The Google Phone is here. Sort of. Sure, we've seen the G1, the Droid, the Hero, and other smart phones running Google's Android operating system. But the Nexus One is different. Made by HTC, this is the only handset (at the moment) that runs the eye-candy-filled 2.1 version of the OS, and for the first time Google is selling an unlocked phone directly. If you buy it from Google it costs $529, but it's also available on contract from T-Mobile for $179. So is the Nexus One the Google Phone of fanboys' dreams? On the one hand, the phone has a slim, elegant design, a stunning 3.7-inch AMOLED display (with a beautiful new OS to match), and a fast 1.0-GHz processor that makes the experience feel even snappier than the Motorola Droid. And yet a few quirks, from tepid call quality to an occasionally error-prone typing experience, make us hesitant to knock other Android phones off our radar. After all, the 2.1 software is coming to other Android phones, too. In the end, the Nexus One isn't an iPhone killer, but it is the best Android phone available for T-Mobile, making it an Editors' Choice pick.
At just 0.5 inches thick and 4.6 ounces, the Nexus One is a shade thinner than the iPhone 3GS (4.8 ounces). It reminds us of a longer HTC Droid Eris. When you hold the Nexus One, you don't feel the heft anchoring it to your hand like the Motorola Droid. However, despite feeling almost too light, the Nexus One still feels durable and well-made.
The enormous 3.7-inch (800 x 480) screen on the Nexus One is the same resolution as the HTC HD2, only the HD2's screen is 4.3 inches. So you've got more pixels crammed onto a smaller (but still large) space, amounting to a very sharp image. However, the Droid's 3.7-inch display has a 854 x 480-pixel resolution, which means you have to scroll slightly less often. Because it's an AMOLED display, the colors on the Nexus One are stunning, although the downside to them being so brilliant is that they can also appear over saturated.
With the exception of a thin black bezel surrounding the screen, the phone has a matte gray build. A thinner strip of metal adorns the edge of the phone, and is a lighter shade of gray-taupe than the rest of the device. While the colors match, some might prefer a less distracting monochrome design, like the iPhone.
On the left side of the Nexus One is a thin volume rocker, which we had no problem manipulating during a phone call (more on call quality later). The back side of the phone has a removable plastic battery cover and houses the 5.0-megapixel camera and LED flash. With the exception of Google's and HTC’s logos (Google’s is larger and more prominent), there’s plenty of blank space. Google says that users can have up to two lines of text engraved at no extra charge. The idea, as with Android 2.1, is to give users more ways of personalizing the phone.
The Nexus One's virtual keyboard is slightly larger than the Droid's (as are the individual keys), which makes typing a bit easier. As we'll elaborate on later, it's easy to hit the four touch-sensitive buttons by accident while typing. This isn't a problem when you switch to landscape mode, and the keys are even larger, but then you have to master stretching your thumbs around that long 4.7-inch frame. While you get the hang of typing on it quickly enough, the learning curve is steeper than with the iPhone’s excellent on-screen keyboard.
Both the Nexus One and the Droid (on whose screen we have more experience typing) offer spelling corrections, but they're not as accurate or intuitive as the iPhone's. It gets big words, such as "conference" right, but there were many times when we typed "ti" instead of "to" and ended up with "Tim."
Like other Android phones, including the Motorola Droid, the Nexus One has a row of four touch-sensitive buttons along the bottom edge of the display. In order, these include Back, Settings/Menu, Home, and Search buttons. Like the Droid, they vibrate with haptic feedback, although the buzzing feels noticeably stronger on the Droid. While typing, we often hit these buttons by mistake, a problem we haven't had with the Droid, despite their identical button layout. Several times, we accidentally closed out of Gmail because we tapped the home button when we meant to hit the space bar. Luckily, the software is smart enough to save drafts when you close the Gmail app.
Beneath these buttons is a trackball, which doubles as both a navigation tool and an LED indicator. It can glow various colors, such as blue for Bluetooth, or white when the phone is asleep (a curious riff on Apple's laptops). Although the idea of an LED trackball is neat, we're not sure it has a place on the Nexus One. When you have a 3.7-inch touchscreen—a gorgeous AMOLED one, at that—you want to touch it. Navigating with the screen is satisfying because it responds to light taps, and it’s fast, thanks to Qualcomm’s 1.0-GHz Snapdragon processor. We wish that you could wake up the sleeping phone by pressing the trackball, but instead you have to use the hardware lock/unlock button on the top-left side of the phone.
One use we did find for the trackball is cutting and pasting specific text. Using either your finger or the trackball, you can bear down on a text field, at which point you'll have the option of selecting, copying, or cutting all the text (meaning, individual letters or words). Once you select text, you can just use the trackball to insert the cursor where you want it and roll in either direction to highlight letters and words. This process of highlighting specific text, as opposed to all of it, is more unwieldy using just your finger.
On the flip side, the OS doesn't support multitouch. Google says it may add this feature in the future, however. In the meantime, there are applications that do support multitouch, and you can still enjoy these on the Nexus One. For instance, when we installed the Dolphin browser from Android Marketplace, we were easily able to use two fingers to pinch and zoom in on search results.
Much more than its slim hardware, the big story about Nexus One is that it's the first device to run Android 2.1, which offers a much more polished visual experience. It has five home screens (up from three), and users can customize them not just with static widgets and shortcuts, but live, moving wallpapers. This attention to homescreens reminds us of what Motorola has already done with the Cliq (also available from T-Mobile) and its Motoblur interface, which makes use of different screens to showcase various widgets. As with Android 2.0, this OS includes Google Maps Navigation (Beta) with free turn-by-turn directions.
Some of these live wallpapers, such as a galaxy theme, just offer pretty, high-res background movement. Others, though, such as a pond with floating leaves, are interactive. Much like a similar screensaver in Microsoft’s Touch Pack for Windows 7, you can tilt the phone to create ripples. And, as with Touch Pack, the effect is beautiful—fun, even—although not necessarily useful. As for those homescreens, a series of dots in the lower right and left corners remind users which one they're looking at (for instance, the second screen will have three dots on one side and one dot on the other).
The application launcher has also gotten a face lift. Up until now, this has been a flat 2D drawer you pull out and scroll through. Now, instead of a drawer, there's a Home icon in the bottom center of the screen. When pressed, it opens a menu of icons, each of which seeming to fall into place. The effect reminds us of some of the animated transitions Apple introduced in Keynote ‘09. Although it looks cool, we quickly grew tired of this effect, since it added to the time it took to see all of our applications. In fact, the Nexus One's app launcher took close to two seconds with this transition, whereas the slower, simpler Droid took just one second to show all of our applications. When you scroll through those icons, they drop off the edge of the screen when they reach the top, as if they’re attached to a three-dimensional wheel of icons. This doesn’t make Android any more useful or even intuitive; what it means is that Google has played some much-needed catch-up in the visual pizazz department.
In addition to the physical Home button being too easy to accidentally hit, so too is the on-screen Home icon. We chose to relocate our browser shortcut (just hold your finger and drag) because we often opened the app launcher when we meant to launch the browser.
One more note on usability: getting started on the Nexus One was simple. All you have to do is sign into your Google account, and it automatically installs the latest version of whatever apps you had on a previous Android phone. That’s good news for G1 owners who are itching to upgrade within T-Mobile.
One other hallmark of Android 2.1 is voice search. Sure, version 2.0 has this too, but in the latest OS every text field supports voice search. That means you can even speak your tweets instead of typing them. So far, though, that's theoretical. For instance, twidroid, the Twitter app for Android that we most prefer, doesn't yet support this capability. So, early adopters can really only use voice input in text fields that belong to the OS, such as text messaging. In these cases, it's not always convenient to use your voice. Sure, the touchscreen is somewhat error-prone, particularly when compared to the iPhone, but it can grow tiresome to tap the microphone icon, speak, and then wait for the phone to recognize what you say.
As for accuracy, sometimes the voice recognition is as wrong as it is slow. In attempting to address a text message to a friend, who we even had starred as a favorite in our contacts list, the phone took 3 seconds on two tries to process our speech. Both times, instead of our male friend, we got the name of a woman. Later, the Nexus One did not understand us when we asked for "Muppets Bohemian Rhapsody" in the YouTube application.
With Android being supported by every major carrier except AT&T (for now), and with analysts predicting Android handsets will soon outnumber iPhones, it's no surprise that developers are taking the platform seriously, and that the Android Market is growing. Most major iPhone apps have an equivalent on Android: Fandango, Weather Channel, Yelp and many, many others. And yet, the number of apps in the Android Market—around 16,000—pales in comparison to the 150,000+ in Apple's App Store. In our experience with various Android phones, though, we've always found an app to suits our needs (thus far).
Our biggest concern surrounding apps isn't about quantity, but about storage. Although the Nexus One comes with a 4GB microSD Card, you can only store apps on the internal memory for now, which is only 512MB.
Performance and Speed
The Nexus One differentiates itself from the Motorola Droid by packing a 1.0-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (the Droid has a 550-MHz ARM Cortex A8 CPU). The Nexus One was slightly faster to respond when we tapped icons (it takes less than a second to respond; the Droid, between one and two seconds). We also timed how long it took the phones' accelerometers to respond when we tilted them; the Nexus One took one second, while the Droid took almost two. When it came to redrawing maps as we swiped around with our finger, the Nexus One was able to complete the task in about two seconds. The Droid showed first pieces of the new map sections in about two seconds, but took around eight to fully load the screen. Then there are the little things, like the fact that when we got off a phone call, the Nexus One's proximity sensor was slightly quicker to realize our ear was no longer pressed against the screen.
While in Las Vegas, NV, we tested the speed of T-Mobile's 3G network by timing how long the phone took to fully load a few image-heavy sites: ESPN.com, Laptopmag.com, and NYTimes.com. Time and again, the Nexus One loaded pages about twice as fast as the Droid did on Verizon Wireless. It loaded these sites in 6, 19, and 7 seconds, respectively. The Droid, meanwhile, loaded the same sites in 12, 33, and 16 seconds. (It should be noted that we tested the phones at the same time in the same location.) The Nexus One's other connectivity options include Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR for wirelessly streaming music to headphones.
In testing the Nexus One's 5.0-MP camera and LED flash, we had some good testing grounds: Google’s brightly colored headquarters. The good news is that the camera gets the colors right. The lime green couches in the background of one of our photos, for instance, didn't lose their punch. But when it comes to low light or harshly backlit shots, the camera is limited in the way that many other camera phones are. The video camera, too, suffers in low light (in some situations, the screen just appeared black), although the motion, at 20 frames per second or higher, looked fluid. The sound, however, was atrociously tinny and echo-y. You're better off using a pocket camcorder.
With the Nexus One, the user experience is just as important as the camera itself. The Gallery is sleeker than on the Droid, and it automatically culls photos from your Picasa account. Swiping through them is easy, too, thanks to the responsive display. Sharing is also quick and smart: when you click Share in the settings menu, you'll see check marks in the upper right-hand corner of each photo; just tap those boxes to make a check mark appear, indicating the photos you want to upload.
The sharing options brilliantly integrate with whatever apps you have. We had access not just to the preinstalled Gmail and Facebook apps, but also the Twitter app twidroid, which meant we could share photos through our social networking outlet of choice. Users can also upload to Picasa from their phones,which thankfully takes place in the background. Our Droid, meanwhile, only displays photos we took in the phone or, perhaps, edited using the phone (such as a photo we modified for our profile picture using the Facebook for Android app).
When we streamed The Muppets singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" on YouTube, the video started playing almost instantly with barely any buffering time, and we never noticed any hiccups. Although the colors were bright, we expected a sharper picture. The images looked pixelated, and we were disappointed to see that the clip didn't take up the whole 3.7-inch screen, as there was a good deal of blank space on either side. Sounds from the speaker was slightly tinny. Songs, too, including tracks by Mos Def and Lady Gaga, sounded metallic.
Pleasingly, the phone has a 3.5mm headphone jack, meaning you can use standard headphones. The Nexus One also comes with its own pair, including two optional foam pads, which rip easily. These fit comfortably inside our ears, but didn't much change the sound of the music. The phone also comes with a preloaded 4GB microSD Card, but you can substitute it with one as large as 32GB.
Buying Options: Unlocked or Subsidized
Although Google surprised everyone by announcing Verizon Wireless will get the Nexus One in the spring, for now it’s only available through Google as an unlocked handset or through T-Mobile with a two-year contact. The unlocked price is $529; with a T-Mobile contract it’s $179. The Nexus One is a GSM phone, which means that technically you could bring the unlocked version to AT&T, but we’d never recommend that since the phone is not compatible with AT&T’s 3G service. For that, you’ll have to stick with T-Mobile.
The phone is available now on Google’s newly announced phone store (www.google.com/phone), which sells both unlocked and subsidized devices. Google says it plans to add more carriers, but for now it’s available to U.S. customers and will also ship to three test markets: Hong Kong, Singapore, and the UK.
The Nexus One is fast, slim, lightweight, and satisfying to use. Its faster speeds and visual improvements over other Android devices, such as the Motorola Droid, are undeniable. However, this is not a huge leap forward, particularly since the Android 2.1 software that makes it so special will one day find its way onto other Android devices. Meanwhile, so-so call quality and an occasionally clumsy typing experience actually make us prefer the bulkier, slower Droid in some situations. For T-Mobile customers looking to upgrade their smart phone, the Nexus One should be on your short list of phones to consider. Some may prefer the Motorola Cliq, an Android handset with a physical keyboard, snazzy UI, and a focus on social networking, but power users looking for a bigger screen and top-notch performance should spring for the Nexus One.