Chapter 29 – My First Nexus

So there I was, having breakfast at my hotel in Kuala Lumpur, reading an editorial by an ex-Symbian engineer about how Nokia had failed to transition from making PDA smartphones to Internet “superphones”. And I just happened to be reading this on my new superphone, the Android-powered Nexus One by HTC.

The complaints I read about Symbian were not lost on me. For the first time I was experiencing a mobile web browser that was actually usable. Not only did full web pages load in a matter of seconds, but double-tapping the screen would “zoom in” to fit the width of a single column of text. And the manual synchronization of personal info — calendars, contacts, tasks — was no longer necessary; an Android phone would do it in the background for you. In fact, setting up an Android phone (or several, as I’d later find out) required no more than a network connection and a Gmail account. As I held this slim block of mostly screen in my hands, I could only marvel at what I’d been missing.

For this particular smartphone veteran Android did have a shortcoming or two, along with a possible area of concern. Coming from my N86 photos and video on the Nexus were clearly not as good, although that was almost entirely offset by something no Nokia camera app would ever remember — that I hated flash photography and wanted my phone’s camera to fire up with the flash powered off. On the subject of power, battery life was fairly abysmal for someone used to going up to three days on a single charge. I’d thank my lucky stars if my Nexus lasted until sundown, especially if I was travelling. And then there was Google — or more specifically the requirement that I hand over pretty much all of my personal information to them. I’m still not a hundred percent comfortable with that.

You could argue, of course, that what you got in return for the data mining was a bargain — and for a lot of Android users I suspect that’s true. But what finally sold me on this new OS was learning how I could take Google out of the equation entirely yet still use Android, through the magic of custom ROMs. The hard part was getting started. The Nexus One was sold with an unlockable bootloader, like the BIOS on a Windows-based PC. By unlocking it you could flash a custom recovery image, and in turn use that to flash a custom ROM. But unlocking the bootloader required no less than a desktop computer, the Android software development kit, the Android Debug Bridge (adb), and something called fastboot.

If all this sounds confusing believe me, it was. But patience and the seemingly endless cross-referencing of forum threads finally paid off, and a universe of custom ROMs was now just a wipe and install away. My Android handset, powered by the Linux kernel, was as customizable as my Linux desktop computers. From this point onwards, nothing less would do.

King of the Android ROMs was CyanogenMod, which was famously ordered to unbundle the “Google Experience” — that is, the proprietary Google apps. FDroid, an alternative app market featuring only open source software, proved to be a worthy substitute for the official Android Market. Much of what is available there is excellent, but my freedom-hating reliance on the proprietary stuff — Flickr, Foursquare, games — had me using Google’s Market again before too long. Remember too that my new carrier, affordable as it was, provided almost no signal in my home. As such, Google’s chat service was a lifeline between me and a new lady in my life.

When I moved on to my second Nexus device my girlfriend got my Nexus One as a hand-me-down, which she uses to this very day. Her custom ROM of choice is MIUI, made available to the public by Chinese handset-maker Xiaomi. A big draw for MIUI is its themes — you can easily customize not only the wallpaper on your device but also the app icons, on-screen fonts, even the boot-up screen. But there’s more to it than that — MIUI has its own built-in backup and restore system, plus an excellent security feature giving you control over the sometimes suspicious permissions that apps can request.

If nothing thus far has sold you on the Nexus line of superphones, consider this final point: Google quietly revolutionized the mobile phone industry where Apple deliberately chose not to. The first three Nexus devices were sold through carriers just like the iPhone; but very much unlike the iPhone they were sold unlocked. My Nexus One has been to Malaysia, Hong Kong and Spain, and in each of those places expensive roaming charges were replaced with affordable service via a local SIM card. As you can imagine this is not a feature that carriers go to great lengths to explain, nor is it something that many customers appreciate or even understand. But it’s there, and like my Nokias of old it made my $500 CAD Nexus One a bargain.