It's impossible not to compare the first Google Android phone, the HTC-made G1 unveiled this morning by T-Mobile, to the iPhone. Like all iPhone clones, the Samsung Instinct, the LG Voyager, and varying HTC Touch models, the G1 includes all the usual spate of next-gen cellphone functions and capabilities (click here to see the G1's specs) — music player, e-mail and messaging, camera and photo viewer, cell-assisted GPS mapping, full HTML Web browsing, 3G, Wi-Fi, etc.
But there's a huge philosophical chasm between the G1 and the iPhone. How you view this chasm depends on whether you don't mind Apple's controlled ecosystem or are aching to be free. Just be careful what you wish for. You could be moving from a fascist state to a Wild West cow town with no Wyatt Earp to maintain law and order. Hit the Continue link below to see how the G1 and the iPhone measure up.
After playing with a G1 for around 15 to 20 minutes, it's apparent the G1 must be considered separately from its Android operating system. Android is designed to work on a multitude of devices from a variety of hardware makers, unlike the iPhone, which is a more integrated hardware/software experience.
Part 1: Hands on with the HTC G1
Let's take the G1 hardware first. The pedantic-looking handset more closely resembles the Sidekick or the LG Voyager than the sleek iPhone. The touchscreen, slightly smaller than the iPhone's, slides up and away to reveal a full QWERTY keypad. The keys are nearly flush the typing surface. As a result, the tactile feedback is actually less physical than the haptic response on the Instinct or the LG Voyager. On the white G1 (it also comes in black), the keys are silver with white icons on a silver background, all of which makes it nearly impossible to see what you're typing.
The G1's five front hard buttons — Send, Home, Back, End and Menu, are supplemented by a Blackberry-like track ball. But the G1 lacks a pile of amenities. Astoundingly, there's no 3.5mm headphone jack. Instead, there's an HTC proprietary jack for power and audio. I was told a microUSB jack would fit, but I didn't have one with me to test that assertion. Earbuds are included, but with no 3.5mm, or even an adapter (at least yet), you're stuck with what's in the box. I find this an egregious omission.
There's no substantial built-in memory. You have to add a microSD card into a slot buried in a compartment underneath the G1's slightly angled chin. Not even the demonstrator could get it open.
The camera, and there's no gentle way of putting this, sucks. Once you hit the track ball or the top-mounted "capture" button, the G1 takes 3 to 4 seconds to actually snap the photo, then another three seconds or so to process it. I couldn't find a zoom or a video recorder, though the iPhone doesn't have any of these, either. But the iPhone camera is much quicker than the G1's.
Part 2: Hands on with Android
A bit on T-Mobile's newly-minted 3G HSDPA network: T-Mobile has 16 3G markets right now, will have 22 by the time the G1 is available on October 22, and 27 markets by mid-November. All well and good, but I'm sure you've been following AT&T's 3G problems, and its 3G network is available in around 300 markets.
On the Android side, of course there'll be hundreds if not thousands of fun and functional apps to download. But no mention was made of security, which makes the coming Android app store a bit more caveat emptor than the carefully vetted Apple apps. It's too early to know how secure Android is, but will we eventually need spyware or other security software for the G1?
Android offers some nice touches, but it's missing some seemingly magical iPhone attributes. There's no multi-touch, but if you've never used an iPhone, you won't miss it. There's no automatic aspect shift from portrait to landscape; you have to flip out the keyboard to get the screen to flip. When you're done with a call, the screen doesn't display an "end call" screen.
But there's a clever "window shade" option when you've got music playing in the background. Instead of cycling back around through the home screen to get back to the music player to pause your tunes, you simple draw down the music player window from the top of whatever application or function window you're in.
Android's Biggest Problem
But Andoid's biggest problem is the lack of a corresponding desktop application, such as iTunes, to unify the syncing of the disparate bits and pieces you'll be loading into the G1. There is a cloud server for PIM functions: e-mail, contacts, calendar. But for syncing music, photos and other content — nada. If you've got a lot of ACC-ripped music for your iPod, you can't use iTunes, which doesn't recognize any other hardware other than Apple's, and Windows Media Player doesn't import AACs. For the average low-tech user, the lack of a unifying desktop application could prove fatally frustrating.