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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 15, 2008 at 9:00 PM

Review: The long-awaited G1 Google phone, from T-Mobile and HTC

It’s not really fair to constantly compare the first Google-powered phone, the T-Mobile G1, with the Apple iPhone.

That’s like comparing a PC to a Mac.

But that PC-Mac comparison became more obvious during the week or so I tested the G1 in and around Seattle…

After more than a year of rumors and hype, the G1, the first phone using the Google-developed Android operating system, goes on sale next Wednesday from Bellevue-based T-Mobile USA.

It’s a great device. But with Apple having made the big leap ahead with the iPhone, and all sorts of companies now offering Web-enabled devices, the G1 doesn’t feel as revolutionary as the hype suggested it would be.

In the hand, the G1 feels utilitarian – it’s a solid computing and communication device, not a sexy little accessory like the iPhone.

Yet I’d argue that the G1 is a better phone for one reason alone: Its battery lasts for days, in standby at least, and easily makes it through a day of occassional calling and browsing.

Millions of iPhone fans don’t agree on this point, but I’d rather have extended battery life than the superior look and feel of the iPhone. I don’t want to worry every day about recharging.

That gets back to the PC-Mac comparison.

Apple’s the equivalent of BMW, while Microsoft and now Google, with the G1, are building the Toyotas and Hondas of the tech world.

That’s clear in the exterior and interior of the G1.

As a phone, it works and sounds just fine. Its body – with a tail like a skateboard – feels more natural against my face than the iPhone’s flat plane of glass.

Both devices use on-screen numbers and icons to select functions such as Google maps, Gmail and their built-in music players.

But controlling the G1 isn’t quite as intuitive as the iPhone.

For instance, both have lovely on-screen phone keypads. But to place a call on the G1 after dialing, the instructions tell you to move your thumb off the touchscreen, down to the green “send” button below. It doesn’t feel quite right; why isn’t there an obvious “send” button on-screen?

Another utilitarian feature of the G1: four hard buttons and nubby trackball used to navigate on the screen. They’re nice to have and give you more ways to control the device, like precise scrolling through a list of messages.

This reminds me of how Microsoft, back in the dawn of the PC era, put multiple buttons on its computer mice. It took the pragmatic, engineering approach, while Steve Jobs thought one mouse button was plenty for Apple.

But some features are a little puzzling. For instance, you can also activate a G1 call by tapping on the number you’ve just entered, but that’s not obvious to the user.

Maybe you’re not supposed to dial that way – one time I did this, the Android operating system froze up and displayed a scary error message.

It said “Sorry! Activity Dialer (in process android.process.acore) is not responding.” Then it displayed two buttons: “Wait,” which I did for about 10 minutes, and “Force Close,” which restored the phone’s home page without a reboot.

Speaking of reboot, the phone failed its first spousal approval test when I asked her to search for an oil change place on Mercer Island as I drove east out of the Mount Baker tunnel.

Midway across the floating bridge, the phone completely froze and the phone had to be restarted. I ended up taking the battery out to get it going again.

That reminded me of the time I sat in Magnolia trying to load a ferry schedule on an iPhone. It took so long I ended up missing the boat.

Despite those early-days glitches, I’m still a huge fan of these “pocket browsers.” But when you’re used to broadband computing, they still feel a little slow, even on new 3G networks. Maps, for instance, load much slower than on a dedicated GPS device.

It’s still expensive to use these devices, even though the G1 is a bit cheaper than the iPhone. With the maximum discount from T-Mobile, the device costs $179 plus at least $55 per month.

That rate includes $30 for the cheapest voice plan, plus $25 for unlimited data, e-mail and 400 text messages per month. Unlimited messaging is another $10 per month.

Apple’s iPhone starts at $199, with AT&T plans costing at least $70 per month.

The G1’s screen is bright and crisp, but just as prone to smudges as the iPhone.

Out of the box, it displays a handful of essential icons – dialer, contacts, browser and maps, plus T-Mobile’s MyFaves, which allows you unlimited contact with five friends.

To see other applications – including the bundled YouTube, Gmail and Amazon’s MP3 store – you slide a finger upward, which “lifts” a screen on which all the icons appear.

Holding a finger down on the screen launches options, similar to right-clicking a mouse, but it doesn’t work in all applications.

The display screen swings upward to reveal a Qwerty keyboard. One of its keys is a nifty, computerlike magnifying glass, which you press to launch a search window. From the home page, this launches Google Search. If you’re running an application, it searches within that program.

If you’re obsessive-compulsive about your screen layout, stick with the iPhone. The G1 is looser, with icons here and there after you’ve started downloading applications.

That gets back to the Mac-PC comparison.

Google and its partners are developing a phone platform, not a phone by itself, like Apple.

The goal with its Android phone operating system was to create an open platform that lots of companies can use to build phones and write whatever kind of mobile applications they like.

I wonder if that openness will attract more software developers who ultimately make the Android platform more attractive, similar to the way Microsoft became dominant in the 1980s and 1990s.

For now, though, phone buyers will probably pay more attention to the look, feel and price.

If you’re ready to upgrade, aren’t committed to Apple and want to switch from a phone to a mobile computer sooner rather than later, you should definitely consider the G1.

Otherwise, you might want to wait a few months to be sure the version 1.0 kinks are worked out and to compare the G1 with other Google-powered phones that other phone companies have in the works.

Most everybody will opt for this sort of phone eventually, if battery life improves, service fees come down and their cameras improve.

(For background, here’s a piece I wrote earlier after the G1 was first shown and an interview with Google’s mobile boss. More details are at T-Mobile’s G1 site.)

Comments | Topics: Apple, Google, Open source


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