We don’t take much time here on Gadling to review mobile phones – and rightfully so, as there are plenty of other sites that do a much better job than we can pull off. Still, there is something to be said about a phone review that has a strong focus on travel, and describing why a certain phone (and its mobile operating system) are the best available choice for active travelers.
In this review – we’ll take a closer look at the Google Nexus One, and the Android operating system powering it. First a brief refresher – Android is a product of the Open Handset Alliance, a group of 65 companies that got together to develop a mobile operating system. Android is often (incorrectly) referred to as “the Google phone” – even though Google is just another member of the alliance, it is most certainly not “Google only”. That said – most phones released do come with great Google integration along with several very powerful Google built applications.Here are some of the reasons I personally feel that Android is the best pick for travelers – obviously you are free to disagree with me, because everyone has different requirements from their phone.
Multitasking and notifications
Yes – Android is not the only phone in the world that can multitask – but it does this without any hullabaloo (and certainly none of the fanfare Apple used to announce multitasking on the upcoming iPhone OS). Android has done multitasking since the very first phone, in the very first version.
There is no task manager required (though you can install one), there is no complicated app double-tap to see running tasks, and there is nothing to worry about – apps run in the background, and you can surf the web and listen to Pandora or Slacker without having to think twice.
The same applies to any app – checking flight times in TripIt? You can leave TripIt, read an email and return to TripIt right where you left off – without having to log in again or start from scratch. Seriously – it makes the entire experience so much more efficient.
Best of all – multitasking is so integrated in the OS, that battery life is not impacted too much when you push the device to its limits. On most Android powered devices, battery life is between 18 and 36 hours, depending on usage.
The notification system on Android is (in my opinion) the best of any mobile operating system. There are no silly push notifications that rely on other servers to hope you catch their message on time – all apps can run in the background, and send notifications to the pull-down notifier available from almost any screen. Gate change? It’ll notify you right away, and you don’t have to worry about missing the little popup window.
Applications and the Android Marketplace
Android now boasts more than 50,000 apps – an impressive performance, especially when you look at its initial slow growth. But now Android is taking off at such an insane pace, developers are keeping up.
There is no denying that the iPhone is miles ahead of what Android has to offer – but the majority of the apps that travelers use on the iPhone are also on Android. Apps like Urbanspoon, FlightTrack Pro, TripIt and more have been available for several months now.
Best of all, the Android Marketplace allows for 24 hour trials of all apps along with carrier and credit-card billing. No longer will you fall for an app purchase, only to discover that the app is useless or broken – simply uninstall within 24 hours and you won’t be charged.
The default Android apps on a Google experience phone include Google maps, YouTube, the fantastic Android browser, Google Voice support and a variety of standard programs like calendar, contacts and a calculator.
Additional Google apps add things like Google Earth, Google Sky Map and Google Goggles (all free).
Oh, and Google Maps on Android does free turn by turn navigation – without any monthly fees.
Widgets and your home screen
This is the part I love the most about Android – on most recent Android versions, you get at least four different home screens – and these home screens can be filled with almost anything you want – from application shortcuts to direct dial and text message buttons. The majority of quality apps also offer widgets – instead of having to open FlightTrack, I can simply place its widget on my home screen.
Best of all, I can create different home screens for different events – so I have a “business” screen and a “personal” screen, both offering different apps and shortcuts.
Google integration is as seamless as it gets
With Google life is simple – you either use it (and love it), or you don’t. In my case, my life revolves around Google. I use it for my mail, my searches, my contacts, my calendar, my domain names and even as a way to track where my friends and family are.
Yes – I put a lot of faith in Google, but they have never let me down. Google integration on Android is amazing – you enter your Google account, and you are done. The phone syncs everything from Google to your phone. Changes made in your Google calendar are immediately pushed to your phone (and vice-versa). The same applies to contacts and emails.
If you have multiple Google accounts, you can add them, and manage them in the email client. Added a photo to a contact on your phone? That same photo is instantly synced to your online client where it is viewable in your contacts.
Another great part of the Google integration is voice control – you can use your voice in almost any portion of the phone – from entering an address in Google maps, to searches and even within text entry.
Multimedia is where it should be (finally)
The initial offering of multimedia applications on Android was quite pathetic – it played music, but no videos. It had a headphone jack, but no Bluetooth audio. Those days are long gone, and the current multimedia system on Android is fantastic.
The platform has Slacker, Pandora and (coming soon) Sirius Radio. The video player is excellent, and there are several very easy to use add-on multimedia players. You can search Youtube, and upload video from the phone directly to Youtube, browse photo galleries using the new gallery app, and sync/send photos to any number of photo hosting services.
iTunes users can even sync their Android phone using Doubletwist which also converts and syncs most popular video file formats. And yes – Doubletwist is free.
Android is an open world
Almost every Android powered phone can be “rooted” (a term describing a method of obtaining full and unrestricted access to the device) – and while the process often voids your warranty, the rewards are usually worth it.
There is a massive developer world where smart people make Android even better than it is today. Some developers release new and improved versions of the phone firmware several times a week – unlocking even more features.
But, even if you don’t want to risk unlocking your phone, the entire Android system is more open than most mobile operating systems on the market. Want a different touch-screen keyboard? Go ahead. Need to be able to “tether” your phone to your laptop? No problem. Want a nice rotating 3D wallpaper? Go ahead. Google Voice? Already installed. The list goes on and on. Android may not be a fully open system (without rooting there are still things you can’t do), but those restrictions are mainly in place to prevent you from breaking stuff.
In addition to this, Google (who operate the marketplace) are not constantly trying to police what you can download. They don’t care if you like porn apps, apps that are overly political, or apps that “may replace core apps on the phone”. Developers can write and sell any app they want – though there is obviously some protection against rogue apps.
In the Android world, Adobe Flash is soon going to become a reality – unlike on the iPhone where Apple has pretty much decided that Flash is useless and that it’ll never come to their phone. Anyone that has browsed the web knows how much Flash content there is – and why Flash support is important. Both Adobe Flash 10.1 and Adobe AIR 2.0 will be released as beta versions very soon.
Choice in operators and phones
Android started as one phone on one operator – and has now evolved into something much, much bigger. Android phones are now available on the four largest operators in the country, along with countless international operators. Phones come from companies like Motorola, LG, Samsung, HTC, Sony-Ericsson and even companies like Acer, Dell and Lenovo are getting on board.
Best of all – Android is not just a system that powers phones – Android media tablets are available from Archos and even the Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader is an Android powered device.
The end result is that you can pick based on price, brand, features or operator – and make sure you get the phone you really want, without having to settle.
What is not so good?
Life in Android land isn’t all perfect – because so many companies make Android phones, there is some “fragmentation” in the version of Android installed on the phone. Some phones come with the newest version, others may still be shipped with a year old version. Thankfully, Google has acknowledged the problem, and should be able to push updates to phones regardless of the manufacturer and model, greatly reducing the time it takes for updates to be released.
Also, Android phones lack the immense accessory lineup offered to iPhone owners. Sure, there are some cases, cables and docks – but forget finding an Android suitable alarm clock or solar powered case.
And finally – if you are a hardcore gamer, the assortment of games on Android will probably disappoint you. There are some great titles, but nowhere near the entertainment value of iPhone or portable gaming consoles.
So – why Android for travelers?
Looking at all of the above – it makes sense to pick Android as your mobile operating system. As a traveler, I prefer Android because of the Google integration, widgets, free navigation support and availability of hardware.
Google integration means my phone and Google are always in sync – if I happen to lose my phone, I can remotely track, lock or wipe it (using WaveSecure), pick up a new Android phone and as soon as it is done syncing, everything is back in place. There are no monthly fees for this, as it is all part of the Google world.
Because my wife and I share calendars, she can add things to my schedule, and anything she adds to TripIt is also automatically added to my phone (and this obviously also works the other way around). I don’t need to pay for an Exchange service, and I don’t need a yearly subscription to MobileMe.
Widgets make my life easier because I can see more without having to open apps for everything. I even have a widget that shows a camera image of my front door (so I can check for packages left by FedEx or UPS). My FlightTrack widget shows my upcoming flights, and Weatherbug shows the weather forecast (based on my current location). I even have a Widget that controls the TiVo in my bedroom (which is handy when I can’t find the remote).
Free Google maps with navigation allow me to leave my dedicated GPS system at home. Google maps with navigation is a full navigation system, with support for driving or walking. Add a nice car mount, and you have yourself a perfectly usable navigation device (though I must point out that you will need a data connection for the maps to be accessed). Other than my monthly data plan, there are no fees for Google navigation.
And finally – availability of hardware. With Android, I don’t need to wait for the next new phone – new devices are coming out almost monthly, and even though the investment is steep (this is an expensive hobby), I can have the latest and greatest phone 4 or 5 times a year, instead of once a year.
The Google Nexus One
At the moment – the Google Nexus One is the best there is for people on T-Mobile or AT&T in the U.S. Of course, “the best” can change in a matter of weeks, when the next new phone is released.
Inside the Nexus One is a 1GHz processor, a 5 megapixel auto-focus camera (with flash) and a really stunning OLED display with 800×480 pixels (which is not very good in direct sunlight). The phone has GPS, a compass, accelerometer, and worldwide 3G support. Best of all – the GPS and compass are put to amazing use inside Google maps street view – simply start the app, and point your phone around – it’ll show street views based on what it is looking at.
The phone looks good, feels good, and has enough power to handle anything I throw at it. Memory expansion comes from a MicroSD card – 16GB cards can be found for just $40, and 32GB cards are on their way. Oh, and I can obviously invest in a spare battery, because unlike some brands, Google doesn’t mind me removing the back panel to replace my own damn battery.
The Nexus One is available with a new (or extended) contract for $179 (only available for T-Mobile), or for $529 unlocked and without a contract for customers on T-Mobile and AT&T in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada. Within the next couple of months, the phone will be available for Sprint and Verizon in the U.S. Vodafone in Europe is getting it on April 30.
Buying the unlocked version means you can swap out the sim card when you travel – all without the need for a paperclip or “sim card removal tool”.
The future of Android is secure
The future of Android handsets looks bright – this summer, Sprint will be releasing the HTC EVO 4G – an Android device with 3G and 4G access, along with an amazing screen, great camera and TV-output. In just two years, Android has evolved from a pretty basic device onto the most powerful mobile phone ever developed.
I’ve been a phone freak for years – and rarely keep the same phone for more than 4 months, but after almost 200 different phones, Android has become my new home – and a home I don’t see myself leaving any time soon. The phone may change, but the operating system feel just right for my needs.
Of course, hardware support isn’t the only driving force – as more and more developers try to make money with their Android apps, the quality of programs in the Android Marketplace will get better every month.