I’ve had the Google Phone (aka the T-Mobile G1, the first phone to ship with Google’s new Android phone OS) for nearly two weeks now. And frustratingly, only today, just some 9 hours before I was allowed to start talking about it, did someone go wide-eyed after spotting me using it in public.
“Is that the new Google Phone?” he said. “How did you get it?!?”
There. Is that too much to ask, o Lord? I’ve adhered strictly to the terms and the intent of the NDA I signed. I haven’t even Twittered about it and I although I did take a couple of cameraphone shots and send them directly to my Flickr account from the G1, I “privatized” them a minute later when I discovered that the photos were tagged with EXIF data identifying the camera as a Google Phone.
(I ask you: who among tech pundits and other sneak-peekers is as rectitudinous as I? Not these people, that’s for sure.)
But, thank you: that’s all I wanted. Just one person who recognized what I was playing with and was duly impressed. Just one. It doesn’t make me Mr. Big Shot. It’s just a tiny little reward for remaining schtumm on the subject for 12 days.
I had promised to keep the phone under embargo until after midnight on Thursday. Time’s up. A more concise review appears in my Chicago Sun-Times column this week. In the interests of both saving trees (all of which are good and kind and pump life-giving oxygen into our atmosphere) and slaying electrons (which rust the bodies of our Camaros and electrocute our golfers) I’m posting the full brain-dump right here in several installments over the next day or two.
So: carb up and let’s proceed.
Overall Hardware Impressions
The G1 is a nice bit of hardware. There’s a lovely solid heft to it and it has none of the things you associate with a cheap-ass, free-with-contract phone. IE, a plasticky feel, misaligned shell components, mushy buttons, or the sour odor of either overheated components or your disappointment at what you’ve has failed to achieve in life thus far.
The entire assembly holds together nicely. The screen snaps open and locks smartly into position when you flick it up to reveal the keyboard.
The keys and mechanical themselves are well-arrayed and have a nice feel…very much on-form for a HTC handset. I do wish that they weren’t quite so flat and flush; I prefer “bumpier” keys. But as an avowed hater of thumscrews (er: “thumbboards”) I found the G1’s keyboard quite roomy and comfortable.
The section of the G1’s face bearing the microtrackball and other buttons central to the Android UI (more on these in Part 2) is canted up slightly. This makes the G1 damned comfortable to hold either in portrait or landscape mode and offers a nice bit of insurance against fumbles and drops.
Good news: the MicroSD card slot can be accessed without having to take anything apart.
Bad news: No headphone jack. If you’re one of those “hip” kids who wears the flared trousers and the long sideburns and wants to give this “listen to music on your phone” deal a try, you’ll need to rely on the cheap earbuds that come with the phone or buy an adapter.
(Advice: Buy seven adapters. That way, you can go ahead and lose six of them straight away, instead of losing them individually over the course of the next 14 months at the most inconvenient of times.)
The screen is the same pixel dimensions as an iPhone screen. But it’s physically smaller and to my eye it doesn’t have the same crisp detail or snappy color of the iPhone’s display. It’s possible that this is just because the Android UI doesn’t exploit its display anywhere near as aggressively as the iPhone OS does (see next section).
Nice touch: the half of the case that pops off for battery and SIM swaps is a very flexible plastic. You’re not likely to snap off a tab or crack a vent otherwise be forced to lie to your friends that you saw this cool limited-edition duct tape-themed G1 skin at ThinkGeek and you just had to have it.
Bad touch: no headphone jack.
Yes, I know I already said that but I’ve read it back and realized that it can’t possibly be right. Let me look at this phone again…
Nope. Indeed, there is no headphone jack. This is an HTC handset, all right.
Speaking of bad touches…the base of the G1 got noticeably warm at some points. Not uncomfortably warm, mind you. Is this like the soothing butt-warmers in a luxury BMW’s leather seats?
Overall Android User-Interface Impressions
This is clearly a 1.0 operating system. This is also clearly an OS built with Google’s design aesthetic.
You may charitably summarize this aesthetic as “Don’t overload the user or the CPU with lots of distracting graphical ticky-tack.” However, you would more accurately describe the philosophy as “Okay, the prototype is feature-complete and functional. F*** it. Let’s just ship the thing as-is.”
Honestly. “Functional” and “Good enough” are words that keep coming to mind; you may freely add the suffix “…I suppose” at will. But you will not “ooh,” nor will you “aah.” You will not stop to activate a function or control a second time just because you were so impressed with how cleverly the UI managed something.
The 1.0 Android UI has problems with both contexts and clutter, which are usually the detritus of several project managers dumping their code into the mix without a single gatekeeper keeping his or her protective eye on the overall experience.
Example: I tap the mechanical “Home” button to bring up the home screen. I then tap the bottom windowshade to “roll up” a panel of application icons. This static windowshade, which overlays the home screen, can scroll (violation of Third Law of Newtonian UI Physics).
I tap the “Menu” button, which always brings up the menu for whatever app I’m in. A second windowshade rolls up to cover the first windowshade (violation of Fourth Law). And the functions I call in this second windowshade don’t affect the windowshade of application icons; it affects the Home screen behind it (violation of Second Law).
And just to be bitchy about it, let’s try this: I notice that my status bar at the top of the screen is completely packed from left to right with meaningless icons (not a violation of any Newtonian law, but still: tacky). This is where Android collects status messages. How to I reveal that list?
Yyyyeah: I pull down a windowshade from the top to cover the two layers of windowshades coming up from the bottom.
Android’s UI is full of these “Huh?” moments. Even that top windowshade doesn’t “broadcast” that you can drag it down with your finger. I hadn’t a clue; there’s no grabber on it, no dimple, nothing to differentiate it from any other static status bar on any other phone.
Cut, copy and paste? Android’s got ’em! I roll up my sleeves and prepare to copy some text out of a webpage so I can paste it into an email later on…okay, hold down the “shift” key and roll over the text to select it, then type MENU-C…
Wait, I’m probably not doing it right…
And then a day later I get a reply to my email and I’m told that you can only copy text out of an editable text field.
Response (a): I select text from webpages all the time on my desktop machine; what in the Android experience communicates that this feature only works under certain circumstances?
Response (b): It’s an improvement over the iPhone’s total lack of cut and paste. But it’s a poke in the eye with a soft stick. Not painful but still bloody annoying.
I have to conclude that all of this is the result of a rush to market and a lack of hands-on usability studies.
I honestly don’t mind when I’m learning a new piece of tech and I have frequent cause to mutter “Andy, you’re an idiot.” The device or the software is smart; I’m dumb; how sad for me, but I’ll learn, I promise.
With Android, you’re not learning an unfamiliar but logical methodology; you’re adapting to its quirks. There’s a difference. FedEx will happily deliver your package anywhere across the country, overnight: you just have to fill out a form according to the procedures they’ve set. By contrast, Android’s UI is often like the FedEx driver who refused to leave a package on your doorstep until you removed the garden gnome with “those mocking, judgmental eyes.”
In the category of “minor UI disappointments,” let’s just say that I had to double-check the hardware specs to remind myself that this thing actually has motion and rotation sensors. As an iPhone user, I kept looking for places where turning the phone or giving it a shake would do something helpful. I doubt a non-iPhone user would even care.
Finally, there are serious interface consistency problems from one app to another. If you learn how to use an iPhone app, you’ve learned 70% (wait…no guts, no glory: let’s call it 90%) of everything you need to know to operate any iPhone app. With an Android app, it feels more like 50%. Does a certain function belong in an onscreen button, a scrolling list, or the application menu? The answer depends on how much sugar or dietary fiber the software developer had when he or she coded the UI.
(Experimental and differential evidence is thready at this early stage; but it appears that too many buttons is a symptom of hypoglycemia, while chronic constipation tends to lead to a crowded app menu.)
But I’m not saying that the UI is wretched, useless, an abomination that its parents should have placed in a wicker basket and allowed to drift away into the sewers of Gotham to emerge years later as the commander of a mutant underground and one of Batman’s most remorseless foes, etc.
The UI is disappointing and it’s uninspired, yes. But I refer you to Paragraph 3. This is a completely functional OS and it’s perfectly adequate for its intended task. I drive a ’95 Oldsmobile instead of an ’08 BMW M5; I fully appreciate that “adequate” is good enough for many.
Not a single crash or freeze or forced-restart since I first charged it up.
… .. ……
…Huh? Sorry, I was just reminiscing for a moment. Remember way back in June of 2008, when you could say the exact same thing about the iPhone?
Ah, nostalgia. Cokes were just $1.25. Moviegoers fell in love with the adorable antics of a robot named “Wall-E” who drove the highways in his 18-wheeler accompanied by his orangutan sidekick, raisin’ hell and takin’ names. Those of you who didn’t sleep under a Faraday tent when the Large Hadron Collider was first switched on won’t remember this, but hamsters were tiny, adorable, harmless household pets instead of immense, remorseless reavers of human flesh; houses had wooden doors and glass windows instead of double layers of steel plating.
It was a simpler, more pleasant time.
Anyway! The G1 was stable and reliable.
The 3G Experience
…is no better or worse than 3G on any other network. The 3G network simply isn’t pervasive enough. If you’re in a metro area, you can anticipate seeing the “3G” indicator in the status bar but you still can’t count on it. If you’re in the burbs or worse, T-Mobile (like AT&T) seems to think that if they bothered to build 3G towers in your county you’d just try to inbreed with them.
But when it does have a 3G connection, will it download and draw webpages as fast as an iPhone?
Oh, don’t even get me started. Besides, I’m saving that screed for Part 3, when I talk about the G1’s built-in browser.
T-Mobile states for the record that the G1’s battery life “is comparable to other HTC devices available from T-Mobile,” citing 5 hours of talk time.
But accurately gauging the battery life on a 3G phone is big voodoo, particularly when you try to compare two phones on different networks. Even if you have both handsets set to the same power profile (3G, WiFi on, bluetooth off, GPS off…) if one phone is happy with its current cell tower but the other is fishing for something stronger and faster, it can unfairly make you think that the former has a much longer battery life.
So the best I can do is report an overall sensation that I could get a full day’s work out of the G1…which is indeed consistent with my experiences with other HTC handsets. This would be vaguely worse than my 3G iPhone, which will let me get away with failing to recharge it overnight, if I’m stingy with it on Day Two.
Am I being dodgy enough for you on that point? No?
I have hard numbers with a wide delta implying that the deviation of the power curve on the G1 is substantially flatter than the corresponding sample band on the iPhone.
Okay, screw it. The G1’s battery isn’t heroic, but it’s nothing to complain about. Particularly since you can easily slap in a fully-charged spare whenever you want. And the G1 gives you a full range of power-management tools…such as the option of turning off the 3G and relying on a slower, but less power-hungry, EDGE connection.
Here endeth Part 1 of the Great Brain Dump (a four-part trilogy in five acts).
In Part 2 (to be posted later today), I’ll be talking about the most important thing I’ve learned about the G1 (preview: it’s a mediocre touch-based phone, but a fabulous clickybutton-based one); I’ll cover the agony and the ecstasy of its built-in camera; I’ll reveal why every iPhone user should worry about Android’s relationship with third-party apps; and I’ll probably work in several baffling and annoying references to “Unbeatable Banzuke” and “Ninja Warrior,” two Japanese game shows on the G4 network that I’ve been watching an awful lot of lately.