T-Mobile G1

There are those who think the T-Mobile G1, based on Google's Android OS, is the first smart phone platform to come along that actually gives Apple's iPhone a run for its money in terms of capability, usability, and accessibility.

When the T-Mobile G1 debuted last fall, many positioned it as the first serious competitor to the iPhone. Backed by a trio of experienced companies--wireless carrier T-Mobile, handset manufacturer HTC, and Google--it boasted a pedigree that immediately gave it widespread press coverage and high expectations. But now that the dust has cleared, how does the device really stack up? While this review is showing up after the G1's been on the market for a few months, it hopefully makes up for in thoroughness what it lacks in timeliness.

Certainly, the G1 is an impressive debut for Google's Android platform, but there's no question to my mind that it's aimed at a different audience than Apple's iPhone: namely, those who value sheer raw can-do power over the nuance of good design. Had the G1 been released around the same time as the original iPhone, I think the phrase that would have summed it up would have been "does more, but not as well." As it is today, the G1 and iPhone overlap in around 90 percent of their feature sets, so unless you're in search of one particular capability, the decision over which to buy is going to come down to the details.

Perhaps it's not fair to stack the two phones up against each other, but it's become unavoidable in the context of the smart phone market. More to the point, as this is Macworld, I'd imagine that many readers are in fact interested in what the two devices have in common, as well as where they differ.

The electric slide

The G1 handset is only the first piece of hardware to run the Android OS and, while they are ostensibly one product, we know that there are plenty of different Android-capable devices in the offing, so the two parts are separate in a way that isn't true of the iPhone, which shares its software with the increasingly similar iPod touch.

The G1 is a hair taller than the iPhone, somewhat narrower, and noticeably thicker, measuring in at 4.60 inches x 2.16 inches x 0.62 inches compared to the iPhone's 4.5 inches x 2.4 inches x 0.48 inch. Despite that, the G1 fits comfortably into the hand and is perfectly comfortable to hold up to your ear.

The iPhone is lighter, 4.7 ounces to the G1's 5.6 ounces, but despite that Apple's handset feels more solid in your hand, no doubt at least partially due to the use of a harder plastic for the phone's back and the low number of moving parts. The G1's plastic feels cheaper, but the back is coated in that pleasant-feeling smooth liquid polymer finish that many case manufacturers use for their hard plastic shells these days.

At 3.2 inches diagonal, the screen on the G1 is smaller than the iPhone's 3.5 inch display, but they both sport the same 480 x 320 resolution. In addition to its 3G radio, which supports HSPA as well as quad-band EDGE/GSM/GPRS, the G1 also sports Bluetooth 2.0 EDR for hands-free devices (though, like the iPhone, it lacks support for stereo headphones), 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and GPS.

The most obvious physical difference between the two is the G1's moving parts. While holding the phone in front of you in portrait mode, you can slide the whole screen assembly to the right, revealing the landscape-oriented physical keyboard. The slider action feels very solid--it has a pleasant ka-chunk sound and it springs into place--but a peek at the arm mechanism reveals that it's made of plastic, which makes me a little cautious about how well it will hold up over time.

There are a lot more physical controls on the G1 than on the iPhone: the bottom "chin" of the unit contains, from left to right, a green "Send" phone button, a Home button, a trackball, a Menu button above the trackball, a Back button, and a red "End" phone button. The right-hand side of the G1 has a small camera button--if you hold the G1 like a digital camera, it's in roughly the same position where you'd find the shutter button--and the left-hand side has volume up and down buttons. The back of the unit has the 3.2 megapixel camera and speaker and the bottom has the G1's data/power port, covered by a plastic dust cap, and the microphone. The G1's earpiece is located above the screen.

Sliding the G1 open reveals a more-or-less standard QWERTY keyboard. While some might prefer the physical keyboard, I found myself longing for the iPhone's virtual one. The reason, for me, is that I, like most people, use my thumbs to type on small keyboards. Because the thumb is a rather large, imprecise digit, it can hit many possible buttons at once--more to the point, it obscures the keys when you use them, making it hard to tell exactly which key you're hitting or if you're hitting the wrong key. The iPhone solves this problem in a few ways: for example, by giving you a pop-up that tells you which letter you're on and by not allowing you to press two keys at once. It also features aggressive--occasionally too aggressive--error-correcting, a feature it shares with the G1. On the whole, I found typing on the G1 more onerous than on the iPhone, but that may simply be a matter of my longer experience using the iPhone. 

I have a second, more particular gripe with the G1's keyboard, and that's the fact that some design genius has moved the Delete key to the location usually occupied by the Return key, meaning that you frequently end up deleting things when you mean to enter them (the Return key is now directly below the Delete key and is only denoted with an arrow, enhancing the confusion). If the whole point of going with something as familiar as a QWERTY layout is not having to make users change their habits, then that's quite the misstep.

That's not the only annoyance with the G1's hardware. There's also no standard headphone jack on the G1; in order to plug in your headphones, you need to use the included extender cable, which plugs into the port on the bottom of the G1. At least the cable offers additional features; it has both a built-in hands-free mic and a control button that you can use for playing and pausing music or muting/unmuting your voice while you're on a phone call.

The obvious flaw here is requiring a separate cable to perform a run-of-the-mill function like listening to music. The first-generation iPhone took plenty of flack for a recessed headphone jack that wouldn't physically accommodate many third-party headphone plugs; the G1 seems to have willfully ignored that lesson. There's also a secondary issue: since there's only one port on the G1, you can't both listen to music on headphones and charge the unit at the same time.

Android's dream

If you were to pick up the G1 without turning it on, you wouldn't necessarily see the difference between it and many other smart phones that have been on the market for a while. The real difference comes when you power on the unit and you're greeted by the friendly green cartoon android.

As a platform, the Android OS is very capable, but it's full of rough edges and user-unfriendly design. If that sounds a bit like the way you might describe something like, say, Linux then you won't exactly gasp in shock to find that Android's built on the Linux kernel.

The first screen you're presented with when you turn on the G1 is Android's desktop. It shares features with both the iPhone's Home screen, in that it has the icons for all your applications front-and-center, as well your typical computer desktop, since you can arrange your icons on it to your heart's content and pick your own background wallpaper. You've also got three different "panes"; from the main screen you can swipe to the left or right and you'll find two other desktops on which you can place icons. The full list of applications resides in a drawer that you can access by tapping the tab at the bottom of the screen, if you're in portrait mode, or the right side, if you're oriented in landscape view.

I actually quite like this approach. Most people don't need quick access to all of their applications, so it makes sense to give you a place to keep the most frequently-used ones, kind of like the Mac OS X's Dock. While the iPhone allows you to arrange icons on your home screen, Android gives you a little more flexibility in how you can use empty space: you can put your icons only at the corners of the screen, for example, or you could have the desktop entirely blank for a minimalist look. The icons do snap to an invisible grid, though, so you can't have them arranged willy-nilly.

You're not limited to adding applications to your desktop, either. You can also add bookmarks, shortcuts to individual contacts, music playlists, even folders into which you can drag those items to keep them organized. There's also the ability to add widgets, though by default there are only three on offer: a clock, a picture frame, and a Google search box.

One little touch that I like is that the G1 uses tactile (haptic) feedback to good effect. For example, when you tap and hold an icon to move it, the phone vibrates ever so slightly to tell you that you're in move mode--it's the equivalent of the dancing icons the iPhone's home screen, but subtler and no less effective.

I also like Android's notifications bar. We're used to the idea of a status bar showing you the time, cell phone signal strength, Wi-Fi status, and so on, but Android also uses status bar icons to show other notifications such as unread emails, missed phone calls, text messages, and more. Of course, there's not a lot of real estate to display detailed information, but all you have to do is tap on the status bar and drag it down; it slides open like a window shade, yielding a more detailed list of all your notifications. Tap on any of them to be taken to the appropriate application.

Unlike the iPhone, the G1's ability to switch between portrait and landscape views is not dependent on the orientation of the phone (though the G1 does also have an accelerometer); instead, it depends mostly on whether the keyboard is open or closed. Some applications do switch automatically into landscape mode, such as the Photos application, and some let you switch via the software, such as the Web browser. More annoying is the lack of an onscreen keyboard (one is supposedly coming in future update), which means that you can't enter text in portrait mode. At all. Of course, Android still lets you focus on a text field in portrait mode, but you'll have to flip the phone and open the keyboard in order to actually type. 

One major feature that Android has and the iPhone OS lacks is support for running multiple applications at a time. This means that you can be chatting with your friends over IM while surfing the web and checking your email, all at the same time. Capability-wise, that's not only handy, but a feature that many computer users are used to. Still, it might take you a while to realize that you can actually jump back and forth between recent apps without going back to the Home screen, since the only way to switch directly between applications is to hold down the Home button for a few seconds; you'll then be presented with a panel containing the six most recent apps.

You can also retrace your steps using the hardware "Back" key, but the functionality of that key is, if not exactly unpredictable, at least confusing. You see, he "Back" key always goes back--unfortunately, sometimes that means going back to a previous Web page, sometimes it means going hierarchically "up" (in the Settings application, for example), and sometimes it means going back to the last application that you were in. In many instances, I found it jarring as I switched between applications with no warning, especially as there is no corresponding "forward" key to take you back to where you were before you hit the "Back" button. My general uncertainty about where I'd go when I hit the Back button meant that I frequently shied away from using it.

Phone home

The G1's phone features are basic, but they're adequate for everyday usage. You can make calls, store contacts, and view your call log from the Dialer application. As on the iPhone, you can add contacts to a list of favorites, but you can't favorite a specific phone number, just a person. That means it still takes an extra tap to call people on your favorites list.

Android allows you to sync your contacts, but only with your Google account. It's a handy feature for anybody who uses Google, since it works pretty well. With a little work on the OS X side, you can get your Google account to sync with your Mac's Address Book, though when I got it working, I ended up with some syncing cruft (duplicates, unsynced contacts, etc.). As with the iPhone and MobileMe, changes made on the G1 will be reflected in your Google contacts online. 

The lack of proximity and ambient light sensors, as on the iPhone, can also make phone conversations somewhat frustrating. The screen will turn off after whatever amount of time you specify in the preferences and, in order to activate it again, you have to hit the hardware Menu button--you can't just tap the screen. This is especially bothersome in situations where you need to use the keypad to enter information (navigating a phone tree, for example, or on a conference call).

The G1 also lacks the iPhone's Visual Voicemail features, instead relying on conventional voicemail, so you'll be using the keypad quite a bit.

I had mixed results using the phone features. I found it easy to misalign the G1's speaker against my ear, which made it hard to hear the other party and some people I talked to noted that the sound quality of my voice was not as good as it was when I used my iPhone. 

In messaging, the G1 bests the iPhone in sheer functionality, since it's capable of receiving and sending not just text messages, but also audio files, pictures, and even slideshows as well. 

Web of shadows

Android's built-in Web browser is based on the same WebKit engine as the iPhone's version of Safari. As on the iPhone, you can open multiple windows for browsing, bookmark pages, and share pages via email. But Android's browser has a number of features you won't find in Safari, including the ability to download files, remember form data (including logins and passwords if you choose), clear cookies, open links in the background, disable image loading, and more. There's also built-in support for Google Gears, a framework that allows you to use Google Documents and some other Google applications even while you're offline.

Unfortunately, the usability of Android's browser is limited by a few factors: among them the lack of multitouch functionality. There's no pinch-and-zoom as there is on the iPhone; instead, when you scroll, you get a translucent bar at the bottom of the screen with zoom in and zoom out buttons, along with another button that gives you a full-screen view of the page. In that mode, you can drag a loupe-like viewer around; when you release your finger, the view will zoom in on that section of the page.

It works okay, but it's somewhat kludgy and the whole experience feels like surfing the web with a periscope. Having to move your finger down to hit a specific button to zoom in or out is a pain: when you want to zoom in on a particular point of a page (say, a small link), it's annoying to have to move your finger back and forth between the zooming and panning around the screen to find the part you want to see. 

Android's Browser doesn't support viewing or downloading PDF files, but I was able to save an image and view it using Android's own picture application. Repeated attempts to download an MP3 file from a web page caused Android's music program to crash. And, like the iPhone, Android doesn't support Flash video, though it also has a dedicated YouTube application. I wasn't able to view the QuickTime movie trailers on Apple's site either.

Play that funky music

Electronics companies have been trying to converge the mobile phone and digital media player for some time, with mixed results. Apple's success in that arena has been based largely upon their experience producing the iPod, while many phone manufacturers have struggled to integrate media-playing functionality.

The G1 is passable when it comes to media, but it does have some limitations. For one thing, the default 1GB of storage is pretty tight, especially when shared between videos, music, and applications. You can, however, buy larger memory cards (the G1 uses the microSD card format, which currently supports capacities of up to 16GB).

Getting media onto the G1 on the Mac is pretty easy: just plug in the included USB cable to the G1's data port and your Mac, and the phone will show up on your desktop as a removable volume, like any other flash storage device. You can drag and drop files on and off of it to transfer data, but there's no desktop client app for syncing data, so you'll have to manage it manually.

The music player application is a bit on the spartan side, but it supports many common formats including MP3, AAC, WAV, OGG Vorbis, and some Windows Media files. If you don't plug in headphones, music will play through the G1's speaker, located on the back, next to the camera.

You can also buy music directly from the phone via the Amazon MP3 store, which offers quick access to the top 100 albums and songs. And since Amazon sells its wares in DRM-free MP3 format, it's easy to transfer the music from your phone back to your computer or iTunes library.

As for video, the G1 has no video player installed by default (not counting the YouTube application), so you'll need to visit the Android Market in order to download one that allows you to play videos back from the memory card.

To market, to market

Of course, Android's an entire platform and, like the iPhone, a big part of the platform equation is third-party applications. Android's answer to the App Store is the Android Market, which lets you browse and download applications. The Market application is primarily organized into Applications and Games, each of which is divided in turn into sub-categories. At the top of the home screen is a list of featured applications, which you can tap on to be taken to that application's page.

Downloading an app is a breeze: just tap the install button and Android will tell you what resources the application requires (location services, for example). Once you've installed an app, you'll find it listed in the Applications drawer. You can manage your applications by going to the G1's Settings application, and tapping "Manage applications." Android tells you how much space each application takes up, what permissions it needs, and allows you to clear the application's default settings and data or uninstall it altogether.

The Market allows you to comment and rate applications, just like the App Store, but it does currently lack one thing that the App Store has in spades: applications that cost money. Right now, the only apps on the Android Market are free ones; that might seem great at first blush, but consider that it means that many professional developers aren't making their wares available there yet, which limits the catalog a bit. Paid applications are on their way, however, so this is only a temporary shortcoming. 

Little things mean a lot

It would be easy to say that the G1's biggest problem is a lack of polish: little details that are rough around the edges, like the inability to type in portrait mode, or the screen timeout issues when you're on the phone, or the settings checkboxes that can be hard to discern if they're on or off. But little things add up: they're the ones that make us increasingly annoyed with our phone over time, making us feel like we're fighting against the phone instead of the phone helping us.

The biggest issue from my perspective, though, is that there's a fundamental disconnect between the hardware and the software. That's in part by design: the G1 is only the first phone running the Android OS; in the next year or so we should see several others, many of which will have different form factors and capabilities. To support all those different models, the operating system needs to be versatile--again, the comparison to Linux, which can run on pretty much everything from servers to netbooks to your toaster, is apt.

One of the things you probably don't think about on the iPhone is probably the most basic design decision: you will operate ninety-nine percent of the phone with the touchscreen. Don't worry about figuring out which hardware buttons you have to press to do what; almost all the controls you need are contained within the canvas of the touchscreen.

This is the G1's big failing for me. Because it's a generalized platform, it's not designed from the ground up for just the touchscreen. You can do things on the touchscreen. Well, some things. But sometimes you need to jump back and hit that hardware Menu button. Or the home button. Or the back button. Or you could ignore the whole touchscreen thing and use the trackball instead. That's a lot of choices, and sometimes when it comes to users, choice is bad. If the user has to think about which interface they need--or even want--to use, for a particular task, that takes up time. An infinitesimal amount in each instance, yes, but it adds up.

And with the G1 that happened to me constantly. I would be tapping on the screen trying to figure out how to get the Web browser to let me type in a URL, focused entirely on the touchscreen, without realizing that I had to first press the hardware Menu button (which, when you have the keyboard open is oriented vertically near your right thumb--sorry, lefties) to bring up the menu, then tap--or select with the trackball--the Go to URL button before I could enter a URL. At which point, if I was using the phone in portrait mode, I need to slide it open to be able to actually enter text. 

The problem with generalizing the software to such an extent is that while it works with many devices, it doesn't work perfectly with any device. The iPhone is at the exact opposite end of the scale: you can choose 8GB or 16 and white or black. It's Henry Ford-level dictatorial control. It's a top-down device, whereas the G1 is a bottom-up one.

Macworld's buying advice

In the end, top-down versus bottom-up are really just two different ways of addressing the same problem. Which one you, as a user, will prefer depends largely on what you want to get out of your device. As a device that does many tasks, there's a lot to like about the G1, even if it's not all there yet. Its user-interface quirks may bother some people more than others, who will be willing to overlook the annoyances because of the sheer amount of functionality that the G1 sports. If nothing else, Android provides a serious competitor to Apple in the smart phone market that will hopefully force both to continue to improve.

recommended for you

Google's IPhone Killer

Read more »

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter