"Pure Google." That's the tagline Google is using to promote the Nexus S, the newest smart phone to run its Android operating system. Which brings up an obvious question: If this phone is pure Google, just what do other Android phones offer adulterated Google?
Yep, pretty much, they do. Android's openness it's a piece of free software that any company can use and modify without Google's permission or active involvement is one of its defining characteristics. But phonemakers and wireless carriers frequently exercise that freedom in strange ways. They ship phones with stale versions of Android long after newer, better ones are available. They tamper with the operating system's interface and clutter it up with preinstalled apps of questionable value. With its Fascinate, Verizon Wireless even dumped Google as Android's search engine and swapped in Microsoft's Bing a move as perverse as a McDonald's franchise deciding to sell Whoppers.
The Nexus S, on the other hand, packs Android as Google intended it to be experienced, with a full suite of Google apps and services and no third-party detritus. It's also the first phone to run Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the operating system's latest version. The phone isn't without its quirks, and it doesn't threaten the bragging rights of Apple's iPhone 4 as the slickest, simplest, best-integrated smart phone available today. But it's the best all-around Android handset I've tried to date.
Back in January, Google took full responsibility for a Nexus S predecessor called the Nexus One it even marketed it directly to consumers. Four and half months later, however, the company concluded that it didn't want to be in the phone-selling business after all. (It turned out that people like to see handsets in person before they buy them and want a variety of service options rather than the Nexus One's single T-Mobile plan.) The Nexus S's distribution strategy is more conventional: it'll be sold at Best Buy, where it will sit alongside scads of competitors (including the iPhone) and go for $199 with a two-year T-Mobile contract or $529 with no commitment. Unlike most phones, the S is unlocked a boon to world travelers, who can pop out the T-Mobile SIM card and replace it with a local SIM, rather than paying wallet-busting international roaming fees.
The aspect of the Nexus S that's least purely Google's is the hardware. Manufactured by Samsung, it's a spruced-up variant of a pleasing design seen in Galaxy S phones, such as Verizon's Fascinate and AT&T's Captivate, as well as the Windows Phone 7based Focus. The 4-in. screen size is just right: it's noticeably roomier than the 3.5-in. iPhone 4 and 3.7-in. Droid Incredible displays, without the pocket-straining XXL feel of a phone like the 4.3-in. Droid X.
Rather than the more typical LCD, the screen uses AMOLED technology, which makes for vivid colors and deep blacks; unlike some AMOLED displays, it doesn't wash out in sunlight. It has a unique, ever so subtle curve that adds to the pleasantly swoopy industrial design, feels comfy when you press the handset to your cheek and reduces the chances of the screen shattering into a million pieces if the phone tumbles from your hand and smacks the pavement face-first.
As with an increasing percentage of new Android phones, the Nexus S boasts two cameras: a five-megapixel one on the back, plus a lower-resolution model on the front for video calls. But the back-facing one is just adequate even when I had plenty of light, my snapshots were grainier than those from the best phone cameras, and it shoots only standard-definition video, not HD. Worse, the front-facing camera seems to be a useless appendage at the moment. Google doesn't provide video-calling software, and it doesn't yet work with the third-party apps I tried. It'll be a cool feature if and when Google or somebody else comes up with a video-chat service to rival the iPhone 4's FaceTime.
Another Nexus S feature, its support for a technology known as near-field communications (NFC), ventures even further into bleeding-edge territory. It lets the phone communicate wirelessly with other NFC-equipped objects that are no more than 4 in. away a higher-tech twist on the old infrared technology that let PalmPilot owners squirt contact info back and forth. The Nexus S's NFC can't do much in the real world just yet, unless you happen to live in Portland, Ore., where a Google pilot program is giving local businesses NFC-powered window decals. (If you hold a Nexus S up to the sticker, it'll instantly display information about the establishment in question.) But chances are high that NFC will be all around us eventually, and the Nexus S will be ready.
How about that pure Google software? It helps. Android in its natural state is sleeker and less glitchy than it usually is once other companies have gotten their hands on it.
The more Google-centric your online life is, the higher the chances you'll love the Nexus S. Setting up the phone doesn't involve much more than entering your Google account name and password; Android then automatically configures services such as Gmail and Google Calendar. (If you're moving from another Android handset, it even copies your apps and wallpaper over.) Google makes plenty of its apps and services available for the iPhone too, but the Android versions often come out first and include more stuff. The Nexus S includes the latest versions of all of them, including Google Maps with turn-by-turn spoken driving directions.
The third-party apps in the Android Market continue to lag behind those in Apple's iPhone App Store in both quantity and quality. Still, the situation for Android users is far less bleak than it was a few months ago. These days, I'm startled when a major provider of mobile software tells me that it has no plans to support the operating system, and the best new apps are more likely to rival their iPhone counterparts. Even the megahit game Angry Birds has made its way over.
The fact that the Nexus S comes with Android 2.3 Gingerbread is a plus just ask anybody whose brand-new phone uses an outdated version of the operating system, thereby preventing it from running high-profile programs like Flash Player. (Google will also likely push future upgrades out to the phone more promptly than wireless carriers get them to other handsets.) Gingerbread has been optimized for speed the S is among the zippiest-feeling handsets I've used and has a cleaner, classier look than its predecessors. It's got an improved interface for selecting, cutting and pasting text; the on-screen keyboard is easier to use; and it provides the Nexus with its ability to serve as a mobile hot spot that can zap wireless Internet access to up to six other devices, such as laptops, tablets and e-readers.
Overall, though, Gingerbread is a minor upgrade that doesn't do enough to make Android feel less clunky and kludgy. For instance, there are multiple places where the new-and-improved text tools aren't available. Accomplishing tasks tends to take more taps than in Apple's iOS, and user interfaces vary needlessly from app to app. Inexplicably, the operating system retains two e-mail programs: one for Gmail, one for everything else, and each lacks at least one essential feature available in the other. At last week's All Things Digital: Dive into Mobile conference in San Francisco, Android honcho Andy Rubin hinted that a more coherent upgrade is in the works but he didn't say when it would arrive.
For now, Apple does purity much better than Google does. Even so, I like the concept of pure Google phones, and I hope that the Nexus S isn't the last of its kind. By taking charge of the Android experience, Google has the power and the responsibility to iron out the operating system's remaining kinks without messing up all the things it already gets right.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist. His column for TIME.com, also called Technologizer, appears every Tuesday.