First Look: Google Nexus One

Another week another Android flagship. But what makes this better than all the rest, including its direct competition? We managed to get a hands-on with the handset following its launch in the US at the beginning of January.

The Google Nexus One is Google's first outing in the hardware scene (well not including boring server boxes) and brings with it a move by the search engine giant to reap the rewards of its Android OS that other manufactures have previously benefited from. That said, it's worth noting that HTC still makes the handset and that Google is really only making the move to shake up the phone industry in the US where the operators are still the predominant force.

In the UK the notion of paying for your mobile phone is a rather peculiar one with most handsets offered for free if you're willing to sign up to a long enough contract. In the US, parting with a couple of hundred dollars for the latest phone is still the defacto. As it's not an operator-subsidised handset (it is subsidised by Google) you can buy it direct from Google, get it delivered to your door and then slam in any SIM you fancy.

Well that's the idea at least. In reality to get the most out of the handset in the US you'll have to opt for T-Mobile, as the phone won't support Sprint and AT&T's 3G network. Likewise Verizon's CDMA network isn't supported either, but Google does plan to offer a CDMA flavoured version in the future. In the UK the preferred partner is Vodafone, although it will work on any network.

Get past the network you're planning to run it on and you've got an Android 2.1 handset that sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (the same as the Windows powered Toshiba TG01 and HTC HD2). The screen is a 3.7-inch AMOLED capacitive touchscreen that makes the iPhone look dull in comparison.

The phone itself is slim and compact. The front features the display and below that lie four quick-link touch sensitive buttons similar to those found on the Droid Eris (and HTC's other Android handsets). Beneath that is a trackball as on the HTC Hero (or your last-gen BlackBerry) and that's it. There are no clunky buttons for calling or hanging up as found on some HTC handsets. The Nexus One is fairly minimal in its button offering.

Elsewhere the design features a 3.5mm headphone jack and volume controls. It does not have a dedicated button for using the 5-megapixel camera, which comes with an LED flash.

Buried beneath the plastic, although the backplate gets a Teflon-coating, is a 4GB microSD card with support to expand it up to 32GB. The whole phone is encased in a metal shell that gives the handset strength and a "well built" feel. That metal shell also allows for the option of two lines of engraving on the back. Tarty.

Past the simple, but also rather average design, the phone includes plenty of the usual goodies in the box. HSDPA, Wi-Fi, compass, GPS, stereo, Bluetooth and noise reduction tech for calls are all present. If that wasn't enough to tick all your boxes, it gets a light and proximity sensor so it turns off when next to your face (something the UK Hero can't do) as well as an accelerometer and a multicolour LED-backlit trackball as we've already mentioned.

But hardware is only as good as the software the phone runs. Here you get Android version 2.1, yet another iteration of the Google operating system and yet again the only handset for the time being to offer it. Remember, the Droid, announced in November is only 2.0 the same as the Milestone in the UK.

2.1 doesn't bring masses more to the party over 2.0 apart from a couple of User Interface tweaks here and there.

The one that you'll notice the most is also the one that you'll be removing first. The Nexus One now supports Live Wallpapers, probably the most pointless feature to shout about on the phone.

Rather than meaning a wallpaper that is constantly providing you with new information, it's actually just a wallpaper that is interactive to touch, be it a pond you can send ripples on, or a Tron like landscape that you can create colourful patterns with. Pointless? Yes. Will it eat your battery quicker and faster than you could surfing the Internet every second of the day? Most definitely.

Other changes include making the app homepage look like it's on a roller and a more responsive on-screen keyboard.

For the US there's still no multi-touch functionality despite the capacitive touchscreen and all the capability being there. However, like the Motorola Milestone (the UK variant of the Droid) multi-touch is expected to be enabled (we played with a US version). You can double tap your finger to zoom, which is short of the pinch and stretch functionality you'd expect on the iPhone.

Where it does trump the Apple handset is in voice control. Every text box can receive voice input, as opposed to certain voice-activated functions, and if you've experienced the Google Voice app it coped very well with both the American (thanks Eric) and UK voices (that would be me) that we tried it on.

In the US you'll also get Google Maps Navigation complete with a landscape homescreen, but there is no confirmation yet as to whether it will come with the optional car docking station. There is also the desktop mode that turns the display into a bedside clock, but again no word on a docking station for that either. 

As for performance and in use it seemed nippy with the Snapdragon processor certainly helping to set it above previous outings of the OS on lesser hardware.

Interestingly we did noticed that the alignment was off on the touchscreen, from where you actually press and where the icons actually are. When asked, we were told this was an active decision and one that means that you can better use the phone at a 45 degree angle. It's a strange one that does take some getting used to, especially if you don't use your phone at 45 degrees, but something worth mentioning.

 

Verdict

The media coverage in the run up to the launch of the Google phone was immense, with the American media believing the handset to be the second coming. While the Nexus One is very good, offering all that the Motorola Droid does without the slideout keyboard, it is just another Android handset that doesn't advance the operating system by any great step.

It also makes the operating system considerably more confusing with yet another version (which should be coming to the Hero and other devices) to consider - Windows 7 territory even.

Worse still for the Nexus One is that with the annual mobile phone trade show, Mobile World Congress, just around the corner next month and the promise of more handsets from HTC, no doubt with the sheen of the Sense UI (probably the best skin for Android at the moment) we can see this looking rather dated very quickly.

After all, look at what happened with the HTC Magic in 2009. By the time it was ready to hit the shops, HTC was announcing the superior HTC Hero. Something we believe will happen again.

The Nexus one, based on our first look is a solid phone, but no game changer as the hyperbole suggested. As to the true performance, we'll have to wait 'till we get the phone in for a thorough testing.



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