Google's Nexus One: First Impressions

How long has the gadget-loving world been talking about the idea of a Googlephone? For at least three years-before there was an iPhone, let alone an Android. The longer people talked about it, the more revolutionary it was supposed to be. Who better than Google, after all, to show what an Android phone can be and shatter people's assumptions about how phones and phone service are sold while it's at it?

On Tuesday, Google finally announced the Googlephone, in the form of the Nexus One-if you define "Googlephone" as a phone with Google software and Google branding, sold by Google on a Google site. And...there's nothing radical about it. Judging from the first few hours I've spent playing with one, it's a good phone-a really good phone. The best Android phone so far, and (along with Palm's Pre) one of the few phones worthy of being discussed in the same breath as Apple's iPhone.

But everything that's better about it is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It's a little bit better than Verizon's Droid, which was a little bit better than HTC's Hero, which was a little bit better than the MyTouch. And considering that Verizon's Droid spent just two months as the undisputed Android-phone-to-buy, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the Nexus One was ousted by another little-bit-better phone by Spring. There's also not nothing particularly remarkable about the way Google is selling the phone, although the company says to stay tuned for more phones with more hardware and carrier partners-including a Verizon Nexus One this Spring.

Bottom line: If Android-based phones are going to catch up with the iPhone-and they might-they're going to do so in a series of baby steps, not through the Great Leap Forward that some folks expected this phone to be.

Like other journalists at Google's launch event, I received one as a review loaner. Here are my first impressions. As is my wont, I'm going to provide them in the form of a FAQ.

How's the phone's industrial design?

Nice, but there's just not that much you can do to distinguish one keyboardless touch-screen phone from another-they're all thin rectangles that are mostly display. The Nexus One manages to pack slightly larger screen than the one in the iPhone 3GS (3.7? vs. 3.5?) into a phone that's a tad narrower and therefore comfortable in the hand. It's made of what seems high-quality plastic, and build quality is solid. It's got the standard Android back, menu, home, and search buttons, plus a trackball similar to the one in phones such as T-Mobile's MyTouch. (The trackball lights up, thereby serving as a status light for notifications such as the arrival of new e-mail-clever!) Overall, in fact, the N1 feels like a much sexier, sleeker, next-generation MyTouch.

How's the screen?

Excellent. The resolution is lower than that of the Droid (480 by 800 vs. 480 by 854), but the AMOLED screen is brighter and more beautiful. (At least if you turn off the auto-brightness feature and set the sliders on the two phones to the same level-in my limited testing, the N1's auto-brightness feature seemed to choose a dimmer level than the Droid's.) Both easily trump the iPhone 3GS's 480-by-320 LCD, which at this point is that phone's most archaic hardware spec.

How's the camera?

I need to test it more. But it seems like a better 5-megapixel model than the Droid's-which sometimes produces murky results-and the LED flash lets you snap shots in places where the iPhone's flashless 2-megapixel camera is a no-go.

And the onscreen keyboard?

If you've comfortable with the iPhone keyboard, I think you'll like this one just fine, and might even prefer it-I immediately began typing with almost no mistakes, in both portrait and landscape modes. If you don't have any experience with onscreen keyboards, expect to spend a few days getting the knack of this one.

And the voice recognition?

The fact that it's built in everywhere you can get to the keyboard is a big step. I dictated a few e-mails and got close to 100% accuracy-which was better than either Walt Mossberg or David Pogue got. But the server-based processing was more sluggish than with Dragon's Dictation app for the iPhone. At today's event, Google also talked up using voice recognition for stuff like getting driving directions when you're at the wheel. Which only sounds a little safer than typing while driving.

The Nexus One lacks multitouch, right? Is that a big deal?

I'm mostly curious about why it doesn't have it-at today's event, the Google execs onstage said they were contemplating adding multitouch, but didn't seem to want to talk about the subject. I miss it-the way you zoom in and out via icons is both less intuitive and less elegant-but it's not a dealbreaker. It's just one of multiple ways in which Android is more ungainly than the iPhone OS. I am, however, finding that the phone's single touch isn't flawless: More than with the iPhone, I sometimes have to tap more than once before the N1 notices I'm trying to tell it something.

Your thoughts on the browser?

You know, I think I prefer it to the iPhone's-if only ever so slightly, and partially because the higher-res screen handles Web pages better. I certainly prefer the use of a unified URL bar/search field, and the way Google Suggest guesses what I'm trying to type and shows me options I can click on.

Any other particularly good stuff in Android 2.1?

The new version of the Gallery photo viewer-developed in partnership with Cooliris-is a highlight. It has an extremely polished 3D interface, and two-way sync with Picasa Web Albums that lets you browse your online snapshots as well as ones stored on the phone. Except for the lack of multitouch, it's much more impressive than the iPhone's Photo app.

The Nexus One has some of the most potent specs seen in any phone to date: a 1-GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM. Is it speedy?

Yup. It's admirably zippy, even when you're running multiple apps. Then again, both the iPhone 3GS and the Droid generally feel pretty snappy, too, and some of the N1's perormance seems to go into needless frippery, like the way icons scroll off in 3D as you thumb through them, and the Live Wallpaper animations (which remind me of Windows 98's dreaded Active Desktop). But even if the N1's hardware specs don't make for a radically new experience, I'm glad that Google and HTC erred on the side of beefiness, and I hope their move prompts competitors to do the same.

How about the infamous Android program storage limit?

It's still there-you get a skimpy 190MB for apps, versus gigabytes on the iPhone. That's because Android doesn't let you store programs on a MicroSD card, for reasons that apparently have to do with security concerns. (The iPhone uses fixed memory rather than a card slot, so it doesn't have to confront this issue.) Google says it plans to fix this limitation. Eventually.

(Also, the 4GB MicroSD card bundled with the phone is a tad miserly given that even the $99 iPhone has 8GB of storage. But maybe Google figures it might as well scrimp there given that you couldn't save programs on a bigger card anyhow.)

Google is excited about what it calls its new approach to buying a mobile phone. Should I be?

It's possible that the fact that Google is now a phone merchant has major longterm implications for the wireless business. For now, though, it's not a particularly big whoop. The company is crowing about the fact that you order the N1 online and get it delivered to you ready to use with T-Mobile. But there's nothing new about that-I got the same benefits when I bought a Nokia from Amazon.com back in, um, 2003. Neither is the fact that Google will sell you an unlocked N1 for $529 a new and exciting development: Palm, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson all already sell unlocked phones.

The N1's odd inability to do 3G on AT&T means that even if you buy the unlocked phone rather than the $179 version that requires a 2-year T-Mobile contract, you're almost certainly going to sign up for T-Mobile service. (At least buyers of unsubsidized N1s get T-Mobile service at a cheaper rate.) Things will get more interesting once the Verizon version shows up in the Spring and you get a true choice of carriers.

Certain things about Google's phone site are impressive, such as the copious demos of the phone's features. However, I hungered for more information, like T-Mobile coverage maps and straightforward answers to questions like "Can I use this thing on AT&T?" To be fair, the information that Apple.com provides on the iPhone doesn't run particularly deep, either. But in that case, you have the option of buying the phone from AT&T, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, or an Apple Store-and asking a real person questions about the gizmo before you buy.

I don't think Google's direct sales approach for the Nexus One is an argument against the phone. But neither do I find myself saying "God, I hope all phones are sold this way someday."

Is the N1 going to kill the Droid?

Definitely not, even though it's the better phone in multiple ways. The Droid has a physical keyboard, and even though it's just adequate, it frees up all of the display for stuff like word-processing documents-a major boon for anyone who thinks of a phone as a tiny laptop. And while a Verizon N1 is on the way, the Droid is on Verizon right now. The N1 is the more polished, powerful phone, but much of its refinement comes from the Android 2.1 update that Motorola says Droid owners will get at some point,

How does it compare to the iPhone?

Coming up with ways in which the iPhone 3GS maintains a formidable lead over the N1 is a cakewalk. The iPhone OS's interface is less cluttered. There are not only five times more iPhone apps (100,000+ vs. 20,000) but the best ones, such as Tweetie, may be five times better than their Android equivalents. Google doesn't even seem to be trying to catch up with the iPhone's entertainment features: Android lets you copy music from a PC but not sync it, and has no provisions for buying or renting video. Bottom line: The iPhone is a more highly evolved, refined device.

Okay, but the Nexus One beats the iPhone in some respects, right?

Yes indeed. There's the screen, the multitasking ability, the less heavily-regulated app store, the free turn-by-turn driving directions in Google Maps, the built-in voice recognition, and the deeply integrated Google Voice support while the iPhone doesn't have a Google Voice app at all. (You can route all calls over Google Voice and use its voicemail instead of T-Mobile's if you choose.) If you use Gmail and Google Calendar on your PC or Mac, you'll love the Android versions. The camera may prove to be at least a modest point in its favor, too. And you can buy the unlocked model and use it overseas with a cheap SIM to avoid paying nightmarish roaming charges.

What's on your wishlist for the Nexus Two?

Android could use a more streamlined interface-one with fewer buttons and menus, in fewer places. I'd also love to see some sort of Google Docs built into the phone, with support for editing word-processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations as well as viewing them. Beyond that, if I were Google I'd do everything in my power to help third-party developers build as many exceptional apps as possible.

Okay, that's enough questions and answers for now. I'm headed to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a few hours. I'm taking the Nexus One with me as my primary phone, so I can put it through some demanding real-world tests. In the meantime, lemme know if you have more questions I might be able to answer...

Product mentioned in this article

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  • Google Nexus One

    The Google Nexus One impresses with a stunning AMOLED display, speedy performance, and cool tweaks to the Android OS; but some network issues prevent it from being a superphone.

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