- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - For some people, the holidays go hand in hand with gingerbread, in the form of houses or cookie-cutter men. This year, you can add smart phones _ specifically, the Nexus S, the first device running the freshest version of Google’s Android operating software, Gingerbread.

Developed by Google Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., the phone has a cool curved glass screen, back- and front-facing cameras and the ability to read special tags on such things as stickers embedded with Near Field Communication chips.

Combined with a fairly good price, it’s likely to be on a number of holiday wish lists.

Best Buy stores will sell it for $200 with a contract from T-Mobile, or for a more wallet-stretching $530 if you want it to work on either T-Mobile’s or AT&T’s network.

The Nexus S is the follow-up to the Nexus One, an HTC Corp. phone that Google trotted out early this year but stopped selling months later as plenty of similar Android-running devices became available.

Although Nexus One was a good phone, it wasn’t as amazing as Google thought it was. The company avoids this problem with the Nexus S, which is both a brainy and cool-looking handset.

First, let’s get to the brains.

There are a number of subtle changes that come with Gingerbread, such as zippier overall performance.

The most obvious update is with the on-screen keyboard. It is better than previous versions of Android at recommending words as you type, such as last names and other words that you’ve typed before, but hadn’t been in the phone’s original dictionary. The keyboard features more space between keys and a multi-touch capability that make typing easier and speedier than on Froyo, Gingerbread’s Android predecessor.

The copy and paste tools are simplified in Gingerbread, too, with a little slider that appears on the screen that you can move to select text.

The phone’s most-touted feature has been its inclusion of Near Field Communication, or NFC, technology, which is a short-range wireless technology for transmitting data. This could ultimately function as a wireless payment system, eliminating the need for your wallet.

For now, though, Google is only letting the phone read NFC chips inserted in objects, such as movie posters you might pass at a bus stop. Once you are nearly touching one of these tags, the phone will automatically read it and, say, pull up a link to a film trailer.

To give reviewers an immediate sense of how this works, Google included a “Recommended on Google” sticker with the Nexus S the company loaned me for this review. Whenever the screen on my phone was active and within less than an inch of the sticker, it would add the NFC chip embedded in this sticker to my collection in a little app called “Tags.” The tag contained a link to a YouTube video that explained the development of the Nexus S.

Cool, right? Too bad you can’t really use the feature right now unless you live in Portland, Ore., where Google is distributing these stickers to some businesses. I’m all for adding technology to handsets, but it would be nice if I could actually do something with it near my home in San Francisco. Hopefully this will change in the near future, but it’s still unclear.

More immediately useful is the Nexus S’ bright screen. Like the phones in Samsung’s Galaxy S series, it sports an AMOLED display, which basically means it will likely have higher color saturation than a standard LCD screen would.

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