NEW YORK (AP) -- Given Google Inc.'s reputation as a trend setter on the Web, I expected great things from its first mobile phone - especially since it is emerging more than a year after Apple Inc. launched the enormously popular iPhone.
And while it's far from perfect, the G1 powered by Google's Android operating system is packed with plenty of consumer-oriented features that may even make iPhone fans take notice.
Made by Taiwan's HTC Corp., the G1 is being released Oct. 22 by T-Mobile in the U.S. and will cost $179 with a two-year contract. The device, about the size as the iPhone but plumper, will be available in black or bronze. It sports a large touch screen, and the lower smidgen of the device is angled - the curvature seemed more stylistic than functional to me - and sports four buttons and a trackball.
Beneath the touch screen is a slide-out QWERTY keyboard that makes the G1 feel like a grownup's version of another device T-Mobile sells, the Sidekick. The keyboard will appeal to anyone who, like me, still prefers the feel of physical keys rather than virtual ones on the screen (sorry, Apple).
There's also an adjacent microSD card slot that comes loaded with a 1 gigabyte card. Don't lose this tiny card, because it's the storage spot for photos and songs you want to access on the G1. If you want to invest in more space, the G1 supports cards up to 16 gigabytes.
From the start, the G1 was easy to use. It includes an intuitive interface and many of Google's familiar services, like search, Gmail and Google Talk.
There's also Google Maps, which is enhanced by a built-in compass that lets you see locations in the "Street View" feature by moving the phone as you hold it.
I had no trouble doing things like instant messaging my friends, searching for bubble tea stores near my apartment, and yes, making phone calls. There is a good-looking browser that is pretty simple to navigate, and the device's screen is clear and sharp.
I was more impressed with the speed of T-Mobile's 3G network than I have been with AT&T's, and noticed applications and songs downloaded fairly quickly and easily. This could change, though, as the network is still quite new and there are not many phones running on it yet. The phone also works on T-Mobile's slower but more widespread EDGE network; however, data functions aren't as zippy.
The downside of all the talking, Web surfing and content downloading is that it can quickly run down a phone's battery. The G1 promises up to five hours of talk time and nearly 5 1/2 days of standby time, but who's going to simply chat on a smart phone or let it sit gathering dust?
I gave the device a fairly realistic battery rundown - on-and-off use of multiple functions and applications and the phone's 3G and Wi-Fi network capabilities. It's safe to say people with a serious multimedia habit will have to keep a charging cable on hand.
Early on, I noticed that the G1's main screen actually extends beyond the device's viewing area. You can access the "hidden" parts by swiping to the right or left of the screen. I used this to organize shortcuts to certain programs by type: I put all my game shortcuts on the left "screen" and kept shortcuts to things like my contacts, Gmail, browser and phone dialer on the main screen area.
A key element is the Google-run Android Market, which lets third-party developers offer add-on programs and games that you can download wirelessly to the G1. For now, downloads are free, but eventually some may cost money.
There weren't that many programs available when I tested the G1 - I counted about three dozen applications and 10 games, a fraction of what Apple's iPhone App Store contains - but more should come soon. And while Apple has been slowly approving iPhone applications and rejecting some that compete with its own programs, the Android Market is more open to developers.
I liked a few applications, especially the "Barcode Scanner" that uses the G1's 3-megapixel camera to read the UPC barcodes on things like product boxes and book jackets and then links you to related Web searches. It's pretty nifty if you want to know more about a novel or check prices online.
Some applications take advantage of the G1's GPS capabilities, like one called "Ecorio" that tracks your trips and computes your carbon footprint.
The G1 also connects to Amazon.com Inc.'s online MP3 store, which was easy to browse and offered quick downloads of songs free of copy protection. Take note, though, that as with the iPhone you'll need Wi-Fi access rather than just 3G cellular connectivity to download songs wirelessly.
The phone's built-in support for YouTube may appeal to video fans, but it was underwhelming to me. Even though Google owns YouTube, the clips I watched on the Google phone looked poorer than they tend to on a desktop computer.
Unfortunately, video and song playback is hampered by a major hardware shortcoming: the G1 eschews a standard headphone jack in favor of an included but uncomfortable earbud headset, which plugs into the mini USB port that is also used to charge the phone. This poses several problems, as you can't use your favorite headphones without an adapter and it's impossible to charge the G1 while listening to music or watching videos, unless you want to use the included speaker.
I thought I might be able to circumvent this problem by using a stereo Bluetooth headset, but, alas, the G1 only supports non-stereo Bluetooth headsets.
True smart phone greatness can take time, and I'm willing to cut Google a little slack. After all, the first iPhone wowed, but it was not without issues and missing features. The second version was better, and yet still there is plenty of room for improvement.
So I'm optimistic the G1 will improve soon, partly through its over-the-air software updates and additions to the Android Market. Google's search engine was not the first of its kind, either. And we all know how that worked out.