Of sidearms, wands and lightsabers, part 2

The first thing you have to know – and I think this is a major flaw in Google’s planning – is that you can’t figure out the ins and outs of a phone in five minutes in the cell phone shop. But you can certainly get a better feel from it than you do from, you know, the website. I am lucky enough to know a few people who pack a Nexus One, so I’ve probably seen more of it in action than most folks – but believe me when I say that a Flash graphic to which you match your hand size is no substitute for actually feeling the thing in your hand.

And make no mistake, the Nexus One has the best feel of anything to come along since the original iPhone. It’s metal, it’s tangible, it’s got some heft and feels like a solid piece of work. From the time the cellphone fixation began, the phones I always coveted but never managed to get were things like the SonyEricsson T616 or K700i, or the Moto V635 that I eventually bought in 2005 – all metal. (At least I think the K700 was – couldn’t actually find it in this country.) I know the plastic back of the 3G-capable iPhones was necessary to help accommodate the wide array of antennae but dammit, I want the metal back. Hell, the Nexus One’s even got space for engraving.

Thing is, I haven’t had time to really test drive it, not could I…because it’s only got 1700 Mhz domestic 3G capability. Which is only on T-Mobile. (As far as I know, no other carrier in the world uses 1700 Mhz spectrum.) So if you want to use the full capacity of the phone, you’re as locked to T-Mob as surely as the iPhone locks you into AT&T. That partition of 3G space has done more to undo the past few years of cellphone unlocking than any actual carrier subsidy lock – sure, I could jailbreak the iPhone and use it on T-Mobile, but with no 3G coverage, what’s the point? Using a smartphone on EDGE for anything tougher than email or maybe text RSS reading is a misery.

So I’ve been limited to reading online reviews, and I’ve had to scuffle some to find reviews that take place after the person’s used the device for a couple of weeks. So far, most of the Nexus One complaints seem to be down to battery life and 3G issues caused by some sort of networking software glitch that has just been fixed. I guess nobody has good 3G when you get down to it.

(Aside here: the Droid is simply not an option. I won’t have a CDMA phone because even if my GSM phones give me gimped portability, the CDMAs give me none at all. Plus, the Droid’s keyboard is a joke and it’s not worth having the physical bulk and mechanical vulnerability. F that Droid.)

The big thing now with smartphones, it seems, is speed. I read one review of a guy who was trying the original G1 for a month – in six days, he’d given up and gone back to an iPhone because the G1 was so damned slow. The iPhone 3GS started the speed wars, Android 2 bumped it up, and the Nexus One – with its famous 1 Ghz Snapdragon processor – really throws down the gauntlet. And in the last six to nine months, the speed factor is starting to show its face – you’re seeing applications, even web apps, that drag when used on the older iPhone processors. Faster proc, more RAM – that’s the biggest differentiator for the iPhone 3GS over its predecessors, and it’s the thing that makes the Nexus One such a star.

As for apps…clearly, the fit and finish of the Android products is not up to scratch with the best of the iPhone apps. On the other hand, you can find pretty much anything you like in the Android Marketplace without any sort of gatekeeper approving apps. You pays your money (or not) and you takes your chances, although personally, the main apps I would use – things like Facebook or Foursquare – are all going to be there. Really, it’s like Mac vs Windows back in the day – the Microsoft fanboys would bag on how many more applications there were for Windows, conveniently avoiding the fact that 85% of those apps were pigshit or worse. The top stuff you wanted – Photoshop, Office, FM Pro, Eudora – that was there for everybody. I have no doubt the case will be similar here – even the most prominent Android-only app, Sherpa, has made its way to the iPhone under the name Geodelic; if you have an iPhone and don’t have Geodelic, stop reading this drivel and go download it now. Now now now.

Right now, it’s generally assumed that the iPhone has a more elegant media playback system, and this appears to be the case based on current chatter. But then, the company that invented the iPod isn’t going to skimp on that. The Android phones in general and the Nexus One in particular give the impression that they are communications devices first and media players as an afterthought. However, 90% of what I listen to these days are podcasts, so assuming an Android app that will let you directly subscribe and/or download, and sufficient room (say, 4 GB or so) for them, I’d say my podcasts would be fine on the Nexus. As for my music, well, before long all of it will be free of DRM by hook or by crook, so portability of my songs in iTunes is no longer a consideration.

The other thing about the Nexus One – and Android phones generally – is that they are well pledged to the cloud in general and Google’s services in particular. There’s not really much provision for syncing it to your PC, because the presumption is that you’ll never *need* to sync it to your PC – and if you had the battery life and a mechanism for streaming your own music library, you might just never need to. The iPhone really doesn’t quite get there, mostly because of the music and media sideloading issue. You can’t sync an iPhone over a network, and trying to download all your content directly onto the phone routinely isn’t the easiest thing in the world even if you’re not having to re-buy media content.

Ultimately, though, anything that tethers too tight to the cloud is a leap of faith – that you trust the cloud service to be accessible, be reliable, and be secure. Right now, my resource of final resort is a system owned and administered by my brother-in-law, who runs a tight shop and has, to the best of my knowledge, never had meaningful downtime on this site or on my personal email. I couldn’t say that for mac.com or Gmail. Nor am I really comfortable with many (if any) of the free services out there – they’ve got your data, and at some point, they may want to monetize it. (Google makes no bones about this, which is a bit discomforting until you realize that a lot of other sources COULD do it and just aren’t telling you whether they are or not.) I realize that asking Apple to make an iPhone with no Apple dependencies is as foolish as asking Google to turn out an Android phone with no Google dependencies – but the first company that can produce such a product, either way, and comparably-equipped, will have my undivided attention.

Postscript: I know Verizon is moving to LTE, and AT&T as well, while T-Mobile is going to try to hang on with HSPA+ and Sprint is clinging to WiMax like a drunk to a lamppost. Given that the iPhone 3GS and Nexus One both support HSPA with a theoretical max 7.2Mbps throughput, and that commercial LTE isn’t going to be widely available before the end of 2011 most likely, and that Apple almost certainly won’t do an iPhone for Verizon until it’s an LTE phone – I say all that to say this: I can probably buy my next phone, on a contract, and not regret it until it comes around again in 2012. I can also say that the notion of buying an unlocked Nexus One and getting the corresponding reduced-rate T-Mobile service is quite seductive, especially since it would mean no monthly contract. If I’m honest, I do want to keep my options open against the day that somebody decided to start metering phone data and charging accordingly – and you’re a fool if you don’t think that day is coming sooner rather than later, after the bloodbath AT&T is taking in New York and San Francisco.

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