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Google's Android is the future of smartphones. At least, it's one of the possible futures. Alongside the iPhone, it's the OS I'm most intrigued by, and that the two companies have chosen such different strategies in tackling the future only makes it ever so much more exciting.
The iPhone is an ordered, iconic device made entirely by Apple, with all the integration and fit and finish -- and frustratingly capricious omissions -- that only a single guiding mind can achieve. Android, by contrast, is chaotic and communal, designed by Google to free developers and fit a multitude of tastes and form-factors -- with all the possible confusion and derivation open source has to offer.
Which one is "better" is a ridiculously impossible question to answer -- each platform has its strengths and weaknesses and each user their own unique needs and preferences. Frankly, we're fortunate to live in a time where there are so many truly awesome devices from which to choose. (Even a few years ago -- and yes, I'll say it, pre-iPhone shockwave -- things were far, far more bleak.)
For my part, all I can really do is tell you how I use a smartphone, and how well the Android G1 fits that usage bill.
I really need to point out, up front, that the G1 is a beta device. There, I said it. Unlike Windows Mobile or Blackberry OS, which have been on the market for years and years, and the iPhone OS which is already on 2.x, Android has just hit the market with all the promise and problems that inevitably go with that. The Android device I experienced this week will absolutely and without question be blown away by whatever Android device(s) hit the market next year. So, it's not a fair comparison for Android from the get go, and I beg everyone to remember that when I lay... er... get into it below the fold.
After far too few hours of sleep, I count on the alarm to make sure I'm out of bed early enough to delay my getting fired for at least another day. Good news. Easy to set. Easy to turn off.
Roughly the same as the iPhone Clock alarm, it's more utilitarian (a theme we'll be seeing often) and while that will appeal to some, I miss the eye-candy and pure fun of the iPhone flick-wheels.
Picking up the hardware, it feels good in the hand. It's heavy but in a solid sort of way, narrower but thicker than the iPhone. The soft-touch plastic is definitely easier to hold onto. The design, however, is... well... less than attractive, and certainly nowhere near as sexy as the iPhone.
Dieter has made a good point that the G1 hardware had to be like this. If it was wrapped inside an iPhone or Blackberry class package, people wouldn't be as forgiving of the beta software. This way, the outside matches the in. Clunky is as clunky does. It's the Google stripped down interface and perpetual "beta" tag made manifest.
And that manifestation? While each part of the two-part keyboard and screen slider is good in and of itself, the mere fact that it's two parts makes it feel creakier and squeakier when you grip it. It's not the solid slab of the iPhone, but then the iPhone only achieves its form by completely throwing away the keyboard function. The G1 is all about function over form.
(Note: I couldn't find an elegant way to take screenshots absent downloading a dev kit, so I opted for photography. Apologies for the lousy quality, the screens are really bright and beautiful.)
First thing I do is hit a button to wake the phone, and menu to unlock. Then there's the awesome puzzle-game unlock. Not sure why I have to hit Menu first and then the puzzle though. One unlock would be enough.
As with the iPhone, I'd like for there to be a today screen. (Marketplace, which I'll get to later, will likely fill that void at some point if it hasn't already.)
I heard alerts go off during the night, and the notification bar shows calendar and email waiting. I love this feature. Sure, I'd rather just tap or swipe to reveal it, rather than have to pull it all the way down, but the feature itself it great.
(Actually, I'd really like a pop up to be right there when I turn the G1 on, even before I hit "menu". When I get an alert on the iPhone, if I look right away it's already popped up on the screen. If I miss it, it pops up as soon as I wake the phone. I need that! If a future version combined the best of both, it would be notification bliss!)
Here comes my major rant, and I'll get it out of the way early so I can hopefully redeem myself to the Androidikas later: Android as it stands right now has a terrible, borderline-incompetent lack of consistency and user-friendliness to its interface/experience. (Which is something the iPhone absolutely kills at, making this all the more frustrating to me).
Navigation is completely non-intuitive and you are continuously left to guess which of the myriad (too many!) input methods is needed at any given time. Keyboard, touchscreen, scroll wheel, and hard buttons are all good, all fine, really. But all at once?
First example, I turn on the phone and a beautiful home screen greets me. I swipe the touch screen and super-sweet parallax scrolling takes me to a Google search box. I tap the box and it lights up and I get a cursor, suggesting input can be made. But I can't make it. It is utterly unmakable!
I can tap away and nothing will happen unless it occurs to me to open the slider keyboard, at which point the screen will rotate and I can enter text. (Would it have been so much work to either add a virtual keyboard -- don't tell me it's coming later, or the text box should come later too! -- or just make a popup tell me to open the keyboard to enter?)
Second, there are two (2!) mail apps (more on that later) and while the regular mail app has nice, persistent controls like "reply" at the bottom of the screen, the Gmail app tosses them in-line at the bottom of page -- which is often quite a lot of scrolling away (yes, I know there are keyboard shortcuts and menu options -- exactly the point of this rant!)
Third, when there are those menu options sometimes needful controls are hidden -- tragically -- behind the "more" touchscreen button. No effort has been made to elegantly or intuitively direct a user to the right control at the right time, nor to keep controls consistent within input methods or between apps. For shame. That needs to be overhauled completely in the next major rev.
Okay, rant over. I shan't mention it again. (At least I'll try very, very hard not to).
Yup, I check it as soon as I get up. My job entails supporting offices in different time zones, and TiPb never sleeps, so there's usually a ton of stuff piled up in my inbox. One of my biggest gripes about the iPhone is how many clicks it takes to move between email accounts. If you drill down, you must drill back up. Will Android help me out there?
A bit, as we'll see. Of course, there shouldn't be two email apps to begin with, just one GUI, and Android should handle everything else transparently. Since both apps have their good and bad points, combine all the good into one would be killer.
I'll just say it -- push Gmail is awesome. I want it on the iPhone right now. Forget Street-view or Location Sharing in iPhone OS 2.2, Google -- give me push Gmail!
I use Gmail for both my personal and TiPb mail. Unfortunately, Gmail app only supports one (1) Gmail account (the iPhone only supports one ActiveSync account, but I seem to be able to set up more than one Mobile Me Account.) My personal account won the coin toss.
Setup was easy. Actually, you have to set up Gmail in order to activate the G1, the same way you need iTunes to activate the iPhone, so it needs to be easy.
Once I plugged in my credentials -- skidoosh! -- all my personal mail "just worked" with instant Google goodness.
Confession: I did find the controls a little confusing (and both trashed and spammed Crackberry Kevin -- sorry Kevin!), but luckily Dieter posted the aforementioned excellent keyboard shortcuts. In any case, stars are right there. Labels are right there. Everything anyone who has ever used Gmail via the web interface has ever wanted in a client is right there. If the next rev cleans up the controls, this could be the killer app.
Absent built in Exchange support, which the iPhone OS 2.x enjoys via ActiveSync, I set up my work email, and my TiPB Gmail both in IMAP. I'd used IMAP for iPhone OS 1.x, so while it's nowhere near as robust as ActiveSync, it got the job done. Gmail, due to Google's "unique" implementation of mapping Labels to IMAP folders, has never been enjoyable to me, not on the iPhone, and not here, but it also gets the job done well enough for now.
I should point out that Gmail IMAP generates regular invalid certificate, simultaneous connection, and other errors to the point of being utterly useless at times for me on both the desktop and iPhone (and Twitter shows I'm not alone), but I had no problem with either of those things on the G1. Either I got lucky, or Google's got some extra special mojo at work here.
Like the Gmail App, navigation is more challenging than it ought to be. Also, I ended up keeping it on manual as far as when to check mail, since anything automatic thrashed the battery life something fierce. This meant I had to wait each time I opened the app for it to download new messages, and even on WiFi this seemed to take longer than the iPhone does.
The Four Pillars of PIM
Once mail is triaged, it's time for me to figure out the day. Now, I don't use tasks/to do or memo/notes (don't tell Dieter!). This may be because the iPhone just totally FAILS by not providing sync features for them. So, to be honest, I don't know if Android does this or does it well. It's simply outside my current usage pattern.
iCal synced via MobileMe is my main modus operundi. I don't use gCal on Google's server, but I did manage to export my main calendars as ICS files and import them into gCal for instant syncing to Android. Sweet!
I'm still looking for a direct (i.e. non-3rd party) way to simply subscribe to my iCal calendars in gCal using CalDAV, but while Android Central forum members pointed me to great directions for doing the opposite (subscribing to gCal in iCal), I'm still looking for my holy grail. (Anyone seen it?)
It's a great calendar app. Not as good as Gmail, not as bad as Contacts (wait for it). As Casey will tell you, Week View merely being present is a big plus over the iPhone.
I'm going to rant again. I don't understand how the same company that makes Gmail can put out what they laughingly call Google Contacts. This, above all, made my life with Android miserable.
First, I turned on Google Sync in Address Book and immediately my contacts were beamed to the cloud. Then they were condensed and rained back down on me in tiny, droplet-y fragments. See, Google seems to just randomly add contacts almost always without any sort of container or relationship. Suddenly I had 3 to 10 contacts per person, some just email addresses, some just phone numbers, almost none linked in any useful way.
I did my best to clean it up, but searching for contacts by name seldom if ever turned up their numbers, and when people called me, I almost never got the name of the caller even if it should have been in there.
[Note: Dieter in contacts above, but no numbers, no email, no nothing. FAIL!]
Since I've long since lost the ability to actually remember numbers, this made the phone all but unusable for me at times. To be clear, however, this is not Android's problem, it's Google Contacts and Android inherited it. And this is not just my opinion, it's an opinion I've seen echoed by many otherwise extremely happy Gmail users.
Please fix this, Google. Pretty please?
On the super epic plus side, however, this did mean I got all my data onto the G1 over the air. No tether. No cable. Totally leash free. MobileMe and ActiveSync users know this freedom. Android users know it as well.
We browsing is huge on the iPhone. It's inarguably the best mobile browser implementation yet. How does the Google Browser stack up? Pretty well. The lack of multi-touch is a huge hit, no way around that, but the rendering (based on the same open source WebKit foundation as the iPhone's Safari) is snappy and it's much, much, (much!) more stable than the iPhone was under 2.1 (let's hope 2.2 has fixed that).
I had nary a crash all week.
I do wish, however, that it would auto-scale pages and fit text the way MobileSafari does. Having to manually adjust each page with the magnifying buttons got old fast. On the UI massive FAIL front, not being able to tap the touch screen to activate a URL chooser was stupefying. You can start typing on the keyboard to do that, of course, or hit the menu button and then touch "Go to URL" but -- again -- forcing a user to open a keyboard or switch between input methods is just way, way broken.
Android's browser doesn't currently support flash, though it looks like it may soon. When you get to a YouTube video, you're prompted to launch it in the YouTube app (like on the iPhone) or to view it in the browser. The former works just like you'd expect (hey, Google owns YouTube!), the latter, however, then asks you to download Java and Flash. Er... Howsabout we remove that until after Flash is made into a plugin, b'okay guys?
I like the phone app quite a bit. I liked it when I used it on the Treo. I say that because it's almost identical. Same tabbed approach to the same basic usage choices. They worked then, they work now, and as Steve Jobs so rightly said, phone is the killer app.
The only problem I had is that when I had to enter extra digits, opening up the keyboard while keeping the handset to my ear was tricky to say the least. Sure, they've invented speakers and headsets for that stuff, but I should have an onscreen keypad as well. Or is it there and I just missed it?
Pairing with my Blue Tooth was a synch. Once and a while it wouldn't work, and I would find the BT radio turned off, but turning it back on would again enable flawless use. Android really nailed this.
In general, however, I could use a little more visual differentiation in the settings between buttons that simply toggle on/off radios like WiFi and BT, and buttons that take you to those radios settings. Identical slices of a single vertical list with only check marks vs. arrow circles isn't really enough.
The iPhone, with its iPod pedigree, is a media powerhouse. It's the media powerhouse! How does Android stack up?
The lack of a built-in video player ranks up there with the lack of MMS on the iPhone. Both are inexplicable. To Android's credit, however, a video player is just one short trip to the Market away. (Want MMS on your iPhone and jailbreaking is your only current option).
Music is built in, both the player and the Amazon MP3 store. And they're fine. Since Amazon hasn't seen fit to offer the service in Canada yet, I was shut out of fully testing it. Come on, Amazon!
I'm not much of a music listener (the irony is not lost, believe me), so fine was good enough. What I am, though, is a voracious podcast listener. My feed is clogged with every Smartphone Experts cast, most of TWiT and Pixel Corp, GDGT, and many more. (I save video podcasts for the big screen).
Again, this meant a trip back to the Market to get a podcatcher... something (also ironically) Apple refuses to allow into the iPhone App Store.
I'll be honest here -- it worked but nowhere near as well as iTunes, which while still tether-bound until iPhone OS 2.2 (which may well hit today!), is just buttery smooth. Time-outs and failed downloads plagued me (which may also be the case in 2.2, who knows at this point?).
When I don't have time to tether the iPhone, I've tried streaming via web links and the Quicktime plugin, which is hit and miss as sometimes the connection stalls and unlike a downloaded podcast, it never remembers your location if it you come back to it later.
Android was very similar, though perplexingly after I typed in a URL with the keyboard and clicked to begin the stream, closing the keyboard would stop the stream. This is most likely a bug and will hopefully be fixed.
Photos on the iPhone is one of those apps you do demos with. Multi-touch just kills it. So, while Android can handle photos just fine, it doesn't have anywhere near the fun factor of the iPhone.
Strangely, cover art for the podcasts I downloaded somehow flooded my photos app, so the top level looked more like an iTunes tab than a set of albums!
This is the area where Android has the potential to really decimate the iPhone. Given all of Apple's restrictions on the App Store and the iPhone SDK, including no multi-tasking, no access to the iPod, no turn-by-turn, etc. etc. ad naseum infinitum, the freedom of the Android Market (even though it too has a kill switch) should release the true power of developer innovation.
Today, it's still a little on the far side of slim pickings. This may simply be due to the lack of a commercial option on the built-in app -- serious developers who make great software need to be paid enough to support their making great software. Hopefully this will shake out rapidly.
Since the default Android IM client wouldn't work for me (it was upset I wasn't using a T-Mobile SIM -- apparently it ties into SMS), I went in search of a 3rd party client from the Market.
Android Market works pretty much the same as the App Store, with a few little differences in the UI. Some of them are useful, but the polish wasn't there, so I'm calling it even at this point.
It was easy enough to find an IM app, and dead simple to install and use it. Strangely, it kept logging me out, defeating the purpose of multi-tasking, but I eventually found a preference setting to keep me logged in and receiving IMs in the background. That was awesome! ... until my battery very rapidly ran dry.
Push has its price. Maybe this is what's (still!) delaying Apple's Push Notification Service?
I also downloaded a game. I game very little, and very casually -- often just to wind down before going to sleep. As anyone who's seen my video know, it was frustrating. Not the download, that was easy. The game, however, told me to "push up to start". Touch screen up did nothing. Keyboard had no up key. Finally I hit the trackball and voila. This is the double edge to the Android Market Store: absent a unified hardware platform like the iPhone, you never know what input methods will be available on any given piece of equipment, and which ones will be in use on multiple input devices. This developer clearly should have allowed upward swipes on the touch screen, when a touch screen is present.
The game itself, aside from being the most popular at the time of my download, was fine for freeware, but nothing like what we've seen on the iPhone.
But it was enough to put me to sleep.
Another plus: on app update notification. I find having to go to the App Store on the iPhone inefficient at times, and really liked how Android alerted me to updates right from the app.
Again, this is a beta OS on mundane hardware and is ultimately and absolutely fine. It's fine. Really.
I was expecting more. I was expecting what I have every ounce of confidence Android 2.0 will be.
Problems vs. promise was the theme of my entire week with the G1. It's not an iPhone killer, not by any stretch of that overused drip of marketing hyperbole... but it could easily become one if Apple isn't very careful.
Unlike Apple, Google isn't secretly building devices to slip out of their jean pockets at trade shows and shock and delight the world first time at bat. They're taking a decidedly Microsoft-ian approach of releasing concept pieces and using the early adopters to test and refine. Microsoft typically does horrible first revs, poor second revs, and then starts to nail things third time at bat. Hopefully Google will hit their home run faster.
I know I'm desperately rooting for them.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
By Tammy Rogers