The following is aimed primarily at people who are already familiar with the Galaxy S and Nexus S and wish to know if the known problems of the first are corrected in the latter. Skipping over the obvious areas to spend more time on topics like GPS and call quality as there are plenty of opinion-pieces online dealing with the superficial elements such as the new colour scheme and so on. Are you are wondering if the potent Samsung hardware is better paired with software directly from the Google Android team or if the FCC reported hardware changes make a difference? Then read on!
Owning the GT-I9000 Samsung Galaxy S has been something of a frustrating experience in that it does so many things well and yet at no point have I managed to recommend it to any of the people who have asked me what sort of smart phone they should buy, instead suggesting an HTC Desire for the Sense UI or an iPhone for the overall reliability. This is almost exclusively because of software as Samsung have created a slim, light, well built phone with the most powerful hardware on the market for the time and an outstanding display like nothing else out there. They just cannot seem to perfect their Android build though with bizarre problems such as laggy performance keeping the phone from its potential. The general hacking community theory is that Samsung’s proprietary file-system, the Robust File System (RFS) is causing a huge amount of performance lag due to its super secure nature. Rumour has it that the Galaxy S is capable of finishing a file-system write even as the battery is knocked out. Impressive if true but honestly who cares when the phone is painfully slow to use? That battery is pretty snug I assure you.
The unusual choice to omit an LED flash for the otherwise decent camera is puzzling, the GPS antenna is supposedly somewhat broken by design and the voice quality of calls has been sub-par. Samsung are also not winning many friends with the slow updates, while my unit is 2.2.1 I know 3 people still stuck on a rather buggy 2.1 build, not to mention updating requires the incredibly bad Windows only software Kies (also fixed in 2.2.1 as it has an OTA option finally). So it is not without reason that a few of us are wondering if the Google commissioned Nexus S in sharing many of the vitals of the Galaxy S range can cure those software woes, because lets face it if anyone is going to make Android work it is probably Google.
I have been using the GT-I9000 for several months as my primary mobile phone and pushed it as hard as is likely for any technology fan. It has pleased me in many ways an infuriated me in many others, so now with the Google Nexus S (Samsung GT-I9020) in my pocket for a few weeks I would like to offer up my assessment of the GNS (since SGS caught on so well) on its own merits and draw some comparisons to the Galaxy S where appropriate with some video and audio (to come later) in places, possibly a YouTube overview for the word-lazy.
Overwhelmingly the tech crowd rally against manufacturers customising Android for their handsets but undeniably most normal people do not care about the topic and it has to be said that stock Android is lacking in some areas and needs that customisation in order to appeal to regular humans. HTC is roundly seen as doing the best job with Sense UI but in all fairness TouchWiz is not that bad either. The following examples are either done with more polish in TouchWiz 3, or simply done at all compared to Gingerbread:
- Highly configurable alarm clock with a gentle-wake alarm
- Stopwatch & Timer
- Versatile camera software
- Extensive multimedia playback with TV output
- Shortcuts to utilities
It may be said that things like a timer alarm can be readily downloaded from the Android Market but the truth of the matter is some functions are just better built into the OS. Adding a time based alarm from the Market has certain issues such as not being able to wake the phone screen as effectively as something baked in and there is a risk of the OS memory management killing the task in the background. Applications may try to remain resident but this is not a reliable method because there is no way to ensure it, an icon being in the notification bar helps but is not a certainty.
Samsung offer a service similar to Mobile Me over at SamsungDive which will allow you to track your phone, lock or remote wipe it from any Internet connection and this service is free which is something that is very compelling. It is also somewhat bizarre that Google do not offer this sort of service as a part of your Google Account since they have every one of the required elements solidly in place. Perhaps later on we will see that one show up.
Out of box multimedia playback is exceptional. You have support for MPEG4/h.264, DivX-HD, XviD, VC-1 and several other video formats while audio has a similarly impressive lexicon of FLAC, WAV, Vorbis, MP3, AAC(+) WMA and amongst a few others, rather surprisingly, Dolby Digital AC3. The Nexus S is less impressive in this area and you will possibly want a third party video and music solution, although if you are not one for obscure and exotic formats you will certainly get by.
There are other handy UI tweaks over basic Android such as toggles for Wi-Fi, screen rotation, bluetooth, vibrate and GPS in the status bar drawer, certainly possible with widgets but the Galaxy S is improved for their universal access and it would be no bad thing should Android 2.4 take note. Also you have seven home screens which provides just a bit more space for widgets with an HTC like pinch for thumbnail overview (also in the application menu). Gingerbread may have improved some UI elements but the overall feeling is still lacking, you are still going to be trying to look under your own thumbs when setting an alarm which does little to endear more casual users.
If you rely on any of these elements and feel like you want a Nexus S you may wish to consider a backup solution for each. You of course have the option of installing a custom ROM or replacement launcher but that is getting out of the area we are here to address for now.
Use of device
The single worst offence of the Galaxy S has been how long it can make you wait when you ask it to do something. For all of the raw hardware power inside the phone you will often find that you wait for a program to fully start or even react to input for so long that the screen will timeout and then sometimes refuse to turn back on while it continues to chug away on the last task, there are a few potential reasons for this but the fact of the matter is that it has been several firmware iterations since launch and the problem has only marginally improved. This is entirely unacceptable as the handset loses a lot of its function from this fault alone. Music identification programSoundHound could take as much as 20 seconds to open up and be usable and in many cases the clip I wanted to capture had ended. Opening the telephone dialer could take long enough you felt a need to make sure you tapped the icon and I once spent nearly 3 minutes simply trying to show a person a starred location on Google Maps. Three minutes in which the phone froze, responded to several taps in a row and then froze again. Such things are tolerable every now and then but the only thing reliable about the Galaxy S has been how frequently it did not work when I needed it to.
Similar daily use of the Nexus S has a much shorter version of the above story, it works every time immediately. Ok that is not entirely true, sometimes I waited a few seconds at the most but comparatively it was immediate. I do not believe this has much to do with Gingerbread however as HTC owning friends have never had such issues with their 2.2 devices though it is possible that now Google is developing on a Samsung Hummingbird SOC (System on Chip) that Android on the whole has become more proficient on the hardware but this is probably being way too kind about the situation since there are lag fixes for the SGS which use the same EXT4 file-system as the Nexus does and many people claim the phone simply flies when applied. Shape up, Samsung.
So the overall most vital aspect of a smart phone has been addressed from the Galaxy to the Nexus in that the phone is solidly reliable under regular use but there is another vital aspect to be addressed and that is the battery life. This becomes a topic that is much harder to be precise about without laboratory equipment but I can give you a good idea of how it pans out whether it be the differences of 2.2 to 2.3 or something in the hardware.
My first Android phone was the Motorola Milestone (1400 mAh battery) which was the first 2.1 device in Europe. Under the same sort of daily use the Milestone would be out of power before I got home from work each day, something around 8 to 9 hours. The Galaxy S (1500 mAh) improved on this by making it back home with a low battery warning and perhaps 10% left which was impressive but the Nexus S (1500 mAh) somehow appears to be much more conservative with its power use as I am finding I get home with between 20% to 40% left inside, and when I let the phone run entirely flat under normal use it lasted about 22.5 hours which for an Android phone of this spec is astounding.
Now as I say I really have no way to solidly backup these claims but perhaps this will give you a good idea of the reality of the difference. When I leave the house with my Galaxy S at 100% and I am planning to be out all day I usually feel compelled to bring along my Solio H1000 as a backup battery (though rarely needed) but when I leave the house with the Nexus S I might not even check the charge level and leave the Solio at home. Perhaps if leaving for two days I will feel the need for a spare again. This is incredibly pleasing.
Call quality & sound
The next most vital quality in a phone outside the ability to use it for more than 6 hours is call quality which is something too many reviews seem to ignore recently. Once again this is horribly subjective as everyone has a different voice and set of ears so as well as some anecdotal evidence I have made a few recordings to try to convey what differences exist. This was achieved by using the same T-Mobile D SIM in each phone and then making a call to an iPhone 4 on the same network, muting the iPhone and running the headphone jack to the line-in of a MacBook Pro which recorded the one way audio to WAV, honestly this did not show as much difference as people I called claim to have heard between the SGS and GNS but to be blunt I have not seen any other site try this hard to measure call quality!
As for the anecdotal part I am frequently asked to repeat myself when talking on the Galaxy S and multiple people complain of muffled sound unless using a headset microphone. Calling the people I know who own the same phone I can also say that the sound quality coming out of the Galaxy is not particularly good. This is also the case when using Skype for Android over WiFi so the issue seems somewhat nebulous as to what is causing it exactly. There have been no such complaints when making calls from the same locations to the same people on the Nexus, with a few comments of improved clarity. Now this is something I am really finding hard to pin down because my only option is to keep swapping SIM and asking other people to call me from my own phones so I can hear for myself – and I have done. It is hard to say exactly why but the Nexus really does seem to have a slight edge of clarity in calls, except not in a clearly definable way. The WAV recordings will show this although listening to them I think both devices are pretty poor. The Nexus S has an edge but it is still not very good.
The earpiece of the Galaxy was never at fault in my opinion but the Nexus appears to be a bit louder at similar volume settings which may be a bonus to some, the Gingerbread alert and ring-tones however seem to be rather quiet next to the strikingly loud ones Samsung include on their phone which is a concern if left unaddressed. Some by-ear testing shows that while the Nexus S at 100% volume is slightly louder than the Galaxy when the volume is at 66% the Galaxy comes out on top. Since volume is largely down to the software this would appear to be something that can be addressed by Google with an update, and I suggest they do because not only is the volume gradient strange but the included sounds in Gingerbread just appear to be at a low amplitude and I have missed several calls due to this. It should not be required to have over 80% volume while inside.
Google was keen to promote the inclusion of a second microphone for noise cancellation on the Nexus One (though the Motorola Milestone was the first Android to do it) so the lack of it here is confusing and frankly upsetting. The Milestone for all its flaws was absolutely stunning in conversation (when working) with an unmatched ability to remove ambient noise for clear calls and it is a shame that not every modern phone does this by now. The technical specifications provided by Google for their second phone simply lists “software noise cancellation” and even then only under Multimedia, there appears to be no such software at work during calls with background sound quite clear, though admittedly not in a way that interferes with the voice.
Since I work in an area of low signal penetration my handsets are often using the EDGE network and something that had become apparent with the Galaxy S early on was that when using this 2G network there was an annoying digital interference in the earpiece when calling. This was only a small thing but I wanted to make note that the Nexus does not have this issue.
GPS reception of the Galaxy S has been an issue that appears to run deeper than software with suggestions that the internal antenna is flawed, or at least that the GT-I9020 has a new antenna arrangement. Although I had not often had a lot of problems with the I9000 GPS for use on foot I have found that using it for in car navigation was unreliable to a point where I started to use my PSP again despite its outdated maps. Though hard to specifically quantify I can say that the Nexus GPS capability appears to have benefited from the new antenna as not only is the lock slightly faster on average but it has been flawless the few times I used it to navigate; sticking to the road I was on where the SGS tended to get confused and suddenly think I was on another road or off in a field. Although the Galaxy seems to report a good lock and low error margin the reality is it just does not cut it. Using My Tracks on the 30 minute cycle home from work today inside the front pocket of my jacket while leaning forwards to the handlebars the Nexus managed to track the route almost perfectly with any deviation from the road being a matter of a meter or two at most.
Having attempted several tests with the units side by side the unfortunate reality is that unless you are actively attempting to do something that requires a continual accurate GPS signal lock they both come up pretty well although the Samsung edition occasionally just loses the ability to use its GPS decoder until you disable then re-enable it. In a last ditch effort to ensure testing was fair the Galaxy was given a chance to achieve lock before entering the car, this did not happen. During the drive it only obtained lock towards the end of the ride and even then frequently indicated that the lock although not lost was within a very large margin of error. Quite simply the Nexus S locked fairly fast while already driving and maintained it solidly until the end.
At this point it is safe to say that yes the Nexus S GPS is head and shoulders above its older brother.
Wi-Fi also has a new internal antenna design and this time it is not at all for the better. I have found the wireless reception of the GNS to be just short of awful with multiple dropped Skype calls in my own home where other devices have no issues at all. Although the signal strength is consistently worse than the SGS at this time it is worth pointing out that until Android 2.2.1 the Galaxy S was also performing quite poorly but now is now fairing much more favourably so there is a chance that a future software update can boost the Nexus reception. It is usable, but only just and this could be a show stopper for anyone with poor Wi-Fi and no flatrate HSDPA connectivity. For full disclosure there are only 802.11g networks locally so there is a slim chance n spec Wi-Fi works better.
An interesting difference between the two is that where the Galaxy S has Bluetooth 3.0 Google’s design called for 2.1+EDR which although widely proven seems like an unusual and backwards change. On the software side though things are a little happier with the Nexus S if for no other reason than A2DP and taking calls currently works perfectly. Currently is the key term there since Samsung have managed to break, fix, break fix and then break again such functionality with each firmware. As of 2.2.1 it has become necessary to delete and re-pair a previously working headset almost every other day it is used which was also an issue on a previous 2.1 firmware then fixed on 2.2. Software reliability is not something Samsung are known for but there is hope that the direct input of Google for the new Nexus may improve that.
So far Technocrate.net has no good way to measure reliably the differences outside known quantities such as data transfer rate but we are curious to see how the battery consumption, range and interoperability with 2.1 devices pan out once a reasonable test has been devised. Should that happen there will be updates posted.
Screen & display
(Additional note: I left out an important fact for some in that the Nexus S does not have Corning Gorilla Glass which means the display is going to be less abuse resistant. Not an issue for everyone as many other devices are using regular or simply toughened glass but it is worth knowing. There are also reports of the ant-reflection and oleophobic coating of the Nexus glass flaking off after only weeks of use which is absolutely terrible and I would hope is simply a batch problem. We are yet to see.)
Although both handsets use Samsung’s roundly admired Super AMOLED display technology there are visible differences between them. The most apparent difference with the Nexus S screen is a slight inconsistency of grey shades when at the lowest brightness setting. If you have seen black level clouding of an LCD television due to back-light bleeding then you have a good idea of what this looks like. It is certainly not a problem but for the money it feels somewhat poor, especially given the flawless performance of the Galaxy S screen. Using the application Dead Pixel Detect to show full screen solid colours (white, black, grey, blue, red, green, yellow, cyan, magenta) either phone is impressive in its own right and each appears to be more vibrant than the other on some of the colours. Since colour is also something controlled by the software the only real thing you might call a problem is the dark grey clouding. And since this is the colour of the notification bar pull-down it seems strange that it ever got past quality control. You are going to see it.
As for that funky curved glass there is not really a lot to be said for it during use and this is probably for the best as the current implementation of a thin capacitive glass screen over the AMOLED or LCD display is not in dire need of updating just yet. As the Nexus was announced my first curiosity about the Contour Display was how the superb viewing angles of Super AMOLED might be affected when the phone was being used in a horizontal arrangement, say mounted on a dashboard of a car for navigation. Well happily the answer is not at all because the curve is so slight as to only just be visible. At an extreme angle from either end of the curve you will start to see the opposite end of the screen black out almost as if viewed through polarised sunglasses but once you reach that angle the screen is effectively of no use anyway so this is not going to be an issue.
There is one coincidental bonus of this concave glass though in that you may lay the unit face down on a desk and not have any risk of grit scratching it. This is possibly more useful than it first appears as there are several applications on the Android Market that are activated by turning the phone face down, something you simply can not safely do with the Galaxy S due to its nearly flush screen.
It has to be said though, Super AMOLED already looks fantastic when on and at least on this phone it now looks interesting while off too. Not important but certainly nice.
One of the things Samsung really went all out on was the camera software and while the lack of an LED flash is bothersome the amount of options you have hands down beats any other handset I am currently familiar with. Automatic panorama pictures may not be new but the Galaxy can take them horizontally or vertically and all you need to do is take the first picture and then move in the direction you want to go, the software will do the rest and do it fast. Every sort of option you expect is there and then probably a few more such as tap to focus, steady shot and blink detection.
Then there is video recording in which you have up to 1280×720 resolution video captured at 29.87 frames per second encoded in h.264 with AAC audio. The combined data rate is 11.96Mbit/s for some great footage. The application not only tells you exactly how big the current recording is but lets you pause the video and resume when you wish so you can record several segments to one file rather than one clip each.
The image sensor is apparently an NEC unit and does a good job of capturing all those photons for good looking pictures, not quite as well as Apple’s iPhone 4 but certainly well enough.
On the Google side we find software that includes all the expected basics but nothing fancy, the super bright LED flash is at least in my opinion a wonderful thing to have but may not be so important to everyone. Using a Samsung sensor this time the image quality is equally decent and if you are not a person who owns a dedicated camera then you are going to get by just fine. No tap to focus however.
Video though has been a topic of great discussion since the Nexus is only capable of capturing 720×480 progressive scan video at 16.57fps and under 2Mbit/s which is altogether pretty terrible. Or is it?
I really appreciate good quality video but I also have a Kodak Zx1 because of that so although the Galaxy S has stellar performance it is not better than a dedicated device. What I am suggesting is that for the most part the videos taken on a phone will often be shown on that same phone, emailed or uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo at which point there is recompression and frame-rate loss anyway. Since the Nexus S lacks an SD card slot for interchangeable storage the lower quality video may be to save space on videos that most people will be happy enough with anyway. Let me be clear here and say I do not think it is acceptable for a modern phone of this cost to cheap out like that but it really is of almost no concern to a fair chunk of people. Incidentally Gingerbread has enabled the front facing camera for video capture which may be of interest to some.
One last note is that early reviews talked about a lack of auto flash and focus problems, these must of been solved in the 2.3.1 update because they are not issues here.
Here we have two incredibly similar yet vastly different phones and a tough choice for this reviewer who is only keeping one. On one side we have an attempt at user facing polish and utility that simply falls short on the actual experience and on the other we have a machine that is tuned for speed and reliability at the expense of interface consistency or extra features.
I can’t help but think Galaxy S would be the better of the two if Samsung got the software working but it is hard to believe that if they could not do this by now that they will achieve it next time. After-all how many more updates is it in their interest to put out? Like every other manufacturer they have plenty of new handsets coming before long and that is where their attention will go.
The Galaxy S is a wonderful device if you can ignore or simply live with the issues mentioned above and the UI modifications make Android more consumer friendly. Gingerbread is a step up interface wise from FroYo but not in a way that really matters to casual users, there are still inconsistencies in the way you achieve things like selecting text from one application to the next and although I have no doubt Android on the whole will get to a point where we can look back at the current versions and appreciate how it improved I also have no doubt we will not see that version on the Nexus S. At least not officially, or soon.
The Nexus S however does excel in terms of reliability while maintaining a constant high speed of operation and when the primary function of the device is to run full screen applications and make calls this is in my opinion precisely good enough for now.