The much-ballyhooed "Google phone" finally goes on sale this Wednesday, Oct. 22 — and it's a worthy competitor to the iPhone, even though clearly still a work in progress.
The phone itself is ugly and quirky, but the T-Mobile 3G network speed (when you can get it) is speedier than AT&T's, and the Android operating system, while a bit rough around the edges, is a terrific start for an open-source smartphone standard.
The T-Mobile G1, as it's officially called, retails for $179 with a two-year contract, and voice and unlimited data (with unlimited text messaging) plans start at about $75 per month. For $65, you get somewhat less data usage.
That's comparable to the iPhone 3G, which costs $199 with contract and a $70 monthly plan, plus extra for text-messaging.
First things first: The G1, built by Taiwan's HTC and offered exclusively by T-Mobile in the U.S., isn't going to win any design awards.
The phone looks as if it was manufactured by the Soviet military. It's a heavy, black brick, with a screen that swings away from the underlying keyboard with a sturdy thump.
If you replaced the large LCD screen with a standard touch-tone keyboard, it'd look just like an Ericsson cell phone from 1997.
Underneath that screen are four round buttons — call, home, back and power/terminate call, as well as a small plastic trackball and a large "Menu" pad. Volume toggle switches are on one edge, and a camera-shutter button is on the other.
A 1-gigabyte MicroSD card, which houses media files but not applications, is tucked under the buttons, held in place by a tiny plastic door. You can swap in another MicroSD card with up to 16 GB of storage.
On the back are the camera lens, a small but surprisingly loud speaker and the enigmatic words "with Google." The battery is replaceable, though I had to stop when I tried to get the back cover off because it felt like I was about to break something.
Open the phone up, and it's even ungainlier. You have to rotate it 90 degrees to use the full QWERTY keyboard, but with the thick bottom part hanging off to one side, it looks unbalanced.
But the keyboard is solid, fully functional and a lot easier to use than the iPhone's touchscreen virtual keyboard, which is tough for anyone with adult-sized fingers.
Physically, the G1's worst feature is the fact that, as with jellyfish and other primitive animals, there's only one hole for everything going in and out.
A single USB port, covered by a flimsy rubber flap, handles power charging, data transfer and audio/video connections.
That's right — there's no standard headphone jack. You have to either use the decent-sounding but uncomfortable USB headphones that come with the phone, or buy an extra adapter to hook up your own.
It also means you can't use the headphones when charging the unit, though you could play music through the speaker on the back if you were really desperate.
So much for the bad part. The screen itself is bright and crisp, and though a bit smaller than the iPhone's, it packs in the same resolution and hence looks sharper.
Battery life is about a day of regular use, as is the iPhone 3G's — and unlike the iPhone, the G1 charges quickly with any standard USB 6-to-4-pin cable.
Now for the network. It's no accident that T-Mobile is the first of the major U.S. carriers to jump on the Android bandwagon, since its coverage is the weakest. Access to the fast 3G network is only available in a couple of dozen cities, and even regular voice communication is spotty.
I could get 3G access on the sidewalk in front of my Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment building. It dropped to the slower EDGE data network when I entered the lobby, and the signal died altogether in my living room.
By comparison, AT&T's EDGE coverage held up fine on a BlackBerry, and a voice-only Verizon Wireless phone was even better.
When 3G access is working, it's great. Side-by-side comparisons of the G1 and an iPhone 3G showed the G1 to be much faster in loading Web pages and playing YouTube videos. (Like the iPhone, the G1 has a dedicated YouTube application, but clips on both look blotchier than they do on a PC.)
Voice calls were fine, comparable to calls made using AT&T, which uses the same GSM protocol. I prefer the cleaner-sounding, more reliable CDMA standard that Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Alltel use, which is one reason I haven't gotten an iPhone.
Finally, where the G1 really shines is with the Linux-based Android operating system and resulting applications. They're just as good as the iPhone's in most respects, if a little less intuitive.
The initial screen is minimal — a pretty background image, an analog clock, icons for the phone dialer, contact list, Web browser and Google Maps, as well as T-Mobile's proprietary "MyFaves" feature, which reduces the calls of cost and text messages to five select friends or family members.
Swipe your finger to the left, and a blank piece of desktop shows up. Swipe to the right, and the familiar Google search field appears — though, if you've got the phone in the "closed" position, you'll have to open it up to type anything in.
Clicking with a finger, or selecting via the trackball, on the menu tab opens up a sliding screen with all the other applications. Click or select each to open it, or simply drag and drop it on the Home screen to keep it there permanently.
A display bar at the very top of the screen indicates the time, battery life, signal strength and wireless format, as well as whether you've got any calendar appointments, new Gmail messages, text messages or instant messages.
A finger tap drags down yet another screen with the relevant information.
I have to point out that the built-in trackball, which seems like an afterthought at first, is actually a huge benefit.
Almost anything can be selected via either a finger touch or the trackball, but the latter is much more precise. It's nice to have both options.
Note to Android software developers — Would it be so hard to add a touchscreen keyboard, such as the iPhone has?
It'd be really convenient to be able to quickly type in short search queries or text messages without having to "open" the phone to get to the physical keyboard.
The same problem comes up in Web browsing. Web pages look terrific whether in portrait (closed) or landscape (open) mode — better than they do on the iPhone, in fact, even though both browsers are based on the same underlying code.
But in order to type in a new URL, you've got to open it up, switching the display to landscape mode.
Note to developers, part 2 — There's an accelerometer in the G1 handset. Use it.
Right now, none of the pre-installed applications change viewing format when the phone is turned sideways — but a beta-version video player I downloaded for free from the Android Market (Google's less-restrictive answer to Apple's App Store) does it automatically whether the phone is open or closed.
Speaking of video, the G1 doesn't come with a player. I was able to install the aforementioned application, called just "Video Player," from the Android Market, but a few days later it had disappeared.
So had the official Namco-produced port of "Pac-Man" I'd also grabbed. It's not clear why they were yanked, since both work well.
Surprisingly, the G1 doesn't come with any CD bearing proprietary software to install on a computer. Plug in the USB cable to any computer, PC, Mac or Linux, and it just comes up as a flash drive.
To be more precise, the MicroSD card shows up, and you can drag-and-drop files just as you would to any mounted volume.
The drawback with that is that if you've got the file-transfer function enabled, you can't access any of the files on the MicroSD card when the cable is connected to a PC — and that means all your pictures, videos and music. Apple manages to get around this; why can't Google?
M4v-formatted video I'd ripped from a DVD played perfectly on the G1, and looked better than I'd expected since it was originally meant for a third-generation iPod Nano, which has half the screen resolution as the G1.
MP3 files copied over and played with no problem as well, though I lost the album covers that had been downloaded for free from the iTunes Store.
The G1 can also buy and download songs directly from Amazon's online music store, though as with the iPhone you've got to be connected to a Wi-Fi network rather than just the 3G cellular network. Album covers showed up fine using this method.
The phone's built-in music player is functional without being flashy. It handles a wider range of formats than will iPods or iPhones, including WMA, Ogg and Real Audio files, though it won't play Apple's encoded AAC files from the iTunes Store.
With regard to Wi-Fi access, the G1 handles it smoothly and without a fuss. I got onto my home network in about five seconds, and downloads were fast and uninterrupted. (I wasn't able to compare the iPhone's Wi-Fi speed.)
T-Mobile will give G1 users free unlimited access at its public Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide.
The Android Market, as opposed to the Amazon music store, can be accessed via 3G, but there isn't a lot in there yet.
As mentioned above, a couple of the better applications disappeared a couple of days after I installed them, so early adopters of the G1 might be best advised to visit the store daily.
Apple's App Store is much better stocked, though I expect the Android Market to fill up quickly within a couple of months.
Some of the better available apps include ShopSavvy, which links a barcode reader with Web access.
Point the camera at the barcode on any item in a store, and ShopSavvy will tell you how much it costs at various online stores.
The more basic Barcode Reader does the same thing without immediately comparing prices.
One caveat: Applications are saved not to the MicroSD card, which is reserved for media files and documents. Rather, they go to the phone's onboard flash memory, which has only 70 megabytes set aside for apps. That could fill up fast.
The camera itself has a 3-megapixel resolution, decent for a phone. Colors seemed to be a bit better than with the iPhone's 2-megapixel sensor.
There's no way to record video yet, but it's likely an enterprising coder will have an application in the Android Market within a few weeks.
Contacts, Calendar and Gmail are tied in to Google's online applications, and you have to have a Google account to use any of them.
Once that's set up, the Gmail application interface is smooth and clean, and Excel, PDF and Word attachments displayed without any problem, though there's no way to edit them.
Surprisingly, there are no applications for Picasa, Google's online photo-sharing archive, or Google Docs, its "cloud computing" alternative to the Microsoft Office suite. Those may just be a matter of time.
Android offers a client for up to five other e-mail addresses. I set up my Yahoo! e-mail address more or less painlessly.
Instant-messaging similarly is initially tied into to Google Talk, but also handles AIM, Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger.
I tried the first two and they were fine, though once again I was peeved to have to open up the keyboard when I had to type anything.
Text-messaging is fine as well, but the iPhone's display is simply superior, not least because you can type right on the screen.
The built-in Google Maps application is similar to the one on the iPhone, yet the GPS locator worked better on the latter for some reason. Still, it was easier to type in an address to get directions on the G1 than on the iPhone's teensy touchscreen keys.
So what's the overall user experience? Very good, actually. The sheer ugliness of the handset grew on me after a while — something that's homely but useful is bound to be charming.
Getting online and having a full Web browsing experience without having to turn on a PC was a heck of a lot of fun. For a geek like me, being able to flicker through Wikipedia while lying face up on the couch was heaven.
I was less happy with the T-Mobile coverage, and people who don't live in the top 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. will be even unhappier.
Until there's solid T-Mobile 3G access where you live, I'd put off getting the G1 — or wait to see which carrier brings out the next Android-based phone.