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Samsung Nexus S review: Samsung Nexus S

Samsung Nexus S

Kent German
Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
5 min read

Samsung Nexus S (AT&T)

Samsung Nexus S

The Good

The <b>Samsung Nexus S</b> offers a brilliant display, decent call quality, and enough features to keep you busy. The Gingerbread OS offers usability improvements, and the stock Android is a welcome change for AT&T.

The Bad

The Samsung Nexus S feels rather fragile, and it lacks a memory card slot and LED notifications. AT&T added no new features, and data speeds were slow.

The Bottom Line

The Samsung Nexus S brings a much-needed stock Android OS, Gingerbread, to AT&T. But eight months after its original debut, the handset feels underpowered and behind the smartphone curve.

Editors' note: Since AT&T's Samsung Nexus S is nearly identical to T-Mobile's, we will focus mainly on performance differences for this review. For CNET's full analysis of the Nexus S series, including design and features, check our review of T-Mobile's Nexus S.

Eight months after it originally went on sale with T-Mobile, the Samsung Nexus S continues to make the carrier rounds by landing at AT&T. You'll find few differences from its counterparts at T-Mobile or Sprint, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the upside, we continue to appreciate the sleek design, brilliant display, and stock version of Gingerbread (Android 2.3), but we're disappointed that AT&T couldn't offer us anything new. We don't get HSPA+ support (at least Sprint's handset is 4G) and the handset still lacks LED notifications and a memory card slot. In a vacuum that might be fine, but when compared with AT&T's recent Android devices like the HTC Inspire 4G and Samsung Infuse 4G, the Nexus S doesn't quite measure up.

AT&T's Nexus S is indistinguishable from its two siblings. You'll see the same trim profile (4.88 inches long by 2.48 inches wide by 0.43 inch deep; 4.55 ounces) with the "contour" design that is meant to match the curve of your head. But here again, the phone feels too fragile in the hand.

The Nexus S is pretty, but we'd take care when handling.

The 4-inch Super AMOLED display is responsive and no less brilliant with its 16.7 million colors and 800x480-pixel resolution. You can customize the five home screens at will and adjust the brightness and the backlight time. You'll also find the same external controls, virtual dial pad, and virtual keyboard.

The Gingerbread OS brings a redesigned keyboard to the Nexus S.

Indeed, the stock Gingerbread OS remains one of the phone's top attractions (see the T-Mobile review for a complete analysis of Gingerbread). We particularly like the improved cut and paste, the Battery Use menu, and the new voice-input features. What's more, the stock Android and lack of carrier bloatware will appeal to purists.

The feature set is respectable, but we wish that the Nexus S gave us more improvements over the Nexus One and that AT&T had at least made a small effort to distinguish its Nexus S from the other versions.

The Nexus S' camera lens and flash sit on its rear face.

Inside you'll find an NFC chip, a 5-megapixel camera, a front-facing VGA shooter, access to Google apps, Bluetooth 2.1 (with A2DP), Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n), PC syncing, GPS, USB mass storage, 16GB of internal memory, messaging and e-mail, a full Web browser, a personal organizer, USB tethering, and a Wi-Fi hot spot. As we said, though, you'll have to do without an external memory card slot and LED notifications.

Like its counterparts, the Nexus S has admirable photo quality.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Nexus S world phone in San Francisco using AT&T service. For the most part, call quality was admirable and we detected little static or feedback. Voices didn't always sound natural (see below), but we could hear our callers clearly and our friends could understand us with few issues. Like on its siblings, the volume on the AT&T Nexus S was a bit lower than we'd like. It wasn't a problem in most locations, but we had trouble hearing in busy public places.

When compared with the other Nexus S models, the AT&T handset's audio sounded closer to Sprint's phone than it did to T-Mobile's. It was sharper and a bit robotic, while the T-Mobile Nexus S' audio was deeper and somewhat smoother. On the other hand, while the AT&T phone also has a bit of "GSM buzz," it wasn't as apparent as on the T-Mobile device. Either way, we don't think the difference is huge, but it is noticeable just the same. Most callers could tell that we were using a cell phone.

AT&T Samsung Nexus S call quality sample Listen now:

Sprint Samsung Nexus S 4G call quality sample Listen now:

T-Mobile Samsung Nexus S call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone calls were satisfactory. The volume can get quite loud, but it gets pretty choppy at the highest levels. Callers could understand us when we stayed close to the phone and we could understand them if we kept background noise to a minimum.

We didn't notice any difference with the GPS feature. It's best when you use Wi-Fi, of course, but even without it the phone found our location quickly and was off by a city block at the most. The 1GHz processor remains speedy, too, though it will lag behind the newer crop of dual-core Android phones.

As mentioned, it's disappointing that data speeds on the AT&T Nexus S top out at 3G. We realize that LTE isn't a possibility at this point, but HSPA+ support would have been nice considering AT&T already has a section of handsets that support its faster network. Eight months ago we wouldn't have been making such a fuss, but following Sprint's WiMax-enabled handset, AT&T's Nexus S looks behind the curve.

Here's how the three handsets compare when opening full versions of four Web sites. Not surprisingly, Sprint's 4G WiMax network delivered the best speeds by far. T-Mobile's 3G network also was faster, though by a smaller margin, and AT&T's network was faster than Sprint's 3G network. What this means to you will depend on your situation. If you live in a Sprint 4G area, we'd have to recommend that handset (even with the occasional issues), but T-Mobile offers the best experience when running only on 3G.

AT&T Sprint (4G) Sprint (3G) T-Mobile
CNET.com 42 18 65 43
NYTimes.com 36 17 43 19
Airliners.net 58 25 85 40
GiantBomb.com 80 29 110 68

(All times are in seconds)

The Nexus S 4G has a rated battery life of 6 hours' talk time. According to FCC radiation tests, the Nexus S has a digital SAR of 0.57 watt per kilogram.

The Samsung Nexus S remains a great device in many respects. And when a great device lands at a new carrier, we're usually happy. With this Nexus S, however, AT&T is just a little late to the game. Not only is it landing at AT&T eight months after its original release, but also we don't get anything new. And when you consider that it's arriving after Sprint's Nexus S 4G, you wind up with a device that just looks rather dated. We still love it for its Gingerbread and stock Android OS, but at this point there are more powerful choices in AT&T's lineup.

Samsung Nexus S (AT&T)

Samsung Nexus S

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7
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