Tegra Gives Good Demo

You can’t say that an actual market for slate computers exists today. “An actual market” implies that “there’s actual competition.” The only competition in tablet space right now is between the Verizon and AT&T versions of the iPad. And unless HP reaches into the WebOS bag and pulls out the god-damnedest rabbit you ever saw this summer, that’ll be the state of affairs through the rest of 2011.

But Apple won’t own this product category forever. Someday, someone’s going to figure out how to make a tablet that’s so good, so compelling, that even when it’s placed side by side with the iPad, consumers won’t be able to choose between the two without factoring in things like “Well, the iPad comes with free stickers…”

I don’t know when that’ll happen. But it looks like when it does, those Android tablets will have some lovely processors. NVIDIA has posted a video demonstrating the abjectly insane performance of their next-generation mobile CPU, the sequel to the Tegra 2 processor that sits in some of the best Android tablets on the mar… — well, let’s say “available for sale” — today.

This new CPU has four cores and it looks as though it runs like hot sick:

Those of you who chose not to watch the video didn’t see a demo of a game running on an Android 3 tablet built around an engineering sample of the next NVIDIA CPU. By tilting the tablet, the player rolls a marble around a fully-rendered 3D table. The marble is a light source. It knocks over barrels, which are also light sources, and they collide with each other and the table naturally. It moves through curtains, which ripple realistically and are rendered with convincing translucency. All the while, lights and shadows and reflections and physics are being rendered at a smooth framerate and in realtime. It all looks gorgeous.

Those of you who did watch the video are now thinking “Holy ****! The marble is a light source! It’s knocking over objects that are also light sources, and all of the light and shadow and reflection effects are rendering gorgeously, at a smooth framerate and in realtime!”

It’s a hell of a nice demo. Instinctively, I wonder if we’re seeing the true, overall performance of the CPU, or merely how well its 12 GPU cores can handle 3D graphics. When the demo game turns off two of the tablet’s CPU cores (ostensibly mimicking the performance of current-generation processors), the game completely falls apart. So there’s that.

Can I rescue my cynicism? Oh, easily. That smokin’ hot power is useless if it drains power like a teenager shotgunning beers at a graduation party. The demo also doesn’t say anything about how much heat it generates or how big it is. I’d expect that NVIDIA is aiming for the same overall specs as the Tegra 2, but the point here is that raw performance is only one metric of a mobile CPU.

NVIDIA claims that the first tablets with this next-generation CPU could ship as early as August. Mmmmmokaaaayyyyllllllet’sssseebouthat. But 2012 is looking interesting…and my mind boggles at the thought of a handset with this CPU. Yes, the gaming would be majestic. But think about this kind of power in a 4G handset. Today’s car navigation apps can download and refresh a 2D map and it’s often impossible to correlate what’s on the screen with what you’re seeing through the windshield. Imagine a phone that can download Google Maps 3D wireframes and textures and render, in realtime, the camera view of your position from a virtual chase helicopter. Driving through a city be just playing a videogame, only without the ability to take a shortcut through the glassed-in atrium of an office building.

Then I take a step back and remind myself that the limiting factor on Android devices has never been the hardware: it’s been the software. Google hasn’t shown much of a knack for supporting and motivating developers to create truly ambitious, world-class software. Hell, I’d be happy if they could even motivate themselves. When I tap a button in an Android app it should feel like I’m tapping a (goddamn) button. Instead, it feels like I’m filing and submitting a requisition form for the function I wish the app to eventually perform…and the person who needs to sign it has already left for the weekend.

Still! Good things ahead from NVIDIA, eh? This new CPU is just the next chip in a multiyear plan. Their current mobile CPU is the Tegra 2. This new one is code-named “Kal-El.” The next ones, due to be released from 2012 to 2015, are Wayne, Logan, and Stark.

You understand now that even without that impressive video demo, I am forced to love NVIDIA lots and lots and lots.

(I feel a discreet tug on my shirtsleeve)

(A reader whispers that he doesn’t understand why this is.)

(I explain that the CPUs are named after Superman, Batman, Wolverine, and Iron Man, respectively.)

(The reader thanks me for the explanation, and also for being so discreet about it and allowing him to keep his dignity.)

(I reply that it’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t want him to be humiliated publicly for being the only one not to pick up on all of that.)

There’s just one bit of unfinished business: the original Tegra processor doesn’t fit in to the naming structure. I don’t know much about how it got its name. It’s certainly safe to assume that they paid some company the usual six-figure fee to break a huge list of Latin words into their roots and then pick twos and threes out of a bag until they had a name that (a) perfectly encapsulated the strength, speed, and reliability that would be associated with NVIDIA’s new dual-core mobile CPU and (b) wasn’t already trademarked, nor similar to the street name for any horrible drug that’s being pushed to middle-schoolers.

But the name is tantalizingly close to that of Tigra, the half-cat, half-human hero in Marvel Comics’ various “Avengers” series.

NVIDIA should retroactively rename the current processor to preserve the flow. Naming all of your CPUs after popular characters is one way to honor and celebrate the traditions of the comic book industry…but unapologetically rewriting established history to avoid inconvenient inconsistencies with what you’ve got planned for the near-future is an even better one.

Bonus Inside Joke exclusively for comic book fans:

If NVIDIA formally changes the name to “Tigra,” then every time a piece of software caused an Android tablet to crash or suffer a huge performance hit, we could say “Man! This new app is totally Bendising the CPU!”

(Thank you.)

The Great Google Phone Brain Dump: Part Two

Greetings from New York City. I can confirm that the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down; the Mayor says that his “strike zone” counter-drug program is dworking but the signs of amphetamine and barbiturate use in the local populace are impossible to miss.

Yup, yesterday was a travel day. I arrived in the city on just 90 minutes of sleep. Suffice to say that I could have used trip to the Bronx and Part 2 of the Great Google Phone Brain Dump had to wait.

So let’s continue with the Google Phone Brain Dump. The first topic in today’s installment is so important that I’m going to do a solo:

The Touch Interface Versus The Clickbutton Interface

Or:

The G1 Is Not An iPhone…And That’s Not A Complaint

The big gotcha of a job like mine is that I have to bury my prejudices and preconceptions when I try out something new. Because though there are retreads and ripoffs in every product category — and the iPhone spawned more bad sequels than “Rocky” and “Saw” combined — it’s entirely possible that something new is, indeed, Something New.

During my first day with the G1, I grumbled and I groused. I clucked and I tut-tutted. The pitching coach picked up the bullpen phone and messaged that it was time to warm up the standard “Yet Another Damned iPhone Ripoff” commentary.

On the plus side, the G1’s touchscreen is terrific from a hardware perspective. It’s a flat glass panel that responds to finger contact, not a mushy piece of plastic that needs to be pressed, like the worst of the iPhone influencees.

I did encounter curious moments in which an onscreen button refused to respond to the edge of my thumb (as when you’re holding the phone in your left and) and instead demanded a rather explicit fingertip (which I was more than willing to give it, after three failed buttonpresses). But that’s probably a software problem and not a hardware one.

Good, good. But the G1’s touch-interface experience is incomplete and unfulfilling. On the iPhone, the touch interface is gravity, oxygen. Every action and activity is influenced by it. On the G1, the touch interface is just a feature. Even after a week with the G1, it’s hard to detect any real commitment to touch on the part of Android’s developers.

When you’re using the G1’s touchscreen you’re forced to change mindsets often. Sometimes the interface is up there on the screen. Sometimes, it’s down there among the mechanical buttons.

I’m in the browser, just messing around. I tap on a picture and a dialog box pops up. Would I like to Save this picture? Open it in a new window? View it?

Hey, cool. Thank you, Android; that’s a good feature in a mobile browser. But actually, for the moment I’d just like to Cancel. I’ll just tap the “Cancel” button…

Oh. No “Cancel” button.

After I moment’s confusion, I realize that I have to press the clicky “Back” button underneath the screen. The Back button is a consistent part of the user interface (it always takes you one step back away from wherever you are) but shouldn’t there be a Cancel button right in the onscreen dialog box?

The browser, in fact, is the best illustration of the problem. I’m astonished that Android doesn’t have a virtual keyboard.

“Hold the phone!” you’re saying. I’m about to make a joke about how I am in fact holding an actual phone but you wisely don’t pause long enough to let me draw my gun. “That’s my big complaint about the iPhone! Being forced to write emails on a ‘fake’ keyboard instead of the cushy comfort of the Blackberry keyboard!”

Yes, and we’ll be getting to the G1’s keyboard in a moment.

But a phone that claims to be usable in both portrait and landscape modes needs an onscreen keyboard.

Viz: I want to see if my friends have posted new photos to Flickr. I press the mechanical “Menu” button and then I tap the onscreen “Open URL” button. That’s a major modal disconnection but I’ve already complained about that so let’s move on:

I need to type in “m.flickr.com.” Which means I have to turn the phone on its side and slide open the keyboard.

I’m a big dumb Human, so when I type the URL and hit “Return” I close the keyboard and return the G1 to its original position while the page loads. Damn. Now I need to log in.

Turn, open, type, close, turn.

I acknowledge that this isn’t a hell of a lot of effort. But web browsing is mostly a passive, non-typey sort of activity. Every now and then you need to type a URL or a password and every time I’m forced to Transformer the device to do this trivial thing, I taste copper.

A minor aside: obvious errors like the lack of an onscreen keyboard are what bother me the most about Android. If I make a comparison to a current Presidential campaign I know that certain readers will Hulk Out a little so instead, I ask you to remember how you felt when Mike Dukakis tooled around at a campaign stop in a tank.

Dukakis_tank.jpg

You imagined him making “Vroom! B-Pow! Budda-budda-KRACK-POWWW!!!” noises as he went.

Which is precisely what I would have done in such a situation. Perfectly understandable. No, it isn’t the actual thing itself that caused you to sour on Dukakis. The chill came from the realization that it was such an obvious mistake. The sort of mistake where you wondered exactly where the ceiling was on the man’s mistake-making abilities.

Not all plumbers are kind enough to (for instance) mount your new toilet on the wall instead of the floor. Obvious mistake. You red-flag that one almost immediately and stop payment on the check. You’re almost grateful. Why? Because you could have gotten the sort of plumber who forgot to bring right kind of soil-stack pipe and just substituted whatever he happened to have in the truck.

That’s trouble. you don’t know what sort of trouble you’re in until much later, when there’s this incredible smell coming out of your new bathroom and you discover that a crack in the joint has been slowly filling the wallspace with human waste for the past five weeks. As men in Hazmat suits are ripping out the walls and the flooring, you remember seeing the plumber’s truck as it pulled in and thinking “What kind of a man hangs chrome bull testicles off the back of his car?” and now you know the answer. You wish you’d followed that first pang of doubt to its logical conclusion.

Yeah, yeah. I could have just written “No onscreen keyboard? Really?” but look, the lack of an onscreen keyboard is bloody annoying. Let’s hope that a developer comes up with a third-party solution.

I didn’t appreciate how nice a true multitouch display is until I started using the G1. I just naturally expected to pinch and stretch things. But every time I tried, the G1 reacted only with a polite cough and an arched eyebrow.

Even basic touch actions things like scrolling don’t work as well as I would have hoped. “Very good” isn’t good enough. In a touch interface, either the finger-scrolling is absolutely perfect or it isn’t. Touch-scrolling on an iPhone is absolutely perfect. On the G1, it isn’t. There’s just enough of a lag that you don’t feel an organic connection to the interface.

So: Android touch interface = Disappointing.

I can’t help but write the review in my head as put a new thing through its paces. I imagined a paragraph that began “In fact, eventually I gave up on the touch interface and started using it almost exclusively with the keyboard deployed.”

I intended for this to sting. Surely its developers would throw themselves out of windows when they read that line. Waiters would seat them at the table near the bathroom. Assuming that their spouses ever even made love to them again, their lovemaking technique would be posted and critiqued on eOpinions.com immediately after each session.

(You laugh, but just go to the site and look for content created in the weeks after my Zune 1.0 review was published.)

Imagine! A touch-based phone where you wind up using the keyboard and the microtrackball all the time!

Then I had one of those moments where I suspected, just suspected, mind you, that I might be a moron. It’s okay for the G1 to not be like the iPhone. It just needs to find greatness via the path of its choosing.

I stopped thinking of the G1 as an iPhone-like device and the scales fell from my eyes almost immediately. I started to see that the G1 is really quite awesome.

Truly. The G1 isn’t a touch phone. It’s a clickybutton phone. Held like an iPhone, it’s clumsy and awkward. Held on its side…well, damn.

Android’s clickybutton interface is consistent and easy to suss out:

Android Phone - Clickybuttons.jpg

You got your microtrackball: that’s yer pointing and clicking device. North of it is the Back button. Use it to take one step back from wherever you are. The Menu button is to the West. It brings up the application menu of whatever app you’re running. Tap the Home button due south to get to the Home screen, which acts as an application launcher and (as with the iPhone’s Springboard) gives you access to phone settings and other “above the title” functions.

To the East there is a big white house with a boarded front door.

There is a small mailbox here.

>_

(Sorry. Continuing.)

They’re all arranged within casual reach of your right thumb. And remember, the clickybuttonpad is canted up slightly, making the phone very comfortable and grippable.

Holding the G1 on its side with its trackball under your thumb has an immediate psychological impact. Yes, the onscreen touch interface is inconsistent and poorly-thought. But you stop even thinking about that interface. The trackball is your connection to this machine, not the tip of your finger.

And then the G1 starts to really sing. “Back” as a “Cancel” button? Makes perfect sense. Specify a URL by bringing up an application menu, instead of just tapping in the browser’ address bar? Sure.

Sickeningly, the G1 starts to feel faster than an iPhone. At least the bit where you translate a thought into a correctly-inputted command. The onscreen buttons are big, fat targets that you can briskly and efficiently trackball into.

One of my top five functions for a smartphone is reading blogs via Bloglines or Google Reader. The G1 reminded me how nice it is to have an explicit “Page Down” button. It’s a particular luxury when I’m Smartphoning with my left hand and Sandwiching with my right. Zap straight to the bottom or the top of something? There are keyboard shortcuts for that, as well.

I even started to get the hang of the thumbboard. And I’ve always hated thumbboards. Although I must cite the fact that I can type way, way faster on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard than I can on any thumbboard (record for typing Robert Frost’s “In Winter In The Woods Alone”: 48 words per minute) I must also report that I didn’t consider the G1’s keyboard to be an annoyance.

I wouldn’t say that the Android clickyinterface is better than the iPhone’s. But it’s different, and I have to insist that a power G1 user will leave an iPhone user in the dust, in certain tasks.

Why? Because there are clickybutton shortcuts for everything.

My favorite reaction when I’m trying a new device is when I discover something about it causes me to find a new disappointment in an old device that I love. Holding down the G1’s “Home” button instantly brings up a launcher containing your six most recently-launched apps. Damn…I wish I could do that on my iPhone. I’m always forced to click the Home button and then scrollscrollSCROLL(dammit)scroll to get to the Camera app…which I use alllll the time.

(Yes, there are four slots on the iPhone springboard where you can keep your favorites. But hello…I have more than four commonly-used apps.)

Buttons do different things when you double-click or click-and-hold. And you can assign a keyboard shortcut to almost anything.

Result: it would be trivially easy to set up a realistic, real-world triathalon of smartphone tasks in which a sophisticated iPhone user would finish in a hopeless (correction: utterly hopeless) second-place to an similarly-experienced G1 user.

Caveats:

  1. You can’t say a line like “Zapping back to the top of the page is as simple as holding down the ALT key and flicking the trackball up” and still believe that the sophistication of user interface design in general is still trending upward.
  2. The power of the clickyinterface, like the true face of God, reveals itself to you in tantalizing sections, and at its own frustratingly-slow pace. You will need to read the manual, and even then you will fail to remember what many of these shortcuts are. Especially when you’re trying to convince an iPhone user that your spiffy new Google Phone is way faster than his.
  3. I’m the sort of person who scoffs and asks a Blackberry power-user “So: you saved yourself a little time by creating a new message to your boss via a hotkey, instead of launching the Mail app and tapping the first couple of letters of her name manually. Tell me, whatever are you going to do with that extra 1.7 seconds of free time you’ve gained?”

Well, there are people who put a real premium on getting from Point A to Point B via the absolute shortest distance possible. That’s their workflow. Suffice to say that these people, baffled by the perceived inefficiency of the iPhone, will love the G1. The G1 serves as an important reminder that “most advanced” is not always synonymous with “most effective.”

That said, I ought to close this section out with an observation: though the clickybutton interface is quite agile and pleasant to use, it has inescapable limitations. Yes, you can easily get through all of the Four Major Food Groups of the smartphone experience (Mailin’, Browsin’, Textin’, and…er, Dairy) without ever reaching for the screen. But the psychological oomph of a clickyinterface is the persistent connection between your fingers and the controls. Every time you need to take your hands off the buttons and interact with the screen, it’s a defeat. You lose time. You also break that mental connection for just a moment.

So what happens when you want your phone to go beyond the basic expectations of a smartphone?

The iPhone has no buttons (please ignore the big Home button under the screen; it has been placed there by opposition-party operatives who fear my maverick, pro-change agenda). Which means that it can have any buttons. It can have the perfect button controls for a web browser. Or a GPS navigator. Or a music player. Or a plane simulator. Or…or…or.

Whatever the need is, the iPhone immediately reconfigures the interface to meet you. By contrast, when a G1 owner feels the need to go beyond mere utilitarian functions, they’re going to feel like a DOS user in a Mac and Windows world.

The key line in my Sun-Times review was this one: from a user perspective, the G1 is not a revolutionary next-step towards anything. That’s the goal of the iPhone. The goal of the G1 and Android is simply to be a smartphone.

And the G1 is truly a great smartphone. It’s a strong and compelling implementation of the “big screen phone with a flip-out keyboard” concept. Potentially, it’s the best smartphone on the market. If the iPhone didn’t exist, I’d buy a G1 in a heartbeat, forsaking all others.

The G1 versus Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry

I did intend to just make this a solo piece, but that last line sort of compels me to continue straight on and talk about the G1 in relationship with its competition.

G1 versus iPhone: I don’t see these two phones as being in competition with each other. As with movies, when you judge technology you should consider the maker’s goals and evaluate how successfully those goals were met. Apple didn’t just want to build a smartphone. They wanted to create a whole new computing platform.

The iPhone 3G is as close as we’ve ever come to the ideal of “that one device you carry with you everywhere, that does everything you could ever want a mobile device to do.” And (goddamn it) the iPhone 3G more or less succeeds.

The G1 is an awesome smartphone. But it’s a crappy media player, for example. If you buy a G1 expecting it to be an iPhone, then there will be many, many scenarios in which you will travel with way more devices and chargers than you had hoped.

G1 versus Symbian and Windows Mobile. I see the G1 as having huge advantages over both of these operating systems. It’s not slam-dunk superior, but personally, its fundamental strengths would compel me to take an Android phone over either alternative.

Symbian and WM are venerable institutions with massive software libraries. If you’re in love with a certain Windows Mobile app or apps, that should be your decisionmaker.

But these operating systems are trapped by their history. Their designs go back to the Nineties and at times, this comes through in their products…subtly, from an architecture perspective, and frustratingly from a user-interface perspective.

Whenever I get a new Windows Mobile touchscreen phone to play with, I steel myself. I start to play with the “kewl” iPhone-inspired touch interface but I know that it’ll be minutes before I touch something the wrong way and the Windows Mobile start menu and taskbar will temporarily appear. Inevitably, I’ll be looking at an alert system that was designed back when Clinton was president.

The iPhone and the G1 have great advantages over every other smartphone OS thanks to the simple fact that its designers got to start from scratch in the mid-Aughties. They never considered a world in which screens were small and black-and white. These phones never had to exist in a world without WiFi and mobile broadband.

Yes, I manfully acknowledge the possibility that the designers of the latest edition of Windows Mobile 6 are aware that you can now receive email on the road without having to stick a phone handset into an acoustic coupler. What I’m getting at is that History can often become a terrible liability as 1.o becomes 2.0 and ultimately 6.0 becomes Vista. History becomes Baggage. When Baggage becomes corporate philosophy, the only solution is to nuke the whole compound from space.

You see this sort of thing time and time again. A database program doesn’t support XML, because Version 1.0 was created before the standard became a Big Deal and the schema underpinning the entire system doesn’t provide a simple way to store data that way. That’s mere Baggage. “Why would our users even want to use XML, when we can provide them with a much more sophisticated proprietary package format?” is a sign that the disease and the product have reached the terminal stage. I hear it allll the time.

I have a personal prejudice against Symbian, though I think its a defensible one: it’s woefully out of step with modern mobile computing and every new iteration is just another boob and butt lift on an increasingly frail body. I think it’s coasting by on its enormous international user base and software library.

I thought Windows Mobile was the greatest mobile OS out there, before the iPhone was released. And I still think it’s terrific. But Microsoft is going to need to make that “MacOS 9 to Mac OS X” transition sometime soon. You know what I mean: the gutsy moment when they decide to throw out every scrap of code and start all over again. Not because what they have now is garbage…because the world has changed around it and its current architecture is going to find it hard to keep up.

(My hometown tore down its high school recently for much the same reason. The building itself was in fine shape, but it had been built at a time when weatherstripping, network infrastructure, and controlling access to school property weren’t on anybody’s radar.)

The big caveat about the G1 — more about Android, actually — is that it is indeed a 1.0 OS. But cripes, it’s a free OS, and the whole world is welcome to enhance it. Symbian is royalty-free these days, true, but it’s like General Motors. Symbian feels like an organization that would rather walk to the guillotine than whistle the songs of the revolutionaries.

Give it a year and Android going to become a serious challenger for anybody trying to make a smartphone OS.

G1 versus Palm. Bit of a toss-up. Palm is old-fashioned and you’re sort of embarrassed to still be using one, but it’s just so convenient, you know? My iPhone battery started to die yesterday so of course I looked up the address where I was meeting a friend and wrote it on the palm of my hand so I wouldn’t lose it. Top that for convenience.

Huh?

Palm OS, you say?

“Spock, what does the ship’s computer have to say about this ‘Palm OS’?”

“Accessing, sir…details are sketchy but the library claims that Palm Oil Spray was a consumer brand of aerosol food-preparation lubricant sold in the late Twentieth to early Twenty-First century. It was taken off the market when it was determined that prolonged exposure led to increasingly-erratic behavior, such as wearing trousers with words printed across the seat in large letters adorned with light-refracting crystals.”

“Set phasers on ‘Stun,’ Mister Chekov. Fire at will.”

G1 versus Blackberry. I keep trying the new Blackberries as they come out and I keep coming to the same conclusion: the Blackberry is an email device “with benefits.” Every app I use has to be described as “a spreadsheet you can use on your Blackberry” or somesuch, instead of being praisable as a destination of its own.

Which isn’t a slam against the whole platform. It’s just that a Blackberry an office chair. Your first day in a new job, you’re issued this thing. It’s perfectly comfortable and you take absolutely no notice of it until it breaks, and then someone from Maintenance comes by and fixes it or gives you a new one.

There are chairs which are designed to get you excited about sitting in them. But the only office where you’ll find such a thing is the offices and studio of the Howard Stern Show. And it appears that they’re only issued to female employees.

A Blackberry would be the very last thing you’d buy for yourself. Well, maybe if you’re going to a Halloween dressed as a Hollywood douchebag.

Okay. The City awaits. Tomorrow, let’s talk about apps and the G1’s camera.

The Great Google Phone Brain Dump: Part One

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).

app launcher (vert).jpg

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…

Um…

Wait, I’m probably not doing it right…

Hmm…

No…

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.

Reliability

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.

Battery Life

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.

Still no?

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.

Questions?

Raging Flip

Part of the fun and part of the agony of my job is that tech companies often offer to show me something cool several weeks before they go public with it, under the condition that I keep my lips zipped until The Big Day.

The latter half is the agony part. Sometimes, anyway. Because I get the briefing and then I find myself sitting on something so gorgeously bizarre that I can’t wait to talk about it.

But a promise is a promise.

Still, I felt that there was no harm in posting a certain JPEG to my Flickr account:

Scorsese Flip Art (Final).jpg

…described only as a piece of Mystery Art for an upcoming project. No harm done…though some part of me worried that people would be able to figure out what this was for. There are a couple of telltale…well, tells. It’s obvious if you’re familiar with the product in question.

Well, today the NDA is over and done with and I can tell you what this piece of artwork is for. But why tell you, when through the miracle of the fine work of the Joint Photographic Experts Group?

Voilá:

Martin Scorsese Flip Video Camera

Yes, the fine makers of the Flip Mino pocket digital video camera have added a new twist: if you order online, you can now customize your Flip at no extra charge. Pick from a library of hundreds of stock images, use their online pattern and texture generator…or just upload a JPEG.

Which, naturally, was what drew my immediate interest. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not a game-changer, it doesn’t an anything-killer. It’s a completely unnecessary. And of course, under the skin it’s the same Flip Mino, with the same limitations.

But it’s coooooolllllll.

Flip sent me a coupon code so that I could try it out for myself. I loaded up my Flickr album of Good Photos, and hastily eyed the shot of Peter Cohen’s Apple hair. But my hand was soon stayed. This is a video camera. A camera which I can customize with any image. Was a dude with an Apple logo spray-painted into his hair really the best choice?

No, no. Why, this was an opportunity to produce a Flip Mino that truly benefitted Humanity. I’ve always thought little video cameras like these should come with a warning label that could be seen by anybody facing the lens. I suddenly had the power to make that dream a reality:

YouTube-Warning-Sticker.jpg

But as soon as I got the idea of owning an (un)official Martin Scorsese Flip Mino, an alarming percentage of my CPU’s duty cycles were irrevocably committed to the project.

Of course, the front face of a Flip Mino is not exactly a forgiving medium. I found out after I made a Photoshop template and struggled to come up with a working image. It’s that damned lens. No matter where I put Scorsese’s portrait, the lens-hole chewed through half his face and made him look like the T-1000 Terminator just after he’d been shotgunned. Either you already happen to have a picture in which all of the content is crowded into the bottom two-thirds of the image, or else you need to design something in two “sections,” as it were.

After a quick tour through my DVD collection, a session of screenshotting the opening titles from “Casino,” and an extended session of fidgeting, I had it. And a few days after uploading the JPEG into Flip’s online tool, I had the actual “it.”

It came out great. The colors are screen-perfect and I’m especially impressed with how accurately the real thing matches the online mockup:

Scorsese Flip Grab.jpg

So I now have a one-of-a-kind, limited-edition and completely unauthorized Martin Scorsese video camera. It’s so cool that I kind of don’t even want to use it, for fear of scratching it up.

Besides, it’s sort of a shame to use a Martin Scorsese Digital Camcorder without a special Thelma Schoonmaker-themed edition of iMovie, isn’t it?