Less than a week ago, Google introduced its own Android phone, the Nexus One. Over the weekend, we got a chance to take the phone through its paces and while we aren’t quite ready to give up our iPhone yet, the Nexus One is a formidable challenger. Apple will clearly have to step up its game with the next iPhone if it wants to hold off Android’s momentum. In terms of features, the Nexus One is already on par with the iPhone platform and beats it in many areas. When it comes to the overall user experience, the iPhone is still a step ahead of the Android platform, but that could easily change in the near future.

Hardware

For the sake of this review, we won’t look at the Nexus One hardware in great detail. Suffice to say, the 1GHz Snapdragon processor makes the phone extremely fast and the 3.7 inch AMOLED screen simply looks gorgeous. While it isn’t much bigger than the iPhone’s screen, the difference in resolution (800×400) is quite noticeable. We didn’t get a chance to formally test the phone’s battery life, but unless we made extensive use of the GPS, it easily got through a day’s use without needing a recharge.

The phone’s five megapixel camera works just as advertised – though the camera app isn’t the prettiest app on the phone. Picture quality was generally on par with pictures from the iPhone 3GS, though the built-in LED flash gives the phone an important additional feature that Apple doesn’t currently offer.

In the long run, the big difference between the two platforms isn’t the hardware but the operating system. After all, the iPhone 3GS is also quite fast and we haven’t heard a lot of complaints about the iPhone’s screen. Android 2.1 isn’t a major step up from version 2.0, but it does introduce some notable new features, including the ability to use voice in every application that brings up the built-in virtual keyboard.

Android 2.1

While the Nexus One isn’t an iPhone killer, it’s already on par with Apple’s phone in many regards. As Google and the developer community that has grown around Android continues to improve the OS, it is only a matter of time before Apple will have to react with an updated version of its iPhone OS.

Here are some of the features that make the Nexus One and Android 2.1 a winner in our opinion. We should note there are some unresolved customer service and hardware issues that have made headlines over the last few days. We didn’t experience any of these problems ourselves, but your mileage may vary.

Nexus One and Android 2.1 vs. the iPhone

  • Google Navigation: When it was released for Android 2.0, we described Google’s own GPS application as the first “killer feature” for Android. Google hasn’t really updated this app in 2.1, but it remains one of the signature features for Android. This is also one of the many apps that showcases Android’s ability to multitask. On the iPhone, for example, you have to exit the GPS app while you check your email. On an Android phone, the app simply continues to run in the background and continues to give you voice prompts.
  • Voice Recognition: We were quite skeptical about this feature at first. Every time Android 2.1 brings up the keyboard, you now have the option to dictate text into the phone. This works surprisingly well and makes writing a quick email or tweet very easy. Some apps, including Google Navigation, can also handle more complex voice commands. On the iPhone, the newly updated Dragon Natural Speaking app works similarly well, but suffers from the fact that it isn’t integrated into every application on the phone.
  • Multitasking: Other smartphones like the Palm Pre also feature multitasking for third-party apps and handle switching between these apps better than Android. At the same time, though, one of the iPhone Achilles’ heels is its inability to run more than one non-Apple app at a time. No such problem with Android, though running a lot of apps in the background can put a lot of strain on the battery.
  • Back Button: Besides the volume controls, the iPhone only features one button. The Nexus features quite a few more (back, menu, home, and search, plus a trackball). The back button is likely the most useful of these and works just like your browser’s back button. On the iPhone, whenever an app takes you to a browser, the app quits and opens up the browser, leaving you no easy way to get back to the app. On Android phones, you simply click the back button and you’re back to where you started.
  • Google Voice: If you use Google Voice, you are surely aware of the controversy around getting the Google Voice app on the iPhone. On Android, it’s simply a built-in feature and works perfectly. You can even set up the phone to route international calls through Google Voice by default.
  • Photo Gallery: Google worked with Cooliris to integrate the company’s signature 3D-view of your photos into the Android photo gallery app. This is easily the prettiest and most useful default gallery app we have seen on any phone to date.
  • Google Integration: If you are heavily invested in the Google universe, then setting up Android is as easy as it gets. When you first start up the Nexus One (or any other Android phone for that matter), the phone will ask you for your Google Account credentials. Once you enter these, the phone will set up all the Google apps on the phone for you. The phone sets up your email accounts and downloads contacts from Google Contacts. The gallery app connects to Picasa and the calendar connects to Google Calendar.

Areas for Improvement

But there are also some areas where the iPhone is still a clear winner:

  • Music: For now, Android’s music app doesn’t come close to the iPhone’s native iPod app. While it’s not woefully bad, it also doesn’t come close to the design and functionality of the iPhone.
  • User Interface: While Android 2.1 looks pretty nice and offers some cool new eye candy like animated wallpapers, Apple is still one step ahead of Google when it comes to the fit and finish of the built-in apps. Also, while we love the back button on the Nexus One, using the menu button isn’t very intuitive and quite a few people we showed the phone to struggled to understand its functions.
  • App Store: No doubt, Apple’s App Store features far more applications than the Android Market. Especially when it comes to games, Apple beats Google hands down.
  • OS Updates for Everybody: You can reasonably assume that the iPhone you buy today will be supported with OS updates for the two years of your contract. With Android, you can’t be so sure about that. It’s still a moving target and quite a few early adopters are still stuck with Android 1.5 because their vendors never updated the phone or because their phones don’t feature the necessary hardware to run later versions of the OS.

As we pointed out last week, the Nexus One and Android 2.1 aren’t quite ready for the enterprise yet, and Google has to work on the security features of the phone and software before it can become a major player in this market. Google, however, is aware of this and is already working on an enterprise version of the phone.

Verdict

Overall, we were very impressed with the phone’s hardware and software. Android 2.1 could still benefit from some design work, but in terms of features and functionality, Android can now easily compete with the iPhone.

Disclaimer: Google provided us with a loaner unit and a working SIM card free of charge.