A Hands-On First Look At Google Android

As an open source advocate and developer with a serious love/hate relationship with my iPhone, I couldn’t wait to get my paws on a device running Google’s brand spankin’ new open-source mobile phone operating system, Android—and I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve spent the last four days using an HTC G1 phone running the first release of Android, and while it is not an iPhone-killer, it is a killer device for heavy Google users (like you and me). Let’s take a look at why Android does—and doesn’t—live up to its hype.

Note: Since the iPhone I use as my primary phone is my sole experience with a touchscreen smartphone operating system, I’m going to base my Android observations on it, even though the iPhone is not the only touchscreen OS out there. (Sorry.)

First, a quick tour around the G1 handset itself. The first thing an iPhone owner notices is that there are a helluva lot of buttons before you even flip out the keyboard: five, to be exact, plus a rubber trackball (that I have come to love, more on that later). Love affair aside, at first all those buttons are confusing and look kind of low-rent next to the iPhone’s sleek how-did-they-DO-that single button.

The phone is also fatter, and unlike the iPhone, it has a slight bend at the bottom of it (pictured right). This can become a usability problem for people who like to slide their phone into the front pocket of their jeans. The iPhone slips in there easily; the G1, on the other hand, bulks up your thigh a bit more and that rubber trackball can rub and roll on the fabric inside your pants.

However, despite its tendency to catch on the inside of my jeans pocket, I absolutely love the rubber trackball for scrolling on the G1. From a pure economy of motion standpoint, it’s much, much faster to scroll and click using the trackball versus swipe and tap using your finger on the screen. After just a few days, I love the rubber trackball in a kind of scary, illegal-in-some-states way.

The reason for the extra bulk, of course, is the flip-out full QWERTY keyboard on the G1. Having never had a Sidekick or any other phone with a full keyboard, this was a new experience for me—but one I came to enjoy pretty quickly, because with a full keyboard comes context-insensitive keyboard shortcuts and launcher combos. (More on that below.) I wasn’t so thrilled with the idea of a big hinge on my phone, but in practice, the G1’s screen flips out to display the keyboard in a really smooth, solid motion and it snaps into place with authority. The keyboard buttons actually don’t stick out as much as I expected, so pressing them doesn’t have that tactile feedback I was hoping for. Still, I make less typing mistakes on this keyboard than the iPhone’s touch keyboard.

Unlike the iPhone, the G1 screen is not multi-touch. You can only use one finger to swipe your screens or scroll up and down. This is a bummer for iPhone owners used to the two-finger pinch and expand to zoom in and out, especially during web browsing.

For a closer look at exactly what the hardware’s like, see Gizmodo’s photo-laden hands on. (Those guys try out phones for a living, so they’re assessment on the hardware is far more informed than mine.) As far as my size complaints, see Gizmodo’s “Sizemodo” post which compares the G1 to other handsets out there. In short—it’s chunky, so you’ve got to decide if the keyboard makes the bulk worth it.

But let’s talk about the main thing we care about here at Lifehacker: the software.

Android Is the Google-Lovers’ Dream

Android’s huge advantage is its tight integration with the Google services you use most—Gmail, GCal, Google Talk, Maps, and YouTube right now, though it’s still missing Google Reader, Docs, Bookmarks, and very many other GOOG apps that could come in quite handy on your phone. One can only assume as the software matures those will show up eventually.

Assuming you’re already an established Google app user, you pop in your Google Account username and password, and (as Jobs would say) BOOM!—you’ve got your email, contacts list, calendar events, the whole shebang on your phone, over the air, synced with the cloud, no contact with your computer necessary. This wasn’t even close to the experience I had with my iPhone, which has required several email account setups and re-setups, and not a small amount of tinkering with my address book and syncing to my computer to get everything as it should be.

In the course of four days, I still haven’t connected the G1 to my computer—everything I need is in the cloud at Google and on the phone, period. This is why heavy Google apps users will want Android.

The software has a lot going on in it, but instead of running through every detail of how you do things, let’s look at just a few perks Android on the G1 offers that are worth mentioning.

Android is a Gmail-reading powerhouse.

Never have I had a better experience reading email—specifically Gmail—on a mobile device as I have with Android. Android offers an interface very similar to the web front end of Gmail, with conversations threading, labels, stars, archiving—all the functions you expect from full-on, genuine Gmail. You can also specify, on a per-label basis, what gets synced real-time. To move through conversations you can roll the trackball or flick your finger; typing messages is obviously easy with the QWERTY keyboard and you can set up email signatures as well. Much to my dismay, Gmail’s web-based keyboard shortcuts do NOT work on the G1. Hopefully in a future iteration, you can hit J or K on the keyboard to move forward and back through Gmail conversations.

In addition to the Gmail client, there is a straight-up email client for your other POP and IMAP accounts.

Android offers Google Maps’ Street View—and coupled with Compass Mode, it will blow your mind. (When it can actually find your location.)

Like the iPhone, Android is location-aware, and puts Google Maps to good use. You get all the lovely touch panning, zooming, satellite-view, and pinpoint-my-current-location goodness in Google Maps on Android that the iPhone offers. The one eye-popping feature you don’t get anywhere else is Google Maps Street View—and a very cool Compass mode, that uses the phone’s accelerometer to adjust what you see on screen as you move. Here’s a quick clip of Street View + Compass Mode enabled. (The clip skips to the Compass Mode part automatically.)

The bad news is that Android was unable to determine my location from several different points in San Diego, which means that any kind of location-aware app won’t work as intended. That’s a problem—if you’re considering a G1, make sure you try it in your area first.

Android offers more options for what you can put on your home screen.

My one huge gripe about the iPhone (and my Nokia before it) was the inability to put a shortcut on the home screen to a new text message with my better half’s number filled into the To: field. Texting my spouse is the thing I do most often on my phone, so it should be a one-tap or one-click
act, and it’s not in iPhone 2.0 or Symbian. It’s not quite that either in Android, but you can create a shortcut to a specific contact on your home screen, which makes texting my lady a two-tap affair.

You can also add a shortcut to a Gmail label to your home screen, as well as a Google Gadget (yuck, I know—that’s what that bigass clock is), a music playlist, and any application or folder as well.

Android puts search front and center.

The “Google phone” would be nothing if it weren’t search-centric. You can start searching in any context by hitting the Search keyboard button (it’s a magnifying glass, pictured right). From the home screen or inside the browser, you can just start typing text to invoke a Google search box and go.

Android includes a notifications bar you can drag down “window shade”-style to see more info.

When you install a new app, download a file, get a new text message, email, or voicemail, Android displays the information in a notification bar across the top of the screen. Here’s what an incoming SMS looks like:

You can tap and drag this notifications bar down to expand it and get more information (and clear the items).

Compared to the iPhone’s modal pop-up notifications, Android’s window shade definitely takes the cake.

Android offers customisable keyboard shortcuts.

The fantastic thing you get with a full QWERTY keyboard? Why, keyboard shortcuts, of course! Android lets you define keyboard combination to launch applications in the settings area.

Sadly you cannot assign a keyboard combination to anything other than an application (like a contact or Gmail label).

Android’s application offerings haven’t even begun.

We haven’t even gotten to the Android Marketplace, where developers will start offering apps that run on Android. Right now Android’s apps offerings are pretty slim pickings, but there is an app pretty familiar to iPhone users: the iTunes Remote control app. Here’s a video demo of one of our favourite iPhone apps in action on Android.

Android iTunes Remote Control from Jeffrey Sharkey on Vimeo.

Android is in desperate need of a screenshot-taking application, by the way—which is why all the screen grabs in this review are from the emulator.

You can copy and paste in Android.

Unlike Apple with the iPhone, Google figured out how to do background tasks and a clipboard in Android. Have a look at how copy and paste works on the Gphone.

Android’s web browser is (almost) just as good as Mobile Safari.

As far as I’m concerned, the best part of the iPhone software is Mobile Safari and it’s tabbed browsing and touch-zooming and panning. Android’s browser (not officially Chrome—yet) offers tabbed browsing like Mobile Safari, and it renders pages just as well (it’s based on Webkit, just like Safari). But here’s where the lack of multi-touch bites you in the ass: Android’s mechanisms for zooming in and out on a page and magnifying an area on-page just doesn’t feel as good as Safari’s two-finger pinch and expand do to me. That said, Android’s browser has hooks into Maps and the phone’s dialer mechanisms that Mobile Safari does not. Here’s a demonstration of a few neat Android browser tricks.

While Android is impressive, I’m not about to toss ye olde iPhone just yet.

Why I’m Not Trading in My iPhone for a G1

As you can see, Android on the G1 is a sweet setup, if a bit unfinished, and as my love/hate iPhone relationship veers more often into hate these days, it’s tempting to make the switch—but I’m not, just yet. Aside from the bulkiness issue mentioned above, T-Mobile’s 3G coverage in San Diego is absolutely atrocious. (I know we’re a second tier city, but really! We’re still a city!) As much as I drooled over Android’s location-awareness features (like Compass mode), no matter where I tried, in neighborhoods all over San Diego, Android was unable to pinpoint my location.

Also, while Android does a great job of bringing your Google Account info to the handset, it doesn’t handle multiple Google accounts at all. I use one for work and one for personal reasons, and there’s no way to easily switch personas in Android right now. All this on top of the fee I’d have to pay to get out of my iPhone contract means I won’t be purchasing a G1 with Android—yet. As the software matures, apps come out, and my contract comes to an end, there’s a great chance I’ll change my mind. Now the wait for 2.0 begins.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


Leave a Reply