In 2010, as in 2007, the entire technology industry gathered at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, only to have the hot tech news of the week usurped by a smartphone announcement back in the Bay Area. In 2007, it was the announcement of the iPhone at Macworld Expo. This year, Google tried to replicate the experience by calling a media-only event of its own to announce the Nexus One, the first device running the search-engine giant’s Android operating system to be sold directly by Google.
Unlike the iPhone announcement, which was revolutionary, the Nexus One announcement marked the evolution of Android. A few months before, Motorola’s Droid was announced as the first Android phone that could really compete with the iPhone. I tried a Droid and, quite frankly, came away disappointed. But the Nexus One, with its fast processor and streamlined design, looked like it was worth a test drive.
With a new Nexus One in hand, provided on loan from Google, I spent several days using the Nexus One as my only smartphone, and another week with it in one pocket and my iPhone 3GS in another.
But my purpose here is not to review the Nexus One—you can read Ginny Mies’s full review () for those details. I’m here to look at the Nexus One and consider where it’s better than the iPhone, where there are notable differences, and how Apple’s platform might progress when we see the next generation of iPhone hardware and software.
How does the Nexus One rate as a smart phone? It’s a really good device. It outdoes the iPhone in a few areas, and its weaknesses show that Apple’s device still has some serious advantages.
A Mac user with Android
When I first mentioned I was trying out a Nexus One, I heard from a collection of Mac users who seemed stunned by the idea that any Mac user would use a non-Apple smartphone. Yes, it’s true that many smartphone operating systems—I’m thinking Windows Mobile and BlackBerry—have been indifferent or even hostile to Mac users in the past.
Android seems different. In fact, Android doesn’t seem to have been designed with the existence of personal computers in mind. You can use an Android phone even if you never, ever connect it to a computer.
That said, I found using the Nexus One with my Mac to be easy. It helped that I already sync my iCal calendars with Google Calendar using BusyMac’s $25 BusySync () utility. Because of that, all I had to do was point the Nexus One at those calendars, and the phone was in sync with the data my Mac. The Nexus one ships with a built-in Gmail client, but it’s also got a separate app that’s a full-fledged IMAP client, which I connected with my work and personal e-mail accounts. That was easy.
It’s easy to access the Nexus One’s onboard microSD memory card, either by connecting the phone to your Mac and mounting it directly or (slightly less conveniently) by removing it entirely and using a card reader to do the job. Once the card is mounted, you can just drag music, videos, and photos onto it and they’ll be recognized by the built-in Music and Gallery (photo/video player) apps. But that’s not a very friendly solution. Better is to use Salling Software’s Salling Media Sync utility ($22, free-but-slow-to-sync version also available), which automatically syncs your iTunes playlists and iPhoto albums when you mount the memory card.
Is the Nexus One as integrated into the Mac experience as the iPhone? Absolutely not. But if you integrate your Mac with Google’s data services—most specifically Google Calendar—the Nexus One will fit in nicely. It’s not as seamless as the Apple experience, to be sure, but it’s not hostile, either.
Things I wish the iPhone had
When the iPhone first hit the scene, it was far ahead of any other device in almost every way. (There were exceptions, of course, like support for MMS messaging and voice dialing.) The entire smartphone market has transformed over the past two years in reaction to the iPhone — and in some areas that game of catch-up has turned into leapfrog. There’s no doubt that the Nexus One has some features that I find superior to what’s available on the iPhone.
The screen resolution. The Nexus One’s screen is slightly larger than the iPhone’s (3.7 inches diagonal versus 3.5). But while the iPhone’s screen is 320 pixels wide by 480 pixels high, the Nexus One’s is 480 wide by 800 high. That’s 2.5 times more pixels than the iPhone offers, and it shows, most especially in the playback of videos and photos and in the Nexus One’s crisp text. (Nexus One’s screen is based on OLED technology, which generates vibrant colors and looks great in most environments, but really suffers in bright sunlight.)
A more flexible home screen. The iPhone’s home screen was originally designed for a device with a fixed number of apps, all of which Apple could display on a single screen. With the advent of the App Store, Apple expanded the metaphor—by adding more pages with more app icons. Page after page of icons. Every app you download will, in fact, show up on one of those pages until you fill them all up.
The Nexus One will let you fill your home screen with icons, if you like. But you can choose which apps show up on the home screens; to bring up a scrollable list of every app on your phone, you tap the app button at the bottom center of the screen. It’s a nice way to give you quick access to your favorites, while also keeping every app within reach.
The iPhone’s home screen will only make space for iPhone apps and saved Safari shortcuts. In contrast, the Nexus One lets you save shortcuts to important contacts, phone numbers, map directions, and even items from third-party apps (such as individual e-books or FourSquare check-in locations). Oh, and you can also add widgets…
Widgets. Widgets are small mini-programs that run right on your home screen. For example, one built-in widget displays your current weather and scrolls through news headlines. Another is a Google search box. Yet another lets you quickly turn off some basic phone settings, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. I quickly added a calendar widget to my home screen, which shows me my next appointment—and doubles as a shortcut I can tap to take me to the full Calendar app.
None of the Widgets are mandatory. You can add or remove them at will. But I like them. That same information is there behind every app on my iPhone; I just have to tap individual apps to bring it forward. Now when I look at my iPhone, I see a wall of apps waiting for me to tap them. On the Nexus One, I see what I need to do next and what music I’m currently listening to (with a control to quickly pause or move to the next track). It’s a good idea.
Notifications. The iPhone doesn’t do notifications very well. If it wants to get your attention, it throws up a window with a message that interrupts what you’re doing, and that’s it. It also doesn’t deal with multiple notifications well — they’re just a series of those same single notifications. If you dismiss one accidentally, you can’t find it again. It’s a system designed for a simpler time, and with thousands of apps and a spiffy push-notification service any developer can use, that time is gone.
Android on the Nexus One, on the other hand, has a new notification trick. It can pulse the light on its trackball to let you know something’s going on. And to see your notifications, you can pull down the menubar at the top of the screen. It’s easy to see all the notifications at a glance, and you can tap on one to go to the relevant app.
I can’t say I think Android handles notifications perfectly. This is an instance where Android may do something that the iPhone can’t do, but doesn’t pull it off in a way that really satisfies me. Or to put it another way, Android does more to address the problem, but doesn’t completely solve it. There’s a better answer here, and neither Android nor iPhone has found it.
Multitasking. Every time I talk to someone who is a fan of the Android platform, the first advantage over the iPhone they say to me is that Android can run more than one app at a time, while the iPhone can’t. It would be more accurate to say that the iPhone won’t run any third-party apps in the background: since day one, the iPhone’s iPod app has been able to run in the background (otherwise you couldn’t play music while doing anything else), and of course telephone and notification services are always running, as is e-mail if you’ve got it set to auto-check. In iPhone OS 3.0, Apple added the ability for Safari to run in the background, meaning you can now stream audio from Internet radio stations in the background while running other apps. (It’s ugly, but it really does work.)
In any event, these tiny bits of multitasking in the iPhone don’t address the larger issue, which is that some apps really need to be able to run in the background in order to reach their fullest potential. The poster-boy app for this cause is Pandora, the streaming-music service. Pandora’s not a faceless MP3 stream that you can play in Safari; it’s interactive, allowing you to customize your stations and control playback. Still, you should be able to start playing it, then switch to another app, then switch back to Pandora when you want to interact with the service. On the iPhone, that’s currently impossible: if you want to listen to Pandora, you can’t do anything else with your phone.
In any event, Android lets apps run in the background. If you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice most of the time. Using the Nexus One, I never ran into a situation where I needed to find and quit apps in order to speed things up.
Running apps in the background can cause your battery to drain faster; that’s the top reason that Apple says it has avoided adding background capability for third-party apps. I get that, but if I want to drain my battery listening to Pandora, or receiving notifications every time anyone mentions me on Twitter, I’d like to be able to make that decision.
I don’t think that Apple needs to implement the same philosophy of multitasking as Android. There should probably just be a special class of apps that are allowed to run background tasks, and users would be able to choose whether they want them to run them that way. Perhaps Apple could require those apps to undergo an extended approval process. But there needs to be something. It’s an absolute joy to run Pandora in the background on the Nexus One, and it’s a clear Android advantage over the iPhone.
Combined e-mail inbox. It’s a feature that’s been on Macworld’s wish list since the original iPhone came out, and yet Apple has never addressed it. A lot of us—most notably anyone who has work mail come to one e-mail account and personal mail come to another—have more than one e-mail account! And yet, to check your mail on your iPhone, you need to perform a ritual dance on your iPhone. Tap into an account, tap on Inbox, check your mail, then tap the back button twice, then tap on your other account, tap on Inbox again, and check that mail. Apple’s Mac Mail app provides a unified Inbox; why not the iPhone?
Thanks to Android, the Nexus One does provide such a feature. The main screen of the built-in Mail program lists all your e-mail accounts and, above it, a combined inbox (along with options to view starred mail and any drafts you might have). It’s not perfect—some indication of which mail came from which account might be a nice feature—but it’s much more convenient than doing the iPhone tap dance.
(With that praise out of the way, let me take a moment to criticize something about the Nexus One’s e-mail system. Google ships not one, but two separate e-mail programs on the phone. One, Gmail, only works with Google’s own mail system, and it supports all the features of that service, including the ability to view conversations in a chain just as you can on the Web version of Gmail. Then there’s Mail, which supports your standard array of POP, IMAP, and Exchange e-mail accounts. It’s kind of a mess. Why not just have one app that displays snazzy Gmail features when they’re available, and not when they’re not?)
Free access to the music library. The music on the iPhone is largely locked in, loaded via iTunes sync. With the release of the iTunes app for the iPhone, you can now buy and download media on the phone and then sync it back to iTunes. But third-party apps don’t get to modify the library in any way. In contrast, Android gives access to its media library to all comers. (Though to be fair, calling it a “library” gives a bit more credit than it deserves—The library is just a collection of files on an SD card that the Music app re-scans every time the card is updated.)
Still, my mind boggled when I launched an Android app for controlling my Logitech Squeezebox music player at home, only to discover that it offered me the option of downloading anything on my music server directly to my phone. I could sit on my couch, see an album I wanted to have on my phone, and with two taps and a couple of minutes it was loaded up. Of course, in such a scenario, Amazon could offer an Amazon MP3 Store app for the iPhone, too, giving iTunes a bit more competition.
I also discovered that pressing and holding on any song in the collection of music on the Nexus One brought up an option to set that song as my ringtone. If you’d like to know how to make a custom music ringtone for your iPhone from a track you already own, you’ve got a bit of a Google search ahead of you.
Is it better, or just different?
There’s a whole other category of Nexus One features that are generally portrayed as advantages over the iPhone, but I’m much more ambivalent about. Some of them are advantages that I view more as solutions in search of a problem; others are actually disadvantages.
Removable battery. Unlike the iPhone, the Nexus One comes with a battery that you can remove. If you’re someone who uses your phone away from an electrical plug for hours at a time, this can be a big deal, because you can just pack a second battery and swap it in when it’s needed. But I’ve been using cell phones for more than a decade, and I’ve never, ever owned a second battery for any of them. For a short period of time I had a second battery for my laptop, but I never used it, so I decided to give up on the practice as wasteful.
Does my iPhone run out of battery sometimes? Sure, on those rare occasions that I’m using it heavily without being able to stop and recharge. That’s why I bought a Kensington battery that will charge pretty much any device that uses a USB connection to get juice, and I will occasionally use it with my iPhone, my daughter’s iPod, or any other device that needs a boost. And iPhone users can get more or less the same effect by buying an external pack like the svelte $80 Mophie Juice Pack Air—but it’ll make the iPhone slightly bigger, and it costs more than a simple spare battery.
When it comes to batteries, here’s what I really took away from the Nexus One: You can make a slim, sleek smartphone with a removable battery and a battery door that doesn’t slip and slide off too easily. Perhaps Apple will always prefer to seal in its batteries due to the company’s obsession with getting its devices as thin as possible. But if Apple felt it was important to make the iPhone’s battery removable, the Nexus One shows that it can be done. Me, I’m not sure it’s worth all the trouble.
A camera with a flash. The iPhone 3GS’s camera is actually pretty good. Though the Nexus One’s offers more megapixels, the iPhone generally does a better job, and offers better camera controls, to boot. Even in low-light conditions, the iPhone will often take a more appealing picture than the Nexus One. But still, the Nexus One’s camera has a flash. A flash would be good. I expected the Nexus One’s camera, with a megapixel advantage and a flash, to blow the 3GS’s camera out of the water. It didn’t happen.
Free and open app store. Most of the comments I read on Twitter from people who are promoting Android as a platform mention Apple’s heavy-handed and inconsistent behavior in approving, rejecting, and removing third-party apps on the App store. As I have criticized Apple’s approach to the App Store on many occasions, I see their point. Apple controls the app store, meaning that if a developer runs afoul of Apple’s approval process for any reason, the work they’ve put into build their app can be utterly wasted. The rules keep shifting, confusion seems to reign, dogs and cats are living together—it’s mass hysteria!
But if the App Store is a bit like a rigorously managed chain retailer—Target or Wal-Mart, let’s say, though I’m sure Apple would prefer I liken it to Nordstrom—then the Android Market is a bit like an open-air bazaar. There are featured apps, yes, but once you start searching things get really weird, really fast. I kept running into apps that demanded that my phone be “rooted,” the Android equivalent of jailbreaking. Other apps required specific phone models (Droid, for example) or specific versions of the Android software. Real geeks won’t care about any of that, maybe, but it’s a terrible experience for regular consumers.
Sometimes I wonder if Android Market is actually a victim of the App Store backlash. Quite honestly, I think Android would better serve its users if it began to follow Apple’s approach, rigorously testing apps and approving only a tiny fraction for the Market, as well as providing some very specific filters so that users of a non-rooted Nexus One don’t run into search results full of apps requiring a rooted Droid.
There would still be freedom in this world of tightened Android Market scrutiny. You can still “sideload” apps onto an Android phone from any source out there on the web, without going through the Android Market—though you need to click through some preferences and receive a warning about unscrupulous programmers before the feature is enabled. But the purpose of Android Market shouldn’t be to give Apple the finger; it should be to provide a clean, well-lit place for consumers to find apps. It’s got a long way to go to catch up to Apple, and I’m not entirely convinced Google is willing to put in the effort.
I totally understand people who say they want to use Android in order to support an open platform over Apple’s closed platform. That’s not a bad political stand, as stands go. But make no mistake, there’s a sacrifice in usability when you take that position. (This could all be resolved, by the way, if Apple would just relent and allow sideloading in the same fashion that Android does. Then there would be a free bazaar lurking outside the walls of the App Store, and users could enter it at their own peril.)
Unlock screen. Right now on the iPhone, you have two options when it comes to unlocking your phone. You can slide to unlock, or you can tap in a four-digit code to unlock the phone. I don’t have a PIN code on my phone; the thought of having to look down and tap numbers precisely onto a keypad just doesn’t appeal to me. The thoughtful option added on the Nexus One is the creation of a lock pattern, in which you trace your finger over a grid of dots. It’s not necessarily a feature I would use, but using a pattern you can build into your muscle memory seems to be more usable, faster, and more secure than using a four-digit code.
Silkscreened buttons. Just below the bottom of the Nexus One’s screen are four silkscreened-on, touch-sensitive buttons: Back, Home, Menu, and Search. And they’re kind of a disaster. They’re hard to press—I found myself touching them over and over again before the presses would take (at which point the phone helpfully vibrates).
The root of a good idea that led to these buttons is that they’re always there, they never move or change, and they don’t take up any space on your screen. That’s fine. But there are lots of contexts where they get in the way. The search button is rarely necessary, the menu button often not needed, and the home button is right below the spacebar of the phone’s virtual keyboard, making it a user-interaction disaster. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally hit the home button (irony of ironies, it’s easy to trigger when you’re not trying to touch it) when I was typing something, causing the application I was using to quit and summarily banishing the entire message I had been typing to the land of wind and ghosts.
The iPhone has a physical home button, but any app that wants to perform these other features needs to use up screen space to do so. Of course, the concept of “go back” on the iPhone is pretty ingrained: it’s almost always a button in the top left corner of the screen, with a very particular look. But different app developers can put it in different places, and that can cause some confusion. On the Nexus One, there’s always one place to tap in order to go back: the back button in the bottom left corner, below the screen. And as I used the Nexus One more and more, I found that back button to be a lifeline. Not sure where I am? Hit the back button. Switched to the wrong place? Back button.
This is why I’m ambivalent about the buttons on the Nexus One. I can see the appeal of having that back button available, though the iPhone’s approach isn’t that far off. The search button seems extraneous. The menu button allows app developers to hide user-interaction elements away where nobody will see them unless they get the bright idea to tap the menu button. (Seems like a really bad idea to me.) And the home button is in a terrible location, leading to mistaken exits when you’re just trying to type a space.
What does it all mean?
Overall, I find the Nexus One to be a credible smartphone, perhaps the best non-Apple smartphone I have ever used. In just about a year, Google has made some big strides from the first Android phone, the G1. And there are definitely several areas where Google has exposed the weaknesses of the iPhone. It was the first non-Apple smartphone I have used for an extended period of time without feeling like I wanted to chuck it into the nearest body of water. If the iPhone didn’t exist, I would have the Nexus One in my pocket right now—but then again, if the iPhone didn’t exist, the Nexus One wouldn’t either.
Just because the Nexus One surpasses the iPhone in some areas doesn’t mean that it’s a better product, however. It’s not. As impressed as I am with the pace of advancement on the Android side, and as excited as I am that there’s a legitimate competitor who is trying to out-innovate Apple in the smartphone market, there’s no way I could recommend the Nexus One to a mainstream audience.
If you’re a tech-savvy person who enjoys tweaking your system, installing add-on utilities, swapping in new hard drives, and that sort of thing, Android will fit the bill better than the iPhone. But the reason Apple sands off all those edges and reduces user options is not out of some insane degree of control-freakishness: Apple sands off the edges and reduces user options because most people don’t want edges and options on their tech products.
Even many tech-savvy people—and I’m including myself in this category—would prefer to have a phone that just works, rather than a phone they can hack within an inch of its life. That’s the path Apple has chosen to walk with the iPhone, and so far the company has seen massive benefit from that philosophy.
I would not hesitate to recommend a Nexus One to a computer-geek friend of mine, especially one who has grown tired of Apple’s App Store policies. But I’d warn them first that they’ll be trading a lot of well thought-out user experience, of usability.
Take Android’s copy-and-paste feature—it’s a total disaster. It’s inconsistent across apps, hard to figure out, and doesn’t work well. Apple took its sweet time adding that feature to the iPhone, but the company did it right, and did it consistently across the platform. It’s an object lesson in how the iPhone continues to be superior to Android when it comes to usability.
Or consider Android’s approach to media playback, which is deeply inferior to the iPhone’s. Of course, Apple has been focused on media playback for a long time, thanks to the success of the iPod, but I had assumed good media playback would be a standard feature for a phone today. Not so. The Android music player is functional but weak, with a crude Now Playing screen and a frustrating hierarchical list view that sometimes makes it hard to realize that you’ve succeeded in opening an album’s track listing. Video playback is completely separate in the Gallery app, the same place you view your photos. I consider media playback, particularly music, to be one of a smartphone’s most important features—and Android’s got some serious catching up to do in this area.
As for regular people who just want a phone that works, runs apps, and is easy to use, there’s no question. I would not inflict Android Market, with its rows of alpha-quality apps requiring rooted systems and specific hardware configurations, on any average consumer. Not my mom, not my wife, not my friend the PR guy, and not even me. Because as much as I’m capable of toying with technology, I’d rather the technology just work. The iPhone works.
Where Apple goes from here
Still, there are several area where the iPhone does need to improve in order to match or surpass the Nexus One. The Nexus One’s high-resolution screen is awfully nice. The Nexus One’s home screen and widgets shows that it’s time for a rethink of the iPhone’s home screen. Adding more support for backgrounding and multitasking is vital… but not in a way that requires you to install a third-party app to shut down processes. And I still want that combined e-mail inbox.
What Apple needs to learn from the Nexus One is that someone else out there is playing the same game Apple is—and while Android’s still behind, it’s closing fast. Even if I never buy a Nexus One, I’m happy that it exists… especially if it ensures that Apple doesn’t get complacent when it comes to iPhone hardware and software development.
[Jason Snell is Macworld’s Editorial Director.]
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