Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Friday, March 19, 2010

Google's 'Superphone' in the Kingdom: Using the Nexus One in Thailand

After months of following the buzz about the Nexus One and checking for them in MBK (a shopping mall known for gray-market phones), I finally broke down and bought one near the end of last month. So, I've been using my Nexus One for three weeks now, and wanted to share some thoughts on the phone itself, using it in Thailand on TOT's 3G network (yeah!) and comparisons to my trustworthy-but-now-obsolete HTC Touch Diamond.

Ok - if you don't already know the hardware/software specs of Google's pride and joy, check either Engadget's review, or Gizmodo's review, which have detailed specs, etc. But, those guys are using the phone in a country with multiple carriers offering nationwide 3G coverage, while in Thailand we have (finally) reasonably decent 3G coverage in Bangkok from resellers of TOT, and spotty coverage - also just in Bangkok - by True Move, as part of their iPhone 3G push.

The Nexus One is actually manufactured by HTC, which also made my "old" phone, the Touch Diamond, so it's interesting to compare these two. You can see in the photo that the Nexus One is a lot longer and wider, but manages to be ever-so-slightly thinner than the Diamond. I really like the Diamond's form-factor (you barely notice it in your pocket), while the Nexus One is almost identical to the iPhone 3Gs in size and weight; a tad lighter, but it's pretty much the same iPhone-size bulge in your pocket.

First - the screen. I've always loved the Diamond's hi-rez screen (480 x 640), double the iPhone/Palm PRE screen, and the Nexus One just kicks it up a notch to 800 x 480. The Diamond uses a traditional back-lit LCD display, which is quite bright and - due to the 2.8" screen-size - very very sharp. In pure dots-per-inch, it's sharper than the Nexus One. The Nexus screen uses the newer AMOLED tech, though, based on organic light-emitting diodes, where there is no backlight - each pixel glows on it's own, like a tiny lightening-bug (aka firefly). The advantage of this is that blacks are really black - 'cause they're not glowing - compared to backlit LCDs, so the contrast is excellent. It also means you can really use the screen with the brightness turned way down - which is good, because it's a fracking battery hog!

About a month before buying the phone, I bought a pre-paid 3G sim card at the Thai Mobile Expo 2010, from a company called IEC. They're really just reselling TOT's newly-launched 3G service, though, which consists of about 550 upgraded cell-tower/base-stations in and around Bangkok. The coverage is actually pretty good, and the speeds also good (for now). When I first bought the card, I immediately shoved it into my Touch Diamond, and did some speed tests - and got downloads of about 700 - 800 Kbps. In the Nexus One, by contrast, I've consistently gotten over 1 Mbps from speed-test servers in the U.S., and about 2 Mbps from servers in Thailand. I'm guessing the difference might be the extra horsepower that the Nexus's 1GHz cpu brings to the table - it's soooo much faster at launching apps and using the web than my Diamond. I find myself reaching for my Nexus to browse websites and check up on Facebook, even when my laptop is in the same room.

The bigger screen (3.7" vs 2.8") really does come in handy - check the comparison of Facebook's mobile website on the two phones. And yes, I know both phones are 480 pixels wide, but you'd go blind if you set the font to the same pixel-size as on the Nexus One. I don't want to get into a full Windows Mobile 6.1 with TouchFlo vs. Android comparison, but I will say this: Android is far and away the better user experience, with no reservations at all. It's good that Microsoft is killing off WinMo and starting over with Windows Phone 7 Series (WP7S) - now if they'd only change it to "Phone 7" or something shorter... ahem...

Physically, the Nexus One feels solid and well-built in the hand, but not quite as much as the Touch Diamond did. I'm a huge fan of the near-industrial feel of the Diamond's design (I haven't had a chance to hold a Motorola Droid/Milestone yet, but I bet I would like it!). Where the Diamond is all angles and facets, like a stealth-fighter, the Nexus is rounded and smooth like a Porsche. You can really see the difference in the photos of the backs of the phones. Oh - you can also see the cameras: the Nexus One's 5 megapixel (MP) compared to my Touch Diamond's 3.2 MP. But in practice, it's the same, since I keep the Nexus One camera set to 3 MP anyway (quicker to upload to Facebook, or Twitpic, or email, etc).

The two biggest improvements with the camera are the flash and speed. It's just a LED flash, but it makes taking pictures at night actually possible - at least for people up close. I always hated not having a flash on my Touch Diamond. Second, the camera on the Diamond takes forever to focus and then actually snap the pic; the Nexus One is closer to a point-and-shoot, and starts up a lot faster too. Plus, the software is awesome - after I take a pic, I can immediately export it to a fun app like PicSay (where you can add hats, beards, and mohawks to your friends) or directly to your Facebook, Twitter, or Email.

So, for anything data-related - web browsing, using the built-in News application, Facebook app, or an RSS reader, etc. - TOT's 3G network is vastly, amazingly better than the EDGE data connection that DTAC offers. For voice... well, sometimes voices mysteriously seem to fade, or the other person can't hear me, or I can't hear them. I thought maybe I had a bum phone, but putting my DTAC sim card in and using regular GSM and EDGE made everything great again. So, not a problem with the Nexus One itself, but fair warning to 3G users: coverage is still not on par with GSM, even in Bangkok, and my Nexus drops back into GSM mode if I'm inside some buildings (and the IEC sim card I bought generally only allows data on TOT's network, so when you drop into GSM in a lot of places, you're on AIS's network - so voice and sms only). Still, if you spend most of your time in Bangkok, that's not a big deal.

Since the IEC card's phone number is different, I used my Touch Diamond to enable network call-forwarding to my new 3G number. For sms messages, it was a little tricker (carriers here don't have sms forwarding - I tried). First, I tried out a trial version of txtForward, which forwarded my incoming sms messages to my Gmail account (and the Nexus One is always syncing to a GMail account, unless you turn off sync). That worked pretty well, but the trial is for a limited number of messages, after that, you need to fork out $20. Then I found a free app, Mobile Secretary, by WinMo developer Brian Cross. The UI was all messed up on my Diamond (he wrote it back in 2005/2006), but I managed to get sms forwarding enabled with that. I like it better than txtForward, because it actually forwards the sms directly to my new number, with the option (which I turned on) to append the original sender's info. It even looks up their number and appends their name, if they're in my contact list.

Other random notes - my Nexus One has Thai fonts installed, which is useful (not that I can read Thai very well, but better than nothing!). The Nexus One includes email and contact sync to Exchange (or Zimbra) out of the box, but there is no option to "get the rest of this message" for long emails. That can be pretty annoying, and was a standard feature on all WinMo phones, but hopefully it'll get fixed in an update (or else my Zimbra server needs some twiddling). I was happily surprised that Word and PDF attachments opened right up without having to buy or install anything extra - they open up in a free copy of Quickoffice (v2.0.15). I can confirm it works with Word 2003 and Word 2007 files - included embedded images - and PDF files. The free version is "view only", the paid version allows you to edit/create documents. I can't imagine wanting to do much editing on a 3.7" screen, but hey, if you've got a jeweler's loupe and small fingers, have at it. The GPS is much, much improved - it usually gets a lock within seconds of my turning it on. Google Maps rocks, and the built-in compass is just cool (so you know which way you're pointing, and the little arrows pointing at nearby restaurants, etc, all rotate as you move).

Ok - for some minor nitpicking:
  1. The touchscreen accuracy is not as nearly-perfect as on the iPhone (yes, I keep comparing it to the iPhone, it's practically identical in size, and is multi-touch device). Especially when I've left some program running in the background that's doing something - syncing to the web, uploading a photo, whatever - the keyboard sometimes lags a lot, to the point where I just wait a bit, or do the "long-press-home button" (which is like "Alt+Tab" in Windows), switch to my Task-Manager app and kill the offending program). It's not a huge annoyance, but it's there.

  2. Battery life is so-so. The screen can be a real battery-hog; Android (the OS) includes a helpful utility to show where your juice is going, and generally, the battery is eating 90% or more of it. On the other hand, if you're a typical person that works in an office or near a computer, you can charge it via any USB port with the included cord, so I usually let it feed off my ThinkPad for an hour or two after lunch, which will get me to bedtime with very little left to spare... at least you can buy a spare battery and just swap them out (the iPhone's battery isn't user-accessible).

  3. If you use it when it's plugged into the wall-charger, it gets warm, especially if you've also got WiFi on.

Overall, a very awesome phone, and one that I don't expect to be obsolete for a couple of years at least. With the option of sticking in a micro-SD card (up to 32 GB), I'm not gonna run out of space anytime soon. If you don't mind the relatively steep price tag, it's a great piece of hardware and software, and a lot of my nitpicks will hopefully be addressed with software/firmware updates over the next year.

List of free apps I've downloaded from the Android App market (and that I actually use):
  • Meebo (for IM on Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger and AIM)
  • 3Banana notes for taking notes, attaching pics, categorizing them, and syncing them to the cloud
  • PureRSS - decent RSS reader that can handle podcast feeds as well.
  • Abduction - an absurdly silly game where you're a jumping cow climbing up to a UFO... just try it!
  • Aldiko - Excellent eBook reader that looks like the one demo'd on the new iPad (complete with bookshelf motif, and two free ebooks)
  • Seesmic - a very good twitter client that can handle photos (via twitpic), and can alert you when somebody replies
  • Foursquare - a geo-location/social-networking app that lets you "check in" to local places (restaurants, malls, whatever). I'm currently mayor of my local S&P!
  • Google Gesture search - useful for quickly looking up somebody by drawing letters with your fingers
  • ES Task Manager - useful for quickly killing cpu & memory-hogging background apps.


Anonymous said...

kecy@india.com, where in thailand can i buy nexus one, i am seriously looking for it

Kirk Davis said...

Hi - yes, you can buy one at MBK mall ("Mah Boon Krong" - see MBK - Wikipedia)
Last month, the going price was around 22,000 Thai Baht, but it might be lower now.

I'd also suggest waiting for HTC to start selling the "HTC Desire" in Asia, which will be cheaper, and is essentially identical hardware but with an optical touchpad instead of the actual trackball, and with HTC's custom "Sense" UI on top of Android.

Sajal Kayan said...

Hi Kirk,

I see you visited MBK yesterday... Do you know the latest price of Nexus One? I am seriously considering buying one in a week or two...

Anonymous said...

Are you still using the IEC 3G sim card? Or do you recomend another company now?


Kirk Davis said...

I am still using the IEC sim card, yes. I have my "regular" (post-paid) sim card in my old phone, and set to forward all calls to my 3G number. But it's hard to recommend any of the tot 3G resellers (like IEC) unless you live in the city of Bangkok, and don't often go outside (when I do, I generally take my other phone with me, or swap sim cards).

Maybe if you sign up with TOT, they have some roaming agreement, which would be perfect - I'll look into it. For use in the city, though, from Silom to Ladprao, from Ratchadamnoem Nok to the end of the Sukhumvit line, IEC (which is reselling TOT) is pretty good, with fast speeds.