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. ;)

Vaporware on vaporware… Wikipedia local search on Android?

android-wikipedia.jpgWhile Google’s Android mobile platform is still vaporware insofar as there’s no products in peoples’ hands yet, there is an SDK already out, and under much freer terms than the iPhone’s. ;)

Like the iPhone, Android includes a very capable WebKit-based browser. I’ve updated our HawPedia-based mobile gateway to recognize both the iPhone SDK emulator and the and Android’s browser, so you get properly ‘mobile-sized’ output on them instead of it thinking they’re “desktop” browsers and wrapping the page with a simulated cell phone image….

Unlike the iPhone, Android apps will potentially run on a wide variety of devices with different capabilities… but for those able to determine their physical location, there will be a standard API for location-based services, so it should be possible to make an Android version of our yet-to-be-finalized location-based Wikipedia search as well. Neat!