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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.
The Nexus One's primary feature selling point is its voice command features. In addition to dialing, you can perform a variety of functions, such as updating your Facebook page, composing a text message, and searching the Android Market using only your voice. We jumped in right away and were astounded how well it worked even in a crowded room. Indeed the only mistake it made was it spelled "be" with just the letter b when we said "I will be late." The feature is speaker-independent so no voice acclimation testing is required. Just keep in mind that the process is not entirely hands-free. You'll still have to press the microphone icon on the display to activate the feature and occasionally press other icons to move between text fields.
The 5-megapixel camera is a few leaps ahead of most Android phones. Beyond the choice of four resolutions, it also offers the aforementioned flash, white balance and color effect controls, autofocus, infinity focus, a 2x digital zoom, and three quality settings. We like the enhanced camera interface that came with Android 1.6, especially the quick switch to the camcorder. You can record up to 30 minutes of video in a 720x480-pixel resolution (20 frames per second), but clips for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds. You can also select a quality setting, a color effect, and white balance.
Photo quality is satisfying. Colors looked natural and there was little image noise. The flash is relatively bright, though it doesn't appear to be of much help in completely dark places. Check out our Nexus One camera slideshow for a full assessment of the image quality. Video quality is about average. When you're finished shooting, just forward the photos to friends using the usual methods. Alternatively, you can use one-click upload to Picasa and YouTube. You also can geotag your shots for your reference. On the downside, the troubling Android shutter lag remains. When shooting, you still have to keep your phone steady for up to 4 seconds to avoid a blurry photo.
The Gallery application offers a few improvements. When you first open the gallery, photo groups will be arranged in stacks with the name of the group underneath. Tapping each stack will display the photos in a grid format for easy scanning, or you can swipe through each shot individually in a slideshow. And thanks to the 3D graphics, the photos will appear to rotate as you tip the phone.
We had hoped Google would give us a better media player on the Nexus One, but that's not the case. There's nothing bad about the Android player; it's just not that exciting. You get album art, repeat and shuffle modes, and the option to make playlists. You can add music via a USB cable, a memory card, or from the Amazon MP3 Store. Access to a quality video store and an FM radio are still on our wish list, though.
Other features include a calculator, a full duplex speakerphone, a compass, a text-to-speech feature, A2DP stereo Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, text and multimedia messaging, and the full slate of Google applications like YouTube, Picasa, Google Voice, Google Talk, and Google Goggles. The latter features suggests Web pages after you take a photo with the camera. It worked to varying degrees of success. Google Maps offers the standard features, plus a night mode and search suggestion. Please see the Performance section for more on the Nexus One's Bluetooth feature and Web browser.
Thanks to Android 2.1, the Nexus One also has the Car Home application, which offers local search and real-time, turn-by-turn directions with voice. Unfortunately, we don't get native tethering for the moment. It's unclear whether the holdup is Google, T-Mobile, or HTC.
We tested the Nexus One in Las Vegas and in San Francisco with T-Mobile service. As a quad-band world phone (GSM 850/900/1800/1900), you'll be able to use the Nexus One with any GSM carrier, but its 3G bands (2100/AWS/900) are compatible only with T-Mobile's network in the United States. AT&T customers will be able to use the Nexus One, but their data speeds will top out at EDGE.
Call quality was quite good on the whole. Conversations were clear, the volume was loud, and we heard little static or interference. Indeed, the noise cancellation feature seemed to work as we could hear clearly when we were in a crowded room. We even could get service at the Las Vegas Convention Center during the 2010 International CES. With thousands of cell phone-happy people in one place, CES can be a notorious dead zone.
On their end, callers said we sounded good. They could tell we were using a cell phone, but they reported no problems with the volume level or clarity. The phone dialer interface is easy to use, and we like the one-touch access to your contacts and recent calls lists. Also, when you're on a call, you can switch to Bluetooth or the speakerphone with one touch.
Speakerphone calls were satisfactory as well. The sound was tinny and a tad distorted at the higher volumes, but it gets pretty loud. We had no difficulty carrying on conversations in most environments. Friends reported similar conditions on their end, though a few mentioned more background noise. We tested the Nexus One with the Sound ID 200 Bluetooth headset. Bluetooth calls were admirable, though it's worth noting that like the Droid you cannot initiate voice dialing without touching the phone.
The full HTML Web browser lacks Flash Lite, but we welcomed the addition of multitouch with the February, 2010 software update. Now you can zoom in by double-tapping your finger and by using the pinch and zoom method available on the iPhone and the HTC Droid Eris. Both methods worked quite well with smooth motion and no lag. In the meantime, though, the browser offers other Android features like bookmarks, multiple windows, and the capability to cut and paste. Using T-Mobile's 3G network, the signal was mostly reliable and Web pages loaded relatively quickly. For example, graphics-heavy sites like wow.com and airliners.net loaded in about 30 seconds on 3G (compared with a minute and a half on EDGE). We've read, however, that many Nexus One users have reported that their phones frequently drop down from 3G to EDGE and others have no 3G connection at all.
The GPS application performs better than on other Android phones, but it still missed us by a block or two. It's not a deal-breaker, unless you're trying to direct someone to you. In those cases, make sure you're giving accurate directions. Music quality is decent over the external speaker, but a headset will offer the best experience. Streaming video over the YouTube app is mostly satisfying, but it will depend on your 3G connection.
The Nexus One's greatest triumph is its 1Ghz Snapdragon processor. It made a huge difference that was noticeable as soon as we dove into the phone. Applications loaded instantly and there was no lag when switching between features. We tried to time the average loading time for opening memory-heavy intensive applications, but it was so fast we had trouble recording it on a stopwatch. Believe us when we say it's fast. We also didn't encounter the lag we often get when swiping between home screens on the Moto Cliq. It's not an understatement to say that the Nexus One is the fastest Android phone we've seen.
Rated battery life for the Nexus One is as follows: 10 hours of 2G talk time or 7 hours of 3G talk time; 12 days of 2G standby time or 10.4 days of 3G standby time; 5 hours of Internet use on 3G or 6.5 hours on Wi-Fi; 7 hours of video playback and 20 hours of audio playback. So far, we've been pleased with the Nexus One's performance. In our tests we encountered 5 hours and 10 minutes of 3G talk time, 9 hours and 14 minutes of 2G talk time, and 19 hours and 20 minutes of audio playback. For video playback, we got an average of 4.5 hours. According to FCC radiation tests, the Nexus One has a digital SAR of 0.867 watt per kilogram.