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T-Mobile myTouch 3G, the most bang-for-buck smartphone on the market (for now)

The mytouch 3G is the perfect choice for someone who wants iPhone-like features without buying into Apple's product ecosystem. Here's a look.

You've probably seen the latest commercial for T-Mobile's myTouch 3G smartphone, where comedian Whoopi Goldberg, NBA coach Phil Jackson and motorcycle builder Jesse James pass the handset to each other.

But did you ever wonder if the thing was any good?

I spent the better part of a month with the myTouch 3G to find out.

The appeal of the myTouch 3G is apparent from the beginning: it's the first fully touchscreen handset (no QWERTY keyboard here) powered by the Google Android operating system, and by extension, it's been positioned as the kind of smartphone that you can feel safe giving to both your parents and kids.

First, the commercial:

The surprisingly light myTouch 3G is sold to be "100% you," satisfied by three colors (black, white, burgundy) and an array of customized backplates, skins and apps from the T-Mobile myTouch Studio. It also comes, in a nice touch for users, with headphones, a screen protector, a soft drawstring phone case, a charger that mimics the shape of the phone itself and a cushioned, branded soft-hard case to pack it all inside.

[Image Gallery: T-Mobile mytouch 3G]

But the aspect of customization also refers to the Android OS that powers the handset. With it, you can program widgets to sit on the three screen-wide home screen, download apps through Android Market and generally do whatever you want with the device -- work, play, whatever.

To challenge this proposition, I used the phone for the better part of a workday, syncing my work and personal lives to the device. The phone supports Microsoft Exchange out of the box, and offers a separate icon for the purpose.

I had no problem syncing my corporate mail account to the device, and naturally didn't have any problem syncing my personal Gmail account, either (Android offers a third option if you have another e-mail provider).

I set up Yahoo! Messenger (work) and Google Chat and AIM (personal) and was effectively on my way.

As is expected, the myTouch integrates perfectly with all Google services. That's a great thing for those of us who use Google services regularly; if you don't, this phone will still suffice, but you'll be missing out on key integration opportunities.

Android uses a notification system that alerts you at the top of the screen of an incoming message. The feature becomes useful if you're in one connection tool and get messaged with another, but the alert is a bit hard to read.

In this sense, the Android flavor of the myTouch 3G (Cupcake) is still fairly basic, and you need to duck in and out of connection apps to keep abreast of your potential avenues of contact. (It's the same limitation iPhone users face.)

Other vendors have already begun addressing this problem, including Palm with its webOS for the Pre and Pixi and Motorola with its Motoblur RSS-based widget architecture for the CLIQ. But unless you're using this device as a hardcore business communication tool, it's not truly essential to navigate three different IM clients at once.

That said, the myTouch can be quite effective if you're a user who prefers a touch interface. It improves on the somewhat-maligned T-Mobile G1, made by the same manufacturer, HTC. In losing the G1's heavy slider keyboard, the myTouch 3G is remarkably lighter, thinner and more pleasurable to use.

(Strangely, I had a difficult time conditioning myself to not confuse the home and power/off buttons.)

The 3.2-inch, 262,000-color, 480x320 pixel resolution screen is as impressive.

The myTouch 3G offers a rollerball that can serve as an alternate navigation method; in practice, I found that the touch-rollerball combo was versatile, intuitive and effective in addressing different situations. (For example, I found myself using the rollerball to navigate menu options; I preferred using my finger for navigating media, such as photos.)

But business-minded users will note the myTouch 3G's lack of Outlook calendar and contacts sync, as well as a missing file manager. And the virtual keyboard was just a bit scrunched for my big thumbs.

Curiously, despite being "about you," there aren't any options to edit photos, or for that matter, a flash for the camera. Furthermore, the handset lacks a standard 3.5mm jack, so you're limited to using the earbuds that come with the phone.

Storage comes in the form of an included 4GB microSD card -- smaller than the iPhone's storage.

In use, I found the myTouch 3G to be mostly smooth in navigation and loading content, but occasionally Android would hiccup for unexplained reason, a moment's snag before the interface would catch up (such as when using the sliding main menu on the home screen).

Integration with Google Maps was great, but I found that about 50 percent of the time it was inaccurate. In New York City, it occasionally mapped me 30 blocks from where I was standing; driving down I-95 in New Jersey, it occasionally pinned me in a field adjacent to the highway, rather than on the road itself.

The Android Market for apps is fine enough, but it's still lacking in surfacing key offerings, such as an official Facebook app. As the Android platform grows in popularity (and it will), this will become a non-issue.

The battery life on the myTouch 3G is much improved over the G1. It's rated at 7 hours and 30 minutes of talk time and 420 hours standby, and I browsed and messaged and e-mailed on 3G for most of the day without a problem.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Currently, the T-Mobile myTouch 3G is the most versatile Android smartphone on the market. It's fairly easy for people of all ages to use, and it can be configured to suit a person's needs rather easily.

The little accessory touches that T-Mobile packages with the device make the purchase price ($199 with a two-year contract) a little easier to swallow.

The mytouch 3G is also a good choice for someone who wants iPhone-like features without buying into Apple's product ecosystem.

With that said, the market for Android phones is about to expand dramatically, and the reign of the myTouch as the best Android phone out there will be short-lived. Motorola, Samsung and HTC have more Android-based handsets in the pipeline, and several (HTC's Hero, on Sprint, and Motorola's CLIQ, on T-Mobile) have shown themselves to be equal to or superior than the myTouch 3G.

Still, when those handsets arrive to market (October), they will command higher prices, and the myTouch 3G will likely be reduced in price. When that occurs, the myTouch 3G will still be able to reinforce its value as the easiest way to transition to a 3G smartphone -- no whiz-bang required.