T-Mobile’s G1 is a fresh slice of mobile phone history. While its outer crust has been baked by experienced smartphone chef HTC, it’s the exciting new filling – Google’s open source Android OS – that has got us salivating.
But while the G1’s deliberately plain Jane looks are disappointing, it’s by no means a badly designed phone. It has a bright 3.2in touchscreen, and this slides open to reveal a very finger-friendly QWERTY keypad.
More importantly, Android is an absolute dream to use. The homescreen can be customised with your choice of widgets, shortcuts or direct weblinks, and you can drag them around to reposition them.
A particularly nice touch is the drop-down menu at the top, which can be dragged into view to show all of your most recent messages and downloads. The main menu, meanwhile, pops out when you touch the bottom of the homescreen.
In some instances, a prolonged finger press will also activate a sub menu; for example, do this when a song is playing and you’ll get related links to YouTube, Google or the Amazon music download store, which will launch in the UK soon.
Android also plays out superbly thanks to the G1’s fluent touch screen dynamics. It may lack multi-touch, but its responsiveness when scrolling, swiping or dragging is incredibly slick.
Unlike the iPhone or BlackBerry Storm, there’s also a trackball for one-handed operation, along with the back, home and menu buttons.
But it’s the QWERTY keypad that will lure fans of tactile typing. There’s no virtual onscreen alternative (apart from the telephone dialler), but you won’t need one – it’s very spacious and highly reminiscent of T-Mobile’s Sidekick Slide. Our only slight complaint is that it can be a little too soft under the thumb at times.
As you’d expect from a Google-branded phone, web surfing is a joy, particularly when you hitch onto a strong HSDPA signal. The browser is based on the Google Chrome web kit and is up there with the iPhone’s Safari browser for user-friendliness.
The built-in GPS, which works with Google Maps, is also very slick. Its sputnik fix was one of the quickest we’ve seen and although we couldn’t summon the new Street View or motion sensor-based compass, the location-based services and basic directions worked well.
The early signs for Android Market are also good. Right now, there are only a handful of free apps available, but Stuff favourites like CompareEverywhere (which lets you scan any barcode and to get price comparisons and reviews) and TuneWiki (a neat karaoke app) give a taste of what’s in store next year.
The problem for the G1 is that, by then, there will probably be better Android-powered phones that avoid its many feature failings.
First up, the 3.2MP camera is bereft of any flash or photos settings, the autofocus is dim witted and the shutter very sluggish.
And with Google owning YouTube, it’s also seems puzzling to find no onboard video recording capabilities or flash support. It’s surely a missed trick to not allow users to upload their home vids straight from the handset.
No Walkman phone
Like the bare bones camera, the music player is shorn of any audio mods to boost the sound. The lack of any low-end grunt and the terrible supplied earphones make for a woefully anaemic sound.
Similarly, there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack or adapter in sight or support for Stereo Bluetooth. There’s also only 1GB storage with the bundled microSD card, although it’ll support up to 8GB. And while there’s support for most POP3 and IMAP mail clients, there’s no push e-mail to worry the BlackBerry clan.
We hoped that the G1’s battery life might benefit from its lack of multimedia trimmings, but it’s no better than the iPhone in this department – you get around five hours of talk-time, and if you’re a moderate web surfer you’ll need to re-charge every day.
As much as we loved using the G1, its dreary design and feature limitations mean our ardour was short-lived. If you like your smartphones to be multimedia savvy and have a little wow factor, it’s not for you. But for everyone else, the combination of Android and a QWERTY keyboard make it highly desirable – at least until the next wave of Google phones in 2009.