Review: T-Mobile G1
At a Glance
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.
Review: T-Mobile G1