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An Android Phone That Says ‘Google’

As the year winds down, we’ve all got problems. Economic slump. Wars. Unemployment.

But look at the bright side: there’s never been a better selection of really terrific cellphones. In fact, in the world of Google’s Android phone operating system, new phones seem to fall down the chimney once a week, each leapfrogging the last in desirability.

The one that landed this week is particularly intriguing, because Google designed it. Not just the software this time — the phone itself. Yes, “Google” is painted right on the back, along with “Samsung,” which did the manufacturing. This phone, the Nexus S, bears little resemblance to Google’s first effort at a phone a year ago, the failed Nexus One. (The S has more in common with Samsung’s Galaxy S models.)

Nexus S Android Phone
Photo credit: Google.com
Nexus S Android Phone

That Google is trying again is important for a bunch of reasons. First, it represents the official throwing in of the towel on Google’s radical sales model. It had intended to create an online store where you would buy the phone and the service independently. No more “You want an iPhone? Then you get AT&T.”

That never caught on. This time around, you’ll buy the Nexus S from Best Buy ($530 without a contract, or $200 with a two-year T-Mobile contract).

In general, the new Nexus is much the same as its rivals: it’s a black rectangle (bigger than the iPhone in every dimension) with a multitouch screen, an on-screen keyboard and a superfast chip that makes everything feel responsive.

The back panel camera has an LED flash, but the quality is only average and it can’t take hi-def videos. The low-resolution front-facing camera is intended for video calls or checking for spinach in your teeth. (The software for video calling doesn’t come with the phone, although you can download a couple of somewhat flaky apps for this purpose from the Android app store online.)

The 4-inch screen is bright, sharp and vivid. The case is all plastic, which makes it more of a scratch-and-fingerprint magnet than the glass-and-metal iPhone. It’s sleek but fairly generic-looking; the only design eccentricity is a bulge on the lower back that, you could argue, helps you orient the phone when extracting it from your pocket.

Samsung also claims that the screen is slightly bowed inward — curved — to fit your face better. Really? You’d need a microscope to measure it; the curve is virtually undetectable. If this minute degree of curvature fits your head, well, you must have a cranium the size of a hot-air balloon.

The S lacks a couple of features of the original Nexus, like dual microphones for sound cancellation (doesn’t matter — the S sounds great), the trackball that doubled as a message-indicator light, and the memory card slot. This time around, your storage is capped at 16 gigabytes — only 1 gig of which is available for storing standard downloaded apps.

Technically, the phone is sold “unlocked,” meaning that you don’t have to use T-Mobile; if you like, you can insert the little account card from an AT&T phone or, when you’re traveling, from an overseas cell carrier. Even then, though, technical limitations prevent you from getting onto AT&T’s 3G Internet network, or even T-Mobile’s 4G (fastest) Internet network.

The most exciting hardware news is that the Nexus S can read N.F.C. tags. In case you’re not an engineer, that stands for near-field communications. Supposedly, one day soon, you’ll be able to pass your phone over a special smart tag to pay for something. You’ll be able to wave your phone at someone else’s to exchange e-business cards. You’ll be able to extract information, Web links or videos from special stickers on billboards and bus shelters, just by swiping your phone.

Sure. And then you can hop into your hovercraft and fly home.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any N.F.C. tags in America (except in a Portland test program run by Google), so for now, the feature is worthless. Sure, you could argue that if N.F.C. ever does arrive, the Nexus S will be ready. Unfortunately, by that time, it will look like a kerosene-powered steam pump.

The most attractive aspect of the Nexus S may not be the hardware at all — it’s the software. Here is pure Android, the way Google intended it. No cellphone maker has tweaked, diluted or complicated it with its own redesigns. It doesn’t come with preinstalled junkware apps from Verizon or whomever. And it’s the first phone with Android 2.3.

That’s a big deal. Google updates its software frequently. But if you buy your Android phone from a cellphone carrier, you may not get the update for months, if ever, because the carrier is the gatekeeper. Android 2.2, for example, introduced the ability to watch Flash videos on the Web — but to this day, many Android phones can’t exploit that feature because their carriers haven’t offered the 2.2 update. You won’t have that problem if you buy a phone from Google.

Controlled vs. chaotic

In this case, the changes are minor. The 2.3 update offers a motley assortment of enhancements: a lovely, dark color scheme, threaded call logs (back-and-forths with each person are listed together), a new page that lists all your downloads, a breakdown of what’s been using your battery and memory. (The battery life is much improved. It should easily get you through a day, maybe even two, between charges.)

Some nice visual flourishes liven up the proceedings; when you scroll the master list of programs, the icons seem to scroll downward off the edges, as though printed on a tablecloth. And when you turn off the phone, the screen blinks away to a center dot like an old-fashioned tube TV.

When you want a symbol or a number, the on-screen keyboard now works like the iPhone’s: you can hold down a key for a pop-up menu of accented variations, and you can use two fingers at once (hold down the Shift key while you type a letter, for example).

Meanwhile, you still get all the spectacular core Android features: a GPS app complete with spoken directions, a microphone button on the keyboard that lets you dictate text anywhere you can type, and seamless integration with Google’s own products, like Picasa, Gmail and Google Voice.

Of course, you also still get all the problems of Android: namely, a degree of chaos. This, of course, is the blessing and the curse of Android’s openness.

That’s why, for example, you get one program for Gmail accounts, and another for regular e-mail.

That’s also why the Android 2.3 improvements in Copy and Paste have dubious value. In theory, you select text by holding your finger down on a word, then dragging apart the handles that appear. At that point, you can tap in the highlighted area to copy it.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in the Web browser. Unfortunately, the Copy and Paste mechanism is different in each program, and even on each Web page. In some apps, holding down your finger does nothing; you have to tap the Menu button, then More, then Select Text to make the handles appear. In others, like the text-message app, you don’t get selection handles; you can copy only the entire message. And so on.

If you choose an iPhone, you get a totally different philosophy: a gated community, controlled, but 100 percent clean and consistent.

The Android world is more chaotic, less controlled. The phone companies can rewrite the look, feel and features of Android if they like. Programmers can create any apps they like, even those that Apple would reject for being pornographic or anarchic.

If you prefer Android’s approach, then your day just got a lot brighter. No, the Nexus S isn’t perfect. But it’s among the very best Android phones — and it will be for the next couple of weeks at least.



David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.