Operating System 1, Hardware 0
Review Apart those with either a technical or professional interest, it's open to question how many mobile phone purchasers weigh up the matter of a device's operating system before handing over their cash.
Looks, camera resolution, cost, yes. OS? Probably not. Notwithstanding the fact that you'd need to have spent the last year either under a rock or on another planet not to know that the big thing about the new HTC-made T-Mobile G1 is the new open source Android operating system from Google. But before we get too wrapped up in matters Android, let's take a look at the host handset.
T-Mobile's G1: HTC's handset is wholly unremarkable
The G1 looked distinctly underwhelming when the first shots of the white version appeared. Thankfully, our review handset turned up in matte black and looks a whole lot better for it, though it still won't win any beauty contests.
The basic specification is solid enough. You get 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS, quad-band GSM/GPRS/Edge, 7.2Mb/s HSDPA 3G, a 3.2-megapixel camera, Bluetooth and a 3.2in, 320 x 480 screen.
Internal memory is a paltry 192MB, but the G1 comes with a Micro SDHC slot – and a 1GB card in our case – so storage and future expansion isn't an issue. It's one of HTC's better habits that memory cards can usually be swapped without removing batteries and back cases, and this is true of the G1, though you do have to slide the keyboard up to open the slot cover.
The size and weight of the G1 are nothing remarkable: 117 x 55.7 x 17.1mm and 158g. The controls on the slightly angled lower part of the device consist of a menu key below which sits a very Blackberry Pearl-esque trackball which, in turn, is flanked to the left by call answer and Home keys and to the right by Back and call end keys. The volume control is on the left side of the device; the camera key is on the right. At the bottom, you'll find a reset hole – which we never had to resort to – and a covered mini USB port.
Turn the G1 on its side and push the display upwards, and the screen performs a curious out-and-back arc slide to reveal a five-line Qwerty keyboard. The keyboard feels solid and secure – for some reason after seeing the early pictures of the G1, we expected it to feel loose and wobbly – and the sliding action is both well weighted and well damped.
The keyboard itself is rather fine - the separate, slightly raised rubber buttons being just about the right size and having just about the right amount of resistance. It's also very subtly backlit.
The Qwerty keyboard feels solid and secure
With the screen raised, the G1 looks a little odd, but truth be told it sits in the hands very nicely, allowing your right thumb to access the main controls while still being able to reach over and assist the left thumb with typing duties when required.
The G1's screen may be a little smaller than the iPhone's but it benefits from having the same resolution stretched over a smaller area and is every bit as clear, bright and crisp.
Phone cameras have never been an HTC strength, and the 3.2-megapixel job in the G1 won't change that. There's no flash and no video recording capability. It's still better than the camera in the iPhone, but that's not saying much. The screen mount has a habit of moving when you take pictures making it a hard to get a solid grip on the device unless held exactly right.
Signal reception with the Wi-Fi radio proved to be very good indeed as did the speed of the GPS receiver - all the more surprising as the system doesn't appear to be assisted, if the spec sheet is anything to go by. GSM reception was also well up to par, the G1 usually showing the same strength of signal as the HTC Touch Dual we held alongside it. Call volume and clarity were also fine, while the phone proved comfortable to hold against the head and in the hand. The little kink at the bottom of the handset doesn't actually makes any difference.
The most eagerly anticipated feature of the G1 is the Android OS and touchscreen UI. As Apple is really the only mobile phone maker to have truly cracked the touchscreen nut to date, a lot of folk are looking to Android to provide a real alternative.
The basic UI is blindingly simple. The Android “desktop” is actually three times the width of the screen – just swipe your finger left or right to access the two areas not in view – so from the off you have a lot of space to play with. In any area, you can tap the little grey tab at the bottom and a 4 x 4 scrollable menu springs up with all the application icons in it.
The UI is quick and responsive, but missing a few tricks
To open an application, either tap it in the menu or hold it down to move it to the desktop then tap it there. Shortcuts for individual contacts and web pages can be similarly placed on the desktop, as can widget applets.
Within five minutes of switching on our G1, we had the central panel of the desktop populated with the applications we wanted to use regularly along with the big clock. We then pinned the Google search bar, a few web links and some less oft-used apps on the right-hand panel, and our 12 most-contacted contacts on the left. Wholly simple, wholly customisable, wholly brilliant.
The fact the supplied wallpapers extend across all three panels makes it look nice too. Alerts and system messages show up in the top status bar – simply drag them down for a detailed look at what's afoot.
If the touchscreen UI was slow and unresponsive this would all count for nothing, but it's far from it. It is every bit as slick, quick and fluid as the iPhone's UI and puts the likes of HTC's Windows Mobile-based TouchFlo 3D right in the shade.
That said, Android is still missing a few tricks, most obviously the lack of a virtual keyboard or keypad. Entering text means tipping the G1 over and opening up the keyboard. Not a big issue for long emails, but a pain if you just want to reply to an SMS with a simple 'OK'. For some reason, the inevitable accelerometer refused to automatically swap JPEG images from portrait to landscape, forcing us to open a menu and flip them manually.
The G1 supports MP3, AAC, WMA and Ogg audio files. Playing video will depend on some bright spark writing a video player – two have already appeared in the Android Market Place, but neither is really up to much. But there's nothing pre-installed.
The slightly raised buttons are the right size for fast text entry
The Market Place is the beauty of Android. At some point, a bright spark will write the Android equivalent of VLC, at which point the G1 will instantly become a truly excellent media player. After all, the key part of the equation - a nice hi-res screen – is already in place. Loading content onto the G1 is straightforward using USB mass storage or MTP, though you have to live without any sort of DRM support.
The G1's ability to display Google hosted information and applications – calenders, documents, contacts, spreadsheets, maps and so on – is unsurprisingly good. If you run your life off the Google Cloud then the G1 is a self-recommending purchase. As soon as we typed in our gmail account, all our stuff was just there: documents, contacts... the whole enchilada.
And the ability to show Google content is really just an aspect of the G1's excellent web browsing capabilities. Page scaling is fast and faultless, while the zoom in/out feature – accomplished using a transparent touchpad at the bottom of the screen – may be different from the iPhone's pinch-and-pull, but it's no less effective. If we had to find fault, it would be that to go back a page you have to tap the menu button, then tap More... in the contextual menu to see the Back command. It should really be one of the commands in the contextual menu.
Navigating pages with lots of small links is where the trackball comes into its own. Its not quite as satisfying to use as the finger mouse on the Samsung Omnia but you can roll around pages quickly and accurately to activate links without having to zoom in to make them large enough for finger-taps.
The browser opens up new pages and places them in a four-per-screen grid behind the page you are viewing. To change page simply click the relevant menu icon and tap the quarter-page image to bring it to the fore. Numerous quarter-scale pages can be accessed by simply scrolling up or down. It's not a feature we have come across before, and it's simple and highly effective.
There's no 3.5mm headphone jack
Though the web browser doesn't have native Flash support, the built-in YouTube player is one of the the best we've come across on a mobile phone as testified to by the planned five-minute test that turned into a 45-minute The Thick of It marathon.
The G1's touchscreen operation may not be as pure an example of the breed as the iPhone's, requiring as it does use of the menu button to access the main and contextual menus, but there's nothing inherently wrong with such a hybrid system and, ideology aside, it works very well.
The want of a 3.5mm headphones jack, the rather low-rent one-piece bundled hands-free rig and the lack of any kind of EQ modification in the music app limits the G1 as a music player, though it does support album art, ID3 tags and shuffling.
But if the G1 doesn't do what you want today, there's a fair bet that it will tomorrow, or next week, or next month, thanks to the Market Place.
That's not to say that a bog-standard G1 is lacking in the software department. The email application is very easy to set up and use. Ditto the IM client, which supports AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live and Yahoo!. The SMS client displays text conversations as IM-style threads.
If the G1 has a major failing it's battery life. It is abysmal. On average, we got between ten and 12 hours from a full charge of the 1150mAh battery, and that didn't include much in the way of Wi-Fi or GPS usage. Fire up either, or both, for any length of time and that 12 hours will start to shrink - and shrink fast.
The 3.2-megapixel snapper is nothing spectacular
Even the HTC Diamond wasn't this bad, and that makes do with a piddly 900mAh battery to power the same Qualcomm 7201A 528MHz processor that's found in the G1. Android phones of the future are going to either need much bigger batteries, the OS needs to be refined to reduce the power draw, or both. As it stands, time between charges is unacceptably short.
Another issue the G1 shares with the Diamond is that it gets warm when charging. It's not such as issue if it's on standby or switched off while charging, but if charged while in use – listening to music or watching video – the bottom part of the device gets very, very hot. Worryingly hot, in fact.
For the time being, the G1 is only available from T-Mobile, free with the carrier's £40-a-month Flext 40 and Combi 35 Web'n'Walk Plus tariffs, both of which come with more free texts and talk minutes than any rational human being is likely to use in a month. More importantly, they include unlimited internet access, which is vital if you're to get the best from the G1 and its Google features.
From a hardware standpoint, the G1 is an also-ran. The dismal battery life and dodgy styling combine to make the G1 a far less appealing handset than the Android OS deserved on its first outing.
But if HTC's hardware disappoints, Google's software really grabbed us. Give it a virtual keypad, a video player and install it in the Samsung Omnia or the upcoming HTC HD and you have a phone we'd crawl naked over broken glass to own.