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Hot on the heels of the Motorola Droid release, Google entered the mobile-phone market full-bore with its HTC-built Nexus One. Sporting the Android 2.1 OS, the first official Google phone has been deemed magical enough to be sold exclusively by the search giant and can only be purchased directly from the big G’s online store--with or without a calling plan.
The Nexus One has a pleasing heft (4.6 ounces with removable battery) and fits nicely in our hands. The phone is constructed with a volume rocker button on the side and a Sleep/Wake button at the top of the device, but no hard Mute button. Beneath the capacitive touchscreen, there’s a Blackberry-style trackball. We had high hopes for the trackball, but in fact its only redeeming quality was its ability to emit a warm glow announcing the occasional notification--navigating via the trackball felt cumbersome and imprecise. Nexus One also has the four buttons we’ve become accustomed to on the Android phones--Back, Menu, Home, and Search. Unfortunately they aren’t terribly touch-sensitive, and we frequently found ourselves mashing them more than once to get the phone to execute commands. They’re also quite close to the bottom of the touchscreen, and we often hit them instead of the spacebar while typing.
Still, the Nexus One’s OLED screen is 800x480 pixels of gorgeous blazing color. If you’ve become accustomed to the multitouch pinch of the iPhone in photos, Mobile Safari, and the Maps app, you’ll be happy to hear that Android on the Nexus One supports the feature. Zooming in and out is as smooth as it is on the iPhone, but the Nexus One actually seems to zoom more quickly. Better yet, the new hardware solves one of the biggest issues we had with Motorola’s Droid--there’s no noticeable lag while navigating the OS. That’s ensured in part by the 1GHz Snapdragon processor (and 512MB of onboard RAM). The Nexus One’s home screen also beats the Droid’s, filling the entire screen and allowing you to jump to any of the five home screens by tapping representative dots at the bottom of the display.
The Nexus One also shows off Google’s updated voice-recognition software. You can use this technology throughout the phone’s interface for text entry, although results can be hit or miss. While web searches were often close enough that we could find what we were looking for, tweeting or updating Facebook generally resulted in posts that were hilariously nonsensical. It’s a good start, but for now, it’s still a gimmick. But that letdown pales in comparison to a huge disappointment with notifications. If you miss notifications when you initially wake the phone, they’re still hidden in the notifications bar until you pull it down. For compulsive texters, this extra step may be a deal-breaker. And as usual, there’s still no direct syncing with Address Book or iCal on Macs--Google, of course, wants you to use Google Calendar and Gmail contacts.
Android continues to wow us, and every release gets closer to becoming a true threat to the iPhone. The Nexus One is respectable hardware that puts the Android software to good use, but not good enough that we're interested in jumping ship just yet.
But the Nexus One sports several features the iPhone lacks. Background processes, if administered correctly, are wonderful--although leaving too many running at once can sap battery life. Then again, the removable battery makes it possible to pack a spare. And the five-megapixel camera has an LED flash. But the biggest feature of all is choice. Unlike the iPhone, which is still tied to a contract with AT&T, you can buy an unlocked Nexus One outright and use it with T-Mobile, AT&T, or any other GSM carrier in the world--no two-year commitment required. However, the radio in the Nexus One is tuned to T-Mobile’s network, so if you throw an AT&T SIM in the phone, you’ll be stuck using the EDGE network, not 3G.
Sadly, the biggest problem with Google’s Android OS continues to be Android Market. The 2.1 update brought nothing to Android’s online app store, which is a shame. It’s still difficult to navigate, and once you find an app, there’s no guarantee it’s compatible with your phone because the marketplace offers apps for a wide variety of hardware. The Market could also benefit from some organization--quality apps easily get lost in the shuffle.