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Superphone smackdown 3: Nexus One vs. iPhone 3GS
      01/12/10 07:19 PM

Ok, here's the big smackdown: Iphone 3GS vs. the Google Nexus One. While the mainstream press covered Google's Nexus One announcement and release as a "Google releases a competitor to the iPhone" event, we're not sure it was meant to be all that. We think Google wanted to release a really high end Android phone to show its potential after 2009's recession resulted in a run of distinctly mid-range Android hardware. And Google is smart enough to know tech enthusiasts, the Nexus One's target market, are pretty sick of the whole "iPhone killer" thing. As they said at the event when asked about the iPhone challenge angle, "choice is good". But in so far as both are high end smartphones with hype and hot Silicon Valley companies behind them, who can help but wonder how these two stand up against each other? From the email we've recieved, we know a lot of you are considering making the switch to Google and HTC's latest hotness.

This isn't going to be as cut and dry a comparison as our Nexus One vs. Motorola Droid and Nexus One vs. Nokia N900. Those phones, even the N900, have more in common with each other than they do with the iPhone 3GS. They capitalize on fresh new (really new in the case of the Nokia N900's Maemo 5) Linux-based, somewhat open source operating systems and have extremely high end hardware. The iPhone, as usual, loses in a pure hardware comparison because it has good but not great hardware. We're talking about the camera, display and sound system. The CPU is plenty high end. So lets take a look at the same comparison points we've used for our other two Superphone Smackdowns:

Speed: Nexus One wins. The iPhone 3GS is pretty darned quick and has an impressive CPU plus GPU in the 600MHz Cortex A8 (the same CPU used in the Nokia N900). The iPhone can lag and think just a bit here and there. Part of that has to do with the lack of multi-tasking since it has to load each app up when you access it, rather than just wake it up from the background. The Nexus One simply does not lag and the UI flies even faster. That I GHz Snapdragon is is impressive, and the Nexus One has more RAM too.

Design and Build Quality: Tie. Looks are subjective but I'd still say the iPhone 3GS is more attractive and unique. But when it comes to solidness, quality materials and durability the Nexus One wins. The Nexus has a metal bezel and back section for rigidity and a durable soft touch finish back. In comparison, you just look at the iPhone's pretty plastic back and it scratches. and that pretty, slim plastic iPhone is so darned slippery. I'd never use the iPhone without a case thanks to the delicate finish and slippery back. I don't feel a need to encase the Nexus One.

Display: Nexus One wins. Both the iPhone 3GS and Nexus One have capacitive displays that are quite sensitive, but the Nexus One's is larger (3.7" vs. 3.5"), much higher resolution (iPhone = 320 x 480 and Nexus One = 480 x 800), and more colorful yet low power thanks to AMOLED technology. We give the nod to the iPhone for having better outdoor viewability and pinch zooming enabled in most apps (the Nexus One built-in apps for the US version don't make use of the OS support for pinch zooming though 3rd party apps can).

Sound: iPhone 3GS wins. This is a battle of the wimps since both have mono speakers that aren't very loud or full. But the iPhone's speaker is fuller than the Nexus One. Though a good set of stereo headphones we'd call it a draw.

Phone reception and call quality: Nexus One wins. We aren't going to make snarky comments about the iPhone's reception on AT&T, you've seen enough of that. And it's not exactly like T-Mobile has a killer 3G footprint vs. AT&T. The Nexus One has average reception on T-Mobile's 3G network and fine EDGE reception on AT&T. If you're an AT&T customer, we're not sure you'd want to give up 3G just to use a Nexus One-- that's a whole nuther plate of enchilladas.

I have both the iPhone 3G and the Nexus One and I can easily say the Nexus One has better voice quality. Good voice quality isn't the iPhone's strong point; it's just average at best.

Camera: Nexus One wins. Apple manages to get the most out of their 3 megapixel camera thanks to some excellent image and video post-processing, but it's still just 3MP, and there are like no camera settings, dude. And no flash either...

GPS: Tie. Both work well in terms of hardware and both work with Google Maps and TeleNav. In fact there's CoPilot too and goodness knows more. Google Maps on the Nexus One is much more sophisticated since it has that Google advantage.

Text Input: Nexus One. Both have large and lovely capacitive displays that make entering text on screen less painful than you'd think. But the Nexus One's screen and keyboard is larger and it has haptic feedback (you can turn haptic keyboard feedback on in settings). And, the big elephant in the room is Google's new voice feature which means you can stop tapping at virtual keys and just say what you mean. Presto and sorta pronto, you can speech to text everywhere (Dragon on the iPhone doesn't work everywhere, sorry).

Battery: Nexus One. Sorry, it's been said, over to the nth power, but the iPhone is pretty much the only phone on the planet with no battery door and no user-replaceable battery. The Nexus One is just as packed with hardware and yet manages to bit a tiny bit thinner than the iPhone, so Apple's argument about making it sealed to make it so thin just doesn't flie anymore.

In terms of battery life, they're both heavy hitter 3G hogs. If you use them heavily, both will want to sleep on the charger each night.

Multitasking: Nexus One wins. We didn't use this category in our other smackdowns because all the other phones in our comparisons multi-task while the iPhone is the only modern smartphone that doesn't. C'mon Apple! Multi-tasking hasn't killed my battery or allowed the evil empire to invade my other smartphones. Heaven forbid I want my Twitter and Facebook updating in the background, my IM to keep IM-ing and my RSS to notify me of new goodies *while* I'm using the web browser or playing slots.

Web browsing: Tie. Both have excellent webkit-based web browsers that can render desktop sites well. They render sites with close-enough speed over WiFi (we use WiFi to avoid carrier performance issues). Neither currently supports Flash but both have mobile YouTube players that can integrate with the browser.

The Nexus One will be getting Flash Player 10.1 in the next few months, which may move it ahead. But for now, the Nokia N900 has them both beat thanks to Flash 9.4, fast performance and the best desktop rendering.

Software: This is the killer section, the one that thows a big wrench in the cogs of comparison. The one that gets folks screaming "Apple fanboi!" or "Android head!". First off, a little disclosure: I own both phones and I like both phones. I also like my Nokia N900 and my HTC HD2. I try to not like my BlackBerry because when I use it, I don't have a life (lucky me, I can make that choice since I'm the boss).

I appreciate any phone that's done well in terms of software, experience and high end hardware. My iPhone 3GS spends a lot of time in the desk drawer because I constantly have to test other phones and because I get bored with its immutable user experience. I can't customize or change anything (unless I want to jailbreak it). At the same time I couldn't imagine selling it because it's a darned fun smartphone, there are a lot of interesting apps for it and it's reliable and stable.

So it's the usual argument: a controlled enviroment and the predictable behavior it affords or a highly customizable experience that has a higher learning curve and the possibility of instability. If you want a totally cool phone that behaves the same way every day, the iPhone is it. Once you've learned how to use it, you're set. Apps (there are a few exceptions), can't run in the background so they can't slow down your phone nor can they drain the battery quickly. It's a marvelous user experience, though it hasn't changed much in 3 generations of iPhones. Apple better have a next gen game plan, because other smartphone operating systems are doing a decent job of catching up on the Apple phone that started the revolution.

While the iPhone is a great phone for having fun with games and consuming multimedia, it's not really a business phone. You can't customize your home screen for work on the go. I want to turn on my phone and see my upcoming appointments, latest RSS headlines, tweets and emails. I don't want to swipe and tap and launch several different apps to do this when I'm running to catch a plane or heading to a meeting. Multi-screen desktops and widgets on Android take care of this for me.

Likewise, without background apps and something like widgets, it's not a social networking maven's dream. Compare the iPhone to the Android OS Motorola Cliq running Moto BLUR and you'll see what I mean.

Multimedia consumption is simply wonderful on the iPhone. If you're into music and watching videos you've stored on that 16 or 32 gigs of flash memory it's hard to beat the iPhone, Cover Flow and its myriad playlist options. After all, the iPhone is the world's best iPod. Both the iPhone OS and Android could do well to expand video file format support, but in the iPhone's case, everything is managed (or micro-managed) through iTunes, taking care of some of the conversion issues.

Android needs some kind of desktop multimedia sync connector, particularly for music if they want the average music-loving Jane and Joe to pick their phone. There are 3rd party apps that help transfer iTunes playlists to Android phones over USB-- why doesn't Google buy one of them and include it with every Android phone?! Cloud syncing isn't the answer to everything just yet, Google.

Applications, including 3rd party apps, are a part of the software experience. Clearly Apple is the gorilla here with their 100,000+ apps in iTunes. Granted every eBook title counts as an app, even though it's really a book, and there are other not-quite fair entries padding the numbers, but there are certainly by far more applications for the iPhone than any other platform.

You can argue that we don't really need 541 calculators and it is hard to pick a good one when so many come up in search results. But software junkies will never get bored. The Android Market now has around 10,000 apps, which is also an absurdly high number, especially for a platform that's just over a year old. I have no trouble finding the apps that I need and the prices are comparable to iTunes (free to $5). But the iPhone rules gaming: from casual titles to 3D games, there are a gazillion good games. Android? Not so much. We're starting to see this improve with 3D support in the OS and fast hardware, but for now if you're seriously into mobile gaming, only Apple has you blanketed in bliss.

And the winner? The Nexus One wins on our mostly hardware-based criteria. When it comes to user experience, I can't declare a winner. They're both good at different things, and honestly my dream would be some impossible marriage of the two. If you want flexibility, customizability and openness on really high end hardware, go with the Nexus One. If you want a fantastic iPod, a fun UI, tanker-loads of apps and a very controlled experience, go for the iPhone.

US readers: don't forget 3G issues: if you're on AT&T, only the iPhone 3GS will get you 3G. T-Mobile folks: no 3G iPhone for you but you get both the Nexus One and the Nokia N900. The Moto Droid? Verizon only.

Be sure to read our reviews of these smartphones:

Google Nexus One review

iPhone 3GS review

Nokia N900 review

Motorola Droid review

And if your interested, read our comparison of the Nexus One and Nokia N900

and our comparison of the Nexus One and Motorola Droid.


Lisa Gade
Editor in Chief, MobileTechReview

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