On Call: iPhone or T-Mobile G1?

CNET's cell phone editor helps a reader choose between an iPhone and a T-Mobile G1. He also answers questions on unlocked iPhones and buying phones from abroad.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read
T-Mobile G1 Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

I'm a month-to-month T-Mobile customer with a Nokia 6133 that is on its lest leg. I want to get a phone with a full Internet browser and I'm deciding between the iPhone and the T-Mobile G1. I'd also like access for my Yahoo mail, but I don't need my work e-mail. Which do you recommend? Also, I don't own an iPod or use iTunes (I usually use Amazon to purchase music), so I'm concerned about moving to an all-iTunes environment.
- EJ

That's a a very good question, EJ, and the answer depends on your individual needs and desires. Though the iPhone is the better overall device (at least right now) a person in your situation should seriously consider the G1. Here is why.

I always tell people who are considering purchasing an iPhone 3G that there are three reasons to buy one. Forget the slick design and the flashy and user-friendly interface; I recommend buying the iPhone for its Web browser, its media player, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) its support for third-party applications. These three areas are where the iPhone performs very well, so I advise basing your decision on a comparison of those points. Sure, the design and interface are important, but I'd treat them and the e-mail integration as secondary motivators. And of course, I wouldn't base my decision on call quality alone, as the iPhone 3G still suffers in that area.

When boiled down to those three points, the G1 offers a compelling alternative to the iPhone. It also has a Web browser and media player and it supports third-party apps. While those apps are limited for now, more will come in the future. And as Bonnie Cha and Nicole Lee reported in their G1 review, the media player and browser offered satisfying performance. Sure, they may not be as good as on the iPhone, but they may be good enough for you. And here's another advantage for you: the G1's integration with the Amazon MP3 store means you wouldn't have to switch over to iTunes. And on a similar note, the G1 would enable you to stay with T-Mobile if you're happy with its service.

As for those secondary motivators, the G1 also does a good job. It offers good call quality with a lightning-fast 3G network. Of course, that depends on if T-Mobile has adequate coverage in your area, but our reception in San Francisco was excellent and an improvement over AT&T. With other features, the G1 matches the iPhone, for instance Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (both lack a stereo profile), and GPS, and it beats the iPhone by offering multimedia messaging, voice dialing, a physical keyboard, and a higher resolution camera (also without video recording). For e-mail, the G1 offers good support for POP3 e-mail, but full Outlook exchange support outside of Outlook Web Access isn't an option yet. But as you mentioned, that's not a concern for you.

But on the downside, the G1's hardware pales in comparison to the iPhone. While its interface is attractive, it isn't quite as slick. And more importantly, its physical design is pretty drab. As Bonnie and Nicole said in their review, the G1's hardware is its biggest drawback, but design is largely subjective. Also, you may not have a problem with some of the ergonomic issues that they found and you may not care about the proprietary headphones jack. In other words, it's all up to you.

Finally, I think the G1 deserves a good look simply because of its potential. The Google Android OS marks a new way to think about the cell experience. As I said in my last On Call column, the G1 changes the "walled garden" concept that even the iPhone represents. It deserves notice for that alone. While Android's first incarnation (the G1) may not be perfect, it's a good start.

Apple iPhone 3G Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

How can I get an iPhone with T-Mobile service?
- Lorrie

Unfortunately, your prospects are pretty slim. You either would have to buy an unlocked iPhone 3G, which are pretty difficult to find in this country, or unlock a handset obtained from AT&T. For the first option, I have seen new unlocked handsets sold by at least by one third-party retailer, but that was the exception to the rule. I have also seen fleeting offers from online retailers and on eBay, but either way you will likely pay far more than the existing AT&T price of $199 to $299 with a contract. Across the Pacific, a carrier in Hong Kong sells unlocked iPhones, but you have to sign a contract to get one.

Alternatively, it is possible to unlock an iPhone bought with AT&T, but that would require a significant investment and a lot of hassle on your part, so I would recommend against it. First off, you'd have to buy the phone (again, $199 to $299) and then end your contract by paying an early termination fee ($175). That is at least $374 right there, and that doesn't include either the first month of service or the activation fee. If you went this route, there are ways to unlock the phone and take it over to T-Mobile. I can't recommend any kind of unlocking service (try an online search for examples), but I can almost guarantee you'll have to pay for the privilege. And don't think that the inconveniences stop there. Apple has been very successful at clamping down on unlocked phones. Each time you download an iPhone software update to an an unlocked model it will "lock" the phone again. And while someone typically finds a way to "jailbreak" the iPhone soon after, it just adds up to a lot of time, money, and effort.

Much of the above is also true with the iPhone Classic. Apple and AT&T no longer sell them, but you can buy them online or take a hand-me-down from a family member or friend. But here again, even if you are successful in unlocking it, you will be subject to the same restrictions described above.

Finally, there are a couple of functionality points to consider. Only AT&T supports the iPhone's visual voicemail service. If that's important to you, you'll want to stick with AT&T. Also, the 3G bands that the iPhone uses are not compatible with T-Mobile's 3G service. You'll be able to make calls, but when you're not using Wi-Fi you'll be stuck with using the molasses-like EDGE network.

I'm looking to purchase an unlocked LG KU990. Is it better to purchase the phone from a dealer in the United States or from a dealer in another country, say Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia?
- Wesley

When purchasing an unlocked phone, you'll want to consider a few things before deciding on a retailer. First, you need to make sure the phone supports the GSM bands used in the United States (850 and 1900). It will work here if it supports only one of those bands, but support for both is best. Secondly, you'll want to make sure the phone supports English-language menus, and to a lesser extent, comes with English user manuals in the box. And finally, make sure you get a proper U.S. electrical outlet adapter, if one isn't included. For those reasons, I would buy the phone from a U.S.-based retailer. But if you can get everything you need from a foreign retailer, then you should be OK.