Sunday, 21 March 2010

Google Nexus One - an R&Dist's delight (Exciting but Buggy)

I’m just back from my visit to the USA and, as promised, I used the Google Nexus One as my main mobile phone for most of the visit. This post reveals my experience (in comparison to my iPhone 3GS), and it is one of mixed news I can tell you!

In summary, the Nexus One is very much a geek’s phone, full of exciting features - but does not have the polish of an iPhone experience. It is also buggy - to the point where I had to restart it once a day unless I used it just for voice calls and text messaging - hardly the point of a smart phone.

In order to fully immerse myself in the experience, I pre-ordered a USA Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) SIM card l so that I could play without incurring any nightmarish roaming charges. Such SIM cards are freely available on eBay and I arranged with the seller for it to be delivered to my first hotel, which happened without any incident. The seller even activated the card for me so I could discover my USA mobile number and send it to those who needed to keep in touch before I arrived.

The Nexus One quickly connected to the network and my voice calls and texts behaved as normal. Email and browsing worked fine too, and the phone locked into the hotel’s wifi network easily - informing me that I had a ‘login’ page to go to before it could continue and starting the browser to help me.

The phone’s News and Weather app (which consists of a widget on the phone’s home screen with the weather symbol, temperature, and a randomly selected news story, plus a full app with all news stories) quickly realised that I had left London and switched to the local weather in Bellevue, WA. It also adjusted its “UK” news menu to “US” to give me local stories.

The Google Map was also surprisingly accurate, even if I was deeply inside a building. There would be no hope of GPS there so the phone must have triangulated its position based on the various AT&T cellular towers as well as remembering its last GPS fix (perhaps assuming I could not have strayed far) because often the central arrow on the map was exactly right even if the phone was showing a large “margin of error” circle.

I was able to receive emails and send them out easily enough, but the more I used the phone the more I noticed that the ability to work out where my fingers were on the screen became inaccurate. Over a period of a couple of hours of continuous use the degree of error became worse until completely different parts of the screen were responding to my touch, and the keyboard became impossible to use as the error was at least two keys “above” the ones I wanted using the on-screen keyboard. The only way to resolve this was to turn the phone off and on again. I found this happening frequently throughout my trip: the more I touched the screen, the more the calibration went “out”. Has anyone else found this?

The Nexus One’s apps, as found in the Market app, are a geek’s joy - and I think this is where the iPhone and Android audiences diverge. I downloaded the following apps - all free:
  • Barcode Scanner - useful for, well, scanning barcodes using the phone’s camera - quick and accurate.
  • ConnectBot - great for Telnet connections using a command prompt.
  • Facebook - great app for keeping up to date on Facebook BUT when sending images they end up a lot smaller resolution on Facebook than the iPhone equivalent.
  • Flip’n’Shake Lite - an app that uses the orientation of the phone to perform various tasks. For example, if I’m on a call and wish to switch to speaker, I simply move the phone from my ear and place it upside down on a table (so the speaker is facing up).
  • Fring - a way of using Skype albeit with lower voice quality. There is a Skype app but it doesn't work at all well on Android (come on Skype!).
  • Google Goggles - scan anything and it works out what to search for - hugely impressive and a pointer for my desire to “scan the product and understand it, not its barcode”.
  • Google Sky Map - superb app for identifying stars and planets in the night sky where you are - a total joy to use and really inspiring when presented with the clear Nevada night sky during my trip.
  • Google Translate - say a few words and Google Translate converts them to a different language and says those words in that language - closest yet to Douglas Adam’s “Babel Fish”.
  • Layar - great augmented reality app - I have on my list the task to create a Layar data-set with all the world’s Tesco stores and their locations on it!
  • Listen - a podcast app, excellent for picking up my favourite BBC podcasts such as “Friday Night Comedy”.
  • Network Discovery - find out more about the other hosts and devices on your connected network - a geek’s joy.
  • Newsrob - a Blog reading app designed to work with Google Reader (my preferred blog access site) by downloading articles for offline reading.
  • Remote RDP - Windows Remote Desktop - works very well despite the small screen!
  • TasKiller - an app that kills other tasks - VITAL! (more on this shortly).
  • Twidroid - a simple Twitter client.
  • Wifi Analyzer - analyses Wifi signals in order to lock onto a desired signal, and for suggesting the ideal channel for a home Wifi access point by seeing what other signals are on the various channels available.
My PAYG SIM card offered me 100MB of data for the week, which I thought was more than enough given that I would be within wifi range for much of the time. Wrong! The reason:

Background tasks! Whenever I ran Facebook, Twidroid and other apps and then exited them… I hadn’t exited them! They became background tasks (in default settings) so they could keep my incoming tweets and friends’ Facebook updates up-to-date. The apps didn’t care whether I was on wifi or cellular - as long as they could see their respective servers across the Internet they went about their business silently - eating into my cellular allowance in the process.

This is the downside of apps as background tasks - on the iPhone no 3rd-party apps are allowed to remain in the background - to kill the Facebook app is to truly end it. Moving from my iPhone mindset to the Nexus One cost me in terms of the amount of cellular bandwidth. Once I used up my 100MB allowance, the background apps crashed through the rest of the money I had put on the SIM card account at the rate of $1/MB and soon I was incommunicado!

Overcoming my $10 dollar loss, I researched the problem and installed TasKiller which reveals all the background apps, and I killed the ones I didn’t wish to keep running. Indeed there’s a satisfactory “kill all” action which ends all but the most vital phone background tasks (such as monitoring for incoming calls). It even wipes out the animated background screen. My second week in the USA was cellularly inexpensive as a result.

Finally, the Nexus One lacks the finesse of the Apple phone. It works well but I need the geek in me to help understand what's going on. Just my opinion but it’s little things such as the icons not as “polished”, through to there being less inherent sense of reliability. This phone is an R&D’ists phone compared to the iPhone’s production quality. I’m in R&D and instantly forgive its quirks. Others will not be so patient.

Some of you may say that it was unfair to go from iPhone to Nexus One - it’s bound to compare unfavourably because it is so much more advanced. Maybe, but you have to be able to pick up a phone and use it - not fiddle about with it or restart it every couple of days. I’m sure that some bug-fix / feature-enhancing updates are on the way (after all, that has happened with iPhone several times) and I look forward to it.

Having said that, the Nexus One has a great character and form, and will be a significant platform for smartphone technology both now and in the future.

I’m glad I own one to see what happens.


  1. My HTC Desire is on pre order, running the same version of Android... hope it isn't the same buggyness :(

    Don't suppose you have a link for the ebay sim?

  2. Hi Mally,

    HTC have created their own user interface/front end to Android, and I'm sure have tested the finger-accuracy problem before launch.

    Just search "usa sim" on eBay to find loads of SIM cards - just read through each offer to find out what is best for you in terms of combinations of coverage, price for calls and data allowance. There are all kinds of different permutations. Also make sure the phone you take to the USA is unlocked and will take any SIM card. My Nexus One came unlocked in the first place. If you are getting your HTC Desire through a mobile provider, it may well be locked to that provider.

  3. Nick, I have to thank you for pointing out the remote RDP app. I looked for something similar a few months ago, but couldn't find one.. now there are dozens!

    Android is still a little buggy, which is probably why it's a bit more of a "geeky" choice than an iPhone.. but I still think that in the long term, Android is a significant milestone in the development of smartphones. Glad to see you think the same!

  4. Would love to see Tesco embrace Android with a version of the Tesco app available on iPhone.

    I noticed today that Ocado have opened a beta program for their Android app...


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