The Nexus One Google Phone: An Independent 'Review' from an (ex) Windows Mobile User

Blimey. Writing an actual review on a piece of hardware - can I really do that? You know, I really don't think so. All that quoting of 5 mega pixel this, and 3.7 inch the other, 2.5ms for accessing one thing, and 3.2Mbps for something else. Not really me. If you're after that sort of review you'd better stop now ...

So what has led me here now. Well I'm a big fan of innovation, have been for many, many years. I'm not a big fan of doing things in a certain way just because that's the way they've been done before, and nor am I into the detail of life, the minutae that some people find so critical. I love big ideas, the big picture, seeing beyond the obvious into what I see as the really critical stuff that lays beyond. I like concepts ahead of numbers, feelings before statistics. And for some reason that has led me to the Nexus One.

Who Am I to Talk about Smart (or even 'Super') Phones?

So back to the nitty gritty. Although my job currently means that I need to think and write a lot about web innovation, what with being a Web Innovation Officer at the University of Exeter, in all honesty I've always been keen on new tech and powerful mobile devices. I bought my first smartphone, the Motorola MPx200, back in 2004 and still have it in a box somewhere - although heaven knows what version of the OS is running on it. I was never one to leave the manufacturers installation on there for very long. That started a long journey with Windows Mobile. I went on from there to an Orange SPV C500 (otherwise known as the HTC Typhoon), probably one of the finest smartphones so far in my opinion. Then to a T-Mobile MDA Vario (or HTC Wizard), on from there to an HTC Touch Pro and then to an HTC Touch HD. Got a bit carried away with HTC there, but they do make some pretty good phones.

The long and short of all this it is that I've known a fair few Windows phones in my day, and have been using smartphones for a long time - long enough I hope to have a modestly interesting take on the smartphone market, especially with regards to Windows Mobile.

A Quick Note about Apple

A feel I should say something here about the iPhone, it being the most obvious smartphone to compare the Nexus with. There are of course many, many reviews already that compare the two, so I don't think the world needs another. But more than that I'm loathe to get into an argument with iPhone users, or perhaps more precisely Apple users. There's something about the average Apple users unquestioning championing of their choice that can be a little overbearing - even cult like. I appreciate that  they think the iPhone is a good choice, and they're simply trying to share that with me so I can have a better life - but that is kind of the attitude of the obsessive. Reminds me too much of the religious - and no I don't have anything to do with them either. No .... I ... do ... not ... want ... to ... join ... the ... (insert choice here) ... thank you.

I like the iPhone, and I like Macs, but they're not for me - at least not now. There was a time many years ago when I'd work on them regularly, but I've always found the overall infrastructure a little restrictive in the end. Plus I could never knowingly send an email that said something like "Sent with my iPhone". To me that's like sending someone a letter that ends "P.S. Up yours, I'm better than you". Do iPhone users really not get that?

Anyhow, I'll readily admit that I tend to the other extreme on the scale, and tend to reject many mainstream choices. Just owning a Nexus already makes me slightly uncomfortable - I guess I'll just have to live with it.

Nexus One versus Windows Mobile

Anyone who's got this far may well be wondering what on earth I can say next. After all, how can Windows Mobile hope to compare against the Nexus One? Well the honest truth is it can't, at least for the average user. The Nexus One is far superior in terms of speed, fluidity, integration and customisability than any Windows Phone I've known. The Touch HD2 may have a chance, and that was going to be my choice before I bought the Nexus, but from what I've read I very much doubt that it has what it takes.

It seems the underlying Windows OS has just become far too outdated to compete with it's modern rivals, and that it will take many months to catch up. It does look like the long awaited Windows Mobile 7 is delayed yet again, possibly until 2011, so I guess the (small) silver lining is that Microsoft have recognised that they cannot afford to release anymore weak software (i.e. a sort of mobile Vista) or they'll totally kill what mobile market they have left.

But just what is it about Windows Mobile that has kept me loyal for so long? I think the answer to this question lies in what it is I actually do with my phone, rather than how it stacks up on paper. Apart from the obvious (yes I do use my phone - as a phone) what else do you do with one of these things?

Keeping Track of my Life: Appointments

Probably the thing I do more than anything. I use computer based calendars for just about everything in my life, and the ability of these things to remind me of what I'm supposed to be doing and where I'm supposed to be doing it has become kind of central. The windows mobile phones would happily sync with all my other calendars, be those work or other, and remind me ahead of time to get to A, B or C. The latest versions would even automatically go silent whilst I was there so as not to disturb the meetings, leaving me to get on with whatever it is I was supposed to be doing. Now how cool is that? Just the kind of offloading of cognition I need in my life.

So why is the the Nexus One? First off there's the general speed. Moving back and forth through appointments is so much easier, as well as flicking between different views, e.g. daily agenda, week view, month view, etc. Then there's the display - the Nexus has a neat way of showing when on a particular day I'll be busy, using a series of vertical bars scaled and positioned according to time. And then there's the integration with other apps, e.g. making a phone number into a link that you can click to phone, or an address a link that you can click to navigate to, automatic functions that the phone will do by itself. Something that Windows Mobile did try to do, but not as well as the Nexus.

To be fair it's a pretty fair comparison calendar wise between them, but the Nexus has the edge.

Getting Information on the Go: Web Browsing

I use the mobile web an awful lot. Sometimes it might be to check a product that I'm looking at in store, perhaps it'll be finding out film times, or maybe looking for a local place to eat. I've tried just about all browsers for Windows Mobile, from Fennec to Iris, IE to Skyfire, but it's clear now that none of them can compete with the Nexus One. It's odd that the screen is actually a little smaller than the Touch HD that it replaces for me, but somehow browsing seems easier - and of course faster. I always liked Opera on Windows Mobile before, it seemed the best of the mobile bunch when you compared all it's features together, but you do spend a fair bit of your time waiting for it to respond. No such waiting around with the Nexus One.

And then there's the integration again. With all the things I tend to do with my mobile there's an app somewhere to help me. Windows Marketplace is of course pretty non-existent, and although people have criticised Android for 'only' having 20,000 or so apps I can't say I've had any trouble trying to find anything. And have you ever thought just how large that number actually is? A quick bit of maths shows that if you spent just 30 seconds deciding whether or not each app was for you (considering an average work day is about 8 hours) you'd spend 21 days or so just looking at apps and doing nothing else - not even using them. Can you imagine a whole month where the only thing you do in the office is look at apps? Numbers are pretty meaningless here - as other people have already pointed out, pretty much all the apps you could ever want are available for Android, so that whole argument is pretty spurious.

But back to my point. When I say integration what I'm talking about is the way that the whole phone seems more internet aware, and instead of having just one point where you connect to the web, i.e. the browser, the browser or parts of it come up repeatedly on demand from other parts of the phone. You no longer get a feeling of switching to Opera to go online, online is just there all the time throughout the interface. As Google themselves point out, this is where web and phone meet (and hence the word Nexus, meaning "A means of connection; a link or tie").

Finding Places: Maps & Navigation

One thing I've become increasingly reliant on is using my phone as a sat nav, and not just in the car but also on foot. It may have something to do with my ad hoc attitude to finding new places, which is mostly reliant on heading in the right direction, which means I get lost a lot. But I can afford to! I have a mobile in my pocket!

To be fair, there isn't much to choose between the two (at least for UK users, as the actual turn-by-turn navigation isn't yet available) because the core app is still Google Maps, and that's pretty much the same for both. In fact some of the interface choices on Windows Mobile (e.g. the button to re-lock my position) I miss on the Nexus One. GPS does seem to lock in much quicker on the Nexus though, there were many times on the Touch HD where I'd be waiting minutes for a good GPS signal.

The upcoming car dock is supposed to offer good things for the Nexus, but then the HTC Touch HD2 is getting a similar thing which will put the phone into a sort of 'car mode'. I suspect that Touch HD2 will be better here, especially with it's huge screen, but time will have to tell on that one. Overall right now there's not much to choose between them.

Keeping Entertained: Music & Films

For a long time now I've liked to carry all my music with me wherever I am - and that means over 14Gb of data so far and counting. I also use it to listen to podcasts when I'm out and about. It's important that the phone has a good bluetooth option, as my car is also bluetooth enabled so I stream music directly to the audio player - no need for any cables, it works automatically, and phone calls are automatically routed through it whilst pausing any playing music at the same time.

The music player on the Nexus One doesn't have much you can do with it, but then again nor did the Touch HD, and you can at least scroll up and own much easier with the Nexus. Having lists of hundreds of albums or artists was a pain before, but now I'm rediscovering old tracks that were before for ever lost in the Windows Mobile interface. Sound quality is great - better in my opinion than the Touch HD.

Film wise the Nexus is again pretty much on par with the Touch HD, although that said the Touch HD did have more control when watching films, e.g. different screen formatting.

I guess if there's one area of the Nexus One/Windows Mobile comparison where the Android is particularly weak this is it - though it's not as if it's a big difference.

Recording Life: Photos & Video

Having a good camera on my phone is very important, as I tend to take an awful lot of photos with it. I know they're not going to be great quality compared to a proper camera, but the simple fact that I always have my phone on me is enough to mean I can get pictures and videos that I otherwise would not.

The camera on the Nexus doesn't disappoint, and the videos in particular are miles ahead of what the Touch HD can do. The gallery for looking at them is very nifty too, but personally I don't think it's as important as people make out. Whilst it's fast and usable, it doesn't seem as customisable as I'd like - something to come perhaps. The LED flash is also nice to have, but again a flash on a camera like this is pretty rubbish either way. If you're going to take photographs that need a flash you're much better off using a proper camera.

For some video samples take a look at my Sunday Roaster blog - the Traditional Roast Lamb with Roast Potatoes & Leeks in White Sauce recipe videos were all shot with the Nexus.

My Conclusion

To be frank the sheer power of the Nexus One is enough to leave my old Windows Mobile phones behind, but that's (mostly) a hardware issue, so you can't really judge long term on something so transitory. The real reason I've moved on is all to do with the integration of the phone with what else I'm doing in virtual space more generally.

I freely admit I've been a Google fan for many years, and much of my life is tied into their services. Being very cloud based they're the natural choice for me, as the integration they themselves offer between their cloud services is so much more advanced than their competitors. Whether I'm using Google Docs or Google Reader, it's the same contacts that come up as options to share with. My Picasa albums are there without asking, and I only have to press a button and my new video is uploaded to my YouTube account. Wherever I am in the world I only need sign into my Google account and a whole raft of services are instantly at my disposal - documents, bookmarks, pictures, contacts, emails - you name it, it's there. And now with the Nexus One I can sign into all of that in the palm of my hand. With Windows Mobile it was always a little bit of a struggle to bring it all together, but with the Nexus One Google have managed to transfer all their great offerings into a form that makes them instantly useful wherever I happen to be, and fully integrated into a form where a large chunk of the thinking is done for me. And at the end of the day that's what I look for in any ICT that I use - cognitive offloading. My mental life is busy enough, so if someone can come along and help out with some of the thinking I'm all for it.

I initially thought the Nexus One was too simple for me, but I've realised since that the simplicity is actually just the device matching the way I already think and act. As a web architect I should know better - for many years I've gone on and on about how good design, particularly interaction design, tends to be invisible, and then I go and fail to spot it myself! It automatically blends the real with the virtual seamlessly and still allows me to personalise and customise in a way which means it's what I want, and not necessarily what Google wants. I wonder how many (and I can't help but nip back to it's major competitor here) iPhone users could say the same? I suspect the majority have become so used to the way the iPhone steers their thinking they would find the Nexus One difficult - perhaps that would explain the surprisingly large number of negative views I've read from other iPhone vs Nexus One style reviews - something in clear contrast to what the average person thinks about the Nexus One and the iPhone. It does look like the professional review community is a bit out of touch. Maybe even - dare I say it - a bit iPhone biased?

All I know is that this device has a way of mapping into my life that nothing else can manage. Not only that, but it shows every sign of maturing and developing as I do - a philosophy that Google has become somewhat famous for, thinking long term and keeping very customer focused.

Personally I think the Nexus One is the right choice. Simple as that.

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