Review: Nexus One

A bit about the Nexus One: It is one of the fastest Android-based smartphones on the market, powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon running at 1GHz. The Nexus One was manufactured by HTC with a lot of guidance from Google. RAM and ROM are at 512MB each. There are the usual array of sensors: light, proximity, accelerometer; nothing you haven’t seen on other smartphones. Connectivity options include: HSPA-capable GSM, WiFi and AGPS. A 4GB microSD card comes with the Nexus One but you can replace it with up to a 32GB version.

Here are some of my observations in no particular order:

External Design

The Nexus One is quite slender and is about the perfect size. The edges are a bit more curvy than I’d like but that’s me. To give you an example of my bias, one of my favorite designs on a car is the 1997 Volvo 850 R precisely because of the boxy design (and power). I wish the Nexus One, as well as the iPhone, was a bit more boxy like the 850 R and the Droid. The color of the Nexus One is questionable. It isn’t bad, but if I could have it my way the color would be pure aluminum, white or black. I’m not even sure what the two-tone colors are on the Nexus One: titanium bronze and metallic charcoal?

This also is a personal taste of mine: I like objects that are symmetric. The iPhone 3GS is symmetric. The top and bottom bezel has the same thickness on the iPhone, and this is important to me as it brings a sense of balance. But it’s more than that. The iPhone is often used in landscape mode and the symmetric design works very well and was probably a requirement precisely because Apple knew the iPhone would be used that way. The Nexus One, on the other hand, is not symmetric and has a lot more stuff going on below the display relative to above it. In landscape mode you’re not quite centered. I really like the buzz switch on the iPhone and wish the Nexus One had one too. There are two more niggles and they are on the back: two holes. One is a horizontal slit and the other is just a small hole and I don’t know what these are for. I forgot the small hole was a hole and tried to rub it off thinking it was debris. Despite the external design being far from what I would consider ideal, the Nexus One looks quite nice. The Nexus One is slightly thinner than the iPhone 3GS, a bit taller, and a bit narrower. Overall I think the Nexus One feels more solid than the iPhone 3GS. And strangely, probably because of it being compared to the Nexus One, the iPhone 3GS feels more like a toy.

Battery Cover

The battery cover is ill-conceived. The mechanism is simply terrible. I do not know how much force I should apply to slide the cover off. And once it is off the process of getting it back on is frustratingly difficult. I’ve been messing around with high-tech gadgets for quite some time and it isn’t because of the lack of dexterity that makes opening and closing the battery cover difficult; it just is. There must be a better way. I also do not understand why the camera and LED flash covers are part of the battery cover. I think it would be a better and more solid design if the camera and LED flash covers didn’t move at all. A weird design choice in my opinion. My RAZR V3 is really old but the battery cover design, I think, is much easier to understand: there is a little shiny button you push to open the battery cover. There is nothing like that on the Nexus One and because of it, it isn’t as good. But there’s more evidence that HTC or Google or both didn’t think this through. A lot of smartphone users want replaceable batteries, right? And so the Nexus One allows for that. Great. But, I don’t think an extra battery can be purchased right now but let’s say for the sake of argument you can. Then what? Is there a battery charger? No. You have to go through the tedious process of charging the extra battery inside the Nexus One. I hope a charging base with a slot for an extra battery is coming soon.

Touch Buttons

I don’t like the non-responsiveness of capacitive touch buttons. I don’t like the four touch buttons below the display and only because they don’t work all the time. That’s big since buttons should simply work. I would rather have four real buttons. I’ve seen video after video reviews of the Nexus One and everyone has had to “press” those buttons more than once to get them to work. Real buttons please.

Display

The Nexus One makes use of a rather large 3.7-inch OLED display. The OLED is of the PenTile Matrix variety originally developed by Clairvoyante, which Samsung purchased, and is now renamed Nouvoyance. OLED is a different type of display than the LCDs that we are used to. The main difference being that OLEDs emit light while LCDs have a backlight. Black on an OLED display is simply turned off, and that’s why black is really black on an OLED. Looking at the Nexus One in the dark is fantastic. Increase the brightness to its full level and the OLED becomes more brilliant than any other display that I’ve seen on a mobile device. I’m sure owners of a KURO plasma TV would be able to relate. Not everything is perfect. Colors are exceptionally vibrant but red looks too red, a bit over-saturated. Most of this past week has been overcast so using the Nexus One outside didn’t pose any problems for the OLED display. It was sunny yesterday and the OLED display required that I look at it a bit more carefully, probably due to a lot of light reflecting off of the OLED display.

Multitouch

There is none. Update: Now there is, finally. Google started to update batches of Nexus Ones over-the-air. I haven’t been able to test it since I’m connected via AT&T and I don’t think Nexus One over-the-air firmware updates are sent out via AT&T. Read Nexus One: Finally, Multitouch.

USB Connection

You would think if you connected the USB cable that came with the Nexus One to your computer something would happen. That is the correct assumption but then you would be staring at your computer doing nothing. That’s what I did. After realizing that the MacBook Pro wasn’t going to do anything I went online and searched for a solution. It turns out you need to pull down a drop-down window from the top of the Nexus One and then mount the phone. Once you mount the phone it shows up on your computer. What you see is access to the microSD card that is inside the Nexus One. A crude method. Google will need to make this process more seamless. Not only that, after having copied some photos into the microSD card, I dismounted the Nexus One from my computer, and started up the Gallery app. It was empty. I was wondering what was going on. I searched online but could not find an answer. So I did what all old-time PC users do: I rebooted the Nexus One. Guess what? That did the trick.

Android OS Version 2.1

I don’t have much experience with Android prior to 2.1 so I can’t say much about the improvements. I wanted to like Android. Unfortunately, the Android OS is simply too crude and unpolished, especially as it is compared to the iPhone OS. On the last day of January, I took the Nexus One to church and piqued one of my friend’s interest. He is an IT guy and works for a fairly large company that supplied a critical part to the Nexus One but yet the Android OS was not as intuitive as it should have been for him: it took many different attempts for him to unlock the phone. It was funny to watch him try all sorts of things. I wonder if him being a BlackBerry user made it more difficult. It took my wife, who is not a technology geek and dislikes anything that is complex, all of a few seconds to get going on my iPhone: she had not touched an iPhone prior to that moment. Besides the less-than-intuitive unlocking procedure, there are many more areas where Google needs to pay a bit more attention to. For instance, there’s the home screen. Why does the home screen have just Messaging, Market, Phone, Contacts, Browser and Maps apps as default? Most of the screen is blank. I don’t get why the rest of the apps are hidden. Maybe I’m just used to the iPhone but I really don’t see a reason why I need to tap a button to get to all the other apps. And then there is the relatively massive Google search bar on top that could have looked a bit more integrated with the home screen and with the other icons. I get that animated wallpapers are cool but the coolness wears off in about two minutes. I had to fiddle with the UI a bit to figure out how to change the background wallpaper (just press an empty portion of the background and you’ll be greeted with a pop-up with options). I think Android is for those who like to tinker a bit. Me? I used to tinker but now I just need to get things done.

Virtual Keyboard

Shift-slide-key doesn’t work. Yes, I know, it might be an iPhone thing but I’m just so used to it that not having it makes pushing the shift key and then pushing the letter you want capitalized tedious. I found the virtual keyboard to work quite well but not as easy as on the iPhone. Another big omission (or maybe I wasn’t able to find it in one of the many sub-menus) is international keyboards. Sure, I can switch my default language but I want to type something in Korean mid-sentence and then back to English. I don’t think Android lets you do that. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Trackball

Why? Maybe there is some setting that will allow it, but I can’t use the ball to turn on the Nexus Phone. It doesn’t act like the “Home” button on the iPhone. All it does is move the cursor up/down and left/right. Actually the ball does pulsate, letting you know that it is sleeping. I don’t think we really need this feature. As far as I can tell there is no real use for this trackball. If the Nexus One came without this trackball I think it would have looked a lot better; might have been less expensive to make too. The ball should be removed in the Nexus Two.

Taking Pictures

The Nexus One has a 5-megapixel camera and a LED flash. We all know by now the number of pixels on the image sensor does not necessarily mean better picture quality. With that said the Nexus One took very good pictures when there was plenty of light. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very many nice pictures when there wasn’t enough light. Like typical phone-based flashes, the LED flash blows out the subject and produces merely passable pictures. I don’t think I need to conduct any additional tests as Andy Ihnatko has done a fabulous job of comparing the Nexus One and the iPhone 3GS. To summarize:

The Nexus One took much better pictures than the iPhone 3GS when there was plenty of non-tricky lighting but when lighting was not ideal neither were the pictures it took.

Conclusion

The Nexus One isn’t for everyone; it is for those who are a bit more techie and know their way around operating systems. If you insist on getting the Nexus One, make sure you know what you’re doing, or make sure you know of someone nearby who knows what they are doing. If you have a problem with the Nexus One the best way is to Google it. You don’t have the option of taking it to T-Mobile. You can email Google but plan to wait a while, longer than you’d want.

The external design is solid but far from perfect. The OLED display is superb but not out in the sun. The 5 megapixel takes great pictures but only when there’s enough light. Android works but could be more polished and intuitive. Overall I think the Nexus One, a.k.a. the Google Phone, represents one of the best iteration of an Android smartphone, but there is more work to be done if Google wants non-techie average folks to use one.

Note: The Nexus One in this review was connected to AT&T’s network. As most of you know already the Nexus One does not connect to AT&T’s 3G, not yet anyway, just EDGE. So, I will not talk much about the data connection speeds as EDGE does not even compete in the same league as 3G.