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.
Each contact in the Ion's phone book holds eight phone numbers, four e-mail addresses, an IM handle, a postal address, a company/organization name, and notes. You can save callers to groups and assign one of 52 polyphonic ringtones (including one called "Romancing the Tone"--ack). You'll be able to store an additional 250 names on the SIM card.
The Ion offers many of the same features as the G1. We won't go into details here, but we'll list them for review purposes. For a more in-depth look, see our G1 review. Essentials include a calculator, an alarm clock, a calendar, text and multimedia messaging, and speaker-independent voice dialing. A few more organizer apps like a world clock and a to-do list would be nice, but they should be available as apps. And, of course, you can sync Google calendar and contacts.
More demanding users will like the presence of a YouTube app, Wi-Fi, USB mass storage and syncing, GPS with Google Maps integration, and Google Talk. The Ion's music player isn't terribly fancy; it offers album art, but features are limited to playlists, shuffle, repeat and an airplane mode. You can load your own music on the Ion or you can buy music from the Amazon MP3 store.
The Android Marketplace, which lets you download free and paid apps, is unchanged. We browsed through it a bit and again found it to be quick and easy to use. One quirk of the Android OS is that you can store applications on the internal memory only. On the Ion, that's limited to 288MG RAM and 512MB ROM, so it's important that you track your available storage carefully. The handset offers a memory card slot--a 2GB MicroSD card came with our review model--but you'll have to save it for photos, music and other files.
Thanks to the Cupcake 1.5 update, the Ion offers stereo Bluetooth and autopairing, video recording and video playback. We knocked the G1 for lacking those options, so we're glad to see them here. The stereo Bluetooth pairing worked without a hitch and the video recorder, while devoid of editing options, is intuitive (see Performance). You can choose from two quality formats.
Other Cupcake additions include bundled widgets on the home screen, video uploads to YouTube, photo upload to Picassa, one-touch access to a contact card from call log event, copy and paste in the Web browser, the capability to use pictures in your favorite contacts menu, search within a Web page, a tabbed Bookmarks interface, a user dictionary for custom words, and a few user interface tweaks. We'll delve more into the 1.5 update as it rolls out to the G1.
The 3.2-megapixel camera is a mixed bag. Though we were glad to see the video recording and playback, camera-editing feature were nonexistent. Also, while you have an autofocus, we found it as difficult to stabilize the Ion as it was with the G1. It's too bad, really, as we think that HTC had enough of an opportunity to refine the shooter from the G1.
To view your shots, the Ion has an easily accessible Gallery app. As we mentioned, we had to be careful to avoid blurry shots, but photo quality was decent on the whole. Colors could be brighter, but there was little image noise.
The full HTML browser is also quite similar. As we said earlier, scrolling around Web pages was a painless experience and the accelerometer makes for seamless switching between portrait and landscape modes. Also, we like that onscreen icons allow you to zoom in and out without digging through too many menus. Yet, at the end of the day, we still think that the iPhone has the best Web browser. Not only does its multitouch interface make for easier zooming, but also you only have to tap the top portion of the open Web page to enter a new URL. The Ion, on the other hand, requires a multistop process (press the menu button, select "go," type in the URL and press "go" again).
Sadly, messaging options aren't improved from the G1. Though you get a native Gmail app, Google Talk, and access to most POP3 accounts, full Microsoft Exchange Server support is still lacking. Though some versions of the Magic promise such capability, we couldn't find such support on the Ion. We could use the browser and Outlook Web Access (OWA) to check e-mail, but it's a rather clunky experience. Also, since the Ion doesn't appear to offer Outlook syncing for notes, contacts, or calendar, hard-core business users will be shut out from using it as a portable office. To date, the lack of full IMAP4 support remains one of Android's biggest flaws and we implore Google to correct it soon.
We tested the Google Ion in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. The Ion is a quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) world phone device that also supports T-Mobile's 3G network. Call quality was just short of amazing. We enjoyed crystal clear conversations and a strong signal. Voices sounded natural and we encountered no static or interference from other electronic devices. The volume level could be louder--we had trouble hearing in noisy places unless the sound was turned all the way up--but it was fine for most situations. All in all, we were quite pleased.
On their end, callers were also very pleased. In fact, some couldn't even tell we were using a cell phone. A couple people complained that they had trouble hearing us when we were in noisy environments, which makes sense considering we had a similar problem on our end, but the gripes ended there. Automated calling systems could understand us easily the majority of the time.
Speakerphone calls were decent. Like with the G1, audio was a bit garbled and fuzzy. It wasn't worse than with many other cell phones on the market, but it was a change from regular voice calls. The volume level remained a tad low, but we could hear callers without too much effort. We had to speak close to the phone if we wanted to be heard on the other end, though it wasn't a big deal. We tested the Ion with the Samsung SBH-600 stereo Bluetooth headset and had good call quality.
On the upside, the T-Mobile 3G connection was lightning fast under most circumstances. Particularly when using the browser, we noticed a positive change from the iPhone. T-Mobile 3G connection doesn't seem to penetrate as far into buildings as AT&T's does, but once you have it, you should be quite satisfied. Google Maps and YouTube videos took a bit longer to load, but we were pleased all around.
Like with the G1, the Ion's processor performed beautifully. The phone responded quickly to our commands when opening and closing applications and there was no lag time when navigating the menus. More importantly, we didn't experience any system freezes or crashes.
Multimedia quality was variable. Music quality was fine, as long as you used a Bluetooth or wired headset. Tunes over the single external speaker were tinny, but that's to be expected on almost any cell phone. Video quality was just OK. Clips that we recorded with the camcorder looked pretty washed out. Also, fast movements looked blurry. YouTube videos were pixelated almost to the point of being bothersome.
The Ion should have a rated talk time of 7.5 hours for GSM and 6.6 hours for 3G. The promised standby battery life is 17.5 days. According to FCC radiation tests, the Ion has a digital SAR of 1.22 watts per kilogram.