Android Review: Nexus One

I’ve been an iPhone user for two years, on both the original Edge-only model and the much snappier iPhone 3Gs that came out last year. This has mostly been a great experience, but there are a few things that bug the heck out of me and I’ve been looking around to see what’s on the other side of the fence.

I also need to be able to make and test software for Android phones, so when I saw there was an AT&T-compatible version available it was easy to talk myself into picking up Google’s officially-branded Nexus One, made by HTC.

After a couple of weeks of using it off and on, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I like, what I don’t like, and what I’m looking forward to in the future. Unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag; I’m still recommending the iPhone to family and friends unless I know they need/want the geek-friendly features.

Some of my initial impressions of high and low points…

The good

The Nexus One’s high-resolution screen makes for visibly sharper text, and the dark blacks and bright colors make a good first impression. The next-generation iPhone is rumored to match or beat this, but isn’t yet solid.

For the geeks: Android allows you to install applications without hoping that a single company (who may be a competitor) approves them for distribution. This is kind of nice, and means I can actually use the phone for what I bought it for without having to subvert the operating system. Within an hour of opening the box, I’d installed a third-party app that enabled basic tethering (using the phone’s 3g connection to provide internet for a computer). iPhone has this feature, but AT&T disables it and Apple doesn’t allow distribution of 3rd-party apps that re-enable it.

Third-party apps on Android can also run in the background, which is great for running, say, internet radio (Pandora!). This will eventually come to the iPhone with OS 4.0, but it’s not there yet.

I’m a bit undecided on the Android “hardware buttons”: back, menu, home, and search (versus the iPhone’s single home button). While I think they make the interface more complicated, they do free up screen space that on the iPhone tends to be used for toolbars and navigation.

The combination of better multitasking and a system-wide ‘back’ navigation key does enable something very nice, though. A lot of iPhone apps have ended up implementing their own mini-web browsers so you can read links while the app can still run, downloading your RSS feeds or updating your Facetweets. This fragments your browser history, caches, bookmarks, settings, etc… Android apps just send you over to the regular Browser application, and you can pop back by hitting ‘back’.

The bad

The two biggest drags on the Nexus One are performance and display quality. Everything feels sluggish; simple actions like scrolling through a list or web page are visibly jerky (see slo-mo comparison video) and just can’t keep up with your finger. On a device with twice the processor speed and four times the RAM of the 2007 iPhone this is unforgivably bad, and it makes everything feel slow and unresponsive.

Updating to the new Android 2.2 (“Fro-yo” release) is rumored to improve responsiveness; it’s still slow in the SDK emulator, but when it comes in through the standard update channel I’ll poke around at it on the real phone.

The otherwise-lovely screen is illegible in bright sunlight — whereas the iPhone is just fine in my experience — and suffers from bad color banding visible on photos and gradients. It’s kinda like jumping back to 1994, when we didn’t have enough video RAM to run 24-bit color beyond 640×480. Seriously, guys?

Another huge annoyance is the way storage is split up: you can upgrade general storage from the default 4GB by swapping out a micro-SD card, but the operating system and all applications have to squeeze into a paltry 512MB. I have individual games larger than that on my iPhone! The latest OS upgrade is supposed to add the ability to install apps onto the SD card, so this may become less of an issue in the future.

I’ve also found myself hitting the ‘hardware keys’ by accident while typing. They’re flush with the touchscreen, with “menu” and “home” placed smack under the on-screen spacebar. It’s pretty common for me to accidentally go back to the home screen twice while composing a comment to post on Ouch!

More generally, I’ve been pretty frustrated with some of the built-in apps. Android’s Clock app doesn’t include a timer countdown, which is the thing I use most frequently on the iPhone’s Clock — cooking, laundry, stretch breaks, time to go pick up the sushi order… Another top app for me is Notes, which holds a lot of grocery lists. For both of these I was able to find rough equivalents in the Market as third-party apps, but the search interface is pretty poor, and I’m still not sure I like the apps I’ve ended up with.

The rest

For the most part, the iPhone and Android platforms are pretty similar from a user’s perspective. I still think the iPhone provides a better overall user experience, but Android’s moving fast too, and has a leg up in some areas.

If availability of particular features or applications is a make-or-break, then pick the one that does what you need — overall app (and game) selection seems better on iPhone, but some features just aren’t there. If you’ve got a strong ideological position that centralized control over what you can do with a device you own is A Very Bad Thing, you’ll be happier with the N1 but will have to put up with some annoyances.

Or if you’re a supernerd like me, well you know you’re just going to buy both. ;)

10 thoughts on “Android Review: Nexus One”

  1. Nice review! I’m firmly in the Android camp myself, but I’m currently dithering between waiting for the N1 to show up in stores, getting a MyTouch Slide, or waiting for a mythical N1-like phone to hit T-Mobile.

    Regarding performance and “Froyo” (which still makes me laugh), Android and Me posted this benchmark today showing an almost 300% improvement on the N1 between Android 2.1 and 2.2.

  2. Unfortunately those benchmark scores don’t necessarily tell us anything about interactive performance, which is more about latency than it is about throughput.

  3. Nice review for we undecideds and ATT haterz. I’d love the coming multitasking to maybe ideally pop up skype email and ssh at times but find ATT in SF/oak inexcusably bad so keep wondering if I’ll make it.

    Glad to read such a thoughtful review!

    (and I use timer all the time too! Im always surprised when iphoners dont use or seem to know about it! 8-)

  4. I made a quickie video to compare the scrolling speed in a browser view between the iPhone 3Gs and N1; in slow motion you can see the iPhone’s running at 3-4 times faster frame rate. (if the Theora video doesn’t play right within the tinyvid player, click through to the download.)

  5. Reading your review, I think HTC Desire addressed many of your annoyances with N1 (but, I did not have N1 or iPhone to compare). Desire has hardware buttons that stand out, and are located further away from the screen. There are absolutely no dithering artifacts on the screen. I don’t notice any sluggishness of UI but see disclaimer above (and compared to my previous N85 it’s rocket fast).

    Speaking of visibility in sunlight, when you choose OLED over LCD, you should be prepared to sacrifice readability in sunlight for better contrast/”crispness” indoors, shouldn’t you? That said, Desire’s display turned to be surprisingly “usable enough” even in direct sunlight. Although of course not as good as transflective displays of handheld GPS devices or of oldish E61 that stands unsurpassed in this respect.

  6. Nice review. I toyed with the idea of buying a Nexus One, but for now I’ll wait until it gets cheaper and the important issues you brought up (e.g. scroll speed) are addressed.
    I would never buy an iPhone (I like control over my devices, thank you very much), so that’s not an alternative ;)

  7. Definitely good to know there are good Android devices without the screen problems! The banding could be reduced with display-output dithering but there’s nothing software can do to improve the visibility in sunlight. :(

    Bigger color range indoors instead of usability outdoors definitely isn’t a trade-off I’d make deliberately on a phone; it’s a device that needs to be used outdoors, and outdoors is sometimes very bright.

  8. I’m prepared to defend the n1 since I’ve used it since it was released online by Google. Banding? I’ve noticed banding in gradations in some pictures simply because a higher quality display makes such limitations in image quality itself more apparent, just like an HD display will show every little imperfection and artifact in a low bitrate video. Its the low quality image, not the display. Ill say this. I have an iPod touch 3rd Gen, which is iPhone 3gs hardware without phone or GPS, and my n1 screen quality just destroys it in comparison in every way. No comparison. I’ve also never had problems seeing my n1, reading or texting in sunlight. Granted its more dim in sunlight but every kind of screen is to some extent. All the other issues I’ve seen here have been addressed in 2.2. Yes scrolling is slow at times still, but that is to be expected now that n1 uses have extensive flash content and ads running on many pages now. I saw a half screen ad recently of a flash based ad for a new movie. Seeing video like that in a flash ad was quite impressive to see on a little phone device. My n1 has completely replaced the use of my iPod touch except for a couple of apps that are in the works right now for android.

  9. I just tested that exact image above, labeled ‘fail’, which is a default wallpaper image on the n1, and there is absolutely NONE of those banding effects on my N1. In fact it is an absolutely perfect looking image and incredibly sharp and smooth. I have 20/20 vision. It seems apparent that you have unfortunately obtained an n1 with a defective display. Warranty.

  10. Mike — it sounds like your installing the 2.2 update may have addressed the banding (either by kicking things up to better color depth, or by applying dithering on top of a 24-bit internal framebuffer). If so, I’m looking forward to it! (This is a real issue, not my imagination or a limitation of the images being viewed: As noted there, some third-party apps apparently don’t have the banding issues either, which would be consistent with it being something the 2.2 update could fix.)

    I’m afraid I have to stand by my comments on the brightness, though. If it’s good enough for you, great, but so far I’ve found it absolutely *shockingly* less readable in bright sunlight than the iPhone 3Gs. On a cloudy day you may not notice, but on bright sunny afternoons I really, really struggle to read the display in a way I’ve never experienced with either the first-gen iPhone or current 3Gs.

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