Smartphones are the new black. Every manufacturer wants to get in on the act, coming up with a handset that, with a mix of new features, an innovative operating system and access to an applications store, might just rival or get ahead of the iPhone.Google has been central to the creation of the Android operating system which is proving so popular and which has a range of apps that is growing apace. The quality of some apps may still be variable, but the quantity is shooting up. So perhaps it makes sense that Google waited for over a year to make its own Android phone. It’s a great debut.
Pick one up and it looks and feels like something new. The smooth rubberised back, the slim profile, the animated wallpapers on the large (3.7-inch) screen all impress.
The display – longer than but not as wide as the iPhone’s – shines brightly because it uses AM-OLED technology that requires no power hungry backlight, giving great contrast, vivid colours and deeper black shades (black is truly black, which no backlit LCD could ever match).
The animated wallpapers include a very neat overhead view of leaves floating down a stream, water rippling as the leaves bump. You can even cause your own ripples by jabbing at the screen. Be warned, it’s slightly addictive despite being completely pointless.
The hardware is well-made and classily designed by HTC, the company behind most Windows Mobile smartphones ever made, and the T-Mobile G1, HTC Hero, Tattoo and Magic. The company should take a bow, having made something so well balanced and incredibly thin. It fits the hand easily, with its curved edges reducing the perception of size.
Like the iPhone, there’s only one physical button on the front, a pressable trackball which helps you navigate the screen. All the other usual Android buttons (Menu, Home, Search and Back) are touch-sensitive icons at the very base of the display. Personally, I like physical buttons, but the virtual ones work well enough once you’re used to them.
Most of the real spangly attractions of the phone lie in the software, thanks to Android OS version 2.1, which may be rolled out to other Android devices very soon but currently remains the Nexus One’s USP. And pretty whizzy it is, too.
The success of this is down, not least, to the flavour-of-the-moment computer chip, the Snapdragon, from Qualcomm. Time was, nobody knew who made the chips that powered mobile phones, though we all knew who Intel and AMD were in the computer world. Now, it’s Snapdragon all the way for smartphones, having quickly become the chip of choice. Many people even know the Snapdragon’s speed – 1GHz – which not only sounds fast, but IS fast.
Applications launch almost immediately on the handset and the touchscreen is very quick and responsive. Speed is everything. The power means there are new capabilities available, like voice recognition that goes beyond search.
Smartphone users are familiar with the microphone next to the Google search box on earlier Android phones, and the iPhone, for instance. That speech recognition function is explored more widely here. You can dictate emails, text messages and anything else that would normally be entered via the on-screen keyboard, using the microphone. Although it sometimes makes mistakes, it’s fun to use and, when it works, feels magical.
New widgets include a different analogue clock (though still not as cute as HTC’s version) and folders which update their content as they go. It’s now easy to find your way round the homescreen panels (there are five of these instead of the previous three) by means of a long press on the bottom corner of the screen. This shows a line-up of thumbnails for you to choose between. Neat.
The icons for programs are snazzier here, which improves the look of things, too – the first Android handsets had disappointingly scrappy images.
The camera is a 5-megapixel model, with LED flash. It’s not about to trouble Sony Ericsson’s imminent Xperia X10 with a 8.1-megapixel sensor, but it’s as advanced as any other smartphone toting a camera. Images were decent enough and shutter lag was minimal, and it’s a major leap ahead of the current iPhone 3GS (but not necessarily the next iPhone due out in the summer, if the rumours are true and it gets its own 5-megapixel camera with HD video recording).
Viewing your pictures on board is excellent thanks to a cute and vastly improved Gallery app that is exclusive to Google. Photos appear in a small pile, and a quick tap places them in a line. Once you’ve selected one it fills the screen and you can zoom in by pinching the screen thanks to the phone’s multi-touch capabilities.
The hardware promises good call quality – a charge of poor audio is sometimes laid at the iPhone’s door – with noise cancelling capabilities. In our unscientific tests, a call received from a noisy environment successfully minimised the background interference compared to another handset. Impressive, if not earth-shatteringly so. Still, it’s good to see a company recognising that for all its super powers, a smartphone still needs to, you know, make the odd call successfully.
Downsides include the slightly irritating way you have to wake the screen from standby using the switch along the top edge of the phone – can’t we at least have the option to do it from the trackball, please? One caller said I sounded a bit distant to them, so maybe the noise-cancelling helps me but not the other party.
These are minor carps – the Nexus One is a well-thought-out, smartly designed handset with lots of cool extras and features. Is it better than the iPhone? You’d have to say that it might be, for now, although Android Market is still rather lacking in the innovative and exciting apps that Apple users can enjoy. By the summer, Apple may leapfrog the Nexus One with features, but by then the Android platform is going to have an even stronger foothold. Plus, anyone that is a user of any of the huge number of Google services on offer, from email to online document editing, is unlikely to care about what Apple might or might not do in the coming months.
The joy of the Nexus One is that it looks great, works superbly and is incredibly fast, with lots of added treats to enjoy. It feels good and has the best incarnation of the Android operating system so far, which is intuitively easy to use. The software is beguiling and the hardware turns heads, in a good way. If you’re looking for a smaller smartphone than the iPhone, it may not suit. But, if you want a pin-sharp, high-resolution screen, impressive voice recognition smarts and an ever growing number of apps, and don’t mind the size, this is a hard phone to beat.