Google's Nexus One: Initial Hands-On Frustrations And Fun
About two weeks ago, I told you I’d soon have my hands on a Google Nexus One smartphone. And as of two days ago, that forecast was actualized. Last night, I swapped my friend’s SIM card out of her T-Mobile G1 and into the Nexus One, and since then we’ve both been evaluating the old-versus-new hardware and software.
There’s a lot to like about the Nexus One, in no small part reflective of the rapid maturation and serious-contender status of the underlying software platform. The Nexus One is notably slimmer and lighter in weight than the G1, ironically combined with tangibly longer battery life. My non-techie friend readily noticed the Nexus One’s snappier UI responsiveness versus the G1, courtesy of the newer handset’s faster 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (an EDN Innovation Award finalist) and more capable Innovation Technologies graphics core. What she may not realize is that these subsystems’ comparative robustness also heavily factors into the increased UI richness of the Nexus One versus the G1. And the Nexus One’s OLED display does an excellent job of flaunting this richness, in spite of its arguably inferior color depth and other issues versus a LED-backlit LCD alternative.
We haven’t noticed any of the widely reported 3G reception issues here at my friend’s location. Then again, this review handset is running the latest-and greatest ‘2.1-update1′ version of the Android operating system (which apparently still didn’t fix some users’ issues). This firmware iteration also adds selective-application multi-touch support (Google refers to it as pinch-to-zoom), which substantially improves the usability of the browser and maps applications. The feature is reminiscent of that in my iPhone 3G, and Google supposedly resisted implementing it at Apple’s request, a rumour first reported more than a year ago. Obviously, Google decided to proceed with its plans, Apple patents be damned, therefore a likely motivation for yesterday’s lawsuit filed by Apple against key Google hardware partner HTC.
Android v2.0 and above, therefore the Nexus One, also include turn-by-turn navigation capabilities within the Google Maps application, whereas the v1.6-based G1 requires third-party augmentation to provide a comparable GPS function (here’s a third option). Recent rumor suggests that Android v2.1 upgrade will sooner-or-later be available for all current Android handsets. This’d be great, if true, among other reasons because it’d dramatically simplify developers’ currently fragmented efforts (assuming everyone upgrades, that is). Consider me skeptical, though; processing and memory limitations of initial-generation hardware seem insurmountable, and even if Google is able to shoehorn v2.1 on to a handset such as the G1, the resultant feature set disparity versus a more modern design like the Nexus One might not do much to reduce the fragmentation situation.
One hiccup we immediately encountered involves email. Her Yahoo email account, as I’ve mentioned before, is a free one that has several limitations versus a paid alternative: notably, no POP3, IMAP or SMTP access (supposedly), therefore no capability to download email to an offline client, and no ability to auto-forward incoming email to a different service such as Gmail. As such, I was frankly surprised that she’d been able to access Yahoo via the G1’s email application. But the automated account setup utility on the Nexus One failed with an invalid (and incorrect) username-or-password error message. A quick Google search uncovered that others were also experiencing the same handset migration issue, and it also revealed a solution that worked like a charm for my friend; someone discovered an alternative IMAP/SMTP server combination that accepts logins even from free Yahoo email accounts.
Other minor stumbles were associated with the migration from one early Android revision to another and are therefore not applicable to the bulk of potential Nexus One owners who are Android newbies. The alarm function has a dedicated application icon on the Android v1.6-based G1, for example, whereas on the Android v2.1-based Nexus One it’s been folded into the Clock application. And whereas the Nexus One automatically sync’d with her server-side Google Contacts database, she was subsequently surprised to discover no phone numbers associated with the names in the Nexus One’s Contacts list, only email addresses…not realizing that the Google Contacts database contents had to date been sourced only from Gmail, and that she’d need to manually append relevant entries with other contact data before it’d promptly propagate.
Wired or wireless tethering capability is missed, particularly given the Nexus One’s exhilarating UMTS/HSPA speed. It’s unfortunate that T-Mobile chose to not enable this particular phone-as-modem feature, even though it’s available on plenty of other handsets in the service provider’s arsenal, even 3G-capable ones. Jailbreaking is one means of circumventing this limitation, though it’s not relevant for the tech- and glitch-adverse masses. Third-party software can also bridge the gap, albeit in a limited-operating system fashion.
And I’ll close with a topic I’ve mentioned before; the virtual-vs-physical keyboard tradeoff. The lighter weight and more slender designs that result from a virtual keyboard are unquestioned; revisit the beginning of the second paragraph of this piece for a reminder, if necessary. Yet, both my friend and I still prefer the tactile gratification provided by a physical keyboard and are willing to accept the requisite form factor tradeoffs necessary to allow for it.
p.s…for what it’s worth, here’s a much more elaborate list of Nexus One nitpicks, courtesy of a Daring Fireball highlight. Keep in mind that these are from an iPhone developer. Admittedly, I found the slight misalignment of the hardware buttons to be a tad annoying, too. But I don’t see eye-to-eye with the author on some of the other supposed issues.