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T-Mobile G1 brings the function, skimps on the fun

image Having spent several days with the T-Mobile G1, it  is clearly a strong new entrant in the smartphone space that should satisfy many T-Mobile consumers that have looked longingly at the iPhone, particularly those that want a great mobile Web experience. It’s especially impressive that Google has been able to create such a competitive experience with an operating system designed to run on many different kinds of smartphones.

Those who covet the iPhone’s svelte shell will be disappointed, but the G1 counters with a full QWERTY keyboard, higher-resolution auto-focus camera, and a microSD slot. The slot is oddly placed on the device, but HTC notes that the G1 mounts as a mass storage device, minimizing card removal. A more disadvantageous design choice, though, is the lack of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack

Its 3.2″ screen, while smaller than the iPhone’s, offers the same resolution, and never has to compromise its available real estate to accommodate an on-screen keyboard. However, the need to open the keyboard, like on many side-sliders, can sometimes feel disruptive.

The arc slider mechanism of the G1 is somewhat novel,  but its hinge can emit an unpleasant creak when pressure is applied to it. Moreover, the overall look of the device is dated, with four buttons lining the bottom in a layout that is reminiscent of PDAs of yore. While the Home and Back buttons are essential, the Menu button could probably be replaced with a gesture.

The iPhone is better optimized for a touch experience in general, its multitouch screen makes zooming and other tasks easier, and it also takes better advantage of its accelerometer, with more applications taking advantage of dynamic screen orientation. The G1, in contrast, will automatically change to horizontal orientation for nearly all applications — including e-mail — when its screen is slid open.

Like modern Blackberry devices, which also employ a scroll ball, the G1 often offers more efficient user interface navigation than the iPhone. A good example of this is in editing text, where the scroll ball allows quick traversal of characters and beats the creative although slow magnifying glass interface of the iPhone (The G1 supports copy and paste, but only within text fields.) The G1’s browser also provides smaller thumbnails, which makes it easier to see open Web pages and avoids the extensive swiping that Safari users may need to do to track down an open page.

The G1 keeps all of its applications available in a scrollable “drawer” that is tapped or flicked up from its tripartite home screen, which can also host shortcuts to favorite applications. The home screen can also accommodate widgets — which are a great feature — although there are very few available and Android is not compatible with Google gadgets. Unlike the iPhone, the G1 multitasks with aplomb and includes a fairly well-implemented notification bar that pulls down like a window shade from the top of the screen. In general, though, you won’ find the degree of animation and translucence that are Apple software hallmarks.

Android’s browser, which uses the same Webkit rendering engine as Apple’s Safari, does an equally good job at rendering most Web sites although, as with the iPhone, Adobe’s Flash support is not included. The G1’s IM client may be the best one included standard on any U.S. smartphone — very clean, functional and easy to navigate. And with the free application iSkoot, G1 owners can exchange chat messages with Skype users. However, the handset is cut off from many corporate e-mail systems due to its lack of Exchange or Blackberry Connect support, And at least at this early stage, the G1 lacks the rich support of popular Web sites offering optimized applications for the iPhone such as Pandora, MySpace, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo. Google competes to varying degrees with some of these sites, which may influence their eagerness to support Android.

While the G1’s Internet support (at least from its default applications) may be as good or even slightly better than the iPhone’s, its media support can’t match that of the handset borne of an iPod lineage. The G1 has no native video player although a free application now supports playback of H.264 video. In addition, while the few games available for Android at this point are entertaining, they are a far cry from the sophistication of the Apple’s impressive game roster. One bright spot for the G1 is the Amazon Music Store, which provides easy sampling of albums and sells music in a DRM-free format. Like the iPhone’s iTunes application, it works only over Wi-Fi.

If you are the type of PC user who enjoys optimizing your user interface with various utilities and tweaks, you’ll find much to like in Android, which allows developers great freedom in getting under the hood. For example, while the G1 does not include a standard task-switcher, at least one third party has already created one. And while Android generally limits file access to applications, file viewers have already materialized; full-fledged file managers are likely under development. Android’s openness will be tested, though, as T-Mobile weighs whether to allow applications that could, for example, enable the handset to act as a hotspot.

The G1 is T-Mobile’s first 3G device, and coverage was very good around Manhattan and at home, although T-Mobile’s in-building coverage in general lags behind its rivals in New York City. Web surfing was responsive, and, like the iPhone 3G, he G1 got through a day of battery life with moderate usage.

While it has a few disappointing feature gaps, the G1 represents an auspicious start for the Android platform. It offers much to Internet power users who want a modern user interface experience, but falls short on the level of stylistic touches and polish both in its software and hardware that make the iPhone so appealing to those who value design as much as functionality.