Nexus S

I’ve had the Google/Samsung Nexus S phone for a few days and I will now vomit my thoughts out here.

Hardware

The phone’s physical design has some fatal flaws. It has the four standard Android buttons at the bottom – Return, Menu, Search, and Home. But they are touch buttons instead of real buttons, and they are just as super sensitive as the main touch screen. Because the whole phone is so slippery smooth, that makes it incredibly difficult to use the main interface without touching one of these “hardware” buttons. Either the Return button, at the left corner, or the Home button, at the right corner, will typically close the current application. I find it very difficult not to trigger these buttons with my palm.

The on-screen keyboard is already awkward, but this makes it even more important to tap in exactly the right place and not a pixel lower. So it requires your full concentration and gives you the general feeling that you are defusing a ticking bomb hidden in a bar of wet soap. I didn’t have this problem with my older HTC Hero. If I was a regular user, who didn’t care about the Android software getting out of date, I would return the Nexus S.

The older Galaxy S doesn’t seem to share this problem completely. It appears to have a thicker bevel that should be easier to grip and it has less buttons at the bottom, in a slightly safer arrangement. However, two of them are touch buttons, so I guess it’s annoying too.

I generally feel that multi-touch ability is not worth the over-sensitivity of the capacitive screen, as it’s not used much in Android anyway outside of Fruit Ninja. I preferred the N900’s need for a very slight finger press.

Software

I’ve used an HTC Hero with Android 2.2 and the HTC Sense UI, and this is not very different, though regular Android lacks a consistent visual personality. However, I’m surprised that I miss some things from HTC Sense, such as:

  • I love HTC’s clock and weather widget, with the full-screen animations of rain, frost, snow or fog that appear momentarily over the whole desktop. It’s useless but it’s charming. Regular Android 2.3 has just an ugly little analogue clock widget. Its weather widget is boring.
  • My HTC Hero could upload photos and videos to Flickr, even integrating with the Accounts and Sync Settings, but regular Android 2.3 can’t.
  • The HTC Camera application lets you focus on a point by clicking the picture. I don’t know if it really worked, but I liked the idea. I do like that the regular Android 2.3 camera app lets me click the button to focus and then release later to actually take the picture quickly.

These can be replaced imperfectly by apps from the Android Market, but that’s a frustrating experience of choosing between hundreds of similar apps, with no help to judge their quality.

Nexus S versus HTC Hero

This is a rather arbitrary comparison that’s of little use to anyone, but it’s the hardware that I’ve had.

I prefer the HTC Hero hardware because of the above-mentioned hardware problems, and because the chin stopped me from holding it upside-down so often. However, the HTC’s camera was terrible, while the Nexus S takes bright clear pictures and videos.

Android Versus the N900

Before I switched to the HTC Hero, I had used my Nokia N900 for almost a year.

I still miss:

  • Contacts aggregation: The N900 combines contacts from Google Talk, Skype, Facebook, and others into one contacts list and presents communication with them in one Messaging application. It lets your Contacts list be your main start point for communication. Just start Contacts and you’ll see immediately who is online, by whatever protocol, because you can show them at the top of the list. Then click on a contact to call, send email, SMS, instant message, skype, etc. You don’t need to think much about what system you are using.
    Android does some of this, though a) You can’t show online people first, b) Its contact merging (“Join”) UI is clumsy, c) It often leaves the contact listed under the cryptic IM or Skype username instead of the real name and d) The Messaging application is only for SMS, e) the Talk application is only for (GTalk) jabber, f) There is no aggregated message history, so you need to go to the individual apps.
  • GPodder: This podcast client has a sane, usable, uncluttered UI that made my life better. I’m currently using DoggCatcher on Android – It’s the best of several poor choices, but it’s still a mess that gets in my way.
  • True multi-tasking: Multi-tasking in the N900 is truly useful, though it does indeed complicate the UI. Android does pseudo-multitasking – Apps store and restore their state, but they don’t actually do any processing while you are using a different application. But occasionally you do want to use another application because you really are waiting for the current application. This is most noticeable in the browser, for instance. Page display can be slow due to no fault of the browser and it would be nice if the phone let me do other things while waiting.
  • The Camera hardware button. It’s very awkward to take a picture by holding the phone (trying not to touch those Back or Home buttons) and then clicking the small button on the touch screen to take a picture. With the N900, I just pointed the phone and pressed the button on the top side.

I do not miss:

  • The N900’s chunky hardware. I used both the HTC Hero and Nexus S even more than my N900 because they are easier to carry around.
  • The default to landscape mode. Consuming large amounts of text (newspaper content) or lists (twitter or facebook posts), is easier in a portrait layout. That’s why newspapers have columns – they know what they are doing.
  • Non-flowing text in the browser. Android’s browser reflows text so you can read it. The N900’s browser often expects you to keep moving left and right on every line so you can actually read a paragraph. It respects the layout of the original page, but that’s little use on a small screen when I just want to read the content while ignoring the surrounding chaos.
  • Difficulty answering phone calls. On the N900, when the phone rings, I would unlock the screen, at which point the display would rotate from landscape to portrait, just a little to slowly. So my finger would move towards the Answer button, but when my finger reached the screen, the Cancel button was where the Answer button had been.
  • The N900 losing the cell phone signal and not getting it back without a restart or hacky GSM mode switch. I stopped using the N900 during our second pregnancy.

Overall, I feel that an updated N900, with thinner hardware like today’s phones, and slightly updated software, would compete very well with the current generation of Android phones. It would be way more attractive than a Symbian phone, though that’s not saying much. Of course, I enjoy several apps that are only available on Android, but I am not surprised that developers are not writing software for an API that Nokia declared dead before the N900 was even on sale, and for hardware that Nokia never tried to sell. Developers will even learn Objective C if it means reaching an audience.

7 thoughts on “Nexus S

  1. Hi Murray,

    I can totally relate to this. I went from a HTC Dream/G1 to the N900, then to the Nexus One.

    I really thought the N900 would be the greatest phone ever.. but just never quite lived up to it. I think maybe I loved the idea of the N900 more than I actually loved the final product, but I agree about the touch-sensitive buttons on your Nexus S. I think the Nexus One probably isn’t quite as bad, but I would have much preferred real buttons that you can feel click.

    cheers,

    Andy

  2. I agree with most of your comments, but just wanted to point out a factual error: contrary to popular belief, Android *does* do *true* multitasking.

    An application in Android is composed of Activities, Services, and other objects. Services are like daemons and *can only* run in the background. So when an app wants to stay running when it loses focus, the developer should just put the application’s “model” and “controller” (in the MVC sense) into a service. Not a problem at all. True multitasking.

    Now, what is not widely publicized is that even Activities also run in the background when they lose focus. The catch here is that Android does not *guarantee* that activities will continue running when they lose focus, since the phone may need the memory or processing cycles for something else. But if turns out that the phone has enough memory/cycles, the activity may never be killed at all.

    For instance, I have written a data-logging application (stores accelerometer values on the SD card) which does not use Services, just Activities, and is able to continue logging even if I switch to another app or lock the phone. In fact, I have never seen Android fully shut it off — although admittedly I never stress-tested the system when running my app.

    PS: I think Android’s multitasking style is actually a very neat idea, and it should be brought into the desktop as soon as possible. With it, there is never any need for the user to explicitly save data or close a program. Everything is saved by default and closed by the system as needed. Then, when resummoned, the program’s state is always restored, and the user proceeds from where he/she left off.

  3. Interesting, I recently did a lengthy comparison of the N900 to the Desire Z (I just can’t live without a physical keyboard, so there is not much choice in hardware)

    And I love most of the same things about maemo as you point out: Contacts integration/aggregation which is probably the biggest drawback when switching to android. I also love the true multitasking.

    It’s also true, that android seems much more polished visually. Very smooth transitions and effects – purists might call it bells and whistles. Unfortunately I found quite a few annoying bugs in android/sense that are interfering with functionality.

    Though I have not experienced any GSM-troubles, I also share most of your criticism of Maemo. Maemo seems to lag and stutter sometimes during the animations and zooming in the browser can be annoying with all that scrolling around.

    So, thank you. It’s relieving to read others sharing similar views on this.

  4. The point about Android is that it is extensible. HTC added a lot of their own stuff, which isn’t so great if you don’t want all the things they added. The Nexus S is deliberately pure Google with no frills. That lets you add the frills you want.

    If you want to upload to flickr then download flickr’s app, or if you preferred you could get something like the posterous app which will post to a bunch of different sites simultaneously. Don’t like the standard camera app? There are a bunch to choose from on the market place. and so on…

    My main gripe about the multi-tasking is that so many apps manage not to implement Android’s model properly. I’ve lost count of the number of apps that when you switch away to the home screen and then back to the app just crash. I think a lot of developers just assumed that you could only enter apps at the beginning and didn’t allow for it being foregrounded again after it was paused but without being kicked out of memory.

  5. You actually like the N900 resistive screen? While I do at times hit the touch sensitive buttons on my N1, the resistive screen on the N900 makes me want to scream every time I use it. Also, if you don’t like the stock Android keyboard, replace it. Swype is a good choice.

  6. Been using the Nexus S a bit recently myself and my main two irritations with it are, first as you mention that it is so easy to hit the wrong key on the touchscreen, making texting quite irritating as I end up pressing ‘home’ instead of backspace. And secondly that I always end up holding the phone upside down :)

  7. The part about multi-tasking is not true. I (on my Nexus S) very often go to other apps when waiting for a page to load in the browser. Then when returning to the browser, the page has finished loading. It’s possible that when you start another application that is memory-hungry, Android decides to kill the browser. But in general, applications live on and are killed in least-recently-used order.

    About the buttons at the bottom: I think they require a slightly longer touch to trigger them than other touching does.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.