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Is the G1 Google Phone Worth the Hype? (Hands-on Review)


What it is:
The T-Mobile G1, a.k.a. the Android "Google" phone.

Why it's different: The G1 is the first phone to debut the Android operating system for mobile phones, which is Google's entree into the cell phone space (and an attempt to go head-to-head with the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile phones). This means it's essentially a newfangled smart phone that's optimized for Google functions such as Gmail, Google search, and Google Chat, but will still work with your other favorite e-mail (though not Microsoft Exchange) and IM programs. It also has a unique combination keyboard, touchscreen, and jog dial interface for getting maneuvering around and controlling stuff that rarely leaves you in the lurch, control-wise. The G1 is just the first phone in what Google hopes will be a boatload of new Android-based handsets.

What we like: It has a nice, big and wide screen, which makes watching YouTube videos and editing photos (yes, you can do basic edits like cropping photos with a tap and slide of your fingers on the touchscreen) easy on the eyes. Ditto browsing the Web with the browser that accurately calls up most Web sites (minus those with Flash videos or animations). It also has a full-fledged keyboard that's uncovered by sliding out the swiveling front screen, which makes texting and e-mailing an easy process (especially compared to the iPhones overrated and clumsy touchscreen keyboard). This comes in especially handy for instant-messaging (IM), which is easy on the G1 since you can keep all your favorite IM programs (AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger) open simultaneously (unlike on the one-IM-app-at-a-time iPhone).

The built-in Amazon MP3 store lets you download tracks right to the phone, which should definitely give the iPhone a run for its money since all the tracks are DRM-free. Naturally, the phone has smooth implementation of Google Maps, which gives you turn by turn directions similar to those on the iPhone. We also dig several of the apps in the Android Market (see 'Cool apps,' next).

Cool apps: As with the iPhone's App store, the Android Market lets you search for and download original G1 apps and games. We've only had a few days with the phone, but so far we like iSkoot (lets you use Skype on the phone for cheaper Internet calls), Ecorio (helps you keep track of your carbon footprint and live in a more eco-friendly way), ShopSavvy (a barcode reader that lets you find the best price by just taking a picture of a product's barcode), Cooking Taster (a podcast-cum-cooking-game that smudged up our touchscreen when we used it to cook Chocolate Pots de Creme), and BreadCrumbz (a cool program that lets you create your own travel guides using your own pictures and maps and share them with others), to name a few that caught our eye and initial interest. Right now, there isn't much more on offer in terms of apps, but this space for more apps in the coming weeks.

What we don't like: The single-biggest-drawback of the G1 phone for anyone who is a media hound is the lack of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, which means you're stuck with included the semi-chintzy and generic-looking USB headphones with the extremely tangly cord. No USB-to-3.5mm adapter comes with the phone, either, so you'll have to splurge for one if you want to use your favorite pair of 'buds or speakers. This wouldn't be a huge problem if the built-in Bluetooth were of the 2.0 variety and could blast high-quality stereo to your wireless Bluetooth-enabled speakers or headphones. Unfortunately, the Bluetooth only works to use basic headsets for phone calls.

As for the browser -- though it's still better than the browsers found on most smart phones, it still lacks the multi-touch functionality that makes the iPhone's Safari browser so much fun and easy to maneuver around and resize. Also: Though it has a built-in YouTube app for streaming videos, the G1 doesn't come with a video player for watching downloaded videos (you'll have to download the generic "Video Player" from the Android Market to watch local videos stored on the removable up-to-16-gigabyte MicroSDHC memory card).

And what's with the lack of a "New Releases" area on the Amazon MP3 store? Sorry, but most music lovers or new tune hounds with even remotely curious tastes will usually steer clear of most of the "Top 100 Albums" (many of which aren't even new) on offer here. Lastly, dragging your tracks manually from the phone back to your PC via USB, versus the simultaneous downloads available on not only the iPhone, but also on music Verizon/Rhapsody music phones, is kind of a drag (no pun intended).

What it costs: $179 with a two-year T-Mobile contract.

Is it worth the hype?
For anyone who considers themselves a media hound, no -- the lack of a normal headphone jack, stereo Bluetooth functionality, and built-in video player are major oversights. That said, this phone is a solid 1.0 and since many of the initial drawbacks (stereo Bluetooth) can be remedied with a simple over-the-air upgrade, it's only a matter of time before the device is a more attractive iPod and iPhone alternative. In many other respects -- Web browsing capability, GPS and maps, downloadable, original applications, and e-mail compatibility -- the G1 offers a more affordably priced alternative to the iPhone. In terms of the keyboard, photo-editing, and Gmail integration, it's definitely preferable over the iPhone, especially if you like to text or e-mail a lot.

We're not sure if $20 less than the iPhone sticker price is enough of a savings for what in the end is a heavier and bulkier phone, but we do know that on average, the T-Mobile 3G plan will cost you less over the course of two years than the iPhone plan.

So which one is for you? If you're a bit of a phone nerd who likes to try out new apps and don't want to spend an arm and a leg, the G1 is just right. If you just want good bang for your buck on a smart phone, the G1 is also a good bet. Hardcore Google users (particularly Gmailers with big contact lists and Google Talkers) will also get a lot out of this phone. All that said, if you can hold off for a couple of months to make your decision, then do it, since updates, upgrades, and more apps are due to emerge that will remedy current drawbacks and help make your choice easier.

One thing's for sure, if you get your G1 now, you will most definitely have the coolest, most sought after gadget of the second half of 2008, despite the cheesy headphones. That's often quite enough for anyone looking for a good conversation starter.

For more hands-on, check out the above video, as well as Josh Topolsky's hands-on review at Engadget.

Tags: breaking news, BreakingNews, features, g1, google phone, GooglePhone, hggfeatures, hype check, HypeCheck, new products, NewProducts, switchedvideo, t-mobile