Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Nexus S: New Software, Old Hardware

Guest blogger Karl Newark writes:

If you are a regular reader of this site, chances are that you probably already know a lot about Google’s latest version of Android, 4.1 Jelly Bean. So rather than doing a full and in-depth review of the software, I will try to pick up on the differences between the Jelly Bean that most people know of (on the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus) and how they compare to Jelly Bean on the older Nexus S. If you would like to know more about this version of Android, I would suggest reading Eddie Ringle’s article A Week with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean here on LockerGnome.

Additional Features

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Nexus S: New Software, Old HardwareAndroid 4.1 came with a fair amount of new features, most of which were included in the Nexus S version. Previously, with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a few features were missing — such as face unlock, which is said to be due to hardware limitations. But I was happy to see that most of the new features in Jelly Bean had been preloaded.

The first thing I tried out when I installed the update was Google Now and voice search, and I was pretty impressed; the voice recognition is much better than anything I had used previously, and I quickly got used to setting timers and alarms with voice commands. I also like to use it to double-check definitions when writing.

The cards UI of Google Now is very impressive. The older hardware was certainly not a limitation here; the only problem I had was with the predictive nature of the Card System — most of them seemed completely random. After a couple of weeks, it still hasn’t figured out my work address, and it has never even guessed anywhere close. The only useful cards I get at the minute are the weather and a “time back home” card, which detects traffic conditions and gives a fairly accurate time.

It’s also worth noting that activating these two services when past the lock screen is different on the Nexus S due to the Nexus S having dedicated capacitive buttons rather than on-screen buttons. A tap on the search key will launch Google Now and a long press on the button launches a voice search. This means that the search key can no longer activate an in-app search as it could on previous versions of the OS.

Google Currents is now preloaded into Android and it looks great. Even on the smaller, lower resolution and slower processor of the Nexus S it provides a great reading experience with clear images and text with slick animations.

It’s also worth noting that Chrome is not the default browser on the Nexus S as it is on the Nexus 7; I believe this was a good choice as I have always had issues with Chrome when using multiple tabs. I suspect this is due to the lack of RAM.


Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Nexus S: New Software, Old HardwareOne of the most important additions to Jelly Bean was Project Butter. Google did a lot behind the scenes to increase overall performance when navigating the user interface, and to my surprise this has a great effect on the Nexus S. I guessed that Project Butter wouldn’t have much of an effect on my device as Ice Cream Sandwich was probably pushing it to its limits anyway, but I was wrong. Google managed to push even more performance out of the hardware.

Benchmark results have not seemed to improve; these took a huge hit with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, and this has not changed much with the release of Jelly Bean. These newer operating systems use more resources, so app performance could supposedly take a hit.

As you can see, the Nexus S has poor benchmark results, but it is actually beaten by the same device running Gingerbread. But benchmark results aren’t everything.

(The benchmark app used was Quadrant Standard Edition, available on Google Play for free.)

Don’t be put off by these results, however. Game performance is still very impressive — the newest 2D games such as Rovio’s Amazing Alex and Angry Birds Space play absolutely fine, and still look great on the relatively small and low resolution screen. I have also played a lot of Temple Run, which runs perfectly smoothly. I also downloaded Dead Trigger just to see how it would run; I didn’t expect much as it is generally the game of choice for showing off the power of quad core devices, but it actually ran, and pretty well. The textures looked great and the frame rate was mostly smooth (it dropped a little when there were many enemies on screen). I did feel that I needed a bit of a bigger screen, though.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Nexus S: New Software, Old Hardware
A screenshot taken of Dead Trigger running on the Nexus S

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on the Nexus S: New Software, Old Hardware
Amazing Alex on the Nexus S


After running Jelly Bean for a couple of weeks and finding hardly any issues, it’s easy to say that this was a great update for the device. This new software makes this relatively old device feel brand new, and it still looks great. Sure, when compared to its successor, the Galaxy Nexus icons look more cramped and the speed isn’t quite as impressive, but it’s still a great device in 2012.

To those who are currently looking for a budget Android device, I would certainly recommend a used Nexus S as they can now be found for incredibly low prices and certainly deliver a much more polished experience than most new budget Android phones.

As for the future, I’m not sure whether the Nexus S will receive the next version of the Android OS (dubbed Key Lime Pie), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this device loses support as soon as the next smartphone in Google’s Nexus line is released. Google dropped support for the Nexus One as soon as the Galaxy Nexus was released, so it seems that Google will support two generations of smartphone — which is fair when compared to other manufacturers and mobile operating systems.

It says a lot for Google and the development of its Android operating system that it can be used on a vast variety of hardware with solid results, but it should bring shame onto other manufacturers that tout “issues with performance” when pressed for updates on hardware much more capable than Google’s Nexus S. There are many devices out there with much faster hardware than the Nexus S that will never even see Ice Cream Sandwich.

Will your next smartphone be an Android? If yes, go for a Nexus device. They may not be the fastest or have the biggest screen, but in my opinion the software support will benefit the user experience greatly.

Have you used a Nexus device? Do you agree with my assessment, or do you have a differing opinion that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss!

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  • Jesse Aranda

    I am seriously considering the Nexus, my iPhone 3gs (running iOS 6 Beta) is starting to bore me or rather iOS is. Once I flashed Jellybean (Jandycane) on my Kindle Fire I was really impressed by how far Android has come since I last used it (gingerbread maybe?).

    However, I do have a better experience with JB on my Kindle Fire than when I had ICS loaded on it.

    • Karl Newark

      Ice Cream Sandwich was the version of Android that everyone needed, Jelly Bean is a incremental improvement, but good none the less.

      With the success of devices such as the Galaxy SIII and the Nexus 7 new user friendly (ICS onwards) Android has a lot of momentum at the moment, if they could just manage to do something about the slow updates on non Nexus devices they would have dealt with most of the main issues of the platform.

      It will be interesting to see what Apple has to offer in September with the next generation of the iPhone, an incremental update such as the change from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4S, probably won’t cut it, the way I see it is Apple have two options not, they can do a small upgrade on the 4S, which will still give them a massive (yet probably declining) interest from consumers, or try for a long term solution by introducing a completely redesigned device, that would be risky though as they are so invested in the iconic design that people are now losing interest in.

  • Jordan Vasquez

    I think the only reason the Nexus One isnt supported is due to hardware and the phone having a sub-par experience with it. google doesnt want nexus devices running poorly, it looks bad. depending on how much the key lime pie update is going to be, i think the nexus s will still be supported. just my thoughts.

    • Karl Newark

      The reason the Nexus one wasn’t supported was due to the partition layout, the partition for the OS was not big enough to hold ICS, although partitions can be rearranged with software (this is how XDA members managed to get JB and ICS on the Nexus One), it does not use the same method that OTA updates use, if a official update messes up, a repair isn’t too difficult, even for a novice. If something goes wrong while resetting partitions, the device could easily be bricked.

      I believe the Nexus S could be supported for a couple of small updates (such as Froyo to Gingerbread or Ice Cream Sandwich to Jelly Bean) but a huge overhaul like Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich would probably knock the Nexus S on the head.

      • Jordan Vasquez

        Oh yes I haven’t thought about that…

      • grellanl

        Yeah those HTC devices came with way too little flash storage in general: it’s a shame really as CPU-wise the Nexus One would have no problem running ICS/JB.

        Resizing the system partition wouldn’t leave you with much of a data partition (there wasn’t much of it anyway). Hacking the data partition onto an ext partition on SD card would work (S2E works great on CM7) but you’re running into diminishing returns at this stage.

  • Ryan Matthew Pierson

    Great review! Thanks for sharing it.

    • Karl Newark

      Thanks Ryan!

  • Chris Pirillo

    I love that new life can be breathed into “old” objects with software updates (so long as those updates are easy to apply).

    • Karl Newark

      Software support is definitely an important factor when buying an Android device, or any device, in my opinion it provides a greater UX than the latest and greatest processor that will only be outdated in a month or two.