Let's get this over with: the new T-Mobile G1 Google phone is no Apple iPhone killer. In case you were wondering, the iPhone has better applications (and a better app store), provides a more enjoyable entertainment experience for movies and music, and supports a true multitouch screen with gesture controls.
But that's nowhere near the whole story. There's still an awful lot of reasons to get excited about the G1. In fact, we'd say it is easily in the top-five of all mobile phones ever made and showcases why Google Android was worth the long wait. A truly 'open' device, the G1 is locked as a T-Mobile device only for three months, after which you can use any service.
The G1 is available for free on T-Mobile Combi and Flext price plans from £40 a month, including unlimited mobile internet, says the company. Combi 35 offers 800 minutes and unlimited texts while Flext 40 gives up to 1,250 minutes or up to 2,500 texts, or any mix of the two.
Android Market, which is the most compelling feature on the phone, is also wide open: any developer can create any sort of app and make it available for all G1 users. (Apple is more restrictive about how they run their app store.) Overall, the G1 is a stellar phone and points to a future when a phone is as flexible and useful as the PC on your desk.
Like the Sidekick phones from T-Mobile, the G1 will impress right out of the box. It comes with a standard pair of headphones. (Sadly, they use a proprietary HTC connection called ExtUSB, but you can get an adapter to use regular headphones.) The device feels slightly hefty at 158g, but it also seems more durable than some phones, especially the recently released HTC Touch Pro.
There's a slide-out QWERTY keyboard that is functional and sturdy, but too small unless you have dainty fingers. We actually prefer typing on the soft keyboard of the iPhone, surprisingly enough. Yet, typing on the G1's slide-out means you can see your email, web browser, and any other app in full-screen mode.
The G1's 3.2-inch TFT-LCD display runs in 320x480 resolution - a hair smaller than the 3.5-inch 480x320 resolution screen on the iPhone. At first glance, the G1 looks crisp and bright, but in a side-by-side comparison to the iPhone, it's obvious that the G1 screen is not really meant for watching movies - it's just slightly too small and the colour contrast doesn't pop that much. No matter: it is intended as a powerful application-centric phone for business use and for entertainment.
On further inspection, you'll find the G1 has a menu button, a home button, and a back button. To place a call, you click the phone icon and dial a number, or choose one of your contacts (thankfully imported automatically from your Gmail account). There are volume controls on the side and a camera button.
There's also a very small trackball that you may rarely - if ever - use. The G1 supports HSDPA for high-speed browsing and email, among other things. Voice calls sounded crisp and clear, a testament to the fact that HTC has figured out how to make smartphones, and that T-Mobile generally sounds clear.
Standard specs, for a smartphone
The G1 has built-in GPS, Bluetooth 2.0, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, a 3.2 megapixel camera, a microSD expansion slot that's SD 2.0 compatible, and 256MB of internal storage. Okay, those are becoming fairly standard specs for a next-gen smartphone, but let's cover them in detail anyway.
The GPS chip works exceptionally well with Google Maps, finding my location easily. Strangely, GPS is disabled by default and the G1 uses cell phone triangulation out-of-the-box. We figure this is to save battery life, and perhaps because not every user is interested in using GPS mapping. (We'll explain more about how Android apps are using the GPS chip in a bit.)
While Bluetooth support is great for swapping files with your PC, the G1 does not support AD2P - so no stereo Bluetooth for your MP3s. We had great success using the built-in Wi-Fi at home, at Starbucks and at an airport over a public hotspot, flying along (ahem) on the built-in browser and downloading MP3 files from the Amazon store - which you can only do over Wi-Fi, not over the carrier service.
The built-in camera, like the one in the iPhone, is passable - it doesn't let you set white balance or aperture priority, it's just a point-and-click. Images looked okay - grainy and washed out, but we weren't expecting Canon quality. It was great to take a series of photos and save them on my 2GB Kingston microSD card for an entire week of photo-happy snapshots, knowing they are all saved on my mobile device. As you can guess, using up the 256MB of internal storage might take you a single day.
So what about Android?
So the G1 is a great hardware device, but what about the operating system? Glad you asked: it's absolutely amazing. In some ways, the G1's standard hardware features pale in comparison to the Android software.
Google has outdone themselves: the browser runs fast, there's an easy-to-find search field, contact manager, and a scheduler. None of these tools are going to revolutionise the smartphone industry, and my one major complaint about the G1 is that they don't actually support a true multitouch device.
Sure, in Gmail, you can flick up and down with your finger, and in the browser you can flick around the screen like it's a piece of paper. I like how, on the main home screen in Android, you can flick to the left and right to see more of your screen. To drop apps onto those areas of the screen, you click menu, find the one you want, click with your finger and hold down, then drag it to the home screen.
Fine. But the G1 doesn't actually support gestures where you can point fingers together or apart to zoom in, tap the screen, or perform other basic iPhone-like manoeuvres. We're not sure if this is due to patent restrictions or because the touchscreen doesn't support them. We'd put the multitouch controls somewhere between the HTC Touch Pro (very limited) and the iPhone (very useful). This makes the built-in apps a little less compelling, because they are more static and standard.
We do like the Android Market idea, although the iPhone app store has a much better selection. We downloaded Pac Man, a task switcher, a program for reading barcodes (using the built-in camera), and one that just shows a blob on the screen - a sort of Tamagotchi for mobile users. None of these tools are outstanding, but Google promises that developers will just go nuts with cool applets, so we'll see.
We did like the MP3 download utility, which uses Amazon. The songs downloaded quickly over Wi-Fi and played at an acceptable bit rate (but, again, do not compare to the iPhone or iPod). There is a YouTube app that worked flawlessly.
There's more to say about the G1. In the future, we'd imagine developers will really tap into the power of GPS for location-aware services (say, finding a bus that is near your current location). T-Mobile and others have planned some accessories that include carrying pouches and extra headsets.
We didn't even mention that the G1 is a standalone phone - it does not sync contacts or schedules with your PC or Mac, and it doesn't even include any desktop software (in your face, Microsoft).
But let's be clear about this: the G1 would have taken over the world in 2005. It is an outstanding phone, and Android is highly extensible, intuitive to use, fast, and very powerful. We're not going to rank mobile operating systems, but let's just say that RIM, Nokia, Palm, and Microsoft should all be really nervous right about now.
And here's the final assessment: we'd buy the G1 if the iPhone didn't already exist and we'd certainly be first in line if our chosen carrier was T-Mobile. If you really need to type fast, okay - Blackberry models have the G1 phone beat in terms of hardware keyboards. The iPhone is still the champ. Yet, as they say in the Visa ads, for everything else, there's the G1. It is a top mobile performer.