Contrary to what we were led to believe, Google did actually make an appearance at CES late last week. It was only for a few hours, but who was on hand to get in some significant playtime with the Nexus One? Yes, yes, I know the headline rather gives it away.
So what do we think? In a word: excellent. The Nexus One is the Android smartphone we've all been waiting for: slim (11mm), relatively light (130g) featuring a beautiful 3.7in 800 x 480 OLED display with capacitive touchscreen technology and no tampering with the Android UI itself. In fact, you get the distinct impression this is the handset Google has been wanting (but failing to see) manufacturers build since day one.
In hand the Nexus One feels snug and its matt finish and rounded edges make it far more comfortable and less slippery to hold than the Apple iPhone. Build quality is also good with no squeaks or creaks coming from it when held tightly and overriding sense of durability. If I do have a complaint, however, it is that the handset simply looks rather dull. It lacks the love/hate it quality of the Hero or the swagger of the iPhone, or even the sheer gratuity of the HD2. It's surgical, made by a computer or committee, in need of just a little bit of passion.
Still, this commonsense approach does extend itself to the Nexus One's internals with Google using the powerful and increasingly ubiquitous Qualcomm 1GHz Snapdragon chipset, combining it with wireless n and strapping in a decent (if in truth fairly unremarkable) five megapixel camera. Performance is consequently very good and the Nexus One is definitely the fastest and most responsive Android smartphone to date. That said, it isn't quite as snappy as the iPhone 3GS - something which doesn't make sense given the horsepower on tap. This is most noticeable with the fractional lag in screen response and a slight stutter when scrolling. Could the problem perhaps be in the code of Android itself? Also baffling is the continued lack of multi-touch (though Google did confirm to me it may feature on the European edition).
Then again, the upgrades I witnessed in Android 2.1 do much to make up for this. The redesigned menus and improved UI are a joy to use while the improved voice recognition is top notch. Furthermore, since the Nexus One doesn't use any form of flashy custom overlay this means it can be updated to the latest Android firmware the moment it is released, rather than having to wait for manufacturers to update their own proprietary software. This is a major plus point to my way of thinking.
One bone of contention is the lack of internal memory. Google may well want to give users a choice of the memory onboard, but until it manages to allow Marketplace apps to install on microSD cards then restricting internal memory to just 512MB seems a bit daft. It also doesn't help developers evolve Android applications when they are so frequently restricted in the size of apps they can make (for gaming in particular).
That said, do I still want a Nexus One? Very much so. Would I swap it for my iPhone 3GS? That's a really tough question. Enlarge the native memory and improve the response/accuracy of the touchscreen and yes, in a heartbeat. Until then, I'm calling it a tie.