Scarcely 2 months after Motorola and Verizon launched the Android-powered DROID, Google is back with another high-end smartphone, the Nexus One, this time sold unlocked by Google directly, but also in partnership with T-Mobile, and with Verizon, Vodafone, and others coming online soon. Once again, the tech-blog hype has been off the charts, and once again the iPhone 3GS is being used as the great comparison. Fine then, let's compare!
If you're interested in either Apple's iPhone 3GS or Google's Nexus One, here are some points to consider...
First, go read our iPhone 3GS vs. Droid: Which One Should You Buy article. 90% of it applies identically to iPhone 3GS vs. Nexus One.
Finished? Okay, on with the differences.
Location: US or International?
The iPhone 3GS is pretty much a singular experience internationally. Outside of China where Wi-Fi is crippled in current models, and places like India where the 3GS has inexplicably still not be deployed, the iPhone you buy in the US is the same one you get throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and so on. Same hardware, same software (though it will come configured for your local language and keyboard type), and even the App Store is now in 77 countries (though not all apps are available in all countries -- some for language or licensing/carrier-specific regions, others simply because some developers have yet to embrace global market thinking). There are large differences in what can be found in Apple’s iTunes media store, especially when it comes to video like Movies and TV.
Android in general, including the Nexus One is more of a mixed bag. It’s available first and foremost in the US, though that will no doubt expand over time. Even then, however, some of the most compelling Google services for Android 2.0 will still be unavailable outside the US -- Google Voice and Google Maps Navigation, and might remain so for a while. Android Market, likewise, doesn’t support paid apps very well outside the US, making it far more difficult for developers to provide them and users to acquire them. Likewise, the US version of Android includes Amazon MP3, a service Amazon has extended to the UK but has utterly failed to push any further. Otherwise, you’re left to your own media devices. Tipping the scales back the other way, while Google still doesn’t provide multitouch for Google applications on the Nexus One in the US, it’s believed international versions will have multitouch baked in, just like what happened with the Motorola Droid/Milestone last month.
All this means that if you're in the US, decide how important multitouch in the built-in apps is to you. If you're outside the US, well, Google wouldn't support Google Voice or Google Maps Navigation for you on any device (and neither would Apple), so it's no joy for all.
Carrier: Unlocked or Subsidized
Over 70 countries now have the iPhone 3GS available, often heavily subsidized on multiple carriers, in some cases also offered unlocked (sometimes even directly from Apple). In sharp contrast, in the US the iPhone 3GS is only available subsidized but locked to AT&T. If you’re in the US and you like and get great service from AT&T, enjoy your iPhone. If, however, AT&T is less than stellar, you’d have to love the iPhone a lot in order to use it. If AT&T is non-existent where you work and live, it’s game over.
AT&T is a GSM/HSPA 3G network, which is the dominant technology internationally, which means you can take your iPhone traveling with roaming costs the only hindrance. Also, HSPA allows for the simultaneous use of cell data and telephone services -- you can surf the web or check email while on the phone.
Nexus One is available online and unlocked from Google, though currently when you go there from outside the US it shows up as unavailable. We've heard that will change in the (near?) future. However, the current model supports only T-Mobile's HSPA 3G frequency bands, which means if you want to use it on AT&T and many other carriers, you'll be using it on 2G. If T-Mobile 3G is good for you, however, you can get it subsidized even cheaper than an iPhone. And if you're prepared to wait a short while, you can get a Verizon version as well, though it will be locked to Verzion's network and you won't be able to travel outside the US with it. (One of the drawbacks of CDMA-only phones).
So once again, decide which carrier works best for you in the places you live an go, and if it's AT&T decide if you can live without 3G on the Nexus One (at least until Google releases an AT&T friendly version of the phone). If you're outside the US, check and see if it will get 3G on your carrier, and if that's Vodafone and you don't mind contracts, wait and see what kind of subsidy you'll get.
Hardware: Slab vs. Mega Slab
Nexus One boats the same form factor as the iPhone 3GS -- the full screen, touch-screen slab. But it's bigger and brighter (blindingly so in direct sunlight), spoiled or enhanced by more hardware keys, and harkens back to the aluminum trim of the original iPhone 2G.
In terms of specs, the Nexus One has a large, 480x800 AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) screen that's about on par with the Droid (some like it a tiny bit better, others only a tad less). Being AMOLED it looks much brighter than the iPhone 3GS' LED screen, but the OLED screens can also wash out in direct sunlight. Still, the extra pixels make a difference in web browsing and general sharpness.
The Nexus One doesn't have the 16GB or 32GB of internal storage that come with the iPhone, but it can use MicroSD cards that store just as much. It also has double the RAM of the iPhone 3GS, 512MB vs. 256MB. Finally, at its heart beats the massive 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, which should theoretically best the iPhone 3GS' 600 MHz Cortex A8. I say theoretically because the iPhone OS still seems to flow more smoothly, more often, then the better spec'ed Nexus One. This could just be Apple's attention to detail, which we'll return to later, but one paper Nexus One should be doing better and isn't quite yet.
Also, like the Droid, and as mentioned, the Nexus One in the US won't support multitouch for native apps like Google Maps or for the built in keyboard. This makes a noticeable difference in how visceral and tactile the touch interaction feels, and how fluidly the typing experience comes across. (Dieter thinks there might be some other issue with the Nexus One keyboard, but multitouch is the easy culprit to name). Either way, the raw typing is still much better on the iPhone.
Once again, still like the Droid, even though you can use up to a 32GB microUSB card, unless you “root” (hack) the DROID, you can’t store apps on that card. Due to piracy concerns, Android 2.1 still only allows you to install apps on 256MB of internal memory (some developers work around this by installing a small host app, then downloading extra data to the card). Depending on your usage pattern, that may not affect you, of course, and Google says they'll fix this with encryption in an update. But for gamers who want lengthy adventures with tons of textures, or offline navigation with all the localized maps, it could be an annoyance. The iPhone, by contrast, lets you use almost all available space for apps — up to just shy of 32GB on the high-end model.
Fortunately, the 5 megapixel camera on the Nexus One seems better than the problem plagued Droid, and physically much better than the iPhone 3GS 3 megapixel camera. It doesn't have HTC's Sense UI camera app, however, and either way the software implementation of the iPhone 3GS camera for stills and video -- tap to focus/white balance, embedded trim, sharing, etc. makes it more of an even fight than it ought to be.
Clearly the Nexus One, some six months newer than the iPhone 3GS, brings better hardware to the table. That the iPhone 3GS's build quality and what Apple manages to do with that hardware (the iPhone OS) to remain competitive is truly impressive and something people who want to consider the staying power of their purchase should consider. Those who want top-of-the-line today, well the Nexus One is all about that.
Software: iPhone 3.1 vs. Android 2.1
The iPhone hasn't received a software update since our iPhone 3GS vs. Droid comparison, so iPhone 3GS is still iPhone 3.1.2 and Android 2.1 is only slightly different than Android 2.0.
2.1 adds awesome voice activation features to the mix. There's a microphone button on the virtual keyboard that let's you talk to search, to begin navigation, even to launch apps. You can get a lot of that piecemeal on the iPhone via apps (including Google's own Google Mobile App for iPhone) but it can't match the integration and power of the Nexus One.
The other additions include animated wallpaper backgrounds (imagine Koi Pond as a home screen background). It's cool and nice-to-have, but not must-have until we see the impact on performance and battery. If it turns out there isn't one -- hey, cool and why not?
Lastly, there's a nice new animated photo gallery with accelerometer affects. It's not as intuitive to use as the iPhone's, but it makes an even better crowd-wowing demo and that's what made the iPhone's so famous to begin with. (Though it also lacks multitouch gestures).
Android 2.1, however, doesn't fix the lack of consistency and polish that's plagued Android in general to date (check out the Boy Genius' epic rant on that) any more than iPhone 3.1.2 addresses some of the gaping holes (notification management to name another) that remain a thorn in power iPhone users' sides.
For more on this, also check out my 2009 Smartphone Round Robin review on the Android Platform and thoughts on why Google is tending more towards power than passion.
Apps: iPhone App Store vs. Android Market
Nothing has changed here except both the App Store and the Market have more apps each. Go figure.
Device: Staying Power vs. Latest and Greatest
As mentioned above, that an iPhone 3GS is still competitive -- and more than competitive in many areas like media, user experience, apps, etc. -- with devices released this week like the Nexus One is a testament to just how well Apple can make and support an iPhone. Even people still on the original iPhone 2G are enjoying a large part of the iPhone 3.1.2 OS release just a few months ago. That's Apple's forte -- integrated devices with killer usability and software updates that reset the standards of expectation.
The Nexus One, however, has all the best and brightest of the new technologies, like 1 GHz processors and AMOLED screens, augmented reality and awesome voice support in the built-in apps. Some people really do consider phones to be fashion, or always want to have the very newest thing on the market, and given Android's model -- which produced the Droid two months ago and the Nexus One today -- Google is going to be very appealing to them.
If you buy a phone every year or two, and want to build up your apps and accessories, the iPhone will likely keep you happy longer and more effortlessly. If you get bored easily and want something fresh faster, with more diversity, Android in general and the Nexus One right now are where it's at.
Conclusion: Which One Should You Buy?
One paper, on hardware, and in Google services the Nexus One kills. In reality, Apple delivers a better user experience to more users around the world with a richer app and media ecosystem.
If you have T-Mobile in the US or can use those 3G bands, or don't mind waiting a short time for Verizon and maybe a more universal 3G GSM version, have given your soul to Gmail and Google's other services, demand the latest and greatest hardware on the planet, or just want a device that theoretically has more potential even if all of it may not be quite yet realized, if you want a platform where great new devices come out every other month -- the Nexus One may be for you. Until 2 months from now.
If you're on AT&T or most other GSM providers, don't feel like waiting for Apple and Verzion to figure out their differences, or live outside the US where Google's services are spotty-to-non-existant, if iTunes is where your media lives, if usability is more important to you than raw power, if Apple's control over the platform is a price you'll play for a more consistent platform, if you want a phone that's just as great 6 months in as it was at launch -- the iPhone 3GS might be it.
Normally here I'd tell you to try both, but there's a problem this time -- Google is only selling the Nexus One online right now. You can't walk into a T-Mobile store to try it, and there are no Google stores. If you don't mind ordering one and returning it quickly if you don't like it, by all means try both.
Most importantly, remember there'll be a new high end Android in a couple months if not sooner, and almost certainly a 4th generation iPhone in June/July. So if you can wait -- wait. We're in the age now where you get the best phone you can at the latest possible point you can, the enjoy it for as long as you can. In that regard, both these phones will do you fine, and which does you finer just depends on your individual needs.