Google's Android software provides some nice capabilities, but also some strange limitations.
What you learn when you start your T-Mobile G1 ($179.00 with two-year contract) for the first time is that this smartphone is inexorably tied to Google, maker of its much anticipated operating system. While you eventually get to the good stuff, using the G1 starts with your gmail account. It's a required part of the setup process, and if you don't have one, then you have to create one.
Once you get past the process of setting up the device with your Google account information, you're greeted with a nicely designed device that tries to address some of the limitations of Apple's iPhone, while providing functionality that goes beyond the iPhone in important areas.
The result is that you get a device with a touch screen that superficially resembles what Apple brings to the iPhone. However, the G1 is also very different from the iPhone. Like the iPhone, you can touch icons on the screen to make things happen, whether they involve looking at the address book, playing music, or taking photos.
Unlike the iPhone, you aren't limited to just using the touch screen. There are a few buttons that let you open and close icons and the main menu, and there's a track ball for navigation. But the biggest difference is that there's an actual QWERTY keyboard that's revealed when you slide open the screen.
Aside from the fact that this is far from the best keyboard I've used, it's still vastly better than the iPhone's touch screen keyboard.
The G1 has decent selection of standard features.
In addition to the navigation buttons and the keyboard, the touch screen reveals a good selection of pre-loaded applications ranging from a real Web browser, to an e-mail client, to a music player and a picture viewer. Many features you might like can be downloaded for free from Google, although some of those free downloads are either limited in usage or functionality.
Still, for the things many smartphone users want, it's all there.
Unfortunately, for many other smartphone users, it's not there at all. The G1 is clearly a work in progress, and while it's a good first start, this smart phone leaves a lot to be desired for business users.
For starters, it has no means of communicating with Microsoft Exchange based e-mail except by reaching it through the Web browser. Likewise, reaching Lotus Notes is out of the question.
Push e-mail that you'd expect to see from Blackberry or Good doesn't exist.
In the unlikely event your company uses Google's gmail, you're in luck, but the gmail application will only let you connect to one gmail account. Worse, if you need to change from one account to another, you must completely reset your device, and lose any information that's stored on it. If you have two gmail accounts, say one for personal use and one for business, then you must set the second one up as a POP3 or IMAP account, and access it using the standard e-mail client.
The G1 has support for a wide range of third party e-mail systems, however actually using that feature can prove to be problematic. Getting the G1 to send mail using an Earthlink e-mail account simply didn't work using the G1's default settings.
Using the G1 seems to be a case of an immature device that tries to be too many things to too many people.
For example, the screen of the G1 is clear, easy to read, bright, and you can scroll it sidewise to access more real estate. Unfortunately, the screen remains bright regardless of the ambient lighting. Where its competition (the BlackBerry, for example) will dim the screen for comfortable use in dark surroundings, the G1 does not.
In fact, one of the classes of applications you can download for the G1 is a flashlight feature that takes advantage of the screen brightness so that you can use the device to light up your surroundings. Nice, but it'll kill your night vision if you need to make a phone call.
Likewise, the G1 uses a wide variety of wireless communications, including GSM, Edge, WiFi and 3G. But it doesn't take advantage of T-Mobile's @Home technology that supports voice over Wi-Fi on all of the company's other Wi-Fi capable phones. And as nice as the 3G support is, you can't actually use it unless you're in one of the few cities where it's available.
The good versus bad stories abound.
The music player sounds quite nice through the included headset, and you can even listen to music through the built-in speaker, although it sounds as bad as you'd suspect it would. But you must use the included headphones a standard headset, such as a noise cancelling design, or a standard set of earbuds won't work unless they include a mini-USB connector. There's no standard headphone jack on the G1.
The mini-USB port on the G1 will allow you to attach the device to your computer, which in turn will recognize it as a mass storage device. You can copy music files and photos to the storage, and the G1 will recognize and play them if they aren't restricted by digital rights management. This means you can't use the songs you bought from iTunes without going through the cumbersome process of creating a CD, and then copying the CD contents to the G1. iTunes files without DRM will work fine however.
Unfortunately, there's no support software for your computer that will synchronize with the G1. You can use Google's applications and on-line service as a destination for synchronization, but that means they're not on your computer.
Integrated GPS supports location-based services, such as navigation with real-time street views and searches. For example, the G1 features a restaurant locater you can download that will find eateries close to you, wherever you are. The image below shows restaurants in Washington, DC, near the White House, including a McDonalds frequented by a former President.
One interesting feature about the G1's navigation is that it doesn't depend on GPS. If you're somewhere that a GPS signal can't reach, such as inside a building, the G1 can also locate itself, albeit less precisely, using signals from cell sites.
The device can use both features at the same time, so if you travel from a place without GPS coverage to a place with a view of the satellites, the changeover is automatic.
In short, the G1 brings a lot to the smartphone market, but there's a lot that it doesn't bring.
It's fun to use, and it has some nice installed software and features, but it's not a game-changer. The good news is that T-Mobile can update the Android software remotely, so you can expect some features to simply arrive when T-Mobile thinks they're ready to be sent out.
In the meantime, you can get a very nice smartphone that lacks the refinement of products that have been on the market longer. But the G1 does bring some needed features that others are sure to emulate, such as the combination of a touch screen and an actual keyboard. The fact that Google claims that it intends for this platform to support open source software also means a lot in terms of potential, but right now that potential is still waiting to be realized.
Wayne Rash is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC, area.
This article was first published on SmartPhoneToday.com.