Round Robin Review: T-Mobile G1

As I mentioned in my full review of Android on the G1, Android pretty much seems custom designed to fit me as a user (more on that in a bit). So of all the devices in the Round Robin, the G1 seems most-suited to cause me to stray a bit from Windows Mobile, but will it? You know the drill: read on!

(To enter to win the HTC Fuze and Celio Redfly, comment on this post before January 10th)

Pick The Smartphone That Fits You

Although I still very much stand by the dictum that I put down a year and a half ago: choose your carrier before you choose your phone, I have to say, the G1 really really seems to be aimed a target market of yours-truly. Let's review why:

  1. It's the latest and newest thing. I can't deny it, the G1 is the newest OS out there and it's not a bad one, there's a lot of growth potential here and I'm also the sort that likes having what's new.
  2. It's Google-centric. More on this later, but for now know that after several false starts my main hub for email, contacts, and calendar is now Google. I get it working pretty well on Windows Mobile, but the G1 is designed from the get-go for this.
  3. The OS is open, hackable, and fairly powerful. Again, more on this whole 'open' and 'powerful' thing in just a bit, but whether it's hating on SMS and PIN or decrying closed GPS systems, I prefer open to not. Android is Open source all the way down.

As long as we're repeating points made previously in the Smartphone Round Robin, I'll repeat Casey's point from the 2nd Smartphone Round Robin Roundtable, namely that Android as an OS seems to have a little bit of familiarity for everybody: touchscreen, menu button, full keyboard, trackball, back button, and more. (Check out this Android Walkthrough to get a feel for the basic User Interface metaphors).

As the sort of guy who appreciates multiple input methods and doesn't mind figuring out which is best in a given situation, well, no complaints there either. Heck, I even like the G1's hardware, chin and all.

In short, except for the fact that the G1 runs on T-Mobile and doesn't have 3G in my area, on paper it seems pretty much custom-designed to fit my needs.

Gmail, Google, and Buy-In

The short version is this: if you're not a Gmail/Google Contacts/Google Calendar user and you're not interested in converting, move along, there is nothing to see here for you. Although Exchange integration is coming (and right quick), this is a Google-Phone first. In fact, when you first boot the device up, it will literally do nothing until you enter your Google credentials and it successfully talks to the Google home base (this makes using an unlocked T-Mobile G1 a chore, btw, as you need a T-Mo SIM card to get it going).

If you are a Google-holic, then there is a lot to like here. Well, there's a lot to like about the Gmail client and the Calendar, both of which are darn good on the web and not too shabby as client apps here.

What I most appreciate is the email app, which allows me to archive/label messages exactly as I do on the desktop and keeps me from having to fiddle with IMAP workarounds. It's push, too, and although Kevin noted that it's not as instant as the BlackBerry, it's still plenty fast enough for me.

My main gripe -- and it's not a small one -- is that the buttons you want to use to interact with email are wicked-hard to find quickly on emails of any length. Three are located at the very bottom of your email thread and three more at the bottom of the email message -- the distinction there becomes important because Gmail aggressively threads email messages. You can also find some (but not all!) of the functions underneath the “Menu” key, but all in all it's a very annoying and inconsistent way of doing things. If I hadn't discovered the Android Gmail shortcuts (entirely by accident, I might add), this would be a deal-breaker.

As it is, it's still annoying but for me it's generally worth the hassle to have my mobile email match my preferred desktop experience so closely with no sync/setup/work at all.

I also mentioned the calendar above because you get the same sort of experience: a good mobile version of what you get on the web, complete with push sync, separate calendars/colors, and the like.

Not mentioned in these warm fuzzies: the Contacts app. Now, contacts on the G1 is still leaps-and-bounds better than what you'll find on the iPhone. It starts with home-screen typing to find contacts (good, except when you accidentally have the Google Search Widget selected), continues with the now-standard-stolen-from-Palm 4-tabbed Dialer/Contacts app, and finishes with speedy auto-filtering. All of this is fine, though I would add that it would be nice to be able to search via the standard keypad so I don't have to open the keyboard to make a call.

What's not fine: Google Contacts. I've ended up making it my main Contacts app mainly by default, but I'm not happy about it. Google seems to add everybody I've ever emailed and I'm not one of the chosen few who are able to turn this “feature” off. It's a very mysterious feature at that, as when Google adds these email addresses to my contacts list it's only about 25% likely to actually place the email address under the right contact. The upshot is that unless you are willing to devote a very real amount of time to managing your contacts, they'll quickly turn into an unwieldy mess.

At this point I've pretty much thrown up my hands and given up: Google doesn't seem to delete any contacts, thank the lord, so I've just accepted that my contacts list is going to be a mess, full of duplicates and unnecessary emails/contacts.

Google: fix this. As long as the Android platform depends on Google Contacts, it's going to be mired in contact confusion. Heck, Google, while you're fixing things, finish up that ToDo app you just released on your Gmail client and let us sync it up. Notes, too, we need those.

Seriously, people. Palm got the Four Pillars of PIM right over 10 years ago. Compared to push email, calendar and contacts, ToDo and Notes should be a snap. TANJIT, of our four Round Robin Operating Systems, only half get this right.

Yeesh. Sorry. Moving on.

So how is using the G1 day to day? It's not too shabby, actually, so long as you don't mind using it two-handed. Since there is no way to enter text except the physical keyboard, you'll find that you need to have it open the majority of the time. In fact, I find myself opening it to turn it on rather than hitting a button and then hitting the menu/keyguard button.

With it open, the two-handed-ness continues. On the Fuze, I find that I am able to do minor navigation and even a little text entry with my right hand. On the G1, no such luck. While you can get a bit done simply with the trackball under your right thumb, it's much faster and easier to reach up to the touchscreen most of the time. It's a pretty long reach, too, as the G1 isn't exactly small.

The UI metaphors are decidedly mixed, but coming from Windows Mobile and having experience with the BlackBerry OS I don't find them difficult to navigate at all -- just remember to hit that Menu button to find extra options that don't appear on screen. I'll join the chorus and say that I'm a huge fan of the “alerts window shade.”

The biggest hassle for me is the “Back” button, whose functionality is inconsistent at best and at times seems downright capricious. On Windows Mobile (and BlackBerry), the back button usually defaults to a more 'careful' mode, erring on the side of caution.

A use case is a bit more helpful. Say I get an email alert, I hit the alert and go directly to the email. Read it, done, time to hit the back button. On Windows Mobile, the back button will always take me back to the inbox so I can move on to other messages that might be there. On Android, the back button, well, sometimes it does that. Other times it just takes me back to the previous screen. Say I get an alert for a text message, I go look at it, then hit back, realize I'm on some random screen, hit the home button, swipe to messages, tap that, and then (hopefully) I'll get to my SMS inbox.

The homescreen is a mix of Windows Mobile's Today screen and a more traditional application shortcut list ala BlackBerry. In theory, it's a very nice mix of functionality. You can slide the drawer out to get access to all of your apps, have your most important apps available quickly, and have widgets that offer useful information and utilities.

In practice, it's not quite there yet. Although I do like the window shade alert system, I'd also like to see number badges on the icons on the home screen (so-called 'Active Home Screen' icons). Additionally, the only widgets that are available right now are pretty weak sauce: a Clock, a picture frame, and a Google search box. Hopefully this will change quickly with some 3rd party software.

3rd Party Software and Power

Aha, speaking of third party software, it's not quite there yet either. While there are some diamonds -- specifically ShopSavvy and Twitroid, the rest are pretty mediocre. Part of that is likely due to the fact that there's no method for actually purchasing Android apps yet. Part of it, though, is frankly that this is a new platform with very unclear standards for memory management, user interface, and the like. Or if there are standards, they don't seem to be coming through to the end user very clearly.

I've experienced some troubling pauses and instability with some third party apps, but in the main it's not too bad.

Android is a multi-tasking OS, but again it's not entirely clear to me how it all works. Do apps in the background truly keep running and taking up RAM, slowing everything else down. If the device feels slow, can I quit applications? Should I need to? The default answer seems to be “don't worry about it,” but I worry about [it], Bevvie, I worry a lot. I probably shouldn't, but when the device seems to slow down on me, it's hard not to.

I will say this: the App Market is grand. It's cluttered with poor user reviews, useless apps, and the like, but I don't much care. Having a single interface for installing apps that also tells me what parts of Android are going to get accessed by the App is the “way it should be.”

Built-in Apps

I've already covered all the built-in apps over at the Android Central Review, so I'll just hit on a couple high points here.

Browsing is great, but it's still annoying that multitouch isn't included on this build of Android -- the hardware and the OS are certainly capable of it. I don't know who to blame for this, but I have a hunch and it rhymes with “mapple datent.”

Anyhow, best browsing experience after the iPhone, edging out even the higher-end Windows Mobile browsers for speed and rendering (though it can't do nearly as much as Skyfire, multi-media-wise). It's occasionally slower than I'd prefer, but I'll be darned if Webkit doesn't make a great mobile rendering engine.

SMS is threaded, as it ought to be. IM seems to depend on T-Mobile's network, Google Maps is a joy, voice dialing is decent, pictures and video is sub-par, etc etc. All of the 'must-haves' are here, but only a handful inspire. Of particular note is the music app, which apparently set the bar at Windows Mobile's Windows Media Player and just barely managed to clear it. It's no wonder they didn't include a 3.5mm headset jack on the device. On the other hand, when you have music playing it places an entry in the notification window shade for quick access.

Hackability and Customization

Android is Open Source and more hackable down to the deep, deep guts of the device than any other platform. That's the good news -- the bad news is that the learning curve to do it is, well, it's not necessarily steep but it's a long, long plod. I'm no developer, so the idea of learning how to code in Linux, Java, and the like doesn't really appeal to me. So while Android is open and hackable, it's not really either to the likes of me. It's great for the serious hacker, but the hobby hacker need not apply.

This stands in stark contract to Windows Mobile, which except for the closed source code is almost as 'open' as Android is. Even minor lock-downs send us into fits and lead us to write open letters. There's almost no limitation without a workaround. More to the point, the learning curve for hacking Windows Mobile as a hobbyist is moderately steep but very short. Once you get over the hump of modifying your first registry entry, you're pretty much golden to hunt around for hacks and a short jaunt away from installing custom ROMS. Hobby Hacker's Delight.

Still, with Android it may most be a matter of timing -- it simply hasn't been out on the market that long. I do wonder, though, if this is the place where we ought to be praising the registry on Windows Mobile. I think a registry as a centralized location for settings and preferences is a great fit for Mobile, but I should probably stay off that topic for the time being.

Anyway, there are a few hack-y apps on the Android Market that let you create shortcuts or give you fine-grained control over power settings, but they too are fairly inelegant.

Wrapping Up

So my bottom line as a Windows Mobile user moonlighting in Android Land: big potential, not there yet. The fact of the matter is that Android needs more baking before it's going to be truly ready to take on the other Smartphone platforms on their own terms. Email's not as fast as BlackBerry, Enterprise support is nonexistent compared to Windows Mobile, and the UI isn't as consistent as the iPhone. On its own terms, however, Android certainly gets the job done and does a few things better than anybody else does (Gmail, obviously).

So there's no call for Windows Mobile users to flock to Android, but there is a call to Microsoft to open up their OS more (to end users, anyway). More importantly, it looks right now like Android was developed quickly and continues to develop quickly. I don't know how long Android was in the works before it was unveiled, but I know it wasn't very long. I also know it won't be very long before many of the complaints enumerated above are addressed.

As a Windows Mobile user, seeing WM seem to stagnate while Android is rushing headlong into the future is not fun. Right now, Windows Mobile is slightly ahead, but take heed, Microsoft. In a year or two you may find Windows Mobile in the same position on the track compared to Android -- but WM will have been lapped.

Dieter Bohn
  • I think the G1 is a good device!
  • I like it, and I think Android has some incredible potential. I also think its not quite there yet, and needs some more work. It will be exciting to watch its evolution, but just watch for now.
  • I'm curious about the request for Microsoft to open up their OS more. What do you wish you had access to? It seems to be the most hackable/customizable of anything out there. Ironic, huh?
  • @Cascade -
    I actually was going to get into that very deeply, but ultimately decided it needed its own article and so cut off my thoughts there. Basically, what I think we need are more hooks and APIs to allow skinning at a deeper level. If MS can't get new version of WM out quickly enough, they need to make it easier for HTC and the like to take stuff like TouchFLO 3D more than skin deep. Everybody complains that once you get out of TouchFLO 3D and into plain 'Windows Mobile,' the transition is too jarring. But if it were easier to adapt some of those apps too....
  • Nice to see a review of Android from the eyes of a windows mobile user. Looking forward to see what happens in 2009 with new android updates to the OS, more applications and new hardware.
  • Good review Dieter, very fair. For my part I really like Android, it kind of seems like a mix between Windows Mobile and the iPhone's OS. Like you get the power of Windows Mobile and the slickness of the iPhone.
    The G1, from a specs point of view is great....but I can't help but wish it looked a bit nicer. It would have been better if it was a bit more inline with the AT&T Fuze/Touch that phone is a true beauty.
  • I got to play with one of these at the mall recently. I agree that there is alot of potential there, but its not polished enough for me to give up my Titan. (The Fuze, is another story :-)
  • Impressive review. I really like how integrated it is with google services. If you live in that world, the out of box experience is gonna be awesome. Just enter you Gmail account info and then you have contacts, calendar, and email. Very nice.
  • i know its capacitive but, is there a note application that u can write using ur finger, for a quick note?? "while in the car"
    when ur driving its very hard to type on a slide out qwerty, so sometimes having to write a quick note, like an e-mail or something using just one hand??
    also i am not sure if u had it running on T-mobile's network. but how do u compare AT&T's 3g speed to T-mobile's, assuming average users will stick to t-mobile,
    i wish there was a list of PROs and CONs from a WM user
  • Um... were you always late with your homework too? From UK to US, this thing has been extensively reviewed already...
  • im starting to love this phone
  • Android's aledged openness is deceitful. As far as I care, until Google (or someone else) stops forcing Google's stuff down the user's throat, coming to the point of requiring a Google account to even start using the darn phone, Android is NOT open at all!
  • It seems like a good start for a first gen device. I think the other carriers were correct in waiting for Android to mature some more before offering it.
    I totally agree that one should not select a carrier based on phone but should select the carrier that works best where they spend most of their time. Had I selected T-Mobile based on the android phone, I would have a full featured brick at home since T-Mobile service there is very poor.
    I'll stick to my WinMo devices for now until android matures a little more and a carrier that is useful in my area offers one up.
    Good review by the way....
  • It needs 2 be more accessible
  • Good review Dieter. On the subject of multi-tasking, it will be very interesting to see if Android's internal memory management "stuff" can scale better than Windows Mobile's. (which clearly has problems)
    I'm just starting to get into Android development, but so far I haven't seen any API's available for doing some instrumentation on the OS. (memory usage, number of linux processes running, etc, etc) Though I'm sure they exist, they maybe just haven't been released publicly yet.
  • Write this down, Samsung: Trackball = good, optical mouse = BAD.
  • Agreed, 100%!
  • Pooteenee!
    (Jawa dialect for "great review", 'natch!)
  • Great review.
    Gotta love the extended round robin.
  • i agree with CeluGeek. i use google for maps and search and the email that i check about once every other month. so an os where everything is tied into one account just doesn't make sense for me. i don't mind waiting for wm 6.5 (maybe on the next touch hd!)
  • good reviews, really didn't know a lot about the G1 before seeing these, thanks dieter.
  • nice review
  • unless ms does something significant with winmo 7, I'm jumping ship
  • seems like a system with a great future. Hope WM pays attention!
  • Dieter, Your review is useful for people still not sure if they should commit to the G1. I agree that it feels like it is built for me, but I think I will wait until the battery life issue is resolved. Thanks for the review. Paul
  • I was torn between the G1 and the Fuze for months, I was quitting verizon and couldn't decide what to go with. It was the trackball and capacitive screen that finally won the day. I just wanted to thank you for helping me come to a decision, even though I didn't go winmo this time I don't have anything against it. It was your G1 vid that sealed the deal, I LOVE the chin, I don't see why people have a problem with it. It feels great in my hand. Thanks again!
  • After the round robin I have a greater respect for the G1, yes...even the chin and having been made more aware of the fact it is a "beta" device, I guess sending it out the gates as it is now wasn't such a bad mistake, I just still hope further android devices look better.
  • Of all of the devices that set up a potential win for the RR 2009, the G1 seems most likely to set up a curveball
  • I DO use Google stuff a lot, so that's not a big deal. But I also have mail coming from Yahoo, hotmail & a domain. Since it will handle mail from other sources, that's not a deal breaker. The fact that it only has A-GPS & not real GPS is definitely food for thought. Real GPS is far more accurate -- to the point of actually pinpointing where I am instead of on the wrong side of a major city.
  • Love the G1!
  • My daughter and son in law both have G1s and it is a very good first entry into a new OS for PDA phones. I don't use google stuff very much because we use exchange and that is windows mobile territory in my opinion. (not that others don't do it) I forsee that it will continue to improve and that makes it good for everyone.
  • I'm seeing a lot of parallels here between Palm OS5 and the early days of WM2003SE, only now MS is on the stagnant end. MS just seems unwilling to give us the UI and resource updates we've been asking for since WM5 came out. I still prefer WinMo as my daily driver, but I don't think I'll feel bad moving over to, say, a shiny new G2 when they come out...
  • android has yet to reach its full potential but its a great start
  • I like where this os is going. I just wish there were more hardware options.
  • Hey guys if you happen to already have one of these nice devices, or after watching the round robin are deciding to switch to this device, AND you like me, feel a need to customize everything you can to be unique with your smartphones, there is a really cool website that let's you customize your smartphones (or computers I guess) to be any color you want.
    You can make some really cool looking phones p.s. I've heard that using solid colors work much better than metallic colors, but don't quote me on that. p.p.s To the fellow that talked about the one handed use of this phone; I think I've heard from android central, that they are making a touch screen keyboard to pop up when it is compacted still (like the iphone has, and winmo's professional phones have) so the next time you see an android phone come out, it will likely have that feature
  • Hmm, that is a nice homescreen control.
  • Hmm, that is a nice homescreen control.
  • I'm more of a fuze guy than a g1 guy, sorry.
  • I like the android software, but the hardware sucks!
  • As far as memory management goes, you have to divorce yourself from the Windows world of memory management. The Android application life-cycle is a very different thing and is what got me hooked on Android more than anything else. Android uses XML to keep track of what is being used. So if it needs to toast an app so that another can run, it records the meta data in XML so that if you have to come back to it later, it reads the XML and displays what you were looking at previously. That's why if you hold down the Home button, you'll only see 6 apps running at any given time. Any app that "shows" you all the apps that are running is simply reading the XML files and displaying the info to you. If you're nerdy enough to want to understand this in more detail, check out these videos Google released to explain how the OS works:
  • Couldn't agree more, I considered springing for the unlocked Developer's G1. But I think I'll wait until HTC's follow-up, whatever that may be. Hopefully we'll have a more sleek device and it's guaranteed that with time the OS will continue to mature.
  • As much as I love the open source movement and believe in HTC, I don't see this device as an alternative for me. Number one reason being the horrible PIM managment. I'm sorry, with 500+ contacts with more than just phone numbers and emails, I'm NOT trusting that Gmail will use it correctly. I've had far too many issues with the contact system in it, and was one of the reasons I left gmail. My question is, as a former Zaurus user, why couldn't they just take Opie? Or some of the other already matured linux distros for the handhelds? The motorola Ming would have been a great start as well... A new platform? Really? Did we really need to start over? Eh, it was tempting till it came out, but the gmail PIM thing rings of Apple in my head. Thank you, I'll stay WinMo
  • I've briefly used a G1, and my experience was close to yours. My impression, though, is that there are two things holding Android back: 1. more devices that allow you to do more with the OS and don't have as many of the curious idiosyncrasies of the G1, and 2) a developer community that has spent enough time developing for (and hacking) the OS that they know it inside and out to the extent that they are able to fully exploit it. That just takes time. The OS is new, and it simply needs to brew in the minds of developers and hackers for a little longer to see what they can come up with.
  • The G1 is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Still, a great phone for what it's worth.
  • I wish the G1 would fully sync with Outlook, including Tasks and Notes.
  • I bought a g1 phone pritty good for a first time build of a smartphone.
    There is only 1 snag to my dislikeing and probebly everyone else's is the fact that there's no contract shareing via bluetooth. (Great disapointment ) . But let's just hope there's a update sometime soon or even a add on . Fingers crossed .
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  • Another critic, also evolved from the tmobile dash and although I like the simplicity of line with my account from Outlook Address Book, it seems too small to hire a reference not as well thought out idea which is quite a phone and more !