Review: Why Android is for me and the G1 isn't

For me, when it comes to cell phones, it's a marriage of convenience.I value the basic function of a cell phone to connect me to the rest of the world from (almost) anywhere, but beyond that, I couldn't care less about the "features.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

T-Mobile G1For me, when it comes to cell phones, it's a marriage of convenience.

I value the basic function of a cell phone to connect me to the rest of the world from (almost) anywhere, but beyond that, I couldn't care less about the "features." Despite my power use of my laptop, when it comes to my phone, I don't bother with the camera, I don't use unusual ringtones, I don't need to watch video -- I just need to make and receive calls.

Call me old-fashioned.

I recently "palled around" with T-Mobile's HTC-made G1 phone for a week or so, having it tag along while I traipsed through New York City - on the most crowded subway line in the nation, on foot in SoHo, at media events, to restaurants and to the doctor's office. Pretty much everywhere.

Here are my findings.

Disclaimer: I am in no way an Apple fanboy. I have a very, very old iPod nano and I use an XP-powered PC. So any comparisons to the iPhone or BlackBerry are made without personal affinity for either.

Updated Disclaimer, 11/13: After some requests in the comments, I'd like to make it clear that the G1's lack of MS Exchange means it's effectively a consumer-oriented smartphone that, at least for now, can't be easily synced for business users. I'm approaching this review from the standpoint that the unit is designed to woo users of standard cell phones to upgrade.

THE SERVICE This goes without saying, but if you don't get good T-Mobile service where you live, work or play, you won't get any better reception with this phone. Wherever my T-Mobile-serviced RAZR lost reception, so did the G1.

THE PHONE The first thing you'll notice about the G1 is its heft. Even my girlfriend remarked how heavy it was, and she carries around a last-gen, 80GB iPod in a metal case all day. It's a bulky item -- the corners are rounded, but it's roughly half an inch thick, which gives it a very "brick"-like quality to it. It's heavier and thicker than every mobile device I've picked up, from a BlackBerry Bold to the iPhone. That may be a turnoff for some users.

T-Mobile G1The weight is likely due to the battery, which was fairly poor. The G1 ran out of juice on me several times, which is a bad sign, considering I didn't use it very often. I also didn't like that the only notice when the phone's dead is a flashing red light the size of a grain of sand, and spent a lot of time on Google searching for the umpteen ways a journalist like me can fry a test device like this, only to find out the thing was deader than a gay marriage bill in Arkansas.

The screen is bright and clear and fabulous, so no qualms there. It wasn't too reflective, which is good for a city street.

The keyboard: I'm pretty neutral when it comes to typing devices -- should I have no keyboard at all, like the iPhone, a slide-out keyboard, like the G1, or a permanent keyboard, like a BlackBerry? It was infinitely easier to type quickly on the G1 than the iPhone, and the slide-out mechanism drew looks wherever I was.

What I don't understand, however, is why HTC decided to bother with five true buttons and let Android handle the rest of the "buttons" via the OS. A power button, OK -- but the "Home," "Back" and "Menu" buttons were a complete waste for me. When you're using the phone sideways, keyboard extended, it's not quite convenient to use these sideways buttons. Sure, after awhile you get the hang of it, but it's not intuitive at all -- and the more you stare at the G1, the more you wonder how much more screen space you could have if those buttons weren't there.

T-Mobile G1The connections: One big problem here: there's no standard mini (1/8") headphone jack.That's a huge problem (less of one for Bluetooth users) -- when I tried to test the music capability, I got music playing out loud via the phone's speaker, but I couldn't silence the thing because my headphones couldn't fit. People on the train didn't seem to appreciate the phone's ability to blast Kid Sister's rap. Could I buy an adapter? Sure. But if it's gotta be this way in the first place, the G1 should be packaged with one.

The finish was so-so. Could take it or leave it (my test unit was matte brown).

THE INTERFACE It's a pretty-looking interface, and the slide-happy menus ooh'ed and ahh'ed friends at parties.

The value in this phone/OS is its complete compatibility with all things Google. The phone defaults to Google's search much like I do on my PC, and syncs wonderfully with my Gmail and gChat accounts. I seamlessly carried on conversations switching between my PC and the G1, and that value alone makes this OS a winner. The phone made a soft, audible "ding" everytime I got a new e-mail almost instantaneously.

T-Mobile G1The Google-syncing also makes a huge impact with Google Maps, which still are the top of the heap when it comes to map technology. As an urban user, having a detailed map with buildings, subway stations, addresses (and the ability to check my e-mail for the address I forgot to write down) was a dream.

"Show us the Street View!" an in-the-know friend said when I was at a get-together. People ooh'ed and ahh'ed over that, too, but it's a rarely used feature that I consider eye candy (unless I really, really can't find a building). I haven't touched it since.

Other features:

The music player was underwhelming and felt too simplistic -- as if it were holding back what it could really do. I couldn't imagine using this as my primary mobile music player, and that's a problem given how hefty the unit is already (I don't want to carry an iPod too!).

The calculator was big and clear and therefore useful.

T-Mobile G1I didn't really mess around with Android Market because I only had the phone for a short time. As I mentioned above, my primary need is a) calls and b) an extension of that, e-mail and chat. It's still early in the phone's lifetime, so I haven't seen too many must-see apps yet. I'd love an app like Mint that could allow me to monitor my finances in one place, natively, without going to the script-heavy site to do so.

The camera was underwhelming and, as expected, took very dark, fairly blurry photos. The "button" used to take the picture is neat in that it's in the same place as a real camera's shutter button is, but it's too small to use without shaking the camera every so slightly, thus blurring your photo.

The contacts menu was cool, and it imported my Gmail contacts much like LinkedIn does. When I last checked it, it was incomplete; that might just be because I didn't give it enough time to sync them all.

One note: As many reviewers have mentioned, this phone does not sync with Exchange, so no MS Outlook for you, yet. But -- like many companies, mine has a web-based (OWA) Outlook interface from which I can access my work e-mail. So while the phone doesn't make it native and pretty to do so, it's really not that hard to check your work e-mail if that's a secondary function you need (but not a primary, like a BlackBerry user). If you're a freelancer, this won't matter.

The calendar was clear and bright.

BUT WOULD YOU REPLACE YOUR BASIC CELL PHONE WITH IT? The G1 is a phone that, for a guy like me, is supposed to woo me away from Apple's iPhone, at least indirectly. For one, it's cheaper, at under $200; for two, it's somewhat hip (it ain't a corporate BlackBerry); and thirdly, it's got that open-source, Googlefied cool that's very hip with the rest of my generation.

So I get it.

T-Mobile G1But the thing is, the way the economy is right now, it just doesn't make sense for me to give up my basic cell phone. Why? Because after the $179 that I'd spend on the G1 -- plus the two-year contract, in which I'd gain a new charge for a data plan -- it becomes overwhelmingly expensive for the basic ability to check a recipe on the street or read Gawker while waiting for the bus. For a guy like me, who lives in a city, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous enough that a unit like Apple's iPod touch -- which can do almost all of the above save make/take phone calls in a much lighter unit -- suddenly becomes very desirable compared to a G1. After all, the only price you pay for an iPod touch is the sticker price -- no data plan necessary, just Wi-Fi.

That's a serious prospect in a time when no one's got any extra pocket change.

BOTTOM LINE The reality is that the HTC-manufactured, Google Android-powered T-Mobile G1 is a so-so smartphone with a great operating system. It's positioned in the market to draw some users of basic phones into the smartphone club, and it's very user friendly from an interface standpoint. But the little things -- no basic headphone jack, poor music player, the significant heft of the device, no Outlook compatibility (yet), poor battery life -- outweigh the good (beautiful screen, complete Google syncing, slide-out keyboard, slightly less price).

To be clear: This phone just isn't ready for business users the way it's currently set up. I'm hoping someone figures out via Android Market how to overcome this major hurdle.

That leaves personal users or freelancers. If you're already paying for a smartphone, the G1's great. But if you're not, it's debatable: when you add up the difference between a basic phone plan and this entry-level smartphone, it's a pretty penny:

Basic phone: T-Mobile Motorola RAZR with an "Individual Plus" plan with 1000 whenever minutes and unlimited nights/weekends: $49.99 (phone's free with the plan).

T-Mobile G1: $179.99 for the unit, plus the data plan ("G1 Service" with unlimited web access and 400 text/e-mail messages at $24.99 /mo. or "Plus" with unlimited everything for $34.99/mo.).

Assuming fees are roughly the same, we're talking an extra $300/yr. for a crippled data plan or $420/yr. for the real deal, all on top of the same $50/mo. basic plan PLUS the $180 for the G1 itself.

I don't know about you, but accessing e-mail and the Web from my hip in this webified world doesn't seem worth an extra $600 the first year and $420 every year after that, assuming fees stay the same (which they won't) -- on top of the $600 I'm already paying for the convenience of having a cell phone in 2008.

In other words:

T-Mobile basic cell phone cost for a year with a reasonable plan: $600.

T-Mobile G1 smartphone cost for a year with a reasonable plan: $1,200.

...and I just don't know if I'm ready to pony up enough cash to buy a new netbook for a year of Googlefied smartphoning.

Side anecdote: The G1 did save me money on one occasion. I was getting paid for a freelance gig, and my client quoted a price $300 less than what we had agreed on in e-mail. I was able to quickly bring up the original e-mail and show her, and got my payment corrected. So yes, there are certainly moments where having a smartphone shines. 

What this phone does do, on the other hand, is ruins the premium basic cell phone market -- those $150-$200 phones that don't access the Internet in such an intuitive way. Suddenly, those phones become a complete rip-off.

Which is why I'll happily take Android -- but until the hardware catches up to the software and the overall price drops, I see no need to abandon my free cell phone. I'll just wait until I get home to check my e-mail.

As I neared the end of my time with the G1, I found myself leaving it at home, languishing. It was just too heavy to tote around without also toting around my iPod to play music, and considering its battery limitations, I really didn't think I'd get through the day without also taking the charger, too.

Sure, I miss that little green Android guy, but he's not worth an extra two-and-a-half Nintendo Wiis, or three Apple iPod touches, or a pair of Acer Aspire One netbooks, or a shiny, brand-new flat-panel LCD 32" HDTV from LG.

Know what I mean?

Need a second opinion? Check out Josh Taylor's review of the G1: Up-close and personal with the T-Mobile-Google G1

Would you get the G1 if you're feeling the pinch? Tell me in TalkBack.

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