Last week, I attended the Google Android “Nexus One” event. As you may have heard, they gave many of us in the audience the device to try out. I decided that before I wrote anything about it (other than saying on television that it’s a “nice little device“), I would give it a real shot. So here I am, a week later, with my thoughts on it. To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a full review or overview, for that, see our review here. Instead, I’m going to come at this from the perspective of a pretty hardcore iPhone user of the past two-plus years.
And to start off, I’ll come right out and say what everyone will want to know: Do I think the Nexus One is better than the iPhone? No. There are certain things it does better (I’ll get to that), but overall, if I had to choose one, I would still choose the iPhone — specifically, the iPhone 3GS. Is that my bias talking as someone who has used the device on a daily basis for over two years? Maybe a bit, but overall I do believe that while the Android phones are rapidly catching up to the iPhone, they are still not quite up to that device’s quality.
Lest you think I’m a complete newbie to the Android platform, I’ve actually had and used a number of Android devices over the past year or so. I still have a G1 unit, as well as the myTouch3G. I’ve also used the Droid quite a bit since its release. Each of those devices is solid in their own regard when compared to 99% of the phones on the market. And the Nexus One is the best yet. But none are the iPhone.
I’m going to focus on the three biggest things that stand out in my mind about the Nexus One as compared to the iPhone (both good and bad).
Praise of the iPhone aside, there is no question what the Nexus One does better: Google apps. Every single Google app is better on the Nexus One (and all Android phones, for that matter, but on the Nexus One it’s more obvious because this device is the fastest). Gmail, Maps, and Google Voice in particular absolutely blow away their counterparts on the iPhone (of which only Maps is a native application, and Google Voice, famously, isn’t available).
It’s hard to describe just how great Google Voice is on Android. When I set it up, I had to confirm maybe three or four things, and I was all ready to go. In two minutes, my Google Voice number completely took over my Nexus One. This included getting not only all Google Voice incoming calls and voicemails, but doing outbound calls with my Google Voice number as well. This is absolutely the future of number portability, and that no doubt has the carriers — and likely even Apple – spooked.
Gmail is also ridiculously better on Android because it includes things like native support for starring messages, labels, and threading. Again, this is true of all Android phones, but the Nexus One showcases how much better Gmail is on Android than on the iPhone because it’s the fastest. If there is one thing that makes me want to use Android every day, it’s Gmail. And that won’t change unless Google ever (or ever is allowed to) build a native Gmail app for the iPhone.
Maps offers a number of features on the Nexus One that aren’t on the iPhone native version. This includes Latitude (which can run in the background), and Navigation. Other Google apps, like Google Sky Map and Google Goggles are also pretty cool, and useful to varying degrees, and again, only available for Android.
Third Party Apps
Maybe the hardest thing (or Apple’s greatest strength, depending how you’re looking at it) in using an Android device after being accustomed to the iPhone is the app difference. Simply put, iPhone apps, as a whole, are much, much better than Android apps. Maybe that’s because Android apps aren’t quite as mature yet. But I don’t know. The Android Market has been around for over a year now, and the fact that there still isn’t a Twitter app that’s as good as the top five iPhone Twitter apps is a bit odd to me. Seesmic for Android is the closest yet, but it still gets blown away by the polish of apps like Tweetie on the iPhone.
Likewise, none of the games are nearly as good on Android as they are on the iPhone. It’s not even close. On the iPhone, some of the 3D games rival the console versions, or at the very least, the handheld console versions. On Android, we might as well be playing Pong.
All that said, there are a number of apps that are useful on the Nexus One in ways they couldn’t be on the iPhone. That includes the instant messaging apps (again, Google’s own seems to be the best), and Pandora. Pandora on the iPhone is great, but you have to have it open at all times. On the Nexus One, it’s brilliant because it can play music in the background while you do other things. Obviously, this issue (background apps) has been talked about in the past ad-naseum, so I won’t dwell on it here.
Again, it’s worth repeating that the best Android apps are all Google-made. That’s not true on the iPhone where most of the best apps aren’t Apple-made. To me, that speaks to the power of Apple’s platform. Android’s platform will continue to mature no doubt, but so will the iPhone’s. It has to be worrisome for Google that the divide is still this wide.
The Nexus One hardware is in some ways superior to the iPhone. For example, I’ve never been a fan of the iPhone’s plastic backing, which it received after the first generation (which had an aluminum back). The Nexus One has more of a solid rubber and aluminum back that feels nicer. HTC, which makes the device, has also finally managed to get a removable battery backing that isn’t awful or ugly.
The front of the Nexus One leaves something to be desired in my opinion. It’s the closest yet to the iPhone in terms of sleekness, but whereas the iPhone is almost one smooth surface except for the one button indent, the Nexus One has a face that is broken up by its frame and the silly trackball that Google keeps insisting manufacturers include. I have never once used the trackball, nor do I intend to. It’s a waste of space, and makes the device look and feel cheaper.
While the Nexus One does have a nicer screen than the iPhone, it has a downside too. The OLED screen is much harder to see in daylight when compared to the iPhone’s screen. This is the same problem the new Zune HD has, and it really is a problem. In the dark, these screens look beautiful, better than the iPhone’s — but it’s not always dark. And when outside during the day, at times, it’s almost unusable.
Instead of the one button that the iPhone employs, the Nexus One sticks with the standard 4-button (not including the scroll ball) Android approach. These buttons take a little getting used to, but can be powerful if used correctly. That said, I’m still not sure Android’s hardware wouldn’t be better served if these were software-based. There are a number of ways to get to Search via these buttons, for example. And while I get that this is Google’s thing, I find this repetitive, and in some cases confusing. One method to do that would be fine.
The Nexus One’s 5 megapixel camera does seem to take significantly nicer pictures than the iPhone’s 3 megapixel variety. But the biggest advantage of the camera may be its LED flash, which is pretty powerful (though not fantastic for taking pictures in dark rooms still). I’d be shocked if the next version of the iPhone didn’t gain both of these upgrades.
The single biggest problem I have with the Nexus One hardware is likely a combination of hardware and software. I mis-click on things way too often on the Nexus One. While the device’s touchscreen is obviously a huge improvement over the original G1′s, it’s still nowhere near as accurate as the iPhone’s. I’m not the only one who has noticed this. I often find myself mis-hitting icons, mis-typing letters, and the touchscreen mixed with the Nexus One web browser is simply not very good at all (try the menu system on espn.com to see what I mean). Apple is great at nailing the little things, and I’m not really sure why the touchscreen mechanics are so much better on the iPhone. But they are.
Speaking of the touchscreen, whereas before it was just odd that Google wouldn’t include multi-touch support in its apps, now it’s just annoying. The little “+/-” magnifying glass that shows up when you should just be able to pinch to zoom is beyond lame. And it may be even worse when viewing/manipulating pictures on the Nexus One. I’m not sure if Google still has their gentlemen’s agreement with Apple not to use the multi-touch gestures, but Palm seems to be using them just fine.
One Device To Rule Them All
If you were to ask me to describe in general terms why I like the iPhone more than the Nexus One, it would be hard to do. On paper, Nexus One seems to have a lot going for it, including a nicer screen, a better camera, a faster processor, etc. But using them side by side, when it comes to regular, everyday use, the iPhone (again, the iPhone 3GS) still wins.
Perhaps the single biggest reason that I like Apple products, and their software, in particular, is the attention to detail the company puts in. In my mind, that’s exactly what still separates the iPhone from all the Android phones. It’s the little things. The things that are almost too small for you to even notice, but which make the experience subtly better.
Android is like a very nice painting done entirely with broad strokes. The iPhone is more like a masterpiece in which every little detail has been meticulously defined. Just as people have different tastes in art, people will have different tastes when it comes to the iPhone versus the Nexus One. But that doesn’t change the fact that some pieces of artwork are considered to be masterpieces, while some are considered to be merely very good.
If you’re an iPhone user who is sick of AT&T or just looking for a new device, I’m not sure that the Nexus One will be enough to satisfy you. Both Jason and Mike of TechCrunch have successfully switched from the iPhone to the Android platform, but both will admit that there were speed bumps (well, Jason will anyway — while Mike will privately, then deny saying such things).
Jason made some compelling arguments a few days ago about that switch, and how it takes time to get used to Android. I definitely agree with that. And think I could get pretty comfortable with Android. But the point is, I don’t really want to. In my mind, the iPhone is still the better device. Not better in every regard, but better overall. The Nexus One comes close, closer than any Android phone yet, but it cannot snatch the iPhone’s cigar.
Further, the problem with switching to something like the Nexus One now is that even if you think it’s better than an iPhone, a new iPhone is inevitably coming in another 6 months or so that will be much better than the Nexus One. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see it on Verizon this year, which would negate at least half of the complaints about the device.
And, of course, there will be better Android phones coming down the pipeline as well. So if I were an iPhone user thinking about switching (which again, I’m not), I’d probably wait to see what Apple announces in June and then see what Android phone is available by then if the next iPhone doesn’t blow you away.
It’s impressive how far these Android devices have come in a year. But the software/hardware combination still lacks the refinement of the iPhone. Maybe by this time next year, with Google now taking a more hands-on approach, they’ll have a device that can match Apple’s. But they’ll still likely lack the apps. And the iPhone will still likely lack the best Google apps. But it’s good to have competition. And it’s good to have two companies that can play off each other and push innovation — while at the same time, changing the industry. It’s becoming very clear that Google and Apple will be those two.