It’s finally here: the Google phone. As most observers know by now, the “Google” phone is actually just the first of a family of cell phones which will support Google’s new mobile operating system, Android. Since it’s the first, though, it’s certainly the most anticipated. We got our hands on a preview model over the weekend, and offer some thoughts:
The G1’s shape and form factor is… utilitarian. The iPhone proved that simplicity sells, and, in that sense, the G1 succeeds, with one large display, four small buttons, and a trackball on its face. It’s a very clean presentation. But it doesn’t quite grab you. It’s just a little too plain, lacking the glossy finish or unique tapered edges of other devices.
The spring-loaded slider mechanism, however, is excellent. The beautiful screen slips sideways to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard; when open, the display hangs off the body of the phone while still feeling solidly attached. It’s a nicely designed element that leaves the G1 feeling spacious while in use.
The G1 is relatively heavy, weighing in at 5.6 ounces. It’s also fairly thick, thanks to the QWERTY keyboard. Neither of these facts are a strike against it, though; the G1 isn’t intended as a super-slim phone that disappears in your pocket. I rather liked its heft, since this is such a high-functioning device. I’d rather handle a sturdy smartphone than a featherweight.
In the end, the physical look and feel of the G1 is solid, but not nearly as alluring as some of HTC’s other recent efforts, like the Touch Diamond.
The G1’s touchscreen, on the other hand, is terrific. For starters, it’s big. And it’s beautifully crisp. The 3.2” TFT-LCD screen features HVGA resolution – identical to the iPhone. We tested the G1 outdoors, and in the dark, and its screen delivered exceptional results in all cases. It’s a pleasure to browse the web or check email with such a sharp display.
The touch interface is superb as well. It’s extremely responsive, with little to no learning curve. We were swiping and sliding from screen to screen in no time. The geographic breakdown of the touch display seems well-designed also; none of the touch-activated features reside in counter-intuitive locations. As an added bonus, the home screen is actually three times as big as it might appear – with a simple flick of the finger, you can slide either right or left to open up extra real estate for your shortcuts and applications.
Downloadable games work well with both the touch interface and the automatic orientation feature. We downloaded a version of PacMan that allows players to control the action simply by tilting the phone in a desired direction.
And now we arrive at what really sets the G1 apart from any other cell phone to date: the Android operating system. For months – years, even – Android-related speculation ran wild online. Would Google release its own cell phone? Its own wireless network, even? When Android’s details surfaced earlier this year, some were underwhelmed: it was only an operating system. However, in true Google fashion, the end product might wind up being far more revolutionary than any new branded handset or MVNO could have been.
The main draw of Android – and the G1 is the very first Android-powered phone to hit the market – is that it’s an open source operating system. As a result, the most exciting aspect of the G1 might not even reside within the phone itself. Google’s App Market is an online collection of user-created downloadable applications, many of which are free; the rapidly growing community of Android programmers offers limitless potential to expand the G1’s capabilities. Even now, before the official launch date, we found helpful programs like ShopSavvy (a comparison shopping aid that uses the phone’s camera to scan barcodes and check online vendors for competitive pricing) and a cut-and-paste tool.
Thanks to the G1’s tight integration with all things Google, most of your organizational features are tied directly to your Google account (you’ll be asked to either login to an existing account or create one upon initial use). That means your email, calendar, and contact features all interact with the info stored within a wide range of Google web services. Because of this, there’s no need to physically sync the G1 to your PC to grab updates. It’ll always be connected to your Google profile.
Unsurprisingly, there’s also a Google search bar built right into the G1’s home screen, making any search a breeze. Finally, the pre-loaded web browser designed to work with Android (and based on WebKit) is excellent. It loads fast, and looks sharp, although Flash content remains an issue.
The G1 operates well on T-Mobile’s 3G network, for both voice and data. We encountered no issues with sound quality or dropped calls, and data speeds reached 700 kbps – typical for a 3G service. Even better the G1 offers WiFi support, so you’ll be able to bypass T-Mobile’s cellular network whenever you’re in a Hot Spot.
Multimedia features are only okay. The G1 supports plenty of memory, with 60 MB built-in, and room for a 16 GB microSD card. However, the MP3 player is a little awkward; there’s no direct phone-PC syncing option, so you’ll need to load your songs directly onto the memory card. Also, as of yet, the G1 does not support video… although, thanks to Android, video players will likely be available in the App Market soon.
The built-in camera is easy to access and sports a 3-MP resolution, which is perfectly acceptable for a new smartphone these days. But the editing tools are somewhat lacking. Again, this is something that could be improved by an enterprising Android programmer.
We loved using the G1 for email and text messages, mainly thanks to the display and interface. The email application is attractive, and familiar to anyone with a Gmail account. It’s easy to scroll through your inbox, or to compose new mail. And text messages are organized as threaded conversations, which, if you’ve ever enjoyed this format, is the only way to go.
There’s a lot to like about the HTC G1 for T-Mobile. It’s the first Android phone to hit the market, so you’ll be able to impress friends and colleagues by carrying around a “Google” phone. If you’re already fully immersed in Google’s web applications – Calendar, Gmail, etc – you’ll be right at home with the G1. And the touchscreen itself is one of the best we’ve experimented with.
We ran into a few complaints. For a phone with so much hype, the G1 isn’t the flashiest you’ll find. Heavy multimedia users might also want to look elsewhere, or at least follow developments in the App Market.
In general, though, the G1 has tremendous potential. And if you don’t want to wait until 2009 to jump into the world of Android, we’re fully prepared to recommend this device.
Pros: Beautiful touchscreen with great interface, Android offers unprecedented flexibility, nice integration with Google web services.
Cons: Somewhat drab design, media playback could improve, no 3.5mm headset jack.