G1 is no iPhone, but Android has promise

Most G1 reviewers will probably agree that, in a nutshell, the software is nice but the hardware underwhelms.

The G1, the first phone to run Google’s Android software, goes on sale Oct. 22 from T-Mobile. If users can get past the hardware shortcomings, the software on the G1 and its openness might just convince some people to choose it over the iPhone .

It’s hard to critique the G1 without comparing it to the iPhone, the benchmark against which any new touch-screen phone gets compared. The G1 hardware is just ho-hum, where the iPhone is really stellar. Viewing the same video on both phones starkly shows the difference in screen quality. The iPhone’s is sharp, smooth and bigger. The G1’s is blurry, a bit pixelated and smaller.

While I prefer a real keyboard like the G1’s over a touch-screen keyboard like the iPhone, the G1 has issues there too. To get your right thumb onto the keyboard, you have to awkwardly reach it over a hump on the end of the phone that has the home and power buttons on it.

The touch screen works decently, although sometimes I had to hit a link on a Web page over and over to get it to open. The G1 introduces a new concept: the long press. Holding your finger on the home screen, for example, opens a menu of applications, shortcuts, widgets and wallpapers that can be added to the home screen.

Another hardware shortcoming in the G1 is the camera — it stinks. Even in broad daylight the photos I took were always too dark. Forget about taking a picture in your living room at night with just your normal lights on. Almost nothing at all shows up. If there’s a setting that can correct that, I couldn’t find it. T-Mobile has played up the fact that the phone has a 3-megapixel camera, compared to the iPhone’s 2 megapixels, but if the light sensitivity is so poor, it doesn’t make any difference.

Still, for the most part the G1 hardware is no worse than most smartphones out there, and the software stands out enough that some people might prefer it over any of the competition.

When I first started playing around with the phone, I got the sense that it’s infinitely customizable. The home screen stretches beyond the boundaries of the phone’s display — swiping the screen horizontally with your finger reveals a screen to the left or right of the central screen. With the long press, I added a couple of photograph widgets on one of the pages, arranging them where I liked.

Swiping a finger upward on a small icon at the bottom of any of the home screens displays the list of applications on the phone. I dragged and dropped applications onto the main home screen, arranging them anywhere across the three screens.

For people who already use many Google apps, like Gmail and Google Talk, they are nicely integrated. The rest of us will feel a bit like second-class citizens.

The phone, which forces you to sign in or create a new Gmail account to get started, automatically imports contacts from your Gmail account to the phone’s contact list. When Google users scroll through their contacts list on the phone, they can see at a glance if a contact is logged into Google Talk. Gmail on the phone has the bells and whistles you’d expect, like the ability to search for e-mails.

But for people like me, the integration isn’t so neat. I’m an AIM and Yahoo Mail user. While I was able to use those on the phone, they didn’t populate my contacts list, and the contacts list doesn’t feature an icon showing my friends who are signed onto AIM. And I wasn’t able to search through my Yahoo Mail inbox.

To browse for third-party applications, I checked out the Android Market, which is relatively sparse at the moment. That could be partly because developers can only give their apps away for free, since Google hasn’t launched a payment mechanism for them yet. For now, the best I found were a nice Pac-Man game and a couple of applications that use the phone’s camera to read a barcode on a product and show other products with competitive pricing.

Voice calls worked very well, with good sound quality and no dropped calls for me. I’m in Seattle, one of the 23 cities where T-Mobile expects to have launched 3G service by Oct. 22. When I was attached to the 3G network, data services worked well, but I noticed the phone switched often between 3G and the slower EDGE network, even while I was sitting in one place. On EDGE, applications slow to a crawl or don’t work at all. The G1 can read Excel and PDF files and download JPGs. Users can also send and receive photos via text message, something you can’t do with the iPhone.

A couple of odd shortcomings: The screen orientation flips to horizontal automatically when playing a video or when the keyboard slides out. It would make more sense to work like the iPhone, where the orientation is tied to the accelerometer in the phone, switching based on how the user holds the phone.

The phone can’t take videos. Neither does the iPhone, but some phones, namely many of Nokia’s, do, and given Google’s connection to YouTube, it would make sense to let users take brief videos and upload them directly to YouTube.

I had trouble with the Wi-Fi. I could easily connect to and use my neighbor’s open Wi-Fi network. However, when I tried connecting to my own password-protected network, the phone said I was connected, but I could never actually use anything Internet-based.

The phone goes on sale next week in the U.S. for US$180 with a two-year contract. A so-called “unlimited” data plan will cost $35 per month; T-Mobile recently lifted its initial 1G-byte cap on the unlimited plan but said it would soon announce new terms for the plan.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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