Review: T-Mobile G1

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T-Mobile G1 out on October 30

I will keep this review short and straight to the point, folks. You know how Google likes to keep things in Beta for years and years? Well, Android is no different. Like many of you I was excited at the prospect of a new OS to muscle it’s way in and take down the iPhone, but I’m afraid Android is not it – at least not yet. The OS actually isn’t that bad, but it does have its issues and those cannot be overlooked. Unfortunately it’s the hardware that will be Android’s folly this go around until the other manufacturers can churn out some better goods.

Let’s start with the hardware.

The Good

The variety of input mechanisms is superb. The keyboard is quite responsive and laid out very well. It’s almost on par with the Sidekick keyboards and we all know those are the gold standard. The trackball has a nice tactile feel to it and I especially like that it’s dark grey, so it won’t show dirt and grime over time. But it remains to be seen whether dust, dirt and anything else that can get into it will affect its performance. The touch-screen is nice and bright and quite responsive. It’s not as big as the iPhone screen, but it gets the job done.

The camera works great and takes decent photos when there’s enough light, but in low light situations it stinks and that’s to be expected. It fires up rather quickly when you tap the hard key firmly, but a quick tap won’t do anything for you, so make sure you give it a good push.

I wasn’t keen on the placement of the speaker when I first saw the G1, but it’s a heck of a lot better than being placed along the bottom of the phone like the iPhone. Being super loud isn’t always a good thing but audio quality on the G1 doesn’t deteriorate when it’s at full volume. It’s still just a speaker on a phone, but it’s loud and crisp. Even when it’s placed speaker side down on a table the audio doesn’t get muffled. I’m actually listening to Bob Marley’s Legend while writing this review and it sounds great (speaker side down).

Call quality is relatively clear on both ends and does pretty well out on the streets. It’s par for the course. Nothing great but not terribly bad.

The screen’s hinge is rather strange, but it works. Greg and I are both heavy users of the Helio Ocean, so we know a good hinge when we see one and HTC did very well with this. It slides open and out and does not “fold” like most smartphones. It’s much more similar to the TK than anything else.

The Bad

My biggest gripe with the G1 is that the GPS does not work. I thought maybe it was because I lived in Manhattan, but my iPhone never has a problem finding me within seconds and neither does my T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve (no GPS but at least I’m within a few hundred yards based on cell tower triangulation). Regardless of whether or not I enable the GPS satellites, I’m never where I’m supposed to be. And if it does manage to find me, it immediately drops me off two or three blocks away. Even on my way to JFK earlier in the week, I thought there would be enough exposed sky for it to accurately locate me. No dice. It stinks and turning on the GPS satellites drain the battery like nobody’s business, which brings me to my next point.

If you thought the battery life on the iPhone 3G was bad then you haven’t had to deal with a G1. The first day I had it I managed to kill it within six hours and I was just cruising the Web (medium heavy), sending/receiving e-mails and getting used to the device. I figured it needed a drain and a full charge overnight to cure itself, but I woke up the next day and did some light Web browsing, checked a few e-mails and attempted to locate myself via GPS for 10-15 minutes and the battery drained down to 7x percent within an hour. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I used it as much as I do my BlackBerry or iP3G. The battery life is atrocious. It drops 5-10 percent after 30 minutes of unplugging it and not even doing anything.

While the keyboard rocks that hip with the hard buttons makes it extremely awkward on your right hand and I still haven’t found a comfortable way to hold the device and type on it. I’m sure with time it’s something I could get used to, but I shouldn’t have to. Seriously, who gave this design the green light? It reminds of the Wing and Tilt, but a fugly mishmash of the two. It’s huge and that section with the hard keys is angled up making it uncomfortable to put in the front pocket of my jeans. And I’m no hipster wearing skinny jeans. I see the Touch series and wonder why something like that wasn’t used for the G1.

And last but not least, no 3.5mm jack. That’s right, you’re forced to use the headphones that come with the G1 and connect via USB. Weak sauce.

Now on to Android.

The overall UI is clean and easy to figure out. I hate making comparisons to the iPhone, but Android does a good job in this area. The layout is similar, but with smaller icons, which could look a lot better. I can’t really say that Android is good or bad, but my initial reaction was that it seemed to be slapped together last second and held together by duct tape. It’s not as buggy as the iPhone first was but it looks and feels archaic.

Before I go on a rampage I will point out the few little gems that Android has to offer. The notifications bar is a nice touch and keeps me up to date on what’s going on and it’s easy enough to access by swiping from the top of the screen down. The variety of inputs can be confusing at times and I barely remembered that the menu hard key was there, but it’s something you just have to get used to. It gets much easier and you can whip through the device rather quickly once that happens.

The ability to add things to the home screen was also a nice touch like shortcuts. Having folders that I can dump certain apps like games into is convenient and takes up less real estate.

A minute detail that many might overlook that I found quite useful was the status menu for the device to see vitals like battery level and signal strength. I just wish I could make a shortcut for it to put on my home screen.

Now here’s the bad (and good)

Gmail
-Inability to have more than one Gmail account linked to the device. I know it would throw off everything else linked to it like the calendar and contacts, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have the option of switching back and forth.
-Surprisingly not as polished as the BlackBerry Gmail app, but everything is more streamlined. Depends on the user, I suppose.
-Digging through menus isn’t fun when you just want to spam an email. Not being able to trash your entire spam folder is also a negative.
-Despite the aforementioned quibbles Gmail on Android works and it works well.

Google Maps

-If the GPS would actually work I might shower Maps with flowers, puppies and praise, but it doesn’t so I won’t.
-Street View is phenomenal, but it shows me locations that are nowhere near where I am or where I want to go. Maybe it’s because the GPS doesn’t work, I don’t know.
-The compass (you have to download the app Spare Parts to even get it) in Maps that I thought would kick ass was underwhelming and it’s hard to tell which direction it’s pointing you.
-The entire app is underwhelming due to the non-working GPS and when it is able to locate me it’s slow to update.

Google Calendar
-It works, but it takes a while for things to sync.
-The home screen icon should reflect the actual day.
-I’d like to see the calendar on the notification bar but when the keyboard is closed that wouldn’t leave too much for notification icons. It does show up when you pull the notification bar down though.

Google Search
-It works. No problems here.

Browser
-After using the iPhone’s Safari browser I’m spoiled, but the Android browser can firmly rest in second place among mobile browsers.
-Zooming in and out is a smidge painful when you’re having to tap the + and – icons, but like I said, it’s way better than every other browser on the market except for the iPhone.
-Eight separate browsers should be enough for anyone.

YouTube
-It’s not as polished as the iPhone’s YouTube app, which is appalling, but it works.
-You can also comment on each video’s direct page, but do we really care about that?
-No dedicated video player other than this. That’s rough.

MP3 Player
-No equalizer.
-Longpressing on an album, song title or artist will bring up links to search the Amazon MP3 store, Google and YouTube.

The Market
-I cannot give this a fair review because the apps that are currently available are not very good. But Namco’s Pac Man is FREE! Rejoice!
-The whole barcode scanner app is lame. Comparing the price of items doesn’t locate local pricing for me and I don’t care how much a bottle of Jack costs online. Maybe it’s because my GPS wasn’t working. Who knows?
-Deleting applications is far more difficult than it needs to be. When you hold down on an icon from the home screen the tab at the bottom displays a trash can which you would think is actually a trash can, but it’s not. It’s a receptacle where all your apps are stored. You must delete apps from inside the Market. Fail.
-I’m sure with time the Market will get better, but right now it’s nothing to swoon over.

The Network
T-Mobile’s 3G network is strong in the markets that it is currently deployed in. I’ve had great coverage in NYC, SF and Chicago thus far and have had less switching between EDGE and 3G than on the iPhone 3G. Download speeds are comparable to that of AT&T’s network and I didn’t drop any calls. Oh, and the actual phone works great.

Other gripes
Did they choose black as a background just because the iPhone uses white (grey/blue)? From the home page everything looks vibrant but once you jump into settings or IM or anything then it turns dark and dreary. At least let us change the themes or something. Beyond the home page it’s an ugly and unpleasant experience.

Conclusion
If you’ve been waiting for Android then I suggest you keep waiting. The overall OS seems to be held together by duct tape and needs a lot of work. Apple focuses on the minute details to enrich the overall experience for iPhone users and Android could learn a lesson or ten from it. The hardware design is dated and while the touch-screen and keyboard are great you can’t just forget about the wretched battery life, horrible GPS and the overall ergonomics of it. I wish the G1 were better in every respect because I don’t think the iPhone is that great, but I find myself wishing it were more like it. It’s the best alternative to the iPhone, but it’s just not there yet.

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