It's not often we see the launch of new mobile operating system, especially one that many people are expecting to become one of the major forces in the smartphone market. But that's what's happening with the T-Mobile G1, a device that's significant because it's the first running Google's Android OS, not because of its slightly boring hardware.
This is a consumer-oriented smartphone with an outstanding web browser and strong ties to Google's online services, like Gmail. Its GPS receiver makes its version of Google Maps more accurate.
It has a touchscreen but depends heavily on its integrated QWERTY keyboard.
The G1 also has Wi-Fi and access to T-Mobile's extensive hotspot network.
Inside this Review
The T-Mobile G1 is sometimes called the "Googlephone" because its operating system -- called Android -- was created by Google, and much of the bundled software ties in to Google's services.
This means that you can get your Gmail on the G1, your contacts are the same as your Gmail contacts, and you can keep a copy of your Google Calender with you all the time on this smartphone.
This might be the best part of Android. The synchronization between the G1 and Google's online services is easy childishly easy to set up, and changes are made instantaneously. If you're a user of many of Google's services, you can be up and going in about two minutes by just entering your email address and password.
Going forward, your emails will automatically be sent to your G1, and you'll be notified as soon as they arrive. This is called "push" email and it's something that once was available only to BlackBerry users. If you want to make changes to your calendar or address book, you can do so either on the G1 or with a web browser on your PC. No matter which one you choose, the other will be updated immediately.
Browser: With Google behind the design, it's no surprise that Android has a very good web browser. Truly, it's one of the better mobile ones I've used. It renders large pages fairly quickly, and reformats text on the fly to make it fit on the G1's small screen. Moving around on large pages is made easier with a small window that acts as a magnifying glass, letting you choose exactly where you want to zoom in.
Combined with the G1's high-speed wireless access, I predict you're going to find yourself regularly surfing the web when on the go.
Google Maps: I'm sorry to say that the version of Google Maps that's built into Android is fairly useless.
As it stands, this application can show you where you are, and give you a set of directions to where you're going. But to actually use those directions is a huge hassle. The software shows you an icon to indicate your position, but it seems almost unaware of your location. Whenever you make a turn, you have to tap on the screen to ask for the next turn, it doesn't happen automatically. If you miss a turn, Google Maps can't create a new route for you on the fly. You have to manually start the process of creating a set of directions all over again. There's simply no way to use this software while driving in anything like a safe manner.
I have been using the versions of this application on other mobile platforms for a long time, and I've never complained about the limitations because it's free. However, Google Maps is now a significant feature in a smartphone people are paying for, and it's time for it to grow up.
Multimedia: As long as I'm pointing out problems, Android, and therefore the G1, is fairly weak in multimedia. There's no video player in the bundled software. You can play music off a memory card, but not video. You also can't record video with the built-in camera.
There's no way to play streaming audio off the Internet. You can, however, play Flash video streamed from YouTube using one of the better clients I've seen. This isn't surprising when you consider that Google owns this video service.
A file browser would be nice, too, to help you easily manage your images and MP3s the a memory card.
As time goes by, one of the greatest strengths of Android is going to be the wealth of third-party applications available for it. Google is actively encouraging developers to create software, and they are responding.
The T-Mobile G1 is brand new, but there are already more than 50 software titles available on the Android Market.
The Android Market is Google's system to allow developers to easily distribute their applications to users. It's still in its infancy, and everything available now is free because there's no system for charing yet, but it shows promise.
For example, there are apps that try to take care of the holes in Android's feature set I mentioned earlier. But both the video player and the file browser need a great deal of work before they will be truly useful.
The Market is available on the smartphone, and lists applications in a variety of categories. You can quickly download any of these over the air, and it will automatically be installed on your device.
Not every company is willing to give their software away, and so not every Android application is listed on the Market. A collection of non-free apps for the G1 can be found on the Brighthand Software Store.
My only complaint with this process is the limited amount of storage you have to holding applications. All third-party software has to go into a 70 MB space. It doesn't matter how much storage capacity you have on a memory card, you can't store software anywhere other than internally. To give you an idea of what this means, I've installed a few utilities and a couple of games and I'm already down to 50 MB. Basically, you're going to have to carefully manage which applications you keep on your G1.
In the early days of smartphones, the majority of these devices were created for business users. Android is different. It has been created for consumers, and everything about it reflects that.
The home screen functions as a clock and an application launcher, but doesn't give the sort of information businesspeople generally want at a glance, like when their next meeting is.
While getting email from a consumer service using POP3 or IMAP is a breeze, currently, there is no way to connect to an Exchange Server to get corporate email.
Android's support for working with Microsoft Office files is weak. For example, you can view a Word document that comes in as an email, but some of the formatting, like images and footnotes, won't appear. There's no editing of Office documents.
Also, there's no support for tethering, so it's not possible to use the G1 as a modem for a laptop.
However, these are all areas where I expect third-party development to step in.
As important as Android is, it still needs good hardware to make a successful product. And, unfortunately, I don't think the device Google and T-Mobile chose was the best option.
The G1 is a version of the HTC Dream, and despite the name this is an entirely unexciting model. It's loaded with nice features, but the overall package isn't one to inspire cravings in the target market.
In the same way that a business-oriented smartphone needs to look professional, a consumer-oriented one needs to look cool. The G1 doesn't. Not at all. It looks like something an engineer would carry around to test out a new software platform.
I was hoping for something sleek, but at 0.6 inches thick and 5.6 ounces, this model is relatively large and heavy. It's not something that rides easily in a regular pants pocket. You'll likely be carrying it either in a cargo pocket, on your belt, or in a purse.
Screen: The T-Mobile G1's best feature is the HVGA touchscreen. This is a capacitive screen rather than the more common resistive type. What this jargon means is that you need to touch the screen with your fingertip rather than a stylus. The G1 doesn't come with a stylus and won't register screen taps with anything but your fingertips, not even your fingernails.
Android seems to have been designed for just this sort of arrangement. Just about everything is large and easy to tap on, and it's great being freed from the need to constantly pull out a stylus.
One of the few times when you want to select something small on the screen is in the web browser. Web pages are often dense with text and links, making it hard for your relatively large finger to tap on exactly what you want. Fortunately, the G1 had a trackball that you can use to select small items.
Keyboard: Don't worry about trying to type on the screen with your fingertips because Android doesn't include an on-screen keyboard. Instead, you'll be using the G1's hardware keyboard. You get to this by sliding the screen to one side, which automatically puts the display into landscape mode.
At this point, this device starts to resemble a T-Mobile Sidekick. As I understand it, many of the people who liked the Sidekick are pleased with the G1. I was never a Sidekick user, and the G1's keyboard seems awkwardly placed to me. Even with the screen slid out of the way, there's still the section of the phone with the hardware buttons off to one side -- this is sometimes called the chin -- and you have to reach around this with your right hand to access the keys.
Still, the keyboard itself is OK. I generally prefer a hardware keyboard to an on-screen one, I just wish there was an option to enter text with the G1 in portrait mode.
Wireless: An area where I have no complaints is wireless networking. The G1 is T-Mobile's first smartphone with high-speed 3G cellular-wireless networking. I live in an area with 3G coverage, and I can definitely notice a speed difference between it and the older 2.5G standard EDGE when I'm web browsing or downloading maps.
For those of you who don't have 3G coverage yet, this device sports the short-range wireless standard Wi-Fi. You can set up an access point in your home or office if you don't have one already, and the G1 comes with free access to all of T-Mobile's hotspots around the world. Wi-Fi is a bit speedier than 3G, but I found myself rarely turning it on, as 3G is fast enough for me.
I'm happy with the G1's Bluetooth performance when using a headset, but those with a set of wireless stereo headphones are in for a disappointment; they can't be used with this device.
Headphones: Speaking of headphones, this device comes with an accessory that does double duty as a headset and stereo headphones. This is nice, as the G1 doesn't include a standard jack. Instead, you have to use its mini-USB port.
Memory and Storage: I've already mentioned the parsimonious amount of storage the G1 has for installing applications, so I won't bring that up again.
To copy files onto this card, you can use a card reader, but there's a much better option. If you connect the G1 to your Windows or Mac PC with the included cable, the memory card will show up as a removable drive. This makes moving files on to or off of the device a snap.
Performance: The G1 runs Android on a 528 MHz processor and includes 192 MB of RAM. That seems like a good configuration, as I have no complaints about general performance at all. Everything happens virtually instantaneously.
I have had no problems with stability. I think one application may have crashed on me since I've been using the G1, and it didn't take the whole device with it.
Battery Life: The T-Mobile G1's battery life is about the minimal I'll accept without complaining. It's not great, as I can run through a charge in a single day if I use the device frequently. On the other hand, I put the device aside as I was working on other projects and left it just checking for my push emails to come in. At the end of three days it still had a 30% charge.
Still, if you want to be sure your G1 is ready to go when you need it, you're going to want to charge it every night.
When I think of the T-Mobile G1, the phrase that occurs to me is "a good first step". Most of Android's basic features are there, and they work very well. But there are enough extra features either missing or so poorly handled to make this smartphone seem unfinished.
Fortunately, I'm sure Google is going to keep plugging away at improving the software, and third-party developers will help fill in the holes. It will take a while, but eventually I expect Android to be an impressive mobile platform.
There's nothing any software upgrade can do about the G1's rather boring look, though. At least its feature set is pleasing and the price is good.
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