With a high-quality touch screen and Google's much-anticipated Android software, the G1 holds a lot of promise to change the way people use smartphones. Made by HTC and sold through T-Mobile, the G1 is the first phone to run on Android. In addition, the phone features some impressive hardware to match -- a touch screen that responds smoothly and quickly and a keyboard.
If you like to tinker with apps, or explore the newest devices, the G1 is for you. But if you want the tried-and-true, or if you're a businessman looking for a proven device, you're better off with the iPhone 3G. The main reason: Android's third-party apps are just starting to take off. And while developers are providing programs to enhance the phone, glitches are bound to pop up, and you may not want to deal with early hiccups.
Even with the shortcomings, notably a camera that fails to measure up to the iPhone, its potential to become a powerful mini-computer is very exciting.
The G1 has a black, matte exterior, resembling other HTC handsets such as the Touch. The phone is well-built and feels solid in the hand, including the mechanism that allows the touch screen to slide out and reveal the keyboard. The appearance isn't sexy, or trendy and in fact. The slightly angled lower edge -- where the trackball and buttons are located -- give the phone an unusual utilitarian look. The G1 also comes in shiny white and graphite versions, but the appeal of this phone is what's inside, namely Android and potential for a great variety of apps.
Still, the soft-touch exterior makes the phone easy to grip and at 2.2-by-4.6-by-0.7 inches, the G1 is nearly the same size as the iPhone -- just slightly thicker to accommodate the keyboard. And at 5.6 ounces, it's heavier and definitely bulkier than the 4.6-ounce iPhone. The large and brilliant 3.2-inch touch screen dominates the face, and this section slides up with a smooth clicking sound to reveal the keyboard. There's a small button on the right side, which activates the camera and, when the phone is in camera mode, can be used to take the photo.
Five main navigation buttons sit on the angled bottom, with the trackball centered between them. There's an "end" key, which also frustratingly locks the phone so it can't be used as a shortcut to exit from apps; a "back" key to go to the previous screen or exit an app; a "home" key to get to the home screen from anywhere; and a "send" key. Above the trackball is a large rectangular "menu" button, which brings up a list of actions in whatever screen is currently open.
The mini-USB port, which is also where the phone charger plugs in, is at the bottom. The microSD slot is covered with a tiny tab on the lower left side. To open the slot, you must slide open the keyboard and pry the tab open. This takes a little effort, but it's not bad compared to other phones where you have to remove the back panel and battery to get to the slot. That configuration would be especially problematic, because it's so difficult to remove the G1's back panel to install the battery -- it seemed the panel may break.
Near the top on the left side, there is a basic rocker button to adjust the volume. The back is simply black, with a speaker centered near the top and a camera lens located to the left.
On the keyboard, buttons are backlit and slightly raised. It's attractive, but the keys are too flat to dial by touch and while they're not tiny, they are small enough for misspelled words. The major problem is the raised section on the bottom, which gets in the way when the screen is open and you're trying to type a message. It's even worse when the phone is charging, since the mini-USB port is located on the bottom -- in the way of your right hand when typing.
The display opens to change the touch screen from portrait to landscape orientation. This is the only time the screen changes because, while the phone has an accelerometer, it doesn't change when the phone is physically rotated. When the keyboard opens, the transition is seamless, but it's a drawback when compared with the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm. For example, it would be nice to have the option of viewing photos in landscape mode.
The keyboard balances out the touch screen, especially if you're reluctant to switch to a touch screen device. Of course, most of the hype and the special functions are related to Android. The visual design of the interface is basic, with a tab on the home screen that can be pulled up with the swipe of a finger to reveal an array of app shortcuts.
Android provides notifications on the status bar at the top of the screen, for example, when you receive new emails and instant messages. In addition, the bar can easily be pulled down with a swipe of the finger, like a window shade, to reveal more information. To close the notification window, swipe your finger up the screen.
When you hold a finger down on the screen, Android allows you to make long clicks to bring up options in certain apps, as well as move an app up to the home screen. Android also lets you to copy and paste. You can also drag and drop apps onto the home screen. T-Mobile calls these "screens," which can be accessed by swiping a finger to the left or right, an "extended home screen." The long click works to customize the G1 homepage, as well as remove apps from the home page.
If you're a tech guru, you'll appreciate the home screen customizations. But if you're the Average Joe, you may prefer the iPhone where apps are laid out in an easy formation, so there's no need to pull shades up or down to reach the apps. Out of the box, the G1 comes with a battery, a stereo headset, USB cable, 1-gigabyte microSD card, carrying case and guides to tips and tricks and getting started guide.
At 3.2-megapixels, the camera takes higher resolution photos than the iPhone's 2-megapixel camera. So it's disappointing to find the camera snaps indoor photos with a strong blue tint. Pictures of objects within about 10 feet are sharp, but more distant subjects are a bit fuzzy, even though the camera features auto-focus. Despite the high resolution of the camera, the G1 unfortunately doesn't stand up to the iPhone in this area. Still, the G1 camera has zoom and auto-focus, but it lacks a flash and video recording -- features that are standard on many smartphones currently on the market. The G1 also doesn't provide editing options, such as the ability to adjust light balance, which may help improve the photo quality and are standard on many other handsets.
Most basic functions are linked to Google, and you must sign up for Gmail. As a result, if you buy the G1, you'll have to sign up for Internet service -- but Web options such as Android Market are one of its major selling points. You can receive emails through Gmail, and contacts from your Google accounts are synced to the contacts on the phone. The calendar also syncs with your Google account, though some owners have complained that it only lets you connect to one Gmail account, rather than multiple.
The G1 can also be set up to receive emails from up to five POP3 and IMAP email accounts, but out of the box it doesn't support Microsoft Exchange. But third-party apps that support direct push have started to pop up. The G1 is rated for five hours of talk time and 5.41 days of standby time. It has 128-megabytes of memory, with an easily accessible slot on the outside to expand the memory with a microSD card. The G1 also has Wi-Fi, which can be turned on by pressing "menu," "settings" and then "wireless controls."
The capacitive touch screen has the same resolution as the iPhone, at 320-by-480 pixels. Unfortunately, the G1 falls short with just 65,000 colors, compared to the iPhone's 16.7 million colors. But the touch screen, which is capacitive like the iPhone, responds smoothly and promptly to finger touches and swipes. The screen doesn't have the iPhone's unique "finger pinch" zoom, so you'll need to rely on "+" and "-" prompts to adjust the view. The screen only changes orientation from portrait to landscape when the keyboard is opened, unlike the iPhone, so you won't be able to change the orientation simply by turning the phone.
Sound is crisp and balanced, and the acoustics comes through clearly. One shortfall: even with the speaker on the back, the sound at top volume isn't loud. When there's a lot of background noise, you have to hold the phone near your ear to hear anything. To access the music player, pull up the apps tab and select the music shortcut. Music files are organized into four categories: artists, albums, songs and playlists. If you want to download new music, you can select the Amazon MP3 shortcut which is also under apps. The G1 supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, WMA, OGG and RM audio formats.
There are two ways to email on the G1: Mail and Gmail, which is push-based. With mail, you can manage up to five IMAP and POP3 email accounts. For instant messaging, the IM app supports AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live and Yahoo. The G1 also allows you to create and send photo and audio messages. As mentioned earlier, it is nice to have a keyboard, but the keys are too flat to type without looking. The angled section also slows down typing, especially when the phone charger is plugged into this part.
The most appealing and promising feature is Android and third-party apps from Android Market. The G1 comes closer to the iPhone because of the wide array of apps already available. Since it's new, some users have found bugs that still need to be worked out. Regardless, Android apps are divided into the categories, which then lead to subcategories. Basic apps include YouTube and the Amazon MP3 music store. To find and download music, select the Amazon MP3 icon which will bring up four options: "Top 100 Albums," "Top 100 Songs," "Browse by Genre" and "Search."
Navigate, of course, through Google Maps. You can even access functions that you normally use on your PCs, including "Street View." The G1 lets you to pan around the street view by moving the phone left, right, up or down. Traffic and satellite maps work too.
One interesting Android app is ShopSavvy, which lets you to look up prices for an item online and at stores. You can access ShopSavvy to "search for a product" from the list of options. A red line will appear in the camera view, and you aim it at the bar code on a piece of merchandise until the phone beeps. You can add the item to wish lists to share with friends and family, or look up a local store that sells the product and the app will then give you the option of calling the store or viewing its location on a map. In addition, with EcoRio, you can enter travel routes, along with information on whether you travel by car or take public transit, and it calculates your carbon footprint. By selecting "inspire," you can see what other people are doing to get around.
It's difficult to compare Android apps with those on the iPhone, since the G1 has only been available for a few months. Android's developers blog only recently announced that Android Market would be accepting paid apps.
The browser is based on Webkit, the open source engine also used to power Safari and Mobile Safari. The G1 also supports T-Mobile's 3G network and Wi-Fi to surf the Web and download files quickly. T-Mobile is expanding its 3G footprint, so new service, based on a high-speed technology known as HSDPA, will increase its speeds by about four times. You must subscribe to T-Mobile service since the G1 syncs email and contacts with a Google account.
In addition, you can subscribe to "T-Mobile Total Internet," which provides unlimited Internet and hotspot access. T-Mobile Hotspot provides high-speed Internet for laptops and smartphones across the U.S., including at Starbucks, FedEx Kinko's, Borders Books and Music stores, Hyatt hotels and airports.
The G1 has 128-megabytes of memory and comes with a 1-gigabyte microSD card. The memory slot was thoughtfully designed on the outside on the phone, on the lower left side, so you don't have to remove the back, as you must do with many other devices.
Connectivity is limited on the G1, which is likely to disappoint you. It supports just two Bluetooth 2.0 profiles: headset and handsfree. With the mini-USB port on the bottom, it can also be connected to a PC.
There is no denying the G1 is an exciting device and provides you with many of the same benefits as the iPhone -- a touch screen and an ever-expanding market of apps. But if you want a more tested operating system, and more apps, you'll want to stick with the iPhone for now, while Google and Android developers fine-tune the software. Hopefully, HTC will also improve the camera quality, which is currently disappointing and falls short of the iPhone. But the G1 has a great future and apps that could turn the platform into a robust ecosystem. ♦
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