Google Nexus One: The TechCrunch Review

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Yesterday Google wasn’t in the business of selling mobile phones. Today, they are. The Nexus One smartphone has arrived and on sale at Google.com/phone. Our live notes from the event are here.

I’ve been using the Nexus One with TMobile since mid-December as my primary mobile phone. This is the best Android powered phone to date. It’s also the fastest and most elegant smartphone on the market today, solidly beating the iPhone in most ways. In this rapidly evolving market there is sure to be something better just around the corner. But if you are looking to buy a high end smartphone right now, this is the phone for you. The Nexus One is the Android signature device.

Our complete review is below.

Nexus One: The Big Picture

The phone looks more like the iPhone than any other phone on the market. There is no physical keyboard like the Android-powered Motorola Droid, and the tradeoff is a much slimmer design. The phone is 11.5 mm deep, slightly thinner than the iPhone 3GS at 12.3 mm. It is also slightly lighter than the iPhone 130 grams v. 135 grams). The package comes with the phone, a removable battery, 4 GB Micro SD storage card (expandable to 32 GB), USB charger and microphone headset.

The Nexus one has four functional touch buttons at the bottom of the screen (back, menu, home, search) and a navigation trackball pointing device. It also has physical power and volume controls. But most of your interaction with the phone will be through the gorgeous 3.7 inch 480 x 800 OLED capacitive touchscreen. This is the best mobile phone display on the market today, blowing away the iPhone’s 480 x 320 display. The screen is bright and alive, and an absolute pleasure to use.

This phone is also powered by the Snapdragon 1 GHz core processor, which is more than able to handle the Nexus One’s 3D graphics, multiple applications running in the background and heavy browser use simultaneously. Unlike previous Android phones, there is no slowdown or lag when you push the phone’s performance, and less of a need to kill applications to keep the device humming.

On the downside: all this hardware bling is an energy hog. The screen will self adjust brightness and Google is smart about turning down the processor when it’s not being used. But I’ve found battery life to be woefully brief, even by iPhone standards. Officially the phone has up to 7 hours talk time, 250 hours standby, 5 hours of 3G Internet use, 7 hours of video playback and 20 hours of audio playback. Unofficially, I was able to kill the fully charged battery with 1.5 hours of continuous gameplay (Robo Defense) on the full-brightness screen. Be prepared to keep this phone near a charger at all times. You can easily view what’s using the battery, though (the screen is 71% of my current usage), and then adjust the hardware or software usage to maximize battery life.

Overall the Android is a superior mobile device, particularly when paired with Google Voice. Google is calling this the first of the Super Phones. And they may not be exaggerating all that much.

Price And Availability

The Nexus One is available “in large quantities” starting today at Google.com/phone. An unlocked GSM version of the phone that will work in most countries is $529.

Google is also offering a subsidized version of the phone – also unlocked – through T-Mobile for $179. The service plan offered by Google is 500 minutes/unlimited SMS/unlimited data for $80/month. T-Mobile’s termination fee is $200, and some users might be tempted to buy the T-Mobile version and terminate immediately, paying just $379 for the unlocked phone. Google says that users terminating too soon will be charged the full price of the phone, however. But even the T-Mobile version of the phone can be used overseas on trips by slipping in a different SIM.

Google will ship the unlocked version of the phone to customers in the U.S., U.K., Hong Kong and Singapore. In the Spring they say they’ll add a CDMA version of the phone through Verizon, and set up a European store with a carrier plan via Vodafone.

U.S. users can also use the unlocked phone with AT&T, although the phone’s radio isn’t able to use AT&T’s 3G network.

Notable Software Features

The Nexus One, which runs the new Android 2.1, has a number of notable software features that make the phone a pleasure to use.

First, Google Voice is deeply integrated with the phone, as it is with all Android phones. That means you can assign your Google Voice number to the phone, and use it to make all outbound calls and text messages. In my opinion this is the single biggest selling point for Android phones, and why I won’t switch away from the platform any time soon.

Google’s Voice Keyboard is amazing. It goes way beyond the Voice Search application that was launched in 2009. Every text field in the device is now voice enabled. In most apps you can choose the microphone button and talk into the phone, which then converts your speech to text. I’ve found it to be around 90% accurate with no background noise (dropping to around 70% accuracy in a moving car). It’s easy to then go in and edit out errors. It’s a massive time-saving feature of the phone.

The Live Wallpaper feature is pure eye candy, and fun. You can choose a variety of wallpaper settings like Grass (blades of grass wave gently in front of a day or night sky), Magic Smoke (my favorite, draws smoke, clouds, water and plasmas in eye popping colors), Water (touch it and it ripples), and a Polar Clock (presents the date and time as clockwise arcs).

The new clock application, which runs automatically in the charger doc, shows the time, local weather and has easy access buttons to the alarm, pictures and music. Keep a charger next to your bed and toss out that alarm clock.

Google will also offer a Settings Backup service that backs up profile, application, ringtone and other settings to the cloud. Setting up a new Android phone after using the backup service is a breeze. Even without it I was able to set up the phone in about ten minutes with my Google contact, calendar, email and important applications.

Finally, Google has added a lot of nice graphical touches, including 3D scrolling of apps, and a new way of viewing photos using the CoolIris technology. Photos dip into the plane as it there is depth. Tipping the phone trips the accelerometer and the photos dip in the same way.

Notable Hardware Features

The most obvious hardware feature of the phone is the 480 x 800 OLED capacitive touch screen. Combined with the Snapdragon chipset the phone is a real workhorse. But Google has also included other more-than-nice touches.

The noise cancellation feature is particularly useful. The device has a second microphone on the back that monitors inbound noise and automatically cancels it out (anyone who’s used Bose noise cancellation headphones on a long flight will appreciate this). It does a great job of canceling out machinery and wind noise on the other end of the call. In my testing, call recipients noticed a substantial increase in call quality on this phone v. either the Droid of the iPhone. Look for other phones to quickly add this feature, it’s a must have.

On the downside, the phone’s primary microphone is located on the bottom of the device, to the left. I noticed that on calls, when I cradle the phone between my neck and shoulder without using my hand, my voice is often muted and can’t be heard. This is a design error that should be changed in future versions.

The phone’s camera really shines. It has a large footprint on the back of the device, larger than on most phones. It’s a 5 megapixel camera with a flash, but that description doesn’t do it justice. The macro and low light features are top notch for a mobile phone. I took the picture to the right in low light with no flash in our conference room at TechCrunch HQ.

The phone has two available docks. Both charge the device via frictionless touch points. The normal charger turns on the phone’s clock feature, as described above. The car charger turns on Google Navigation, a killer Android application that turns the phone into a connected navigation device.

Google, Purveyor Of The Nexus One Smartphone

The Nexus One is an important milestone in the smartphone market. This is a software company, frustrated with making compromises with hardware manufacturers, that has taken the product bull by the horns. HTC makes the phone, but the branding is mostly Google and it’s clear that they directed every aspect of the development of this phone. It’s Google’s vision of the perfect Android device, from the huge and beautiful screen and massively fast Snapdragon processor to the software elegance of Google Navigation, Live Wallpaper and the Voice Keyboard. When combined with Google Voice there is no phone on the market today that can touch the Nexus One.

Unlike previous Android phones, and I’ve used most of them, the Nexus One has no obvious flaws or compromises. The phone is the state of the art in mobile, and I will use it happily. Until, as I always say, something better comes along.

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