Great software needs hardware that can keep up, and my new Nexus One is a sleek, awesome handset. But the most important ingredient in this generation of touchscreen smartphones is the software: the screen is just a canvas that software paints on, and Android 2.1 is a work of art.
Coming from the chunky G1, the thin and flat Nexus One hearkens back to my iPhone days. (It doesn’t require a holster, and slid into my jeans pocket it doesn’t make my thigh look too fat–it gets lots of vanity points for that.) The screen is huge and crisp; the dual noise-canceling microphones are sweet; the true headphone jack is much-appreciated, and the glowing trackball is a nice touch.
Now that that’s out of the way–the best part of the Nexus One is Android 2.1. If all goes well, many existing Android users will get that update even if they don’t get a new handset. After spending just a few hours with my new phone, here are a few of my favorite Android 2.1 features, in screenshots.
Click to enlarge each image to actual size (including the image of my current home screen, shown here).
First off, Android 2.1 has some satisfying eye candy that doesn’t necessarily make you more productive, but does make the phone more fun to use.
The application menu button has been replaced with a button that looks like a grid (see bottom of the first screenshot). When you tap it, your application icons fly into place to take over the desktop in their own grid, and you can scroll them back and forward as if they were on a 3-D cube, shown here.
Android 2.1’s Live Wallpapers move and react in different ways when you touch the desktop–again, not strictly useful, but they make the phone feel as if it is alive in your hand and responding to your every action.
Two new desktop widgets come in way handy: One offers one-click toggle of your most important settings (GPS, Bluetooth, screen brightness, and Wi-Fi on/off)*, and the other has top news stories for idle browsing when you’re on line at the grocery store. I’m not a widget gal–I trashed that big old clock first thing when I set up Android 1.5/6–but these two, along with the Google search box, are keepers.
* Update: Colin Ewen points out that the Power Control widget is not new, it was simply redesigned in Android 2.1. The news widget is new. Thanks, Colin!
Every single text area in Android 2.1 is speech-to-text enabled, which means you can say your text messages, emails, tweets, notes to self, whatever.
It works like Google’s voice-enabled search box does. You tap the microphone button on the keyboard, speak, and then the spinner grinds away at the recording, translating it to text.
Update: Instead of hunting down that small microphone button every time, you can also swipe across the keyboard to activate voice-to-text. (Similarly, to hide the keyboard, swipe down on it.)
The voice-to-text conversion takes a few seconds, depending on how much you said, and it requires a decent internet connection to complete. In a spotty area I got a few “Connection error” messages when I tried to speak my first tweet from the Nexus One using Seesmic. (That was disappointing.)
The results are hit or miss.
Sometimes they’re pretty decent. Here I said, “Every text area is speech-to-text enabled so you can speak your email, text messages, or tweets.” I didn’t say the punctuation, and you can see it borked the “is,” and missed the “so.” Not bad.
Not all results are that close, though. This is another set of results I got, saying the same exact thing as above.
Android continues to offer the best Gmail mobile client available on any platform. The latest version of Google’s Gmail Android app supports “Undo.” When you archive or delete a Gmail conversation, you get the option to Undo the action. (Great for when you accidentally tap something you didn’t mean to.)
The upgraded Gmail app also supports multiple accounts, so you can get mail from your work, personal, and moonlighting Gmail accounts in one interface. (Note that before you could get email from multiple accounts using the vanilla email client, but now you can get the Gmail experience for multiple accounts.)
Another “oh, that’s cool!” Gmail discovery: if you tap the dot next to a contact’s name, you get a pop-up with one-click access to that person’s information with their photo.
Update: Also just noticed the “Older” button at the bottom of an open Gmail message. That takes you to the next message in the list. There’s a “Newer” button in the menu options.
But back to contact photos…
I like to see photos of my friends on my phone, but never had the time or patience to manually assign photos to anyone who wasn’t my Mom or my spouse. Now I have more photos filled in than I ever did, thanks to Android’s built-in Facebook application. The FB app can sync Facebook profile photos into your existing contact list or add your Facebook friends to your phone’s contact list over the air with one tap. LOVE that. I barely use Facebook, but it was worth logging in using the pre-installed app just to suck in photos for my friends and family.
In fact, you can add one-tap Facebook contact access to your desktop. To do so, tap and hold the desktop, then choose “Folders” when the Add dialog comes up, tap “Facebook Phonebook.” The Facebook-branded folder icon opens up to a list like the one shown here.
Android 2.1 has a few web browser upgrades going on as well. Something from mobile Safari’s playbook: when you browse to certain Google Apps (like Wave, shown here, or Google Reader), the address bar hides itself automatically so the webapp goes full-screen. Swipe your finger as if you’re scrolling up to show it.
Your browser bookmarks appear in an attractive grid of thumbnailed page previews, ala Opera Fast Dial and Chrome. (If I’m not mistaken, Safari on the desktop does this, too.)
However, your History and Most Visited sites are just plain text lists. It used to be that the browser’s open windows would tile into previews, but that’s just a text list now as well. Interesting that your bookmarks are the only list of pages that appear as thumbnails previews.
Android 2.1 ships with a new Gallery application for your photos, which syncs with Picasa Web Albums. It includes photos you add to the phone’s hard drive or take with the phone itself. The default view is stacks of images grouped, from what I can tell, by date. (Note: I’m using doubleTwist to move music, photos, and video clips onto the phone.)
Tap on a stack of images to browse the thumbnails or swipe through a slideshow. If you tilt the phone or tap and drag around the edges in stack or thumbnail view, the photos tilt in a strange-but-cool effect (as shown).
New to me (but not Droid owners) is Android’s Car Home screen, for navigational purposes on the road. I haven’t had the chance to try this out yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. (My trusted Android informant Kevin at Lifehacker gave it his thumbs-up.)
It was great to see that Google Voice came pre-installed on the Nexus One, and telling GVoice to handle my new mobile number’s voicemail was literally a one-click affair. (Hopefully no one will ever even know my new mobile number, since I hope to go completely Google Voice from here on in.)
Speaking of, setting up this phone in general was dead-easy. You simply sign into your Google account on the phone and instantly your contacts, email, calendar, and Google Voice calls/history are on the phone–no syncing or importing necessary. The only reason why I connected it to my computer was to take screenshots for this post, and later, to move some music onto it.
I’m still very much on the Nexus One/Android 2.1 honeymoon, but I do have two minor gripes. First, you still can’t take screenshots on the device itself. WTF. (I had to jump through a bunch of developer hoops just to get screen caps for this post.) And second, I’ve accidentally tapped the Nexus One’s search and home buttons while reaching for the spacebar on the touch keyboard more than twice. The touch keyboard in general is going to take some getting used to.
So, what have I missed or glossed over when it comes to Android 2.1? Tell me what else is worth looking at.
Are you using it on AT&T with the unlocked version, or did you get it on T-Mobile. Curious to know if you’re seeing faster speeds on T-Mobile, given their announcement yesterday.
I went T-Mobile, since my contract is up soon, and using my AT&T SIM I would have only gotten on EDGE.
Excellent stuff Gina. I am still rolling with a G1 in the UK. Looking forward to the arrival of the N1 on these shores. I’m due an upgrade in a few months and will probably be choosing the N1 (assuming T-Mobile UK will offer it).
you should try out drocap2 for screenshots on the device, makes it super easy.
also, id suggest replacing the keyboard with swype, waaaaaay better. swypes not in the market yet i think but its around the interwebs.
Ah, I have to root for dropcap2, huh… Ok, that’s my next Android project. 🙂
“First, you still can’t take screenshots on the device itself. WTF.”
True, it’s not built-in, but there are 2 very good apps for that on the Market, ShootMe – shake to take a screenshot, and PicMe – access your device from the network with a browser and take a screenshot or control it remotely.
I just ordered mine yesterday and cant wait to get it!
Hows the battery life? That is the only downside I have heard about this phone and with the giant display and 1ghz processor I’m not too surprised.
Looks like Shootme only supports rooted phones, so my complaint still stands–there should be an easy way to take screencaps out of the box with no apps or rooting.
The gallery application is new. It can pull in your picasa web albums if you are signed in. Also the iphone headphone controller works for play/pause/forwarding music on the nexus. I’m not sure if this new.
I charged my Nexus One all night, unplugged it at 0600 and turned everything on(BT, WiFi, 3g, bunch of background processes, animated background)turned the screen brightness all the way up and i used it pretty much all day showing it off at work. It lasted 11 hours before it died a little bit ago. So better than my G1 for sure.
@giri: How do you import your Picasa web albums into the Gallery? I don’t see that option.
Also, the iPhone headphone controller working is crazy. I have a 1st gen iPhone headphone controller, so it doesn’t plug in all the way and I couldn’t test.
You just need to sign in with your google id. The gallery app automatically should pull in all your web albums.
I tried it with my 3GS headphones and was surprised to find that the controller works.
Seeing Evernote on that home screen brought a tear to my eyes. Evernote, Mint, and Pandora, and I’m set. I need this phone! Spring can’t get here fast enough.
What’s the word on tethering? Turned off by default right? The company I work for blocks just about everything, and I would love to possibly tether a netbook to this thing.
Did I mention my company blocks Evernote? How lame is that?
Could you test something for me Gina? Can you copy something from the Gmail app that IS NOT in a text input box? In 2.0.1, I have to hold shift on the Droid’s keyboard to copy something from an email.
Can the Nexus One be tethered for web access?
@Gina: If you install the Android SDK it comes with a screen capture tool. To use it you:
1. Install the Android SDK
2. Enable USB Debugging by going to Settings -> Applications -> Development on your phone
3. Connect your phone to your computer with its USB cable
4. Start DDMS which is located in [path_to_sdk]\Tools
5. Select your phone
6. Device -> Screen Capture
@Josh: I don’t think so… do you mean like an email address? or the body of a message?
@Sean: Yup, that’s what I did to take the screen caps you see in the post.
@tmoatsir: I think it has to be rooted for that, and I haven’t gotten that far yet.
@AdamBronte: Not sure about battery life yet, but all early indicators are very good.
All: I just added screenshots of the Gallery application to the post, which I finally got syncing to Picasa Web Albums. Thanks to giri for the reminder about that!
Excellent tour, thanks for the quick and detailed information. Over here in the netherlands it will not be for sale anytime soon, but my contract isn’t up anyway 🙂
Hey Gina Thanks for sharing your review.I was waiting for the reviews as we dont see the phone in UK yet. I am an iphone user. My personal take is no feature is so compelling to switch from iphone.
It’s still a PHONE, right? Why isn’t there a little green phone key on the front? This is my biggest gripe with the Droid — I get that this is a Google phone and all, but with 4 buttons on the front, I’d like ONE of them mapped to pull up the phone app (which I would then map to GV), instead of the search key, maybe?
Other than that, I think it looks great and I’m looking forward to 2.1 on the Droid…
One thing that I think hasn’t been mentioned (though it should be obvious) is that Cooliris must have had a hand in developing the Gallery application because the gallery application is called “com.cooliris.media”. Also, it has the 3D wall browsing that is common in Cooliris’ firefox plugin and website.
Thanks for the screen shot tour, Gina. Excellent as always. I can’t wait to get the 2.1 update on my Droid.
Thanks for the great review, Gina. I want this phone bad, but the one thing pulling hard on me towards an iPhone (besides my AT&T contract) is how well the iPhone integrates with my macs at home. For instance, the iPhone Remote app is ridiculously good. I’ve seen that this app has been reverse-engineered and made available for Android, but I’m curious how well this actually works on an N1. Has anyone run this on the N1 and can you compare to how well it runs on the iPhone? Are there other similar apps that integrate well with a mac (or PC) to provide similar functionality on a more general level?
As always: thanks for posting this wrap-up, Gina.
I’m really wanting one, but I have one question: when browsing a page on mobile Safari for iPhone I can double-tap on a column of text in a page and the browser automatically sizes to fit that column of text (and nothing else), for really easy reading.
Does the N1 browser work that way? I can give up multi-touch if I can just get that. I hate resizing a window on a blackberry just to have to scroll left and right to read every line of text in an article, or leave the zoom too wide and squint at tiny text with ads all around it.
If you have a moment to answer, thanks!
Birdbrains, yes it does.
@tmoatsjr – Last I heard, at least from the xda dev board, it works in concept, but it’s broken right now. I’m not sure if this is limited to Cyanogen’s “bacon one” build or all rooted N1s.
Cyanogen is also playing with a newer kernel build, but it has some bugs with the notification light right now. He says it adds some nice speed, which will be a nice rooting project for those with spare time.
The only reason I didn’t drop the $530 for the unlocked version the first moment I could is the lack of a hardware keyboard. Any geeks (especially those who like working in shells) out there think the features added is worth having to use the touch keyboard?
@tenley Many thanks!
Now to just find out if this whole 3G mess is actually a widespread problem:
@Gina: do you know if there is some sort of CPU scaling going on with the Nexus One? The reported battery life is substantially better than the stock Droid that I’m using.
Definitely would love to see that become part of Android very soon instead of requiring a rooting of the device.
I’m in Solana Beach and wondering how your 3G is in San Diego.
My T-Mobile plan has one more year so I can’t get any break on the price. Don’t want to spend the $500 unless I know 3G will actually work.
Gina, I meant can you copy something out of the body of a message in GMail?
Gina. Excellent overview of 2.1. Clear and easy to get thru. Thanks.
Just waiting for Google to release 2.1 to open source so I can have it on my Hero. Just hope it’s processor can cope 🙂
I see that the new gmail app accesses multiple gmail accounts. But does it have multiple push gmail accounts or is it one push and the others fetch?
Not to be critical, but a few of those features are not new to 2.1, but were also in 2.0 (Gmail dots, Facebook Integration, Visual Bookmarks) 🙂
Does anyone know where I can find more details regarding facebook sync? I would like to sync but dont want all of my fb contacts in my phone.
Does it have options to just sync the ones that are already in my Google address book?
Yes, there is an option to only sync to the contacts that you already have.
Hey Gina, great review, I love my N1.
One thing I would like to point out, you said you’re not a “widget gal” and I feel just like you do. But you don’t have to use the search widget. You have the dedicated search button which pulls up a search box and if you push and hold the search button, it will let you do a voice search. Now you can ditch the widget without losing any functionality!
Love listening to you on TWiG.
Thanks for the awesome rundown Gina! Can’t wait to get my Nexus One!
Anyone on T-Mo in South Florida know how 3G is down here? All of my friends have iPhones haha.