The more time I spend with the T-Mobile G1 smartphone--the first phone based on Google's Android platform--the more I like it. And that's a good thing, because the T-Mobile G1 does not make a great first impression: The phone itself looks a bit bland and boxy. But the G1's secret weapon is the Google Android software platform, which provides enough functionality to make the G1 a real iPhone rival.
The G1 will be available from T-Mobile on October 22 for $179 (when you sign a new two-year service agreement). T-Mobile is offering two G1-specific data plans; a $25 plan offers unlimited Web and e-mail access, plus 400 messages, while a $35 plan offers unlimited Web, e-mail, and messaging. You'll also need a voice plan to make calls, so you should plan on spending at least another $30 per month on that.
Let's face it: Looks matter—especially in the world of smartphones. And the G1 is not a looker. Its face is dominated by a 3.2-inch touch screen, making it look a whole lot like an iPhone. But the G1 handset, which is manufactured by HTC, lacks the sleek, polished look of an iPhone--or even of an LG Voyager.
PROS: The touch screen is superb; it's on a par with the iPhone's excellent screen. It responded to all my taps, and scrolling was a breeze. Below the touch screen are the G1's buttons: "send" and "end" buttons for making calls; a trackball for navigating through the phone's many features (a definite bonus for anyone who has a hard time getting used to a touch screen); a "home" button that returns you to the home screen; a back button that works with many of the G1's applications, and a menu button that launches application-specific menus within applications.
Sliding the G1's screen up reveals the full hardware-based QWERTY keyboard, which can be easier to use than the on-screen keyboards you find on touch screen-only phones.
The home screen that you see when you turn on the phone actually has two counterparts; swiping the screen to the left and the right reveals two additional screens. All three can be customized. You can change the wallpaper; display photos in digital frames; add shortcuts to applications, Web pages, or even music playlists; and add widgets, such as clocks or Google search bars.
CONS: I was disappointed with the keyboard; I found the keys slippery and too flat.
PROS: Voice quality was excellent. I heard voices on the other end of the line loud and clear; callers said the same about me. The G1 includes a voice dialing feature, which worked pretty well, though it did have some difficulty recognizing my commands when there was background noise.
CONS: The phone's virtual keypad makes it a harder than it should be to dial an extension, or to input numbers (such as a voicemail pass code) after your call is connected. You have to reactivate the touch screen by tapping the menu button on the front, and then hit another button to bring up the keypad once again. In comparison, the iPhone senses the movement when you pull the phone away from your ear, and automatically brings up a menu where you can easily access the keypad.
I also wish the G1 had the type of visual voicemail system that the iPhone (and some Verizon handsets) offers. The only way to access your voicemail on the G1 is by dialing into T-Mobile's mailboxes. A visual system would have been a great way to take advantage of the G1's excellent touch screen.
Browsing the Web
PROS: The G1 supports Wi-Fi and T-Mobile's expanded 3G (HSDPA) network for speedy surfing. Web pages loaded quickly, and downloads were quick. The G1's browser doesn't reformat pages for a small screen; instead it displays the entire page and lets you scroll across a page, or zoom and in and out on certain sections.
CONS: The browser is so streamlined that it lacks many of the controls you'd expect, like forward and back buttons, and an address bar for typing in URLs. You have to use the phone's back and menu buttons to access these controls, which can slow you down.
PROS: If you're a Google Gmail user, you'll really see the G1 shine. To set up the phone, you'll need a Google account (if you don't have one, you can sign up easily); you simply enter your username and password, and your entire account—including your Gmail—is automatically synced with the phone. The G1 also supports POP3 and IMAP e-mail accounts. In the Android Market (the G1's answer to Apple's App Store), you'll find Maverick, an excellent IM application that will let you chat with friends on various IM services.
CONS: I couldn’t get the G1 to work with my free Yahoo Webmail account. When I tried to enter the information, I was told: "Free Yahoo mail accounts only work over T-Mobile wireless networks; Yahoo Mail Plus accounts can be configured with POP settings." So if you rely on Yahoo's free e-mail service, you may have limited access to your account. The G1 also does not support Microsoft Exchange servers for e-mail, and you can't sync it with Outlook calendars and contacts.
PROS: The G1 comes with plenty of software applications installed—and what you don't see on the phone you may find in the Android Market. The Market is easy to access from the G1's main menu. Once you're in the Market, you can browse through the available titles and install them with one or two clicks. The selection of titles should continue to increase, too, as more and more developers write applications for the Android platform.
CONS: Curiously, the phone lacks any installed office applications. With its tight integration with Google, I expected a version of Google Docs, the Web-based word processor and spreadsheet application. But it's not there.
PROS: The G1 includes a bevy of multimedia features: You get a 3-megapixel camera that captured some decent shots; one-click access to Amazon’s MP3 store for music downloads; a very good music player; and Google Maps, which uses the G1's built-in GPS feature to deliver location-based services, including driving directions.
CONS: The biggest con is the G1's lack of a headphone jack; your only options for listening to your music collection are the phone’s decent speaker, or the purchase of an extra-cost accessory that will allow you to hook up standard headphones. Other issues: The camera doesn't capture video, and it lacks a flash.
Despite its bland, boxy look, the T-Mobile G1 is a pretty exciting phone. The Google Android platform shows lots of promise—and already delivers excellent usability and an iPhone-like ability to continue adapting.