Belated hands on with AT&T's Google Nexus S

AT&T finally got its dose of Nexus S late last month, and we suppose it is somewhat appropriate that we’re late with our hands-on since the device itself took so long to launch. The sleek smartphone was first unveiled in early December 2010, and it launched later that month on T-Mobile’s network. Then Sprint introduced its WiMAX-enabled Nexus S 4G in early May, and it went on to become one of Sprint’s most popular smartphones. As the expression goes, better late than never — and that’s certainly the case with AT&T’s Nexus S. Read on for some quick thoughts on this latest version of the Samsung-built pure Google phone, and don’t forget to check out our hands-on photo gallery.

BGR reviewed the Google Nexus S late last year and at that time, we called it “the finest Android device on the market.” Google played a tricky game with the Nexus S, however, having introduced it just as Android hardware was about to get a serious shot of adrenaline. NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 processor swept across the industry and ushered in a dual-core craze that will likely only die down once the fabless chipset maker’s quad-core “Kal El” shifts mobile enthusiasts’ focus to four cores. But despite the fact that Google’s Nexus S features an aging 1GHz single-core chipset, it still managed to hold its own well into the first half of 2011.

Here we are in the second half of the year however, and things are really starting to pick up again. Devices featuring Qualcomm’s 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon System 3 chipsets are on the market, NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 is due to be unveiled soon, and Snapdragon System 4 chipsets featuring quad-core designs and clock speeds of up to 2.5GHz are due in early 2012. In spite of all that, however, I still think the Nexus S is a pretty good buy.

I should admit that when it comes to Android, HTC’s Sense overlay is among the biggest draws for me. The UI is gorgeous, the widgets are fantastic and I’m a big fan of several revamped apps on HTC’s Sense-equipped devices. In fact, Sense turned me off of other Android devices for a while, since I found their UIs to be quite boring in comparison. The Nexus S brought me back around, however.

First, going back to the seemingly light specs, prospective buyers shouldn’t even think twice about the device’s lack of a dual-core CPU. Google’s pure Android experience on this phone sheds all of the bells and whistles introduced by vendor-branded devices and the result is a significantly smoother experience in a lot of cases. Before Samsung sent over an AT&T Nexus S for us to check out, I had been using an HTC Sensation 4G on a daily basis. The Sensation, for those who have not had the pleasure of checking out the device, is a beast of a smartphone. Its dual-core 1.2GHz processor likely makes it the smoothest Sense phone on the market right now, and yet with normal usage I really can’t notice any reduced speed or fluidity when comparing the Sensation to the Nexus S.

Samsung’s 1GHz Hummingbird processor handles Google’s raw Android 2.3 Gingerbread software like a champ, launching apps and multitasking as well as any phone in my possession. It also features several nifty little touches that vendor builds of Gingerbread omit, such as the tube-TV screen-off animation, the Star Wars-like application grid animations, and various transition animations that seem superficial but really do improve the Android UX. The Nexus S also sports Samsung’s 4-inch Super AMOLED display, and I don’t need to tell you how gorgeous colors are or how deep blacks are on this panel.

In terms of data speeds, I found the Nexus S to be on par with other 3G smartphones on AT&T’s network, but significantly slower than some “4G” phones and the iPhone 4. Download speeds ranged from about 600kbps to about 1.3mbps, and upload speeds were consistently in excess of 1mbps. Finally, I still absolutely love the concave glass on the face of the device. It gives the phone a sleek, unique shape that separates it from the pack.

The biggest problem I see with the Nexus S, aside from the cheap-feeling plastic battery cover that really does irk me, is the timing. While this Samsung-built smartphone can easily hold its own among currently available smartphones, we could be less than two months away from seeing Google’s next flagship phone, the Nexus Prime, become a reality. That would be a tough pill to swallow for those who sign two-year contracts for a Nexus S now. On the other hand, the beauty of the Nexus S is that it will continue to be one of the first Android smartphones to receive new OS updates for quite some time to come. As such, owners of this phone will likely see numerous forthcoming Android updates — including Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich — around the same time as the Nexus Prime and well before owners of vendor-branded smartphones get the updates.

The Samsung-built Google Nexus S for AT&T is currently available for $99 on contract.

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