Android 2.3 (more deliciously and seasonally appropriately known as "Gingerbread") isn't a huge overhaul of Google's mobile operating system, but the whole interface feels more refined and more responsive. In addition, Google has built some notable new features into the operating system.
The most intriguing feature of Android 2.3 is its support for NFC (near-field communication) chips. And the first phone to ship with Gingerbread, the Samsung-built Nexus S, contains that invisible NFC chip. Essentially, NFC chips can turn your phone into a sort of credit card. Ideally, when you wave your phone in front of a retailer's sensor, your purchase will immediately be placed on your account.
Unfortunately, I couldn't test this feature of the Nexus S in a real-world situation, because no applications support mobile payments yet. Google did provide PCWorld with a card containing an embedded NFC chip. Holding the Nexus S up to the card immediately took me to a YouTube video about the phone. I can imagine location-based apps like Yelp and Foursquare--and deal-of-the-day-type apps like Groupon--wisely taking advantage of this technology.
Keyboard and Copy/Paste
I've never been a fan of the standard Android keyboard. (Android users: if you are not currently using Swype or ThickButtons keyboard apps, download one of them now!) The keys on the standard keyboard are simply too small and cramped for me to comfortably bang out a long text or e-mail message. Android 2.3, reshapes the keyboard keys to be more rectangular than square, and there's more spacing between keys. I found the redesigned keyboard to be easier to use, but still imperfect. For me, between the Android 2.3 keyboard and the Apple iOS 4 keyboard, the iPhone wins. Then again, you can't download Swype to the iPhone. One nice enhancement with Gingerbread is that you can simultaneously press Shift and a letter to get a symbol or number--no need to switch between modes.
Another neat feature is the ability to use your voice to correct words as you type. You simply press and hold the incorrect word, and then select the dedicated voice control key (it looks like a microphone) on your keyboard. Then say the correct word--and cross your fingers that Android understands it. In my hands-on tests, this feature worked pretty well, but I'm unlikely to use it very often.
Copying and pasting are also much easier in Android 2.3 than in 2.2. You can quickly select text by simply pressing and holding a word. You can then adjust the chunk of text you want to select by dragging the arrows that appear around the text. The method is incredibly easy and effective.
I'm a fan of the camera app in the native Android 2.2, so I was excited to try the new version in Gingerbread. The most notable feature of the updated app is support for multiple cameras on a device. You click a small icon at the bottom of the screen and then choose the front-facing camera or the back-facing camera. Overall, the camera app is simple and straightforward, and I really hope that manufacturers don't try to replace it with their own custom apps on future phones.
I'll cover the image quality of the Nexus S in the full review coming soon.
New Management Apps and Menus
Android 2.2 was faster than Android 2.1, but the price of that boost in speed was reduced battery life. Google has addressed this issue by making Android 2.3 more power-efficient. The software also provides a new nifty battery menu that shows monitors how much power you're using and estimates how much time you have left before you'll need to charge again.
There's also a new shortcut to the Manage Applications menu on the Home screen and in the Launcher, so you can quickly check to see which applications are currently running on your phone and how much power each app (like Gmail or Voice Search) is consuming; then you can close one or more of them if necessary.
The new Downloads application gives you quick access to any file that you download from your browser, e-mail program, or other app (such as Amazon MP3). This feature came in handy as soon as I began loading my phone with content.
Other Tweaks and Features
There are many small tweaks scattered across the user interface. When you link your Google account to your phone, the 3G icon turns green. The notification bar and other areas of the interface are black instead of white. And when the phone goes to sleep, a cool little animation shrinks the screen, making your phone look like an old-timey TV switching off.
Stay tuned for a full-rated review of the Nexus S coming later this week.