While Google’s Android operating system has enjoyed a fair amount of publicity since its inception, the North American launch of the Nexus One has arguably been the event that has received the most hype and attention thus far.

For many within the industry this flagship device marked the moment that Google’s mobile platform finally cames of age: previous Android phones seemed to promise much but were always handicapped in some way.

With the North American release now almost a distant memory we’ve gotten our hands on a handset - just in time for the device’s European debut in April - in order to find out if the ludicrous level of expectation has been justified.

The hardware

The iPhone has proven beyond all doubt that aesthetic charm means just as much in the smartphone arena as power and capability. This is a point that Google and HTC failed to appreciate when they collaborated on the first Android handset, the G1.

While that particular phone found plenty of fans thanks to its physical QWERTY keyboard and fresh new operating system, it was saddled with looks only a mother could love.

Thankfully, both parties have learned from their mistakes. HTC has obviously been working on its own phones - with the Hero being arguably the most attractive - but the Nexus One is very much a joint effort.

Google’s brief to HTC must have been pretty straightforward - this is incredibly similar in design to Apple’s fashionable handset - but it possesses just enough class to make it stand out on its own.

Naturally, the front of the Nexus One is dominated by the 3.7-inch AMOLED capacitive touchscreen. Running at an incredible 480x800 resolution, this is quite easily the best mobile phone display we’ve yet laid eyes on. The only caveat is that like all screens using this new technology it’s practically impossible to view in direct sunlight.

Just below this behemoth of a screen we have the customary HTC trackball, which is just as extraneous here as it was on the G1 and Hero. It flashes whenever you get an email or text message - which is a neat touch - but aside from that you won’t use it all that often.

Like the Motorola Milestone/Droid the Nexus One features four Android-specific control buttons at the bottom of the screen: Back, Menu, Home and Search.

These are actually extensions of the touchscreen rather than physical controls and they’re occasionally awkward to use: the reception zone appears to be set slightly above where the symbol is actually printed. This positioning means that you sometimes end up pressing an on-screen control rather than the icon itself.

Turning the phone around reveals a two-tone backing which not only helps break up the grey colouring but also makes the phone easier to hold: the majority of the rear is covered with non-slip rubberised texturing.

All in all it’s a bold and beautiful product that will garner admiring glances when you’re out in public - although we’d hasten to add that if we were forced to choose, we still prefer the sleek black exterior and silver accents of the iPhone. But only just.

The software

The Nexus One is very much a two-pronged attack: while the hardware is definitely important, most Android fans are instead more concerned about what is contained within.

The phone is rocking Android 2.1 - currently the most up-to-date iteration of Google’s software. When placed alongside 2.0 (which shipped exclusively with the Motorola Milestone) the differences are initially hard to spot.

There are cosmetic improvements here and there - such as flashy 3D menus and the gorgeous-but-ultimately-pointless Live Wallpapers - but in all honesty it’s not a gigantic step up. However, it is worth noting that this is pure Android we’re talking about - there is no propriety software running on top, as is the case with HTC’s Sense UI and Motorola’s MOTOBLUR, both of which are still stuck with the woefully outdated 1.5 version of Android.

While the lack of social networking power might seem like a negative thing, it actually means that the Nexus One is guaranteed to see the latest updates first, because it’s Google’s own phone rather than a third-party device which is running a specialised (and therefore harder to update) edition of the OS.

Android 2.1 is easily the most accomplished edition yet, and it’s ably assisted by the Nexus One’s muscular 1GHz Snapdragon processor. Backed by 512MB of RAM the phone is arguably the first Android device that truly lives up to its multitasking promise: it’s possible to have several different applications running at once without any loss of speed and everyday tasks - such as loading web pages - are lightening-fast.

Other embellishments - such as an improved photo gallery and seriously impressive voice-search functionality - help to round off a pretty awe-inspiring package. Sadly, there are elements which sour the experience.

The catch?

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Google launched the Nexus One in the US without multi-touch support. It’s hard to believe that such a feature has become so significant a selling point these days, but when you consider that much of the iPhone/Android war is based on one-upmanship and highlight things one handset can do that the other can’t, it’s no surprise that this omission was such a crushing disappointment for Google devotees.

Fast forward a few months and multi-touch is now present on all Nexus One handsets thanks to a recent firmware update, which means that owners can now benefit from the fabled “pinch zoom”. However, it’s worth noting that Google’s flagship phone doesn’t quite beat its rivals in this regard.

Essentially, the touchscreen of the Nexus One is exactly the same as that seen on the G1. While it’s capable of multi-touch, it’s easily confused and this leads to peculiar anomalies when touching two points on the screen.

In the grand scheme of things it’s a relatively minor problem that many owners will fail to even spot, but it does have serious ramifications when it comes to gaming.

Many iPhone titles feature complex control sequences which require the player to constantly be tapping or touching different parts of the display: the Nexus One will not be capable of replicating the same experience because of its touchscreen limitations.

There are other issues, too. The phone’s external speaker is unacceptably weedy and when it’s in your pocket it’s often very hard to hear. Naturally, this is a side-effect of shrinking the phone down to such a thin size (at 11.5mm deep it’s thinner than the iPhone) but it can become an issue if you spend a lot of time outdoors where ambient sound is likely to drown out your phone’s ringer even further.

Finally, there’s the usual Android app storage issue: while the phone is capable of accepting memory cards up to 32GB, you have to use the Nexus One’s internal storage for installing applications.

After you take away space consumed by essential system files and those programs that can’t be deleted, you’re left with a couple of hundred megabytes to play with. When you consider that some iPhone games take up more space than that on their own, it’s pretty obvious that this is a crippling limitation.

Google insists it's looking into ways around this for future versions of the OS but at the moment the Nexus One certainly isn’t the phone to go for if you value your portable interactive entertainment.

Final thoughts

Despite such issues, there’s a lot to like about Google’s new leading phone. In the glare of Apple’s dominance it’s almost too easy to pick fault with rival phones, and while the Nexus One isn’t perfect it does an awful lot right.

The operating system is unquestionably fantastic and the sheer power behind the hardware means that it’s capable of running whatever you can throw at it - something which couldn’t be said of a lot of other Android-powered handsets.

Google’s OS is also maturing and picking up better features: this shouldn’t really be all that surprising as the company always insisted that its software would grow and adapt as time went on.

The lack of a physical keyboard can be a pain for those reared on the G1 but you soon acclimatise to the touchscreen: besides, the Nexus One’s impossibly svelte figure would have been unduly bloated by a sliding mechanism.

Given the fast-moving nature of the Android market the Nexus One isn’t going to be at the top of the tree for long - indeed, HTC is launching its Legend and Desire handsets, and there’s already talk of Motorola prepping the Nexus Two - but as it stands right now this is the best option for Android lovers.