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.