Google’s widely anticipated entry into the smart-phone market _ the T-Mobile G1, out this week _ has raised consumer expectations that it could be the next must-have gadget.
But anyone expecting the G1 to be revolutionary is likely to be disappointed. The G1 borrows from the look and feel of existing smart phones; the touch screen is a little like the iPhone’s, but less full-featured, while the pop-up menu with rows of icons resembles the BlackBerry.
But Google, which created the phone’s software, and T-Mobile may be focused more on mass marketing the G1 than scoring points for style. New York-based ABI Research says Google’s intention is to greatly expand the market for smart phones, which today account for only 14 percent of all cell phones sold worldwide.
Smart phones are in many ways handheld computers, and putting more of them in the hands of consumers could change the way people use the Internet. T-Mobile is aiming the G1 strictly at consumers. That sets it apart from the iPhone, a consumer device that’s moving into the business market, and the BlackBerry, a business phone that’s moving into the consumer market.
But the G1’s appeal isn’t based on a bargain price. The $179.99 G1 (not including cell plan) costs about the same as a $199 to $299 iPhone 3G or the current high-end $150 BlackBerry phone (the new touch-screen BlackBerry Storm, and its price, won’t be available until later this year.)
The G1 has a lot of features we’ve come to expect from smart phones: Internet browsing (at the fastest 3G cell phone speeds), YouTube video, e-mail, text messaging, online searching, interactive maps and playing or downloading music. It’s also got extras we’ve come to expect, such as a good camera, keyboard and user interface. But it’ll cost you: to get a G1 you need sign up for a two-year T-Mobile agreement and take one of the mandatory data packages costing $25 or $35 a month on top of paying for a regular T-Mobile calling plan.
But the success of any consumer gadget lies in the details. The G1’s user interface, part of Google’s Android operating system, isn’t always as convenient as the iPhone’s. Once you call up a Web page, for example, the G1 requires that you use a pop-up menu to magnify the parts of the Web site you want to read. The iPhone allows you to expand a Web page to readable size by touching the screen with your thumb and forefinger, then spreading the thumb and finger apart.
Some users may like the G1’s physical QWERTY keyboard, which lies behind the slide-away screen. It’s bigger than the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, which exists only on the screen. But in fairness, all smart-phone keyboards are designed for only one-finger or two-thumb typing.
However, the G1’s combination of a track ball, keyboard and touch screen sometimes makes browsing easier than on the iPhone, where scrolling with your finger makes it easy to accidentally click the wrong link, wasting time. Like other 3G phones, the G1 allows you to be on the Internet and have a phone conversation at the same time (only in metro areas where the faster 3G network is available).
It’s worth noting that the G1’s visible screen area is larger than the size of its physical screen. You can use your finger to scroll the screen image to the left or right, revealing extra space on either side. Here you can place frequently used icons that would otherwise obscure the phone’s “wallpaper” image.
Moving things around on the screen works a lot like it does on a PC. To move shortcut icons from a pop-up menu to the phone’s main screen, hold your finger on an icon and drag it. To remove icons from the main screen, hold them down and drag them to the trash basket. Holding your finger down on a blank part of the screen (called a “long press”) brings up a menu that lets you change the look and feel of the main screen with everything from music playlists to an alarm clock.
When you rotate the phone 90 degrees to use the keyboard, the image on the screen also rotates 90 degrees so you can view it while typing. But the G1 can’t do the cool iPhone trick of automatically rotating the screen image 90 degrees whenever you rotate the phone.
The G1’s three-megapixel camera can produce good photos, but it’s annoyingly difficult to use because the camera has an autofocus feature that can’t be turned off. It works by holding the shutter button halfway down while the subject comes into focus, then pushing the shutter button all the way down to take a photo. Because the shutter button is touchy, the photos can be alternately sharp and out of focus. Waiting for the autofocus to work can also cause you to miss the impromptu photos for which cell phones are famous.
Should you buy a G1? If you want a useful smart phone, it’s worth a look. But if you want a gadget that’s truly revolutionary, don’t bother.