Review: T-Mobile G1

I'm really enjoying telling you all about my new gadgets.

My old, crappy cell phone has been needing replacement for some time now, and given how enamored I am of my iPod Touch, an iPhone seemed like the logical choice. However, I balked at the 2-year service contract with AT&T. I've been without a yearly service contract for most of the time I've had cell phones— that is, since I got hit with an early termination fee in 2003 when I was going to Europe for a few months and decided it didn't make sense to keep my phone. It's a philosophy that's served me well; for example, when I moved to Vermont a couple years ago, I discovered T-Mobile didn't have any service in the state, so I simply canceled and got a month-to-month contract with Verizon. Then, when I moved back, I canceled the less-favorable Verizon plan and got T-mobile again.

So when I discovered that T-Mobile's Google Android powered G1 phone was available with my current, month-to-month plan, and I only had to add $25 a month for unlimited Internet, I was pretty well sold. Incidentally, my plan—called "FlexPay"— is only $40 a month for 1000 daytime minutes and unlimited nights and weekends, so with the $25 a month Internet it comes out to only $75 dollars a month total. This is significantly less than similar plans for the iPhone with its two year contract. (Though they don't seem to be offering my plan anymore, instead offering $40 for 600 daytime minutes and unlimited nights and weekends, which is still pretty good.)

The only drawback is that without a contract, the phone isn't subsidized. With a contract, it costs $179 (less than the iPhone's $200). Without a contract it's $400 (which is still less than an unlocked iPhone is going to cost you). I got one used for $345 from one of Webuy.com's brick-and-morter stores, though it came without the built-in SD card (for saving files) and (as I later found out) without an adapter for headphones, both of which come with the new device. The out-of-the-box SD card is only 1GB, so no big loss; I picked up a 4GB card for $60. The headphone adapter will run me another $5-15 dollars, once I get one. (For now I still mostly use my iPod Touch for audio and video stuff, and may continue to do so, though the G1's speakers are pretty decent.)

And here's what it looks like:

So how does the phone stack up? The pros: wifi, 3G Internet, 3 Gigapixal camera (compare to the iPhone's 2 gigapixal one), and built-in support for GMail, Google Calendar, and Google Maps (including street view). It has the fold out keyboard which is SO much easier to type on than the Touch's touch screen. The G1 Market doesn't have nearly the number of apps as the iTunes App Store, but Google's open platform does mean there are some things you won't find from Apple, like the Opera web browser, Skype apps and a unix terminal (which, as a unix geek, I am having a lot of fun with). It also allows you to install apps that aren't in the market, meaning you can easily write your own apps and pass them around as much as you want (without paying developer fees to Apple). Otherwise, most of the basic stuff is there, Twidroid is a wonderful Twitter app, there's an app that integrates the camera with Google's Picasa photo service, and others that build-in Flickr and even FTP. There are multiple programs for quick access to Wikipedia, for local weather, for local movie listings, and so on. There's a YouTube app. There's several RSS readers, including one that syncs automatically to Google Reader. There's even an app that (with some annoying setup) gives you Visual Voicemail like the iPhone does, and seems to work pretty well. There's direct access to the Amazon mp3 store, which is DRM-free and is almost always cheaper than the iTunes store. Though note that, like the iPhone/Touch, there's still no Flash support.

The two best features of the G1 over the iPhone, however, are the notification curtain and the back button.

Notifications, like new emails and text messages, are sent to icons on the top of the screen which can then be pulled down, in the midst of other activities, and looked at. (Unlike the iPhone where you have to go back to the home screen and usually launch the program to get any notifications from it.) Even better, other apps can send notifications to the screen, so I can see recent twitter posts there, for instance, and also downloads that other apps are performing in the background. (This is stuff that with the iPhone's lack of background apps and still-unavailable push behavior, the G1 rules at hands-down.)

The back button is a simple, physical button at the bottom of the device, which takes you back to whatever the last screen you were looking at is, even if the last screen was in a completely separate application to the current one, or was a pop-up. When Twidroid links me to a page in the web browser, the back button takes me right back to the app. When Google News opens up a link in a new window, the back button takes me back to Google News -- and closes the spawned browser window for me. And so on. It's exactly the kind of thing that never would have occurred to me to have on a smart phone and which I'm now finding invaluable.

The G1 also has a click-able trackball, if you want an easy way to do things like scroll down a webpage you're reading without going to the touch screen.

The cons: The G1 has a worse battery life than the iPhone. It comes with far less built-in memory (the aforementioned 1GB SD card which supplements a paltry 200MB built-in memory, as compared to the 8GB or 16GB iPhones. (As I mentioned before, though, you can upgrade the G1's memory which you can't do with an iPhone, though only to a maximum of 8GB.) Also, there are a number of apps I use regularly on my iPod Touch that aren't available for the G1. For instance, Pandora Internet Radio — though several other Internet radio apps exist (including last.fm and imeem), Pandora is the one I think is the best. This may change, though, as since Pandora has already made an app for Windows Mobile, an Android version may be soon in coming. There is nothing to come close to the Stanza ebook reader for the G1, though there is a text file reader that can download directly from project Gutenberg. I have other ways of reading ebooks, but for those hoping for a real ebook reader on the G1, they'll still have to wait for some better app to come along. There is no app like Instapaper, which can save webpages for later, offline viewing. There is no app with a New York Subway map like City Transit, which I use all the time. And while there are to-do lists available, there isn't my favorite to-do list app, Zenbe lists, with its also excellent website access.

Also, certain things are a little more difficult to do on the G1 than on the iPod Touch. For example, the G1 can put direct links to websites on its home screen like the Touch, but whereas on the Touch this is a one-click affair, on the G1 you have to first bookmark the webpage, then go to the home screen, hit menu, add, bookmarks and then select the bookmark you want. Likewise on the Touch, deleting apps is very simple, while on the G1 you have to either find the app in the Market and click uninstall (which is silly), or go to the settings menu, then Applications, manage applications, wait for it to "comute application sizes", then click on the app you want, then click uninstall.

Overall, though, I have to say that I'm pretty happy with the G1, and I'm having a lot of fun with it. I think it's an excellent device and a worthwhile competitor to the iPhone, the Blackberry Storm, the forthcoming Palm Pre and so on, and one that will become more valuable as more Android phones are released (there's at least a couple slated for this year), the firmware is upgraded and more apps are developed for it. And the fact that you can get it without a yearly contract makes it, for me, the ideal device.