Nexus One: Observations

About a month ago, Google very kindly gave away Nexus One phones to all the attendees of an Android Developer Lab held here in Singapore. I was one of the recipients of the phone and have been using it since then. Regular readers will recall that I bought an Android powered HTC Magic in June last year which makes this the second Android phone in my possession. In the style of the previous HTC Magic: Observations post, here are my observations on the Nexus One.

Nexus One

Aside: I was recently working on some code that imports all entries on this blog into a database & I realized that I haven’t posted here in almost four months!

You’ve probably seen the Nexus One either in flesh metal or online so you know what it looks like. To my eyes, it is a very elegant looking device. It has a nice heft to it; on paper it is only 15 grams heavier than the HTC Magic but somehow it feels much heavier. Perhaps it is because the Nexus One is larger (but thinner) than the Magic: a 3.7” screen to the latter’s 3.2” screen.

And what a screen it is! Big and Bright! Moreover, unlike the Magic, the display is glass covered which makes it look that much better. I am not sure if the Nexus screen has any oleophobic coating like the iPhone or the HTC Hero (the specs don’t claim it does) but it is way easier to clean than the Magic (or my old N73). Just a couple of swipes with a piece of cotton cloth & it is clear as new. Incidentally, the glass has a fine, diagonal mesh/grid that becomes visible under a bright spot light. I figure it is some kind of strengthening wire-mesh applied to the glass. I compared a friend’s iPhone & the glass on that doesn’t seem to have it. Anyone know what this is?

The screen itself is what is called an AMOLED display. I don’t know all the details but AMOLED screens are supposed to consume lesser power & deliver better image quality compared to LCD screens. The power usage claim makes sense when you think about the difference in how AMOLED & LCD screens work. At a very basic level, the way LCD screens work is that you have a bunch of pixels that give off white light when you apply electricity. Now when you want some portion of your screen to be black, you can’t just turn off those pixels. What they do instead is apply a filter on top of the shining pixel to cut off the white light & make it appear black. That’s why you can’t get true black on your LCD screens - some of the white light always leaks through. That’s also why LCD screens aren’t that great for watching movies or doing serious photo editing. On the other hand, in AMOLED screens, the pixel is only lit when required which means white looks like white & more importantly, black actually looks like black! This change in characteristic also has the effect that colours on an AMOLED screen appear much more rich & vibrant compared to an LCD screen. Going back to the power usage claim, you can now see how in an LCD all the pixels are always on all of the time and consuming power even if what you are seeing on the screen is just some white text on a black background. Whereas in an AMOLED screen, you can save power not lighting those pixels which don’t need to be lit!

That’s a very high-level view of what I think is going on in AMOLEDs and LCDs but I am no expert by any measure! If you think I am way off, please correct me :-)

Aside #2: When CRT monitors (think big humps behind the display) were the norm, the standard power saving practice was to use an all black screensaver. Then when LCDs came, that advice was no longer applicable but people persisted in using black screensavers in a mistaken belief that they were saving power. Even today, when practically everyone uses an LCD monitor, the “myth” that black displays consume less power is pretty widespread. But even as we come to terms with the new reality of black != more energy efficient, we are looking at a future where LCDs will be completely replaced by AMOLED displays. If or When that happens, the old advice of black == more energy efficient will once again be true! :-)

Aside on Aside #2: Quite often, I go into detailed explanations or point out bits of trivia like the above to my wife and she listens patiently as if it is all so very fascinating but I know that deep down she’s thinking: how did I end up marrying this nerd! :)

Okay, so where was I? Yeah, big, bright & beautiful display. There’s also a certain quality to this display that I can’t quite describe. The best way to put it is that it has got a rich, creamy look. Maybe that’s just a result of the higher dpi count, I don’t know. Anyway, the bottom line is, I love the screen!

The other thing that I love about this phone is the speed. It’s really fast. Everything is snappy. Applications launch quickly, screen rotations are super fast and everything generally just feels nice & smooth. The triple sundae of a 1GHz processor, 512MB RAM & Android OS 2.1 make for a delicious dessert.

Speaking of Android 2.1, aka Éclair, my favourite new feature is easily the new Quick Contacts flyout.

Quick Contact for Android

I’ve now got icons for a couple of frequently contacted folks on the home screen and I can call them or send them an SMS with just a couple of taps. The best part is the system-wide integration of this feature. For example, I could be looking at an SMS from someone and decide to call that person or I could be looking at a missed call from someone & decide to send an SMS in reply. I can’t wait for more apps to start integrating Quick Contacts in their apps – Gmail, I’m looking at you!

But my love of contact management ends there. The stock Contacts app is really bad in my opinion. The Add Contact dialog is so badly laid out, I almost dread having to bring it up anytime I add a new contact. If there’s one thing I miss from the Magic, it is the People app that HTC built to replace the stock Contacts app. It looked nice, had more functionality (e.g. I could decide which group to associate with a contact) and integrated Facebook & Flickr very well. The Nexus One supposedly has Facebook integration too but I don’t really see it. All it seems to do is sync profile pics of my contacts with their Facebook profile pictures. Not impressed.

Android 2.1 also features Voice Input. Does it work? Perhaps for those with Amreekan accents. For me, it’s just a novelty. The Mrs and I sometimes play this game: we each take turns speaking the same phrase into it and then see who gets the most bizarre interpretation!

This release of Android also finally features pinch-to-zoom - the much advertised feature of the iPhone. Why finally? Well, let me give a quick summary of the whole saga. Ever since the first Android phones came out, people have been asking why these touch screen devices don’t feature the convenient pinch-to-zoom functionality that the iPhone offers. Google curiously provided no answer. Everyone suspected it had something to do with patents that Apple owns but Google kept quiet. Then suddenly, without explanation, they issued an OS update couple of months ago which implemented pinch-to-zoom in the built-in Photo Gallery & Browser apps. So after more than an year of waiting, we now have pinch-to-zoom in Android. And I hate it; especially in the Browser. You see, sometimes I hold the phone in such a way that my fingertips wrap around and touch the edge of the screen. Or a bit of my palm grazes the surface. That’s one touch. Then I use my index finger to try and scroll. That’s the second touch. The result? The phone thinks I am trying to zoom and starts zooming in and out while my palm/fingertip grazes the surface. Perhaps this behaviour can be fixed in software but as it stands, I hate it. I also see no need for it in the Browser and wish I could disable it. Double tap to zoom is just fine, thank you.

But by far my biggest problem with the phone is the lack of multi-colour notifications. This is what I wrote in my HTC Magic post:

The (notification) LED though is neat. It does the usual thing like other phones where it lights up when charging or when on low battery. And it flashes when there are unread messages, emails, etc. But what makes it really neat is that application writers can choose the LED colour! So without even picking up the phone, I can figure out whether I have unread email (light green flash), unread SMS (dark green flash) or unread tweets (violet flash) waiting for my attention. If it is of low priority, like unread tweets, I can confidently ignore the flashing knowing that I am not missing on any urgent notification. This is one of those things which, once experienced, you can no longer live without.

Well, I am living without it now and I hate it :( The Nexus One has a trackball that glows in a soft, white light when there are pending notifications or an incoming call. This trackball can also emit other colours – it is a tri-colour thing which means that it can potentially emit light in a whole range of colours by combining the three base colours. But for some unknown reason, Google shipped the device without multi-colour support in the software! It is very likely that a future OS update will address this issue but till then, all I can do is miss the Magic.

Overall, I am very happy with this phone and wish to thank Google for this wonderful gift. I guess spending a few weekends writing Cabbie paid off well!