It’s been an eventful week here at Eric Conspiracy Secret Labs, what with robot submarines busting out all over and a “Disruptive Innovation Award” from the Tribeca Film Festival (!) landing on my somewhat bemused head (possible topic of a later post). And I’m writing from Penguicon, where in about an hour I’m going to be starring in an event billed as “Jam Session with ESR – Ask Him Anything!” Whoever scheduled this for 9AM on the morning after Saturday night at a convention needs to be found and seriously hurt, but I figure anyone with enough willpower to show up at that unGoddessly hour of the morning deserves the best of me.
Which is all, in this case, a lead-in to observing that I’ve now been using a Google Nexus One under field and travel stress for about a week. The differences from the G-1 I had been carrying are, I think, suggestive about how Android-based smartphones are evolving and their competitive posture against the iPhone, Symbian, and Windows Mobile.
Perhaps the most widely-touted change in Android 2.0 is multitouch gestures; the G-1 didn’t support them, the Nexus One does. I’ve folded these into my routine now. They’re convenient in a minor way for zooming/unzooming web pages and scaling photographs as I’m turning them into contact icons, but I have to say that the hype around this feature now seems quite overblown to me.
Much more impressive in practice is the fact that voice-to-text now works on any text input box, rather than being a browser-only feature. It’s not perfect – you’ll get the occasional funny homonym – but it’s good enough to reduce the amount of typing I have to do really significantly, and the background-noise cancellation works remarkably well. I’ve grown used to having it work even in the hubbub of a crowded convention room.
As one might have expected, the Nexus interface is visually a lot slicker than the G-1’s plain-but-serviceable one. The way app access is now handled is nice – instead of living in a sort of slide-out drawer, they now explode onto the screen when you touch a sort of app constellation icon at the bottom center of the main screen.
But not all the improved visuals are good things; I think, in particular, that the animated wallpapers are a mistake. I don’t want my phone doing things that attract my eyes unless it has a real event notification for me. Fortunately, though the default is animated, still wallpapers remain available.
All the visual stuff is helped out by the fact that the Nexus One display is gorgeous – easily the best I’ve ever seen on any device of even approximately cellphone size, and clearly superior to even the iPhone’s. This is the feature that attracted me to the device when first I got to handle one; I use my phone browser heavily, and I very much wanted the upgrade in pixel count and luminance range. A week later: yes, it does matter in practice.
My wife thinks it’s significant that the Nexis One is thinner and lighter than the G-1. I don’t, really, but then I have larger hands and larger pockets than she does. She’s probably right that this difference will matter more to the average mass-market consumer than it does to me.
The biggest surprise to me about the Nexus One is that I’m missing the physical keyboard on the G-1 far less than I thought I would. I found the soft keyboard on the G-1 annoying and difficult to use, but something about the Nexus One version makes it significantly easier. This could be a consequence of the larger display size, or possibly the touch-recognition software has improved, or perhaps it’s both. The effectiveness of the Nexus One’s voice-to-text feature helps here.
Some things they have sensibly left unchanged even though temptation to visually elaborate them must have been present. The notification bar and associated windowshade widget, in particular, is beautifully functional and works pretty much as it did on the G-1.
So far, the most serious flaw I’ve found in the Nexus One’s hardware is that something about the surface treatment of the display seems to make it significantly more vulnerable to finger smudges than the G-1’s was. Alas, the software stack is a little more glitchy. Either the ability to do image saves from the browser is absent or I can’t figure out how to invoke it. And something seems off about the tuning of the touch interface in some components; notably, the app-list window seems to have trouble picking up the finger-flick to make the viewport spin.
Overall, however, the Nexus is indeed a clear improvement on the G-1. It points the way Android is going pretty unambiguously – towards head-to-head competition with the iPhone, rather than simply vacuuming up the market share of dumb phones and lesser competitors such as Symbian and Windows Mobile.
In at least one respect – the voice-to-text capabilty – Android is already ahead of anything iPhone offers or is ever likely to be able to support. There’s a huge infrastructure of statistical pattern-matching engines in the Google-cloud behind it that Apple won’t be able to replicate easily, if at all.
Watching the next year of ths competition will be interesting.