By 2010, Android's popularity was on the rise, thanks to OEMs building new phones and loading them up with Google's software. Those software builds, however, were often completely unrecognizable -- they were loaded up with third-party apps and painted over by elaborate interfaces as device makers tried to differentiate their phones. In response, Google (and its loyal partner HTC) built the Nexus One to show off what Android was really capable of. The One was also the first phone that Google would sell direct to consumers -- in eschewing the traditional carrier sales process, Google build a model it would revisit in time.
The Nexus One was among the sleekest devices of its time, with a curved, comfortable two-tone body and 3.7-inch, WVGA AMOLED display. (Too bad the display was pretty lousy in broad daylight.) Like the Droid, the One used capacitive navigation keys rather than physical ones, but for some reason HTC added a classic trackball for good measure. More important, the Nexus One leaned on a first-generation Snapdragon chipset with 512MB of RAM, and it absolutely flew because of it. Unfortunately, a microSD card was almost a necessity, since the One came with only 512MB of internal storage -- incidentally, this was the first and last Nexus phone ever to feature expandable storage. Throw in a perfectly decent 5-megapixel rear camera and the Nexus One instantly became the go-to device for true Android aficionados.
The Nexus One was notable for more than just its hardware, though. It shipped with Android 2.1, which brought with it an improved home screen layout and a handful of other changes that were mostly meant to smooth out some of the platform's long-standing jagged edges. The big stuff was to come a little later: in an update released shortly after launch, the Nexus One received multitouch support, a feature Android users had spent the past few years clamoring for, and it eventually served as the launch vehicle for Android 2.2 FroYo.
Nexus S (2010)
Google would eventually settle into an annual upgrade cycle for its smartphones, but the Samsung-made Nexus S was officially announced and released at the end of 2010. It was just as well, too: despite positive reviews, the Nexus One just didn't sell very well. In a bid to change that, Google continued its direct consumer sales, while Best Buy and Carphone Warehouse slung phones in their stores.
Clearly, Google was itching to make more of a splash with its Nexus phones, and the S was well equipped for it. With its slightly curved plastic build and 4-inch Super AMOLED display, the Nexus S was very distinctly a Samsung phone. The Nexus S also came with 16GB of storage, which was absolutely necessary, since Google had moved away from expandable memory in phones for the foreseeable future. Also new to the fold was support for NFC -- uses were limited at launch, but the feature would come to greater prominence when Google and Sprint launched the WiMax-ready Nexus S 4G and began their first Google Wallet trials. (While Google Wallet still exists, the ability to use NFC for in-store mobile payments was eventually folded into Android Pay.)
Hardware aside, the Nexus S also served as a canvas to show off Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The interface was tweaked to run more smoothly, and the keyboard benefited from a cleaner layout and support for word suggestions, selecting text, and copy-pasting. Gingerbread also made it much, much easier for people to dig into their power settings and see which apps were really chewing through their batteries. Still other improvements took place under the hood: Google added a host of features to help app creators develop better games for the platform, not to mention richer support for VOIP apps. All told, the Nexus S was a strong contender, but it was Google's next collab with Samsung that would really get people excited.
Galaxy Nexus (2011)
2011 was a huge year for Samsung and Google -- the former released the Galaxy S II to critical praise, while the latter redesigned Android for tablets and took what it learned back to smartphones. It was little surprise, then, that the fruit of their combined efforts -- the Galaxy Nexus -- generated so much excitement. While Samsung went with some chintzy-feeling materials to build the body, a layer of slightly curved glass sat atop a 4.65-inch, 720p Super AMOLED display, giving the phone some distinct visual flair. It also became one of the most widely distributed Nexus phones -- the Galaxy Nexus launched as an unlocked HSPA+ device, but LTE versions for Verizon and Sprint followed soon after. The camera needed some work, but the flagship's first-rate performance and excellent battery gave Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich a lot to work with.
With Honeycomb for tablets, Google ditched Android's long-standing look with the distinctly digital "Holo" aesthetic; it was all blue-on-black, with a crisp new font and on-screen navigation buttons. While Google would eventually move away from that Tron-esque color scheme, that trio of navigation buttons -- Back, Home and Recent Apps -- became the standard for Android devices. Additional features included Face Unlock (yes, it's been around for a while), resizable home screen widgets, improved notification management and voice recognition that was finally worth using. While Ice Cream Sandwich was the single biggest leap forward for Android on phones since 2008, some felt the new software was difficult for average users to understand.