T-Mobile G1: Design Review
Being just excited as the next gadgeteer, I was able to take the newly launched gPhone HTC Dream T-Mobile G1 for a spin! Touting its strong and ever-so-long list of functionality including 3G/WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS, HTC slaps on Google’s infamous Android OS offering in an attempt to combat this gosh-darned touchscreen market. Of course, its glamour isn’t the touchscreen nor that Leno-chinned, QWERTY keyboard hardware; it’s the open-sourced software that allows designers and developers all over the world to contribute and create the most mind-blowing apps available.
In this design review, I put the G1 through it’s paces. Don’t hesitate – you want to continue reading.
This phone requires a bit of history and a bit of context in order to explain its significance. It’s been rumoured ever since 2005 that Google has been working on infiltrating the handset space. Recently, Google unveiled its Android platform – an open-sourced mobile operating system, created and developed by the OHA (Open Handset Alliance). Quoting from Google itself, it’s the “first complete, open, and free mobile platform”. By combating the closed nature of the current OS market including powerhouses like Symbian, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry OS, and Apple OS, it hopes to open up and truly deliver the best applications the developers can dream of – without the restrictions employed by closed OS’s.
Perhaps the significance of openly-developed apps is large enough to write an entire article on, but suffice to say, apps made Facebook the giant that it is, it’s what drove Sony PSP sales with its homebrew software, it’s what made Apple’s App Store in 2.0 the update that it was, it’s what will drive the BlackBerry Application Centre when it comes out, and heck, with LittleBigPlanet coming out for PS3, who knows what people might come up with.
But enough about Android itself. This design review focuses on the current implementation of Android on an HTC device, marketed and sold through T-Mobile.
Five Word Review
Initial, inelegant, inviting, impressive… swoopy.
Aesthetics and Action
This phone isn’t great with first impressions. Even the PR pictures look drab and uncool. But to be honest, when you pick this thing up, things pick up! One of the first things you notice before you even turn the phone on, is the whicked swoopy sliding mechanism that exposes the QWERTY keyboard. It’s well built and although other reviewers downplay its importance, I think it was important that it kept the nigh-useless swoop for media reasons. (And I believe important phones such as these deserve their moment in the spotlight). When you do actually turn it on, Google starts to run the show - and it REALLY runs it for better or for worse. More on that later.
Everything on the phone is designed for maximum matte black. Oddly enough, those with the matte black Macbook would find themselves in very familiar territory. The hardware designers have done well to titillate fans with a Google logo on the back, and a well-subdued ‘htc’ logo in its lowercase font, on the side. In fact, everything about this phone is subdued. The MicroSD slot on is located in an impossible-to-find slot located between the cracks of the screen and the chin.
Speaking of the chin, the G1 sports a chin that many have labeled, the “Leno chin” with its obvious reference. This chin houses five of your typical buttons as well as a very welcome addition – the BlackBerry-esque trackball. Most interesting of all, the chin bends toward the user. This design definitely has its haters, but I’m actually finding it very usable and very comfortable. In terms of ergonomics, in landscape mode, the chin provides a good curved base to hold while you type ferociously. It DOES cause your right thumb to stretch a little, but you get used to it. Fortunately, it’s nowhere near as obstructive as the Krave. In portrait mode, I also find it comfortable – you hold the phone as you would normally, but the trackball actually becomes more usable, because it’s flatter. Again, this is subjective and vastly differs from person to person.
Perhaps the most annoying hardware characteristic of the phone is its pocket-averse nature. The phone is a little bit thick and the sleeve that comes with it doesn’t exactly help (although its suede-like material feels very good!). I didn’t find the chin too much of an annoyance in this case, but I’m sure plenty of fitted-jean wearers are screaming in agony.
Finally, the screen. It’s bright, it’s beautiful, and best of all, it’s capacitive. It responds very well (depending on the application), has good gesture actions, and it totally puts a different look to the phone when its on. It looks gorgeous and I totally commend HTC for it.
All in all, I’m finding the phone much better looking in person than in its PR pictures. It’s not looking to attract; rather its got a very subdued matte look – sort of like the pre-2003 Audi’s. Subdued, not a poser, not cheap, but rather satisfying.
Aesthetics and Action: 7.5/10 + 0.5 for swoopness.
Fabrication and Flavour
HTC did a very well job in the fabrication of this phone. It’s tried to minimize and close as many ports as possible, which was possibly the basis for its exclusion of the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. In fact, it took me a while to even figure out how to open the battery door. When open, even the BATTERY looks cool with its snarky “htc innovation” slogan.
Build quality is very good, although not exceptional. With enough playing of the swooping screen – which, by the way, owners will be doing a TON of, for no particular reason – the screen starts to have a little play room when it’s not in the middle of its swooping action. This causes the screen to move when gestures are used to move around in the desktop.
The main navigational tools are well-designed, with the trackball functioning on-par with its native land, the BlackBerrys. In fact, it’s so useful, that when the screen has slid open, it’s less of a hassle to flick the trackball and depress it than to lift your hand to touch an icon (Yes, I’m THAT lazy). Unfortunately, as is the case with BlackBerrys, it’s sometimes difficult to depress the trackball without jolting it in a direction and ultimately selecting a different icon.
Finally, the keyboard. With a ginormous FIVE rows, the G1 has given itself so much room, that it’s hard not to screw up. Fortunately, the keys work well enough to crank out long emails and text messages on the fly. Five rows give it plenty of room for extra shortcut buttons as well. I especially like the dedicated @ and search key. The @ key is used so much, why not give it its own dedicated button? I’m looking at you, RIM. Unfortunately, RIM beats HTC in the actual design of buttons. This is normally the case with any slider phone as the buttons have to be smooth and flat so as not to obstruct the sliding mechanism. But nonetheless, the buttons are so smooth, that it’s a little bit difficult to feel your way around the large keyboard – much more so than with any of the BlackBerrys. <shamless plug for Feedback from Surrounding Environment section of User Interface Analysis: User Feedback> In any case, the keyboard generally works well, and is a rather satisfying phone for pounding your thumbs out. Seriously, punch it with your thumbs… it feels great!
Fabrication and Flavour: 8.5/10
Interface and Interaction
Note: I’m not going to delve into the Android Market, as there are plenty of other online reviews of how well the Market and its apps hold up. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the design aspects.
Essentially, this entire section is dependent on Google, save for one sentence in which I mention that HTC has used a very respondant capacitive screen and a great navigational trackball tool. So here we go! Google, your turn in the spotlight.
Google’s Android platform, as noted by many, is initial and “looks like version one” (and it is, literally). But now you’re asking, “What does that really mean and how will it affect the my interaction with the device?” Well, to be honest, you’ll definitely have your gripes, but I think what’s offered here is very satisfying.
Android on the G1 deploys a notification bar that mimics a window shade. You pull it down at anytime from the top, and it has your newest notifications – everything from your e-mail, to your SMS messages, and even application downloads/installs. It’s… AWESOME. It’s new, it’s innovative, and it totally gets the job done. Along with the flicking of the swooping screen, I ended up dragging the window shade up and down just for the sake of it. It’s fun and its satisfying.
The desktop is also a cool thing to note. Not only does it have three desktops (similar to the iPhone’s main screen) in which you swipe left or right to access, the desktop wallpaper moves along with it. The cool effect is that the wallpaper moves at a slower pace creating a sort of 3D illusion. It’s really cool and really entertaining to look at. I’m not sure the novelty of this really dies down either.
The menu system is accessed through another drag-out tool – the menu arrow. You can drag the menu up and down, but it’ll only lock in a fully-open or fully-closed state. It’s cool to use, but there’s nothing new.
Furthermore, the buttons and menu systems employed by the OS have an aesthetically-pleasing black-background theme to it. The buttons are pleasant to touch/click/hit-enter-on, and overall, the themes work well (one of Google’s knacks, I would say). It’s definitely one of the most elegant ones I’ve seen.
Google Maps is also another amazing app. Streetview on a cellphone is literally the coolest map tool I’ve seen. Using a built-in compass tool, Streetview senses the direction in which your phone is pointing and shifts the view towards that direction. So essentially, what your phone is pointing at, is what shows! CRAZY. It’s a tad different than its stellar multi-touch implementation on the iPhone, but it still works like a charm. If you love these quirks, this is the phone for you.
Unfortunately, here’s where the fun starts to head downhill. Although there’s plenty to be pleased about, they have their kinks. The screen generally responds well, but there have been many times where I distinctly pressed on the screen, and the actions did not follow through. This happens quite often unfortunately. Luckily its got a relatively speedy processor (Qualcomm MSM7201), so I know right away if an action hasn’t been followed through. When I’m playing the games though (the ones out right now are a pretty damned good start, by the way), the mis-touches are a big annoyance and has caused me several hundreds of points in their Tower-Defense-meets-Bubble-Breaker game!
Furthermore, since the edges of the screen doesn’t have a capacitive touch (for obvious reasons – it’s surrounded by plastic), the dragging of the notification bar doesn’t always pull down properly. The dragged menu also doesn’t always pull up properly. The mis-touches are definitely apparent and it’s annoying.
The other annoyance, as I mentioned earlier, is how Google totally runs the show. In fact, when you turn on the phone, the phone forces you to enter in a Gmail account. And when it does this, it synchronizes your life onto it. Unfortunately, it only syncs well for one account. In fact, both the Gmail app and the Calendar app (which I use heavily) surrounds around your one account.
The big problem, is that power-Googlers like me, have several Gmail accounts. I have a game-friendly account, I have a work-friendly account, I have a spam-friendly account – heck, I even have one dedicated for Google Alerts. The G1 doesn’t like this fact however, and so none of your Gmail accounts will be properly sync’d except through the dumb-downed E-mail app. This app is a simplified Gmail app that is able to sync with various webmail accounts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t naturally support the cooler Gmail features that Google made me switch for – conversational/chained emails, labels, stars, etc. (all of which the Gmail app supports).
Luckily, for those with only one Gmail account, it syncs like no tomorrow. In fact, tests from other reviewers have noted that in many cases, your emails arrive faster than on a regular computer browser. Your calendars work fantastically and it even has support for IM.
So I left the worse for last, and I hope that’s alright. Contacts… are an abysmal failure. The damned phone syncs with EVERYONE you have come in contact with through e-mail. Names I haven’t heard for years started to pop up in the contact list. Apparently, Google thinks everyone is still your best friend. Oddly, this feature if used properly, could be one of its cooler features. If you manage your contacts well with phone numbers and addresses, it’s integration with the dialer and Google Maps is mind-boggling. Unfortunately no one I know properly uses Contacts – feel free to prove me wrong. This damned idea of importing the whole list was the most frustrating thing in the world. I wag my finger at you, Product Managers of the Contacts unit.
Interface and Interaction: 8.0/10 + 0.5 for nifty notification bar
Performance and Pacing
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to run specific calculational/graphical benchmarks, so the only benchmark I’ll be doing is the ever-present sideloading issue. The G1 loads onto the MicroSD card (SanDisk 4GB Mobile Ultra, in this case) decently fast at an average rate of 7.2MBps, with slower speeds noticed when a simulaneous process is hogging up the processing bandwidth.
The phone does lag from time to time, mostly due to the OS’s inability to close applications. With a bunch of apps/games running simultaneously, and e-mails being downloaded, the processor suffers quite a bit. I’ve had one crash while using it. Suffice to say: keep the phone clean, and it’ll work like a Dream (rhyme/pun intended!).
Performance and Pacing: 8.5/10
Tracking the Trends
This phone has generated a massive amount of tech media buzz due to its open-sourced nature – and rightfully so. I believe that phones like these should get the maximum amount of exposure to generate hype. I believe that it gets the industry running and keeps companies striving for more. With that said, this phone has three specific markets: a) the open-source-loving/gadget-thriving crews, b) the Sidekick/texting fiends, and most importantly c) Google-lovers (and there are plenty).
This brings us to this phone’s X-Factor: Goo frickin’ oogle. I really think that this phone will sink in well with people who use Gmail religiously. As the dominant webmail tool, it’s definitely using itself to market towards any of its users. And anyone who’s a proper Gmail-user will love its integration into this phone. It’s well supported and the entire experience nearly defines Google. Seriously – innovative, fun, sick to use, but always in beta.
One last thing to note: throughout the article, I barely mentioned T-Mobile. All in all, this is a Google interface on an HTC phone. T-Mobile, who is only there to ride the wave, has made a smart decision grabbing exclusivity in the US. Even smarter is their willingness to turn their back on the security of closed platforms and closed apps. To the three biggies: we salute you.
Phew! Sorry for the obnoxiously long review.
I hope I’ve written enough for you Google lovers. Conversely, I hope you’ve really got a chance to understand the ins and outs of this device. The open-sourced nature of this device really brings in a LOT to talk about. Add in the fact that it’s a touchscreen phone, with a QWERTY keyboard with a cool swoop mechanism, with a trackball, with a 3.0MP camera with autofocus (works well, btw - although a bit slow), and a comfortable Leno chin (imho), and you’ve got… pretty much what I wrote about.
All in all, if your used to Google, there’s a LOT to explore. This device is new and it totally redefines the OS space with its openness. It’s disruptive to the industry and it’s totally awesome that way. I’m waiting in open arms for your non-version-one, Google.
T-Mobile G1: 8.5/10