does. This does.

Well, it does against everything except the iPhone 4, of course. Maybe Russian Mickey Rourke can help with that.

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