When the much-herald Google phone was launched in the UK towards the end of October, and we started the Erewhon project at about the same time, I decided that fate had intended me to acquire my first smartphone. I therefore went out on day 1, signed up for the exorbitant initial contract offering from T-Mobile, took home a white G1 and have been using it ever since.
If you have not heard of it, the G1 phone is the first device to use Google’s Android operating system, intended to be freely available to any phone manufacturer, and enabling application developers to write high-quality tools which will run on a wide variety of phones. If it is successful, you can expect to see more
manufacturers picking up on Android. This first model is made by the respected HTC company from Taiwan.
In summary, what the G1 and Android give us today is
- phone (as you might expect!)
- always-on internet (seamless switch between 3G and wireless networks)
- touch-screen interface, enhanced by slide-out keyboard
- storage on micro SD card (I added an 8 gbyte one)
- complete syncing integration with Google apps (mail, contacts, calendar, maps, search)
- media playing
- .. and as many other applications as people care to write
Reviews of the G1 are widely available, and vary wildly in their assessment depending on the standpoint of the reviewer. To those who love the Apple iPhone, it is a cranky weak imitation; to long-time
phone-watchers, it’s a ho-hum bit of hardware with an interesting operating system; to “openness” advocates, it is the second coming, real-Linux-onna-phone.
I’ve had an iPod Touch (little sister of the iPhone) since the start of the year, and I like it a lot. Compared to that, the G1 comes as a shock, since it makes much use of 5 navigation buttons (Menu, Dial,
Home, Back, and Stop phone call), a tiny mouse button (move cursor and click) and the slide-out keyboard. Either this is a annoying and fiddly, or the practical shortcut which Apple should have provided.
How does it all function in real life?
As a phone, it’s fine, it does what I expect in a modern device. The SMS and phone link properly to my Google contacts, and SMS conversations are presented like email threads.
As a web/mail browser, it also does well. Most web pages work as expected, and I can do all my email work efficiently, with GMail or by connecting to my University account. For the latter (IMAP), I installed an improved version of the provided client, since the latter inexplicably does not do IMAP delete properly.
As a media engine, I can happily play the 7.5 gbytes of MP3 files I copied to my card, or use a LastFM client. What I can not do yet is read my ebooks; I am impatient for the excellent Stanza to be ported to the device. When that’s available, I can pass on the iPod Touch to the rest of my family.
As a piece of hardware, the battery is a weakness (on a typical day, it is gasping for breath by 7pm after leaving its charger at 8am), and the keyboard is a little hard for my tired eyes.
So is the G1 a good device for a typical university user, leaving aside cutenesses like a barcode scanner which links to shopping comparison sites? Yes, because the daily business of phone, web, email and mapping works well and simply. The big downside today is the lack of support for the 802.1X wireless we use at Oxford for Eduroam, so the connection at work is always through 3G, which is not as fast or reliable. But this will surely come in later releases.
White elephant or new beginning? The open nature of the phone must be a good idea, but so much depends on fashion. For Erewhon, we will have to look again in a year and make another assessment.