AppleInsider has presented a series of articles on how Android stacks up against Apple's iPhone OS as a platform in general terms. In this article, we'll consider the hardware specifics of the latest offering from Google's partner.
Meet your maker
While the tech press likes to say Google designed the Nexus One "with HTC," Google executives clearly gave all the credit to HTC at its introduction, saying "Its inaccurate to say Google designed the phone. Peter [Chou] and his team [at HTC] built and designed the phone. Google is just marketing and selling the phone."
The phone is nearly identical to what HTC itself sells under the name Bravo in Europe, apart from the placement of its buttons. Google's impact on the Nexus One's specs is far less significant than even Microsoft's original Zune, which while being based on the Toshiba Gigabeat, was at least given a design update and noticeably different software that rendered it incompatible with other PlaysforSure MP3 players. In contrast, the Nexus One is very clearly a Google-branded HTC phone, and there are no intentional, artificial compatibility barriers with other Android platform devices.
HTC has a history of building higher-end PDA-style phones, often with physical keyboards, large screens, and envelope pushing hardware features. Most of its phones have been designed to run Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and are therefore targeted at that platform's core market of IT staff and gadget enthusiasts. HTC has served as Microsoft's primary licensee, building 80% of the Windows Mobile phones to reach the market (although many of these were sold under different brand names, just as Google is now doing with the Nexus One).
The company also built previous generations of PDA-style phones sold by Palm, prior to the debut of the new WebOS-based Pre. But HTC's history as the leading maker of Windows Mobile phones is what positioned it to be the first major manufacture to launch an Android phone, because Google targeted its relatively new Android operating system at hardware reference designs running Windows Mobile, in much the same way that popular desktop distributions of Linux are geared to run on Microsoft's reference design for Windows PCs.
Magic, Dream, Hero, Passion
Google launched Android 1.0 in October 2008 with HTC's Dream (sold as the T-Mobile G1), then followed up with HTC's second generation Magic (the T-Mobile myTouch) last summer, and then the HTC Hero (also sold with slight modifications as the Verizon Droid Eris) last fall. It's therefore nothing out of the ordinary that the newly released Nexus One running Android 2.1 is also being sold under other HTC names in other markets.
Unike earlier HTC models, the new Nexus One does not pair the stock Android OS with HTC's "Sense UI," a user interface theme HTC added to the stock Android both to differentiate its offerings and to solve some rough edges in the Android interface, such as the look of its virtual keyboard. HTC also applies Sense to its Windows Mobile phones which makes HTC's Android phones look and feel more similar to the company's other products than to those of other Android makers, including Motorola's Verizon Droid and the upcoming Sony Ericsson Xperia X10.
Overall, this fractionalization has resulted in making the Android platform less similar to commodity Windows PCs and more like PlaysForSure devices in terms of being unique to their manufacturer rather than offering a largely identical experience between vendors. With Android 2.1 however, Google seems to be signaling the intention to fold in many of HTC's Sense improvements into the standard OS, which should help streamline the platform at the expense of HTC's differentiation.
The Android balancing act
It remains to be seen whether Google will continue to work to neutralize the differentiation efforts of its partners in order to strengthen the Android brand, or whether it will continue to encourage vendors to create their own look and feel independently, as Motorola did with Blur and Sony Ericsson is expected to do with its upcoming phone.
On the other hand, it is in HTC's interests to create reasons for customers to pick its phones over those of other competitors. The company already advertises its Android and Windows Mobile devices under the same ad campaign, direction attention to its own brand rather than to either licensed operating system. Further, at CES the company unveiled a new initiative to release a series of lower-end smartphones based on BREW, Qualcomm's proprietary alternative to Java.
That indicates that despite its shift from Windows Mobile, HTC isn't betting its future on Android. Additionally, it shows that Android itself doesn't do enough to allow phone makers to hit low price points. Successful Android phones require a fast processor and significant RAM and other system resources to be taken seriously.
Finding one operating system to span from the bargain bin to the high end has similarly been a challenge for Nokia, which uses its own simple Nokia OS, the more sophisticated Symbian, a full distro of Maemo Linux in its Internet Tablets, and Windows on its netbook. Samsung has also announced plans to juggle Windows Mobile, Android, and its own Bada platform. Most other makers also have a variety of operating systems, leaving Apple, RIM, and Palm unique in pushing one single OS.
Motorola has announced an intention do to this with Android, but is already facing a rather direct blow from Google and its new branding partnership with HTC. On the other side, Google is also planning to add its new Chrome OS into the mix as a way to enter the significantly different netbook market, which will splinter efforts by its current licensees who already have Android netbooks and tablets under development.
The company has also announced a clear intention to turn its hardware partners into commodity manufacturers, leaving Google with control of all the value across their products, much as Microsoft did to PC makers in the 90s. This is all a precarious balancing act challenge Apple doesn't face.
Unlike most of its Windows Mobile phones, which nearly always supply a physical keyboard, HTC's Nexus One builds upon the previous Hero/Droid Eris form factor to deliver something that's closer to the iPhone, but which still supplies a trackball pointer rather than relying on ubiquitous multitouch for navigation. The result is a something of a middle ground between the gadgety PC experience of Windows Mobile and the slick and refined appliance experience Apple provides.
In many ways, the Nexus One is HTC's answer to the Motorola Verizon Droid, which stole the spotlight this winter as Google focused on it and left HTC's Hero (Verizon Droid Eris) to serve as a runner up to be given away for free with Droid purchases. HTC's Hero was also relegated to running an older version of the Android OS, as Google launched Android 2.0 on the Droid exclusively.
As with the Droid, the Nexus One's hybrid design of being an iPhone-like touchscreen but still sporting a Windows Mobile-like array of touch sensitive buttons and a physical trackball results in the problem of making it easy to inadvertently fall back to the home screen while attempting to type. "we found ourselves consistently accidentally tapping them while composing an email or text message," Engadget complained. That review also said the unit's "[trackball] placement feels a bit awkward here, and there's literally nothing in the OS that requires it." In contrast, the iPhone 3GS uses a recessed home button that is difficult to hit accidentally.
The Nexus One now brings the Android 2.x platform to HTC's product lineup, although existing Hero/Droid Eris users will have to wait as long as this summer before they can obtain the latest update from their mobile provider. Apple regularly releases updates that all iPhone users can install as soon as they become available. Again, the layers of differentiation that Android partners are adding (like HTC's Sense, Motorola's Blur, and support for unique hardware) tend to complicate and slow the propagation of Android updates for users.
The Nexus One carries forward the basic iPhone-like design of the earlier Magic and Hero, adding a suite of new features such as a fast new processor, noise canceling audio, a better camera supporting 720p HD capture and playback initial reviewers have noted that HTC's camera works much better than the Droid's, which was plagued by focusing issues), a higher resolution screen, and a new OLED display like the Zune HD.
The display resolution of the Nexus One now almost matches the Droid, although it does so using an OLED screen. This may be why it uses a 480x800 resolution rather than the Droid's 480x854, adding some extra complication for Android developers who now have three different popular resolutions to account for on the platform (earlier models use the same 320x480 resolution of the iPhone).
As we noted in regard to the Zune HD, OLED technology results in a screen that promises to save power and which looks exceptional in low light. However, reviewers have actually reported that, like the Zune HD, the Nexus One's screen is terrible to the point of unusable in bright light, with Engadget writing, "Oh, and using this thing in daylight? Forget about it. Like most screens of this type, the Nexus One is a nightmare to see with any kind of bright light around, and snapping photos with it on a sunny day was like taking shots with your eyes closed."
At the same time, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, who has been using the phone for weeks, complained that he "found battery life to be woefully brief," and that users should "be prepared to keep this phone near a charger at all times," regardless of its rated battery life and the energy saving potential of its new display.
In addition to OLED, the Nexus One also shares other engineering choices with the Zune. Unlike the iPhone and the iPods before it, which are all designed to power down the screen as quickly as possible the moment you stop interacting with it, the Nexus One debuts Zune-like flashy effects that assume you'll be staring at the screen even while listening to music. These include new interactive graphic background effects and music visualizers which require the screen to be on in order to notice them, an engineering decision that, like Microsoft's Zune, indicates more interest in delivering Vista-like sizzle than the practical, functional utility that Apple trends toward.
For Apple's products, anything that distracts from core features or doesn't add tangible value is a potential casualty. The company canned the latent audio recording features on the first iPods and initially delivered a simple black and white screen. The iPhone's user interface is rich with animation effects, but they are all targeted at enhancing its navigation and overall feel, not to decorate the screen with superfluous candy.
There are also more practical features the Nexus One holds over last summer's iPhone 3GS: the camera has an LED flash, which is handy when taking close ups in dim lighting; the camera also has a higher rated resolution, but that isn't necessarily an improvement when you're using a tiny CCD chip, as packing more pixels into a tiny sensor can result in more grain noise and greater file sizes without actually improving the shots you can take. The noise cancellation feature sound promising and valuable, and there's also a novel speech recognition feature designed to serve as an alternative to the virtual keyboard. Engadget called it "marginally successful."
This indicates that Apple's software provides significant performance optimization, something that last year's Palm Pre also demonstrated. That model used the same chip Apple put in the iPhone 3GS, but failed to achieve the same performance. This does not bode well for competitors once Apple debuts its own optimized ARM cores under development within the company's PA Semi subsidiary.
Despite being almost a year ahead of the iPhone 3GS in an industry where performance and capacity can often double on an annual basis, the Nexus One doesn't do a lot of things Apple's phone did last year. Like the Droid, the Nexus One doesn't do hardware encryption, meaning that most Microsoft Exchange shops will refuse to support either model (unless you can convince your company to downgrade its default security policy). The iPhone 3GS does support Exchange's default policy settings, which require device encryption.
The Android OS also can't handle moving purchased software titles from Android Market into the devices' Flash RAM storage (which on HTC and Motorola devices, like other phones developed for Windows Mobile, is provided primarily on removable SD RAM cards). This results in a significant limitation for developers and for users who want to run sophisticated mobile apps such as games. Google as been aware of this issue for a long time, but only commented that it has plans to address it at some point in the future.
Until that happens, growth of the Android Market will be artificially handicapped as Apple's App Store juggernaut further establishes itself as the best way for developers to make money and for users to find the latest, richest, and most regularly updated games, serious applications, and software-integrated hardware peripherals. Speaking of which, the Nexus One doesn't have anything comparable to the iPhone's Dock Connector, which has given birth to an ecosystem of iPhone and iPod related peripherals. Instead, the Nexus One only provides a mini USB connector.
Microsoft copied Apple in creating its own hybrid connector supplying power, USB, audio, and video signals for the Zune, but also demonstrated how difficult it was to build momentum behind such a standard. Google, partnered with a variety of hardware competitors under Android, neither created a standard hardware connector for Android nor one for its own branded version of the HTC Passion/Bravo. There is a docking mechanism of some sort, but no details on when the dock will be made available and what capabilities it will have in the absence of a hybrid connector.
The iPhone 3GS also supplies a consistent multitouch user interface that is used throughout it bundled apps. Google has only added limited support for this in the Android OS, and apps that can make the most use of "pinch to zoom" type features don't consistently offer it to the user. That includes Google's own web browser, which has become a primary feature of smartphones. The Nexus One also lacks the iPhone 3GS' automatic focus, white balance, and exposure set by the user's touch.
It's often said that the biggest problem with the iPhone is its association with AT&T, at least in the US. That being the case, it's hard to see how the Nexus One improves upon things by either limiting users to an even less complete network on T-Mobile (which suffers from serious problems both due to its less penetrating higher frequency radio spectrum as well as its much smaller network, primarily concentrated in urban areas) or asking them to revert back to 2007 and forgo 3G service completely to use the phone unlocked on AT&T.
Google promises a Verizon version to follow, but hasn't said when, hinting only that it is likely around the same time Apple is expected to bring the iPhone to CDMA carriers using either a worldmode or separate CDMA chipset. The reason behind this vagueness is likely related to Google's efforts to balance its love between carriers and hardware partners. Users interested in the Nexus One but wanting a Verizon phone are directed to the Droid.
Of course, the iPhone is also limited to working on AT&T or in EDGE-only mode on T-Mobile (if users incur the risks involved with cracking the carrier lock). It remains to be seen whether Google can keep users satisfied with T-Mobile's network and avoid the same criticism Apple gets for partnering with AT&T. If it can, Apple may be more likely to offer a new version of the iPhone that works with both AT&T and T-Mobile's 3G networks.
When Apple debuted the iPhone 3GS last summer, it all but silenced any talk out the Palm Pre, which up to that point had stoked lots of enthusiastic anticipation. Observers immediately shifted their attention to other potential rivals to the iPhone, and Android began receiving much of that attention. The Hero and then the Droid took turns basking in the Android spotlight last winter, and have now been eclipsed by the Nexus One, with general consensus being that this model is the "Droid-killer."
At the same time, Apple has continued selling its iPhone 3GS, shifting focus only slightly to the complementary iPod touch. Now Apple is stoking hype surrounding its expected Tablet launch, while continuing to sell and promote the same iPhone model. This pattern of Apple conquering new territory with blockbuster releases that occur only once a year while rivals throw handfuls of new models under its tank treads appears to be continuing with Android.
Google appears to be purposely fractionalizing its brand by pitting itself against each of its hardware rivals while also assigning Android credibility to Verizon with the "Droid" brand, and associating "with Google" to anyone who agrees to put its apps on their phone. While the iPhone brand has remained globally famous for going on three years now, Google is making Android an umbrella term that doesn't necessarily mean anything really good or bad while its partners also pick a variety of model names that will only apply to specific markets and or providers.
But the point of a brand is to associate a name with a strong reputation and consistent level of quality. It's not clear how Nexus One will do that for Google, no matter how much success it can generate before Android's attention spotlight shifts to another model. Additionally, by launching the marginally new HTC model with the hubris of "superphone" attached to it, Google risks associating itself with an embarrassing failure that will impede its ability to grab legitimate attention in the future, another similarity it shares with Microsoft's Zune.