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