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T-Mobile's HTC G1 is the first Android-powered handset. It features a touch screen, full QWERTY keyboard, 3G connectivity, GPS, and Wi-Fi.
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T-Mobile, Google, and HTC unveiled the highly anticipated Android smartphone on Tuesday amid much fanfare.
The G1 smartphone is the first attempt by Google and the Open Handset Alliance to crack open the mobile industry. But the question remains: How does the G1 stack up to the competition?
The first Android-powered smartphone has a 3.2-inch touch display that flips out to reveal a QWERTY keyboard. There's also a trackball for navigation that's similar to the navigation method on many of the newer BlackBerry handsets from Research In Motion. The G1 also sports an accelerometer that automatically orients the content of the screen depending on how the user's holding it.
While the G1 undoubtedly looks sleeker than many thought it would, combining a touch screen with a QWERTY is nothing new. The LG Voyager sports both, although it's not a smartphone. For those wanting a little more horsepower, the HTC Touch Pro has many robust features and has a touch screen and a five-row slide-out keyboard.
The User Interface
Of course, all of the features and specs of a smartphone don't matter if the interface is hard to use. One of the main reasons for the success of the iPhone 3G is its user interface, which is widely regarded as intuitive and easy.
While it's impossible to know how well the G1's interface holds up over time, early reports suggest it's fast and responsive. InformationWeek writer Eric Zeman had some hands-on time with the handset and was impressed.
"The user interface was intuitive at first blush, and didn't leave you wondering 'Why did they do that?' The layout was easy to understand, and simply made sense," Zeman wrote.
Similar to other touch-screen smartphones, users can swipe the G1 to navigate pages and scroll. Additionally, holding down a specific spot brings up other options. Unlike the iPhone, there is no multitouch functionality. There's also a dedicated search button that can search through the Web and your contacts, depending on what you type in.
The UI is increasingly important on smartphones, and many companies are making it a priority. For example, Windows Mobile is widely seen as powerful but a bit cumbersome to use. Because of this, companies like HTC and Velocity Mobile are layering their own UIs on top of the OS to make navigation easier, particularly for touch-screen devices.
The Mobile Internet
The Android platform is betting on the mobile Web to help open up the mobile industry, and the G1 has multiple connectivity options. There's built-in Wi-Fi, EDGE service, and users can surf the Web or check e-mail over T-Mobile's growing 3G networks.
Like Google's Chrome, the G1's full-HTML browser is based on the open-source WebKit. Users can navigate pages via the touch screen or the trackball.
A full HTML browser is nearly standard for most smartphones today, and early reports indicate the browsing experience isn't better than using the iPhone's WebKit-based Safari, which is largely seen as the best mobile browser. The connectivity options can be found on most high-end smartphones, and road warriors may be shy about T-Mobile 3G coverage, which is expected to be in 27 markets by the end of the year.
Android Market is an open content distribution system for finding, purchasing, downloading, and installing content on Android-powered devices.
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Mobile professionals hoping to get the G1 for business may be disappointed, as it appears the handset will be aimed at the mass market. The G1 won't have Microsoft Exchange support built in, and there won't be a desktop syncing client from T-Mobile or Google.
"This device will have mass appeal and something for everybody," said Cole Brodman, chief technology and innovation officer at T-Mobile USA during the debut press conference. "We expect it to be more for the consumer, not necessarily for enterprises."
Brodman did add that he expects some mobile workers to use the device anyway, and the G1 will be able to view Word documents, PDFs, and Excel documents. Additionally, the G1 will have push Gmail, and IMAP and POP3 e-mail support, and executives said the Exchange support could be quickly remedied by a third-party application.
For now, it appears that enterprise users who need their corporate e-mails and contacts would best to stick with a BlackBerry, Windows Mobile device, or possibly an iPhone 3G.
The Android OS is expected to be on a slate of devices in the next few years from LG Electronics, Samsung, Sprint, and more, so future handsets may have the security and features to thrive within the enterprise.
The G1 is able to play multiple codecs of audio and video, and should be a capable multimedia device. In an industry first, the handset will be preloaded with an Amazon application that enables users to search, buy, download, and play DRM-free music from Amazon's MP3 store, which offers more than 6 million songs.
The account is tied to your Amazon account, so one-click buying can be enabled. Users can only download songs over Wi-Fi, but purchases can be made over 3G or EDGE. In a potentially sour note, the handset doesn't include a headset jack and instead relies on a USB adaptor.
The Amazon tie-in is a potential coup for the G1 and Android, as it could provide a viable alternative for the iTunes juggernaut. For now, it appears that the iPhone 3G will continue to have the best multimedia functions, but handsets like the G1, BlackBerry Bold, and multiple devices from Nokia are quickly closing the gap.
The Android Market, which will go live Oct. 22, is expected to be a key driver for Android adoption, and while it appears similar to Apple's App Store, there will be some fundamental differences between the two.
Unlike Apple's offering, there won't be an approval process for Android apps. Drawing on its experience, Google will host the market, but the uploading, publishing, and distribution method will be similar to YouTube. This significantly lowers the barrier of entry for developers, as some have complained that Apple's approval process is mysterious and unfair. But it's unknown at the moment if there will be any protocols in place to stop malware like auto-dialing programs from getting on users' handsets.
One of the largest differences between the G1 and the iPhone is that the G1 will be able to run applications in the background. This enables users to have an IM program open while they're browsing the Web and switch between the two. Apple designed the iPhone to not run background apps to save processing power and battery, and the company is prepping its push-notification service. Background app capability has long been available on Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Palm handsets.
Another difference between the two app stores is that all apps in the Android store will be free at launch. The majority of Apple's apps are free, but many cost between $1 and $9.99. Android apps could eventually be sold, but Google said they will not take a cut of the revenue, unlike Apple.
One of the most exciting features of G1 is its tight integration with Google Maps. Many smartphones have a GPS and use the search giant's maps for directions, navigation, and even Street View.
But the G1 is the only handset that uses Compass Mode, which can offer mobile users a 360-degree panoramic street-level view by moving the phone. While this may be a bit of a cool gimmick at the moment, it has the potential to have numerous location-based applications.
Additionally, the G1 will not be capable of tethered data, and it will come with a MicroSD slot capable of up to 8 GB of storage.
The G1 will go on sale Oct. 22 for $179 with a two-year contract, and required data plans will cost $25 for unlimited Web and some messaging, or $35 for unlimited data and messaging. The hardware price undercuts Apple's by $20, but monthly voice and data charges are in the same ballpark (although T-Mobile's unlimited messaging is less expensive).
Overall, the G1 appears to be a highly capable smartphone that doesn't blow away the competition in terms of hardware or features. But the Android platform is all about the software, and only time will tell if Google and developers can make this OS better and more compelling than the incumbents.