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Most people must have heard by now that about a week ago, T-mobile
released the first Android based phone, with software by Google. I’ve been using an Android as a tester for about 6 weeks, and I’m now allowed to talk about it, so I thought I’d post a review from the viewpoint of an extreme geek. Please excuse the low quality of the images; I took the pictures using my iPhone.
Obviously, there’s a bit of a conflict of interest here. Google is very proud of the Android software, and I’m very happy and proud to be a software engineer at Google. I think that my review of the phone is fair
and unbiased, but take that with a grain of salt, given my connections.
So, as I said, I’ve had the phone for about six weeks now. For a little over a year before I got my Android, I was using one of the original iPhones (not the 3g). So in a lot of things, I’m
going to compare my experiences with the Android to my experiences with the iPhone.
Overall, I love the Android. It’s not without its flaws, and some of them are fairly significant. I’ll go into details below, but the short summary of my opinion is that the software is excellent, the hardware less so.
To be honest, I think the software is really late-beta quality. It’s lacking polish, and there are a few awkward points. But overall, it’s
extremely well done. Details below the fold.
I’ll start with the browser, because that’s one of the things that I
think really defines phones like the Android and the iPhone. The Android
browser is outstanding. On my iPhone, I rarely actually read
full articles on the phone. I frequently used it to look things up, but
the way that in rendered pages almost always resulted in my needing to
use horizontal scrolling to be able to read a full article, and I found
that unusable. Even the double-tap gesture that was supposed to scale a
frame to the screen didn’t work correctly for me. The Android does a
much better job of managing scaling and frames, and as a
result, I end up using my Android much more for web-browsing,
or even as a secondary reference for manuals when I’m programming. Aside
from the scaling issue, the browser is lightning fast, and does an
excellent job rendering pages. The whole browser UI is fantastic. In
this, I think the Android is a clear winner over the iPhone.
With the browser out of the way, I’ll move on to general UI issues.
In general, the UI is very nice, but it’s significantly lacking in polish compared to the iPhone. When you turn on an Android, you get
a main screen with a tab on the bottom, and a collection of icons and
gadgets (lightweight applications) on the screen. Tapping the tab opens a drawer containing all of the applications installed on the phone. I really like the drawer; the effect of it is to make the home screen into
a set of shortcuts to the stuff you use most frequently, but with convenient access to anything you want one tap away. That much is definitely nicer than the way the iPhone handles it, where every application is on the screen, and you slide horizontally through multiple pages to find what you want. But it’s not as slick as the iPhone’s home screen, and it’s got a lot less of the eye-candy which the iPhone uses. I’m not a huge eye-candy fan, but in this case, the way the iPhone uses zooms and slides helps you to follow transitions between and within applications. The Android doesn’t do that nearly as well.
It’s got an accelerometer, but it doesn’t use it for screen orientation. I don’t know why. You can change the screen orientation by flipping open the keyboard, but holding the phone horizontally doesn’t switch it to horizontal orientation, even though it knows that it’s horizontal. It’s very frustrating, and very unfortunate; it really
leaves an unpleasant impression compared to the iPhone.
There are three sets of inputs on the phone: the touch screen, a set of buttons + trackball underneath the screen, and a flip-out keyboard.
So first, there’s the touch screen Unfortunately, it’s a single-touch, so you don’t get to use any multi-finger gestures. (I still sometimes try to do a pinch on my Android!) That’s a really sad omission. But the touch-screen works well, and they’ve managed to make the single-touch work really nicely, but it’s still not nearly as nice
as multi-touch. For example, to zoom in, you tap the screen and move your finger slightly, and a zoom control slides up on the bottom of the screen. Once you get used to it, zooming is almost like a two-tap gesture. It’s fast, easy, and convenient. But it’s not as good as
a pinch gesture.
The front-panel buttons are great. There are five buttons, plus a
clickable trackball. The main buttons are “phone”, “home”, “back”,
“hangup/off”, and “menu”. The menu and back buttons are a wonderful
addition to the UI. In any application, you tap “menu” to bring up a
menu of the available commands on the bottom of the screen. So instead
of the iPhone, where you constantly need to figure out where the
developers hid the main command menu, it’s always easy to find on the
Android. (I think that the menu situation is by far the biggest flaw with the iPhone, and I’m delighted that they got it right on the android.) The back button is also very nice: Android applications (like iPhone applications) are usually made up of a collection of panels, where various operations move you forward through a panel series. For example, to call one of your contacts, you go to the contacts app. Then you scroll down to the person you want to call, and tap them. That slides to a panel which presents information about that contact. Then you can tap “edit” to edit the contact, which slides to a contact editor panel. On the iPhone, there’s almost always a button on the screen at the top-left that goes back one level in the panel series. On the Android, you use the back button. It feels like the back button on the browser. And it doesn’t waste any screen real-estate.
And then there’s the keyboard. The display snaps up, and you’ve got a full thumb-keyboard for typing. This is wonderful. The iPhone on-screen keyboard is great for small quick text entry, but it’s painful for writing a full email (or a blog post!). The Android keyboard is
terrific. On the other hand, it’s frustrating to need to open the keyboard all the time; I’d like to have an on-screen keyboard for quick entries, instead of always needing to snap out the keyboard. But overall, I prefer having the physical keyboard to having an on-screen
The software that comes with the Android is very good, provided
you’re a Google user. It’s got a native GMail app, which is fantastic.
It automatically syncs with your gmail contact list, your Google
calendar, and so on. So if you’re a Google user, it’s really fantastic.
People who want to sync with Microsoft or Yahoo will be less pleased.
There is an POP/IMAP based mail app as well, but it’s not nearly as nice
as the GMail application, and you need to rely on third-party
applications to sync with things other than Google. Not a problem for me
(obviously), but your mileage may vary.
The phone supports an MP3 player. Sound-quality wise, it’s a wash compared to the iPhone. There are nuances of sound that I can hear on the Android that I can’t hear with the same headphones on my iPhone. (For example, when I listen to a recording of the Corigliano clarinet concerto on the Android, I can hear the clarinet keys, which I can also hear on my home stereo, but not on my iPhone.) On the other hand, there’s a bit of background hum on the Android which isn’t there on the iPhone.
Third party apps on the Android are wonderful. It’s amazing to see how quickly they’re appearing. The programming API is, frankly, amazingly good. They did a really fantastic job with that. And you’re not forced to get things through a centrally administered store. The apps are stored in bundles called “apk” files; you can download an APK from anywhere, and install it. There is an Android software market, very much like the iPhone’s app store, but you don’t have to use it.
So, enough about the software. What about the phone itself?
The phone I’m using is the T-Mobile G1 Dream from HTC. This is the
first Android phone to come to market. There are, I hope, a lot more on
the way. (I saw on Slashdot that Motorola has hired 300 engineers to
work on Android phones!) It’s not bad, but it’s far from
Cosmetically, it’s OK. It’s a bit blocky looking. That’s partly because it needs to be thick for the flip-out keyboard. But it’s definitely a bit lacking in the style department. It’s actually a hair smaller than my iPhone in its surface dimensions, but thicker. It’s got a nice clean, functional look, but it definitely doesn’t have the sexy “I must have it” appeal of the iPhone.
It’s pretty durable. It’s survived some hard drops as I’ve used it. It’s taken on a lot less scratches than my iPhone in the same period of time.
The battery life sucks. There’s no way to be nice about this. (I’ve heard that it’s comparable to the iPhone 3G, but I don’t know for sure.) On average, I get about 24 hours out of a charge; less if I use the network a lot. I’ve heard that many 3G phones suffer from battery problems, but not having used any except my Android, I don’t know. What I do know is that it burns through it’s battery very quickly.
One thing that bugs me about it is related to the manufacturer. HTC likes to use their own proprietary connector. It’s a funny connector where you can plug a USB-mini connector into it, and it’ll work fine. But there are also a couple of extra pins for headphone, microphone, and phone controls. There’s no headphone jack – just the HTC universal jack. So to use your own headphones, you need to buy a special adapter. That’s really annoying. How much would it cost HTC to just add a 3mm headphone jack to the phone?
Finally, there’s T-Mobile, which is the cell provider that’s currently selling the G1. I’ve been quite pleased with them. I’ve only used my phone in the NYC area, but around here, the coverage is excellent. I’ve got 3G service almost everywhere, and a good strong cell signal everwhere I’ve tried. That’s much better that I got from AT&T with my iPhone; AT&T has a lot of spots where there’s absolutely no cell coverage, and in a lot of places where there is a basic cell service, EDGE networking doesn’t work. I’m much happier with TMobile than I was with AT&T; once my AT&T contract expires for my personal phone, I’ll probably switch to TMobile.
Overall, I love my Android. I can’t imagine going back to my iPhone. While the Android lacks some of the polish of the iPhone, I find its browser to be far better that the iPhone; I prefer the Android applications to the corresponding iPhone Apps; and I love having a real keyboard. It’s a wonderful little phone, and I expect that it will get even better with time. I definitely recommend it, even given
the problems I described above.