This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2008.
After my highfalutin post on mobile operating systems, I thought I’d step back and post a quick review of my T-Mobile G1, the first phone running Google’s Android Mobile OS. Mind you, I’m not posting this from my phone, but I could… 🙂
Hardware Specs for the G1
In order to discuss this phone, it’s important to separate the phone from the operating system. Android is open source, based on the Linux kernel with a JAVA software development approach. The G1 is an HTC mobile phone with Android installed on it. Android is designed to run on everything from the simplest flip phone to a mini-computer, so how well it works will often depend on the hardware platform choices.
That said, HTC made many good choices and a few flat-out poor choices. Since it’s impossible to not compare this phone to the iPhone, then it’s obvious that they could have provided a bigger screen or included a standard audio jack (the G1 comes with a mini-USB headset; otherwise, you need an adapter). The iPhone, of course, is thinner, but that design choice was facilitated by the lack of a hardware keyboard. No G1 owner is going to complain that it’s modest increase in heft is due to the availability of a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. That’s one of the clear advantages over Apple’s ubiquitous competition. Apple makes it’s virtual keyboard somewhat acceptable by offering auto-suggest and auto-correct as you type, features that Android currently lacks, but should have by early 2009 (per the Android roadmap). But I find – as do many of my friends – that a physical keyboard is a less error-prone device than the virtual one, particularly without a stylus. I have some nits about the Android keyboard — the right side is slightly impeded by the stub of the phone, making it hard to type and “o” without also typing “p”, but it’s overall a very functional and responsive keyboard, and I do sometimes blog from my phone, so it was a critical consideration for me.
The hardware has some other limitations as well. It sports a 2MP camera; 3 or 4 would have been preferable. And they made an interesting choice on the memory, including 2GB on board, with expansion available on MicroSD cards up to 8GB. This has led to what seem like some of the major potential issues with the phone and OS, discussed below.
Overall, the design is deceptively unsexy. While the G1 isn’t as sporty as the iPhone, it is highly functional. It’s easy to hold; the curved “chin” actually supports talking on the phone in a way that my flat Treos and Wing never did; the Keyboard slides easily and quickly, making it’s use less awkward when you need it in a hurry, and the decision to include a Blackberry-style trackball, which some have criticized as extraneous, was actually sharp – I find it useful to navigate text fields when editing, and as an alternate to finger-scrolling. My favorite Solitaire game uses a trackball press to deal more cards. It’s actually handy and intuitive. Unlike other smartphones, I took immediately to the functionality of the buttons; they’re well-designed. Also nice – one handed operation on this phone for basic tasks like making calls, checking email and voicemail is really easy.
A Versatile Desktop
Unlike the iPhone and Windows Mobile, a big emphasis has been put on customization. You can put shortcuts to just about anything on the desktop, and you can create folders there to better organize them. I keep shortcuts to the dialer, calendar and my twitter client there, along with shortcuts to the people I call most, and folders for apps, games and settings. You can also set up keyboard shortcuts to applications. This, again, makes the phone a pleasure to use – the things I want access to are always a few taps away, at most.
It’s a Google Phone
The Android OS is young, but elegant. The primary thing to know, though, is that this is a Google phone. If you use GMail and Google Calendar as your primary email and calendaring applications, you’ll love the push email and no-nonsense synchronization. The pull down menu for notifications, with visual cues in the bar, is awesome; the GMail client is so good that I often use it to label messages because that function is simpler than it is in the web client. But if your primary groupware is Exchange/Outlook, then you might want to stop reading here. As of this writing, there are a few applications that – under the right circumstances – can sync your Exchange and GMail contacts. There’s no application that syncs with Outlook on your desktop. If you run on Windows, Google has a calendar sync. But your options for non-Google email are either POP or IMAP in the G1’s “other” email application, which is pretty lame, or some scheme that forwards all of your Exchange mail to GMail (my choice, discussed here). Google search is well-integrated, too, with a widget on the phone’s desktop, a dedicated search key on the keyboard, and a “when in doubt, search” default that pretty much starts a Google search whenever you start typing something in an app that doesn’t expect input. For example, in the browser, you just type to go to a web site, no need for a URL bar; from the desktop, typing will search contacts for a match to call, but if one isn’t found, it will switch to a Google search. And that browser is excellent, much like the iPhone’s, but lacking the multi-touch gestures. All the same, it;s a pseudo-tabbed browser that renders all but Flash-based web sites as well as the desktop, and puts Palm, Microsoft and RIM’s browser’s to shame.
Multimedia support also pales in comparison to the iPhone, which is no surprise. there’s a functional media player, and an app that, like iTunes, connects to the Amazon music store. there’s no support for flash, and the only installed media player is the Youtube app, but you can download other media players. You can store music and movies on an SD card (a 1GB card comes with the phone, but, if you plan to use it for music, you’ll want to purchase a 4, 6 or 8 GB card). All applications are downloaded to the internal drive, which means that there’s a limit on how many apps you can install – most of the 2GB is in use by the OS. I’m hoping that OS fixes and updates — which are delivered over the air – will address this, as it’s a potentially serious limitation.
Maps and Apps
Another compelling thing Maps and GPS functionality. While it doesn’t
do voice directions, the mapping features are powerful and extensible.
Street View features a compass, so you can see where you are going as
you walk, and there are already a number of apps doing great
integration with maps and multimedia, as you’d expect from a Google phone.
Since Android is so new, and the G1 is the only phone that we’ll see in 2008, it will be a while before the third party market for applications grows up to something competitive with Windows Mobile, Blackberry or Apple. While I have almost everything I need to do the things I do on a phone (and I’m a power user), those apps are pretty rudimentary in their functionality, and there isn’t a big variety to choose from. I have no worries that the market won’t grow – it’s already growing quickly. But another consideration is that Android is still for early adopters who are dying for the Google integration, or, like me, want an iPhone-class web browser, but require a keyboard.
I get all of my applications from the market, accessible via the phone. A lot of third-party markets are popping up, but they are either offering things that are on the Android Market or selling items (the Android Market only offers free software – this will change in January). I have yet to see something for sale that looked worth paying for, versus the range of freely available apps.
Apps I’m using include Twitli, a Twitter client. TwiDroid seems to have better marketing, but Twitli seems faster and stabler, as of this writing, and presents tweets in a larger font, which my old eyes appreciate.
Anycut – this is a must have OS enhancer that broadens the number of things that you can make shortcuts to, including phone contacts, text messages, settings screens and more. Essential, as having contacts right on the screen is the fastest speed dial feature ever.
Compare Everywhere is an app that reads bar codes and then finds matching product prices online. How handy is that? But I think the ability to scan barcodes from the phone, with no add-on attachments, is pretty powerful, and something that the nonprofit industry could make use of (campaign tracking, asset management, inventory).
Connectbot is an SSH client – I once reset a web server in order to get an online donation form working on Christmas Eve from 3000 miles away. Essential for a geek like me. 🙂
OI or AK Notepad – simple notepad apps. Ridiculously, there isn’t one included with Andriod.
Password Safe – encrypted lockbox. Splashdata has one, too, but Password Safe is more flexible, as of this writing.
WPtoGo is a handy WordPress Blog publishing app, for those brave enough to post from a phone without spellcheck (I’ll only post to my personal blog with this – I have higher standards for Idealware readers!)
And the Solitaire game up on the Market is very nice.
Overall, I’m loving this phone and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else on the market – even an iPhone, because I live and die by that keyboard. If it sounds good to you, I’m assuming that you use GMail; you actually write on your smartphone, or would if it had a good keyboard; and that you don’t mind being a bit on the bleeding edge. Otherwise, keep your eye on Android – this is the first of what will be many smartphones, and it’s all brand new. For the first iteration, it’s already, at worst, the second best smartphone on the market. It can only get better.