Monday, January 4, 2010 , Posted by GRT at 7:10 PM
GOOGLE sure does love shaking up the system. Remember the original Google search page? It made news because your search results popped up fast and weren't cluttered with ads. Remember when Google went public? It made news because the founders auctioned off shares to the public. Remember when Gmail came out? It made news because it offered 1,000 times the free storage space of competitors like Hotmail and Yahoo.
And now Google wants to shake up the way we buy cell phones—by letting you shop for the phone and the service independently, on a new Google Web site (Google.com/ phone).
To introduce this phone store, on Tuesday, Google took the wraps off what may be the worst-kept secret on the Internet: a brandnew cell phone, designed by Google and made by HTC, called the Nexus One. It's pretty sweet, it advances the state of the art, and it's a welcome addition to the catalog of great app phones like the iPhone, Palm Pre and Motorola Droid.
But the truth is, the Google news this week isn't quite as earthshaking as Google seems to think it is.
First, the new phone. It's almost exactly the size and shape of the iPhone. Like most HTC phones, it's bland-looking. But it's so thin and rounded, it feels terrific in your hand.
It's loaded with gleaming, attractive features. It's hard to choose which is more gratifying: the speed—instant, smooth response when you're opening programs and scrolling—or the huge, 3.7-inch touch screen, which has much finer resolution than the iPhone (480 by 800 pixels, versus 320 by 480).
There's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, like an iPhone, but also a removable one-day battery and a camera with a LED flash, autofocus and picture settings, although the photos themselves are roughly on par with the iPhone's.
The Nexus has no physical keyboard—only an on-screen keyboard, with a handy suggestion feature that I actually prefer to the iPhone's.
Radically enough, you can also dictate anywhere you can type. The transcriptions aren't what you'd call miraculous—accuracy is maybe 90 percent—but if you have simple messages, speak clearly and remember to pronounce your punctuation, this "experimental" feature is often much faster than typing.
As you'd guess, the Nexus uses Google's own Android operating system, so it's very similar to, for example, the Motorola Droid phone.
You get an impressive, free, turn-by-turn GPS navigation program, and soon you'll be able to buy a bedside dock that automatically turns the Nexus into a terrific alarm clock/weather/music station.
There's better integration all around: You can upload pictures and videos straight to YouTube, Picasa, Facebook and so on, for example, and you can tap a person's name and choose how you want to initiate contact (email, phone, text message). And you have five "home screens" to fill with the icons of your apps (up from three on the Droid). All of these changes will soon come to other Android phones as a software update.
Despite these goodies, the Nexus is missing some important features that iPhone fans take for granted. For starters, the Google app store is much smaller, featuring 18,000 fun little games; there are well over 100,000 for the iPhone.
Worse, even if you find a lot of good ones, you might not have anywhere to install them. The Nexus can accommodate memory cards up to 32 gigabytes (a 4 gigabyte card comes with it)—and yet, inexplicably, the Nexus allots only the tiniest sliver of that (190 megabytes) for downloaded apps.
There's no physical ringer on-off switch (you have to do it on the screen), and therefore no way to tell by touch if the ringer is off, as you can on the iPhone and Palm phones.
Sadly, the Nexus One also lacks a multitouch screen like the iPhone's. So zooming into photos and Web pages is awkward and hard to control. Finally, the Nexus just doesn't attain the iPhone's fit and finish. The buttons under the screen (Back, Menu, Home, Search) are balky, often ignoring your finger-presses completely.
But maybe it doesn't matter if the Nexus One isn't nirvana. Google says it's only the first Google phone of many, with one store to sell them all.
Google hopes to expand its online phone store, to really shake things up, to put some fear into the entrenched industry players. It plans to sell more phones, from Google and other companies, each with a choice of carriers. It's a noble ambition.
But at the start, at least, the results are a pair of head-scratchers. The Nexus One is an excellent app phone, fast and powerful but marred by some glitches and missing features -- a worthy competitor to the Droid, if not the iPhone.