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Nexus One: Good, Not Great

Here's the thing to know about the Nexus One right off the bat: The much ballyhooed "Google phone" that the search behemoth unveiled this week isn't as cool as the iPhone. Still, it is a very fine smartphone. In some respects it compares favorably to Apple's wunderkind, but it comes up short in other key measures, such as storage for downloadable apps.

It advances the ball compared with previous handsets that run Google's Android mobile operating software, if not dramatically so.

Much has been made of the way Google is selling Nexus, made by HTC: It's $529 as an "unlocked" phone that lets you choose your own wireless carrier, or $179 for a two-year contract with T-Mobile, with monthly voice and data plans of $80.

You've been able to buy other unlocked phones and insert your own so-called SIM card to make them work. But there are limits, at least for now, with the Nexus. It recognizes SIM cards from carriers that use the global GSM standard. But it is incompatible with the frequency used by AT&T for its fastest 3G data network and won't work with Verizon or Sprint, both of which use a rival wireless format known as CDMA. A Verizon version of the Nexus is expected in the spring.

Here's more of what you need to know:

Aesthetics.@ Nexus One is svelte like the iPhone and close to the same size and shape, but the gray device is nothing much to look at until you turn it on. I was wowed by its lovely 3.7-inch screen, which is a bit larger than the iPhone's and has superior resolution. I like the animated screen backgrounds. I'm using one with blades of grass that gently sway in the wind.

The device is fast: A zippy Qualcomm processor is on board. You get around via trackball and a few buttons flush along the bottom, which sometimes didn't respond to my touch. The main area of the touch-screen is fluid.

You won't find a physical keyboard like the one on the Droid from Motorola, another Android phone. You wouldn't even want to think about the Nexus if you're a BlackBerry aficionado addicted to one of its superb physical keyboards.

When you start typing, suggestions for a word appear. Start typing "thi" and you'll see words you can insert, such as "this," ''think" and "thing." My Web-browsing experience was good but not as good as on the iPhone. I missed being able to pinch or spread my fingers to zoom the screen.

The phone has essentials you've come to expect, including Wi-Fi, stereo Bluetooth and GPS (with free turn-by-turn directions). It also has a 5-megapixel camera with flash. Images (and videos) I shot were OK. The iPhone lacks a flash camera. Nexus also has a longer-lasting battery that's removable.

What about apps?@ Here's an area where Google and other iPhone rivals trail badly. The iTunes App Store exceeds 100,000 apps; the Android store has about 18,000. At least the Google apps are simple to grab through the Android Market. And you can run them in the background as I did with the free Pandora radio program. That's not possible with Pandora's iPhone equivalent.

Nexus has a paltry 190 megabytes allotted for storage of apps. It comes with a 4-gigabyte memory card expandable to 32, but it won't store apps. Google says a software update will address that in the future. The least-expensive iPhone has 8 GB, most of which can be used for apps.

Nexus is tied to your Google account. I had my Gmail, contacts and Google Voice number readily accessible. Social-networking status icons are incorporated into your contact list. Google Voice search worked well: Saying "massage" yielded a variety of choices in Las Vegas, where I was.

You can use a dictation feature by tapping a microphone icon. It's not perfect, but it's fun and useful. Even with music blaring in my hotel room, Nexus recognized such verbal requests as "Can we change our lunch meeting from noon to 1?" It is similar to a Dragon Dictation app on the iPhone.

Nexus One is no iPhone killer. But it smartens up the ever-evolving field for smartphones.

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