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Nexus S: First Impressions - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Nexus S: First Impressions [Mar. 2nd, 2011|10:06 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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I've had my new Nexus S for a week. I prefer not to use Apple products for a variety of reasons, and I'm a fan of Android, so it was the obvious choice. It's a big leap from my old phone, a G1.
 
To set the context for this review, I'm not using the phone for development and have no plans to hack it or jailbreak it. I don't know what CPU it uses or how much memory it has, and don't care. I'm just a regular of my phone, although I may use it for more tasks than most. While my opinions about technology and business ethics influence my choice of product, they have no further bearing on this review.

Weight. The nicest thing about the phone is its weight—it's almost as light as a Nokia dumbphone, and way lighter than the iPhone 4. I don't think weight matters any more from a utilitarian perspective (as long as it weighs less than a brick), but then phones are partly fashion accessories these days.

Notification light. There isn't one. The iPhone doesn't have one either. I just don't get it! Could someone explain it to me what people do without a notification light, because the mystery of how iPhone owners cope is driving me crazy. Are y'all totally dependent on vibration and ringtones? Or do you just take a long time to get back to people?

Fortunately for the Nexus S (unlike the iPhone) the screen is SuperAMOLED, which apparently means that black pixels use no power! What I'm getting at, if you haven't already figured it out, is that the notification light can be emulated on the screen itself in software, and the app noled does just that. 

Based on the fact that it took people a while to figure out the noled strategy, I'm pretty sure Samsung wasn't really thinking ahead when they decided to remove the notification light and were merely aping the iPhone. Ugh.

Keyboard. Speaking of aping the iPhone, the Nexus S has no physical keyboard either. But unlike the notification light I've decided to be happy with it, because it seems like on-screen keyboards are improving rapidly, and while still not nearly as good as a physical keyboard, they will eventually get there and even surpass them. In fact it seems clear that physical keyboards will soon be extinct, so the sooner I get used to on-screen typing the better.

Polish. Android has come a long way in terms of polish (it always had the lead in terms of features). There are far fewer annoyances with Gingerbread, the latest version. I'm talking about little things like automatically detecting when I remove the phone from my ear (based on the accelerometer) and turning the screen back on. There's still a long way to go, but since OS updates for the Nexus S are not at the mercy of my carrier and come directly from Google (right?) I'm looking forward to regular improvements.

Battery life is still a huge problem. Spoiled non-Android users have no idea how bad it is. I'm thrilled if it lasts a whole day and I don't mind plugging it in every night. But even that is touch-and-go. If I listen to music it won't last the whole day, otherwise it usually does. (For comparison, the G1 would almost never last a whole day even with fairly light activity, and if I tried to listen to music it would last less than an hour.)
 
This is all assuming some background process doesn't go berserk, which happens often. I've been using the Advanced Task Killer app to kill everything when it looks like the phone is running hot or battery is running out too quickly, which seems to improve things. (Depressingly, we still don't seem to be at the point where the benefits of multitasking outweigh the problems, although I think we'll get there soon.)
 
Apps and security. A few things like weather and alarm that should be considered essential phone features don't work very well and have made me look for alternatives on the Market. In fact what I need isn't an 'alarm' app; it's a 'sleep' app that should allow me to silence the phone, play brown noise, and set an alarm all from one screen. This kind of user-centric design is unfortunately not Android's forté.
 
The selection of apps on the Market is quite adequate. I don't recall ever thinking, "I wish that were available for Android." The big problem with apps is security & privacy, which I worry about more than most people. The granular permissions notification is supposed to be a great thing in theory but doesn't work well in practice. Many apps ask for all permissions ("just in case"), and even when they don't, it's unclear to the user what the app actually needs and whether the request is legitimate. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that it's a take-it-or-leave-it deal for the user.

Worse, there's now (fairly serious) malware on the Market. These got taken down, but there will be more. This isn't something that the permissions dialog even theoretically helps with. What I've been doing is largely sticking to apps that I've heard about and have some reason to trust.
 
Concluding thoughts. Convergence marches on. I often don't know if I'm talking to someone via text or IM, and don't care. Facebook and Android can now sync contacts. I find myself using Yelp on the phone even when I'm at my computer because the phone already knows my location and because I can click on phone numbers. My phone has also become my book-reading device (I previously used the iPod touch due to battery issues on the G1), and I'm glad the number of things I carry with me at all times has dropped from 4 to 3 (phone, keys, wallet).
 
Speaking of phone-keys-wallet, it is sad but entirely predictable that phones haven't yet taken over payment and authentication. Maybe NFC will make a difference. Fingers crossed.
 
In summary, my phone finally does "basic" smartphone functions like email, books and yes, phone calls well enough that I mostly just forget about it. The most exciting apps are those that interface with the real world in some interesting way—Shazam, Goggles, Wakemate and Car Locator to name a few. The best part is that this space is still in its infancy. Fun times.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: normalcyispasse
2011-03-03 03:28 pm (UTC)
In the next several months I will be looking to upgrade from my original Blackberry Storm, as that device has a number of flaws that irritate me mightily. I've been primarily thinking about Android phones.

However, I had no idea battery life was so poor. I'm used to maybe throwing my phone on the charger in the evening or every other day, even with lots of web browsing and music/Pandora. Really, an HOUR? That's terrible!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-03 06:14 pm (UTC)
Please note that I was talking about the G1 there. Things have improved greatly in the last 2.5 years, and as I mentioned the Nexus S battery generally lasts through a whole day. I was planning to buy a second battery to keep in the car depending on how bad things were, but that hasn't turned out to be necessary yet.
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