T-Mobile G1 Powered by Android Review

October 15, 2008
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October 16th, and we're finally allowed to tell you what we've wanted to say for the past week: the T-Mobile G1 is a very good cellphone indeed. The first handset commercially available to run Google's Android platform and, with the exception perhaps of the iPhone 3G, the most anticipate mobile device launch of the year, the HTC-made G1 has a lot riding on it. Not only is it T-Mobile USA's flagship 3G handset, it's the first time Android has been seen outside prototypes and pre-production hyperbole. Can the G1 live up to it? Check out the full Android Community review to find out.

The form of the G1 is both familiar and new at the same time. Familiar because we've seen the gradual progression from part-glimpsed HTC prototype, because of the sense of familiarity with SideKick handsets, and new by virtue of its surprisingly clean design. It's 158g weight sits well in the hand, heavy enough to feel solid but not so much to feel cumbersome. Flip open the arc-curved side-sliding touchscreen and you'll find - or perhaps not even notice - that the handset has been weighted so that it doesn't topple backwards. That much-maligned 'chin' section, angled with the trackball and buttons, nestles into the curve of your hand and goes unnoticed.

Under the hood, a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7201A processor lends the G1 its grunt, paired with 256MB ROM and 192MB RAM. HTC have given the handset dualband HSPA/WCDMA in the US (1700/2100MHz) or single-band in Europe (2100MHz), capable of supporting up to 7.2Mbps downloads (network depending), together with quadband GSM/GPRS/EDGE. There's also WiFi b/g, Bluetooth 2.0+EDR and GPS, as well as a digital compass and accelerometer orientation sensor.

Users are faced with a breadth of input options, including a full QWERTY keyboard, 3.2-inch 320 x 480 HVGA capacitive touchscreen and trackball. Get used to flipping out the keyboard, however, as Android v1.0 lacks an on-screen keyboard beyond basic the numeric pad for dialing. Thankfully the G1's 'board is well laid-out, five-rows of letters and dedicated number keys, together with useful shortcuts to key applications. Shortcuts can also be user-programmed, to any number or letter you so wish, whether a pre-loaded app or something downloaded from the Android Market. Our only criticism would be the keyboard backlighting, which could definitely do with being brighter.

The touchscreen is even more of a success. Unlike other HTC smartphones it uses a capacitive panel, similar to that of the iPhone, responding well to even gentle touches. It's a shame, then, that it's not capable of multitouch, which remains an iPhone exclusive in cellphones at least. Still, the G1's interface is very quick, with no long load times or pauses as applications load. The home screen is neatly laid-out and straightforward to customize, and can be as complex or as streamlined as you choose. Here the G1 edges ahead of the iPhone, with Android's freedom to add any variety of contact cards, picture frames, apps and widgets to the home screen and its folders.

Along the top of the display sits the notification bar, a well organized way to view SMS, MMS, email, IM and download notifications, among others, as well as a list of recent activities similar to that found at the top of the Start menu in Windows Mobile. Also similar to the Microsoft mobile OS, and an unwelcome decision at that, is the absence of a task manager to end background applications. Android promises to manage which software is closed and which stays open, but we'd rather it was more draconian for the sake of battery life. All those secretly active programs take their toll, via background processes, on the 1150mAh Li-Ion battery. As far as we can tell, the only way to shut apps down completely is to power-cycle the handset.

In a way, the lack of manual closing makes the G1's absence of lag, even having opened several programs, all the more surprising. Anybody coming from Windows Mobile, used to watching their smartphone crawl to a sluggish halt as cycles and RAM are monopolized, will be impressed with how responsive the G1 remains. In fact, the only app crashes we observed happened well in advance of the G1 slowing down, with only a message warning of an instability that requires the program's restarting. Generally, though, for a first-generation device the G1 - and Android itself - is remarkably stable. Whether closed in the background or not, software picks up exactly where you left off, and the speed of start-up makes the transition around the OS pretty seamless.

Google's search history (if you'll pardon the pun) has culminated in one of the most useful features of Android on the G1, in the shape of the dedicated search key. Accessible at any time, it makes searching for files significantly faster than straight browsing, and its consistency across applications means it soon becomes an instinctive action. There's no way to search cross-app, however, so you can't for instance browse through documents while in the media player, only media content.

You'd also expect a Google-branded product to excel at internet browsing, and here the G1 is a mixed-bag. Based on the same open-source WebKit engine as the iPhone, Nokia's S60 browser and others, it's full-HTML compatible and handled most any site we pointed it at. Navigation is via a combination of the touchscreen and the trackball, with a Nokia-style magnification window (which shows the position of the current view in terms of the page as a whole) when zoomed-in. Magnification is neither as slick nor as smooth as on the iPhone, a point where the absence of multitouch is a real drawback. Instead, you swipe across the screen with your finger, which summons up a virtual lens with which to focus down on specific sections. It's workable, but nowhere near as intuitive as on Apple's device. Another shortcoming is the bizarre lack of integration with the accelerometer: rotating the G1 does not rotate the screen, you're forced to slide out the keyboard in order to do that. Finally, cut & paste only appears to work with URLs, not text anywhere on webpages, and there's no Flash support at present.

Of course, Google's other forte is messaging, and the G1 ships with a full breadth of IM compatibility including Google Talk, AOL Instant Messenger, Windows Live and Yahoo! Messenger, all of which can be logged-into simultaneously and remain so in the background. New messages are flagged up on the notification bar and done so relatively discretely, so as not to distract too much from whatever app you're currently using. Frustratingly, though, the different providers are all grouped separately, meaning your MSN contacts, say, are in a different list from your AOL buddies. That can be preferable on the desktop, where you're more likely to differentiate and organize your social groups, but on a mobile device we'd have preferred to see at least the option to integrate all contacts into a single online/offline list.

Still, you can see the golden touch of ex-SideKick Andy Rubin in the IM experience as a whole, as it's one of the more - if not the most - successful on a mobile device. Different conversations are easily switched between, and the keyboard comes into its own for rapid pecking. That ease of use continues into the SMS/MMS client, where messages are threaded into conversations and send seemingly instantaneously.

Photos are courtesy of a 3.2-megapixel camera with mechanical autofocus, the latter being something of a rariety in a mobile device. It lends the G1 a far more professional feel, more like a compact digital camera than an afterthought. Half-pressing the dedicated camera button focuses the picture, fully-pressing it fires off the shot. Images themselves are crisp, if a little on the light side, but decent for a cellphone; all the more frustrating, then, that in the absence of a flash dimly-lit areas are often impossible to photograph. At present the camera will only take still photos, not video.

The G1 relies on microSDHC cards for storage, and is compatible with the latest 16GB models for iPhone-equalling capacity. The slot itself is hidden underneath the rear cover, as is the SIM slot, but unlike the SIM you're not required to remove the battery pack in order to switch memory cards. Some might prefer a more accessible microSDHC slot, but anyone who has accidentally dropped several gigabytes of content will confirm that, when it comes to memory cards the size of your fingernail, safety outsts a few seconds time-saving.

Add a card and the G1 automatically locates any music, pictures and video stored on it. Choose a file and you're asked which app you want to play it with; if it's a video, you'll have to make a trip to the Android Market first, though, as the pre-installed Android media player can only handle audio files. Playback is via a wired stereo headset - which requires an HTC breakout dongle, as the G1 lacks a dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack. At this time, the G1 does not support A2DP stereo Bluetooth, but should after a future firmware update. We paired a number of different hands free Bluetooth headsets with the G1 and experienced no problems at all. A nice touch is that, when listening to music, you're given the option to search for the video in the standalone YouTube app; only problem is, switch away from the video and it automatically pauses, so you can't use it as a streaming music player in the background.

We've mentioned the Android Market several times, and Google's answer to the Apple AppStore holds its own on the G1. The application database is intelligently managed; the entire list of available software isn't fully synchronized every time you open the Market, only the new titles, and it keeps track of which you've already downloaded and/or installed. Applications you download are installed to the pull-out menu on the home screen, in alphabetical order, keeping it both tidy and well-organized.

Google seem to be taking a different stance to Apple in their management of the Android Market: unlike on the iPhone, apps will go through no vetting before being available to download. Instead, a review & rate system is being implemented, where users score and comment on downloads. The plus side to that is the range of titles (Apple have a habit of pruning out what they don't think is "suitable" for their cellphone) and the speed at which updates can be posted; the negative is the potential for malware or poorly coded apps to get onto at least a handful of devices until the software can be flagged up as harmful.

When installing a new app, Android flags up which services - camera, network, GPS, etc. - it will use. That way, the user can judge whether the software is going to do what it claims it will, or something nefarious. It's useful, but it assumes a degree of understanding that many users just won't have. In a way that's unusual for Android, because you can tell Google have tried hard to make it approachable for entry-level users. The settings menu has easy-to-comprehend descriptions, and the synchronization summary clearly shows which items are up to date and which have encountered problems. Meanwhile the applications manager - with the frustrating exception of a kill switch - runs through how much space each program takes up and what it's properties are. It's an area that Windows Mobile, with its multple, convoluted settings screens and seemingly endless tabs, would do well to learn from.

If a key motivation for picking up a new cellphone is the extent to which you can impress friends and family, you'll be pleased to know that the G1 has just such an app. Android obviously includes Google Maps for Mobile, but they've given it some extra wow-factor with compass-enabled Street View. Hold up the phone with Google's street-level photos loaded up and, as you physically turn around, the on-screen representation does so too. It sounds like a gimmick - and indeed it can be, if you're using it to justify your new purchase to your spouse or bank manager - but it's also a handy way of figuring out which way to go at an unfamiliar intersection. When you're finished panning around places you used to live, or stalking ex-partners, the GPS quickly locks on and gives straightforward, accurate directions.

Of course, at its heart the G1 is a phone, and one intended to show off T-Mobile's 3G network to boot. Call quality is, thankfully, excellent, both normally and through the loud, clear speakerphone. T-Mobile's 3G network has surprising reach, too; although the carrier is only really promoting Phoenix and New York City as flooded with their high-speed access, we had no problem getting a 3G signal in San Jose, with next to zero dropped calls.

In fact, it'll be battery life that curtails your use of the G1, not the network. Despite the sizeable power-pack, with heavy use the G1 only lasted 2-3hrs. That's a mixture of voice calls, internet browsing, GPS and media playback, but it leaves us doubtful that the handset would last a full day if used in earnest. Our suspicion is that it's background processes putting their demands on the battery, and we wouldn't be surprised to see a software update pushed out sooner rather than later which attempts to manage that better. Hopefully an aftermarket task manager will also make a speedy appearance. You can charge the handset either with the included AC adapter - which takes about an hour - or via a USB connection to your PC or Mac; the G1 shows up as a removable drive, to which you can drag media or document files.

While we're talking about frustrations, the G1 is a real fingerprint and grease magnet. Like any phone with a large display, the glass smudges readily; however the entire G1 seems particularly prone. With no screen protectors to hand, we resorted to cutting up an iPhone protector and using that.

In judging the T-Mobile G1, you're really coming to two conclusions. The first is of the handset itself, while the second is more about Android as a platform. That's going to make things tricky, and you'll no doubt read plenty of reviews and opinions basically claiming Android falls down because the reviewer doesn't like the G1. Happily, we've been impressed - and surprised, even - on both counts.

The T-Mobile G1 certainly isn't perfect - you definitely need a second battery if you're a power-user, the capacitive touchscreen is great but, without multitouch, seems only half used, and the app management needs either a stern talking-to or a user-accessible way to kill running processes - but it's very, very good. HTC, T-Mobile and Google have said that they set out to design a true internet-enabled mobile device, and they've done just that. The G1 will inevitably be compared to Apple's iPhone 3G, but it represents a sightly different angle on the mobile experience. Where the iPhone is, by virtue of Apple's omni-present controlling hand, a relatively closed system (and no less successful, or attractive, for it, mind), the G1 panders instead to those who would prefer something more tweakable, more customizable.

Android, meanwhile, has exactly what it needs: a device on which to showcase its features and tempt with the promise of what's to come. Again, it's nowhere near perfect, but it's also version one; think back to the first iPhone experience, back even further to the early stages of Windows Mobile, and then recognize that Google have poured - and will continue to pour - masses of investment into making this platform work. Owners of the first G1 handsets will undoubtedly profit from that investment, upgrading and taking advantage of new drivers, new software and new third-party hacks; in fact anything the open-source community can come up with.

We're excited by the T-Mobile G1 in a way we haven't been by a mobile device in a long time. It might lack the drool-inducing instant allure of the iPhone 3G, but it counters that both with usable, thought-out abilities today and real promise for tomorrow. Android and the G1 are no iPhone-killer, but they're certainly a game-changer.

Unboxing T-Mobile G1 (Birds eye view)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RWdINrq_S0[/youtube]

Setting up T-Mobile G1

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOw65-jb1Xk[/youtube]

T-Mobile G1 Hardware walkthrough

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ak8gv5T84e8[/youtube]

Unboxing T-Mobile G1 (facing us)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfcqCG-oulY[/youtube]


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