Friday, October 17, 2008
Google Phone - Technical Review
There is a lot riding on the shoulders of T-Mobile's G1 Android phone. In some ways, it carries the collective hopes of Linux, open source and Google fans everywhere. It's open, collaborative and community-based, in other words, everything the iPhone and Windows Mobile aren't. As so many onlookers crowd around this newborn phone, there's no way it can hold up all of their expectations—and it doesn't.
After spending a week using the G1, I can say it's a good start, and a clear indication of good Android developments to come. But the phone itself has some serious problems with accessibility and usability, issues that no number of third-party apps are going to be able to solve. Here's what I loved and hated about the T-Mobile G1.
The Hardware -
Body: The body was made by HTC, a Taiwanese company that makes Windows Mobile devices for Motorola, Palm and its own line. This phone is built just like those. The back is classic matted and grip-friendly HTC. The swivel-flip feels almost exactly like earlier HTC phones, only it extends out and then back in again, revealing the keyboard underneath. This motion gives a satisfying snap when opened, though it might be too loud in a quiet office.
Keyboard: It's got numerous problems. First, it's set so that the raised section on the right, with scroller ball and home and menu keys, is always in your way when you're trying to type. This is annoying, even after you figure out how to work around it. The individual keys aren't raised high enough over the body for easy touch typing, though at least the keyboard is backlit, in case you're texting in the dark. The space and backspace key are tinier than we'd like. And it's even more awkward than normal to type while charging the phone, because the miniUSB cable is in the way.
Buttons: There are five face buttons on the device—call, home, back, power/end and menu—and they're all fairly straightforward. Hit home to bring you back to the home screen, menu to bring up a popup menu in your current app, and power/end button to lock your phone or hang up your call. That last part takes the most getting used to, since you're naturally going to want to use the red power button to quit apps or end tasks, but all that does is lock your phone.
Trackball: It feels great, better than on the BlackBerry Pearl, and it clicks down solidly. Still, switching between the trackball and the touchscreen can get awkward.
Screen: The touchscreen is bright, renders text clearly and is, on the whole, pretty great. It uses capacitive touch, like the iPhone, so you use your fingertip, not a stylus, to poke around. There are cases when screen presses don't register properly—they're not too often, but often enough to be noticeable.
Battery: A full charge lasts about a day, mainly because push Gmail grabs the internet every time the account receives an email, and mine receives plenty. Couple that with 3G data browsing and app usage—which you're most likely going to be doing a lot of—and you'll need to get used to a mid-day charge at work. Thankfully charging from near empty to near full takes only about two hours.
Wi-Fi: The Wi-Fi range seems slightly to be on par with comparable smartphones (HTC's Windows Mobile phones, iPhone), showing just about as many Wi-Fi hotspots in my house as the other ones did.
3G: I got noticeably decent browsing speeds, with an actual test registering 433kbps. This, of course, is only the case if your city has 3G access at all, since T-Mobile's only just starting to roll out their network.
Camera: It's passable and on par with previous HTC efforts. It does have autofocus, but other than that there's nothing spectacular with the G1's camera.
GPS: GPS is actually off by default, which produces a very inaccurate location when you try and find yourself on Google Maps. You'll have to switch this on manually.
Other Issues: It's hard to fathom why HTC left out a 3.5mm headphone jack in 2008, same for USB mass storage mode for Windows or Mac. Really? You have to pop out that microSD card and use a card reader every time you want to load a ringtone or a song or a photo or a video? Seriously? Apologies, there actually IS a USB mass storage mode, but you have to use the bundled HTC proprietary mini USB cable. Any old mini USB cable won't do! But yes, it's possible. Also, when the screen is flipped open, it's tilted down about three degrees—really annoying to certain people who like clean lines.
Operating System and Usability -
Calling: Making phone calls on this thing works well. Call quality is good, but the screen annoyingly times out after about 10 seconds. If you want to power on the screen again, you have to hit the menu key or the "call" key, which takes you to the dialpad. It may just be that we punch in our credit card numbers or find contacts during a call more often than most people, but always having to bring up the screen again is a pain. And pressing the power/end button, which you'd think would power up the screen, actually just hangs up the call. Annoying. But as for the actually making calls part? No complaints from us.
Texting: Texts are arranged per contact in threads, and works well enough since texting is so simple. No cockups here.
Stability: The one word I'd use to describe the Android operating system is "solid". It's been my main device for a week, and I've yet to see the entire OS hang or freeze (haven't had to reboot yet). Individual apps have crashed or frozen, but Android handles this spectacularly well by using the PC paradigm where you can choose to Force Quit a frozen app or wait for it to unstick itself. This way, very little can take down the entire phone under everyday use. (Buggy hardcore apps that snake deep into core functions could probably succeed.)
Background Apps: Multitasking is one thing Android does really well. Apps can run in the background, receiving data and continuing to "exist," even though you don't see them. The OS handles memory management for you invisibly, giving processes a lower CPU priority and taking away their RAM when other programs need it. For now, examples are simple, like opening a browser, then a bunch of other apps, then returning to the browser. You can use four or five apps before before the browser has to re-fetch data on the web page. Presumably, programmers will soon make more impressive use of the background processing power.
Window Shade: Google's most unique multitasking helper is the notification window shade, which serves as an infodump of all incoming emails, messages, IMs and missed calls. Tapping a notification will take you to its corresponding app. No matter what app you're in, the shade drops smoothly into place when you pull it down, dragging your finger from the top. (Just opposite the window shade is the pull-up app menu. If you run out of room on your three desktop screens, you'll be visiting here for lesser used programs.)
Long Clicks: One convention that's used often—but not consistently—is the long press. Long presses are a mix between right clicking and playing the lottery. Hold down an area of the screen—you may see a menu pop up or you may get absolutely nothing. Long click on the main screen and it asks you which app shortcut you want to move to your desktop. Long click on the text message screen and you'll be prompted to delete or view a thread. Long click on Google Maps or a page in the browser, however, and nothing happens.
Interface: As we have observed, the UI suffers from general usability issues such as inconsistent actions or surprisingly unclickable regions like the browser's URL bar or the home screen's clock. But when you use it, you realize it is kinda pretty. Like the window shade, many of the transparencies, transitions, fade-ins, fade-outs, popups and other UI elements are slick, and definitely win out in aesthetics over smartphones like Windows Mobile. Compared to the iPhone, it still loses, but this comes down to a lack of multitouch capability—on the G1, for instance, you zoom by clicking + and - magnifier buttons. Like I said, it's definitely a solid OS, but it also needs some real work by some UI experts to make it easier to pick up and play with.
Contacts: Phone contacts sync nicely with Google's Gmail contacts—great if you use Gmail, and an extra place to backup your contacts if you don't. You can even scroll through them fast by dragging a bar on the right. The problem though is that the quick-scroll dragger is hyper-sensitive, and holding your finger still in one place can make the phone jitter between letters. Each contact has a default phone number displayed under his name—when you tap a contact it feels like you're dialing his number, even though you're just pulling up details.
Mail: There are actually two mail programs on the G1: Mail and Gmail. Mail lets you manage five accounts, while Gmail makes you tie your phone to just one account. But Gmail is one of the best apps on the phone, giving you 90% of the desktop features you use on a day-to-day basis. Archiving, labeling, reporting spam, deleting and starring are super easy and sync to webmail almost instantly. The best part of this Gmail implementation is that it's push the only push Gmail on any mobile device (Helio's phones also have it). T-Mobile failed to mention its cool keyboard shortcuts—I had to fiddle to figure out that you can hit "r" for reply or "a" to reply all. (Surely there are more.) A dumb flaw is that it won't auto-complete names when you start with someone's last name. I have to sort through 10 Brians to find Lam's address, when I should be able to just type Lam and have this be smart enough to figure out who I mean.
Marketplace: The Marketplace is divided into Games and Applications, with sub-categories such as Lifestyle, Productivity, Shopping and Tools. Downloading and installing apps are pretty much 1-click, like the iPhone App Store, and most apps launch just fine. However, since most developers don't have an actual Android phone to test their apps on, a lot of programs will be sluggish or even crash-prone in the first few weeks. Expect this to be fixed soon.
IM: The IM app is a very good client that supports AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live (MSN), and Yahoo. It's intuitive, works well with the keyboard and even offers background notification—unlike iPhone—so you can switch to other apps but still get incoming messages delivered to you via the top status bar.
Browser: The G1 browser, like Chrome on the desktop, is based on WebKit, the open source browser engine that also powers Safari and Mobile Safari. This means it's pretty damn good. That said, the lack of multitouch gestures in Android's version makes zooming a pain. It doesn't have Flash support (YouTube gets forwarded to the YouTube app) and it doesn't auto-zoom to maximize the column you want to read in your display. It can, however, remember your password for logins, like a desktop browser does.
Google Maps: Gmaps has most of what you'll find in the desktop version, including Satellite, Traffic and Street View. Once you turn on GPS, the phone's fairly decent at locating where you are even indoors, and Compass View is a gimmick that works sometimes and doesn't work other times—but then again, spinning around like an idiot makes you look like an idiot all the time.
Music Player: It's no iPod, but the G1's built-in music player gets the job done decently. It fits in fairly well with the rest of the Android experience, but we're definitely looking at third-party apps like TuneWiki to pick up the slack here. That's not to say the Music app is bad—it's perfectly fine. It's just not great.
Third-Party Apps: Some of the more promising apps like Tunes Remote, TuneWiki and Video Player aren't as fleshed out and stable as we like. Tunes Remote lags and crashes a lot, TuneWiki can't find our music and Video Player only supports a handful of codecs. We expect these all to be fixed soon. Other apps like AccuWeather, Barcode Scanner and Pac-Man work just fine despite being developed on the Android emulator. We're looking forward to good things here.
The G1 phone and the Android operating system are not finished products. There are only three working Google Apps here—Gmail, Maps and Calendar—while Google Docs, Google News, Google Reader, Google Shopping, Google Images, Google Video, Blogger and Picasa are nowhere to be found. What's the deal?
We have high hopes for third-party coders to fill in gaps Google intentionally or unintentionally left in this OS. There's already a video player, and we're sure VLC will try and port some kind of version over. But your question is not whether the phone will be great down the line, it's whether or not it's good enough for you to buy it now.
The answer depends most on who you are. Despite all the UI quirks and bad design decisions, it's still better than other smartphone OSes out there. It's not perfect, but for people who like tinkering, its cons are outweighed by its pros such as Gmail and the Marketplace. Hopefully Android updates and more ports of Google apps will augment not just future phones but this one too. This isn't something you're going to give your mom for Christmas, but if you're an adventuresome gadget guy with some money to spend ($179) on a totally new, pretty exciting venture, then why not?