Review: Nexus One and Android 2.1

Google’s first phone is a superfast, elegant device with a few privacy problems.

Google’s Nexus One is an astonishingly fast phone. Use it for more than a few minutes and you’ll see that much of the slowness we’ve learned to associate with smart phones is not the fault of the network but of the phones themselves–specifically, their processors.

Today’s 3G networks can deliver data to your phone faster than the broadband connections that many people have in their homes: a laptop equipped with one of those USB modems from AT&T or Verizon functions splendidly. Yet most smart phones take several seconds to click between Web pages or launch a new application. That’s because the typesetting and image processing necessary to turn the text of a Web page into something that can be displayed on a screen takes a lot of computation. And most phones have comparatively slow processors–in many cases, they are no faster than a Pentium 3 from 10 years ago.

The Nexus One, by contrast, has a one-gigahertz processor–more than 60 percent faster than the processors in the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, and BlackBerry Bold 9700, according to several benchmarks. In my testing, it took 2.5 seconds, on average, to click from one Wikipedia page to the next using T-Mobile’s 3G network–and half that long when using a Wi-Fi connection. You can open applications, zoom in on photos, and search your phone’s databases instantly. The faster processor dramatically improves the phone’s enjoyability.

The Nexus One also has a beautiful high-resolution screen–800 by 480 pixels crammed into 3.7 diagonal inches for a display that’s roughly 250 dots per inch, making even tiny text quite legible. (Apple’s new iPad, in comparison, is 1,024 by 768 pixels on a screen that’s 9.7 inches, for just 132 dots per inch.) The Nexus’s five-megapixel camera can autofocus and takes detailed photos at six centimeters, and it has a surprisingly bright LED flash. The phone also has a standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack, which means you don’t need those bulky adapters to use high-end earbuds.

Google’s phone runs an updated version of the company’s Android operating system, the same software that’s at the heart of Motorola’s new Cliq and Droid phones, T-Mobile’s G1 (a.k.a the HTC Dream), and even the Barnes and Noble Nook e-book reader. But unlike the others, the Nexus One runs Android 2.1, the latest and greatest version (of course). Droid runs 2.0, although it’s scheduled for an update, while the G1 is still running Android 1.6.

Android has been on the market for nearly 18 months, and this new version has a significantly improved user interface that requires fewer button presses for the same functions. For example, when you are in the middle of a phone call, you can now use buttons on the screen to add a call, display the dial pad, switch to and from a Bluetooth headset, mute, and control the built-in speakerphone (on the G1, these features all require clicking the Menu button). The screens also show more information. For example, a photo of the person you’re speaking with is displayed in the middle of screen; put that person on hold to take another call, and the first caller’s photo appears behind the second photo.

Photos appear more often than you might expect, thanks to the close integration between the Android and Facebook. Type your Facebook username and password into the phone’s Facebook application and the phone’s Contacts (the address book) will immediately be populated with the names, phone numbers, photos, and even status updates of your Facebook friends. You can decide whether you want to have the phone augment existing contacts with the Facebook information, bring all of your Facebook contacts into the phone’s contact list, or remove all of the Facebook data from that list. It’s creepy, sure, but also kind of useful.

Android phones integrate with Gmail, of course. But while previous phones could only sync with a single Gmail account, this phone will take multiple accounts, allowing you to use it for both home and work. It can also interface with Yahoo, Hotmail, Apple’s MobileMe, and virtually any other e-mail provider.

Unlike the iPhone, which must sync to a desktop using Apple’s iTunes applications, the Nexus One syncs to Google’s cloud. That can cause problems, because not every setting inside the phone gets backed up on sync. In particular, neither ringtones nor applications are automatically restored after a phone is wiped and reloaded. Equally troubling: applications bought for the G1 through Google’s Android Marketplace need to be repurchased for the Nexus One when users upgrade. Google needs to make this kind of synching flawless.

Overall, the phone’s weakest area is privacy–specifically, features designed to prevent the accidental disclosure of information. There’s an option you can use to wipe and reset to factory-fresh settings, but it doesn’t wipe the SD card, and the wipe happens so fast that I doubt the phone is actually overwriting all the information in its massive memory. (Google did not respond to questions that we asked for this article.) The phone also lacks “remote kill” and “find me” features, both present on the iPhone. Android does support a novel feature that allows you to unlock the phone by swiping a design instead of dialing in a code, but once that’s enabled, the phone constantly drops into its locked state–unlike the iPhone, it offers no way to specify a grace period. As a result, it’s strongly tempting to turn this feature off.

The best aspect of this phone is its geek appeal: there are lots of useful controls and displays hidden under the covers. A built-in text-to-speech functionality has five settings that specify how fast the phone should talk. You can tap “Battery Use” and see the percentage of the phone’s battery consumed by the display, voice calls, cell standby, and each application you’ve been running. And tens of thousands of applications can be downloaded from the Android Marketplace–none of which required preapproval, as all iPhone apps do.

Today Android phones still represent a tiny part of the smart-phone market, which is dominated by BlackBerry (41.6 percent), Apple (25.3 percent), and Microsoft (18 percent), according to Comscore’s December 2009 statistics. During that same period Android commanded just 5.2 percent, although that was up from 2.5 percent in September 2009–presumably a result of the promotional blitz for the Motorola Droid. But it’s sure to expand, since BlackBerry and Apple phones use proprietary operating systems, inextricably linked to the vendor’s own handsets. For a handset maker that wants a state-of-the-art smart-phone operating system with a vibrant community of third-party applications, tens of thousands of downloads, and the world’s best handheld map application, there is really no choice but to run Android. And if you want the world’s fastest smart phone today, the Nexus one is an obvious choice. It’s certainly mine.

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