Editors' note: We have updated the review since its original publish date to include changes to features and performance after installing the official Android 1.5 Cupcake update for the G1 released by T-Mobile in June 2008.
It's been a little more than a year since Google Android was announced and rumors of a little device called the HTC Dream started to leak onto the Web. We think it's fair to say that the Dream stirred up as much anticipation and hype as the Apple iPhone, not only because it would be the first smartphone to run Google's mobile platform but also because of the potential to overtake Apple's darling. (Hey, like it or not, the iPhone set a new bar for handset design and convergence, and serves as a sort of benchmark for touch-screen smartphones these days.)
On September 23, the world was officially introduced to the HTC Dream, now known as the T-Mobile G1, and the initial reaction ranged from "That's it?" to "I have to have it!" Unfortunately, we fell more into the "That's it?" camp. From the outset, the G1 offered more functionality than the original iPhone and even the current iPhone 3G (before iPhone OS 3.0), including copy and paste, multimedia messaging, a better camera, and Google Street View. It also delivers good call quality and snappy performance. T-Mobile's recent roll out of the Android 1.5 Cupcake update also fixes the issue of previously missing features, including video recording, stereo Bluetooth support, and a soft keyboard. However, there are still some omissions, such native Microsoft Exchange support, and nagging design quirks that left us cold.
Despite these complaints, we did come away impressed with the Google Android operating system. There's huge potential for the G1 (and any Android devices after it) to become powerful minicomputers as developers create more applications for the open platform. Right now, there are only about 35 apps in the store, so we feel the G1 is a bit limited. Obviously, there's enough curiosity about Google Android to attract buyers; and in fact, preorders for the G1 have already sold out. However, it doesn't quite offer the mass appeal and ease of use of an iPhone, so the G1 isn't a good fit for anyone making the jump from a regular cell phone to their first smartphone. Power business users also might want to hold off until more corporate support and productivity applications are added. We'd say the T-Mobile G1 is best-suited for early adopters and gadget hounds who love tinkering around and modding their devices. We'll continue to test the G1 and applications as more are added, and though we hope for better hardware in the future, we're excited about Google Android and feel it could change the way we use smartphones. The T-Mobile G1 will be available through T-Mobile black, white, or bronze and costs $149.99 with a two-year contract.
The T-Mobile G1 is manufactured by HTC and has a similar look and feel to the company's other Pocket PC smartphones, such as the T-Mobile Wing and the Sprint Mogul. Measuring 4.6 inches tall by 2.1 inches wide by 0.6 inch deep and weighing 5.6 ounces, the G1 is definitely not the sleekest device, and we certainly wouldn't call it sexy. Instead, the words "interesting" and "weird" come to mind. This is mostly because the bottom section of the phone juts out at a slight angle. We asked HTC about this design decision but have yet to hear from them as of press time. Presumably, it's to get the phone's speaker closer to your mouth, which isn't a bad thing but consequently, it affects the ergonomics of the keyboard, which we'll touch on later. In a battle of pure looks, the iPhone would win hands down.
That said, the G1 has solid construction and features a soft-touch finish on the back that provides a nice rubberlike texture, making it easy to grip the phone and comfortable to hold. Also, there's a good reason for G1's larger size: a full QWERTY keyboard. There are a number of users who are reluctant to switch to a full touch-screen smartphone because of the lack of a tactile keyboard, so the G1 is certainly an attractive option for such customers.
To access the keyboard, just push the screen to the right. The sliding mechanism is fairly interesting in that it's not a straight up-and-down motion; the screen actually swings out slightly to the left before snapping into place. We were indifferent to this design quirk; we didn't find any particular advantage or disadvantage, just something to note. The sliding motion was smooth, but after a few days of use, we started to notice a creaking sound whenever we nudged the screen--not good.
The keyboard itself is a reminiscent of the T-Mobile Sidekick, as many observers pointed out during our review period. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since we like the Sidekick's keyboard. The buttons are a bit small, but overall the keyboard feels roomy and there's enough spacing between the keys that we think it shouldn't give too many users problems. If anything, we wish the buttons were raised a bit more, since right now, they're set flush with the phone's surface. The bigger issue is that the bottom section of the G1 makes it awkward to hold the phone when typing messages, since your right hand doesn't quite have the full range of motion. It definitely affected the speed and accuracy of typing.
With the release of the Android 1.5 update, the G1 now has an onscreen portrait and landscape keyboard, providing you with another way to enter text onto the smartphone. With a physical keyboard, some might wonder why a soft keyboard is even needed but it was annoying and inconvenient to have to slide open the phone every time you wanted to type anything, such as a simple search term or a URL address, so we're happy to see this added feature. In addition, the update supports the installation of third-party keyboards as well.
When you slide open the phone, the screen orientation automatically switches from portrait to landscape mode. With the Cupcake update, the G1's built-in accelerometer has been activated to work in a number of applications, such as e-mail, the Web browser, Google Maps, and more, so the screen orientation will automatically change when you rotate the phone.
The actual display measures 3.2 inches diagonally and has a 320x480 resolution. It's vibrant and sharp, and like the iPhone and RIM BlackBerry Storm, the touch screen is capacitive, so it will only respond to the touch of your finger and not your fingernail or other objects like a stylus. The G1 provides haptic feedback, but only for certain actions and not with every touch. First, you'll feel a slight vibration when performing a long press on an icon. Overall, we thought this was fine, but there were times when the G1 didn't register our actions, so some kind of confirmation would have been nice.
To access various functions within an application, you can perform another long press and a window will pop up with your options. It's contextual, so the menu items will always be relevant to the program you are in. You can swiftly navigate through lists with a quick flick, or you can drag your finger for a slower, more precise look. In addition, you can pan and move Web pages and other documents by holding and then moving your finger around the screen. Unlike the iPhone, however, the G1's touch screen isn't multitouch, so you can't zoom in and out of pages by pinching your fingers apart. Admittedly, we really missed this feature, since it makes viewing Web pages and pictures easy, but it's not necessary.
Overall, the T-Mobile G1's interface is clean, fun, and easy to use. You have the freedom to customize the Home screen with your favorite apps, and you can do this in a couple of ways. For example, you can do a long press on the Home page, which will bring up a menu where you can add shortcuts, widgets, or change the wallpaper. The Android 1.5 update also brings a home screen widget bundle of an analog clock, calendar, music player, picture frame, and search.
To add more shortcuts, there's a little tab along the bottom edge of the screen that you can touch and then pull up, which will reveal a full menu of applications. From there, you do a long press on an icon and then drag it to the Home screen. To remove it, perform the same touch action and then drag it to the trash can. Note that this action simply removes it from the screen and doesn't delete the application from your device. There are also sliding panels to the left and right where you can add more shortcuts, and there's a notification bar at the top, which you can pull down like a window shade and view missed calls, new messages, downloads, and more.
There's a lot to like about the G1 interface, with its glass touch-screen display, the slide-out QWERTY keyboard (although we don't like the small keys), and the Pearl-like trackball for navigation. We would even say that the responsiveness of the touch screen is on a par with that on the iPhone's. But we have to say its overall interface just isn't as intuitive. For example, as with most every other phone, the need to dip into the menu layout every time we wanted to access something can get a bit clunky. Yes, it's possible to drag out your favorite applications as shortcuts, but that means you need to spend quite a bit of time setting that up. With the iPhone, there is no home screen at all; you're brought directly to the menu. We realize that the iPhone is a very unique phone in this sense, but in a strict comparison between the G1 and the iPhone, the iPhone's interface wins out.
Also, though we like the aforementioned trackball and menu bar, it just isn't quite as smooth as the multitouch gestures on the iPhone, especially for zooming in and out of pictures. This is even more apparent in the browser application, which we'll explore later.
Below the display, you get some tactile navigation controls, including Talk and End/Power buttons, a Home shortcut, a back button, a trackball navigator, and a Menu key. Similar to the touch screen, the Menu button is contextual to what application you're in at the time. For example, if you're in the Web browser and press Menu, you will get options to open a new window, go to a URL, bookmark a page, and so on. It's a minor issue, but we're a bit annoyed that pressing the End/Power key automatically locks the handset; we're used to having the End/Power key as a shortcut to exit the application. Because of this, we ended up having to unlock the screen frequently, which got annoying.
The left spine holds a volume rocker and a microSD expansion slot. To access the latter, you have to push the screen open in order to remove the protective cover. On the right side, you will find a camera activation/capture button, though you can also press the trackball to take pictures. We actually preferred this method, since the dedicated camera key was a bit small. Plus, when holding the phone horizontally, our thumb had a tendency to keep nudging the screen upward while trying to take a picture.
On the bottom of the unit, there is a mini USB port, which is protected by an attached cover. This is where you can connect the power charger and sadly, this is also your only option for connecting a headset. There's no dedicated headphone jack, 3.5mm or otherwise, which is really disappointing. We've asked HTC about this decision, but again, have yet to hear back from them as of press time. Yes, there's a headset included in the box, but you don't get the same comfort and quality as you would with a nice pair of headphones. If you want the privilege of using your own 'phones, you'll have to spend extra money to buy an adapter.
Last but not least, the camera lens sans flash or self-portrait mirror is located on the back, and the G1 offers a user-replaceable battery.