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Review: Google simplifies, strengthens the new Nexus S

The problem with most Android handsets is that Google's goodness is buried beneath a proprietary skin cluttered with entertainment and social media software baubles. Worse, these skins slow the release of Android updates - manufacturers have to retest their own software in conjunction with the new operating system - all but ensuring that your phone will always be a little behind the Google curve.

Samsung's Nexus S, the second phone to be developed as a collaborative effort between Google and a hardware manufacturer, doesn't suffer this problem. It's the first handset to run Android 2.3 - a.k.a. Gingerbread - and it runs a "pure" version completely unfettered by third-party overlays.

Most of the changes in Gingerbread are subtle. However, combined they make for a cleaner, quicker, and more intuitive user experience.

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The virtual keyboard's keys, for example, have slightly changed in size and shape to make for faster typing with fewer mistakes. Enhancements such as the ability to copy and paste with a couple of intuitive touches as well as the power to press and hold the shift and dual-function keys simultaneously to enter numbers and special characters rather than switching to another keyboard help speed data entry even further.

Power users who demand maximum battery life will appreciate a new battery usage screen that details how much juice has been drained by the screen, calls, and various apps, as well as the more active, automated role that Gingerbread plays in managing power sucking programs. If you want to manage apps yourself, that's easier, too, thanks to a new "running" tab in the app manager that lists all currently running services and how much memory they're using. Simply tap a program to call up the option to close it.

Managing downloads is simpler as well. Download notifications now appear at the top of the home screen alongside notifications for missed calls, messages, and e-mails. Just swipe down from the top to check all current downloads, then tap them to view more information or cancel the download.

There's no one killer Gingerbread feature. Instead, the new OS offers a collection of slight refinements that make it faster, simpler, and more powerful than its predecessors. It's a clear step forward.

The hardware, meanwhile, is simple but efficient. The Nexus S' black case sports a subtle mesh print on the back and is smooth to the touch. The phone is plastic-y and light enough - just 129 grams - to feel a bit flimsy, but proved resistant to scratches while travelling around in my pocket and bag.

A five-megapixel camera with an LED flash sits on the rear, while a lens with a weaker VGA sensor is positioned in front above the screen. Picture and video quality is passable so long as the scene is set in a brightly lit area (which is to say don't ditch your dedicated point-and-shoot).

Inside is a 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor with a Hummingbird chipset and 16 GB of storage (sadly, there's no option to expand via a memory card). We're moving toward a dual-processor reality in the smart phone world, and it would have been nice to have seen a two-core brain in this handset, but I experienced no performance issues moving between apps, browser, camera, and dialler. It's speedy enough.

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The phone charges via a standard microUSB. Our anecdotal tests indicate that the 1500 mAH lithium ion battery is more than sufficient for a good day of variable usage. Samsung rates battery capacity for nearly seven hours of talk time on 3G networks and 14 hours on 2G, with a standby time of 18 days on 3G and almost 30 days on 2G. Call quality over Rogers' network was clear, and 3G data downloads were quick.

The Nexus S might appear physically similar to many other Android devices at first glance, but it does sport a pair of notable hardware innovations.

The first is its 480-by-800 pixel Super AMOLED screen. We've seen this excellent display technology in other Samsung devices, such as the popular Galaxy S and Wave. The difference here is that this screen is ever-so-slightly curved inward. The effect is so subtle that most of the people to whom I showed the phone didn't even notice it, but if you look at the device from the side you can see that there is indeed a slight dip in the centre.

Samsung says the reason for the curve is twofold. First, the Gingerbread interface is optimized for up and down scrolling movements, and the curve is supposed to make it more comfortable to move your thumb in these two directions. It's a neat idea, but in my experience the effect was so subtle as to be all but imperceptible. The second benefit is a light reflection reduction of as much as 20 per cent. I didn't have another Super AMOLED device on hand to compare, and the technology is already well known for its above par performance in sunlit environments, but the Nexus S is undeniably a great outdoor performer. The only time images on the screen became unviewable was when the sun was directly reflecting off its surface and into my eyes.

The other hardware feature likely to make high tech gadget junkies covet this handset is its built-in support for near field communication (NFC). This relatively new means of sending data is believed by many to be the wave of the future. It facilitates a wide range of activities, ranging from highly secure communication with other handsets to retail transactions performed with a simple swipe of your phone.

Canada has little infrastructure for NFC at the moment, but many organizations are looking into it. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), for example, is strongly considering implementing the technology to allow commuters to use NFC-enabled phones to pay for transit passes at windowed wickets and machines and perhaps even individual fares at turnstiles. The Nexus S is the first Android phone to support both reading and writing using NFC, making it tailor made for this sort of transaction.

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Surprisingly, the Nexus S is launching on larger and smaller Canadian carriers. When it launches on April 7{+t}{+h} you'll be able to find it at Rogers, Bell, Telus, Fido, Mobilicity, WIND, and Koodo.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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