Google this week is taking two dramatic steps to try to catapult devices using its Android mobile operating system into stronger competition with Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry in the battle for supremacy in the super-smartphone category.
First, the search giant is bringing out a beautiful, sleek new Android phone, the Nexus One, built to its specifications. Second, it has decided to offer the new phone—and future models—to consumers directly, unlocked, via the Web, and then invite multiple carriers to compete to sell service plans and subsidized versions of the hardware.
One carrier is ready to support the Nexus One on day one: the U.S. arm of T-Mobile, a longstanding Google (GOOG) partner. The new Google Phone, built by HTC of Taiwan, will cost $529 unlocked direct from Google, at google.com/phone. It will cost $179 from T-Mobile online with a two-year contract that will set you back $79.99 a month.
Verizon Wireless (VZ) in the U.S. and Vodafone (VOD) in Europe will sell the Nexus One eventually at subsidized prices that haven’t yet been announced. All of this will take place on a Google-hosted Web site, a much easier way to buy a phone and service than is typical today, and one that promises to further weaken the power of the carriers.
The company also plans to sell the costlier, unsubsidized version to consumers in the U.K., Hong Kong and Singapore immediately. Like Americans who buy this unlocked version, these customers will have to purchase carrier service separately, something they should be able to obtain right away by just buying and inserting a SIM card from a carrier with compatible technology. (This initial unlocked phone won’t work with Verizon or Sprint in the U.S., nor on AT&T’s 3G network, only the latter’s slower network.)
The Nexus One has a larger screen than Apple’s phone, and is a bit thinner, narrower and lighter—if a tad longer. And it boasts a better camera and longer talk time between battery charges.
I’ve been testing the Nexus One for a couple of weeks and I like it a lot. It’s the best Android phone so far, in my view, and the first I could consider carrying as my everyday hand-held computer. It is a svelte gray device with a 3.7-inch, high-resolution screen; a thin strip of buttons underneath for home, back, menu and search; and a trackball.
The Nexus One finally has the right combination of hardware and software to give Android a champion that might attract more people away from their iconic iPhones and BlackBerrys. It has a larger screen than Apple’s phone, and is a bit thinner, narrower and lighter—if a tad longer. And it boasts a better camera and longer talk time between battery charges.
Also, because it will be available on the large, well-regarded Verizon 3G network, the Nexus One could tempt American iPhone users, tired of problems with AT&T (T), to switch.
The iPhone still retains some strong advantages. It boasts well over 100,000 third-party apps—around 125,000 by some unofficial estimates—versus around 18,000 for the Android platform. And it has vastly more memory for storing apps, so you can keep many more of them on your phone at any one time. On the Nexus One, only 190 megabytes of its total 4.5 gigabytes of memory is allowed for storing apps. On the $199 iPhone, nearly all of the 16 gigabytes of memory can be used for apps.
In fact, the $199 iPhone 3GS has roughly four times as much user-accessible memory out of the box, though the memory on the Nexus One can be expanded via memory cards. Apple also has a more-fluid user interface, with multitouch gestures for handling photos and Web pages.
As for the BlackBerry, its user interface looks older and clumsier with each passing day, but it has a beautiful physical keyboard many users love, while the Nexus One has a virtual, onscreen keyboard.
The Nexus One is packed with its own tricks. Its version of Android is essentially the same improved edition as the one that appeared on the Motorola (MOT) Droid back in November. But it has a few new features, including an experimental dictation capability. You just press a microphone icon on the keyboard and start talking, and the words appear. In my tests, this worked only adequately at best, and very poorly at worst, but Google insists it will learn and improve.
The phone also has handsome new visual features, including “live wallpaper,” with waving grass or pulsing colored lines; and a new zooming effect when you want to view icons that aren’t on your main screens. In addition, you can now view miniatures of your five main screens to help you navigate to the one you want.
The Nexus One also has all the key software features introduced in the Droid, including free turn-by-turn voice-prompted navigation.
In my tests, overall, the Nexus One worked very well. The latency I had seen in earlier Android phones is gone, due to a slicker version of the operating system and faster chips. The phone feels good in the hand and the screen is magnificent, with much greater resolution than the iPhone’s.
I like very much the way social-networking information, including status messages, is integrated into the contacts app. One tap on a person’s picture in Contacts lets you quickly choose whether to call, email or message her, or map her address—all without opening the contact card itself.
I also liked the pictures and videos I was able to take with the five-megapixel camera and flash, which I preferred to my iPhone’s camera. You can even view a photo slideshow or listen to music when the phone is in the optional desktop dock.
But there are some downsides to the Nexus One. Like all Android phones, it relies too much, in my view, on menus that create extra steps, including some menus that have a built-in “more” button to display a secondary menu of choices.
I also found the four buttons etched into the phone’s bottom panel sticky and hard to press. In addition, although the Nexus One claims seven hours of talk time versus five hours for the iPhone, most of its battery-life claims for other functions are weaker than Apple’s.
For instance, Google claims just 6.5 hours of Wi-Fi Web use per charge, versus nine for the iPhone, and 20 for music playback versus 30. Google claims this is because, unlike Apple, it allows the simultaneous use of third-party apps, which can drain the battery faster.
In addition, the Nexus One, and other Android devices, still pale beside the iPhone for playing music, video and games. The apps available for these functions aren’t nearly as sophisticated as on the Apple devices.
Finally, the iPhone is still a better apps platform. Not only are there more apps, but, in my experience, iPhone apps are generally more polished and come in more varieties.
But, with its fresh phone and bold business model, Google is taking Android to a new level, and that should ramp up the competition in the super-smartphone space.
Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at email@example.com.
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