10 January 2010

Is Google's Nexus One phone any good?

08 01 2010 - The screen is fantastic, it links superbly with your online Google account - but does it have what it takes to win over iPhone obsessives?

At first glance, the Nexus One doesn't look like a revolution waiting to happen. In fact, Google's much heralded rival to the Apple iPhone looks remarkably similar to almost every high-end mobile phone released in the last two years: big black screen with small button at the bottom. But as soon as you switch on the handset and swipe your finger across the screen to unlock it, it is clear this is more than just another also-ran.

The first thing that strikes you is how incredibly bright and clear the screen is. It's a 3.7in, low-power, "organic LED" screen that doesn't need backlighting and allows deep, clear blacks and vivid colours. In terms of visibility, it's streets ahead of the competition: a gang of Nexus One users waving their prized gadgets in the air could probably send a signal into space.

The second thing that leaps at your eyeballs is the animated background. Whether you've got rippling pools of water or computerised lights zipping around the screen, the constant movement whenever you're using the phone breathes a strange sort of life into this static object.

Above all, though, you are stepping through a portal into Google's world. On first use, the phone prompts you to log into your Google account – within seconds it has synchronised your email, web searches, contacts book and any other information you happen to keep with the company. Convenient for you, but also – thanks to the constant stream of data being fed back to California – handy for Google. You're now a satellite-tracked, walking, talking, web-surfing recruit into Google's informationalised army.

Despite this nagging feeling that you've stepped into the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four, becoming one of Google's disciples boasts some impressive benefits. Browsing the web is fast, the powerful five-megapixel camera-phone with built-in flash should make the all-important business of taking good photos a doddle. The really futuristic extra, though, is "voice search". On other handsets, including the iPhone, this addition seems like a gimmick – hey, what kind of dimwit talks to their phone? – but the accuracy and speed of the Nexus One makes it feels like something from Star Trek. I asked for "toy shops in San Francisco" and it found me a (Google) map of local toy shops in a couple of seconds. Combine this with the phone's simplified "in-car mode" display and ability to speak turn-by-turn directions, and it spells goodbye to satnav.

The downsides are its appearance – sleek but bland, made from a dull, metallic-looking plastic – and the small, rubber trackball that sits under your thumb, which feels like an awkward afterthought (although it does glow in different colours to let you know when the phone is charging or connected via Bluetooth).

But a big "miss" is the feature that makes the iPhone so simple to use: multi-touch. While the Nexus One's single-finger prodding works well enough, there's none of the pinching action to zoom into maps and photographs that makes the iPhone feel so advanced, nor its realistic-feel friction. Google's on-screen keyboard feels cramped, too, and won't completely satisfy text freaks and heavy emailers.

Also missing is the depth of downloadable applications that have turned the iPhone into something much more like a mini-computer. There are plenty of programs available through the Android Market (and Google is, of course, encouraging armies of coders to feverishly build more), but there is still nowhere near the volume you can get for Apple's gizmo.

Then, of course, there's the price. Salivating British gadget fans can buy one now from Google's US shop – without a sim card or contract – for £330, and Vodafone is scrambling to make it available on a contract here for significantly less. But even then, it's unlikely to come cheap.

What ultimately justifies the price, Google argues, is the phone's sheer power. And the thing certainly is fast, with the memory and processing guts equivalent to a top-of-the-range laptop from eight or nine years ago.

But will it beat the iPhone? This debut model falls short of the smooth and totally intuitive design that Apple came up with. Google prides itself on being a company of engineers, and – despite all its bells and whistles – the Nexus One still leaves behind an aftertaste of nerdiness.


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