Release Candidate One with Chris Clark

My Month With the Nexus S

I’ve been using a Samsung Nexus S as my full time phone for just over a month now, out of a sense of professional obligation and some idle curiosity. Working with iOS and iOS alone for so long, I can’t help but feel a little sheltered from the world of competing platforms. Android’s out there, and there’s only so much you can learn from the media without experiencing it for yourself.

If the Nexus S were my first smartphone, having used only candybar feature phones before it, I’d probably love it. It’s an Internet-connected computer in your pocket… what’s not to love? I’ve sent hundreds of SMS messages, browsed the web, made phone calls, played Words With Friends, refreshed Twitter, listened to podcasts, navigated the road, and used it as my morning alarm clock: the Nexus S does everything one could reasonably expect of a smartphone, and does it competently. The high note? The camera feels amazingly fast. Eschewing any kind of startup animation, the screen is black for a short moment and then… you can take a photo. That shouldn’t be an astounding revelation, but it is.

And Android’s text cursor does something wonderful: you tap where you want to type, and after the cursor appears you get a drag-handle to fine tune its position. Compared to the iPhone where you must tap, hold for half a second, watch a magnifying loupe appear, then drag the cursor around, the instant gratification of see-it-grab-it-drag-it is a joy. It’s a little thing, but given how much writing I do on my iPhone and iPad it makes a tremendous difference. Manipulating larger selections of text isn’t as pleasant. On iOS you double-tap a word and it’s selected, revealing two drag-handles for adjusting the selection; Android makes you tap and hold for half a second, opening a menu from which you must tap Select Word, which selects the word and provides drag handles for adjustment. I can’t tell you how much I dislike having to tap, hold, and wait that half-second for something I do as frequently as editing text, and it’s funny that both operating systems are guilty of the same thing. I wish they’d both change their behavior.

Any iPhone refugee’s impression of Android wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the system-wide notification drawer. Sebastiaan de With’s roundup is accurate and goes into more depth than I will, but suffice to say that while the contents of, interaction with, appearance of, and animation of said drawer all need improvement, it’s a mile ahead of the iPhone’s interruptive notification dialogs. There’s maybe no example more telling than the Available WiFi notification on each platform. I disabled WiFi alerts on my iPhone years ago and never re-enabled them: they’re intrusive and I usually don’t want to join the networks they advertise. On Android, it simply doesn’t matter if there’s one more badge in the status bar for available networks; it’s no sweat.

But a fast camera, unobtrusive notification drawer, and easy-drag text cursor are about where the favorable comparisons end. I can’t say anything nice about the touch-sensitive hardware buttons, whose unpredictable behavior is a source of frustration and wasted time, and despite the boastfulness of Android hardware vendors about memory and processor specs, the Nexus S just feels slow. This device is a good six or seven months newer than the iPhone 4, so I assume it should outperform the iPhone 4 in any kind of bare-metal benchmark, but in the real world with the default operating system it barely competes with an iPhone 3G. Animation in general runs at half the frame rate you’d expect, and scrolling (a common complaint against older Android phones, if I recall) doesn’t lag on the Nexus S so much as it looks like it’s dropping frames. Kudos to Google for solving the widespread complaints of jerky, unresponsive scrolling, but there’s still a long way to go.

Not helping my impression of slowness is the slow web browsing, but I guess that’s my own fault: I turned off WiFi to preserve battery life. Still, I expect when tapping a link in a web page (or tapping a bookmark) for there to be some immediate indication of progress. When nothing happens, nothing at all in the page or the browser chrome for several seconds, my confidence in the system is eroded.

Of course if battery life weren’t such a concern I’d keep WiFi enabled, but despite the Internet’s suggestion of turning it off along with Bluetooth and GPS, turning screen brightness to the minimum, and keeping a widget on my home screen to quit all background processes with a single tap, it takes only a little fun to drain the battery. Playing a game, listening to music… it seems anything out of the ordinary is cause for massive battery drain, despite the operating system’s insistence that cell standby and the display are the chief culprits. If I abstain from music and disable all the aforementioned hardware features, the phone lasts a whole day, but it’s ridiculous that I should have to. Every missing minute is obviously “my fault” because I’m the person wielding the phone, but when identical behavior on a competing platform produces dramatically different battery life, I find it hard to blame myself. The end result is that I walk away with a worse impression of Android and of the Nexus S than I perhaps should. Add “generally not useful as a pocket computer because there’s not enough battery to last the day” to a long list of little complaints about the system’s usability, and the Nexus S loses the smarts and becomes “just a phone.”

I said at the start that if the Nexus S were my first-ever smartphone I’d probably love it. But since it wasn’t my first, I come to it (and maybe more importantly to the operating system) with expectations of performance, stability, battery life, and general attention to detail that it just can’t meet. Sure, it comes with a whole host of freedoms that I can exercise, like installing a third-party keyboard component to replace the system keyboard, but I didn’t exercise those freedoms because I don’t care, I’m just not that guy. I never themed my Windows installations, never jailbroke my iPhone, never turbocharged my car. I want a phoneputer that just works and lets me pursue my own goals; goals that don’t include being a sysadmin. The Nexus S does everything one could reasonably expect of a smartphone, and it does them competently, but if you’ve experienced a smartphone that does those things exceptionally, mere competence is a big step backward.