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5 years ago

Review: Android on the T-Mobile G1

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T-Mobile G1

We've given you a full review of the T-Mobile G1 from a hardware perspective and also shown you a video walkthough of the basics how how Android works, now it's time to give a full review of Android itself. More specifically, however, we should note that this is a review of Android as it *currently exists* on the T-Mobile G1 platform. One of the important things to note about Android is that we expect it to evolve very rapidly in the coming months and years *and* that we expect it to be pretty highly customized from device to device. So what we have to say about Android here should be taken with a grain of salt: some of this stuff may change. That said, Android is a strong entrant into the Smartphone world -- it gets a lot of stuff right and a few things wrong. To find out which is which, read on! (Note: You can click on any image for a full-size screenshot)

Android the OS

T-Mobile G1 On the (very) off chance you haven't heard yet: Android is the operating system created by the "Open Handset Alliance." The OHA is headed mainly by Google but also includes a wide set of manufacturers and software companies that have all teamed up (again, mostly with Google leading) to create an open source smartphone operating system. It is the 2nd in a series of major new smartphone systems to come out in the past few years -- the first being the iPhone (and the next being Palm's competing platform). What's more, it is tightly tied to Google's Gmail services, which include email, contacts, and calendar (in fact, it won't work at all until it talks to Google's servers). If that were the entire story, Android would still be a 'Big Deal.' But it's a bigger deal than that because of the 'open source' part. What that means is that anybody is free to download the operating system and change any part of it that they like -- top to bottom. This applies not only to phone companies and manufacturers who will customize their particular Android phones to differentiate from others, but it also applies to individual users who want to tweak the operating system. Unfortunately, open source software such as Linux (which also forms the core of the Android OS) has a bad reputation of having a user interface that's less than friendly. Although Android is certainly not as bad as Linux's (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) reputation, it does suffer from some inconsistencies throughout the OS. Although it remains to be seen exactly which direction Android will take -- standardization across multiple phones or a fracturing -- *right now* it's a perfectly usable operating system. As with any smartphone right now, there are going to be tradeoffs if you decide to get the G1.

Design Philosophy

If you're new to smartphones, here's the short version: the Android OS on the G1 is fairly easy to learn -- you will find that you can use both the touchscreen and physical buttons easily and you can also discover some nice shortcuts to speed things up. You may want to take a look at our basic walkthough of how Android works, reposted here:

If you're not new to smartphones, here's the deal: Android on the G1 is a curious mix of nearly every major smartphone platform currently being sold in the US.

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Design Elements from the BlackBerry and the PalmOS

  • From the PalmOS, G1 borrows the tabbed-phone/call log/contacts/favorites application and "End Turns of screen" instead of "End goes to Home"
  • From the iPhone, the G1 borrows the capacitive touchscreen, WebKit-based browser, and touch-flick scrolling
  • From the BlackBerry, the G1 borrows the idea of hiding extra options underneath a single catch-all 'menu' button and also the quick-app-switcher ... not to mention easy-to-set-up push email
  • From the SideKick (if you want to call that a smartphone), the G1 borrows the single-login-and-then-go concept as well as the basic slider-keyboard concept
  • From Windows Mobile, the G1 borrows infinite customizability and relatively open development (not to mention poaching its biggest manufacturer)

...In other words, if you're switching from another smartphone to the G1, you're going to find some things that are familiar, some things you've seen on other platforms, and a few things that are totally new. E14ACD4C-76F6-4E5B-8146-EC33EC4DEA41.jpg

My favorite new feature of Android on the G1 has to be the new alert tray. It's simply awesome, as I've written about before. When you receive new alerts, an icon appears in the top left -- these icons line up so you can see exactly what sorts of alerts you've missed. There are easy-to-recognize icons for SMS, email, gmail, missed calls, IMs, voicemails, and so on. The awesome part, though, is the sliding info blind. Virtually anywhere in the Android OS you can slide your finger down from the top of the screen the reveal a list of all of your alerts. From there, you can choose to clear them all or you can tap on any individual notification to go directly to the application that put it there.

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Longtime PalmOS users will find that it's an excellent evolution of the PalmOS's alert notifier, which displays a single icon you can tap (or hold down the center button) to reveal notifications.

Basic Design Metaphors

I've already covered the basics of how to navigate the Android OS in the above video fairly extensively, but here's a quick recap. There are essentially five "user interface metaphors" at play in Android on the G1.

Touch: the G1 features a capacitive touchscreen, which means that you can navigate it via the Touchscreen with just a finger. However, you can't use the G1 exclusively through the touchscreen -- it requires you to flip it open to access the keyboard for all text entry. This caveat isn't a deal-breaker, however, as the screen rotates very very quickly (Windows Mobile take note) and pretty much every application is very usable in both portrait and landscape modes. Otherwise touch navigation is very similar to the iPhone. You can flick to scroll and tap to select. Unlike the iPhone, there is no multitouch here, so zooming requires some on-screen zoom buttons. The other touch metaphor to remember is the "touch and hold," which can pop up various options depending on context.

T-Mobile G1 Home and Menu: The home screen (again, fully explained in the video above) is the main place to find not only your shortcuts but also the full list of your applications (via the tab you see at right). The home button is also what you hit to bring up a list of your 6 most-recently user (and also still open) applications. You'll need to get used to hitting it instead of the "End" key to get to your 'home base,' since End turns on the screen immediately. You'll also want to get used to hitting the menu key on a pretty regular basis -- most apps hide many of their options underneath this button instead of placing them on-screen (as on the iPhone). The Menu key is also your unlock button -- I've taken it using it to turn the screen on *and* to unlock it because I can do it with two quick key presses.

Back: Android on the G1 uses the Back button in a way very similar to both the BlackBerry OS and Windows Mobile Standard. You can use it to go back to your previous screen. Unfortunately, like with those other OSes, occasionally Back doesn't do exactly what you'd like -- sometimes you'll hit an alert and then want to go back to your full message list but instead find yourself in the home screen. Still, it usually works pretty well and is an essential tool in your G1 usage arsenal.

Trackball: The G1 features a BlackBerry-esque trackball (though it's more 'matted' than most BB trackballs and therefore feels much better under your thumb). If you like, you can nearly control the entire OS via the trackball instead of the touchscreen. More often, though, you'll find yourself using touch for 'macro' things like scrolling, zooming, and launching apps and the trackball for 'micro' things like selecting a link in a webpage, moving the cursor within a block of text, and so on.

Search: The G in G1 can refer to "Generation" or, more commonly, "Google." As such, search plays a powerful role on the G1. Although (sadly) there is no device-wide search functionality, the search button on the keyboard will quickly become your best friend. Nearly every app on the G1 has a powerful search feature built in that you can quickly get to by hitting that search button. You can also use the search button in conjunction with another letter to quickly launch a shortcut.

Other Random OS thoughts

Some random thoughts on the OS in general:

  • From the home screen, you can simply start typing to search for contacts to call or otherwise contact them. This search is very snappy.
  • Although there is no ringer switch, you can hold down the volume button to quickly drop call volume down and then cycle through vibrate and silent.
  • Given the lack of a ringer switch, I do which there was full support for Profiles as you see on other platforms like Symbian and Windows Mobile Standard
  • The "Screen Locked" window shows useful information like Time, Date, battery status, and next alarm. Although it doesn't show alerts, those are of course visible in the menu bar.
  • You cannot store applications on the Memory card, which I predict will be a huge pain in the very near future. I also predict some PalmOS-like applications to help deal with this situation.
  • I like the default "Disk mode for the storage card" mode when you plug the G1 into a computer, but for some reason it seems to kick-in with my audio adapter. Since this mode prevents the G1 itself from seeing the SD Card, this is annoying.
  • Have I mentioned the single login at the start to get your stuff synced to Google? I don't care: it deserves multiple mentions. You enter your Google credentials the first time you start it up, you get your Gmail Contacts, Calendar, and email pushed. Love This.
  • Why the heck doesn't anybody but Palm and Microsoft get that Notes and ToDo are important applications that not only deserve to exist but need to be synchronized at deep level just like contacts, calendar, and email? The original PalmOS had the 4 holy buttons: Contacts, Calendar, Memos, ToDo. I'm very happy to see that the industry has added email to this sacred list of personal information management, but has it come at the cost of two other apps? WHY?
  • Yes, there is copy and paste but it's limited to certain things like URLs and other similar textfields. There are options to, for example, forward SMS messages. Still, its disappointing because the G1's multiple input methods (see below) would make it relatively easy to select text.

Design inconsistencies

Since the G1 has all of those different User Interface metaphors, there are bound to be some collisions and confusions as you use the device. It's often unclear whether the option you're looking for is underneath the Menu button, via a Touch-and-Hold action, or found on an on-screen button. The G1 is certainly more intuitive than, say, Windows Mobile, but I would say it's taken me a good week or so to get used to knowing where to find what I'm looking for in various apps. Probably the biggest design inconsistency derives from the combination of touch and non-touch elements. Since text entry requires the physical keyboard, more often than not you'll find yourself sliding it open to use the G1. Fortunately, sliding open the keyboard simultaneously turns on the device and unlocks the screen, so you can get to what you want to do fairly quickly. The fact that the sliding mechanism is so good helps.

It also helps that the G1 has that much-discussed "Chin." I've actually come to love the chin -- it makes the G1 very comfortable to hold one-handed while I scroll through web pages and email. Still, some of these design inconsistencies are aggravating if only because they seem like easy fixes. Gmail and Email deserve special attention here -- the way you interact with these apps ought to be very similar, but in fact their various options and UI elements are different enough to cause cognitive dissonance. I'll add my voice to the chorus of internet reviews hoping that Android really does see the rapid development we're practically expecting at this point to help deal with these issues.

Performance

The G1 feels very snappy throughout the entire OS. Screen transitions are nearly instantaneous -- I'll note again that the switch from portrait to landscape is great. Just as importantly, however, there's very little lag anywhere in the OS. On every smartphone platform I've used -- and I've used them all extensively with the exception of Symbian -- I've run into inexplicable pauses, white screens, "wait balls," and outright freezes. Although I've seen the browser crash twice and had the OS give me strange pauses three times, in a week and a half of heavy usage I've never felt stymied by performance on the G1. I don't live in an area with T-Mobile 3G data, but Edge on both T-Mobile and AT&T feels like 'pretty good EDGE,' which is to say it's within acceptable norms.

WiFi also works very well -- though I have to not it's a pain to turn on and off and it also sucks down the battery life. Battery life: it's bad. Casual users will probably make it through a single day, but power users will need to charge up halfway through -- period. Hopefully we'll see more battery optimization on Android soon, because this will be a deal breaker for many people. If you don't have a way to charge up throughout the day or you don't have a spare battery, the G1 is definitely going to run dry on you.

Settings

The Settings App on the G1 is pretty simple to navigate, it contains settings for your Wireless, Calls, Sounds, Security, Apps, and so on. Unlike the iPhone, most apps keep their settings to themselves (which I prefer) instead of tossing them in here. You'll find yourself visiting settings most often to toggle WiFi on and off, since WiFi is a pretty big power drain. You can also force the G1 to not use 3G data, if you're looking for power saving options.

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This is also the spot to note that the G1 does *not* support A2DP Wireless Stereo over Bluetooth and also has pretty mediocre Bluetooth support (answering calls!) in general.

Gmail

Basic usage

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I am very finicky about email. I need my email to work exactly how I like *and* I need it to be very powerful and fast. I am "that guy" who thinks that the email implementation on the BlackBerry isn't up to snuff because it's not customizable enough. I also use Gmail exclusively for both work and personal email (If you're curious, I use Mailplane on the Mac to access both, which takes the Gmail web interface and turns it into a standalone application that supports shortcuts and drag-n-drop attachemnts). I care a lot about email, I need it pushed, I live in Gmail, I am a gadget nerd, I like Open Source. Ladies and Gentlemen, if the folks at Google were imagining an ideal 'First Adopter,' they would have done well to have a picture of me up on the wall. So for me, the G1 is pretty much going to live or die as my Main Device based on how well the Gmail apps fits my demanding needs. My verdict: the G1 lives. If you're used to Gmail (as I am), you'll find the Gmail client is almost exactly what you'd expect, the Gmail web experience translated into an application. It handles email metaphors like Labels (folders), Archiving, and Stars just the way I'd like it to. Judged strictly on the "work exactly how I like" metric, the Gmail app is a win.

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Judged on the power and speed metric, however, is a little dicier. Until I'd discovered the Keyboard Shortcuts for Android's Gmail App, I was throwing my hands up in despair. The problem here is that the Gmail App is *too much* like the web app in that it puts the on-screen buttons for Reply, Reply All, and Forward at the bottom of the email instead of in a static place on screen (or underneath the menu). The upshot is that if you don't know about the keyboard shortcuts, you literally have to *hunt down* the *most used* buttons in an email application. Fortunately, that's not the case. I will say that I wish for just one more set of keyboard shortcuts -- shortcuts for quickly hunting down a label I wish to apply instead of scrolling through a list. That's a niggle, though. Overall, once you learn the keyboard shortcuts, the Gmail App is great for Gmail users. If you're not a Gmail user, you'll either need to become a Gmail switcher (which I heartily recommend) or use the Email app (sorry for your luck), which I describe below. Attachments

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Both Gmail and Email handle attachments fairly similarly, which is to say badly. Like with the iPhone, Android on the G1 has very limited attachment support. You can view certain office documents via a web preview in the same way you can on Gmail on the Web and you can also forward them on. You can also download pictures. For outgoing mail, you can attach photos. If you are a heavy attachment user, the G1 is going to seriously disappoint until 3rd party developers (or Google) ramps up support for these files.

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Email

The Email app on the G1 is one of the sources of UI inconsistency I noted earlier. Of course, a standard email application is, by necessity, going to need a be a little different from the Gmail app simply because Gmail is a little different from standard email. That said, the Email app 'does the job' of handling both IMAP and POP email. The Mail app is *not* push, but it works well at handing folders and the like if you have an IMAP account. It also handles auto-detection of most major email services very well, allowing you to simply enter your email address and password and then let the email client set up the rest.

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The basic email interface starts with a folder view that you drill down from, this view is white text on black (instead of most other apps where you find black text on white), which is a little disconcerting but does give you an immediate visual indicator showing you which email client you're using. One notable thing I've noticed is that it doesn't even work all that well with *Gmail*. Since I use a separate Gmail account for my personal email, I had to set it up in the Email app -- the Gmail app doesn't allow for multiple Gmail accounts. As many other email applications tend to do, the Email app creates extra "sent" and "deleted" labels within Gmail.

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Otherwise the Email app is fairly straightforward. The Reply, Reply All, and Forward buttons are clearly visible on every email screen at the bottom, there are convenient Next and Previous buttons (which aren't on the Gmail app!), and you have similar attachment support as can be found on the Gmail App. There are also decent settings for how frequently you check your email, which email account is the default, and so on.

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Browsing

I'll continue with my strategy of giving the short version at the start of each section: the Android Browser on the G1 is second only to the Browser on the iPhone. It's very, very good.

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You've perhaps heard that the G1's browser is some variation of "Chrome Lite," aka a smaller, lighter version of Google's new desktop browser, Chrome. This may be true. Like Chrome, Safari, and the iPhone's Safari browser, the G1's browser is based on the WebKit rendering engine. This means that it is able to display web pages fairly accurately and with very little overhead. That's about all WebKit is, folks -- a fast and lightweight way to fairly accurately display webpages. How you actually *interact* with webpages is a different story and it's different even on devices that share WebKit browsers -- from Windows Mobile's Iris to Nokia's S60 OS to the iPhone to the G1. The G1's implementation of WebKit is, as I said, second only to the iPhone's.

Both render webpages crisply, accurately, and quickly. Both allow you to zoom in and our of web pages, open multiple tabs, and even give you shortcuts to view YouTube videos when they appear on-screen (flash, however, is not supported). The main difference is that since the G1 does not support multitouch, you do your zooming by pressing static buttons on the page. You can also zoom out to a full-page view complete with a small magnifying box to quickly get to the section you're interested in viewing. To get the widgets for doing all of the above, you simply need to start a scroll and they appear on-screen. The browser also takes advantage of the multiple methods of input on the G1. You can, of course, scroll around with your finger as well as tap on links. Some links are hard to target, though, so what you can do is also use the trackball to select and clikc on certain links on the page. You can also hold down the Alt button as you use the trackball to scroll through a page very quickly.

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Otherwise you're looking at a very full featured browser with all the trimmings you'd expect: auto-complete addresses, bookmarks, the ability to tap-hold on links to interact with URLs in ways beyond just clicking (see images above), download files, and so on. Don't forget that here, as in other apps, you can hit the search button to instantly bring up a search!

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SMS and IM

Android gets credit for fully supporting threaded SMS out of the box, as well as supporting MMS as well

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Not much to say about SMS, honestly, it 'just works.' One notable feature for twitter users is that it does display your character count, but not until you hit 130 / 160 characters. It shows up at "30 / 1," which translates as "you have 30 characters left until this becomes a 2nd SMS message. Twitter users try to stay under Twitter's 140 character limit, so they'll want to make sure that character count doesn't get smaller than "20 / 1."

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The IM client on the G1 supports AIM, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. All of the above are average for a mobile client -- which is to say some messages seem to take to long and having it and a desktop client connected to your IM service at the same time doesn't work all that well. That said, the IM client doesn't seem to obliterate the battery when it's left open in the background and it's a fairly full-featured client overall.

Google Maps

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Google Maps on the G1 is the best implementation of Google maps on a smartphone yet. It has all the features of Google Maps on other phones like the iPhone or BlackBerry and more -- including the best version of Street View I've ever seen. It has the same zoom and pan that you use on the Browser, another spot where Multitouch would have been nicer than the static zoom in and zoom out buttons. Google Maps was able to pick up my tower-based location almost instantly on both T-Mobile and AT&T and also picked up satellie location in under a minute. There are a plethora of viewing options -- Road, Satellite, Traffic and (woo hoo!) Street View. When you've llocation either your position you can tap and hold on the dot (or on any other 'marked' location like a search result) to get a pop-up box of available options.

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My favorite feature is the street view and it looks and works *great* on the G1's large screen. Above and below, a search for the best breakfast joint in Minneapolis reveals just how useful street view can be when you're trying to find something. A simple address for Al's leaves many lost, but telling them "it's in the Alley, under a blue striped awning" can help. Hearing that *and* being able to look up an image of that very blue awning is just incredible.

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Directions on Google Maps works well, though trying to figure out what all the little on-screen buttons mean can sometimes be a hassle. Unfortunately, Google Maps does *NOT* work well as a turn-by-turn in-car navigator. As with Google Maps on the iPhone, the map does keep track of your location via GPS. What it doesn't do is automatically switch its waypoint indicator as you travel to let you know where your next turn is -- you have to keep track yourself and tap it as you go. That's disappointing. Fortunately, unlike the iPhone, Android is open enough that any GPS software developer can jump in and offer turn-by-turn GPS software for the G1.

Android Market

The Android Market is how you download (and eventually purchase) apps on Android. It works very well -- when you install an application is automatically downloads and pops-up a notification when the download is finished. Another nice feature is that it displays a windows showing you exactly what the application is going to have access to, like data, location, etc.

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We are going to have **much** more on the Android Market and 3rd party apps in the coming weeks, months, and years, so stay tuned!

Contacts

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The Contacts (and Dialer) app borrows fairly heavily from both the PalmOS and the iPhone. It's split up into 4 tabs: Dialer, Call Log, Contacts, and Favorites. You can add anybody to favorites simply by tapping the star next to their name on their details screen. Once nice feature is that if you start scrolling with a flick, a giant scroll-tab appears on the right side of the screen. You can then grab that and use it to quickly scroll to a letter. For some reason Google Contacts seems hell-bent on sorting my contacts by first name. I'd prefer sorting by last name, but the ability to filter contacts automatically helps mitigate that complaint.

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Android features type-to-filter contacts search, which is essential as Google Contacts can get very (very) messy very quickly. You can tap-and-hold on a name within the contacts listing to get a list of methods of contacting a person.

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Adding a new contact is fairly simple -- just hit Menu and New Contact. Unlike contact apps I have used on other platforms, Android manages to actually get the most important options put in front of you right away -- namely mobile # and email. Also unlike other contact applications I have used, Android doesn't limit you to just one mobile # or address, you can add as many fields as you like very easily. It would be nice if there were an easier way to sync the contacts app to something other than Google -- but apps are already out that work with Exchange (with varying degrees of success) and I expect more in the future.

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Calendar

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The Calendar app on the G1 handles Google Calendars very well, supporting multiple calendars and colors. You can view Agenda, Day, View, Week, and Month, all of which give a pretty quick indication of what your busy and free times are.

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Unfortunately, entering new events is a little cumbersome (see the screen shots above), but it does the job. Notable is that it has pretty good support for repeating events but not, annoyingly, enough. I'd like to be able to easily create events that repeat every weekday instead of every day.

Voice Dial, Calls, and Call Quality

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Oh, by the way, the G1 makes calls. It's true. You can hold down the green Send key to automatically pop up a voice-recongition app that works very well -- it was able to recognize pretty much anybody in my address book that I threw at it. When you begin a call, the screen does *not* lock, but what it does to is present only one area that you can actually interact with -- a tab at the bottom similar to the application tab that you can slide up to reveal a keypad.

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Otherwise you hit the menu button to bring up various in-call options like speakerphone, conference calling, and the like. All of the above worked very well. Call quality is excellent -- really the best I've had on a smartphone since the BlackBerry Curve. The speakerphone is moderately loud, but not great, an issue exacerbated by the fact that the external speaker sits nearly flush when you have it sitting on a table or desk.

Camera & Pictures

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The pictures application conveniently sorts your photos in to iPhoto-esque folders that show some thumbnail of their contents as well as giving you a virtual folder of all the photos on your device. When you enter a folder, you can flick-scroll through your pictures.

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Actually viewing your photos works well with the now-familiar zoom buttons, though I'll admit I often found myself accidentally flicking over to the next photo when I had meant to pan around. Otherwise you have a slew of options for sharing your photo, the ability to crop and rotate, and also set up a slideshow of a given folder. T-Mobile G1 The 3.2 Megapixel camera on the G1 performs as most other HTC cameras -- namely pretty well in good light, not so well in dim light. There is no flash. The camera app itself is a serious disappointment, the only options visible at all are at right. There is no zoom, no color adjustment, no brightness adjustment, just point, autofocus, and click.

Music

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Although the Music App 'does the job,' it's not exactly full featured. It managed to miss some of the ID3 artists tags on my SD card, but did correctly grab quite a lot of the album art. You can sort via the methods you'd expect and also create playlists and Ringtones on the fly, which is neat. There are big, thumb-tappable buttons for most features One nice bit: ound volume through that annoying USB adapter is noticeably louder than pretty much any other audio device I've ever owned.

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Another great thing about the Music player on the G1 is that it inserts an entry into your alerts tray -- so you can quickly get back to the music player no matter where you are in the OS. This is as good a place as any to mention the Amazon MP3 store is built-in and works fine downloading DRM-Free MP3 music. You get 30 second previews as well. It would be better if you could download over 3G instead of just WiFi Big ups to Google and HTC for including it.

YouTube

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It's a YouTube app -- search, playback, related videos, and favorites are all here and all work well.

Other Apps

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The calculator isn't ridiculously powerful, but it does feature a few scientific functions.

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The alarm app is actually quite good -- allowing for multiple alarms customized by tone, date, and so on. One *excellent* feature is that when you create a new alarm a dialog pops up telling you just how long from now it will be until the alarm goes off.

Conclusion

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So after all that, what do I think? I think that if you're one of the following people, the G1 is clearly for you:

  1. You live and breath in Gmail
  2. You're on T-Mobile and looking for an easy-to-use smartphone
  3. You are interested in the Android platform as the first real open-source smartphone.

Despite some complaints about UI hassles, the G1 is an achievement. It's a full-featured smartphone that's a bit rough around the edges and is missing a few features here and there that might be deal-breakers for some. Those features shouldn't be long in coming, though. Stuff I'm hoping for first: a better video player, a podcast streaming app, a tethering app, a sync-able ToDo and Memos app. The G1 is not as polished as the iPhone was at its launch, but it's close. It's not as capable as a Windows Mobile phone, but I expect that gap to close rapidly. It's not as business-friendly as a BlackBerry, but there's plenty here for tech-heads to love. Compared to these competitors, it's pretty easy to claim that the G1 beats them at Google and Gmail (obviously), but most importantly it seems clear that Android beats them on *potential*.

The G1's quality and development floor is a little lower than the other, more established players right now, but its ceiling is higher. The biggest downside to the G1 right now is battery life -- it's very bad. With any luck, we'll see an over the air update to fix that soon. The bottom line with the G1 is that it's a pretty good choice for your average consumer, certainly better than your average featurephone. For power users, right now you'd be buying it on faith that we'll see a slew of applications and OS development soon enough to justify your money.

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