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Google Nexus One
January 18th, 2010Does the Nexus One fulfill its superphone title?
Amid the wide variety of Android-based smartphones currently available from major manufacturers, Google has finally taken a direct role in designing a device, the Nexus One, that runs on the company's mobile platform. Although the handset is manufactured by HTC and subsidized by T-Mobile, it is marketed and sold solely though Google. The search giant describes its device as a "superphone," but how well does it compete against the iPhone and other Android devices such as Motorola's Droid?
Form and construction
The Nexus offers attractive aesthetics, with a rounded form-factor and a similar shape to HTC's Droid Eris or Hero. The design diverges from the boxy and relatively large form of the Motorola Droid. Compared to the iPhone, the Nexus is smaller by 3.5mm in length, 2.3mm in width, and 0.8mm in depth. A compact size makes the Nexus one of the most pocketable smartphones on the market, while it weighs 5g less than the iPhone and 39g less than the Droid.
Despite the light weight of Google's phone, HTC has maintained solid construction and a quality feel. The two-tone gray finish is not flashy, although it is still easily recognizable as the Nexus One. The glass trackball, volume control, power button, camera lens and charging port have been elegantly placed throughout the housing without interrupting the handset's clean lines. The battery cover attaches securely and detaches easily, without feeling like it will accidentally slide off. Teflon coats the plastic surfaces, although the surface is slightly textured for grip.
HTC outfitted the N1 with the same clickable trackball found on the Eris and Hero. The touch-based interface reduces the need for a trackball, although the extra input option will be a welcome addition for some users. The component functions as expected, while providing secondary importance as an illuminated indicator. Unlike the single-color trackball on HTC's other devices, the N1 lights up with several different colors depending on the particular type of notification.
As the N1 omits a hardware keyboard, users are limited to a virtual keyboard which has hardly changed from Android 2.0. Keys appear to be taller than the Droid's layout on Android 2.0.1, although most typos are caused by hitting the wrong key to the left or right of the target. For users that already have a hatred for touchscreen keyboards, the Nexus One does not offer much of a change from the iPhone or other Android handsets. If pocketability is a primary focus, the lack of a hardware keyboard might be worth the 2.2mm-thinner profile compared to the Droid.
The Nexus One joins the minority group of smartphones that integrate active-matrix organic LED (AMOLED) displays instead of LCD panels. The 3.7-inch touchscreen boasts a contrast ratio of 100,000:1, while an 800x480 pixel arrangement brings it well beyond the iPhone's resolution and slightly shy of the Droid's 854x480 display.
The AMOLED display provides a noticeable improvement to color vibrancy when compared to a typical LCD component. Oranges and greens appear to jump from the screen, even at lower brightness settings, making the viewing experience refreshing.
Although the AMOLED screen offers superior color representation while indoors, the technology is not as bright as LCDs in outdoor situations. Compared to bright displays on other devices such as the Droid, the Nexus One's AMOLED panel was more difficult, although not impossible, to use in direct sunlight.
Despite the unimpressive performance in sunlight, the Nexus One easily beats most LCDs in low-light conditions. Google Maps, in its current beta stage, lacks a high-contrast mode for driving at night. Without a dedicated mode, the app is practically useless for navigating at night without being blinded by the display, even at the lowest brightness setting on phones such as the Droid. The Nexus One is capable of reducing its brightness down to a level that is less harsh to dilated pupils. Android 2.1's clock app even provides a button for drastically reducing brightness, making it barely visible in complete darkness.
Nexus One owners can capture videos and still pictures with a 5-megapixel camera. The resolution matches the Droid and beats the iPhone's 3-megapixel sensor, although there are several other smartphones that provide even better camera components.
Compared the the Droid, the Nexus One offers a similar level of image quality. In a side-by-side comparison of still images, the Droid provides better colors in shadowed areas. The N1 leaves many areas dark, but the pictures have much less noise. When capturing pictures at night, the Nexus provides a single-LED flash that is only effective for distances of several feet. Users taking macro shots will be attracted to the 6cm focal distance, which beat the Droid for close-up shots.
The Nexus One features a full set of components that are now expected from the latest high-end smartphones. The device integrates an AGPS receiver, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, digital compass, accelerometer, light sensor, proximity sensor, and Bluetooth. The company also chose to place a second microphone underneath the battery cover, providing active noise cancellation during calls.
The 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor places the N1 ahead of its current competition. Compared to the ARM Cortex A8 processors in the iPhone 3GS and Droid, the N1's Snapdragon components offer speed improvements across the entire range of smartphone functionality. The boost is particularly noticeable when using the Internet browser, while the interface can be navigated without the lag that is sometimes experiences with the Droid.
Like the Droid, the N1 integrates a speaker underneath the back panel for music playback, notification sounds, and speakerphone. The Droid provides a much more robust sound for such a small speaker. The N1's driver is a bit more tinny, although it is still adequate for typical use.
Battery and memory
A 1400mAh battery is claimed to provide 10 hours of 2G talking, seven hours of 3G conversations, 12 days of 2G standby, five hours of Internet browsing on 3G networks, seven hours of video playback and 20 hours of life when simply listening to music. Most of the claims appear to be fairly accurate, placing the N1 amongst the large group of smartphones that typically require nightly charging if used for various tasks throughout the day.
Unlike the iPhone, users can easily swap the N1 battery in just a few seconds. Google currently only offers the phone itself, however, which makes accessories harder to find. It should not take long for third-party companies to make a generic replacement, as the OEM part number does not appear to match the batteries from HTC's other handsets.
Integrated storage is limited to 512MB of flash memory, while a microSD slot allows users to store additional content. At first glance the microSD slot appears to be accessible without removing the battery, however there is not enough clearance. Google has been criticized for limiting app installations to a portion of the on-board memory. Although the software runs from the N1 memory, heavy apps can still offload data to the microSD storage. Navigation apps can keep maps on the removable media, rather than clogging the phone with several gigabytes of data.
Surprisingly, Google ships the N1 with a 4GB card instead of the 16GB chip that comes standard with the Droid. For the latest high-end smartphones, especially those aimed at the iPhone, large storage capacity is a must. The 4GB microSD card would be a downside if Google supplemented the expansion slot with 8GB or 16GB of on-board flash. To match the Droid package, N1 buyers will have to dish out another $45 for a 16GB card. To take an even larger media collection and match the 32GB iPhone 3GS, users will need two 16GB cards until the memory companies begin shipping the 32GB microSD components.
Android 2.1 is not a complete redesign of the standard v2.0 interface. The virtual slider for unlock/answer is the same linear design introduced with the v2.0.1 update. For Android newcomers, the latest slider answers calls and unlocks the screen without accidentally initiating the silent mode.
While v2.0.x requires users to slide a tab up from the bottom of the screen to access the app tray, v2.1 provides a button that expands the app menu after a single key-press. Apps are presented in a grid that rolls out of view on the top and bottom of the screen. Although the basic functionality has not changed, the new layout is a visual improvement.
A new widget provides information regarding news and weather. The news feature appears to access Google's news feeds which combine headlines from a variety of sources. Users can configure the feeds to show only headlines from particular subjects.
The Gallery app has been revamped with 3D effects and backgrounds that appear to be blurred versions of images from the phone storage. The interface is still clean, with snappier navigation between pictures and folders. The v2.0 app provides a simple layout and quickly snaps between menu items and images, while v2.1 flows through the content. The interface also links with a user's Picasa account, extending Android's cloud-based functionality.
Android 2.1 offers Live Wallpapers, a new category of wallpapers that move in the background. A galaxy picture slowly swirls stars behind the menu items, while a "magic smoke" background constantly flows. Other animated options include grass, leaves on water, waveforms, a polar clock, and several audio visualizations. The feature is neat, although it could be distracting in certain situations.
The media player has remained mostly unchanged from Android 2.0, except for a few slight tweaks to the interface. Users can now switch between artists, albums, songs or playlists by selecting various tags which remain above the respective lists until a selection is made, while the current track is always listed at the bottom of each menu. The updated layout eliminates the need to press the back button to switch categories.
Although the changes to the media player bring it closer to the iPhone interface, Apple's layout will likely remain the gold standard for many users. Extensive integration of album art makes Google's interface more colorful and attractive, however it is difficult to beat the iPhone's simplicity when trying to quickly find a track.
The calendar utility is one of the most underdeveloped apps in the standard Android lineup. Business users might find the lack of Exchange support and time zone options as deal breakers. When adding an event, the time is automatically set to the time zone for the user's current location.
If an East Coast local will be traveling to California for a meeting scheduled at noon, the calendar app does not allow the event to be designated for PST. If the event is entered in the noon slot before the user leaves home, it will automatically shift to 9a.m. after landing on the West Coast.
As simple as the time-zone issue seems to be, Google has yet to provide an easy work-around. Users are forced to offset the time when the event is entered, which can be confusing when trying to stack appointments. The phone's time zone can be manually set, although this is an equally unattractive option. Despite Google's quest for simplicity, the calendar app desperately needs a time-zone selection in the event entry menu. Even a configuration option to lock the event time, regardless of where the user travels, would be a welcome addition.
Voice input and sound quality
Aside from the aesthetic tweaks, Android 2.1 features extensive integration of voice input. Version 2.0 provides voice search, while v2.1 allows users to dictate text entry into any field. A microphone button is located to the left of the spacebar, enabling the input method to be quickly switched.
Our expectations were not very high for the accuracy of Android's voice recognition technology. After using voice entry to author several text messages, however, it became clear that Google has successfully refined the system. The great majority of words were transcribed properly, even without making a dedicated effort to distinctly enunciate words.
As states and provinces push hands-free legislation for drivers, the tighter laws restrict not only holding a phone but also text messaging or flipping through menus on GPS systems. To avoid trouble with the law, voice input provides a hands-free way to utilize advanced features of modern technology. Although Android 2.1 is a step in the right direction, the voice system still requires physical input. Users can dictate an address into Google Maps, but finger gestures remain the only option for getting to the maps app and changing views or settings. Despite the slight limitation, Google is still slightly ahead of the competition.
Call quality was good, although the testing was completed in an area without 3G coverage. The N1's second microphone worked well for active noise cancellation. Sound quality was maintained even in noise environments and outdoors in a slight breeze.
The Nexus One garnered a significant amount of attention in the time before its formal unveiling, leading to an expectation that Google has created a revolutionary device. The company's "superphone" designation further reinforced the hype. In many ways, the Nexus One clearly beats most of the hardware currently on the market. The 1GHz Snapdragon processor makes it faster than the iPhone 3GS and Droid, while the AMOLED display presents colors with more vibrancy than standard LCDs. Aside from the internal components, the N1 offers an external design that is both modern and refined.
The Nexus One brings a long list of hardware improvements, but the platform is equally important when comparing smartphones. Running through the list of tech specs, the N1 matches or beats the iPhone in nearly every category. Will a higher-resolution screen, thinner profile, faster processor, and AMOLED display be enough to inspire a wave of iPhone defectors? The answer may be 'yes' for some, but probably 'no' for most users already deeply rooted in Apple's smartphone experience. The Nexus One lacks multi-touch functionality in all of Google's apps. The platform already supports multi-touch, although it is only available through third-party apps such as the browser Dolphin. The company has yet to adequately explain why the feature has not been fully utilized.
As Apple and Google continue to compete in many arenas, both companies now offer similar groups of products and services. iPhone users can easily connect with MobileMe and iTunes, while Google's mobile platform provides the Android Market and simple methods for syncing with Gmail, Picasa, and Google's web-based calendar utility. The Nexus One offers modest improvements to the integration of Google's services, although the Android 2.1 software deserves more credit than the hardware.
The Nexus One may be more of a threat to other Android phones than it is to the iPhone. While Motorola's Droid has been the recent focus of Android attention, Google's new handset is much faster and more compact. For users willing to part with a hardware keyboard, the N1 is hard to beat, however the hardware improvements are hardly "revolutionary." In the bigger picture, it remains to be seen if Google's drive for leadership in the hardware market will have a negative effect on Android's growth. Third-party manufacturers could view the platform as less attractive, as the market now requires direct competition with Google. Android 2.1 is initially only available on the Nexus One, while owners of other devices wait patiently for the software update. Companies previously had a level playing field regarding the timing of Android updates.
Aside from the platform and hardware debates, the Nexus One represents a great choice for an Android phone. Google teamed with T-Mobile to bring the subsidized price down to $179, although an unlocked device, compatible with GSM networks, can be purchased for $529. For many customers located in the vast regions lacking T-Mobile's 3G coverage, the N1's feature set might not be a worth the slow data speeds. Google has already confirmed plans to expand distribution with a CDMA variant headed for Verizon sometime in the spring, although pricing has yet to be announced.
- AMOLED improves color, contrast ratio, low-light performance
- Attractive design
- Solid but light and compact
- Snappy 1GHz Snapdragon CPU
- Android 2.1 refined from v2.0
- Voice input works well
- Removable battery
- microSD slot
- AMOLED panel not as bright as LCDs
- App storage limited to on-board memory
- Package only includes 4GB microSD card
- Tinny sound from integrated speaker
- Calendar does not accommodate time zones