The Nexus One. In the modern climate of hyped (and over-hyped) smartphone launches, Google's official entry into the phone-sales game has excelled in a department where many find difficulty: generating legitimate excitement. Of course, long before the name Nexus One or the recent bounty of pictures and details existed, the very concept of a "Google Phone" had been ingrained in the public conscience, predating even the Open Handset Alliance and Android itself; the company dabbled in the concept of direct sales through its offering of the Android Dev Phones 1 and 2 (alias Ion), but this time, it's a public retail ordeal, not a couple of one-off developer specials. The genuine-article Google Phone is finally here -- for better or worse.
The device, a Snapdragon-powered, HTC-built phone looks -- on paper, at least -- like the ultimate Android handset, combining a newly tweaked and tightened user interface with killer industrial design. A sleek, streamlined phone that can easily go toe-to-toe with the iPhone 3GSs, Pres, and Droids of the world, powered by the latest version of Android (2.1 "Flan," if you're counting), and hand-retooled by Google. But is it all it's cracked up to be? Can the Nexus One possibly live up to the hype ascribed to it? And more importantly, is the appearance of the phone the death knell for the OHA and a sign of the coming Android autocracy? In our exclusive review of the Nexus One, we'll answer all those pressing questions and more... so read on for the full scoop!
Note: The unit we have in hand is -- by all appearances -- a production model, save for the QR code imprint on the back, which is likely an employee-only Easter egg. However, Google is making its official announcement tomorrow, and there could always be differences. If anything changes with the device, or there are revelations about the marketing or sale of the phone, we'll be sure to update the review with new info.
As we said in the intro -- and our previous hands-on write up -- the Nexus One is nothing if not handsome. From its ultra-thin body to sleek, curved edges, the phone is absolutely lustworthy. While it's unmistakably HTC, there are plenty of design cues that feel authentically Google as well -- and it's that balance which makes the phone such an intriguing piece of hardware.
When you first lay eyes on the Nexus One, you can almost hear someone at Google say something like, "Make us something as sexy as the iPhone, but let's not forget what got us here" -- "what got us here" being the G1, which Google worked tightly with HTC to create. Whether you love or hate the iPhone, it's hard to deny its obvious physical attractiveness, and it's clear that Google and HTC made strides to bring an Android handset into the same realm of base desirability that Apple's halo device occupies. For the most part, they've succeeded. The phone shape finds itself somewhere between the iPhone and Palm Pre -- taking the Pre's curved, stone-like shape and stretching it into something resembling a more standard touchscreen device (a la the Hero or Instinct). The body of the handset is comprised of what appears to the eye as two interlocking pieces, a main, dark gray housing (coated in a soft-touch treatment) which is intersected and wrapped by a lighter gray, smooth, almost metallic band. The overall effect is fluid, though we're not crazy about the choice of coloring -- we would have liked to see something a little more consistent as opposed to the two-tone, particularly when the choice of hues is this drab and familiar. Still, the shape and size of the phone is absolutely fantastic; even though the surface of the device houses a 3.7-inch display, the handset generally feels trimmer and more svelte than an iPhone, Hero, and certainly the Droid.
HTC has managed to get the thickness of the phone down to just 11.5mm, and it measures just 59.8mm and 119mm across and up and down -- kind of a feat when you consider the guts of this thing. In the hand it's a bit lighter than you expect -- though it's not straight-up light -- and the curved edges and slightly tapered top and bottom make for a truly comfortable phone to hold. On the glass-covered front of the device there are four "hardware" buttons (just touch-sensitive spots on the display) laid out exactly as the Droid's four hard keys: back, menu, home, and search. Clearly this is going to be something of a trend with Google-approved devices.
Unlike the Droid, the Nexus One has a trackball just below those buttons that should feel very familiar to Hero users -- the placement feels a bit awkward here, and there's literally nothing in the OS that requires it. Along the left side you've got a volume rocker, up top there's a sleep / wake / power button on one end, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other, and along the bottom there's a micro-USB port, a mic hole, and three gold dots that look destined for some kind of dock (which would jibe with what we've seen and heard). Around back you'll find the strangely pronounced 5 megapixel camera and accompanying LED flash, along with Google's Android mascot holding up a QR code -- a decidedly geeky Google touch that we expect won't make it to the final retail version. The layout of the phone is solid, though we would have liked a physical camera key (no biggie), and we actually had some real trouble with those four dedicated buttons. Hopefully it was just our review unit, but the target areas seemed to be too high on the row, and we found ourselves consistently accidentally tapping them while composing an email or text message, or missing them when we tapped a little too low. It wasn't a deal breaker, but it was definitely maddening -- especially considering that we don't have similar issues on the Droid.
Despite the minor niggles, HTC and Google have put together pretty damn good looking and feeling phone; it's not without faults, but they're pretty few and far between.
As you've heard, the Nexus One runs atop the much-hyped, rarely seen 1GHz Snapdragon CPU from Qualcomm (the same processor powering the HD2) -- really the highlight of this show. The phone also has 512MB of both RAM and ROM, but those hoping for new application storage options will find themselves out of luck yet again -- you're still limited to that small partition for app use. The display is an AMOLED, 480 x 800 capacitive touchscreen, and the handset also contains a light sensor, proximity sensor, and accelerometer, along with an HSPA-capable GSM radio (AWS and euro 2100MHz bands only for 3G -- sorry AT&T users), WiFi, the prerequisite AGPS chip, and a microSD slot (which comes loaded with a 4GB card, but is expandable to 32GB). By late-2009 / early-2010 standards, there's really nothing notable about the guts of this phone beyond the presence of a Snapdragon processor, and even that left something to be desired. The phone is fast, assuredly, but not so much of a leap up from the Droid that we felt it kept pace with the boost we were expecting. Scrolling lists and opening apps seemed speedy, but put simply, it's not a whole new Android experience (we'll talk more about this in the software section).
The 3.7-inch display should be stunning -- and is for the most part -- but we did have some issues with it (at least on the unit we have). In terms of touch sensitivity, the display is as good or better than any Android phone we've used. While the resolution is high (480 x 800), it's missing 54 pixels that we expected given the size of the Droid's screen. It didn't bother us that much, but it's noticeable in certain apps -- Gmail for instance, where you have to scroll further in some menus than you do on the Droid. The big issue with the screen, though, is actually the color balance. We found colors on the Nexus One, particularly in the reds and oranges, to be severely blown-out and oversaturated -- a common effect with AMOLED displays like the Nexus One's. At first we thought Google had tweaked some of the Market settings because the highlight orange was so bright, but comparing images on the web across different displays, the Nexus One consistently looked brighter then it should have. Oh, and using this thing in daylight? Forget about it. Like most screens of this type, the Nexus One is a nightmare to see with any kind of bright light around, and snapping photos with it on a sunny day was like taking shots with your eyes closed.
One place where the Nexus One seems to be improving things is in the camera department. Not only has Google bumped up the speed of the camera app (which we're still not that stoked about in general), but the 5 megapixel lens and flash took sharp, detailed images with none of the HTC-related issues we've seen on other models. The focus of the lens was super speedy, and images came out looking more or less as we'd hoped. The flash felt a bit stark at times, but given its size, we didn't lose too much sleep over it. One place where Google has really made some smart decisions is within the Gallery application. Instead of the drab, flat iterations of Android past, the new version is extremely attractive and user friendly, giving you far more options than before (like a nice pan and scan slideshow) and making browsing photos a much more enjoyable experience.
Telephony / data / earpiece and speaker
As a phone, the Nexus One isn't dramatically different than most GSM devices you've probably used. In terms of earpiece quality and volume, it's certainly on par with its contemporaries, providing a loud, reasonably clean talking experience, though it doesn't touch the Droid in terms of call clarity and evenness. The loudspeaker, on the other hand, seemed extremely tinny to our ears, making for a pretty unpleasant companion for conference calls, with the midrange cutting through in a way that could be painful at times. We'd be inclined to blame that issue on the extremely thin housing here, but it's hard to say what the real culprit is. As far as connections and 3G pickup, the Nexus fared as well as our iPhone did when traveling, but -- surprise, surprise -- neither of these could touch Verizon. For instance, at JFK airport, we had no trouble placing calls on the Droid, but both the Nexus One and iPhone were completely incommunicado. When we hit the ground in Las Vegas however (you know, for a little event called CES 2010), 3G seemed to function as we might have hoped. In a few cases, T-Mobile did seem to be hanging onto a signal a bit better than AT&T was, and in a browser test between the two, even though the iPhone ended up with a slightly faster load time, the Nexus One pulled down initial content considerably quicker. In all, we averaged download speeds of around 559Kbps on the phone -- about where we expected things to be.
Now, the big story with the Nexus One (besides how it's being sold -- we'll get to that in a minute) has been the rumored alterations or updates Google has made with Android 2.1. There's been talk that this is somehow the "real Android," a suggestion that other, earlier versions weren't true to Google's mold. There's been talk that the Nexus One is worth the hype, and will blow people away when they see what this version of Android can do. Mostly, there's been a lot of talk. So, what's really the story here?
Well the real story is that Android 2.1 is in no way dramatically different than the iteration of the OS which is currently running on the Motorola Droid (2.0.1). In fact, there is so little that's different in the software here, we were actually surprised. Of the notable changes, many are cosmetic -- if there are major underlying differences between this OS and the one on the Droid, we can't see what they are. Still, there ARE changes, so here's a peek at just what Google has cooked up for the new phone.
Firstly, the place where Google really seems to have put a lot of its energies has been in the look and feel of homescreen navigation. Obviously the feedback the company has gotten is shaping the next steps on Android's path, and as anyone who has used Android will tell you, the homescreen situation was kind of a mess. In 2.1, Google has jettisoned key chunks of the established Android paradigm for how to get around its device. Most noticeably, the company has killed the sliding drawer which used to house all of your application icons -- the tab is replaced with a handy "home" icon which zooms in your icons over top of whatever homescreen you're on. You can scroll up and down through those icons, which is now accompanied by a cute 3D animation where the items slide over the top and bottom edge, like wrapping a piece of paper around the side of a table. It's nice, but not necessarily functional in any way. Google has also added a little bounce to the menu, in keeping with its contemporaries' love of physics.
Additionally Google has expanded the number of homescreens accessible from three to five (following a precedent set by skins like Sense and BLUR), adding a combo of webOS and iPhone style dots to help you keep track of where you're situated. If you long press on those dots, you get a kind of "card" view of all your homescreens which you can use for quick jumps. All of the homescreen improvements are just that -- improvements -- and it's nice to see Google thinking about a user's first impression of this device. Not only do these additions bolster the look and feel of the UI, but they're actually sensible and helpful solutions to problems which Google had heretofore approached in an obtuse way.
Elsewhere, there are nips and tucks that are welcome, such as the improved Gallery application we mentioned previously, which seems to be one of the few areas actually tapping into the Snapdragon's horsepower. But Google stumbles as well; the dated and always-underwhelming music player has undergone almost zero change, and the soft keyboard -- while better than previous models -- can still be inaccurate. Of course, Google wants to provide another option for text input that we haven't seen before the Nexus One. Now included when the keyboard pops up is an option to use the company's speech-to-text engine, which will (attempt) to translate your words into onscreen text. Our experiments with the technology were marginally successful, but we don't see this being a big part of our communications game until the audio recognition gets a little more robust. It might work for an occasional SMS where use of the Queen's English isn't a priority.
One other thing. As we mentioned in our impressions post, there's no multitouch on the Nexus One. Now, we can live with a browser or Google Maps with no pinch-to-zoom, but not having a hardware keyboard hamstrings this device in other ways. For instance, gaming on the phone is pretty much abysmal save for a few accelerometer-based titles. And some of our favorite software, such as Nesoid (an NES emulator) is a total dead. For a phone which uses touch input as its main vehicle for navigation, relegating that experience to a single digit is really kind of bogus. There were plenty of times when using the Nexus One (and this does happen with other Android devices as well, but it's pronounced here) where we felt not just bummed that you could only use one point of contact, but actually a little angry. Why won't Google open this up? Why have they kept what has become a normal and quite useful manner of interaction away from their devices? Only Eric Schmidt knows for sure. What it made us realize, however, is that an Android phone is really better off with a keyboard, and we were longing to get back to the Droid a number of times while using this device.
We haven't had a lot of time to spend with the phone just yet (you may have heard, it's been a bit hard to get ahold of), but from what we've seen, the battery performs admirably. Thus far we haven't had any major shockers when it came to power drain, and that AMOLED screen seems to go easy on things even when cranked up to a pretty stark setting. That said, we did see a dip when taking long calls, which indicates that this might not be a charge-free device day to day if you've got some serious gossip to dish. We're going to be running some more tests this week to see how the phone performs over a lengthier stretch of time, and we'll let you guys know how it fares.
Pricing and availability
As of this writing, all we have on the Nexus One in terms of pricing and sales plans comes to us in the form of leaked documents and tipster screenshots. That said, if everything falls into line the way we think it should, the sale of the phone won't be the kind of barnstorming industry shakeup that many predicted -- rather, it's business as usual, with one small difference. While the phone is manufactured by HTC and destined for use on T-Mobile's network, Google will be the one doing the selling of the device. By all appearances, the company will have a new phone portal where buyers can pick between an unsubsidized, unlocked Nexus One for $529.99, or sign up for a two-year agreement with T-Mobile and purchase the phone for $179.99. This shouldn't seem strange or exciting to anyone who's recently bought a smartphone -- it's pretty much the lay of the land right now. Previous to the documents we'd seen, the hope was that Google had found some ingenious ad-supported way to get this phone into consumer's hands for a low, seemingly subsidized price but without the shackles of a contract or specific carrier -- but those plans seem have been either invented, or somehow dashed.
Never mind the Nexus One itself for a moment -- there's a bigger picture here, and it might spell a fundamental change for the direction of Android as a platform. Whereas Google had originally positioned itself as a sort of patron saint for Android -- sending it off into the cold world to be nourished and advanced in a totally transparent way by the widely-supported Open Handset Alliance -- it has instead taken a deeply active role and has elected to maintain some semblance of secrecy as it moves from pastry-themed version to version. In general, that approach isn't necessarily a bad thing for device variety, functionality, and availability, but the way Android's evolution in particular has gone down certainly seems like a bait-and-switch from an outsider's view. Take Motorola and Verizon, for example: what had seemed like a deep, tight partnership literally just weeks ago with the announcement of Eclair and the selection of the Droid / Milestone as 2.0's launch platform has taken a distant back seat just as quickly as it rose to the top. In a word, Google is plunging head-first into the dangerous game Microsoft has adamantly sought to avoid all these years on WinMo: competing head-to-head with its valued (well, supposedly valued) partners. Whether Android risks losing support over manufacturers and carriers being treated like pieces of meat remains to be seen, but realistically, Motorola (which has very publicly gone all-in with Mountain View over the past year) and others are likely to grin and bear it as long as the platform pays the bills -- no matter how awkward competing with the company that writes your kernel and huge swaths of your shell might be.
Industry politics aside, though, the Nexus One is at its core just another Android smartphone. It's a particularly good one, don't get us wrong -- certainly up there with the best of its breed -- but it's not in any way the Earth-shattering, paradigm-skewing device the media and community cheerleaders have built it up to be. It's a good Android phone, but not the last word -- in fact, if we had to choose between this phone or the Droid right now, we would lean towards the latter. Of course, if Google's goal is to spread Android more wide than deep, maybe this is precisely the right phone at the right time: class-leading processor, vibrant display, sexy shell, and just a sprinkling of geekiness that only Google could pull off this effortlessly.
Then again, we suspect Motorola, Samsung, Verizon, and countless other partners might disagree.
Additional reporting by Chris Ziegler