State of the Art – Google Shakes but Doesn’t Upend the Cellphone Market

Google sure does love shaking up the system.

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Pool photo by Robert Galbraith

Google presented the Nexus One on Tuesday in Mountain View, Calif. The phone, which uses Google’s Android operating system, advances the state of the art and adds to the catalog of great app phones.

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Remember the original Google search page? It made news because your search results popped up fast and weren’t cluttered with ads. Remember when Google went public? It made news because the founders auctioned off shares to the public. Remember when Gmail came out? It made news because it offered 1,000 times the free storage space of competitors like Hotmail and Yahoo.

And now Google wants to shake up the way we buy cellphones — by letting you shop for the phone and the service independently, on a new Google Web site (Google.com/phone).

To introduce this phone store, on Tuesday, Google took the wraps off what may be the worst-kept secret on the Internet: a brand-new cellphone, designed by Google and made by HTC, called the Nexus One. It’s pretty sweet, it advances the state of the art, and it’s a welcome addition to the catalog of great app phones like the iPhone, Palm Pre and Motorola Droid.

You’ll pay $529 without a two-year contract for service with T-Mobile, or $179 with one.

But the truth is, the Google news this week isn’t quite as earthshaking as Google seems to think it is.

First, the new phone. It’s almost exactly the size and shape of the iPhone. Like most HTC phones, it’s bland-looking. But it’s so thin and rounded, it feels terrific in your hand.

It’s loaded with gleaming, attractive features. It’s hard to choose which is more gratifying: the speed — instant, smooth response when you’re opening programs and scrolling — or the huge, 3.7-inch touch screen, which has much finer resolution than the iPhone (480 by 800 pixels, versus 320 by 480).

There’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, like an iPhone, but also a removable one-day battery and a camera with an LED flash, autofocus and picture settings, although the photos themselves are roughly on par with the iPhone’s.

The Nexus has no physical keyboard — only an on-screen keyboard, with a handy suggestion feature that I actually prefer to the iPhone’s: as you start typing a word (“unfo”), the Nexus displays an entire row of likely candidates (“unfortunately,” “unfortunate,” “unfolding”), which you can tap, thus saving yourself more fiddly typing-on-glass.

Radically enough, you can also dictate anywhere you can type. The transcriptions aren’t what you’d call miraculous — accuracy is maybe 90 percent — but if you have simple messages, speak clearly and remember to pronounce your punctuation, this “experimental” feature is often much faster than typing. (The free Dragon Dictation app for iPhone does the same thing with better accuracy, but you have to copy and paste the results into your other programs.)

As you’d guess, the Nexus uses Google’s own Android operating system, so it’s very similar to, for example, the Motorola Droid phone.

You get an impressive, free, turn-by-turn GPS navigation program, and soon you’ll be able to buy a bedside dock that automatically turns the Nexus into a terrific alarm clock/weather/music station.

Google did make a few updates to the software especially for the Nexus, though. For example, 10 of the available screen backgrounds (wallpaper) are animated; one of them plasters the screen behind your icons with tall blowing grass against a blue sky that actually darkens as the day turns to night. It’s totally pointless and even distracting, but very cool indeed.

There’s better integration all around: you can upload pictures and videos straight to YouTube, Picasa, Facebook and so on, for example, and you can tap a person’s name and choose how you want to initiate contact (e-mail, phone, text message). And you have five “home screens” to fill with the icons of your apps (up from three on the Droid). All of these changes will soon come to other Android phones as a software update.

Despite these goodies, the Nexus is missing some important features that iPhone fans take for granted. For starters, the Google app store is much smaller, featuring 18,000 fun little games; there are well over 100,000 for the iPhone.

Worse, even if you find a lot of good ones, you might not have anywhere to install them. The Nexus can accommodate memory cards up to 32 gigabytes (a 4-gigabyte card comes with it) — and yet, inexplicably, the Nexus allots only a tiny 190 megabytes of storage for downloaded apps.

The Nexus doesn’t come with any iTunes-style companion software, either. Enterprising techies know about the free DoubleTwist program for Mac or Windows, which simulates iTunes for the purposes of loading up your phone with music, photos and videos. But even DoubleTwist doesn’t let you shop the Android app store from the comfort of your computer; you have to do it on the cramped little phone.

There’s no physical ringer on-off switch (you have to do it on the screen), and therefore no way to tell by touch if the ringer is off, as you can on the iPhone and Palm phones.

Sadly, the Nexus One also lacks a multitouch screen like the iPhone’s. So zooming into photos and Web pages is awkward and hard to control.

Recommend Next Article in Technology (1 of 23) » A version of this article appeared in print on January 6, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.

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