Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nexus One, an Android

I've had an iPhone since shortly after they were first released, nearly three years now. For the most part, I've enjoyed it. These days, particularly when it comes to electronic devices, three years is a really long time; as such, it's almost difficult to recall why the iPhone had the hype it had. One thing to recall is that the app store, which is now probably the most attractive and well known feature of the phone, didn't exist when the phone first came out. The reason the iPhone was viewed as revolutionary (and that it was) was because it was the first cell phone to give what could be called functional access to the Internet, where most all websites were available to a mobile phone without any modifications. Clearly the Internet has revolutionized society; the movement from being available only on home computers to being available almost anywhere with cell reception is undoubtedly a movement that has been similarly transformative.

The availability of the whole content of the Internet, many Terabytes of information, on a diminutive device feeling like a polished stone, is practically inconceivable to me. But the notion is one conceived many times over in the science fiction canon. The most obvious example I know of is the device which shares the name of the book in which it resides: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In his remarkable series Cosmos, Carl Sagan repeatedly fantasizes about perusing the fundamentally similar, fictional Encyclopaedia Galactica, a compendium of all the knowledge gathered throughout the existence of an intergalactic species. Both of these bits of media originate around 1978, a time in which something like the iPhone and the Internet must have been considered far out by any reasoning; it is apparent that at least two foraward thinking people saw such a device as a product of civilizations living on a galactic scale.

From 1978 the iPhone must have been a long way away, considering the primitive original Apple Macintosh didn't even hit the market until January of 1984, though development started in 1979. The Macintosh had an 8 MHz processor, 128 KB of RAM, and a 9" 512x342 monochrome display. Fast forward 23.5 years, and though our progress in intergalactic exploration hadn't much changed from naught, our computers had made unexpected advances! The original iPhone runs at 412 MHz, 128 MB of RAM, and a 3.5" 320x480 18-bit color display--it's roughly 52 times faster, has 1,000 times more memory, and a far superior display. It fits in a pocket and can run all day without needing a charge, it can replace books, newspapers, televisions, and the list goes on beyond any reasonable expectations.

Three years later, the revolution of Internet on a phone has taken place, and giant leap taken all that remains is incremental improvements: the Nexus One. This past December there was a buzz about the web as rumors of a Google phone spread. The buzz persisted for a little while and then mysteriously subsisted. The Google phone arrived almost as if it were secret all along, almost as if it remained a secret--from what I've read, the sales of the device aren't remotely as impressive as those for the iPhone. But for what it lacks in popular perception, it makes up for in spec: 1 GHz processor, 512 MB RAM, 3.7" 800x480 display, or about twice an iPhone. Having just recently mentioned that GHz isn't a very important measure, I'd be foolish to regard that as a concrete measure of performance; it isn't, but the Nexus One noticeably outperforms the iPhone in every respect. Interestingly enough, the Nexus One matches or exceeds the recently released iPad in almost every spec except for screen resolution--it's truly a remarkable device.

One of the things about today's cell phones, also called smart phones or super phones, is that they're actually powerful little computers masquerading as phones. The iPhone does a very good job at hiding the power under it's hood, and this is very much one of the reasons I chose to go with a Nexus One over another iPhone; the Nexus One has only a thin veil to hide the fact that it's a computer running a version of Linux. In order to write an application for the iPhone, one needs to pay Apple about $100 to apply for the opportunity. If they choose to accept you, there are a number of steps to follow, including authorizing a particular device, associating it with a particular machine, writing particular code, and accepting a very hefty agreement which includes conditions such as not displaying your device in public and the right of Apple to take ownership of your code without notification or recompense. The $100 only covers one year--every year requires another $100 to continue participation. I did go through this process at some point, but I didn't get as far as getting code onto a device before my membership expired; after that, I gave up. The Nexus One is a different story: anyone can write anything and put it on their phone at any time, for free. The first day I had my new phone I had a custom application uploaded to it. The second day I gained root access, installed a custom bootloader and a modified version of the Android operating system known as CyanogenMod; in other words, I now own my phone.

The subject of science fiction is relevant for one last note: the name Nexus One comes from the most advanced android in a story called "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" better known as "Blade Runner," by Philip K. Dick.

Nothing says "I'm a geek and I know what I'm doing" like a command line:

One thing that really stands out about the Nexus One versus the iPhone is the much higher resolution display (click to see a version large enough to tell the difference, also note that some aliasing in the form of red, blue, and green banding may appear depending on your monitor):

Here's a side by side comparison:

There are still a few things I like about one more than the other, but the power of the Nexus One is that I can change nearly everything as I see fit--the same most certainly cannot be said for the iPhone.

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