Google just released the official Android 4.0.3 update for the Nexus S, installation instructions are here. A quick review follows.
A big test for ICS is its performance on older phones that are supposed to receive the update, as well as recently released phones that do not have Galaxy Nexus features like the fast camera and soft buttons that can change or disappear as needed as they are part of the screen. The Nexus S is a single core phone based on the same hardware as Samsung’s last generation flagship, the Samsung Galaxy S.
Surprisingly, Google never got Gingerbread working smoothly on the Nexus S, and running the stock version of 2.3.6 was a painful experience. Samsung seemed to do it just fine, their Gingerbread releases for the Galaxy S were much better.
Installing Ice Cream Sandwich on the Nexus S is like getting a completely new phone. The device is smoother and most responsive, which you notice from the moment you start using it. The old assumption that even a dual core Android phone is not as smooth as a single core iPhone doesn’t apply any more. Apple users will probably still notice some missed frames in animations or small amounts of lag when things are being loaded in the background, but this is no longer a serious usability issue, more a cosmetic one. List and grid scrolling is smooth as are app switching, moving to the home screen, and scrolling across home screens. There is little to complain about in terms of performance. Using the new task switching view, I was surprised to find the number of apps I had running with no performance hit.
There are many nifty improvements which all mean that for the first time, you don’t feel like you’re losing out by using Android without the customizations offered by HTC and Samsung. The new task switcher with ‘swipe to close’ is great and like before can be opened by holding the home key (the Galaxy Nexus has a dedicated task switching button). The OS looks much much slicker overall even on the relatively old Nexus S, compared to the cartoonish primitive look of stock Gingerbread. The messaging and phone and contacts app (now called People) are all much improved. I do miss the ability to swipe left or right on the contacts screen to text/message people that Samsung offers, it is still annoying to have to open a contact before being able to interact in any way other than making a phone call. However, in ICS left and right swipes are used consistently to move across tabs, home screens, and the app grid, so they will have to find a different way.
The settings screen is improved but still a bit of a pain to scroll through, requiring too many clicks to connect to a different WiFi network for example (you can get around this by putting a shortcut on your home screen, but that needlessly occupies screen area). I still like Samsung’s integration of the widget for enabling/disabling WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS etc. under notifications. The apps screen now has a separate tab for widgets, and there are improved widgets available for many Google and third party apps. This is a unique feature of Android and extremely useful, so making widgets more accessible is definitely the right idea.
The integrated keyboard is great for a tap keyboard, but I am primarily a swype user. The Swype beta works fine after the upgrade
t no longer seems to be possible to switch input methods on the fly Update: PsyberS says when entering text, you can use the keyboard icon in the notification menu to change input methods. Hopefully I am missing something here, as this is a major annoyance. I couldn’t find a face unlock option oddly enough, but I don’t consider that important.
I haven’t had time to run a battery life test, but battery life is one thing where the Nexus S has always been far superior to other Android phones, a difference that amazed me when I moved from a Galaxy S and S II to the Nexus S. I don’t see any reason to believe this has changed. The overall visual improvement is huge, ICS is attractive to look at in a way that no stock Android release has been before, and it doesn’t take a massive HD resolution AMOLED screen to see the difference.
All my existing apps appear to work fine after the upgrade. The upgrade does not modify or remove any of your data, apps settings etc. Flash player for ICS is now available and was automatically downloaded from the market. The camera app seems much snappier in lcicking photos and there is a new panorama mode. No tap to focus though, which is a shame. The improved calendar, gmail apps are all great, they have already been reviewed in other places so I won’t go into details.
The browser gets a much needed overhaul as the stock 2.3 browser was slow and laggy. It is now much faster, smoother to use, and generally stays out of the way like a good browser should. There is a dedicated tab switch button at the top, but I still prefer the side swipe offered by the mobile version of Firefox. The request desktop site option in the menu is nice, and the copy paste functionality seems to be more accurate than before. Again, the performance improvement and ‘smoothness’ make a huge difference compared to the old 2.3 browser.
One problem is I end up having four messaging apps with different conversation histories for the same contacts: SMS, gTalk, Google+ messenger, and What’s app. There is a clear need for integration of different messaging apps, and of showing all ways of interacting and past interactions with a contact in one place; although People app does show most contact methods, rather oddly, Google+ integration seems missing. There is an option for creating groups that seems completely distinct from the Circles in Google+. This seems strange when Facebook is trying hard to be your phonebook.
I also think that SMS and Google Talk message history for one person should be in the same place (and What’s App and other third party apps as well eventually). And if Google+ messenger, which I presume integrates hangouts should be in the same place. I don’t see why Google Talk and Google+ Messenger are different.
To conclude, with no definite date for ICS upgrades for other phones, the Nexus S is a great buy. It is a great example of the importance of software over hardware in a phone, a lesson well learnt from Apple. The stock interface is great, and it would be a crying shame if Samsung insists on obscuring it completely with Touchwiz. This is a great reason to buy a Nexus phone over phones from Android OEMs who can’t leave well alone. The Nexus S is just $269 in Australia and comes fully unlocked despite Vodafone’s insistence that it’s locked. This is an absolute bargain if you don’t want to shell out 2.5 times more for the Galaxy Nexus.