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.
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.