By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, October 16, 2008
In the past 10 years, Google has evolved from a simple Web site into an e-mail program, a map and even a verb. Now it can be a phone, too.
About a year after the Mountain View, Calif., company revealed that it was developing software for mobile phones, the first device with Google's Android operating system is set to go on sale next week. The T-Mobile G1 shows that Android's promise is real -- but it doesn't deliver on Android's full potential.
Remember that distinction; the G1 is only one of many Android phones to come, and a somewhat ugly example at that. This HTC-built, touch-screen camera phone ($179.99 with a new, two-year T-Mobile plan; $399 without a contract) is an unlovely box for Google's software, with an awkward kink at one end and a screen that slides out with a thunk to expose a thumb-typeable keyboard.
But what shows up on the G1's 3 1/4 -inch screen makes this phone worth a look. For all its version 1.0 issues, Android gets three core smartphone functions right: providing a window to the Internet, mapping your way and letting you add features with extra software.
Like the iPhone's Safari, Android's Web browser (which relies on the same WebKit open-source software) makes complex pages readable on a small screen, aside from Flash and Java interactivity. But without the iPhone's clever "multi-touch" controls, the G1 requires you to tap a zoom-in icon to get a closer look at a page.
Setting up a G1 requires saving a Google Account username and password so it automatically syncs with Gmail. You may then add other e-mail accounts; the Android mail software can check for messages as often as every five minutes or only at your request. It displayed the text of attached PDF, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.
The G1 includes an instant-messaging client that connects to AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo's networks, plus Google Talk.
The Maps program on the G1 outdoes the iPhone's Google-based map software by offering street-view perspectives (still mysteriously unavailable in the Washington area). Its "compass mode" rotates the street view to match what you should see from that spot. Still absent: Google's Web options for walking and transit directions.
Android's Maps program can compute your location from wireless network signals or GPS, although the second, battery-hogging option is shut off by default -- and the G1 sometimes didn't find itself from T-Mobile's signals alone.
The most impressive aspect of Android is the Android Market. This catalogue of add-on programs combines the tap-to-install convenience of the iPhone's App Store with the choice other smartphone systems provide -- unlike Apple, Google doesn't limit you to developers and titles that it approves.
The Market's shelves look a little empty today, but even its early selection reveals some clever work. For example, ShopSavvy and Compare Everywhere employ the G1's camera to scan the bar code of a product, then look up its price at Web stores and some nearby shops.
Android's blanks -- glaring omissions like a memo pad and to-do list -- ought to be filled in quickly by Android Market add-ons.
And Android lets you run more than one of these programs at once, then switch among them by pulling the status bar atop the screen down like a window shade.
As a phone, though, the G1 seems merely competent. Its battery allowed 5 1/2 hours of calling, and you can easily call people -- from the contacts list, by tapping an onscreen keypad or by speaking contacts' names -- use its speaker phone and stage group calls. But the G1 lacks a "visual voicemail" list of messages. Its Bluetooth wireless worked with a Jawbone headset but not a Toyota Prius' hands-free kit.
Don't expect Android to retire an iPod, either. It played AAC and MP3 files (including one bought from Amazon's MP3 store with the G1) but sometimes didn't display their labels or album art. You also need to buy a Micro SD card to store any music.
Android's biggest weakness is its requirement that you upload your calendar and contacts list to Google's Web services to use them on the phone. Neither Google nor T-Mobile provide desktop synchronization tools, though other developers may do so later.
Android also suffers from Google's choice of wireless carriers. T-Mobile's broadband coverage makes AT&T's look good: It says it won't even have "3G" service in the D.C. area until the end of this year. Over a few days in Boston, one of 20 markets that T-Mobile has graced with broadband access, the G1 took longer to download sites than an iPhone 3G. A popular speed-test site, DSLreports.com, clocked the G1 at about 600 kilobits per second, roughly 100 kbps slower than the iPhone.
At least the G1 includes a WiFi receiver, too.
T-Mobile charges $25 a month for "unlimited" online access (subject to vague limits on "disproportionate" use), plus 400 text or multimedia messages, on top of a voice plan. A data option with unlimited messaging costs $35 a month.
Android, fortunately, is more than this one phone and this one carrier. There will be other devices and other services, hopefully accompanied by bug fixes and added features from Google. Soon enough, we could be looking at the iPhone for the rest of us.