Nexus One Review

The Nexus One is an over-hyped Android phone. But that doesn't stop it from being the best Android phone. It is, for two reasons: Hardware and software.

Despite the buzz, it's not revolutionary, certainly not because of the way it's being sold—unlocked for $530 or subsidized, with a T-Mobile contract for $180. Sure, Google created its own web store that breaks the act of purchasing the device away from choosing a carrier—it'll soon even be sold by Google for use on the Verizon network. But people have been doing this for years by buying unlocked GSM phones from Nokia and Sony Ericsson and hooking them on to any GSM provider. It's just not the giant step forward that everyone was expecting.

Nexus One Review

Specs

Quickly, the specs. The Nexus One—built for Google by HTC—has a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 512MB RAM, 32GB-capable microSD slot, a 3.7-inch AMOLED capacitive touchscreen display at 800x480, a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash and 720x480 video capture @ 20FPS, dual microphones for noise canceling and a trackball. There is no slide-out keyboard—everything's done with the onscreen virtual keyboard.

On paper, those specs are impressive. In actuality, each bit has its own quirk that makes the Nexus One less than perfect and just good. The 5-megapixel camera is built by HTC in such a way that the bezel around the ring juts out noticeably from the otherwise smooth back. The bulge protrudes just enough to either scratch surfaces that it's placed on, like your glass table or your laptop, or even scratch the lens if you're unlucky enough to rub it over something rough.

The AMOLED screen is gorgeous, and all the colors pop to the point that it makes both the iPhone 3GS and the Droid look washed out. It's really, really good. And it has a generous 480x800 resolution—slightly shorter than the Droid's, but still very ample for a phone, when compared to the iPhone's 320x480. But, again, as good as the screen looks, it doesn't have multitouch support in the US. No matter what the reason for that is, it's frustrating to the end user. But, on the bright side, every input you're giving it is more responsive than on the Droid, because of the improved internals.

Design

The Nexus One is probably HTC's best looking phone to date. The body is made up of two different materials: a metallic bezel that surrounds the front and side of the phone, which curves around to a custom-engraveable strip on the back. The battery cover and bottom of the phone are both covered in a rubbery plastic material that's solid and grippy, yet soft and pleasant. It's also thinner and lighter and curvier than the iPhone 3GS, and is much less sharp and masculine than the Droid.

Nexus One Review

Besides the requisite power and volume rocker buttons, there are five "buttons" on the face: one trackball and four haptic-based touch buttons. The trackball is basically useless—you'll only use it for its color-based notifications that tell you that you have a new email, text message or missed call without having to turn on the screen. As for using it as a scrolling device, the fact that scrolling around the OS or a webpage gives you inconsistent results depending on what "element" of the screen you land on means the ball is essentially useless for navigation. However, you will have to use it for text selection, because you can't hold your finger down to move the cursor—you have to use the ball to navigate to exactly where you want.

The four touch buttons for homescreen, back, menu and search do have haptic feedback when you hit them, but they're not that phenomenal either. Half the time they don't register a press when you want them to, and the other half of the time they think you're hitting it when you just wrapped your hand around the phone slightly too far.

You don't get a rocker switch for silencing the phone without looking, like on the Pre or the iPhone, but you can do the same thing quickly from the lock screen by swiping across the screen to the left. (Swiping to the right unlocks the phone.)

Software

The Nexus One runs on Android 2.1, which will make its way to many other phones, like the Droid, fairly soon. This means that all these great features will be available on some older phones—HTC and Moto for sure—so you may not have to buy all new hardware to take advantage of these capabilities. And take advantage you will.

As soon as you turn on the phone you'll notice the live wallpapers, which are essentially animated backgrounds that you can interact with. They're fairly useless, even if there are a couple that retrieve data in realtime, like blades of grass against a sky that mimics the actual time of day, or an analog sound meter whose needle moves to the music you're playing. The other guys at Giz put it this way: There's no reason for something like this to exist, and it sucks up your battery unnecessarily, but it might be the single coolest reason to get this phone right now.

This same engineer-driven "can we do this?" paradigm is evident in other parts of Android 2.1 as well. The photo gallery thumbnails tilt into or out of the screen as you tilt the phone, which is superfluous and fairly distracting. And the apps screen is even worse. You bring it up by hitting the apps button, which zooms the icons in in 3D. Then, instead of just quickly scrolling onto or off the screen, it wraps around as if on the surface of a cube. This would be fine if the extra 3D effect—added because they can—didn't cause any slowdown, but it does. There's a noticeable lag when you're flipping up, which makes us wish Google had eliminated the effect and let you just scroll through your programs in 2D.

These effects are definitely cool, don't get me wrong, but I'd prefer it of Google was spending its man hours on improving speed and performance (and getting multitouch on its apps) than putting in eye candy that doesn't help usability.

Nexus One Review

But things aren't all bad. There's a new beta-ish version of voice recognition that lets you speak into almost any text field (the names field in email isn't included for some reason, whereas the name field in text messages are).

Voice search works about 80% of the time, but you have to speak slowly and enunciate everything, and pronounce marks. And it doesn't recognize some proper nouns, transcribing "Jesus" (pronounced the Spanish way) to "Hey Zeus," Bruce Willis style. The major downside is that all the voice transcription is done in the cloud—you know, it's Google—so you have to have a net connection to use it. It's awesome to dictate text messages or emails, though I probably talk too fast and mumble too much for this to work well.

We're still not big fans of typing on Android's virtual keyboard. Sure, the keys are actually responsive now, thanks to the muscle of the 1GHz Snapdragon processor, but somehow Google's word prediction still lags behind the iPhone's, and gives you strange options for when you're typing really fast on the phone. It's less of a blast-and-forget than Apple's virtual keyboards. And, coming from the iPhone, the keys here are spaced a bit too close together and a bit too tight, but if you actually prefer the iPhone's style, you can download "Better Keyboard" from the Android Marketplace.

Real-World Use

It's fast fast fast. Part of this is due to performance gains just from using Android 2.1—people who've hacked 2.1 onto the Droid have mentioned better speeds—but a lot of it is the 1GHz processor. Every single aspect of the phone is affected when you have faster hardware on board.

Battery life lasts around a day with normal use, which includes calling, browsing, Google Mapping, push Gmailing and clothed sexting. That's on par with other smartphones now, and won't see much change until we get a dramatic boost in battery technology.

Nexus One Review

T-Mobile's 3G is decent, but not astounding. It really depends on where you are, how many other T-Mobile users are in your city and how deployed the 3G network is there. And if you want, you can download PDAnet from the Android Marketplace, and the accompanying PDAnet application for Windows/Mac, and tether the Nexus One to be a 3G modem on the go. This will work much better when the device is on Verizon—if you care to pay $30 a month to make it happen.

HTC placed two microphones on the device, one on the bottom and one on the back, for better noise cancellation. And the extra microphone pays off. The other party said that the Nexus One sounded, through their speaker, as loud as an iPhone 3G, but noticeably better. Not astoundingly better, just enough so that you'd mention it. But the speaker on the Nexus One, on the other hand, makes conversations sound tinny and thin. Actually, the better microphone setup is evident when you do a Nexus One to Nexus One conversation, because the resulting sound out of N1's speakers is less tinny.

The speaker on the back of the phone, used for speakerphone and for speakers when playing music, is fine. Not fantastic, just fine.

The camera app loads up a lot faster than on the Droid, and shoots a lot faster than the Droid's camera—but the image quality is similarly mediocre. Compared to HTC's earlier Windows Mobile phones, whose cameras were passably bad, the Nexus One's 5-megapixel camera is quite good, even if it doesn't have the iPhone's touch-to-focus.

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What Does This All Mean?

Google's Nexus One is the best Android phone available right now, and we're seeing as high or higher interest in this than the Droid, which had Verizon's million-dollar marketing campaign behind it. But, since T-Mobile's 3G coverage (and voice coverage) is not as built out in certain areas, you might want to wait a few weeks until the phone is available on the Verizon network. (Google will sell that version, too.) And if you're looking to buy this unlocked for AT&T, be aware that you won't be able to use AT&T's 3G network.

But why is Google working so closely with HTC to design the phone, and why is Google selling it themselves? Our theory is that Google's injecting these devices into the market to make sure that OEMs are pushing forward with new Android versions, and the latest hardware available. They don't want stagnation, like with the Windows Mobile market, and are willing to sink manpower and money into ensuring forward movement.

It might seem like selling the Nexus One directly from Google's website is two middle fingers up to manufacturers who have been selling Android phones already. Not exactly. HTC's still the manufacturer, and it sounded like—both from the subtext at the press event and the presence of Motorola's Sanjay Jha—that a future Nexus Two might not be from HTC. Google's spreading the love, essentially, to any manufacturer willing to make the "best" phone it can; one Google's proud to attach its name to.

So What About the Nexus Two?

Google said it's going to be a while until the Nexus Two, but "a while" probably means one year. The previous phones, T-Mobile's G1 and the MyTouch 3G and even the Hero, don't quite measure up to the Nexus One in terms of speed and performance. It's really just like a little computer, so if you want to jump into Android, it's pretty safe to do so now. Better yet, you can get this thing unlocked and out of contract for $530—keep whatever cheap T-Mobile plan you currently have—and resell it in a year when the Nexus Two is available.

Nexus One Review

Incredibly fast

Nexus One Review

Gorgeous screen

Nexus One Review

Will be on Verizon in a few months

Nexus One Review

It's on T-Mobile (subsidized), which doesn't have a fantastic 3G network

Nexus One Review

Unlocked, unsubsidized phone costs $530, doesn't work on AT&T 3G