T-Mobile Android Smart Phone a Solid Device
As the first publicly released smart phone running the Open Handset Alliance's Android mobile operating system, the T-Mobile G1 with Google is a qualified success. But while packed with innovative features and well-designed capabilities, the device is also overrun with a raft of small, first-generation bugs and idiosyncrasies.
Despite the problems, as a consumer, I would be happy to get a G1 when my current service contract expires, if only to take advantage of what should be a vibrant developer community. However, for corporate mobile administrators, I would recommend waiting-until the bugs are fixed, until more corporate features and applications come out, and until more models are available. Companies considering Android adoption should start their internal development programs, however.
The T-Mobile G1 with Google represents a collaboration of several companies. HTC designed the hardware-which is a significant leap over HTC's last generation of devices-and Google filled the device with tight hooks into its cloud-based suite of applications and services.
The T-Mobile G1 for Google will be available Oct. 22, but the carrier is taking preorders now. The smart phone will be available for $399 without a service contract, but the price will drop to $179 with a two-year agreement. T-Mobile says the G1 will work with any voice service plan priced $29.99 or greater. Data plans for the G1 come in two flavors: a $25 plan that includes unlimited Web, e-mail and GoogleTalk Instant Messages plus T-Mobile HotSpot access and 400 messages (MMS/SMS/non-GoogleTalk IM); or a $35 plan with the same suite of services plus unlimited messaging.
At rest, the device is not the most visually appealing smart phone, but the modest countenance masks a powerful and easy-to-use piece of hardware. The device I tested came in a flat black color, but T-Mobile is also offering a bronze unit when the G1 launches, with a white one to come later. The device measures 4.60 by 2.16 by 0.62 inches and weighs a moderate 5.6 ounces.
As was widely speculated prior, the G1 is not flat. It has a slight bend near the bottom of the phone (some have dubbed the G1 "the banana phone"), but I found the curve to be less pronounced than anticipated. I actually found it conformed a bit to the natural contours of the face in a comfortable manner, while the unusual shape did not feel odd or out of place in the hand while typing.
The 3.17-inch touch-screen is large, accurate, sharp and bright-almost excessively bright. I found the screen-which supports 320-by-480-pixel resolution-to be almost blinding when used in a dark room at the default settings. Thankfully, it was easy to adjust the brightness using the on-screen Settings dialog box that is quickly accessed via the Menu button.
The touch-screen is exceptional, close to the accuracy I've seen with the iPhone (but no multitouch) and vastly superior to the touch-screens I've tested on Windows Mobile-based HTC phones such as the AT&T Tilt. As with the iPhone, the screen is designed to be manipulated with a finger rather than with a stylus. I could easily place a call using the on-screen dialer, start applications and configure settings via the touch-screen, and I could easily scroll through long documents or Web pages with a flick of the finger. When needed, on-screen buttons to zoom in and out of documents are readily accessible and obviously placed, making it simpler to customize the view than I've found with the iPhone's pinch and spread gestures.
When viewed in the standard portrait mode, the device has relatively few buttons. The lower portion of the front panel features six interactive controls-separate buttons for menu, call, hang-up/power-off, home, and return-to-last-as well as a trackball that can be used by those who don't want to use touch-screens to navigate and select items on-screen. These buttons will illuminate slightly when the device is in use to aid navigation in a dark environment.
Unlike the iPhone, the G1 does not natively offer an on-screen virtual keyboard. Instead, to type on the device, the user rotates the device 90 degrees and slides to the screen up along a slightly circuitous route to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard. The slider has a nice snap that makes me worry about the slider mechanism's fragility over an extended period of time. Although the G1 has accelometers to adjust the display according to device orientation, the trigger to change the screen from portrait to landscape mode and back is exposing the keyboard, not rotating the device (like with the iPhone).
The G1 keypad is among my favorites that I've typed on, with the keys widely spaced in five rows for accurate and relatively fast typing. The physical buttons and trackball used in portrait mode are also easily accessible when the device is in landscape mode. Unfortunately, the auto-correcting spell-checking tool the G1 purports to have never corrected anything for me when texting or e-mailing, although the automatic capitalization and punctuation tools worked as expected.
There are but a few buttons or slots marring the edges of the G1. The left side of the device features a pair of volume buttons near the top and a covered MicroSD slot near the bottom. The G1 comes with a 1GB MicroSD card preinstalled, but the user can up the storage capacity. I found the G1 worked as expected with a 6GB MicroSD card, and T-Mobile claims the G1 supports cards up to 8GB.
The bottom edge has only the covered slot of the USB connector, which is used as the primary connector for power, data cables and the wired headset. Like most other HTC devices, the G1 USB port has a USB-EXT connector. Although it is shaped slightly differently than the MicroUSB or MiniUSB connectors found on most portable devices, I could use the same data cable that I use for many other devices.
However, because there is no separate headset jack, users who prefer a cabled headset have a limited number of options. The G1 package comes with a cabled headset that features an action button as well as volume controls, but I found the earbuds too large to fit comfortably in my ears. Users have the option of buying separately a comically large adapter (for instance, this) to work with existing headsets or headphones.
Limited Bluetooth Functionality
The G1 does feature a Bluetooth 2.0 radio with EDS (Enhanced Data Rate) for wireless headset capabilities, but because the Android developers removed the Bluetooth API from the software development kit a few months ago, there is currently limited functionality available to Bluetooth users. While I could pair a Bluetooth headset with the G1 for use with primary calling applications, media applications that would benefit from stereo sound are unable to take advantage of an associated Bluetooth headset.
The G1 is the first 3G-ready smart phone T-Mobile has sold direct (although at the time of writing, T-Mobile's online store offers six 3G-ready feature phones). The device supports T-Mobile's burgeoning HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) 3G network, supporting the 1,700MHz and 2,100MHz bands for U.S.-based and European interoperability. When out of 3G coverage areas, the device also has quad band (850MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz, and 1,900MHz) support for GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks.
T-Mobile 3G coverage has a long way to go to match Verizon and Sprint's EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) 3G data coverage or AT&T's HSDPA network. T-Mobile claims 3G service is currently available in more than 20 U.S. markets (including San Francisco, where I performed the tests), with several more markets to come online by the end of the year. Interested customers can check whether their city is 3G-ready using T-Mobile's Personal Coverage Check tool.
For more consistent data coverage, the G1 also has an 802.11b/g-compatible radio. Similar to Apple's iPhone (and drastically different from Windows Mobile-based devices), I found it seamless to move from a cellular data connection to Wi-Fi, when the latter is available. The G1 currently supports the personal key-based flavors of WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2, but not the certificate-based enterprise flavors. Since many HTC devices running Version 6.1 of the Windows Mobile platform support enterprise-grade Wi-Fi security, I surmise the G1 hardware will support certificate-based encryption whenever someone from the open-source community decides to write the software to make it work.
According to the specifications listed on the HTC Web site (which also states that specifications could change without notice), the G1 features a relatively powerful processor for a smart phone-a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7201A ARM processor (with 256MB of ROM and 192MB of RAM). Taking advantage of this added horsepower, I found the G1 to be very snappy-quickly starting and switching between applications, with little noticeable lag or waiting during my brief time with the device.
The operating system is also multithreaded, so applications can run in the background, update themselves over the network frequently and, with the right permissions, keep the device from going to sleep. Like with Windows Mobile, exiting a program does not mean quitting said application. The OS instead manages the processes in the background, keeping frequently used applications open while retiring little used processes as resource constraints necessitate. However, unlike with Windows Mobile, I did not feel the OS growing sluggish as I opened and used more applications.
The G1's 1,150-mAh battery is rated for 5 hours of talk time and 130 hours of standby. In my tests, I found the G1 bettered those claims. With both the Wi-Fi radio and data synchronization services disabled, the device delivered 5 hours and 23 minutes of talk time.
Because the G1 battery is on the smaller side when compared with Palm, Apple and Nokia phones eWEEK has recently tested, it seems the G1 and its Android operating system are highly efficient at controlling power consumption during a call. I found that the device quickly blanked the screen during calls but also woke quickly if I needed to use the screen at the same time.
The highly customizable user interface consists of three side-by-side panels that users can flick between. The primary middle screen includes a large clock and links to the dialer, a couple of different contact applications, the Web browser and Google Maps, while the left panel includes a large search box from which the user can quickly conduct a Web search with full subject prediction. The user can add shortcuts to any installed applications on any of the panels, though I couldn't find a way to do the same with Web bookmarks.
In truth, I preferred to keep the desktop uncluttered and take advantage of the excellent program menu overlay. Visible as a tab at the bottom of the screen (when in portrait mode) or the left (when landscape), the tab expands with a flick to fill the entire screen with the full complement of installed applications.
Likewise, the user can access system notifications with a downward flick from the top of the screen. In this way, I could quickly see a roster of current events on the device to determine what calls or text messages I missed, what e-mails had come in recently, or what applications had successfully installed.
With a little digging, the G1 did an excellent job keeping me up-to-date with just about anything I might want to know about the device. I could view detailed system information about the installed kernel, baseband or firmware revisions, specific details about the current signal strength (in dBm) or battery usage level (down to the percent), or the specific rights each installed application has on the device.
As mobile browsers go, the Android browser offered a fine Web surfing experience-on par with the iPhone's Mobile Safari and far superior to anything available on Windows Mobile (including Opera Mini)-although some ongoing issues annoyed me. Like Google's Chrome browser, the Android browser is based on WebKit, but it is not branded as a Chrome browser.
I wish the Android browser would do a better job resizing Web sites to fit the display. Although there is a setting (which is enabled by default) to format Web pages to fit the screen, I frequently found I had to scroll left and right to see everything. The browser takes advantage of Android's zoom controls, allowing me to quickly adjust the page to the screen, but I would rather it fit properly from the start.
The browser also offers a magnifying-glass view: The page shrinks to miniscule type, and a floating on-screen box enlarges what is displayed underneath it, allowing the user to expand the screen back to normal size where the magnifier lay simply by releasing the finger from the screen. Unfortunately, I often found my finger blocked me from seeing what was being magnified, and I quickly gave up trying to use the feature.
The G1 actually has two distinct mail applications: one for Gmail and one for other mail servers. The Gmail application provides much of the look and feel of the regular Web-based Gmail interface, offering similar views of threaded conversations and complete with any tagging information you may already have set. The other application works with standard POP3 and IMAP servers and supports both unencrypted and encrypted connections.
When first activating the phone, the user must provide Google credentials. The user can create a new account from the device, log in to an existing Gmail account or log in using a Google Apps for Your Domain account. Once authenticated, some data is automatically synchronized to the device, including Google contacts, calendar and Gmail headers.
Because the smart phone runs Google Gears in the background, this data will be accessible when the device is off the network. However, the Gmail application only works with a single Gmail account, so users with a gmail.com account as well as a hosted domain account will have to use the regular mail account for the second Google instance.
Accordingly, users can configure multiple accounts in the regular e-mail application, each with their own fetch schedule. For an IMAP connection to an Exchange server, I was able to successfully download contacts and tasks into the mail client, but not to integrate them into any applications native to the G1 (like the phone's contact list). I also was not able to download my Exchange calendar.
Attachment Handling in E-Mail
Attachment handling varied between the two applications. I found the G1 utilizes an HTML renderer that allowed me to preview (but not to save or edit) Word (.doc and .docx), Excel, PowerPoint slide shows and PDF-based documents. Unfortunately, in this rendering mode, I could not access the zoom controls, and each of the documents displayed in an overly large font that necessitated much side-to-side scrolling.
But I could only preview these documents from the Gmail client. In the regular e-mail client, although the application's security permissions listed "read email attachments" among the privileges, I found I could not save or preview any documents (although I could view or save image files).
Both mail clients lack the ability to bulk delete spam or unwanted messages. I could delete individual messages a couple of ways: I could read the message and delete from the message body, or I could press and hold on the message header to pull up an action menu from where I could issue the delete command. However, I could not highlight several messages and delete them.
The lack of full support for Exchange servers is the most obvious deficiency of the G1, but I fear it is not one that will be resolved until Android becomes a big cash cow for one company or another. Microsoft is certainly willing to license the ActiveSync Exchange technology to interested parties (as both Apple and Nokia have taken advantage of recently), but with Android, the question is, who will be willing to pay that license fee?
Given Google's ongoing dance with the development of mobile networks and devices, I suspect it will not take the lead resolving this issue. Google has stood at arm's length in cases where it can get someone else to bear the expense of deploying networks or designing hardware. Google wants to get people online more often and drive them to Google services so they can be served Google ads. Since Google has its own e-mail service, enabling more efficient use of Exchange is not immediately to the company's benefit.
Without Google taking the lead here, I suspect ActiveSync Exchange will come to Android in a piecemeal fashion. Some smart phone hardware vendor (such as Motorola and its Symbol line of devices) will eventually want to offer an enterprise-friendly Android phone, so it will license the code from Microsoft, but I doubt we will see the capability as a standard feature on every Android-based device anytime soon.
eWEEK Labs Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.