Noah's HTC G1 review

Noah Kravitz
 from Oakland, CA
Published: October 15, 2008

What's Good: Android experience is excellent; Web browser is amongst best available on cell phones; Great touchscreen; Touchscreen plus trackball plus QWERTY board provides multiple input options; Notifications bar is handy; Great GMail & Google services implementation; 3G and WiFi for fast data speeds; Amazon provides DRM-free mp3 downloads via WiFi

What's Not Good: Big, bulky, heavy, and not particularly attractive; QWERTY thumbboard is not as good as those on other recent HTC phones; Lacks 3.5mm headphone jack; No Stereo Bluetooth or video capture/playback support out of the box

Bottom Line: Android will change the game, and while far from perfect, the G1 is more than compelling.  I have a list of complaints a mile long but they?re overshadowed by how fun the Android user experience is on the T-Mobile G1.

Specs:

  • Processor : Qualcomm® MSM7201A™, 528 MHz
  • Operating System  Android™
  • Memory  ROM:  256 MB RAM:  192 MB
  • Dimensions (LxWxT)  117.7 mm x 55.7 mm x 17.1 mm (4.60 in x 2.16 in x 0.62 in)
  • Weight  158 grams (5.60 ounces) with battery
  • Display  3.2-inch TFT-LCD flat touch-sensitive screen with 320 x 480 (HVGA) resolution
  • Network  HSPA/WCDMA: US:1700/2100 MHz
  • Up to 7.2 Mbps down-link (HSDPA) and 2 Mbps up-link (HSUPA) speeds
  • Quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
  • GPS  GPS navigation capability with Google Maps™
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth® 2.0 with Enhanced Data Rate
  • Wi-Fi®: IEEE 802.11b/g
  • HTC ExtUSB™ (11-pin mini-USB 2.0 and audio jack in one)
  • Camera  3.2 megapixel color camera with auto focus

HTC T-Mobile G1

 


Introduction

We've all been waiting, and now that it's here the T-Mobile G1 does not disappoint.  Yes, it's big and bulky and heavy and lacks a bunch of features it really should have.  But Android is good - real, real good - and the overall experience of using a G1 for just under a week has left me wanting more.

For as much as the G1 itself is the opposite of sexy, the experience of Android on the G1 is nothing but sexy.  The touchscreen is the best I've tried this side of iPhone - and it's pretty close.  The combination of touchscreen, trackball and full QWERTY thumbboard is brilliant, even if the QWERTY needs a serious overhaul; the action on other recent HTC smartphones? QWERY boards is far superior to what's found on the G1.  Android's Web browser is amongst the best in the game, and as you might expect, integration with Google products like Gmail, Calendar, and YouTube is excellent.

G1 is just the beginning, but it's a very promising beginning at that.  For all I complained about the phone's style - or lack thereof - I haven't able to put the thing down since I got it.  It's that good.

Noah Kravitz holding the HTC G1


Design & Features

G1 is big and bulky.  While the phone's footprint is just a bit smaller than iPhone's, its thickness really makes it feel like a brick in hand or pocket.  The flip-side is that the phone is quite solid.  From the touchscreen to the unique slider mechanism, I never once feared for G1's safety. 

The phone features a 3.17? touchscreen with a full QWERTY thumbboard hidden underneath, and a trackball.  While this may sound like overkill in theory, in practice it's great.  Sweeping across the touchscreen with my finger or thumb works like a charm, and the trackball lets me hone in on small Web links and buttons that have proved frustrating to click on other touchscreen phones I've tried. 

Noah Kravitz holding a T-mobile G1

G1 is available in Bronze and Black.  I got the Bronze version to review.  It's pretty geeky looking, in all honesty, particularly given its size (relative to thinner, sleeker touchphones like iPhone and LG Dare), and the Jay Leno-esque chin that protrudes out at an angle at the bottom of the device.  Honestly, though, once you flip the thing on and the screen comes to life, you?ll forget about how little or much you like the way it looks when it's off.

Android as a platform could really shake things up in the mobile world.  While G1's feature set has a few glaring omissions, like no Stereo Bluetooth or Video capture or playback out of the box, the platform is meant to be built upon by developers.  There's already a free Beta version of a video playback app in the Android Market, and I?d be shocked if Google doesn't make sure that Market fills up good and fast with all sorts of nifty apps in the coming months.

As it is, Android's excellent Web browser and Web-style Gmail integration (threaded conversations) take full advantage of the 802.11 WiFi radio and T-Mobile's newly launched 3G network.  The device also features a 3MP camera with auto focus, and photo sharing is super-easy via Gmail or MMS messaging. 

While G1 lacks a video player out of the box, it does feature both an excellent YouTube client and a full-featured music player along with an Amazon mp3 app that allows for WiFi purchase and downloads of DRM-free music from the online retailer.  I bought a track for 99 cents and downloaded it via WiFi to the G1 with no problems.  While there's no iTunes-style desktop app for syncing music, tracks are saved to a microSD card (a 1GB card is included) and can be transferred via card to your computer.

G1 also has a GPS chip that integrates very nicely with the onboard Google Maps application.  After a few false starts, GPS accuracy was quite good, and maps and directions loaded up lickety-split.  There's no spoken turn-by-turn directions here like Sprint's Instinct has, but the text/graphic directions were excellent.  G1's compass mode ties the ?Street View? of a map to the phone's accelerometer, which makes for a fun way to explore your surroundings.


Usability & Performance

I tested G1 in the San Francisco, CA Bay Area, where T-Mobile recently turned on their new 3G network.  Performance was generally quite good for both voice and data applications, even in my house where I consistently get no more than two signal bars of coverage.  The first full day I had the phone I experienced lightning fast 3G speeds while browsing the Web near Lake Merritt in Oakland; in the five days since, speeds have tapered off noticeably, though I also haven't been back to that spot.  On a 25-minute bus ride from my office to my house, I retained 3G coverage for about 80% of the ride, dropping back to EDGE in two spots along the way.

Audio quality on voice calls was good, with only one ?You there?  Can you hear me?? moment experienced at the beginning of a call.  G1's speakerphone is plenty loud, and sounded pretty good during voice and music playback.  A USB-based stereo headset is included with the device, and it works decently well, though I had some trouble with the button on the in-line mic/remote.  A USB to 2.5/3.5mm audio adapter will be available as an accessory through T-Mobile.  Mono Bluetooth audio also worked well, though Stereo Bluetooth is not yet supported (Google has indicated it will be available via software update at some point).

T-mobile G1 screenshot

G1's user interface is nothing short of excellent.  This was my first experience with Android and I've come away very impressed.  Notifications, dialogue boxes, fonts, screen transitions - everything was smooth and pleasant to look at, and wait times while launching or switching apps was acceptable even at its worst.  There's a consistency across the UI, from settings menus to the look of Gmail's threaded conversations, that breeds familiarity and ease of use.  I don't much care for the GMail way of reading messages, but it worked quite well on the G1. 

The touchscreen was ultra-responsive, and the widescreen rotated from landscape to portrait and back almost instantly when I slid the display open and shut. I really liked the notification bar at the top of the display that alerts me to new events - Email/SMS/IM messages, Calendar alarms, downloads, and the like.  The bar can be pulled down with a thumb swipe to view details of and/or clear notifications, and provide one-click access to relevant apps (clicking on ?9000 new Emails? takes me to the GMail app, and so on).

The built-in YouTube client is excellent and the music player is more than passable, and while there's no desktop sync software like Apple's iTunes, it's easy enough to drag and drop music files to the included 1GB microSD card and pop the card into G1.  Speaking of which, I tried out the Amazon mp3 app and purchased and downloaded a few DRM-free mp3 tracks via WiFi.  Downloading via 3G is not supported, but the WiFI purchase/download worked very well with my pre-existing Amazon account.  I was able to pop the microSD card out of the G1 after and copy my new music to my computer, where I could listen to it, copy it to my iPod (and iPhone), burn it to CD, and so on without any copy protection restrictions (DRM).

Strangely, the G1 ships without a native application for watching videos.  I downloaded the Beta version of Video Player for free from the Android Market (Google's ?App Store?) and had mixed results with it.  The player offers only limited file format support at this point, and playback itself was fairly choppy when I tried with an MPEG-4 video I created on my Mac.  Similarly, the 3.2 MP camera on the G1 does not support video capture - only still photos.  The camera offers auto focus, but no flash, and image quality was excellent in strong natural light, and so-so in less than optimal conditions.  Photo sharing via GMail and MMS messaging was a snap using Android's software.

There's also a full HTML Web browser on the G1, and it's probably one of the three best mobile Web browsers I've tested to date (along with iPhone's Safari and Opera Mobile, which ships on the HTC Touch Diamond).  The browser dealt very, very well with complex HTML pages and Javascripts, did a decent job with Web 2.0 functionality (mixed results but not bad), and offers very smooth panning and zooming.  I really appreciated the G1's trackball when clicking on tiny little Web links that I couldn't quite grab with a finger on the touchscreen - the trackball offers a level of precision that my fingers can't quite attain on their own on any touchscreen, be it the G1, iPhone, Touch Diamond, or any other recent device.

A knock on the G1 that I?d be remiss not to emphasize, however, is that its QWERTY keyboard left me disappointed.  I've traditionally liked the thumbboards on HTC devices, including the new Touch Diamond and Touch Pro models, but G1's QWERTY left me cold.  Actually, it left me a little fatigued and sore in the thumbs.  The keyboard is well spaced, but the buttons are mounted very close to the surface of the keyboard, which means the action on the keys is very shallow.  I was able to use the phone, but the keys are short and don't travel very far, which added up to noticeable fatigue after a lengthy session of Web browsing and messaging using the phone's multi-protocol IM app.  The backlighting on G1's keyboard is kind of odd, too; it performed well in dark conditions, but I had trouble reading the ?Alt? key labels in bright lighting.


Conclusion

I personally am very happy to be playing with the G1, but more excited for whatever comes next.  The G1's size, weight, lack of 3.5mm headphone jack, and disappointing keyboard make me a little hesitant to jump immediately onto the bandwagon and buy a G1 of my own.  That said, I still might do it.  Android on the G1 is a very satisfying experience that will only get better as more apps are developed and released to the Android Market.

Apple did the cell phone market a huge favor in placing a newfound emphasis on fun and ease-of-use with iPhone's user interface.  T-Mobile, Google, and HTC have carried on Apple's work in the G1 by unleashing a UI that's arguably just as fun and easy to use, but is also built on an open platform.  If you've got a G1, download the free Ringdroid app from the Market and tell me you don't feel like you?re using a full-on computer as you?re using a waveform and sliders to edit your own custom ringtones.  Ringtones made, I might add, from DRM-free mp3 tracks that you can listen to on your phone, move to your PC, burn to disc ... etc, etc. 

Sorry for repeating myself there, but the distinction is worth repeating:  Apple offers a wonderful, locked-down consumer experience in iPhone and the iTunes ecosystem.  Google is aiming to provide an equally wonderful, but entirely not locked down experience with the open platform that is Android.  So far it's a success, even if the first Android phone has some definite flaws to it.

T-Mobile customers should rejoice that they finally have a drool worthy phone of their own, and one that runs on a 3G network at that.  The rest of us should rejoice because Android looks good.  Very good.  More Android devices are coming, on T-Mobile and other carriers, and from HTC and other manufacturers.  That's a good thing if you?re interested in a healthy, competitive cell phone marketplace for consumers.  Whether or not you want your phone ?calling home? to Google all of the time is a question to consider, but there's no question about my first experience with an Android phone:  It's (arguable) kinda ugly but it's still a winner, hands-down.

Products mentioned