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G1 review
added Sun February 01 2009 at 5:37 PM

I've been looking forward to Google's Android platform for some time now. I was really excited when it was announced that T-Mobile will be the first carrier with an Android phone available. I've been resisting the urge to buy one for a while, but my contract was up for renewal (and thus elligible for a discounted phone) and I left my charger at home. I haven't used any other smartphones beyond handling my friends', so I'm definitely not qualified to give a solid comparison, but I will point out features that make a difference to me when compared to other phones. This is a rather long post for me, so I actually divided it into multiple sections:

  1. Carriers
  2. Hardware
  3. Platform
  4. Default Software
  5. The Market
  6. Recommendation


First up, the only carrier that currently sells the phone is T-Mobile. You can purchase an unlocked dev phone from Google for $399 (for development, although I'm sure that people will be using that to go to other carriers). I'm not sure if it's the same as the G1 or not. Sprint has announced their own Android offering soon and some of what I say should apply to them, but who knows how much the platform will vary from phone to phone. Verizon doesn't seem to be playing along and AT&T will almost certainly not make one any time soon. However, there is not any exclusivity built into the platform. I probably would have gotten an iPhone soon after they came out if it weren't for the exclusive contract with AT&T so I know that the carrier can make a huge difference for some people.


Let's move on to hardware. I like the sliding screen, but it does have a little bit of "wiggle" when it's extended. With a cantalever like that, it's only a matter of time before we see people snapping their phones in half. I just hope that it doesn't happen to me. I love having real keys, though, and I'm already getting to the point that I can almost touch type. It might be a couple months before I can type a paragraph without looking at my hands, something I never even came close to with t9 input. I've never done much typing on an iPhone, but I feel that tactile feedback is an important component of that. Typing one handed is pretty difficult, though, because the keyboard is too big to support and reach all the keys with one thumb. I'll keep my eyes open for techniques to do this. I've had a couple friends with much smaller hands complain that they can't really reach all the keys very well, so it might not be a one-size-fits-all keyboard - YMMV.

The volume control is not really in a very good location for multiple reasons. First, it's right near the location that I rest the phone on my left pinky. I keep changing the volume on accident as I reach to hit some of the keys. Second, the cover that comes with the phone completely covers the volume control. I did discover while hanging out at the airport the other day that it happens to line up with the tag so that if you squeeze the tag of the cover just right you can actually change the volume. I'm still worried about it, though, because the volume key doubles as the way to silence the phone when it's ringing. A better location would be on the bottom of the phone next to the usb/power port. Any cover is going to make that accessible anyway because that's also the headphone jack.

Speaking of the headphone jack, I'm not too thrilled with the decision to use a proprietary plug for the headphones. They even included the proper adaptor in the box, so I don't really think that it was just a cost-saving decision. I can understand that they wanted to minimize the number of input jacks to keep the design sleek and probably to simplify the internals. However, including a headphone jack on the hardware would have reduced the number of cords I have to keep track of and carry with me. We'll see how long before I lose this one, but I ordered a new cord that can charge the phone at the same time as you're listening on the headphones, I'll give it a separate mini-review when it comes in. The power cord is a typical mini-USB power cord, so I wonder what functionality requires the modified plug - can I use a regular USB cable to connect the phone to my computer, or do I have to use the one they gave me?

The headphones included are a typical cheap earbud. They sound a bit better than the speaker on the back of the phone, but they're not anything special. I don't have any nice headphones at home and I keep forgetting to try my sennheisers at work (nothing fancy, but solid headphones). I borrowed my roommate's to listen for a little bit and it was ok. I don't think that an audiophile would hook this up to their nice sound system, but for an average person enjoying some music it's a decent player. At any rate, the headphones are good enough for listening on the bus or walking around in noisy areas.

Back to the position of things - the speaker is decently loud, but it's on the back of the phone. Which means that if I want to turn on some tunes without headphones, I serenade everybody else more than myself. Stereo speakers from the front would be awesome, but at a minimum they should have the one speaker on the front. This might have been another decision based on the interals of the phone, but they could've made room by the home/back/call buttons.

The screen is seriously awesome - very clear and bright even at the default brightness. The touch screen is fairly sensitive, even if I'm still getting used to exactly where to touch things (when you're browsing the internet a few pixels can make a pretty big difference). Fingernails and styluses (styli?) don't work on the screen because it's a capacitive touchscreen. The result is that my finger might have a slightly different contact point than what I expect. I've heard of various attempts at making a stylus that would work on these kinds of touchscreens, but I'm not sure if there are any that actually work. I haven't taken the plastic cover off the screen yet, so it may be that it will be somewhat more accurate once I do, but I plan on keeping it on for a while until I get a sense of whether there is enough wear to warrant purchasing a more permanent screen protector.


Of course, the real draw to the phone isn't the hardware. The hardware is good enough and is probably comparable to other smartphones (maybe not as good as the iPhone). What sets this phone apart is the OS. The OS is a Java application built on top of a Linux kernel, and the combination seems to make for a stable platform. Individual applications may become nonresponsive, but after a bit a dialog will pop up giving you the option to force it closed. When this has happened on default apps (like the browser), the app can be launched again and works fine. The browser has crashed on me a couple times when loading very large webpages with lots of javascript - probably because it exceeded the amount of RAM available. I haven't (yet) had to force close any other default apps.

The resource management is designed to encourage multi-tasking, with background processes allowed to keep memory until it is needed by a foreground process. This has a huge advantage when flipping between multiple applications, and in general it is fairly seemless to jump in and out of things. The biggest advantage of this is that it makes it possible to respond to an incoming notification (text message, email, etc) without worrying about whether you'll lose what you're working on. When you're done replying to the text, simply hit the back button (which has an appropriately prominant position right by the end call button) and you'll be dropped back into whatever you were working on. This isn't limited to responding to notifications; you can quicklaunch another application and the same principle works. A background activity can be killed, but if it is implemented correctly no data should be lost in the process.

The easiest way to see what happens when memory is running short is to browse to large websites. Most apps deal with this just fine and the biggest impact to the user is that it takes somewhat longer to relaunch the app when you return to it later. It appears that the homescreen is even held accountable to this memory management scheme, because sometimes when returning to the homescreen (particularly after a lot of internet surfing), it will take some time to show all the icons. The negative impact on the web browser if it gets slated for getting killed is that it has to reload the webpage you were viewing. I'm not sure if form inputs are properly stored away when this happens, which would be a recipe for losing data on large forms. When I'm done with my browser, I try to remember to close all the windows and go to a so that it will start up again quickly.

The negative implication of the smooth multi-tasking is that it is always possible that an application could be running in the background without your knowledge, using resources and thus wasting battery power. There are apps available in the marketplace that claim to be able to give you visibility to manage this, but that level of resource management should be available out of the box in order to help decide whether you want to keep third party applications. I also wish that it were possible for me as a user to designate that I'm done with a program and that it's ready to be cleaned up so that other programs don't get cleaned up first. This is probably me being a control freak, though, and ultimately should have fairly limited impact on actual user interactions.

Default Software

When you have music playing, there is a constant entry in the notification bar showing the song/album/artist information. You can click on that to go to the music player, but what they're really missing there is an ability to pause and skip right on the notification bar. I'm not sure if this is a restriction on the notification bar or an oversight on the part of the music player, but this would save a lot of switching into the music player just to skip the current song. One feature that I found on accident that almost makes up for this oversight is that the button on the headphone adapter that is meant for answering calls can pause music (single click) or skip to the next song (double click). At least pausing and skipping is readily available, even if it does mean having to reach for an external control.

A key feature that is going to make or break it for many people is integration with email and calendar services. POP3 and IMAP are supported, but it's fairly obvious that this is intended to integrate with google's mail and calendar offerings. As far as I can tell, there is no direct integration with Microsoft Exchange. I'm sure that it's a matter of time before somebody ports thunderbird if the platform gains a significant user base, but this is going to be a major shortfall for corporate customers. I won't be expecting executives or business types sporting a G1 en masse any time soon.

The integration with gmail is acceptable, but I've already encountered a few limitations in it. As far as I can tell, when you're replying or forwarding you cannot edit the original email - it is not even in a text field at all, it's just automatically added to the end of your message. I first noticed this when I emailed myself a rough draft of this review with the intent of copying the whole thing and pasting it into a text editor to edit it. I had to give up on that idea, although it turns out that gmail's mobile interface would have worked just fine for me. It is nice to get a notification that I have new email, but you only get notified if the is a new message in the inbox, _not_ if there's a new message in one of your other labels. I may have to rethink the rules I'm using for my gmail account and stop automatically archiving messages that get filtered into other labels.

I've never been very good at keeping calendars in the past. I did use google calendar a little bit a couple years ago, but calendars really only work if you remember to check them. I think that the lower barrier to entering a new event combined with easily setting a reminder on the one device I'll be guaranteed to be carrying with me might make it more reasonable to keep a calendar in the future. This isn't any different than most smartphones, but this does have the added feature of easily being able to set up calendars to display to the rest of the world and even to access programatically (if I remember correctly, the google calendar API was fairly straightforward for viewing calendars).

The maps are very promising, but I'm not sure that they are better than any other phone. It does come with a GPS, but I think that the antenna must be pretty weak because it doesn't seem to get a good signal very often. I'll keep experimenting with it and try to use it more outside, but it's slow to connect to enough satellites to accurately find your position. When the GPS is working, I couldn't find a mode in google maps for following your current location and, ideally, recalculating directions on the fly. Basically, the default map application does not feel like it's ready to replace a standard car GPS system. I'm sure that there will be apps that fill this void, though. One interesting feature on the maps is that it will give an approximate location based on the location of cell towers when you don't have GPS enabled. This is nice because the GPS is somewhat battery intensive and the wireless connection seems more reliable (albeit less accurate) right now. In most cases, this approximation is close enough to help figure out where you are, even if it will never be able to tell you to turn left at the next intersection. One cool map feature that's fun for showing off, even if it's not entirely practical, is how optimized the G1 google map street view is. It loads fairly quickly even on cell phone internet connections and has a fun feature that uses the internal compass to face the same direction as you are. If I can figure out how to integrate this with turn-by-turn GPS directions this will be an _awesome_ feature, but until then it's a fun party trick.

One app that is surprisingly missing out of the box is the google reader. Their mobile site is amazing, so the team has obviously spent some time thinking about mobile development, I'm surprised that they didn't port something for the G1. The mobile version of the site has a really cool feature where if you click on a link to an external site ("read more at..."), it loads the site through google and optimizes it for mobile viewing. For my site, it collapses the left nav and the top bar, removes the styling, and makes the text fit perfectly in the screen (which by a happy coincidence it actually does fairly well already for most posts). It's almost like google reader made a mobile version of the entire internet - highly optimized for viewing on small screens and tight bandwidth.

The Market

Google app integration is very nice and makes the phone useful out of the box, but the main strength of the platform and one of the reasons why I've been looking forward to it is the open developer platform. So far a lot of the applications are focused on tweaking user settings that are buried under several levels of options but need to be toggled often, like wifi or GPS. I hope that the designers see this as a sign that they should make it possible to create shortcuts to settings just like applications.

Several other applications are geared around showing off features of the phone, such as the bubble app, which is a simple bubble level and highlights the accelerometer. There is an ssh client so that I can sign into my home server from anywhere, as long as I'm willing to put up with the high latency of a cell phone connection. There's also a terminal emulator, but almost every stanndard linux command has permissions set to only work for 'root'.

Gaining root has been demonstrated, but the process involves a security exploit that has been patched, which means that all future updates have to be cracked to allow the elevated permissions. I probably won't go through that process, but it's nice to know that there is an option. There's also the popular barcode scanner - an idea that I had several months ago but is apparently such an obvious idea for the platform since there are at least three other apps that do the same thing. Every application on the android market is rated and can be sorted by popularity, which is designed to help you download with confidence. This goes a small way toward offsetting the lack of confidence inherent in a new platform, where there's no good way to know who is trustworthy. I personally think that more visibility into resource usage would also help, but I've already covered that.


Before answering whether the phone has hit the mark, we have to ask what it was really aiming toward. The look of the device is reminicent of a sidekick, with its keyboard hidden away under the screen. It feels somewhat more professional, though. As I already mentioned, the lack of built-in Exchange integration is going to kill it for a lot of business types. It's clearly a consumer device rather than a corporate one for now. The open developer platform is initially targetted at programmers and linux geeks, but they have gone to great lengths to make the interface friendly for non-geeks. It is clearly positioned as an alternative for the iPhone, but google doesn't have an army of wealthy fans ready to put down cash for expensive gadgets. In fact, google has trained its followers that everything should be free. I think that initially the major market will be the tech community, where "free speech" is almost as important as "free beer." It will only take hold with average consumers if the application market expands to provide a wider variety of apps. I definitely think that the G1 hit its initial target, but only time will tell whether it can expand beyond that.

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