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Cellphone aims to reinvent industry

Google’s Nexus One sports a gorgeous 3.7-inch screen that delivers brilliant color, but it does have some flaws. Google’s Nexus One sports a gorgeous 3.7-inch screen that delivers brilliant color, but it does have some flaws.
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / January 14, 2010

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It happens a lot, usually in December. You rip open a package, caress the object inside, switch it on. And it’s remarkable, even delightful, and yet, not quite what you had in mind.

It happened to me in January this year, when I got my hands on the new Nexus One smartphone. It’s the latest phone to feature the Android operating system developed by Google Inc., but this time Google designed the hardware as well, in cooperation with HTC Corp. of Taiwan.

Tech heads had assumed the Nexus One would be no ordinary Android phone. There are already plenty of those. Surely one designed by Google would include a host of radical new features to rock our world. But while Nexus One is an improvement over other Android phones, it’s hardly revolutionary. So why did Google bother? Because it’s trying to reinvent the entire cellphone industry.

In Google’s ideal world, consumers would purchase their phones outright, and switch from one carrier to another at will, instead of being locked into those two-year contracts. The phone companies would become mere data pipelines, and power and profits would shift to makers of phone software and services, like Google.

So when the folks at Google introduced their new phone, the Nexus One, they started selling it on their own website for $529. The phone is capable of connecting to any network using the popular GSM wireless standard. But just two of America’s four biggest carriers use GSM: T-Mobile USA and AT&T Inc. Besides, AT&T uses a frequency for its 3G data network that doesn’t work with Google’s phone. So if you connect the Nexus One to AT&T, you’re stuck with much slower 2G data service. Nexus One users in the United States must subscribe to T-Mobile to get the full effect, and T-Mobile sells the Nexus One for just $179 with a two-year contract.

Meanwhile, the other two industry giants, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Wireless, don’t use GSM. Google is rushing to release a Verizon-compatible Nexus One in the near future. But that phone won’t be compatible with the GSM networks. No doubt Google will eventually offer a universal handset that’ll work with all the major carriers, but that’s a long way off.

For now, the only reason to buy a Nexus One is the sheer excellence of the phone itself. And it’s pretty excellent. It sports a gorgeous 3.7-inch screen that uses organic light-emitting diode technology. The screen needs no fluorescent backlight, making the phone thin and sleek, yet it delivers rich, brilliant color.

Also under the hood are chips that are far faster than you’ll find in most phones. The graphics processor enables some amazing 3-D effects, including background images that move and shimmer and ripple instead of just lying there. For more eye candy, visit the phone’s photo gallery, which can automatically display any images you’ve posted online at Google’s Picasa website.

Nexus One runs all the usual Android software, only better. Its high-powered main processor makes it the fastest Android phone I’ve seen. Apps just pop up and run, with lightning speed. And while earlier Android phones let you use speech to run Google searches, the Nexus One lets you talk your way through many other tasks. In a moving car, I recited an address to the Google Maps Navigation app. Despite all the highway noise, the phone understood me perfectly, and generated driving instructions in a few seconds.

Still, Nexus One has its flaws. Google hailed the Nexus One’s high-resolution video camera, but in a side-by-side shootout with another Android phone, the Verizon Droid, I got much sharper, clearer pictures from the Droid.

More importantly, Nexus One lags the Droid in phone call clarity. The Nexus boasts a noise-canceling system, designed to make your voice sound better to the people you call. But after placing calls in a noisy corner of the Globe’s newsroom, people told me the Droid calls sounded better, with much less background noise. The calls sounded better to me, too; the Nexus One speaker seems a bit weak and tinny.

I had no major problems with the Nexus One, but others say the phone sometimes loses access to T-Mobile’s 3G network. And unhappy customers have griped that it’s almost impossible to get help.

T-Mobile often sends them to Google, but Google only accepts complaints or questions via e-mail. Smart as the Googlers are, they seem new to the concept of customer service. They’d better learn, and fast.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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