Google Nexus One: first look review

01-462x346Google UK held an open evening for journalists last night, with the introduction of Chrome OS being its major theme. However, it also had four samples of the Google Nexus One for us attendees to play with – thus this first look review.It soon became obvious why the Nexus One has received a muted reaction in the States, where it’s already on sale. There’s no feeling of luxury as you pick up the plasticky device in your hand, and if sat in the ranks of phones at The Carphone Warehouse it would look distinctly anonymous.

Google Nexus One: first look review

In fact, the main visual feature that sets it apart is the glowing trackball sitting below the screen. Quite why Google has opted for a trackball is beyond me: in the 20 minutes I played with the phone, and during all the time the official Google guide was showing me its features, we never once called upon the trackball. The only consolation is that if the trackball breaks – and it’s a mechanical part, after all – then the Nexus One will remain just as usable.

03-175x131It was odd, though, to be using a screen without multitouch. With big-splash releases like this – after all, Google hopes the Nexus One is going to be a “game changer” – you expect to be able to pinch and zoom to your heart’s content. But no: you must make do with dragging things around and double-clicking to activate.

[UPDATE: As one of the commenters to this blog pointed out, you can download a multitouch-compatible browser from the Marketplace, but it remains odd that multitouch isn’t present as soon as you start using the N1.]

The screen has many positives though. It’s very bright and, to give it its due, it is at least responsive to the touch. Probably the biggest plus of all is the resolution: a magnificent 800 x 480. That’s a match for HTC’s Touch HD2, even if you can’t see text quite so well on the Nexus One’s 3.7in screen as you can on the Touch HD2’s 4.3in screen.

Having had a play with it for a few minutes, though, I was feeling distinctly underwhelmed. Compared to the truly innovative Motorola Backflip on show at this year’s CES, the Google Nexus One seemed like old news. Which is what I only-a-little-rudely told the terribly nice Google employee who was trying to extol its merits.

He was unflinching in his support for the Nexus One (though I suspect that, if we’d had a chat about it in a nearby pub rather than in the official environs of Google’s London offices, he might have admitted that it wasn’t a staggering engineering achievement), but frankly the only factor it has in its favour is speed. With a 1GHz Snapdragon processor inside, it’s a nippy wee beast.

And one thing in its favour compared to all the Android phones you can buy today, other than the Motorola Milestone (aka the Motorola Droid), is that it runs Google Android 2. To be precise, version 2.1.

It’s definitely more usable than the “vanilla” version of 1.6. For example, there are now five home screens to choose from, and you can see where you are courtesy of the tiny yellow dots at the bottom of each screen: if you’re in the leftmost, four dots on the right; in the middle, there are two dots to either side. And if you press down on the dots for a moment, a thumbnail of all the home screens appears so you can quickly jump to your choice.

Oh, and I quite liked one of the dynamic backgrounds – Live Wallpapers, as Google is calling them – which had whizzing multicoloured balls pinging around it. But let’s face it: manufacturers such as HTC simply added their own flowing interfaces to Android anyway, with HTC’s TouchFLO 3D layer being so effective at covering up an underlying OS that it makes Windows Mobile 6.5 usable on the HTC Touch HD2.

My Google friend was also exceptionally keen on the voice recognition built in: wherever you can type something, you can speak into the microphone instead. It worked too. If… you… speak… like… this… Then again, you can download Voice Search for your Android 1.6 phone right now.

But there are two big omissions from the Nexus One. First, where is the clever integration of social-networking services, which Palm was wittering on about a whole year ago when it announced the (ultimately disappointing) Palm Pre?

And more tellingly, why isn’t multitouch an integral part of this release? This is supported by Android 2, and the Motorola Milestone already takes advantage, but remains a hack or download away if you want to use it on the Nexus One. Yes, you can hack in multitouch support, or find the Dolphin browser mentioned above, but the former is certainly one step beyond most users.

Which all left me wondering why on earth Google bothered to create this hardware in the first place. So, with half a bottle of low-strength lager inside me, I asked the friendly Googler exactly that: why? “It’s a platform to show what Google Android can do.” Okay: 1GHz processor, large screen, I can kind of see that. But other devices are about to be launched with similar specs, so there must be something else? Please? “And it’s sold as a SIM-free phone in the United States – that’s very unusual.”

Perhaps; I don’t know the US market well enough to make a judgement on that one. But I think it’s also telling that Google gave away 3,000 Nexus One phones to developers at a recent conference; perhaps this is the real point of the device, rather than as a phone intended for sale. It’s a platform with a fast processor and huge screen: both ingredients Google believes to be vitally important.

For everyone else, though, you’re better off with an accomplished Android phone like the HTC Hero – which will be upgradeable to Android 2. And by the time the Nexus One officially comes out in the UK (you can buy it today from the Google US site if you so wish) the Motorola Backflip, and no doubt a number of other Android 2.1-powered devices, will be on sale too. I know which I’d buy.

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