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Friday 6 March 2009

Google G1

I finally made up my mind. Swayed by Apple's arbitrary and capricious limitations, I decided to skip the iPhone for a while and go for the G1. Okay, it wasn't entirely down to Apple that I threw my hat in with Google, the G1 definitely has a lot to recommend it on paper, but sacrificing the ubiquity and "polish" of Apple's phone is definitely not a decision to be taken lightly.

In case you don't know, the G1 is Google's first foray into the world of mobile phones. It is also the first phone to market that runs the (mostly) open-source, linux-based OS "Android". Underneath the branding, the G1 is an HTC Dream, with touch screen, slide out keyboard, wifi, gps, 3G, compass and accelerometers. Very similar (some would say more capable) to the iPhone in fact. However, unlike the perception of the iPhone as this year's must have gadget, the G1 has acquired a reputation for being "early adopters only". Maybe Google's love of the "beta" tag is coming back to haunt them?

Perhaps because of this, I decided to buy the G1 off-contract, ebayed for about £200, and left my options open to jump to the iPhone sooner rather than later. So, after about a day of pretty heavy use, was my caution justified?

Well, let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. First, and probably foremost with extended use, will be the battery life. The G1 is hungry for power, what with all those receivers and aerials, and if you're not careful to cull unnecessary services, you will be looking at about a day of average use between recharges. I understand the iPhone is not much better, so it isn't really too bad. Luckily, it recharges through mini-USB, so you can pretty much plug it in whenever you're near a computer.

Second, I'm not totally sold on the fold out keyboard. It's great for lengthy text input, but very annoying when you just want to type a few letters into a search box. At time of writing, there is no virtual keyboard, but the forthcoming "cupcake" update features such a thing, so this will eventually become a moot point. There's also no support for multi-touch in the software, despite the hardware being more than capable. Talk around the blogosphere is that Apple slapped Google with a friendly "don't even try it!" warning, and Google didn't. Hopefully they'll come to some kind of amicable agreement in the near future.

Finally, and on the subject of updates, it seems that the UK carrier T-mobile are choosing to arbitrarily excise features from UK firmware updates. For example, the recent RC9/33 update saw the rest of the world getting Google Latitude added to the inbuilt maps application. But, for some reason, the UK version alone had Latitude chopped out. No reason has been given, but one can't help but think that the brain dead tabloid media scaremongering has given T-mobile the fear. Come on T-mobile! I can download this functionality on your network on my Nokia, but I can't use the most high profile recent Google release on your fucking Google branded phone? This is the kind of thing that will send me to Apple.

Okay, that's the bad out of the way. Nothing too awful there, but enough to give anyone pause for thought when deciding whether or not to buy into the Android revolution. Luckily, there's more than enough to swing the balance the other way.

Your first impression on getting the G1 is how different it looks in your hand compared to pictures on the web. It is smaller, blacker, more matt and generally far better looking than the "only a mother could love" snaps would suggest. In fact, the hardware feels very nice generally, well made and sturdy. The location of the SIM card and mini-SD card slots are both well thought out and easily accessible, and the inclusion of a removable (and replaceable) battery already put a tick in the G1 column over the iPhone.

Upon turning on the phone for the first time, you're greeted by a Google login box. Enter your normal Google login, and by the time the phone has booted to the home screen, your contacts, mail and calendar have all synchronised to the phone. If you're hooked on Google services like me this is fantastic. No more fumbling around with copying contacts to the SIM card, no more syncing with Outlook or whatever proprietary software your last phone used.

The next thing you notice is how damned slick everything is. I have to admit, I expected a Google produced, Linux based OS to be somewhat... eccentric. But the way the whole thing hangs together has exceeded my wildest expectations. Everything makes sense in the context of a phone. Finding often used phone functions is easy - the dialler, contacts and messaging functions all live on the desktop or in easy to find icons. You scroll through long lists of contacts by flicking your finger in the same way you would on an iPhone. It is all very intuitive and user-friendly (though I did have a bit of a panic trying to find out how to answer the phone, but it was just me being lame I think!)

Your home screen is your desktop. It takes up three screens - the middle one has the dialler and most used functions, and a clock on it. To the right, found by flicking the screen right, is a Google search box for easy searching the web. To the left is an empty screen. You can customise your home screen very easily by creating shortcuts to applications, bookmarks, contacts, anything in fact. I've got mine set up with most used applications in the middle, internet shortcuts to the right, and commonly dialled contacts to the left. Very cool.

The inbuilt Google apps are typically solid - the Gmail client works extremely well, with new messages popping up in the notification area as they arrive (much like an SMS). Maps does everything you get on the web. No multitouch zooming like the iPhone though, but it does have a very cool intertia/compass integration with Streetview. Load up a view like on the web, and you can pan around the scene by literally pointing your phone in the direction you want to look at. I'm at a loss to think of a use for this, but it is a very cool thing to show off the potential of the thing. While there's no Google document or reader support currently, the web versions are very usable. Finally, the Calendar and GTalk apps are simple, easy to use, but nothing particularly exiting.

With such a solid foundation, it is perhaps unsurprising that the main attraction of the Android platform is this: potential. With everything so well integrated and well-featured, the opportunity to do something special with the hardware (compass, GPS, wifi, 3G, camera) is unparalleled.

It's quite hard to describe how much potential there is in this thing without looking at some of the apps that have appeared on the app store in the first few months of it's inception. Here's three that I've been messing with:

  • Shop Savvy - this app is the kind of thing that could only happen on modern phones. What it does is to use the camera to scan the barcode of an item (DVD, book, CD, whatever). It then looks up the details of the item, looks for prices online (and gives links to the product page that open in the browser) and even determines your location and finds shops near you. You can even click on the shop address to open the Maps application, or the telephone number to open the dialler. It also gives reviews of the item, and allows you to save items for future viewing. Very cool.
  • My Tracks - this is a simple idea that is done elsewhere. It's basically a route tracker - start a walk, run or bike ride and tell My Tracks to track you. It then uses the GPS to monitor your location. What's interesting about this is that when you finish recording a track, you are given the opportunity to upload to Google Maps (creating a My Map) or Google Docs. The Docs option is perhaps the most interesting, since it provides you with tonnes of interesting information about your track.
  • Twidroid - this last one is not really for the app itself, which is just a Twitter app (I'm still not sold on the worth of Twitter). I've included it more for the fact that it highlights the G1's main strength over the iPhone - multitasking. After installing Twidroid and logging in, you can configure the app to be "always on". It'll check your tweets at a preconigured interval no matter what else you're doing. When you recieve something, it pops up on the homescreen just like an SMS or mail. It seem weird that this is such a big thing, my old Nokia could do it, but the absence of it on the iPhone highlights just how useful backgrounding is on these always-on-internet devices.
I have to say, even one day in, I'm very impressed. How this will change as the reality of battery life sets in and the novelty of the clever applications wears off, I don't know. But even at this very early stage in Android's life, the future looks very interesting indeed.


  1. For me, it would be a no-brainer. I'm tired of Apple's habit of making everything so closed and protected that the user is unable to do the smallest bit of maintenance without sending the bloody thing to Apple. I also like the idea of having a real keyboard instead.

    The only thing that does make me wonder is that will the open-source make the phone more susceptible to viruses (virii)?

  2. If anything, I would imagine it would make it less susceptible, given that teeming hordes of beady-eyed hippies will be dissecting the code line-by-line.

  3. I would like to have a play with an Android based phone. That said, I'm pretty happy with my iPhone; it's nice having one device for phone, email, mobile web, camera, GPS; the UI is also very slick, lack of cut&paste notwithstanding.

    One thing that Apple have gotten right is refusing to bend to providers and their desires to customise firmware. Phone providers suck at writing/modifying software; this is a truth universally acknowledged. Is there an easy way to get 'reference' G1 firmware that's not gimped?

  4. Muz: yeah, there's a very easy way of "rooting" the G1 and a number of custom firmwares that add in Latitude, and even enable multitouch or auto-rotation (another strange omission). I haven't done it yet, but I suspect I will if T-mobile don't relent.

  5. Testing, nothing to see here.

  6. How is it as a media player? iTunes is pretty slick...

  7. Seems fairly good, though I've not used it a great deal. Another weakness of the G1 that I didn't mention is the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you need to use the converter that comes with it. Idiots.

    But otherwise it's fine. The usual drill down by artist/album/genre. Shows album artwork. Interesting feature where you can search youtube or google for an artist or song while it's playing. And you can whack more storage in there with mini-SD cards.

  8. After Daves glowing recommendation for the google phone I plumped for the HTC Magic, it's faster than the G1 slimmer and without a physical keyboard. Nice for all that, but only available in white so far.

    It's a great wee phone, ruined by red rotten reception from Vodafone at work. Their coverage page lied basically and 2g is patchy at the college, arguements are ongoing.

    Anyway, great apps I've found or had suggested.

    darairc - small light IRC client, perfect to slip into #eed on the move.

    chompsms - puts text messages threaded by contact, then coloured bubbles to left or right within conversation.

    useful switcher - great wee app, turn off 3g/wireless etc... all very nicely configured.

    snapphoto - adds functions to the (shitty) in built camera, lighting style timer etc... - does what it says on the tin, streaming can be a problem even on 3g I find though.

    wifi analyser - great to see mac addresses publishing channels and signal strengths. More useful for work than home obviously.

    wikidroid - wikipedia customised for android.

    fotmob - keep up with footie scores, ads are present though but very very handy when you're out and your team is playing.

    skymap - very impressive, using GPS and other stuff shows which stars/constellations are visible on the screen.

    beebplayer - Again 3g streaming a problem, but imagine a mini iplayer and you're there.

    Bubble - iphone like spirit level

    colourful life - upload your pictures to picasa

    compass - again, on the tin.

    convertpad - see this tin, it's well used. Convert from one thing to another, metric - imperial etc..

    facebook sync - no pictures for some contacts, if you have them on facebook you can pull their profile picture down to your contacts.

    gdocs - edit your google docs on the move

    layar and wikitude - wiki camera overlay which is amazing, but not 100%. Point camera in direction and it pulls up local wiki entries. From castles to chinese takeaways, mind blowing.

    smsbackup - save text messages into sms label in your gmail.

    taskiller - kill off excess apps which are eating battery/cpu cycles

    toggle settings - define profiles for different times / situations. 00:35am - 7:15 am phone in flight mode. 7:16 - 7:20 - everything sync and enable wifi and phone. Charging put wifi/gps on too, autosync. Not charging wifi/autosync off.

    voice recorder - when you're in a credit crunch meetings with bosses may need recorded ;)

    I'll try and find time to link to each of these in full, but stole enough work time typing this stuff out!