Editors' note: On February 2, 2010, Google issued an update to the Nexus One that added multitouch capability. We have changed this review to reflect the new feature. On December 9, 2010, we lowered the score for this product following the release of the Samsung Nexus S.
Call us geeks, but we can't hear the word "Nexus" without thinking of the utopian dimension in Star Trek where all wishes were fulfilled. And in the run-up to the announcement of its Nexus One phone, Google seemed to be going for the same idea. Indeed, when the phone was finally unveiled on January 5, a Google executive billed it as not only a "superphone" that exemplifies what Google Android can do, but also as "the meeting place of Web and phone."
Lofty promises to be sure, but as is usually true in the tech world, things aren't always what they seem. Don't let the standard candy bar design fool you: the Nexus One brings welcome new offerings to the Android table. The Snapdragon processor is undeniably zippy, the AMOLED display is gorgeous, and we welcome both the enhanced voice dialing capabilities and the noise cancellation feature. What's more, the Android 2.1 interface enhancements show that Android continues to improve as it evolves. It's not quite a revolution and it's not the greatest Android phone around--that's a difficult call to make in such a diverse and crowded field--but it adds to an already rich family.
Of course, the Nexus One wasn't without its problems: the music player continues to underwhelm, app storage remains limited to the internal memory, the handset lacks hands-free Bluetooth dialing. And for the time being, the handset does not support Outlook Calendar syncing. But even with those gripes, the Nexus One delivers a satisfying user experience. The operating system can already go to head-to-head with the iPhone, and the Nexus One only gives Android more ammunition.
It's essential to note that the Nexus One is sold exclusively by Google. Believe us when we say it's fairly remarkable that Google is trying to change the typical control-freak ways of the U.S. carriers. Yet, we don't know what to think of the model just yet. On the upside, both versions of the phone--$529 without service and $179 with a two-year T-Mobile contract--will be unlocked. We also like that you get free overnight shipping. On the downside, however, you don't get in-person support when you have problems and you can't handle the phone before buying. Time will tell just how this arrangement works. For you CDMA fans, Verizon Wireless is set to get its own version of the phone in early 2010.
Though sleek and attractive, the Nexus One's candy bar, touch-screen-only design doesn't break new design ground. With its trackball and prominent display, it looks a bit like both the HTC Hero and the HTC Droid Eris. At 4.56 inches by 2.36 inches by 0.47 inch, it's about the same size as the Droid Eris, the Hero, and the iPhone, but it weighs just 4.58 ounces The two-toned gray color scheme is standard smartphone, but the handset has a comfortable and very solid feel in the hand.
Not surprisingly, the Nexus One's star attraction is its 3.7-inch AMOLED display. Bursting with 16.7 million colors and an 800x480-pixel resolution, the display really is a wonder. Everything from standard text to busy photos and graphics jumped right off the display in full glory. The Android 2.1 operating system adds to the fun with 3D graphics (more on that later) and live wallpapers, which are animated backgrounds that react to your touch and your music. They're a nifty and attractive touch, but we realize they may be a bit much for some people and we're not sure if they affect battery life. Standard wallpapers are available if you're not game.
Like the Motorola Cliq, there are five home screens for full personalization. You can add and delete shortcut icons and folders at will, and you can use the dedicated Google Search box. You'll see a customizable weather/news box that's similar to that on the Cliq, though here it's more extensive and its design is refined. The display also offers an accelerometer, an ambient light sensor, and a proximity sensor. We found that the touch interface is accurate and responsive, both on the edges and in the center. Haptic feedback can guide you if you need help. We would like options for touch calibration and sensitivity, however.
Compared with previous Android phones, the Nexus One brings a few unique touches to the home screen. A square touch control with a grid design replaces the menu tab found on other Android phones. It makes no difference to usability as long as you recognize what it does. You'll also find dots on either side of the touch control that let you skip to an individual home screen or view thumbnails of all home screens in a row. Another change is a shortcut bar that allows you to activate and deactivate the Bluetooth, GPS, syncing, and Wi-Fi features, and control the display brightness. It's all very handy since you don't have to dig through a menu.
The main menu is similar to previous Android phones, but it now takes on a rolling effect at either end where the icons recede into the distance like the title crawl in a "Star Wars" film. Interior menus, the design of the Android Market, and the display lock and mute icons are comparable with the features offered by the Motorola Droid. You can adjust the brightness and backlighting time, and limit the display animations.
The four touch controls below the display--a back button, home and search keys, and a control for the notifications menu--are standard Android. A long press to the home screen will bring up your recent features, and a long press to the search control will activate voice search. The touch controls take a firmer press than we'd like. More than a few times we had to touch a button twice to get it to register our command. When you're not using the touch screen, the trackball will be your primary interface tool for accessing menus. It's large and responsive, and it lights up when you have a message. We know that other Nexus One reviewers had more trouble with the trackball, but to be honest, we use the touch screen almost completely so we didn't have any issues. The virtual keyboard is also unchanged from other Android phones; you can use it in both landscape and portrait modes. We still think Android has the best predictive typing program in the business.
The power control sits on the top of the phone, next to the 3.5mm headset jack. We're thankful that the jack has a standard size for using your own headphones. The volume rocker on the left spine is thin, but it's easy to find when you're on a call. On the rear side are the camera lens, the flash, and a space you can engrave with a personal message. You'll have to remove the battery to access the microSD and SIM cards. The Micro-USB port sits on the phone's bottom end and accommodates both the charger and a USB cable.
As an Android phone, the Nexus One has everything you'd expect from the OS. The contacts menu is limited by the available memory, but each entry can store multiple fields for phone numbers, street addresses, work information, e-mails, URLs, instant-messaging handles, nicknames, and notes. Contacts are automatically synced from your Gmail account, and you can also sync Facebook and Microsoft Exchange contacts. We did both and the process took just seconds. As with previous Android phones, you must store applications from the Android Market on the 512MB of internal memory. MicroSD cards (the Nexus One comes with a 4GB card, but it can accommodate cards up to 32GB) are only for other data files.
Besides Gmail, the Nexus One also supports additional POP3 and IMAP4 accounts, though not through a unified in-box. We added an Outlook Web Access (OWA) CNET e-mail, but we were unable to add a Yahoo Mail account via automatic setup. When we tried doing so, we received a message that not all Yahoo accounts are supported. That's the first time we've seen that on an Android phone, or any smartphone for that matter, and it's troubling. When we typed in our Yahoo account anyway, the Nexus One informed us that our username and password were incorrect (we did it several times to be sure). We were successful only after we performed a manual setup (you'll need the correct ports and server names). Note that free Yahoo accounts will not sync over Wi-Fi. Booo.
Unfortunately, neither Google nor Yahoo were particularly helpful when we were having problems. A Google spokeswoman said that the company is "not aware of specific problems," and that I should contact Yahoo for more information. A Yahoo spokesman promised to look into the problem and offered this response. "It's unfortunate that Google launched a mobile device without properly integrating e-mail from Yahoo--the number one mobile mail service in the United States. We're working with Google to correct this in order to provide the best possible mobile mail experience for consumers."
Sadly, Calendar syncing looks to be incomplete. Though your Gmail Calendar will sync automatically, currently the Nexus One does not support Outlook Calendar and notes. Google says that feature is coming soon, but for now the Nexus One is not a full-fledged business device. Alternatively, Google says it is developing an Enterprise model of the Nexus One.