I’ve been using the Google Nexus One exclusively since February 10th, and after one month of getting to know most, if not all, of the capabilities of my shiny new toy, I figure it’s time to share some thoughts about the device itself, and the software it runs. Now before you dive into this review, let me make a few things clear. The Nexus One is my first Android device, my first touch screen device, my first Qualcomm Snapdragon powered device, and most importantly, it’s a device I purchased with my own money. This is my smartphone, not a review unit I have to return.
What was the thought process that went behind the purchase of the Nexus One?
The last mobile phone I paid for out of my own pocket was a Black Nokia N82. It cost me $593, and I ordered it on Apr 12, 2008. I already had the brown version of the device, thanks to Nokia’s Marketing Department it was free, but vanity got the best of me; I knew I had to have the Black N82 from the very moment I saw it. Since then I’ve only had one other phone, the Nokia E71. That too was provided gratis by Nokia, but this time it given to me by Human Resources. It was my work phone during my year and a half with the company, and it stayed with me even after I left. Before the E71, and the N82, there was the N95, which was a gift, the E61i, yet another gift, and finally the E61, which was my first Symbian device. I ordered that one on November 5, 2006 for $412.30.
I’ve only been a Symbian user for 3 years and 4 months, before that I had a string of Nokia devices that ran S40, and lately I’ve been dissatisfied with not only Symbian, but Nokia as well.
The mobile phone industry, during the early to mid 2000s, was one that went through incremental changes. Like clockwork you could expect that every year a device would come out on the market that was a millimeter or two thinner, had a slightly better camera that probably had an extra megapixel, and a screen that was brighter, larger, and had a higher resolution. This incremental evolution began accelerating in 2007, not only with the introduction of the Apple iPhone, but with the Nokia N95 as well. Those two devices represented a turning point in the industry.
The iPhone, hate it or love it, emphasized ease of use over hardware specifications. It did everything most smartphones did that came before it, but it did it in such a way that made it accessible to anyone who could operate a television remote control. It was expensive, both in terms of what you paid retail, and the tariff you had to pay your operator, but you got unlimited data and could figure out how to use all of its functions after less than an hour with the device. After the first iPhone came out, everyone started making touch screen devices, and everyone tried to make their devices easier to use. Most have failed, but it doesn’t matter, they’ll get it right eventually. What’s important is that Apple started a trend toward slate form factor touch screen devices, and we’re only going to see more and more devices that look like the iPhone going forward.
The N95, forget about how bad the first firmware was, was an excellent achievement of engineering. It was expensive, and it made an unsightly bulge in your trouser pocket, but it had the best components the industry was making at the time. Easy to use it wasn’t, but like the iPhone, people purchased it to show off their economic status. Geeks who knew what they were doing could reap all the benefits of what that device had to offer, but I’d argue most N95 owners, at least during 2007, barely used their browser, or the built in Maps application. Since the N95 was introduced, Nokia’s main goal has been to drive Symbian, and the N95 specification sheet, down to lower and lower price points. Most every Symbian powered device coming out of Finland now has a 5 megapixel camera, GPS, and all the things that made us breathless in 2007, but today make us roll our eyes in disappointment.
Fast forward to 2010, and it’s time to pick up something new. At first I wanted the iPhone, but I like to buy my devices unsubsidized and unlocked. Had the iPhone been available to me, either in Finland, or in the USA, for full retail price, I would be writing an iPhone review right now, and not a Nexus One review. To purchase an unlocked iPhone you need to buy it from one of a small number of countries that have laws in place making the sale of mobile phones locked to a particular operator illegal. Now I could have taken a weekend trip to Rome, or Brussels, just to get an iPhone, and soaked up some culture while I was there, but the idea that I had to jump across borders to buy something just because Apple thinks they can shove their business model down my throat seems rather unappealing. There are sites who order these unlocked iPhones in bulk, and then ship them all around the world, but the premium you pay is outrageous. Expansys has the Italian unlocked iPhone 3GS for £810, that’s $1,207 or €890. How much is the iPhone 3GS on Vodafone Italy unlocked? Only €620, which comes out to $845, and I know that sounds a lot, but that’s usually what you pay for a premium smartphone in Europe.
Assuming I could buy an iPhone for a fair price, why do I want one anyway? It’s the software, and not 3rd party applications either, but Apple’s iPhone OS. People who purchased the first iPhone, way back in the summer of 2007, are able to run the latest and greatest version of iPhone OS. They get the bug fixes, they get the new features and the faster web browser. Before the iPhone, you only got those things if you bought a completely new device, and in my eyes that’s the best part about the platform. The guarantee that your device will not be obsolete long after you bought it.
So how did I end up with a Nexus One? Well … due to a series of unfortunate events I found myself back in America for 45 days. I figured that while I was there I should take advantage of the only good thing about America these days, and that’s cheap consumer goods. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that nothing in Nokia’s portfolio interests me. The N900 is too big, the E72 is a downgrade, both in build quality, and design, compared to the E71, the N97 is a joke, the N97 Mini is attractive, but then you see S60 5th Edition and want to slam your head against the nearest concrete wall, so what was left? Android.
Yes, there are a lot of Android devices on the market, but I was hell bent on buying something with a lot of horsepower under the hood, and with a screen that could finally take me out of the miserable QVGA hell I’ve been living in since as long as I could remember. I also wanted something that wouldn’t feel like an old device in 12 to 18 months, and the Nexus One ticked all those boxes. It has a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 800 x 480 resolution OLED screen (5x more pixels than my Nokia E71), and I’m hoping that because this is an official Google device, the “Google Phone” if you will, it will get updates to future versions of Android.
I ordered it on February 9th for $572.64 (€420 or £385) and got it the next day.
What’s the Nexus One hardware like?
It’s thin. Very thin. The front is all screen, and the back has a Google logo which most people point to and smile. It has a trackball on the bottom that rarely gets used. It’s only handy when I need to edit text and put the cursor in a very specific location. There are 4 capacitive buttons along the bottom (back, menu, home, search) and they are a pain in the ass to use since you have to touch just above the symbols for your finger to get recognized. You get used to it rather quickly, but it was most definitely an annoyance during the first few days.
The HTC Desire, which is the Nexus One with HTC special sauce thrown on top, has physical buttons. I wish I was patient enough to wait for that device. Anyway, the camera is OK, but it’s not exactly going to replace my Canon point and shoot any time soon. Nokia excels in that area. The 3.5 mm headphone jack is useful, but I don’t really listen to music on my mobile phone so I can’t tell you how awesome or terrible the sound quality actually is.
The built in vibrator is loud, meaning you can hear when the motor is vibrating, but it’s quite difficult to actually feel the vibrations. That’s a shame too since the ringer, even when cranked to maximum volume, isn’t loud enough. I’ve missed quite a few calls because I didn’t feel, or hear, my mobile. Micro USB charging is awesome, and I’m even using a Nokia charger in my bedroom to top up my device at night. The industry’s decision to standardize on one form factor for power was a brilliant move.
Now as for the screen, we’re in a love hate relationship. Looking at 800 x 480 pixels is amazing, pinch to zoom works great, scrolling your thumb across glass feels fantastic, but take the Nexus One outside and you can’t see a damn thing. Even with the screen brightness set at maximum, you need to tilt the device in order to get the right angle to see anything. Luckily Finland is dark for half the year, but spring is coming soon, and that honestly has me worried.
How’s the battery life? It gets me through my day. How long does it take to get a GPS lock? Maximum 3 seconds, I even get a fix inside my home. How’s the reception? My Nokia E71 was better, it got 3G in more places, but the Nexus One isn’t so bad that I’d say I was annoyed. And the voice quality? My Nokia is louder, but my Nexus is most certainly clearer.
There’s nothing else I can really mention about the hardware. Microsoft said something very true at Mobile World Congress 2010, that these days most devices look the same. It’s the software that gets noticed.
What’s Android like then?
I walked into Android with really high expectations. Almost too high. After a month I can honestly say that it’s not any better than Symbian, it’s just different. Let me get the bad stuff off my chest first. The Bluetooth doesn’t fucking work. It’s broken. I’ve yet to successfully send an image from my Nexus One to my Bluetooth enabled laptop successfully. Tethering isn’t built in either. I need to download an application and install it, both on my smartphone, and on my computer, to get tethering to work. That’s a bit bullshit since I’ve had both those features have been working brilliantly on my Symbian devices for over 3 years. The alarm clock ringer also can’t be changed, and whoever made the sound file for the alarm clock in Android 2.1 needs to be kicked in the nuts. It’s the worst possible way to wake up in the morning.
Update: Hat tip to @osulop who showed me how to change the alarm tone.
Now for the good things: The browser. It’s simply mind blowing. It’s fast over WiFi, fast over 3G, the text formats just fine, pinch to zoom works great, you can even view YouTube videos with no problem, and that’s all I have to say about that. I have an iPod Touch running the latest iPhone OS, and the browser on the Nexus One is better, simply because of the increased screen resolution. Compared to the iPod Touch (and the iPhone), the Nexus One has 2.5x more pixels.
Google Services work perfectly, as expected, but you have to configure them properly. When you first boot the device it asks you for your Gmail username and password. After you enter in your credentials you immediately start getting email notifications and you’re also logged into Google Talk. The thing about the notifications is that they all share the same alert tone. I want to be able to tell, just by using my ears, when someone sends me an SMS, an email, or an instant message on Google Talk. You have to manually adjust that. Then the worst part of having everything synced is the contacts application. You open it up and it’s populated with everyone you’ve ever emailed. I’ve had my Gmail account since the first week the service launched, so I have a little over 3,000 contacts. Digg through the menu and you can select to only see contacts with a mobile phone number, but still, I’d rather see that option during the initial configuration screen.
I’m also not sold on this multiple homescreen bullshit either. It’s a trend Apple started, and everyone copied. On my Nokia E71 I’d take my device out of my pocket and start typing in a name, and then from there be able to call, email, or SMS that person. I could also hold down the Symbian key, then start typing the names of applications, and launch what I want without having to do any navigating through homescreens. There is a Google Search widget that allows me to search through everything, but it’s just not as elegant, and frankly not that fast either.
Speaking about widgets, the most useful one on Android 2.1 is a bar with 5 symbols (WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, Synchronize, Brightness) that allows you to easily switch those features on and off. No more fiddling with settings. The “Synchronize” button is especially useful since it allows me to turn off push email before I go to sleep, otherwise I’d have my device beeping all night. If you’re wondering why I don’t keep my device on silent at night, it’s because there are certain people who I want to be available for, regardless of what time of day it is; I want to hear their incoming texts and calls. The “Brightness” button cycles between 3 levels of screen brightness, really useful for when you go out on a sunny day and need to see what you’re doing on your screen.
I’ve installed two other widgets: Weather, because I’d like to know how many layers I should wear before leaving my warm flat to walk around this frozen country, and Dictionary.com Word of the Day, because one can never have a wide enough vocabulary.
Applications? I only use one. Seesmic. I’ve installed my fair share of applications too, spent many nights just laying in bed and browsing through the App Market and installed anything that looked remotely interesting, and I find that I don’t need any of them. Really, I don’t. Even Seesmic isn’t that perfect, I much prefer using the mobile web service Dabr, but Seesmic is much more finger optimized.
Messaging (read: the built in SMS application) works as expected, but I have had 3 or 4 instances when clicking the Messaging icon on my home screen launched the browser. A simple reboot fixes that problem, but it was still odd the first time it happened. I also still can’t figure out how to send the same SMS to more than one person. I’ve been told that I have to install a third party SMS application, which I did, but I didn’t really like the UI so I got rid of it.
The notification panel is useful, but … it just doesn’t feel right. The concept is beautiful, it just needs a little bit of polish, and I can’t say what it needs exactly, but it just doesn’t “feel” finished. Google Navigation Beta is amazing. Used it while I was staying with my parents in Texas, only a few times, but I was blown away each and every time. Easily the most impressive turn by turn navigation experience I’ve ever had.
Update: How was it going from one of the best hardware keyboards on any mobile device ever shipped to a glass touch screen? First week was hell, second week was slightly better. I’m now flying on this thing and can type with my eyes closed. There was a period of about 3 or 4 days I had key press sounds turned on so I could learn how it felt like to register a key stroke. I then turned it off after Will told me he was going to throw my phone across our apartment in Spain if I didn’t, and I did, and it hasn’t been back on since.
Google Android, Apple iPhone, Symbian, Windows Phone Series 7, Palm webOS, all of these operating systems are stealing ideas from each other and executing them either slightly better, or slightly worse than the original implementation. The shock of switching to Android really hit me during the first week or two, but after that I ended up being totally fine. Going forward I think mobile operating systems are going to become less and less important, and that people will just end up spending most of their time in a mobile web browser.
Maybe if I had an iPhone I’d feel different, I’d say apps are cool and useful, but still I don’t think my opinion would change. Maybe I’m getting older and have just become more content with the technology I have, learning to accept the problems it comes with, and have become too tired to fight for something better. All I know is that the Nexus One is fine for what I do on my smartphone, and that’s read. I read all damn day, and I forgive any minor qualms I have about Android when I sit down and bask in the glory of that beautiful 3.7 inch screen.
It really is a sight to behold.