Review: Google Nexus One

You can now go to Google’s website and pay Google directly for a phone that bears the search giant’s corporate logo and the rather boring name of Nexus One. (Even if it is named after a robot in Blade Runner.)

This is quite a shift from the company’s original stance as a neutral distributor of the Android mobile operating system, used by multiple carriers on multiple handsets. Now Google is competing with the very manufacturers that use its OS.

Building the Nexus One (or, to be precise, contracting HTC to build it) may well tick off Google’s current and future Android partners. So, what features were so important to Google that it would take that risk?

And why would you want to buy one at the seemingly steep, unsubsidized price of $530?

The answers give a few clues to the next generation of smartphones: fast, always-connected, expandable and fully dependent on the internet. And while the Nexus One isn’t completely there yet, it’s a few steps closer to the ideal Android phone.

No-BS sales model. Google wants to make it easier for people to buy phones, and once they buy them, to control their relationships with network carriers. So, you can buy an unlocked version for $530 (the phone works with “nearly all” GSM SIM cards, says Google) or pay $180 for a two-year contract with T-Mobile. Google says later on, there will be other carriers and other plans.

I used my Nexus with T-Mobile, which had good 3G coverage in New York City and zero network coverage of any sort in my place in western Massachusetts. I was able to make phone calls, though, by swapping my SIM card with the one from my AT&T iPhone. (As Google acknowledges, this combination gives you voice calling, but not access to AT&T’s 3G network. Bummer.)

At $80 a month, the T-Mobile plan is $20 a month cheaper than what Verizon charges on the Droid Android phone. Hopefully, some of the future plans will be dirt-cheap, allowing people to amortize the initial cost of the unlocked phone.

Cool Design. Physically, the Nexus One is as pleasing as any phone in the market. The HTC-manufactured device (built to Google’s specs) is like an iPhone with curvy corners, cast in a classy burnished gray with a black frame around a brilliant 3.7-inch 800 x 400-pixel OLED (!) screen. There are four hard-get-gadget touch controls on the bottom of that frame, including one that instantly brings up a search box. (Well, it is a Google phone.)

The home screen features “live wallpaper,” a dynamic and fun collection of animated backgrounds. It calls into question, though, whether this frill has a price. At one point, I peeked at the phone’s power meter and found that screen was eating up half the energy. This is a real problem: When I failed to recharge the Nexus during the night, it would inevitably be dead the next morning. The battery’s official ratings are impressive — seven hours 3G talk time, seven hours video. Indeed, talking or using media didn’t run things down too quickly, but the promised and paltry five hours of 3G internet use — along with the drain from the screen — is an issue for a device that urges you to use the internet all the time.

You can replace the removable battery on the fly, but Google clearly intends for customers to make use of the power management widget that dims the screen.

The Nexus One offers one of the more coherent implementations of the Android interface, which can sometimes be a bit rough around the edges. It’s easy to switch between the five screens that hold app icons and widgets, and you can get a thumbnail view of any of the screens by touching a dot on the home screen. Widgets are hit and miss: The Facebook widget just highlights single updates. But the constantly updating news and weather widget was always worth a look, as evidenced by the update onscreen as I write this: “Sheen’s mother-in-law has misgivings.”

One of the signature design features of the Nexus is a tiny tricolor trackball that glows when you have messages or notices. This isn’t terribly helpful for navigation because it’s just as easy to scroll with your finger. As for the glow: Uh, don’t we typically stash phones in our pockets?

Like other Android phones, the Nexus One does not support multitouch gestures on the screen, so iPhone immigrants will be frustrated by the lack of two-finger maneuvers, especially when trying to resize web pages.

Speed. One of Google’s core values is that when things run things faster people use them more and like them more. True to its principles, Google has loaded the Nexus One with a speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. I haven’t done the metrics, but the thermometer meters that indicate how fast something loads on the Nexus definitely zip by faster than on other phones. The speed provides a halo effect that really heightens the pleasures of using the Nexus One.

Heightened senses. Probably the best feature in the Nexus One is the ubiquitous voice recognition. Just about every time a text field appears — in search, in maps and even in e-mail — you can press a microphone key on the virtual keyboard and just say what you want to put in the field. If you take it easy and enunciate your words as if speaking to a fairly dense child, a reasonably accurate transcription of your words will appear on the screen. There are the usual cosmic misunderstandings, but expanding voice recognition is a welcome step toward our eventual liberation from Lilliputian physical keyboards and unforgiving soft keyboards.

This brings up a puzzler: The Nexus One, like other recent Android phones, has a solid navigation system that makes use of Google Maps and GPS, and it doesn’t cost anything. But the voice that gives you turn-by-turn instructions is the same grating metallic female voice heard on earlier versions. It’s weird that a device built around speech recognition should lag so much in speech synthesis.

The 5-megapixel camera, with zoom and flash and editing features, takes good pictures and clear video, and can location-stamp them with GPS.

Super syncing with Google products. The Nexus One makes use of your Google account the way a peasant farmer utilizes a pig carcass — it uses almost every part. (Except Google Docs, which you can view from the browser, but without editing.)

All you have to do is sign in to enable your e-mail, calendar, contacts, Picasa galleries (with a neat new interface for accessing photos) and Google Voice, the free application that organizes your phone activities and transcribes your voicemail. Google Voice doesn’t work with the iPhone, and I had trouble making outgoing calls with it on the Droid. But it works like a charm with the Nexus.

But when it comes to syncing with your computer, the Nexus isn’t so great. This reflects Google’s philosophy that if something ain’t in the cloud, it probably ain’t worth bothering about. Yes, you can plug a Nexus into your laptop via USB, but you have to trigger a command to mount it before the icon shows up, and then you have to drag the files over. Clearly Google would prefer that you use your Nexus One to hear music from Pandora or Last.FM and watch videos from TVor YouTube, as opposed to the antiquated practice of copying and playing actual files.

That’s also probably why Google sniffs at the idea of building in gigabytes of onboard memory on the Nexus. The phone comes with a miserable 512 MB of built-in flash memory. Google’s message for those who want to store MP3 files, photos or movies? Let them buy SD cards! (There’s a slot for that, preloaded with a 4-GB card.)

In other words, Google thinks a phone should be your connection to the cloud, which in turn hooks you to other humans, entertainment, the detritus o

f your professional life and, of course, any queries that can be answered by searching the vast Google indexes.

The Nexus One does an impressive job of fulfilling that vision and is certainly the best Android phone yet. And if you are eager to jump off the merry-go-round of endless contracts with network carriers, Nexus One may well be the smart phone (and the business model) you’ve been waiting for.

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