iPhone 4 vs Nexus S: Which smartphone is right for you?

iPhone 4-Nexus S

Six months after moving to Apple's smartphone, I'm back on Android. On December 17, I bought the Samsung-made Google Nexus S from my local Best Buy. Days later, my iPhone 4 sold on eBay for $575, which will cover my early termination fee with AT&T and some of the new phone's cost. Like any other tech purchase, I did research beforehand but couldn't find what I most wanted: iPhone comparison to Nexus S reviews -- Apple's flagship smartphone to Google's superphone. After nearly two weeks using Nexus S, I'm ready to offer some experiential comparisons for other shoppers.

To be clear, I wasn't dissatisfied with iPhone 4. On the contrary, I was hugely satisfied with the phone and the user experience. Apple's smartphone feels solid to hold, offers breathtaking display and shoots pleasing photos and videos. With the exception of ongoing Bluetooth earpiece problems, iPhone satisfied -- perhaps too much. Psychologists say that marriages often break up not in a flurry of anger or arguments but silence. Two people drift apart, one day realizing they have little left in common. That sentiment in some ways describes my feelings about iPhone 4. Three-and-a-half years after the original phone launched, the iOS user interface is pretty much the same. The UI feels stale, uninviting and too PC-like. I love the hardware, but no longer pine for the software.

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An iPhone 4 Divorce

My software breakup started months earlier, when my 89 year-old father-in-law switched to iPhone 4. In process of watching him struggle to use the device, I suddenly saw in a new way the inconsistencies of the user interface, such as the button in the left hand corner  of some standard phone functions leading "back" but doing something different, too (text messaging is good example). There was a consistency about his confusion -- when encountering UI inconsistencies and oddities.

Other things bugged me. For example, photo sharing is cumbersome on iOS compared to Android. The iOS presents a few standard sharing options, like e-mail and MMS, but the services are all Apple's. By comparison, Android exposes APIs to third-party developers. When using the Nexus One, the newer Google phone's predecessor, I could upload photos directly to Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr immediately, without having to truck over to their apps (unlike iPhone). This example represents the difference in openness of the two mobile platforms.

In June, I switched to iPhone 4 from Nexus One, which my wife still uses. I generally liked the Android phone but there were accuracy problems with the touchscreen and the AMOLED screen washed out in sunlight, making the phone essentially unusable. When I had the Nexus One, it ran Android 2.1 (now 2.2). I like versions 2.2 and 2.3 less; there are more steps required for some really basic functions, like making phone calls. The point: Android's user interface is becoming unnecessarily complex in some respects. However, in many others, such as adjusting settings or getting notifications, even Android 2.3 is superior in its simplicity compared to iOS.

Google Nexus S side view showing curvy screen

Some reasons why Nexus S appealed to me compared to iPhone 4:

1. It's the new Google phone. Nexus S is Google branded, with no carrier crapware installed. The smartphone is based on the popular Samsung Galaxy S series, and it will be first to get the newest Android operating system version updates.

2. Nexus S runs Gingerbread. Android 2.3 is tasty. What can I say? I like sweets.

3. The Super AMOLED screen overcomes Nexus One's sunlight blindness -- and it's crisp and clear enough compared to iPhone 4.

4. I like the Samsung Galaxy S series -- too bad the Nexus S misses some features. I'd be happier if like T-Mobile's Samsung Vibrant variant, Nexus S had 720p video and microSD slot to augment the 16GB internal storage. That said, the Nexus S is gorgeous and loaded with goodies.

5. I was bored with iOS and longing for Android. As aforementioned, I was ready for the iPhone 4 divorce. I just wanted the right phone to switch to-- something like the Nexus One in concept but not the shortcomings.

How Do the Phones Compare?

There is no apple (or is that Apple?) to apple comparison. Each smartphone appeals in its own way. I mostly prefer the Nexus S to iPhone 4, but I could just as comfortably use Apple's smartphone. These are both exceptional quality phones. For many people, one or the other will be a matter of taste, assuming they're not contractually committed to the wireless network supporting the other phone.

Quick Specs: iPhone 4

  • Processor: Apple A4.
  • Storage: 16GB or 32GB; available to applications.
  • Dimensions: 115.2mm high by 58.6mm wide by 9.3mm deep, weighing 137 grams.
  • Display: 3.5 inches, with 960-by-640 resolution; 326 dots per inch; 800:1 contrast ratio.
  • Wireless: UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA -- 850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz; GSM/EDGE -- 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz; 802.11b/g/n WiFi; Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR; Assisted GPS
  • Cameras: VGA front-facing and 5-megapixel back-facing (backlit CMOS and high-dynamic range capabilities); VGA video from front and 720p from the back, both 30 frames per second; LED flash on back camera.
  • Claimed battery life: 7 hours talk, 5 hours Internet
  • Carrier locked: Yes, in most geographies
  • US price: $199 for 16GB and $299 32GB with two-year contractual commitment to AT&T. No commitment: $599 and $699, respectively.

iPhone 4

Quick Specs: Nexus S

  • Processor: 1GHz Samsung Cortex A8 (Hummingbird).
  • Storage: 16GB; 1GB available to applications.
  • Dimensions: 123.9mm high by 63mm wide by 10.88mm deep, weighing 129 grams.
  • Display: 4 inches, with 800-by-480 resolution; 235 dots per inch; 100000:1 contrast ratio.
  • Wireless: HSDPA/HSUPA -- 900, 1700, 2100 MHz; GSM/EDGE -- 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); 802.11b/g/n WiFi; Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR; Assisted GPS; Near Field Communication.
  • Cameras: VGA front-facing and 5-megapixel back-facing; VGA video from front and 720 x 480 from the back, 30 frames per second; LED flash on back camera.
  • Claimed battery life: 6.7 hours.
  • Carrier locked: No
  • US price: $199 or $249 with two-year contractual commitment to T-Mobile. No commitment: $529.

In the United States, iPhone 4 is locked to AT&T's network; even when unlocked by the user, high-speed data is not available on the other major GSM network, T-Mobile. The Nexus S is unlocked and uses T-Mobile's data frequencies. The phone is good for voice on AT&T but only EDGE for data. Note to T-Mobile subscribers: The Nexus S tops out at 7.2Mbps; it does not support T-Mobile's so-called 4G network speeds.

First-Hand User Experience

The Nexus S' most distinctive feature is the curved screen, which feels noticeably more comfortable against the face than iPhone 4 or other smartphones I have used. The screen is bright, with rich contrast that is superior to iPhone 4. The capacitive touchscreen is scarily responsive, like it's reading my mind and producing letters before I touch the screen. That's not too far from the truth. In testing, I find the screen responds without touch, if I hold my fingers just above the letters.

But it is the speed I first noticed. The Nexus S is fast, noticeably more than iPhone 4, which is saying a lot, since Apple's smartphone is no slouch. From a usability perspective, I much prefer Android's simply inspired notifications compared to Apple's seemingly hacked on approach. If, for example, Facebook isn't on the main iPhone screen, the user might not realize he or she has notifications, which appear as a numeral against the application icon. On Android, a unified notifications bar appears at the top of screen and pulls down to reveal them.

Android also places phone function or application settings on the same screen (after you untuck them), rather than how iPhone forces the user to go to a separate, consolidated "settings" application. Another nicety: Widgets running on the desktop. I use the featured "Google News/Weather" widget throughout the day. I'll add others to one of the home screens, as I find time.

Nexus S' battery life, while good, simply doesn't compete with iPhone 4, which is an exceptional performer. I would guess Nexus S delivers about 80-85 percent the time of iPhone 4. About 10 days after posting, I optimized the Nexus S battery by running it down completely over three successive recharges, which dramatically improved battery life, bringing it on par with iPhone 4 -- sometimes better depending on usage. Strangely, I find talk time to be longer on Nexus S compared to iPhone 4, while Apple's phone lasts longer for data usage.

As a journalist, the camera is a high priority for me. Unquestionably, iPhone has the edge, particularly for video. But I find the Nexus S delivers satisfying performance -- certainly good enough -- and there are some actual controls for adjusting settings while taking pictures, such as white balance and exposure compensation.

Like other Android handsets, Nexus S syncs to the cloud -- no PC required, unlike iPhone 4. Apple offers some cloud sync capabilities, but users must still backup the device to a computer and receive updates there. Android updates OTA -- over the air. I presume that Nexus S, like the N1, will restore all apps and settings OTA if the phone is reset.

I find call quality on both ends to be excellent with both phones, but better with Nexus S. Several people have asked about the difference, which they noticed. Switching carriers -- T-Mobile from AT&T -- could be a factor. Here's something, and I have no explanation why: Nexus S screen is noticeably less smudgy than iPhone 4.

There remains the question of mobile apps. Apple claims 300,000 in the App Store, but what about Google? According to AndroLib, the Android Marketplace now has more than 200,000 applications. I won't quibble the number, which isn't Google official, but will say this: I had absolutely no problem finding all the applications I needed.

Which phone is right for you? I can't say. Hopefully this post will help your decision-making process. But nothing beats actually handling a phone, which I suggest you do on several trips. It's an important commitment (if bound by carrier contract that you'll live with for years) that deserves some hands-on experience. The Nexus S is right for me, and I have no regrets.

45 Responses to iPhone 4 vs Nexus S: Which smartphone is right for you?

  1. rrode74 says:

    "The point: Android's user interface is becoming unnecessarily complex in some respects. However, in many others, such as adjusting settings or getting notifications, even Android 2.3 is superior in its simplicity compared to iOS."

    That should be in a Windows Phone 7 ad.

    The Samsung Focus is basically a Nexus S....but with a better UI. Just passed 5000 apps for WP7 time to move over Joe.

    • pepeda says:

      rrode74, you should be joking comparing WP7 with iOS or Android rigth now.

      WP7 is in early beta stage. Saying "better UI" and trust in what you're saying now is only for fanboys or for people that looks at main screen and say "Good, new and fresh interface"

      Talk after the large update Microsoft is planning for next months where a ton of things will be fixed, but please, don't say better UI.

      PD: I received one at work, and after two weeks, I switched them.

      • rrode74 says:

        Update is coming at CES, in a few weeks at most. We are swapping out iPhone 3G's at work for the Focus, and users LOVE THEM. Not to mention it supports Sharepoint, something the iPhone will probably NEVER do.

        Every review I have read, points to the UI as being "better", "new", "not copied from the iPhone".

    • cekicen says:

      Classic fanboy :)

  2. cool_guy says:

    Great article! Too bad the Nexus S doesn't have a card slot. I will wait for the Galaxy S2 (if it comes out). Joe (and others), have you heard of the SPB UI Engine beta program? Check this video out, you don't want to miss it. It is one of the coolest things ever and it runs on Android, MeeGo, Symbian and Windows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROca7ao-Tqw&feature=player_embedded

    • Calc_Yolatuh says:

      Looks a bit like other fake 3D solutions, such as Compiz. Most of them only manipulate a snapshot of each workspace.

  3. benjimen says:

    Go ahead, keep trying to convince yourself you're glad you switched. Eventually, you'll wish your carrier had the iPhone... Then if they get it, you'll switch back. Do you honestly think you won't want to reconcile once the iPhone-5 gets announced? That period from product announcement to release is going to kill you. It won't be long before you try to generate page-views by writing of your 'remarriage'... :)

    • PC_Tool says:

      So?

      I fail to see any problem here.

      So he goes back to the iPhone when it's "better". So he switches back again when Android 3.0 hits? So he switches to WP7 when update2 hits?

      He uses what he wants. I can't believe I am actually defending the guy, but constantly trying to find "better" requires far more logic and reasoning than "because it's an iPhone".

    • ctk says:

      i wish my carrier had the iphone, but only because it would drive more customers to it, which is not a bad thing. i don't have a desire to own the iphone higher than the 3gs. in fact ever since i got the vibrant i transitioned pretty quickly to it despite not ever using an android phone before.

      besides, just because something is popular, it doesn't mean it is better. the iphone is popular (for now). android is better, and i say that as a user of both still.

      also btw, i can't see the text bx and i am using opera 11. anyone else having problems?

      • Calc_Yolatuh says:

        The highlighting is poor. This is a problem with the site design. The reply button also does not focus the box when it opens.

  4. ianbetteridge says:

    Joe, you switch smartphones more often than I change t shirts. I give it six months :)

  5. B prez says:

    Thanks for this comparison.

    I'm living vicariously through the post, as there's no chance I'll be have this option soon... just got an iPhone 4 two months ago, and I love it.

    I came from a Samsung, Android-based model called Spica (only available in Europe) simlar to the Behold II. Not quite smart as a smartphone can be, so the iPhone is quite an upgrade.

    I definitely support Android's opensource approach, yet question the mother ship's "dumping" tactics like what googlevoice is doing in the VoIP market to compete with Skype.

    In any case, they're amazing devices, and they're only going to get better... I do wonder, as Benjimen said, if when the iPhone 5 comes out, you'll have to renig on that divorce? :)

  6. Yakumo says:

    No gorilla glass, 720p or microSD, I was going to try upgrade my Galaxy S to the Nexus S but now I think I'll stick :/

  7. SoundMix says:

    Samsung Focus.

  8. orizng says:

    like android's notification? then Palm Pre 2's notification will just blow you away.

  9. jfplopes says:

    Thats the thing Joe. I tried them all and they all have their pros and cons. But quite frankly I'm still not entirely satisfied with any.
    Here's why. IF you pick the iPhone you get the gorgeous looking filled with eye candy UI. You get the iTunes store to download music and videos.
    You get some high quality apps first. Stuff like Zumocast to stream home media to the phone,
    or the new games like Rage and Infinity Blade. There is a lot of quality and variety there that even though Android is catching up on them its still not quite there on overall apps quality. You also don't have so many "force close" situations so to speak.
    On the other side you get stuck in Apple's dictatorship control. For instance, applications like Tasker for Android are hard to find on the iPhone. Or some great web browsers like Dolphin Browser HD and the upcoming Firefox browser and so on.
    You gave some pretty great examples there of Android qualities. But I also have a big trouble with Google right now.
    You mention the OTA updates has an advantage. But right now there is no advantage at all. I got a Google Nexus One and I still don't have Gingerbread. Google has TWO phones to support.
    Why is it taking them so long to release Gingerbread on the Nexus One? By contrast Apple releases iOS updates across all devices at the same time.
    But things are even worst if you have a non Google branded Android phone. IF you had a Galaxy S for instance, one of the most popular Android phones, only now would you start receiving the update to Android 2.2 (i wonder why they didn't go straight to 2.3).
    That's the problem with Android right there. Its open source but business interests from carriers and manufacturers are making it a less desirable option than it should.
    I'll tell you this. I would still go for the Android. More and more developers are porting their quality iPhone applications to Android so that won't be a problem. And I hope that honeycomb will bring to Android some of the eye candy people are used to get on iOS devices.
    But frankly if by the time honeycomb comes, I still see the same pattern where OS updates are delayed over and over again on the older devices I may reconsider my options.
    Time will tell how the war for the mobile devices goes.

    • PC_Tool says:

      "And I hope that honeycomb will bring to Android some of the eye candy people are used to get on iOS devices."

      LauncherPro, ADW EX, RubikS 1.3 (ROM)...all have some very nice "eye candy".

      You don't need to wait for Google...or Samsung... :)

  10. thartist says:

    I like this article. This comparison is useful for people undecided with an open perspective. Try pumping more of this articles from time to time but just remember to keep it a well assorted point to point comparison so that it remains helpful instead of a scattered summation of features.

  11. dougau says:

    My lowly rooted LG Ally dose everything I want, but I wish I could afford a new phone every six months too.

    • extremely well says:

      Do what I do: allocate $50/mo for a smartphone, and always buy them unlocked & actively mod'ed for highest resale value.

  12. thartist says:

    JOE WILCOX, YOU'RE AN @$%&!

    Ok, now that i have your attention, what's with the down-raters Betanews! Just make it so that thumbing down a comment doesn't collapse it, so that they stop doing that to 'mark as read'.

    • PC_Tool says:

      Why?

      You don't actually think the moderation *mean* something...do you? Please tell me you don't actually base your self-image on the opinions of a few anonymous intarwebz dwellers...that'd just be sad.

      • InfoDave says:

        RE: 'the opinions of a few anonymous intarwebz dwellers'

        Certainly not yours, Tool, certainly not yours.

        The scores here are definitely influenced by the 'mark as read' phenomena. They are also heavily influenced by people desperately trying to hold on to the past.

      • PC_Tool says:

        [I]Certainly not yours, Tool, certainly not yours.
        [/I]
        Aww...how clever.
        [I]
        The scores here are definitely influenced by the 'mark as read' phenomena. They are also heavily influenced by people desperately trying to hold on to the past.[/I]

        That second bit is what makes them meaningless. People thumb-up or down based on user, not on content. This has been the problem since the beginning and is why I am *far* from the only one who has decided to actually make the feature somewhat useful.

        Sorry if that pricks at your self-image...perhaps you should get some thicker skin.

      • thartist says:

        PC_Tool: don't stay that witty forever.

    • DaveN says:

      Or instead of showing the net score, show the thumbs up and down votes separately.

      • extremely well says:

        That's actually a pretty d*mn good idea, DaveN.

      • mshulman says:

        Or just have a thumbs up or a thumbs down hide the thread - rate it and its marked as read regardless of how you rate it.

      • Calc_Yolatuh says:

        An unnecessarily complicated backend. Or some severe cookie bloat. No thanks. These things I have, they are called eyes. And threads here don't get up to 800 posts like on MyOpera.

  13. DaveN says:

    HA! After a Phone 7 post quite a while ago, I commented that any phone can become successful based on how often people replace them. Joe, you disagreed, pointing out that people become committed to a brand based on things like familiarity, and their investement in apps, accessories, etc.

    I don't consider either of our points to be conclusively decided, but this article is a vote for my side : -)

    Gotta say - an ever increasing group of my friends and acquaintances are upgrading to both iPhone and Android, and they're all very happy with their choices. ATT aside, I never hear a complaint about any new smartphone, regardless of flavor.

    • extremely well says:

      That's cuz most smartphones do 110% of what 99% of the users want. The remaining 1% are the extremely techy bunch who'll pick sides based on "oddball" requirements.

      Yet, a trend is clearly found. iPhone 4 did NOT increase smartphone marketshare for Apple, it has actually declined a bit (1% of so). There are and there will continue to be more people switching AWAY from iPhones to something else than people switching to iPhones. Various formfactors and pricepoints will do that.

  14. xl743 says:

    Wow, I'm looking forward for the "My Nexus S confession" article by Joe in a couple of weeks.

    • extremely well says:

      Even my extremely high IQ couldn't twist the universe to bring meaning into your apparently totally random words. Wilcox JUST SAID he switched to the Nexus S.

      • xl743 says:

        Maybe that's because you have not read Joe's article about switching from Mac OS X to Windows 7 and subsequent article called "My Windows confession" about switching back. I think Joe Wilcox is a flip-flopping stool-pigeon.

      • Calc_Yolatuh says:

        Can't be. He's not even a senator yet.

  15. extremely well says:

    [i]Here's something, and I have no explanation why: Nexus S screen is noticeably less smudgy than iPhone 4.[/i]

    Google Nexus S [url=http://www.google.com/nexus/#/tech-specs]Tech Specs[/url]:
    Display -- Anti-fingerprint display coating

  16. jackamus says:

    htc evo ---- lol

  17. Calc_Yolatuh says:

    Hey, could you compare Opera Mobile, Firefox 4 and a couple other programs against the default browser? I really want to know how they perform on a top-tier android phone.

  18. punkymonkey says:

    my Android HTC is 10x what my iPhone was, and it was half the cost and is much less restrictive

  19. tiburoncito_2000 says:

    why can't manufactures just give us a better deal on the phone prices so we can choose whatever carrier we want and buy phone once a year if you heart so desires and if you can afford to do so.

    Anything over $500 for a phone is too much, with a contract all phones should be $99 and under.

  20. 007JB says:

    ok - I just did the opposite. After 6 months with the Android EVO, I've gone to the iPhone 4, for two reasons.

    Battery

    Apps

    There is just no way around it, Android apps suck BIG TIME. I really was hoping to stay with Android but comparing the same apps on both OS's, there is just no comparison. iOS just seems a few notches of refinement better than Android apps.

    The one app that really stood out on the Android, is the google navigation. Very nice, that is one app I will definitely miss.

    On the battery, it was horrible on the android. It's nice not having to worry about battery life again.

    Joe, I think you will find that after a while, the boring factor will be the same on the Android. Time will tell.

  21. Bay Area CA Male says:

    I'm sure the phone works well but compared to iPhone 4 is just not there.

    After years of so many claims that the iPhone killer has arrived all we see is various android models being pushed out by the next model coming a few months later.

    Anything you can do with an android you can do with a iPhone and have a smotther faster experience doing it. I jail broke mine for free unlimited tethering and now my iPad is always online without having to use wifi.

    IOS is a bigger, better, blissful ecosystem.

    Android is for geek who claim open source is better without ever using it for anything.
    Apps for droid are fragmented and often need multiple versions for all the many models and versions of droid. That's ur "open".

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