Editors’ note: We have updated the review since its original publish date to include changes to features and performance after installing the official Android 1.5 Cupcake update for the G1 released by T-Mobile in June 2008.
It’s been a little more than a year since Google Android was announced and rumors of a little device called the HTC Dream started to leak onto the Web. We think it’s fair to say that the Dream stirred up as much anticipation and hype as the Apple iPhone, not only because it would be the first smartphone to run Google’s mobile platform but also because of the potential to overtake Apple’s darling. (Hey, like it or not, the iPhone set a new bar for handset design and convergence, and serves as a sort of benchmark for touch-screen smartphones these days.)
On September 23, the world was officially introduced to the HTC Dream, now known as the T-Mobile G1, and the initial reaction ranged from “That’s it?” to “I have to have it!” Unfortunately, we fell more into the “That’s it?” camp. From the outset, the G1 offered more functionality than the original iPhone and even the current iPhone 3G (before iPhone OS 3.0), including copy and paste, multimedia messaging, a better camera, and Google Street View. It also delivers good call quality and snappy performance. T-Mobile’s recent roll out of the Android 1.5 Cupcake update also fixes the issue of previously missing features, including video recording, stereo Bluetooth support, and a soft keyboard. However, there are still some omissions, such native Microsoft Exchange support, and nagging design quirks that left us cold.
Despite these complaints, we did come away impressed with the Google Android operating system. There’s huge potential for the G1 (and any Android devices after it) to become powerful minicomputers as developers create more applications for the open platform. Right now, there are only about 35 apps in the store, so we feel the G1 is a bit limited. Obviously, there’s enough curiosity about Google Android to attract buyers; and in fact, preorders for the G1 have already sold out. However, it doesn’t quite offer the mass appeal and ease of use of an iPhone, so the G1 isn’t a good fit for anyone making the jump from a regular cell phone to their first smartphone. Power business users also might want to hold off until more corporate support and productivity applications are added. We’d say the T-Mobile G1 is best-suited for early adopters and gadget hounds who love tinkering around and modding their devices. We’ll continue to test the G1 and applications as more are added, and though we hope for better hardware in the future, we’re excited about Google Android and feel it could change the way we use smartphones. The T-Mobile G1 will be available through T-Mobile black, white, or bronze and costs $149.99 with a two-year contract.
The T-Mobile G1 is manufactured by HTC and has a similar look and feel to the company’s other Pocket PC smartphones, such as the T-Mobile Wing and the Sprint Mogul. Measuring 4.6 inches tall by 2.1 inches wide by 0.6 inch deep and weighing 5.6 ounces, the G1 is definitely not the sleekest device, and we certainly wouldn’t call it sexy. Instead, the words “interesting” and “weird” come to mind. This is mostly because the bottom section of the phone juts out at a slight angle. We asked HTC about this design decision but have yet to hear from them as of press time. Presumably, it’s to get the phone’s speaker closer to your mouth, which isn’t a bad thing but consequently, it affects the ergonomics of the keyboard, which we’ll touch on later. In a battle of pure looks, the iPhone would win hands down.
In a battle based on looks, we’d probably have to give it to the Apple iPhone.
That said, the G1 has solid construction and features a soft-touch finish on the back that provides a nice rubberlike texture, making it easy to grip the phone and comfortable to hold. Also, there’s a good reason for G1’s larger size: a full QWERTY keyboard. There are a number of users who are reluctant to switch to a full touch-screen smartphone because of the lack of a tactile keyboard, so the G1 is certainly an attractive option for such customers.
To access the keyboard, just push the screen to the right. The sliding mechanism is fairly interesting in that it’s not a straight up-and-down motion; the screen actually swings out slightly to the left before snapping into place. We were indifferent to this design quirk; we didn’t find any particular advantage or disadvantage, just something to note. The sliding motion was smooth, but after a few days of use, we started to notice a creaking sound whenever we nudged the screen–not good.
The T-Mobile G1 has the advantage of a full QWERTY keyboard. Though spacious, the bottom portion of the phone makes it awkward to type.
The keyboard itself is a reminiscent of the T-Mobile Sidekick, as many observers pointed out during our review period. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since we like the Sidekick’s keyboard. The buttons are a bit small, but overall the keyboard feels roomy and there’s enough spacing between the keys that we think it shouldn’t give too many users problems. If anything, we wish the buttons were raised a bit more, since right now, they’re set flush with the phone’s surface. The bigger issue is that the bottom section of the G1 makes it awkward to hold the phone when typing messages, since your right hand doesn’t quite have the full range of motion. It definitely affected the speed and accuracy of typing.
With the release of the Android 1.5 update, the G1 now has an onscreen portrait and landscape keyboard, providing you with another way to enter text onto the smartphone. With a physical keyboard, some might wonder why a soft keyboard is even needed but it was annoying and inconvenient to have to slide open the phone every time you wanted to type anything, such as a simple search term or a URL address, so we’re happy to see this added feature. In addition, the update supports the installation of third-party keyboards as well.
When you slide open the phone, the screen orientation automatically switches from portrait to landscape mode. With the Cupcake update, the G1’s built-in accelerometer has been activated to work in a number of applications, such as e-mail, the Web browser, Google Maps, and more, so the screen orientation will automatically change when you rotate the phone.
The actual display measures 3.2 inches diagonally and has a 320×480 resolution. It’s vibrant and sharp, and like the iPhone and RIM BlackBerry Storm, the touch screen is capacitive, so it will only respond to the touch of your finger and not your fingernail or other objects like a stylus. The G1 provides haptic feedback, but only for certain actions and not with every touch. First, you’ll feel a slight vibration when performing a long press on an icon. Overall, we thought this was fine, but there were times when the G1 didn’t register our actions, so some kind of confirmation would have been nice.
To access various functions within an application, you can perform another long press and a window will pop up with your options. It’s contextual, so the menu items will always be relevant to the program you are in. You can swiftly navigate through lists with a quick flick, or you can drag your finger for a slower, more precise look. In addition, you can pan and move Web pages and other documents by holding and then moving your finger around the screen. Unlike the iPhone, however, the G1’s touch screen isn’t multitouch, so you can’t zoom in and out of pages by pinching your fingers apart. Admittedly, we really missed this feature, since it makes viewing Web pages and pictures easy, but it’s not necessary.
Overall, the T-Mobile G1’s interface is clean, fun, and easy to use. You have the freedom to customize the Home screen with your favorite apps, and you can do this in a couple of ways. For example, you can do a long press on the Home page, which will bring up a menu where you can add shortcuts, widgets, or change the wallpaper. The Android 1.5 update also brings a home screen widget bundle of an analog clock, calendar, music player, picture frame, and search.
To add more shortcuts, there’s a little tab along the bottom edge of the screen that you can touch and then pull up, which will reveal a full menu of applications. From there, you do a long press on an icon and then drag it to the Home screen. To remove it, perform the same touch action and then drag it to the trash can. Note that this action simply removes it from the screen and doesn’t delete the application from your device. There are also sliding panels to the left and right where you can add more shortcuts, and there’s a notification bar at the top, which you can pull down like a window shade and view missed calls, new messages, downloads, and more.
There’s a lot to like about the G1 interface, with its glass touch-screen display, the slide-out QWERTY keyboard (although we don’t like the small keys), and the Pearl-like trackball for navigation. We would even say that the responsiveness of the touch screen is on a par with that on the iPhone’s. But we have to say its overall interface just isn’t as intuitive. For example, as with most every other phone, the need to dip into the menu layout every time we wanted to access something can get a bit clunky. Yes, it’s possible to drag out your favorite applications as shortcuts, but that means you need to spend quite a bit of time setting that up. With the iPhone, there is no home screen at all; you’re brought directly to the menu. We realize that the iPhone is a very unique phone in this sense, but in a strict comparison between the G1 and the iPhone, the iPhone’s interface wins out.
You’ll use the touch screen most of the time, but there are some navigation buttons below the display, including a trackball and a Menu key.
Also, though we like the aforementioned trackball and menu bar, it just isn’t quite as smooth as the multitouch gestures on the iPhone, especially for zooming in and out of pictures. This is even more apparent in the browser application, which we’ll explore later.
Below the display, you get some tactile navigation controls, including Talk and End/Power buttons, a Home shortcut, a back button, a trackball navigator, and a Menu key. Similar to the touch screen, the Menu button is contextual to what application you’re in at the time. For example, if you’re in the Web browser and press Menu, you will get options to open a new window, go to a URL, bookmark a page, and so on. It’s a minor issue, but we’re a bit annoyed that pressing the End/Power key automatically locks the handset; we’re used to having the End/Power key as a shortcut to exit the application. Because of this, we ended up having to unlock the screen frequently, which got annoying.
The left spine holds a volume rocker and a microSD expansion slot. To access the latter, you have to push the screen open in order to remove the protective cover. On the right side, you will find a camera activation/capture button, though you can also press the trackball to take pictures. We actually preferred this method, since the dedicated camera key was a bit small. Plus, when holding the phone horizontally, our thumb had a tendency to keep nudging the screen upward while trying to take a picture.
Much to our disappointment, the G1 does not have a standard headphone jack; instead, you must use the USB port and an audio adapter.
On the bottom of the unit, there is a mini USB port, which is protected by an attached cover. This is where you can connect the power charger and sadly, this is also your only option for connecting a headset. There’s no dedicated headphone jack, 3.5mm or otherwise, which is really disappointing. We’ve asked HTC about this decision, but again, have yet to hear back from them as of press time. Yes, there’s a headset included in the box, but you don’t get the same comfort and quality as you would with a nice pair of headphones. If you want the privilege of using your own ‘phones, you’ll have to spend extra money to buy an adapter.
Last but not least, the camera lens sans flash or self-portrait mirror is located on the back, and the G1 offers a user-replaceable battery.
The T-Mobile G1 comes packaged with a travel charger, a USB cable, a wired headset, a 1GB microSD card, a soft protective case, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
As the first smartphone to run the Google Android operating system, what does the T-Mobile G1 offer? Well, it delivers a lot of the basic core functions and of course, tight integration with Google’s products, including Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Calendar. Wireless options and multimedia capabilities are also well represented on the G1.
The T-Mobile G1 is a quad-band world phone and offers a speakerphone, voice dialing, conference calling, and speed dial. There is not support for visual voice mail. The address book is limited only by the available memory, whereas the SIM card can hold an additional 250 contacts. One nice convenience is if you have a Gmail account; all your contacts will automatically be synchronized to the phone book, and Android 1.5 lets you see your Google Talk friends’ status in your address book as well as in messaging apps. Each entry has room for multiple phone numbers, e-mail addresses, IM handles, postal address, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a photo to a contact as well as a group ID and one of 33 polyphonic ringtones. There’s even a setting to send a contact’s phone call directly to voice mail every time–good if you really don’t like someone we suppose. The G1 supports T-Mobile’s MyFaves service, giving you unlimited calls to five contacts, regardless of carrier. Individual plans for MyFaves start at $29.99 a month.
Bluetooth is onboard with support for wireless headsets, hands-free kits, and now thanks to Android 1.5, stereo Bluetooth and audio/video remote control.
Wi-Fi and 3G
The T-Mobile G1 is the carrier’s first 3G-capable smartphone, operating on the 1700/2100MHz bands. As of this writing, T-Mobile has rolled out 3G to 20 markets: Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Fla., Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. The carrier plans to expand coverage to a total of 27 markets by the end of 2008, including Birmingham, Ala., Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Memphis, Tenn., Sacramento, Calif., and Tampa, Fla. And as we know, T-Mobile has now backed off its initial 1GB data usage cap, after numerous complaints.
As we noted in our iPhone 3G review, the 3G experience is all relative and depends on a number of factors, such as the number of people on the network at a given time, the type of Web pages you’re trying to load, and so forth. Before buying and investing in a 3G handset, it’s always a good idea to ask any friends and family with T-Mobile service and a 3G-capable phone about their experiences to get a better idea of what to expect. Also, make sure you have adequate T-Mobile 3G coverage in your area. T-Mobile won’t be selling the G1 in stores in areas outside of its 3G coverage. In those places you’ll have to buy it online.
The 3G speeds were good during our preliminary testing. As we did with the iPhone 3G, we checked out graphic-intensive sites like WorldofWarcraft.com, which loaded as quickly as 32 seconds, and CNET.com took about 50 seconds to fully load. Downloading applications from Android Market was also swift, with each application taking no more than 10 seconds. Meanwhile, YouTube clips over the 3G network took some time.
As an alternative to 3G, the G1 has integrated Wi-Fi and it can seamlessly transfer between 3G and accessible Wi-Fi networks. In fact, the smartphone’s YouTube application will only present videos in high resolution when you’re using Wi-Fi and play the low-res version when using the cellular network, in order to optimize the load times. Note, however, that to download songs from the Amazon MP3 store, you need a Wi-Fi connection (same as on the iPhone).Unfortunately, the G1 does not support T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home service. There is an application in the Android Market called iSkoot for Skype, which allows you to make Skype calls via the phone’s radio rather than Wi-Fi, but we imagine there will be VoIP clients added to the database.
There’s also a wireless manager under the Settings menu where you can turn on and off all the radios and set up connections. To save battery life, you can turn off 3G and revert to the EDGE network–a good idea if you don’t need to surf the Web or download apps or music.
The T-Mobile G1 uses Webkit as the basis for its browser, which is also the core of the Safari browser found on the iPhone. It uses full HTML browsing, plus it has Java support, and you can surf almost every Web site–except the ones that use Flash. You can pan across the screen by using your finger, and even though you can’t zoom in via pinching as you can on the iPhone, you can bring up onscreen zoom controls at the bottom of the display. Similar to the iPhone, you can also double-tap on a Web page to zoom in on a particular section. Of course, you’re not limited to the touch screen when navigating the browser; in fact, we preferred to use the trackball to scroll around pages at times. You can also tab between multiple browser windows, and we like the fact that the browser settings are easily accessible via the browser menu itself. With the iPhone, you have to dig into the Settings menu to find the Safari settings. As with the iPhone, you can view the browser in both portrait and landscape modes.
But there are a few hiccups with the G1 browser that keep it from being a totally seamless experience. For example, we didn’t like that we had to bring up the browser menu to do basic browser navigation such as Back and Forward. Yes, there are keyboard shortcuts for these functions, but we don’t want to have to remember shortcuts all the time. And though this is more of the fault of the hardware than the browser itself, we found the G1’s smaller display makes browsing a bit more troublesome since you need to scroll around a lot more.
Perhaps in a move to compete against the built-in App Store on the iPhone, Google has also come up with a mobile application store of its own, called Android Market. It’s laid out a bit differently than the iPhone’s App Store. For example, instead of having a page to themselves, the Featured applications are lined up at the top of the Android Market front page. Underneath that are shortcuts to the full list of applications, games, a search function, and a page of your downloaded applications called My Downloads. However, there doesn’t seem to be a place where you can download updated versions of your applications as on the iPhone, but perhaps that might not be necessary.
When you go into the Applications list, you will find them arranged in categories, like Productivity, Lifestyle, and so forth. There’s also a category called Demos, which will presumably feature demo versions of paid software, which is certainly lacking in the iPhone App Store. At the time of this review, all the applications in the Android Market are free anyway, so the issue is moot for now. But hopefully the Demos category will be put to use when for-pay applications appear in the future, since it would be nice to try before you buy. Each category then lists the applications by popularity and by the date they were released. We like this a lot, especially since the applications in the iPhone App Store can’t be listed by date. Another nice feature of the Android Market is that each application has a list of warnings stating whether or not it’ll have access to the Internet, the phone’s GPS functionality, or your personal data.
We downloaded a few applications from the App Store. Since the App Store isn’t tied to a program like iTunes, you don’t need to enter in any log-in or password information to download the applications. This is a huge plus in our opinion. Downloading applications was a breeze on both Wi-Fi and over T-Mobile’s 3G network–we didn’t have a chance to download them over EDGE. After downloading them, the applications will appear in the menu as well as the My Downloads folder. However, there’s no option to save downloaded apps to a microSD card. Though they don’t take up a lot of memory, it’d still be nice to have this option and is a sticking point with G1 owners.
E-mail and messaging
The G1 offers support for several e-mail account types. As a Google product, Gmail, of course, gets top billing, but you can also configure the smartphone to access POP3 and IMAP4. There’s full HTML support, so you’ll be able to view photos and graphics along with the text. You’ll have access to all of your folders and any action that you perform on the smartphone, such as deleting an e-mail, will be reflected in your real account. To the delight of many, we’re sure, you get copy-and-paste capabilities, and there’s an attachment viewer to open Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF documents, but note, you can’t edit said files (the iPhone is also view-only). We successfully set up our review unit with both our Gmail and Yahoo accounts simply by entering our log-in ID and password. Our Gmail contacts seamlessly transferred to the G1, and mobile e-mail delivery was sometimes faster than on our PC, but attachments took a while to download.
Bad news for business users. Sadly, there will be no Microsoft Exchange Server support at launch, so no synchronization with your Outlook e-mail, Calendar, Contacts, and so forth. You can check Outlook e-mail via OWA (Outlook Web Access), but we would have liked full support from the get-go. We think this is a pretty glaring omission. We assume all parties involved would want to attract both consumers and business users, and given the inclusion of a full QWERTY keyboard, the G1 would make a good messaging-centric device for the mobile professionals. However, without that Exchange support, it could be a turnoff for a lot of those customers.
The G1 comes preloaded with four instant-messaging clients, including Google Talk, AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger. You can keep IM chats in the background while working in other applications. The smartphone also offers threaded text messaging and yes, multimedia messaging.
Productivity and PIM tools
The T-Mobile G1 offers basic PIM (personal information management) and productivity tools. You get Calendar, Contacts, a calculator, and an alarm clock. The advantage of the T-Mobile G1 is that Contacts, Calendar, and Gmail are updated over the air, so you don’t have to synch up with your computer every day. Aside from the e-mail attachment viewer, Google Docs is supported for view only, but we couldn’t access a shared Google spreadsheet. Again, the T-Mobile G1 might not be the best choice for corporate users given that you can’t natively edit Office documents. However, DataViz has since released its Documents to Go Standard Suite for the G1, which provides this functionality.
The G1 offers assisted GPS and network-assisted location. Of course, Google Maps is preloaded on the device with standard map, satellite, and traffic views. In addition, you get Google Maps Street View, and there’s a compass mode that provides a 360-degree view of the street by simply moving the phone around (no other phone currently supports this feature). Basically, you just tap any point on a map and then touch the bubble to get a full-screen view of the street. You can then move the phone in any direction (up, down, left, or right); you can even spin in circles and the view will move with you.
You can search for various businesses and plan trips by entering start and end points. The G1 provides turn-by-turn driving directions, but not in real time like a standalone portable navigation device. Instead, you consult a list of text-based instructions or view the route on the map with step-by-step directions. However, you can add an app, such as TeleNav Navigator, to get real-time, voice-guided directions.
In our initial tests, GPS performance was mixed. Though it was able to provide us with accurate text directions, we found that, more often than not, the G1 was slow to get a fix on our location and we were often greeted with the message, “Your location cannot be determined. We will keep trying but you can also try moving your position.” There were also a few times where the G1 placed us in the middle of the San Francisco Bay–yikes.
When Android 1.5 was first announced, Google and T-Mobile claimed that the update would bring improvements to the GPS performance, specifically faster acquisition of GPS location, and thankfully, this turned out to be true. In another test here in San Francisco, the G1 pinpointed our location within a minute under clear skies and followed our position closely as we traveled within the city.
Music and video
Though Apple had the unenviable task of incorporating a full-blown iPod-like music player into the iPhone, the T-Mobile G1 is made to be more cell phone than music player and does not have that burden to carry. That said, the music player on the G1 is robust for what it is, and will satisfy most casual listeners. Songs are organized by Artists, Albums, Songs, and Playlists, as you would expect. You get the typical music player functions like shuffle, repeat, and the ability to create playlists on the fly. And even though there’s no CoverFlow, you can still view album art in a list format. We especially liked that you can instantly convert any song to a ringtone directly from the music player by hitting the “Use as ringtone” button.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the music player is its ties to the Amazon MP3 Store, Android’s answer to the iTunes Music Store. Unlike the iTunes Store, all the songs from the Amazon store are DRM-free, meaning you can do whatever you want to them–transfer them from computer to computer, edit them into shorter tracks, and more. Unfortunately, just like the iTunes Store, you can only download songs over Wi-Fi, and not over the 3G network.
To buy a song, all you need to do is use your Amazon account and then hit the buy button. Songs and albums are typically cheaper than those from iTunes–on Amazon a song is around $0.89 and an album can be anywhere from $5 to $9 (A song on iTunes is typically $0.99 and an album is around $9.99). You can browse the store by Top 100 Albums, Top 100 Songs, by genre, or just search for your favorite song or artist.
Of course you don’t have to buy songs from the Amazon MP3 Store if you don’t want to. You can upload any of your own music files into the G1. The G1 supports MP3, M4A, AMR, WMA, MIDI, WAV, Ogg Vorgis formats and has 192MB RAM and 256MB ROM. As we mentioned, the G1 comes with a 1GB microSD card, which comes preloaded with 11 songs. The expansion slot can support up to 8GB cards.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the G1 music player is hardware related. The G1 doesn’t have stereo Bluetooth, and it doesn’t have a 3.5-millimeter headset jack so you’ll have to get an audio adapter in order to use your favorite pair of headphones with the smartphone. The G1 certainly won’t be replacing your music player anytime soon..
The T-Mobile G1 features a microSD expansion slot on the left side, which can support cards up to 8GB.
In addition to the Amazon MP3 Store and music player, the T-Mobile G1 includes a dedicated YouTube application. The clips took quite a while to load via 3G, and quality wasn’t the greatest. Though images and audio were synchronized, it was quite blurry, but we were also watching a low-res version since we were using T-Mobile’s network instead of Wi-Fi. The screen orientation will go from portrait to landscape mode for videos.
The T-Mobile G1 is equipped with a 3.2-megapixel camera, and much to our delight, the Android 1.5 update now brings video recording capabilities (as well as MPEG-4 and 3GP video playback). On the downside, there are no camera settings, such as white ba