My time with the Android-powered T-Mobile G1 has come to an end. Am I going to miss it? You might think so, considering the first impressions video I posted earlier this week was semi-gushing with G1 positivity, but as I part with the device my real answer is not really.
The G1's form factor is awkward, the hardware is industrial in a day and age when gadget sexy is what people want, and you just can't help but gawk at the G1's weird chin. I don't think anybody is going to pick this device up in their hands and say, "YES, this is the phone I have been dreaming about all my life!" That said, once you get over the look and feel of the HTC-built G1, powering up the capacitive touch screen display and putting Google's new Android operating system to use is a mainly fun and enjoyable experience, especially if you are a Google user. The Android homescreen experience is awesome - you feel like you're working on a desktop that's much bigger than the confined display in front of you, and the ease of customization is welcomed. Considering this is the first device to run on Google's open source mobile operating system, which is considered to still be beta (like all things Google!), Android on the G1 for me was fast and reliable and appeared to manage memory and applications extremely well, which is something that even some been-around the block mobile platforms are still struggling with years later.
Anticipation and Expectation for Google's First Phone
When I first heard Google had plans to make a splash in the smartphone pool, I gotta tell you, I did get excited. As much as I am a CrackBerry Addict, the truth is I've been a Google user much longer than I have been a BlackBerry Abuser. When it comes to Google's search engine and email client, I was an early adopter... as in within hours of Google launching out of a garage I had already heard about it and had it set to my homepage. It was the same story with Gmail. When it first launched you could only join via invitation and invitations were initially scarce - the moment I heard about Gmail I started calling up friends and colleagues trying to see if anybody had been invited yet and had invites left to send out. Suffice to say, over the past decade I have seen the Google logo more than any other logo. Google is a smart company that has a magic touch when it comes to introducing products that change the game, so my expectations were high for the Google phone.
My expectations as a consumer dropped after Google announced it wouldn't be manufacturing its own Gphone under the Google brand and instead announced Android. Why did my expectations drop? Because of Windows Mobile! Microsoft does not manufacture its own devices and instead licenses its operating system out to other manufacturers. In my opinion this leads to a lack of a unified brand and a mobile user-experience that will never be quite as good as that of a company that is in control of both the hardware and software. Think about it. Right now the North American smartphone game is all about BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone. Both offer very different user experiences and have strengths and weaknesses that are almost inverse to each other, yet both sell extremely well and have vibrant user communities behind them (look no further than CrackBerry.com as an example of the passion behind BlackBerry). Then look at Windows Mobile. Our WinMo-loving pal Dieter would likely tell you Windows Mobile is the best operating system out there that can do the most for you, but I counter that with "so what?" Even if that were to be the case, because the WinMo devices that hit the market are in competition against other WinMo devices (think Blackjack, Q, Touch Diamond, Fuze, etc. etc. etc.) and other non-WinMo smartphones, it's hard for any one WinMo device to gain mass-market awareness and adoption. When a person walks into a store to buy a new phone, they see devices. Show them a Pearl, Curve or Bold and the customer still thinks "BlackBerry." But show them a Fuze, Touch Diamond or Q9H and they don't think Windows Mobile, they think Fuze, Touch Diamond and Q9H. With so many different devices offering varying user experiences and brand recognition getting split between them all, that's one of the reasons I think there are not more Windows Mobile users in the world. I think more success would have been achieved with one out-of-the park Microsoft phone. While more is often better, I personally don't think that is actually the case in mobile, at least when it comes to creating a unified brand for consumers to get behind and ensuring the user experience is as streamlined as possible.
This doesn't mean Google will suffer the same fate as WinMo though. Envision the day when you can get a top-notch Android-powered phone from your carrier for free with voice/data plans that are dirt cheap, and all you need to do in return is put up with seeing some advertising every time you whip your phone out and use it. Even if the brand isn't as unified or user experience on any single device quite as good as it could be, free/dirt cheap mobile in exchange for viewing ads is definitely a game changer. I'm sure it's on the Google radar.
Until that day arrives, it's time to look at the first smartphone to run Google's OS, the T-Mobile G1!
T-Mobile G1 - Overview
The T-Mobile G1 is T-Mobile's first 3G device and the first smartphone to run Google's Android operating system. With 3G, WiFi, GPS and a 3.2 megapixel camera all in one, the device is feature packed. And with both a responsive capacitive touchscreen, physical keyboard and trackball, the G1 offers a little bit of "home" to everyone.
While the video above gets into the geek talk of what Android has going on behind the scenes, as a consumer I just know what's in my hand. And when it comes to the Android operating system running on the G1, my overall experience has been pretty positive - though there is still (and always is) lots of room for improvement.
To activate your G1, you need to sign into your Google account. Since I wanted to run the G1 in Canada on Rogers, there was a little trick here. I actually had to have a T-Mobile SIM card in the device in order to login, but once that was done I was able to yank the T-Mo SIM and run on Rogers just fine. And once logged in, all your Google stuff automagically just works. Your Gmail is now on the device, as are contacts and calendar. If you're a Google user, it couldn't be any easier. If you're not... well.. I honestly don't know! I'm sure of our other Round Robin reviewers won't be as Google-dependent, so be sure to check out all of the G1 reviews (visit SmartphoneRoundRobin.com to stay on top of who has what and when!).
To me, the killer app on the G1 is the homescreen experience. Words and images won't do it justice, so if you have not yet watched my initial impressions video, be sure to scroll up and watch it! Different smartphones treat the homescreen's purpose differently. On the iPhone for example, it does only one thing - launch applications. On the BlackBerry, depending on what theme you choose it either a) just launches applications or b) launches applications and provides some limited info (Today Theme). The Windows Mobile Today Screen is a bit different - putting the focus more so on information and less on launching apps, which are placed under the Start menu. Android's homescreen experience provides the best of both worlds and then some.
The Android homescreen experience is much bigger than the 480 by 320 pixels on the display. Swiping left and right reveals additional panes, which you can leave empty if you choose or can load up with application icons, folders or widgets. Sliding your finger while on the "tab" allows you to pull out the applications dump, where all your apps are located. You can launch applications from here, or can drag them out to the homescreen for easy access. The G1 only ships with 3 Android widgets - clock, picture frame and search - and I'm sure a whack load more are under development. I love widgets because at a glance you can get the info you are looking for. I'm sure there will be Android widgets for everything - stocks, currency, tasks and appointments, friends located within a two minute walk from you, etc. The homescreen makes it easy it change wallpapers too. Just hold down your finger on an empty part of the display for a second, and you can click into Wallpaper once the Add to Home popup appears. As if that weren't enough, you can pull down on the date/notifications bar at the top of the screen to reveal all of your notifications and jump directly to them (and can clear all notifications in one tap if you want to). Setting up the homescreen to your liking takes a bit of time, but it's easy and intuitive to do and actually kind of fun. Two thumbs up for the homescreen user experience!
My favorite thing about Android was the homescreen experience.
After the excitement of the homescreen wears off, from an end-user perspective the rest of the operating system remains clean and friendly to use (for the most part!). Like BlackBerry, the Android is capable of multi-tasking – just hold down the home key for two seconds and the application switcher pops up. The app switcher shows you the last six applications you have opened. What I find slightly weird though is that you can’t “close” apps. On the BlackBerry, when you’re in an app you can always hit the menu key and choose to close the app fully or just hit the end call key to return to the homescreen and leave that app running. Or on Windows Mobile you have a more powerful application manager where you can X off apps you want to close. With Android I can’t quite figure out how to just kill an application. The Settings menu on Android is relatively straight forward – with a few clicks or taps you can pretty much accomplish whatever you need to do, be it turn on WiFi, enter your APN settings, add a Bluetooth device, etc.
Android is all about the developer and the applications they build. I think that's one of the reasons why the G1's hardware is so lackluster - Google wanted to ensure the focus remained on the Android platform after the launch of the first Google phone and not have people get fixated on the device itself. The G1's hardware is simply a picture frame for what's on the display.
Email - The G1 features two email clients, one for push Gmail and another where you can add additional email accounts (not push). Since my email routes through Gmail, that's the client I stuck with. The Gmail client is nice, but the user experience for me proved to be way to slow when taking into account the number of emails I typically chug through in a day. The Gmail client really is Gmail gone mobile. Basically everything remains intact. You can add/remove stars, set labels and view inbox by labels, search your Gmail and conversations remain threaded. It's a nice app.
I loved the functionality and look of the app, but in practice I found it a bit too slow for my liking. My first issue was actually with getting email. Though I've been told this is push Gmail, I was never able to get the push to work very good. Maybe it's because I was on Rogers, or maybe I missed something, but without fail emails took a full two minutes longer to arrive on the G1 than on my BlackBerry. I tested it. I have my G1, Storm and Curve 8900 all hooked up to my main Gmail account. I'd open my Hotmail account (not tied to any devices) and send an email to my Gmail. It would take about 30 seconds for it to show up on my computer Gmail - typically the BlackBerrys would have it at the same moment it showed up on the computer or even a bit sooner and then on the stopwatch it would take two minutes before the email showed up on the G1. I'm hoping somebody in the comments tells me I was doing something wrong, because if this was G1 push then it simply wasn't pushy enough for me. My other issue was simply in using the app quickly. You all know how BlackBerry email is - you can turn on your BlackBerry when an airplane plans, have 100 emails pour in, and have gone through them and replied to the important ones before you even finish walking to baggage claim. I just can't do that with the G1.
Gmail app looks great, but I could never quite get my emails up to speed.
** BlackBerry News Update: For those of you who have read this far, now seems to be a good time to work in some Exclusive info that I haven't seen posted elsewhere yet. Coming from RIM's BIS Roadmap, the good news for Gmail user is that a major update is scoped under BIS 2.7 (target launch in July 2009) that will bring a Desktop like Gmail user experience to the BlackBerry. It will be a Gmail client, with a Gmail icon and the proposed functionality includes Starring, Labelling, Contacts sync, Calendar sync and search. So BlackBerry users, stay tuned for a much improved Gmail experience! ***
Web Browser - The G1 rocks a light version of the Google's chrome browser, which I'm finding does a bang up job of rendering web pages. I just wish it auto-resized it for better viewing. I found I was always doing a lot of zooming and scrolling to get to where I wanted to go. But the browser was stable and snappy.
Phone - These days when we talk about smartphones I forget to mention the phone half the time. I just take it for granted that it's going to work and work well. Call quality on the G1 was fine, and the on call options like hold / mute / speaker / add call /etc. are easy to locate and operate. I gotta say, dialing on a touchscreen without having it "click" a la the Storm is beginning to feel wrong for me. While we're talking the basics, contacts and calendar were all on the up and up. Easy to get used to.
Native apps are basic and get the job done well for the most part.
Media - This is one of the weaker parts of the native OS. Considering the G1 lacks a dedicated headset jack and doesn't have stereo Bluetooth (yet), I could guess this shouldn't be too big of a surprise. The Youtube app IS sweet (need on BlackBerry), but there is no dedicated native movie player. The music player is alright, as is the photos app, but there was no real wow factor for me. Per the suggestion of forum members on AndroidCentral.com, I downloaded TuneWiki from the Android Market which I liked a lot.
Android Market and 3rd Party Apps - Man I love app stores. It just makes it so easy to get apps onto your smartphone. The Android Market is currently in beta (go figure!), but there were still a sizeable amount of apps within the store, which on the index page are sorted into either Applications or Games. All of the apps are free right now, and in a couple of clicks you can them downloading to be installed. I was really impressed by the fact I could start to download an app, continue using the phone, and go ahead and start downloading another app. I went on one app bender and at one point had six different apps downloading and installing at once. No rebooting, no battery pulls, just easy peasy app goodness. As for the apps I downloaded, some were good, some were bad, and some were so bad they were actually good (LightRacer!!).
Youtube app is awesome. Android market is easy to use.
T-Mobile G1 - Some Final Thoughts
So does the G1 hit the spot? Here's my take on it... Remember the rant I went on in the Treo Pro review about on the go devices vs. stop and use devices? I'm an on the go kind of guy, and with a slider form factor that requires you pull out the keyboard most of the time to do anything and a chin that gets in the way even when carrying it in your pocket, without even turning on the device the G1 is not something I'd want to use as my daily driver for more than a week. But that's the device. When it comes to Android on the other hand, there are a lot of things to be impressed by. I absolutely love the homescreen layout and ease of customization and widgets (need more widgets!). I also loved the stability and speed of the OS. Considering this is the first device to run Android, it's really solid. As Rene points out in his review (as other reviewers have too) there are some UI gaps that need to be addressed to help with intuitiveness.
Just yesterday the second smartphone to run Android was announced - the Kogan Agora. I found the timing of this announcement quite ironic though, as it was only a few days ago on our Round Table podcast where we were chatting and I suggested to the crew my "wish list" device... I want to see a smartphone like the BlackBerry Bold or Curve 8900 get a touchscreen added to it (still with trackball and menu/back button underneath) running an operating system that brings the strengths of the BlackBerry and Android platforms together. I need all of the RIM push goodness, but I want that dang homescreen experience too. At least form factor-wise, the Agora is a step toward my new wish list device.
In the end, the G1 is a good. Hopefully by the time the Round Robin rolls around next year the Android-powered phone we use will be great.
Up Next in the Round Robin - The Apple iPhone 3G! Stay Tuned...
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