Apple’s iPhone finally has a worthy rival. The T-Mobile G1, due to go on sale Oct. 22, is the first phone to run on Google’s fun, flexible and functional open source Android mobile operating system. Although the G1 is not as sleek or as well integrated as the iPhone – after all, its hardware and software come from two different places – it actually out-performs the iPhone in several ways. But the G1 is held back by T-Mobile’s less than ubiquitous 3G HSDPA network and no iTunes-like universal syncing software, both solvable problems. In spite of these current deficiencies, the G1 is arguably the most facile portable device ever devised. At least, that is, until the next Android phone with upgraded software arrives.
Features and Design
With its slide-up 3.17-inch screen and full physical QWERTY keyboard beneath, the G1 resembles a Sidekick: Fairly clunky and heavy compared to the iPhone. But its lack of MOMA-worthy aesthetics is off-set by more convenient, if pedantic, physical navigation aids.
Inside the G1 are a host of now-familiar 21st century cell phone amenities: An AAC/MP3 music player (no WMA), full POP3 and IMAP email support (including, of course, push Gmail, since Google designed the Android OS) as well as text and picture messaging and several instant messaging options.
While Gmail is automatically pushed to the G1, you have to tell the G1 how often you want it to check any other email accounts you set up on the device. You can import your Outlook contacts into Gmail, then import them into the G1.
Android further offers user control over auto-correct word processing functions, a welcome option that iPhone owners have been clamoring for but have yet to receive.
In addition to 3G HSDPA accessibility, Android includes easy-to-use WiFi connectivity (no annoying security or DNS configuration necessary, just a password), A-GPS navigation with surprisingly speedy mapping, search and routing capabilities, a 3MP camera and direct access to YouTube.
Like Apple’s App Store, there’s an Android online application Market (for downloading games and programs wirelessly on-demand) accessible from the G1, along with a connection to the Amazon MP3 Store for digital music. The Market currently has around 40 applications and 10 games, all free (so far), but T-Mobile execs expect the store to fill up quickly.
Unlike Apple, T-Mobile and Google don’t vet every application submitted for digital distribution – anyone can write and upload an application to the Market, as long as the program meets specific code developer identification requirements that should make it unlikely for any dubious viral or worm-laden programs to get uploaded.
As noted, there is no comprehensive iTunes-like syncing software that would include linkage to Amazon’s Music and Video stores, a major missed opportunity for both Google and Amazon and a major disservice to G1 users. You’ll have to mostly drag and drop, or use Windows Media or some other workarounds to get content and PIM data onto the phone, a potential obstacle for less facile PC users.
As noted, the G1, built by HTC, is quite Sidekick-like. Rather than using an accelerometer, which automatically reorients what’s on the screen when you rotate the device, what’s on the G1′s screen rotates from portrait the landscape mode only when the screen is slid up. The G1 measures 4.6 x 2.16 x 0.62 inches, around the same surface area, but a bit thicker than the iPhone, and weighing in at 5.6 ounces, it’s nearly an ounce heavier.
The G1′s screen is beautifully bright, crisp and colorful and all text is rendered in smooth, highly readable fonts.
Under the screen is a QWERTY keyboard. If you have a choice, get the black version of the G1. Both the brown and the white versions of the G1 have silver-gray keys with dark gray alphanumeric icons and white backlighting set against a silver-gray surface. With no great contrast between key color and the icons, keys are nearly impossible to read except in direct room light. The black G1, by comparison, has black keys with white icons set into a black surface, which are far more readable as a result.
Even if they are readable though, the QWERTY keyboard keys are nearly flat to the surface instead of rounded like they are on a Sidekick, and provide inadequate tactile feedback.
The phone’s hefty Jay-Leno-like chin is angled slight forward and is chunky enough to make tapping on the QWERTY with your right thumb awkward. The degree of thumb-typing difficulty is raised when a USB cable or headphone is connected at the bottom center of the chin – in other words, typing while listening to music presents an annoying ergonomic challenge.
The phone’s chin also includes the microphone and the microSD card slot compartment, along with six handy physical controls: Send, Home, a nipple trackball, Back, End/Power, and a Menu bar button.
Other than these keys, the G1 is relatively unfettered with buttons. On the phone’s smooth rear are located the camera lens and a small speaker. You’ll have to wipe the lens periodically, since you’ll likely smudge it with your finger while handling the phone. On the right side is a camera activation/shutter release button; on the left is the volume up/down toggle.
Ports & Connectors
Unfortunately, the G1 has just one jack – an all-purpose HTC miniUSB jack on the bottom of the phone’s chin. There is no 3.5mm headphone jack, a tremendous drawback for discriminating music listeners who might want to use their own headphones or choose from the growing number of iPhone-specific earbuds with in-line microphone. You can buy a USB-to-3.5mm adapter that includes an inline mic (which Amazon sells for $12) if you don’t like the included headphones.
On the left side of the chin is a snap-open compartment for the microSD card slot; a 1GB card is pre-installed. You’ll need to slide the screen up to get to the dimple that enables you to pry it open. T-Mobile officially says the slot can accommodate up to an 8GB card, but unofficially I was told it could handle a 16GB card as well.
The G1 includes stereo Bluetooth as well.
Image Courtesy of T-Mobile
Can a phone serve as a workable PMP?
Like the iPhone, the G1 is designed as a cell phone that also doubles as portable media player (PMP). As an MP3 player, the G1 is not exactly an iPod, but the only thing you’ll miss is the iTunes software.
Like any self-respecting MP3 player, you get the usual artist/track name/album, etc. segmentations to delineate your collection. The screen also displays title/artist/album track information, album art, a bright yellow progresss bar, track time elapsed, total track time, large touch music transport controls, Shuffle and Play All controls, plus one-touch access to your entire collection.
The G1 does not include media management software, but Windows Media Player worked just fine as a substitute to fill up the G1 with DRM-free AAC and/or MP3 tracks, although it took me more than an hour to completely sync a blank 8GB card with around 6GB of music. It also was easy to drag and drop music files onto the G1 from a Mac.
Google has partnered with Amazon as its online music store. Like the iPhone, however, you need a WiFi connection to buy tracks from the store using the G1. You can browse the Amazon store, and even listen to 30-second snippets using a 3G connection. You’re restricted to Wi-Fi for actually purchasing tracks, however.
We did experience some screen delay when moving around in various apps and functions while music was playing.
For voice calls, the G1′s sound is crisp and clear, nearly devoid of the usual cell phone echo and warble. However, G1 could use a bit more of a voice volume boost; I had a rough time hearing everything my callers had to say while strolling down crowded New York City sidewalks.
Music quality through the free included earbuds was also better than expected, and should sound even better through a high-end set of headphones.
Normally, this section of a review deals primarily with a phone’s specific calling features. But the G1 is no ordinary phone – it’s the first of its kind. Therefore, we’ll use this opportunity to discuss G1′s most salient feature: Its operating system, which includes the actual phone capabilities.
Android is not as sleek and original as iPhone’s operating system; that’s to be expected since it follows the iPhone by more than a year. As a result, Android seems derivative, but that’s misleading. In a world without the iPhone, Android would be considered wondrous. Android offers a multitude of handy tools, and is nearly as intuitive as the iPhone. Plus, it has a couple of nifty tricks I’ll bet Apple’s software engineers wished they’d thought of.
Android’s home screen is actually the middle of three screens; you finger swipe left or right to get to the additional displays. On the main screen is a large analog clock display; unfortunately, this is the only clock available, although it’s hard to believe some clever developer won’t create cooler timepieces. On the right screen is a Google search toolbar, but you can hold-and-drag this to main middle screen if you’d like as well.
Unlike the iPhone’s plain black background, you can assign any picture in the phone as the home screen’s wallpaper (although I’d choose something sedate or you won’t be able to make out the function shortcut icons). The picture you choose is splayed seamlessly across all three screens.
You can place any shortcut icon, such as a photo, song or document on the home screens just like you can on any PC, not just applications, as on the iPhone. And anything on the home screen can be moved or removed. The bottom of the middle home page has a tabbed home menu page that you drag up, like a bottom-up window shade. To move a frequently accessed shortcut from this pull-up menu, just hold and drag the icon onto the main home page.
A screenshot of the G1 desktop
The trick Android’s creators got right that Apple’s developers missed concerns the top end of the screen. It’s not just a status bar, but a pull-down window shade. If there’s a waiting message, for instance, just pull down the status bar window shade to get specifics. When you’re done, just lift the shade back up. It’s really clever.
This status bar window shade is particularly handy when music is playing, and you switch to another function or application. If you want to get back to the Now Playing screen, instead of cycling through the home screens to tap the Music icon, you just pull down the status bar window shade to quickly return to the Now Playing screen.
G1′s greatest advancement may be considered anachronistic in this new touchscreen world: Its six physical controls. These controls, always thumb-reachable, make the G1 far easier to navigate and control than the iPhone, especially the Back key, the trackball and the Menu bar.
When editing prose such as an email on the iPhone, for instance, you have to touch-drag a magnified cursor that requires an annoying amount of exactitude to place at precisely the right spot. Manipulating the cursor with the G1′s nipple trackball is far quicker and more intuitive.
Each Android application and function has a sub-menu of necessary options, accessible via, duh, the Menu key. Any touch command not visible on the screen is just a Menu button push away.
These controls won’t just be on the G1 either. According to manufacturer HTC, all Android phones require Home, Menu, Back and navigation control keys.
But the G1 misses one of iPhone’s key technologies, which is fast becoming de rigueur for touchscreen phones: An accelerometer, which detects the position the phone is held in and adjusts the orientation of on-screen visuals accordingly. Instead, here, what’s on-screen moves from portrait to landscape mode when you slide the screen up. You also have to manually rotate photos via a “rotate” control in the picture gallery menu if you want to make them full screen.
Like the iPhone, the G1 is also missing haptic feedback, but that’s not such a big deal on a handset with a QWERTY keyboard. We did miss haptic feedback on the touch dialpad, though.
The G1 is additionally missing the gyro sensor that makes iPhone such a wonder. The phone doesn’t know you’re pulling it up to your ear in order to turn off the touchscreen or when you pull it down away from your ear so it knows to reactive the screen so you can end a call. It doesn’t have to. After you dial a number, there’s nothing on the G1 screen that can be touched, and the screen goes blank almost immediately after a call is connected. When you’re done with a call, you have a physical red End key to push to hang up, screen on or off.
You can assign any musical track on the phone as your ringtone without paying T-Mobile or Amazon an extra fee. On the iPhone you have to pay for a track twice, once to listen to it and again to use it as a ringtone – advantage G1.
Ringtones are also loud – at the highest volume setting, tones played through the small speaker are actually distorted. Suffice it to say that the G1 is one phone you don’t have to set at its highest volume to hear ring, especially if you choose a loud track to alert you. Holding the side volume down toggle at the home screen turns off the ringer.
The G1 doesn’t include a native video player – you have to download a third-party video player. T-Mobile told me that the G1 can play MPEG-4, 3GPP, H.263 and H.264 files, but we were unable to get the G1 to play H.264 clips.
While the Amazon store does offer downloadable video, so far there is no way to buy and play videos on the G1. By far, Android’s inattentiveness to native video playback is the G1′s greatest functionality misstep.
Web browsing on the G1′s HTML Web browser, email checking and reading, and downloading apps from the Market prove much faster on a 3G network than via EDGE. But T-Mobile just launched its 3G HSDPA network a few months ago. Right now T-Mobile 3G is available in 92 cities, with 120 expected by the end of November. By comparison, AT&T’s much-maligned 3G network is available in 350 markets.
Without 3G, many consumers may be disappointed by Android’s EDGE Web surfing performance, as well as the performance of many of the third-party apps that depend on high-speed connectivity. In our own usage, pages such as CNN.com, ESPN and The New York Times pages loaded in less than 10 seconds using 3G, but took more than three times longer in EDGE. The iPhone’s 3G connection also filled pages faster than G1′s Wi-Fi connection by around 5-7 seconds.
Like the iPhone, the G1 presents the Web via a handsome full HTML browser; what you see on your big desktop screen is what you see on the 3.17-inch G1 screen, albeit a bit smaller. You can view the Web in either landscape or portrait mode, although with the screen up in landscape pages less side-to-side scrolling is required.
Apple’s Safari browser on the iPhone delivers an entire page on one screen that can then be zoomed in on via the phone’s multi-touch pinching. Android gives you a large, readable section of a page that you have to move around left-right/up-down to explore. When you touch a Web page, + and – zoom controls pop up on the bottom of the screen.
Both images and text are beautifully rendered on the G1 screen, with baby-butt-smooth fonts. You can even copy pictures from the Web and store them on the G1.
The G1 comes with a travel charger, a USB-to-mini-USB cable and USB earphones. The G1 will recharge when it’s connected to a PC; if you travel with a laptop, you won’t need the travel charger.
The included earbuds have an inline mic, switch hook, volume control and lapel alligator clip. Double-tapping the switch hook skips music to the next track. The earbuds themselves are not that comfortable, and fit too loose in the ear for our tastes.
There’s also a soft carry case included but no belt clip. Simply slipping the phone into breast pocket will work just as well.
Of course, it’s improbable that the G1 will inspire the range and number of clever and functional accessories iPhone has – no other phone yet has aroused that kind of accessorizing frenzy.
The G1′s 3MP camera does iPhone’s 2MP cam one better. But like the iPhone, the G1′s camera offers no additional options such as zoom or flash, although there is a weird kind of vanity mirror that looks more like it was intended as a design flourish that just happens to be shiny enough to see your reflection. There’s also no video recorder, which is disappointing, but creates an opportunity for some ambitious third-party developer.
The G1′s 3MP pictures are impressive, with just vague bits of blurriness is spots – this isn’t exactly a DSLR, after all. Colors are mostly bright and pop out well, especially in direct sunlight.
Indoor shots are a bit murkier, as you’d expect, with more blur given how long and still you have to hold the phone – two or three seconds, an eternity in digital camera land, while the shot is captured and processed.
Image Courtesy of T-Mobile
The G1 has a rated talk time of 5 hours, the same as the iPhone, but just 130 hours in standby: A little more than two days, or less than half of the iPhone’s rated 300 hours standby.
In our unscientific tests, music played for around 11 hours, less than half of the iPhone’s 24-hour music play time. Rated music and video play times were not released.
But like the iPhone, you’re likely to re-charge the G1′s battery every night or even more often than that – although, with so many cool things to play with, it’s unlikely you’ll make it through the day on a single charge.
Even with all that we’ve covered here, we’ve barely touched on the G1′s overall sophistication: It’s a wondrous achievement for a first-gen operating system. As such, the G1 is the Phil Mickelson of cell phones – that is to say, it ranks as a star compared to nearly every rival except for the Tiger Woods of cell phones, the iPhone. In some ways, the G1 is easier to navigate than the iPhone and, depending on your keyboard tastes, it may be easier to compose text on. But the G1 is also clunky, and sometimes unwieldy. Not to go all French on you, but it lacks the iPhone’s simple joie de vivre and savoir faire. What may ultimately hold the G1 back is the lack of a nationwide 3G network, which means that, to make a simple automotive comparison, most of the time it will run on low octane EDGE fuel and lessened speeds hardly worth of its race-car-grade engine. The handset’s lack of accompanying iTunes-like sync software is also a major disappointment. But Android has loads of potential and is likely to be installed on sleeker phones more worthy of its sophistication and functionality. As first impressions go, consider us impressed.
• Android operating system best available, other than iPhone
• Bright 3.17-inch touchscreen
• Physical QWERTY keyboard
• Complete user customization
• Access to online music and application store
• Excellent music player
• Excellent sound
• Clunky and heavy
• No 3.5mm headphone jack
• No comprehensive iTunes-like sync software
• Lack of T-Mobile 3G markets
• No native video playback
• Short battery life for music playback