T-Mobile, HTC and Google stood hand in hand yesterday to debut the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1. It felt a bit like a new era for the mobile industry -- though the rollerblading seemed a tad out of place -- with high-profile companies backing a Linux-based, touch-driven mobile OS, and spouting the word "open" every two sentences. But, naturally, high aims alone don't build a killer phone; there are a lot details to get right, and a lot more that Google and company have seen fit to leave in the hands of developers. Let's take a look at what's working so far, and what might need some more time in the oven:
Code-named the HTC Dream, T-Mobile's G1 is an interesting phone from the Taiwanese manufacturer. Other than a fairly-familiar keyboard and that horribly annoying ExtUSB jack in lieu of an actual 3.5mm headphone plug, HTC seems to have started from a pretty clean slate. The phone doesn't look like anything special in photographs, but in person and in the hand it's a different story. The clean, simple lines, quality build and matte finish are understated but excellent. It doesn't hurt that the company is actually giving users some color options (black, white, and the totally odd but not unwelcome brown), either.
The capacitive screen feels a tad more fragile than Apple's bulletproof iPhone glass, but it's plenty responsive, bright and colorful, and should take its fair share of abuse. The lack of multi-touch is disappointing, but that sounds like more of an intellectual property limitation than a hardware failing, from what we hear. Little surprise, coming from HTC, but the sliding mechanism is solid and springy, though the phone is large enough that you might find yourself sliding it open with two hands at times. There is also a haptic response to certain actions, which we could take or leave.
HTC's keyboards have been getting increasingly shallow of late, and there's not much feel to this one -- the keys are pretty flat with the surface of the phone, to make way for that sliding screen, and aren't very "clicky" when pressed. Still, it's a large and and well-planned keyboard, and should easily best all but the most practiced iPhone typists. A perk of the hybrid nature of the phone is that you can easily tap out a phone number on the screen without sliding out the keypad.
With a touchscreen to handle most of its functionality, we don't expect to get much use out of the trackball, but it's friendly and usable, and it's kind of nice to have the option. Dedicated call buttons on the face are also welcome. The 3 megapixel camera is nothing special, though it performs well enough in daylight and is able to autofocus on objects at a surprisingly close range.
A major concern is what kind of cellular reception people are going to get. Being a "cloud-based" device, that 3G connection is rather vital for most services, and T-Mobile isn't exactly an old hand at that game. A trouble point here could be T-Mobile's 1GB soft data cap, but we hope that T-Mobile just means that as a stick to deter abuse of the network, and won't be leveled against regular folk. We're also hoping the 350 minutes of 3G talk, and 402 hours of 3G standby are conservative estimates, and not flat-out lies, though the phone's deemphasis on media might save a bit of that juice in regular usage scenarios.
Speaking of media, we appreciate the inclusion of a microSD slot (easily accessed to the right of the keyboard), but the 256MB of built-in memory is a little stifling, even in conjunction with the included 1GB card. The good news is that we're hearing deep down the phone sports microSDHC compatibility, which means the sky's the limit for capacity.
Despite all this focus on the actual HTC device, it's the software that really makes or breaks this thing, especially given the fact that Android boasts plenty of hardware and carrier partners that will have their very own devices to run the OS, many of which we can expect by early next year -- if the G1 isn't your style, you don't have long to wait for an alternative.
Let's not mess around: we really like Android. It's not just what it stands for, it's what it is. It really takes that Google simplicity -- which is often at the expense of aesthetics, depending upon your taste -- and turns it into a rather impressive phone OS.
The basic metaphor of a "drawer" for apps, with favorites being dragged to the "desktop" is fun and convenient, and might stand up to a 50+ app scenario better than the iPhone, though it's really all a matter of taste. The hardware home button bounces you back to the main screen with ease, and the inclusion of a hardware back button means applications can consume the entire screen -- though it can be disorienting at first. The hardware menu button is intuitively placed, and the icon-based menus it spawns are delicious, but sometimes it's hard to tell if we should hit back, tap and hold on the screen, or tap the menu button -- a learning curve that shouldn't be hard for the nerds among us, but might be more difficult to explain to mom.
Your desktop can also be populated with widgets, though strangely enough we were told that they weren't open for development now. We're sure (we hope) that will change, because the idea of having a little RSS ticker or some other handy micro-app always available would be a big help to our information-overload lifestyle. At launch you'll be able to add a clock, Google search box, or a "picture frame," which lets you plant bordered photos on your desktop.
One major criticism of the iPhone has been its icon-based notification method, supplemented by the sometimes-inconvenient method of pop-up messages. Android elegantly integrates notifications into a "drawer" at the top of the phone, meaning you can pull down the top status bar and see at a glance what's going on in your day, in your email and so forth, without leaving the app you're in. You can even see certain notifications without pulling it down at all, the text of the message will just hit the top white bar of the screen for a few seconds. This is one of our favorite parts of Android, and it's really beautifully implemented.
Speaking of the iPhone, one of Apple's biggest praises with that device has been the integration of solid and beautiful media playback and purchasing, and we'd say Android really missed an opportunity here. The music player is pretty disappointing, with a confusing method of selecting and playing songs, and a general "b team" look to it. We can't imagine browsing and enjoying a large music collection on the device, and given the lack of a desktop syncing app, it seems even less palatable. The Amazon MP3 stores seems nice enough, but buying songs on the phone and then manually pulling them into our jukebox of choice later on seems like a chore, and since you can't buy songs over 3G it's almost pointless. Google also didn't build a video player for the phone, outside of the YouTube app. You can already nab a free video player from the Android Market, but video playback on a modern device with a screen like this shouldn't be an afterthought, and we don't see how Android is ready in any way for the average consumer's media diet -- podcasts and Audible haven't even gotten a mention. (And don't get us started on that horrible lack of a headphone jack or even an adapter).
The browser is more of a mixed bag. WebKit naturally looks great and renders accurately, but the lack of multi-touch makes jumping around the page a tad more laborious, and the actual scrolling seems slow and stuttery. That said, Google has packed in some enhancements (check 'em out in the video up above) that really come in handy. You can tap and hold on images to save them or send them, tap and hold on the address bar to -- get this -- copy the URL, and the browser recognizes addresses and phone numbers, letting you tap them for use in another app like Google Maps or contacts. A lot of that functionality is hidden, however, so it could take a bit of learning, but it's good to have the options.
The "Google Apps" are all predictably good (Google's video on the topic is up above). Google has a universal login for the phone -- you enter it once when you buy it, and never have to worry about it again -- so that's a big win right out of the gate. Google also keeps all the apps synced, with Gmail messages, contacts and Gcal dates all available offline, in addition to Gtalk "presence" all of which will be clutch for the Google-addicted among us. In the apps themselves, the lack of visible options (remember that menu button!) might be a bit jarring at first, but leaves maximum room for those simple text-and-line Google interfaces. We did find the apps to be a bit sluggish at times, especially Gmail, which felt like it was "loading" messages that were already downloaded to the device. The maps app was also a tad choppy in standard view, though Street View is surprisingly smooth.
We elaborated on this elsewhere, but we have high hopes for the Android Marketplace, not because we think the apps will be sexier or more useful than the App Store, but because Google and T-Mobile seem to be very serious about staying "open" and letting apps come as they may. What we hope this means in the concrete is that apps like emulators and alternative mail clients aren't only allowed, they're embraced.
Overall, we're very optimistic about this phone, and particularly the Android OS and what it represents. What's clear is that it's not for everybody. There's learning curve here -- it's rewarding, and not entirely geeky or pointless -- but it's there, and casual users might feel more comfortable with their Blackberry or iPhone for the time being, while power users might want to stick with more polished and complete operating systems. It's also clear that Google is putting a lot on the shoulders of 3rd party developers to release much-needed apps to the Marketplace. That's a good thing if we end up with killer apps, but it could turn into a sea of mediocrity, and we fear that third parties won't stick to similar design paradigms in designing their applications -- there's enough diversity even in the first party software to give pause. We haven't even gotten into business use here, because, frankly, your business probably isn't based around Google services. We can talk more about that when we get some Exchange to work with. We look forward to getting more time with the phone and testing out T-Mobile's NY 3G coverage -- which could make or break a purchasing decision -- but this is certainly a promising start.
You can find the rest of our T-Mobile G1 launch coverage here.
Update: We were told by T-Mobile reps that an ExtUSB to 3.5mm adapter would be included with the phone to allow for the use of regular earbuds / headphones, but that adapter wouldn't make it into the first shipments due to production constraints.