Good Math, Bad Math

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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.

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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
touch keyboard.

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
outstanding.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 greg laden
    October 29, 2008

    thanks for that excellent review.

    The link between a certain service (t-mob, att, etc.) is a real flaw with all these systems. Here in Minnesota, many people carry out part of their lives in each of two vastly different areas (home/lake, work/reservation, school/home, etc) where one of those areas is ‘remote’ and is only served by one service. It is not just a matter of hot spots and cold spots, but rather, of county-size regions that do not have any sprint, or any ATT, or whatever . For me, this means I’m stuck with Verizon (even though Verizon uses cell towers up north that are owned by Sprint …. the Sprint network does not exist there…)

    It is good to hear that the android is a nice piece of work.

  2. #2 fserb
    October 29, 2008

    The software that comes with the iPhone is very good, provided you’re a Google user.

    s/iPhone/Android;

  3. #3 PalMD
    October 29, 2008

    Please excuse the low quality of the images; I took the pictures using my iPhone.

    ROFLMAO!!

  4. #4 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    October 29, 2008

    Re #3:

    I couldn’t exactly take photos of my Android with my Android! :-)

  5. #5 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    October 29, 2008

    Re #2:

    Thanks for catching that!

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    October 29, 2008

    fserb: Unexpected end of statement …. symbol “;”

    Mark: You could use a mirror!

  7. #7 Daithi
    October 29, 2008

    The lack of switching to horizonal view when tilted and no support of multi-touch screens is a big negative in my opinion. Those are two really cool and intuitive features – I’m guessing there is a patent issue.

    As for myself, I don’t have a desire to use my phone for email and web browsing. Maybe I’d change my mind if I had a phone that was really good at performing these tasks. I don’t know.

    I have a Nokia 5310. I like it because it is really thin and small, so it is perfect for throwing into your pocket. It is also made for playing music with regular head phones, so for the moment it meets my needs just fine.

  8. #8 Sili
    October 29, 2008

    Does it run Opera?

    (Not that I have any plans of getting a phone that can do anything more than make calls and texts any time soon.

  9. #9 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    October 29, 2008

    Re#8:

    No, it doesn’t run opera. It’s using a custom webkit-based browser – same core as Safari and Chrome.

    Personally, I think the browser is the best part of the phone; I absolutely wouldn’t change it. It’s a fantastic browser, very well suited to the size/shape/capabilities of the phone. I like Opera on the desktop, but I wouldn’t trade for it on my Android.

  10. #10 Patrick
    October 29, 2008

    Thanks for the review. I want to get this phone, and my girlfriend probably will. Unfortunately, I use a blackberry for work so I’ll have to wait until they get enterprise support to switch.

  11. #11 Dominic
    October 29, 2008

    I just got a new phone with t-mobile. I went from an MDA Vario to a MDA Touch (Still an old phone I know). But I have to agree, a part from texting the touch keyboard is a real pain.

    Great review though, it’s great to see competition, will ultimately make the future phones so much better. I have to say I’m very happy even with my MDA Touch, even if it is an older model. I may have to get one of these Android phones next year, I miss my keyboard already!

  12. #12 Bluefer
    October 29, 2008

    There are only two phones I was looking at to replace my old Razr: iPhone and the Android. Unfortunately for the Android I have had a decidedly not pleasant experience with T-Mobile in the Seattle area. Frankly, while passable, it’s irritating and inconsistent too much of the time in comparison to what I get with AT&T, much to my surprise. Were it otherwise I’d probably have stayed with T-Mobile. I liked the full keyboard, and I have to admit while the browsing experience with the iPhone is doable, it’s got its limitations. Overall, though, I’m very happy with my new service and iPhone. What would really be nice, though, is being able to use any phone with any provider. When that happens, I’ll revisit the Android much more seriously. But for now it’s so much nicer to not miss calls. I mean, really, I can get notified that someone did try and call me and that I now have voicemail, but I couldn’t just have my phone ring when the caller was originally trying? I can’t count how many times that’s happened. And yes, this is when I KNEW FOR A DOCUMENTED fact the ringer was on, full volume, etc, it just never rang. But I got the signal that voicemail was waiting…*sigh*. Will that happen with AT&T, I can say it hasn’t, yet. We’ll see, though.
    Thanks for the information about the Android, though. I’d been wondering what users thought about it. Definitely be a contender in a couple of years when I go to revisit my cell contract, again.

  13. #13 John Fouhy
    October 29, 2008

    Is there any support for third-party applications to integrate with the official apps?

    I’m obviously making comparison with the iPhone, where devs might like to implement cut+paste, or a better text entry (see WritingPad), or add last.fm submissions to iTunes, or whatever — but they can’t, because Apple makes all third-party apps run in their own little sandbox.

    There are obvious good reasons for this (mainly stability), but it’s a shame too. What is Android’s position?

  14. #14 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    October 29, 2008

    Re #13:

    The way the API is designed, you can easily hook in to existing applications.
    Pieces of an application are connected not with direct calls, but through something called intentions. You can provide you own components that implement intentions, and they can seamlessly extend or replace the builtin.

    For example, the standard ringtone selector is pretty typical; it’s got a set of built-in tones, and you can download others. There’s a great app that you can download call ringtone extender. What it does is register a new implementation of the intention for selecting a tone; the extended ringtone selector finds every audio file stored on the phone, and allows you to select clips from them.

    Like I said, programming on the Android is really delightful. The API is beautifully designed to allow you to customize just about anything. The whole thing is wide open,
    and easy to program. Even given my experiences at Google – our engineers are really some of the brightest people you’ll ever meet anywhere – I’m amazed at how well it turned out. I really love it.

  15. #15 eddie
    October 30, 2008

    How do I know that when I tap something on the screen, it’s not sending a vote for mccain?

  16. #16 Michael McCann
    October 30, 2008

    Does the browser support flash?

  17. #17 AKarl
    October 31, 2008

    Please excuse the marketing plug, but I think this is relevant to the discussion. My company, Mocana, just announced a security SDK for Google’s Android platform so that developers can build robust encryption, authentication, VPN, antivirus and antimalware features into Android Handsets. If interested, there’s more here about NanoPhone: http://mocana.com/NanoPhone-Android.html. Thanks for your indulgence.

  18. #18 mike
    November 3, 2008

    “Please excuse the low quality of the images; I took the pictures using my iPhone.”

    Too funny.

  19. #19 KDas
    November 7, 2008

    I heard the G1 lacks support for common video formats and the only option is to view videos on youtube. Is that correct?
    Also, you mentioned the lack of on screen keyboard (for quick text entry). Do you think it is something that can be offered by Google in future as a software update?
    Thanks

  20. #20 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    November 7, 2008

    KDas:

    The G1 doesn’t come with any software for viewing video other than YouTube. But in the application market, there’s a free video viewer which works on most standard video formats.

    (To me, this is typical of what’s cool about the Android. Sure, it comes with Google’s preferred video system. But there’s no lock-in; you can install whatever you want, and someone ported a nice open-source video player within days of the release of the phone.)

    As far as the on-screen keyboard goes: an on-screen keyboard is definitely doable, and if Google’s android team doesn’t add it, I’m sure someone else will. (Again, there’s that wonderful open-software thing; the whole platform is highly programmable and extensible, so you don’t need to rely on Google to do things.) It’s just a matter of time, and I expect that before long, there will be an on-screen keyboard for quick entries.

  21. #21 oscar
    November 13, 2008

    Hey I know this comes a bit late, but I’d really like to hear your comment on this: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/10/android_bug/print.html

    From that article:

    “Google has issued a fix to the G1 handset, to stop it executing commands just because they appear in an entered text message – preventing punters from rebooting the handset just by typing the word “reboot”.”

    On a not-so-constructive-note, this makes this sentece you wrote: “[Android] It’s not without its flaws, and some of them are fairly significant” as the understatement of the year! :-)

  22. #22 Luna_the_cat
    November 15, 2008

    Is there a chance that other companies than T-mobile will be selling/working with Android?

    It sounds like something I would like to try, but I won’t ever buy anything from T-mobile, I’m afraid. One of their salesmen sold a contract to my mentally-disabled sis-in-law, and we ended up with over a year of nasty letters and mild litigation to get the company to stop trying to demand money, even though (a) we tried to cancel the contract within the first month, and (b) she is not legally competent to sign contracts anyway. So I don’t like the company much.

    Will buy this if I can buy it from someone else.

  23. #23 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    November 15, 2008

    Luna:

    There will definitely be other companies with Android phones. T-mobile and the HTC-G1 are the first Android to make it to market – but there are a lot of other Android-based phones in progress. For example, Motorola has hired 350 engineers to work on Android phones – they’re supposedly going to have several Android models sometime next year. One of the videos on YouTube demonstrating the Android is clearly a Qualcomm.

    So there’ll be multiple phones from multiple makers on multiple networks, all running Android.

  24. #24 Luna_the_cat
    November 15, 2008

    Oh, fantastic! Thanks for that info. I look forward to seeing what Motorola et al. end up offering.

  25. #25 andrew
    November 24, 2008

    I read they will lock out VOIP type services, how do they do that if its open?

  26. #26 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    November 24, 2008

    Andrew:

    “They” being who exactly?

    I haven’t heard about that, so I don’t know. My best guess would be the carrier. It’s certainly entirely possible for
    a carrier to place restrictions on their own network. You can install whatever you want on your phone, but unfortunately, you’re always subject to the network that’s carrying your data, and they can decide to block particular kinds of network traffic if they so choose. I don’t honestly see any particular reason for them to block VOIP; given that you’re paying them a non-trivial amount for carrying your data, they’re still making plenty of money on you. But it’s certainly possible, and it’s not like cell-phone companies don’t have a history of doing stupid things, so I can’t pretend that I’d be terribly surprised.

    But personally, if I bought service from a carrier where the contract specified unlimited data traffic, and then my carrier started blocking my traffic, I’d look for a new carrier, and seriously consider suing my old one.

    But none of this is really relevant to the openness of the Android; as I said, you can install any software you want on it. And when you’re on wifi, no one can restrict what kind of traffic you send. When you’re on the cell network, it’s up to the carrier.

  27. #27 Rob
    November 24, 2008

    If you aren’t on a cell network, will the WiFi still work? My dad wants a handheld device to view company training materials and such, but he’s not interested in having a phone on him all the time.

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