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Revisited: Nexus S running Ice Cream Sandwich

It’s been just over a year since the debut of the last Nexus device, and it’s not for nought that a lot of users are still undeniably infatuated with it. Even at the time it wasn’t the fastest, the hardiest or prettiest, but it’s turned into one of the versatile and comfortable Android phones ever created.

As the Galaxy Nexus dawn breaks, let’s take a look back at this Pure Google device, the Gingerbread experience and how I’m using it now: with Ice Cream Sandwich.

If there was one thing I’ve change about the Galaxy Nexus it would be its screen size. At 4.65″ it’s a bit ungainly. The Nexus S, in my opinion, conforms just about perfectly to the hand; a single thumb can reach any point on the screen without strain. The Super AMOLED display, though it has since been surpassed twice by Samsung’s own Plus and HD variants, still looks great. And most importantly, though “only” a 1Ghz single-core processor, it’s still blazing fast, owed to the skill of Android’s engineers and, ironically, the tendency for bloat by OEMs.

First, let’s talk about build quality. Many fans of the Nexus One were livid over Google’s deference to Samsung over HTC in building the second Nexus device. The N1 was not only well-built and comfortable but nearly two years later still once of the most unique Android devices (though the trackball is looking increasingly retro as time goes on). By contrast the Nexus S was, and still is, a distinctively Samsung-y phone, replete with glossy black plastic and that 0h-so-controversial right-side power button.

What Samsung did right was imbue the front glass with a subtle curvature that, when combined with its rounded back, made it perfect in the hand. The signature bottom chin from the original Galaxy S was significantly toned down, the battery cover thickened for added robustness.

But the parade wasn’t all horns and cheers: the Nexus S did away with the beloved notification light of the N1, and omitted expandable storage for no practical reason. And despite the significantly faster processor inside, on paper the specs did not look much better than its predecessor: both had 1Ghz single-core processors, 512MB RAM, 5MP cameras, 800×480 pixel screens and, most notably, neither supported 720p HD video.

But the devil is in the details, and the Nexus S was a huge usability improvement over the Nexus One. For starters, the screen was SO MUCH BETTER. Comparing the two day is like contrasting a freshly-cleaned windshield with one that hasn’t been washed in a few months. The OLED screen on the Nexus One was grimy and pixelated with touch response that can only be described as challenging.

Next, the Hummingbird processor in the Nexus S was, and still is, a beast. It was Samsung’s first mobile chip, combining a Cortex A8 processor with PowerVR’s venerable SGX430 GPU. And at the time of its debut on the first Galaxy S i9000 it was months ahead of its competitors in terms of overall performance. Indeed, Google is using a variation of the GPU in the Galaxy Nexus.

The Nexus products have never had great cameras, and the Nexus S was only a bit of an improvement over the N1. It came, however, nowhere near the fidelity of the iPhone 4. But it matched, and with enough care, exceeded the quality of equivalent devices on the market at the time.

The Nexus S also came with a couple subtle but significant improvements over its predecessor. For starters the 16GB of internal storage was a godsend to those who were constantly frustrated by the Nexus One’s 150MB of app storage. Sure, Froyo introduced Apps to SD compatibility but it wasn’t enough. The Nexus S also came with NFC, a relatively new (even today) technology that allowed for the wireless scanning of tags, or the initiation of content transfer between devices by touch. Oh, and there was a gyroscope.

Most importantly, the Nexus S debuted Android 2.3 Gingerbread to the world. While not the visual overhaul many people wanted (and expected) Gingerbread was prettier, faster and more feature-filled than before. But this isn’t a revisiting of the software since, well, we’ve moved on.

As you can see I have installed a very early alpha version of Ice Cream Sandwich on the Nexus S. While it isn’t perfect, all the core tenets of the software are intact: you can make calls, download apps and tweet. Performance is questionable at best: sputtery and occasionally crash-happy, it’s a great indication of what Android 4.0 will eventually look like when Google releases it officially.

The main difference between Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S is the lack of software buttons: we still rely on non-dynamic capacitive buttons below the display. Most apps can detect that there are no software buttons and allow access to its menu through the dedicated key. Missing, however, is the dedicated multitasking button; instead, like in Gingerbread, you must hold down the Home button for a second to bring up the updated multitasking menu. Once there you can swipe to exit apps like you’d expect, but that extra second of waiting for the menu to appear is torturous coming from the Galaxy Nexus.

The Nexus S is still a killer phone in many ways. I love it as much today as I did in December 2010 when it debuted, and it’s amazing how well it has aged as the industry speeds on by.

Update: Please note that the majority of this article was written before the official release of Ice Cream Sandwich for the Nexus S, and as such as comments availing its software performance refer to the CyanogenMOD9 Alpha build. There will be a separate article detailing the official version of Ice Cream Sandwich on the Nexus S. Sorry for the confusion.

  • EEYYAN

    can i get a nexus s for free ;D

  • JohnMAC

    ATT Version or the T-Mobile?

  • deltatux

    What network are you on? Since this is the AWS only release, I’m guessing either Mobilicity, WIND or Videotron…

  • Sean

    You mentioned you are using an Alpha version, why don’t you install the stock 4.0.3 build that’s available or do you have a big 3 version.

    Anywho as I said in the last “revised” article i’m glad to see these features to see how the devices still stack up

  • angry

    Yes great phone where’s my ICS google!!!

  • Niceheadphones

    I’m running ICS 4.0.3 from the recent update and I haven’t had any crashes yet. :)
    One thing though is I can’t find the face-unlock feature that the Galaxy Nexus has.

    • Richard

      Will face unlock come to the nexus s, or can the front facing camera not support it.

    • KillaBeez

      I really wanna know when are we getting ics for nexus s devices in canada

  • flagg

    Thank for a very interesting take on 2nd generation Nexus a year later, Daniel. Please consider doing this again next year too.

  • Damien

    @Niceheadphones The facial unlock is under System settings/Security/Screen lock.

  • Damien

    @Niceheadphones Forgot to mention it isn’t available in the current stock build, but it is in the CM9 build…

  • raf

    Anyone wanna trade a nexus s for a panache ?

  • RedArmada

    I love these “revisited” articles. Keep em coming

  • Adam

    I had the nexus s since January 2011, and two weeks ago I bought an iPhone 4. Both are amazing phones.

  • Looking for a new phone

    Love these articles on old phones and would like to see more.
    I’m looking to change my current phone and I’m really considering the Nexus S.
    I’m down to 3: Nexus S, Motorola Atrix or HTC Desire HD. All available for 0$ on a 2 yr contract.
    I know the Desire HD has a small battery but the 4.3″ screen makes me want it.
    The only thing that really bothers me about the Nexus S is the screen glass. My phone has the Gorilla glass and I love it. Never used a screen protector on it and don’t have a scratch. For me a screen protector ruins the experience but a scratched screen is worse.
    Now the questions:

    For Daniel and all Nexus S users: do you have a screen protector? If not, does the screen scratches easily?
    Out of the 3 phones I mentioned, which one has the best camera? Low light, photos, videos, etc.

    Thanks!

    • Prophet_5ive

      I would say look into getting an Invisible Shield. With one of those you wouldn’t think there was anything on your phone. They can be a b***h to install sometimes but it’s worth it for the protection.

  • Daded

    I think there’s an error in the article. The Nexus S has an SGX540 GPU, not an SGX430

  • Prophet_5ive

    Great article, even on a second read! I’ve had the Nexus S for almost 5 months and I have nothing negative to say about it. It’s a great phone even when compared to newer models that have been released since it’s been available. Looking forward to getting the official ICS update!

  • mark

    I still love mine but I hesitate alot for my next cellphone : the Galaxy Nexus, the Galaxy Note or the HTC Ville? hmmm

  • rick

    Wind is giving it away NS for $0 on the Windtab+, coupled with the $40 unlimited everything Holiday Miracle Plan, I think its a good combination. I’m going to get one.

    I think the new Galaxy Nexus is too big, hard to put in a shirt pocket.The NS seems to be a good size.

  • HOwdy

    i have the nexus S and love it but I have an opportunity to upgrade to the Nexus Galaxy next month so i’m taking it. The size of the new phone is a concern though.

  • MER1978

    As a Mobi NS owner… generally I like the idea of this article… but it kind of bothers me that you dedicate some space to essentially complaining about a version of ICS the average NS owner will never encounter… just one day after many people got the official OTA version which from what I can tell isn’t “sputtery and occasionally crash-happy”.

  • Doug

    Hey has anyone using a koodo mobile Samsung nexus s received the new ice cream sandwich update yet? if so what do you think of the new update? hows the battery life?

  • dutchman13

    Just got the official Nexus S update from Google. It runs like a dream. Actually makes the phone significantly faster. Though I have noticed a slight drop in the battery life. Has anyone else noticed that? Might be unrelated. But yeah, the Nexus S is an awesome phone, especially with ICS. And the Wind $40 plan is an unbelievable deal.

  • Navlys

    Daniel,

    Please make note that “Performance is questionable at best: sputtery and occasionally crash-happy, it’s a great indication of what Android 4.0 will eventually look like when Google releases it officially.” indicates that you are implying that the 4.0 official release will be bug ridden to the point of unusable. The problem is, the OFFICIAL version has been released and your Nexus S should of revisited on an official release and not have jumped the gun on an ALPHA version.

    Also, if you’re revisiting the Nexus S, why are you talking about the draw back for the Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus?

    Overall I really enjoyed the beginning parts of the article as it was solid and talked more about the evolution of the phone itself but I feel it left out the real thing this article needed to do, compare the Nexus S running the Gingerbread to the Nexus S running Ice Cream Sandwich. That would be a true revisiting of the Nexus S when it was first released to the Nexus S of today.

  • King

    I Just got my Nexus S 2 weeks ago and I’m loving ics on it. I used the stock one and it was great but the modded ones from xda-developers.com are great. They keep it as stock as possible but just throw in face unlock, speed and ram optimization. I wanted a Galaxy Nexus but yes the size is concerning and the nexus s is running perfect sorta like a little brother lol

  • Maxime Roy

    I thought my NS was just an OK phone with an OK Android 2.3.x OS until I rooted it and install Oxygen-2.3.2.

    Wow this phone ROCKS with an optimized ROM !

    I just hope ICS optimized ROM will appear shortly.

  • Stoked

    From what I gather after reading the ICS thread on the XDA forum last night, there hasn’t been an official build released for the I9020A yet. Apparently the radios are the difference. Amazing how impatient I am for this! Think I’m going to finally root and install CM9 once the official build has been modded.

  • Mr. Mobile

    Please do one of these articles on the G2X :)

  • Sheldon

    I recently purchased a Nexus S…I love it! It has a fantastic battery life, I love not having it loaded with crapware, and “pure android” is fantastic!

  • brent M

    I installed ICS update myself yesterday (manual install from SD card)

    It is laggy as hell, does anyone else have this issue? I press a button and it takes like 2 seconds for any response.

  • Disappointed

    I really liked my Nexus S until I got my update to ICS two days ago. Although there are a few improvements it has completely ruined my email because my main account (Yahoo mail) now does not auto size to the screen leaving most of the line off page – unsurprisingly Gmail works fine. I’ve had to download the yahoo app just to read my mail.
    Even worse ICS is eating my battrey at an alarming rate. Iused to get 1½ – 2 days use out of it, now I get less than 1 day. I charged my phone one evening took it off charge at 11:00, went to bed and at 7:00 next morning the OS had used 30% of my battery whilst on standby! Some people might think I’ve been using the phone more because of the new OS. Whilst this was true on the first day, the rest of the time I have been at work and constrained to normal usage.
    Not a happy bunny :-( any chance of gingerbread back. Oh and no face recognition unlock.

    • MER1978

      “Oh and no face recognition unlock.

      It would be nice to play with the face unlock… but for me the panorama camera + screen captures (power + volume down at the same time) + quick text instead of phone answer features add plenty.

  • Sean

    This is a fantastic article! I’ve never owned a Nexus S but I’ve always wanted to, considering I stuck with my Nexus One until just a couple weeks ago when I got the Galaxy Nexus. I love the GNex, and the large screen is just beautiful. Watching shows and movies on it feels like watching a large TV.

    However, I totally agree that the largeness of the screen has been cumbersome at times, and makes me lose leg mobility when jammed in the pockets of certain pants. I really, really miss the comfortable compactness of my Nexus One. Whenever I go back and hold my old phone, or type on its keyboard, I really miss it. I can type much faster on it due to the reduced finger travel required.

    I always wondered if the Nexus S would be a happy medium between the two phones. Reading your article, it sounds like it is.

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