Google Nexus One
Hard to resist
Review The flourishing Android operating system has appeared on phones made by Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, LG and HTC. Now Google has launched its own handset, though it’s actually made by HTC, which has made the bulk of Android handsets so far.
Nexus One: hardware by HTC, software by Google
The thing about Android is that manufacturers can change the OS to taste. This has been a great bonus for Motorola, a company known for stylish, appealing phones but which has always had a dog of an operating system. Motorola has been able to tweak Android effectively to add social media smarts.
So what would Google do? The Nexus One is a cute piece of kit. Its vivid, colourful OLED display is fractionally narrower but noticeably longer than that of the iPhone, clocking in at 3.7in compared to the iPhone’s 3.5in.
In fact, it feels even more spacious than that, as at the bottom there’s a further touch-sensitive area where icons represent the Back, Menu, Home and Search functions. But the real stand-out feature of the screen is not the size or brightness, it’s the resolution. At 480 x 800 pixels, it’s strikingly pin-sharp – the iPhone only manages 320 x 480.
The handset comes with a natty slipcase
The curved edges and sleek, slim profile make the Nexus One feel good in the hand, especially because of the metallic frame and rubber-paint back. It’s light but solid, and the phone’s look is completed with a white trackball, front and centre under the display. It’s another way to navigate the touchscreen and it pulsates with light when you receive a notification. Beyond that, there’s a volume rocker on the left edge and a power button on top.
That’s the outside for you, and very successful it is, too. But software is key with Android phones and the latest version - 2.1, aka Eclair - has pleasant extras which add hugely to the functionality of the phone. Best of these is voice recognition, an expanded version of the audio capabilities of the Google Mobile app.
Android 2.1 has more features, better looks than its predecessors
Users of the app, available on the iPhone and most Android phones, know that the Google Search bar has a charmingly retro image of a radio microphone. Touch this and hold the phone as naturally as when you make a call and you can speak your search.
In last month’s keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress, Google CEO Eric Schmidt explained that the success of voice integration into Google is because of the way it do it. Google records what you’re saying and relays this to its remote servers which compare the sound to recorded phrases. "Effectively the computers take a vote on what you’ve said," Schmidt explained.
The same technology has been broadened so that on the Nexus One, you can dictate a text message, even an email. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good - and a quantum leap forward from most earlier voice-recognition software.
The most striking thing of all about the Nexus One is its speed, courtesy of a Qualcomm 1GHz Snapdragon chip. Qualcomm’s CPU means applications launch immediately, web pages refresh as fast as the data traffic allows and the touchscreen is instantly responsive. It’s all very impressive.
Even when it’s doing nothing, the Nexus One is visibly different from other handsets. Take the wallpapers that lie behind the homescreens - and Google has boosted the number of screens from three to five, though still not matching the seven available on HTC’s Sense user interface. Here you can choose animated wallpapers which respond to touch. Leaves floating lazily down a stream cause ripples when they bump, or you can ripple the water by touching the screen.
Google's usual Maps app comes pre-loaded
Other choices include an analogue sound meter and gently waving blades of grass. None of these will add to your battery’s performance, of course, but at least you can carry a spare with you. Take that, Apple!
The icons that work as program shortcuts are visually much improved since Android first launched over a year ago. The analogue clock is cuter, though the fact that there’s only one to choose from is an oversight. The applications list looks neat, with enhanced animations bringing it into view.
It’s easy to navigate between homescreens thanks to tiny rows of dots at the bottom corners of the display to indicate which one you’re on. Hold your finger on the dots and thumbnails of the main screens appear, to remind you just where you put the shortcut icon for the camera, for instance. You’ll need that shortcut, because there’s no physical camera button here.
You'll have to make do with a virtual keyboard, but at least this one's very responsive
The 5Mp snapper here at least has a flash, but that doesn’t mean there’s no shutter lag – the perennial blight on mobile phone cameras. In fact, there’s a slight advantage to the lag here – touching the screen to shoot - or pressing the trackball - inevitably shakes the camera and the lag gives you half a second to still the phone. Results in reasonable light were effective enough, and Android makes is easy to send the images over Bluetooth, by email and multimedia message, and upload them to Facebook.
Click on each image for a full-size, full-resolution image
Battery life on smartphones is never good enough, though, as we said, the possibility of inserting a spare in case of emergency is useful. On the other hand, will you actually buy a spare battery? Probably not, so you’ll need to charge the phone every day. That large, bright screen comes at a battery-draining price.
There’s little to dislike with the Nexus One
And Google nicely bundles a neoprene case that slips off quickly enough when you want to use the phone and protects the handset from coin and key scratches in a pocket or handbag. It also has a fetching picture of an Android on it.
There’s little to dislike with the Nexus One. To wake the screen from sleep, you have to press the power button rather than the trackball, which would be more convenient. Battery life is acceptable but not outstanding. Beyond these, the biggest disappointment is the lack of apps.
Android, like the iPhone, needs apps to thrive and the lack of quality control on Android has been a problem in the past. Thankfully, apps are now beginning to arrive on the newly improved Android App Market in sufficient numbers to mean you can find good stuff among the dross so this shouldn’t be a problem much longer. And the vast majority of Android apps are free.
If you’ve decided now is the time to upgrade to a smartphone, the Nexus One is very worthy of consideration. Its super-bright screen, enticing interface and lots of extra features are hard to resist. Although the number of good apps is still not high enough, it’s growing. Overall, this is a great time to go Android, and the Nexus One is one of the best Android phones around. ®
More Android Smartphone Reviews...