Because of the way the U.S. mobile phone market is structured, it's next to impossible to find an unlocked phone that isn't loaded with bloatware. For those who want a carrier-independent smartphone, an enticing option is the Nexus S, a very nice successor to Google's Nexus One, which did so much to popularize the Android operating system.
The Nexus S, based on Samsung's excellent Galaxy S platform and co-developed with Google, will be available at Best Buy (currently the only retailer to carry the phone in the U.S.) on Thursday for $199 with a two-year T-Mobile contract, or for $529 without a contract. In either case, the phone is unlocked; you can put whatever SIM card you want into it.
A taste of Gingerbread
The main attraction of the Nexus S is that it is a pure expression of the latest version of Android -- Version 2.3 ("Gingerbread") -- uncluttered by Motoblur or HTC Sense or Swype or any of the "extras" that carriers stick onto their phones. It's the straight shot -- a single-malt Dalwhinnie to most phones' J&B. If you want to know what Android looks like at the dawn of 2011, this is it.
Don't expect 4G data networking, though. You're limited to HSDPA (enhanced 3G) speeds at best. No LTE here.
(Be aware that, although the phone will work on both the T-Mobile and AT&T U.S. networks, the Nexus S appears to support 3G speeds only on T-Mobile; on AT&T's network, it will run only at slower first-generation GSM speeds.)
It's worth noting that most Samsung phones currently run Android 2.1; this release leapfrogs entirely over Version 2.2, also known as Froyo (which was a significant advance in functionality), straight to 2.3.
But in truth, most of the improvements represented by Version 2.3 can be pretty subtle to the casual observer. Scrolling lists now glow slightly orange when you reach the top or bottom. The interface for cutting and pasting is somewhat easier to manipulate. There's a new soft keyboard with predictive text, which is pretty nice.
And when you put the phone to sleep, the display collapses down to a horizontal line before shutting down. It looks like your old tube TV did when you turned it off; it's a humorous touch that makes me happy for some reason.
Mobile hot-spot support is now part of the core OS instead of a carrier add-on (though you'll still need a special data plan). Direct support for calling over SIP-based VoIP networks is included, as is remote administrative control.
Perhaps of more consequence is the inclusion of a near field communication (NFC) chip. There are various types of NFC. The Nexus S's implementation of it is read-only, which is all that Android 2.3's API will support. The chip in the Nexus can read embedded "smart tags" that send a URL to the phone -- to a YouTube video or reviews of a restaurant, for example.
But NFC chips running in different modes are used in systems like MasterCard's PayPass for "contactless" payments, so it's feasible that future versions of Android will allow, for instance, payments on transit systems. Such phone-based systems are fairly commonplace outside the U.S.; Nokia did a trial of one in New York City several years ago.
The Nexus S itself
The phone itself is a pretty standard Galaxy S model, which is to say it's a very nice phone: light and slender with a killer 4-in. Super AMOLED 400 x 800 screen. The device is slightly concave to follow the contours of your face. It's subtle, so you may not notice. You will notice a slight bulge at the bottom of the phone, which makes it easy to find in your pocket or purse.
There are front- and rear-facing cameras -- the former is a VGA camera with 640 x 480 resolution, the latter a 5-megapixel (2560 x 1920) still and video cam with a flash. I was able to get a full day's use out of a full battery charge, which has not been my experience with other Android phones.
The Nexus S is a nice phone but nothing revolutionary. That's kind of the point. It's designed to be state-of-the-Android and to show the operating system in its best light.
If you want a pure, unlocked, up-to-date open-source phone, this is your baby. Happy hacking.
[Note: Information about the 3G speeds that the Nexus S will support was added after this article was published.]
Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.
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