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T-Mobile's G2: A Flawed Beauty

Mark Sullivan
PC World
Monday, November 1, 2010; 12:19 AM

The HTC G2 is the successor to 2008's much ballyhooed HTC G1 (aka the "Google Phone"), the very first Android smartphone released in the United States. It's also the first T-Mobile phone built to take advantage of the carrier's new, faster HSPA+ 3.5G network; it can handle theoretical throughput speeds of up to 14.4 megabits per second. The G2 runs a newer version of Android (2.2, or Froyo), features a smart design with a pop-out physical QWERTY keyboard, has an 800MHz Snapdragon processor, and sports a larger and better-looking touchscreen. The phone has a lot going for it. A few key shortcomings can't be ignored, however.

HTC stuck with the raw Android operating system for the G2, which makes the phone feel less cluttered. For some users, such as hard-core social networkers, specialized "overlay" software (see Motorola Blur, for instance) can enhance a phone's utility. But the G2 is more of a general-purpose smartphone, so I believe that HTC and T-Mobile did well to let the device run on base Android 2.2.

(This review focuses mainly on the G2 phone itself, discussing its Android 2.2 mobile operating system where appropriate. For a thorough look at Android 2.2, see our full hands-on review of Froyo.)

When you push gently with your thumb on the top part of the left edge of the phone, the top half of the phone lifts up on three hinges and then sets back down in a new position that exposes the keyboard. After you rotate the phone into landscape orientation, the keyboard is just below the touchscreen, and you can text and e-mail comfortably. I was a bit concerned about how far the two halves of the phone extend apart, but the hard plastic hinges connecting the two have very little give and seem generally sturdy. If you were to drop the phone on the ground, I doubt those hinges would be the first thing to break from the shock.

When you pop out the physical keyboard, the screen automatically enters landscape mode. Smartphone keyboards are a subjective thing: One may work great for someone else but be a nightmare for you, so it's a good idea to get a feel for a keyboard before you buy. Having said that, there's nothing extravagant or complex about the G2's keyboard. The keys (square, with rounded corners) seem well spaced (about 1.2mm apart), and their tops feel slightly beveled for easy locating. You also get three large shortcut keys, which you can program to go directly to messaging or navigation apps.

When you're text messaging or using maps, you might want to keep the physical keyboard hidden, at which time you'll have to rely on the on-screen keyboard. I found it very difficult to type accurately with the phone in portrait mode (which squeezes the keyboard into the narrow width of the screen), and not much easier with the phone in landscape mode. Thankfully you can use the Swype functionality to help in typing, dragging your finger from letter to letter without breaking contact with the screen. You can also touch the microphone icon and dictate your text.

The portion of the G2 at right pops out to reveal the physical keyboard.>A nice-looking brushed-metal frame covers most of the top part of the phone. The rest of the case has the hard, matte-black plastic seen on many HTC phones. The phone weighs 6.5 ounces and feels substantial, but not too heavy, in the hand. It measures 4.68 inches tall by 2.37 inches wide, and is 0.55 inch thick. On top are a power button and a standard 3mm headphone jack.

The right edge features a very helpful, dedicated button for operating the camera. Pushing and holding the button puts the phone in camera mode from any other mode. On the left edge of the G2, you'll find the volume rocker and a standard mini-USB port. On the back are the 5-megapixel camera lens (with flash) and a small grille covering the speaker. You'll find no second camera on the front of the phone for videoconferencing, however.

Just below the touchscreen are four hardware buttons for navigation: Home (brings you back to the Android home screen), Menu (contextual, for operating apps), Back (returns you to the previous screen), and Search (for searching the Web, as well as for digging through any content stored on the phone). The black, rounded-square button at the bottom of the phone's front acts similar to a touchpad on a laptop PC: You can slide your finger across it in any direction to move through screens or content, and when you have navigated to a link, icon, or button you want to use, you just press down.

The 800MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor in the G2 isn?t as muscular as the 1GHz processors in many other HTC phones. While activities such as moving through content-heavy Web pages, launching apps, and multitasking weren?t as lightning-fast as I?ve seen on some 1GHz phones, they seemed snappy enough to please all but the fussiest mobile superuser.

Video playback is usually a good barometer of processor speed, too. Videos stored on the G2 played back smoothly, without hiccups. Even high-definition video streamed from YouTube (using the preinstalled app) looked reasonably good on the G2's 3.7-inch WVGA screen with a download speed above 2 megabits per second.

Although the processor in the G2 isn't exactly a selling point, I wouldn?t call it a negative, either.

You'll find a basic set of apps preloaded on the G2, many of which are Google offerings. Among them are Google Voice, Google Maps with Places and Navigation, Google Goggles, and Google Earth. You'll also find the Facebook and YouTube apps, along with Quick Office, which lets you create or view Word and Excel docs, as well as view PowerPoint presentations and PDFs.

I was disappointed with the quality of the voice calls I placed with the G2. The results were surprising, because in my recent tests of HTC's new Windows Phone 7 handset, the Surround (AT&T), I heard excellent audio from the speaker, as well as full-bodied vocal quality and impressive noise cancellation from the microphone. With the G2, I could hear the caller on the other end clearly enough, but I would have liked a bit more volume from the speaker when making calls outside. The G2 also doesn't cancel out background noise nearly as well as the Surround does. The person I called said that she could clearly hear the noise and traffic around my voice when I called her from the sidewalk along a residential street.

It's hard to say whether these problems resulted from the G2 itself or the T-Mobile voice network it depends on. I could get no voice or data service from within my apartment in the middle of San Francisco; and even when I went outside to place calls, the signal seemed weak and I heard a lot of dropouts. My experience making and receiving calls in San Francisco during my limited time with the phone was enough to make me hesitant to buy one.

Similarly mystifying was the performance of the G2's 5-megapixel camera relative to the performance of the HTC Surround's camera (which is the same size). The stills and video that the Surround created had a sharpness and balance that put them a cut above the stills and video I've taken with my EVO 4G. The stills and video I shot with the G2 were not impressive. With the camera in auto mode, the still shots I took looked washed out, dark, and a bit blurry. The G2's video was not as clear and fluid as that of the HTC Surround, either: The G2's video looked about the same as the footage I've captured with my EVO 4G--not terrible, but nothing approaching the clarity of high-definition video.

T-Mobile says it will have 100 cities upgraded to the faster HSPA+ service by the end of the year. Although that might look good on paper, such stats don't get at how much of the area of those cities--or the percentage of the population--the service will actually reach. For example, T-Mobile has turned on HSPA+ service in San Francisco, but its true availability around the city seems limited--and even in areas where the service is clearly available, its performance is inconsistent.

I tested speeds on the G2 in roughly ten districts of San Francisco, and found the "4G-like" speeds of T-Mobile's HSPA+ network (4 to 6 mbps on downloads and 1 to 2 mbps on uploads) in roughly half of them. I found fast connection speeds at various spots along Van Ness Avenue, a major street that cuts across much of the 7-by-7-mile peninsula, but I could find no such speeds in the area around the PCWorld offices south of Market Street, nor at Civic Center, nor anywhere in the city's large Mission District.

I found high HSPA+ speeds in the Castro, Duboce Triangle, Divisadero, Noe Valley, and Fillmore neighborhoods, but my tests in these areas were just as likely as not to turn out typical 3G download speeds in the area of 300 to 800 kilobits per second.

I also found the service to be highly variable depending on the time of day. In some places where I had recorded download speeds above 4 mbps, I couldn't get speeds of even 0.5 mbps at roughly the same time the following day. Wireless speeds are always variable, but I can't help thinking that the T-Mobile HSPA+ service here has some capacity issues.

T-Mobile says the G2's battery will power 6.5 hours of continuous talk time, and up to 17.5 days of standby time. At the completion of my tests, the battery had gone without a charge for 12 hours, and it had 67 percent of its charge left. According to the OS, only about 37 percent of that battery usage was from running the OS, running apps, and powering the screen. The rest of the battery capacity went toward the phone's idle or cell standby modes. If the phone consumed that much juice for idle and standby in 12 hours, could the battery really last for 17.5 days in standby mode? Since I couldn't run formal tests, I can't say for sure, but I have my doubts.

All in all I had no problems with the design and feel of the phone, and I'm encouraged by its performance on the HSPA+ network. But several things might make me hesitate before buying the G2. I was disappointed with the voice quality, underwhelmed by the camera, and skeptical of the battery life. Perhaps above all, the T-Mobile 3G and 3.5G network should remain a key concern to anyone buying a T-Mobile phone. Although the carrier, HTC, and Google have done a lovely job on the G2 itself, all that luster might quickly fade if your phone calls sound bad and your network connection speeds are slow and unpredictable.

As of October 29, 2010, the G2 is available from T-Mobile's retail and online stores for $200 (after a $50 mail-in rebate) with a two-year voice and data contract. Without a contract, the phone sells for $500.

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