Ever since we first heard of the HTC Magic, we've been waiting on the edges of our seats for it to land at T-Mobile. After all, the Magic would be our second Android phone for review and we were eager to see if Google and HTC could improve upon their initial T-Mobile G1. Our curiosity peaked after a T-Mobile-ready Magic cleared the FCC two months ago, but hope turned to impatience as the weeks dragged on. Instead of being the "Year of Android," 2009 was turning out to be frustratingly quiet.
But just as we were about to give up, a device called the Google Ion made the rounds at the Google I/O Conference. Essentially a Magic with slight cosmetic tweaks, the Google Ion shares most of the G1's features and adds the Android 1.5 "cupcake" update. The Ion won't be released into the wild as a mass market device, but we decided to give it a shakedown anyway, since it came equipped for T-Mobile's 3G service. And we're very glad that we did.
Rest assured that the Ion is an attractive smartphone with a load of features and an intuitive interface. Sleek where the G1 was clunky, the Ion improves immeasurably on its G1 predecessor. In all seriousness, it should have been the original Android device. We still have a few complaints, and some users may miss a physical keyboard, but the result is a powerful handset that can rival the iPhone on many fronts.
The Google Ion is quite unlike HTC's earlier G1, and that's a good thing. While the G1 was rather large to accommodate its physical keyboard, the touch-screen-only Ion sports a sleek profile, glossy skin, and an eye-catching blue-and-black color scheme. It's an appealing device in all regards and we're glad to see an Android phone that actually looks cutting edge. At 4.65 inches tall by 2.19 inches wide by 0.65 inch deep and weighing 4.09 ounces, the Ion has a sturdy, comfortable feel and it slips cleanly into a pocket or bag for easy traveling.
The Ion's real estate is dominated by a gorgeous 3.2-inch touch screen. The bright 480x320-pixel HVGA display shows colors, graphics, and photos beautifully; it also offers a customizable brightness setting and an adjustable backlighting time. You can personalize the screen with a selection of wallpapers.
The user interface is similar to the G1's, which means it is fun, clean, and intuitive. Compared with the iPhone, you have to crawl through a few menu pages, but it takes only a few minutes to know what goes where. And once you understand it, you shouldn't have to look at the user manual again. The home screen is made of three panels side by side, which you can move between by swiping your finger across the display. In a bold degree of customization, you can populate the screen with any number of shortcut icons that give instant access to the related applications. The Ion comes with a selection of default icons, but you can remove them or add more as you wish. Such customization and ease-of-use makes for one of the best cell phone UI's around.
On the whole, the touch interface is responsive. We could move through long lists easily by flicking our finger (to go quickly) or by dragging it up and down the screen (to go more slowly). We could also scroll around Web pages with relative ease. Just be advised that, like the G1, the Ion doesn't have an iPhone-like multitouch interface that lets you zoom in by pinching your fingers. Also, while the Ion has an accelerometer, it doesn't work in every feature (see below).
The display offers haptic feedback, but only for certain actions. For example, a quick tap to open an application won't offer any feedback, but you will feel a very slight vibration if you press and hold (aka a "long press"). On the G1, a long press when inside an application would bring up a menu window with pertinent commands for that feature. The Ion, however, has a physical Menu key that performs that function. Yet, like the G1, you use a long press to drag icons around the display. Be advised that the Ion has a capacitive touch screen, so you must use your finger; a stylus or your fingernail won't work.
Like on the G1, a tab at the bottom of the display will pull up the main menu, with the full set of features and application icons. It's an easy-to-use and attractive arrangement that's free of burdensome animation or graphics. You can scroll up and down by dragging your finger. Some features take a bit of digging, but enough options are surfaced up front. To close the menu, just press the tab again. At the top of the home screen is a dedicated Google Search bar. Pressing it once will open a full keyboard, though it's available only in vertical mode. Next to the search bar is a small microphone that opens a voice search feature.
Below the display are the Ion's only physical controls. They offer improvements over the G1 not only because there are more of them, but also because they have a sturdier feel. You'll find Talk and End/power keys, a Home button, the aforementioned Menu control, a Google Search shortcut key, and a back button. The keys are crammed into a relatively small area, but they didn't feel too cramped. We also like that the navigation trackball is larger and has more space around its perimeter. Pressing the trackball straight on selects icons and menu options.
The phone dialer interface is simple and intuitive. To reach it, you can press the Call button or you can go through the main menu. Round onscreen buttons show both numbers and the related letters. They were sufficiently large, but haptic feedback would be nice.
The virtual keyboard differs according to which feature you're using. As previously noted, the Google Search keyboard is available only in the phone's vertical mode. Though it should be fine for quick taps, the arrangement is rather crowded when banging out long messages. Indeed, we made quite a few mistakes when tapping. Fortunately, the messaging, e-mail, and browser applications both offer a landscape keyboard with a lot more room. To change between portrait and landscape keyboards, just tip the phone to the left and the Ion's accelerometer will do the trick. You won't get the same effect when tipping the phone to the right, but that's a quirk we can overlook. You can switch between alphabetic and numeric/symbol keyboards with a single tap.
The volume rocker is located on the Ion's left spine. It's thinner than we'd like, but it's easy to find when you're on a call. The microSD card slot is located behind the battery cover. Fortunately, you don't have to remove the battery, too. Like the G1, you're forced to use a single Micro-USB port on the bottom of the handset for the charger, USB cable, and any wired headset. While it's not an issue for the first two peripherals, it is annoying that you can't use a standard 3.5-millimeter headset without the included adapter. Sure, many users will, no doubt, use a Bluetooth headset instead, but it's nice to have the option to use both.