When you hear the word smartphone, it's very likely that Apple's iPhone comes to mind. And yet, it's Google's Android operating system that powers the majority of the world's smartphones. Android is everywhere, but Google has almost no control over the quality of the products its hardware partners make. In the process, a lot of lousy Android phones have flooded the market over the last five years. In 2012, Google took its biggest steps yet toward moving into the front of consumer minds. But it didn't use Motorola Mobility, the hardware maker it took over this year at a price of $12.5-billion, to challenge the status quo. Instead, it did so with its own Nexus line of products.

This year, the Nexus brand shifted from being a line of slow-selling phones that were only loved by hackers and Android die-hards, into a lineup of one fantastic phone and two kick-ass tablets that can not only go toe-to-toe with the best from Google's top competitionApple, Amazon and Microsobut also show off cutting edge technologies such as NFC chips, wireless charging, and Google's voice search. The maturation of the Nexus brand began this summer with the release of the Nexus 7, which is arguably the best small tablet on the market today. Then, in the fall, came the exceptional Nexus 4 phone and fantastic Nexus 10 tablet. The recipe for each device is the samea high-density display, pure Android software, beastly powerful processors, top-notch features and price tags that are lower than major alternatives. The Nexus line now comprises some of the best gadgets you can buy. For the first time Google is spending big-time money on a Nexus ad campaign that can be seen on TV, in magazines, and across the Web. And, more importantly, for the first time, Google has a long overdue hardware answer to the iPhone, Kindle Fire, and iPad that it can control and sell all on its own. Nathan Olivarez-Giles, Wired (@nateog)