Google Nexus One Review

The coveted "Google phone" is finally on sale in the US, and Google is now shipping the Nexus One to the UK (albeit just the unlocked version).

However, before you rush out and trade in our iPhones, know that this isn't quite the superphone that Google intimated it would be. It lacks some valuable features (like multitouch and Outlook calendar syncing) that we’ve seen on competing models, and the Android keyboard can be difficult to use. That said, the Nexus One’s speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon 1GHz processor definitely sets it apart from the Android pack in performance.

One asterisk attached to the phone’s performance involves its interaction with the T-Mobile network in the US. The phone has run into some network issues, a distressing shortcoming on a phone with so many connected features. Nevertheless, it is a very good handset and marks real progress for the Android platform.

Design: Solid, but not groundbreaking

The Nexus One’s hardware isn’t especially innovative, and its design is unmistakably the work of HTC. In fact, it most strongly resembles a stretched-out HTC Hero. Still, the phone is attractive and well constructed. Its rounded corners, solid-glass display, and rubberized back make it a pleasure to hold. At 4.5 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.47 inch thick, the Nexus One has a slimmer profile than the Droid. It also weighs less: 4.8 ounces versus 6 ounces for the Droid. I didn’t care for the drab two-tone gray colour scheme, however.

Four touch-sensitive hardware buttons occupy the bottom of Nexus One’s display: Back, Menu, Home, and Search. A trackball, like the one on the HTC Hero, lies below the buttons. Though I’m not a huge fan of the trackball on these phones—preferring instead to rely on the touchscreen—this trackball was fast and easy to use. The touch buttons are quite responsive, too, though you have to press firmly to activate them. An oblong power button sits atop the Nexus One beside the 3.5mm standard headphone jack. On the right spine is the volume rocker; and on the bottom of the phone, the micro-USB port. The camera lens and flash are located on the back of the phone, and the microSD and SIM card slots hide under the battery.

The Nexus One’s 3.7-inch AMOLED display has drawn a lot of attention, and for good reason: The display is superb. Indeed, photos and videos of the phone don’t do it justice. You need to view the display in person to see how text pops out and how photos dazzle, as well as how nicely the display showcases such new features of Android 2.1 as the scrolling menu and the 3D wallpaper. When you take the phone outdoors, though, you lose much of the display’s visibility, especially in bright sunlight. This limitation will especially disappoint casual photographers who would like to snap lots of pictures with the phone’s 5-megapixel camera—as outdoors it is quite difficult to see the images you shoot.

Android OS 2.1: A few cosmetic tweaks

The Nexus One launch was not just about the hardware: This is the first phone to run Android OS 2.1. It hasn’t been announced when—or if—other phones, like the Motorola Droid (which runs Android OS 2.0) or the current crop of Samsung Android phones (all of which run 1.5) will get this update.

Android OS 2.1 adds some lively visual and aesthetic tweaks to the otherwise bland operating system—such as interesting animated wallpapers of falling leaves or waving grass. These look good on the Nexus One’s display, but they’re a bit distracting and they seem likely to cut into the phone’s battery life at least a little bit. (You can opt for traditional static wallpaper if you prefer.)

You get five homescreens (up from the standard three) for widget and shortcut personalization. Of course, that’s nothing new for Motorola Cliq () and HTC Hero users: The MotoBlur and SenseUI user interfaces from Motorola and HTC, respectively, also gives users five homepages.

One noteworthy omission from Android 2.1 is the tab for pulling up your main menu. This is a good thing, because you now have one-touch access to your menu via a central icon on your screen instead. The revised menu incorporates a rolling 3D-like effect, and the icons seemed to pop more onscreen than they did in older versions of the OS.

The photo gallery got a welcome makeover, too. When you open the app, your photo groups appear in “stacks.” Tap on one of the group stacks, and you can view the photo thumbnails in a grid. Alternatively, you can flick through full-size photos in a slideshow mode.

The most buzzed-about new element in Android OS 2.1 is the voice-to-text input feature. Now you can speak your current Facebook status to your Nexus One—if you dare. In my casual tests, this input method worked fairly well, though I had to speak rather loudly and somewhat slowly in order for the Nexus One to pick up on what I was saying, even in quiet environments. The phone struggled to understand me when I muttered, spoke softly, or used colloquial terms. I can’t say how often I would use a feature like this, day in and day out, but it’s fun to play around with.

Though I appreciate the aesthetic tweaks in Android OS 2.1, other areas seem to have been neglected since the launch of the original Android phone, the T-Mobile G1. The music player is the same straightforward player that has appeared on previous Android devices; it supports album art, playlist building, and repeat and shuffle modes. You can add music via either the included USB cable or a microSD memory card, or you can purchase DRM-free tracks from Amazon.

NEXT: No Outlook calendar syncing, no multitouch

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