Android

In lieu of cash this Xmas, Google gave its employees free, unlocked “gPhones” this year. This phone is the HTC Dream, the phone that T-Mobile is selling under the name G1. This exact model is the Android Dev Phone, a more expensive but unlocked version of the G1.

By the way, contrary to what the dolts over at Valleywag are saying, this is basically an xmas gift and has nothing to do with the larger, performance-based cash bonuses given in March.

I spent a few hours playing around with it the other day. Overall it’s pretty neat. I tried really hard not to compare it to the iPhone but it’s hard not to. The iPhone is quite a bit nicer, of course, but for Google’s first attempt at a consumer operating system Android isn’t too bad. Like many Google products, it needs a bit of polish but it shows promise.

HTC Dream

Hardware

Like the iPhone, it can be used in either a vertical or horizontal orientation, but the top slides open to reveal a physical keyboard when the phone is used horizontally. As a result, horizontally is the only way to type anything. Never having used a Blackberry or similar, I’m not used to typing on a keyboard like this. I personally find the iPhone’s software keyboard easier to use but that’s just due to experience and familiarity; plenty of Blackberry users disagree. The physical buttons for the phone and home screen take a little getting used to as well; I keep looking on-screen for these controls.

There’s a design on the back instead of the Google logo seen on the T-Mobile models, and of course there’s no T-Mobile branding anywhere, either on the hardware or software.

HTC Dream

Software

The Android OS does pretty much everything the iPhone does — not as well, but it does them. In the course of my playing around with it, I used the maps and GPS, e-mail, SMS, the Marketplace (the Android version of the iTunes app store), the web browser, and, of course, made some phone calls. The phone is wifi-capable out of the box, so everything but the phone and SMS just worked as soon as I joined the phone to my wireless network. And because the phone isn’t carrier-locked the way most US cell phones are, I was able to just pop in the AT&T SIM from my iPhone to try out the phone features.

There were two problems with that last bit however: First, the phone is only configured for T-Mobile data service by default and using it on AT&T’s network required manually setting up a new data access service. The second problem is that once this was done, data access worked, but I was restricted to Edge rather than the faster 3G. This apparently has something to do with either AT&T or T-Mobile using non-standard frequencies for 3G service but I’m a bit fuzzy on the details.

HTC Dream

E-mail and the web browser worked pretty much the same as they do on the iPhone (unsurprisingly, because the browser is based on Webkit, same as MobileSafari). Setup was a pain though — there’s no way to sync data from my computer, so I had to input all my mail settings by hand. I was really annoyed by the inability to sync my Mac’s address book until I found that I could work around it by syncing Address Book to my Google Apps account and syncing the phone to that. A bit convoluted, but it works, and Google syncs any changes over-the-air just as Mobile Me does for my iPhone.

Overall, this phone is a pretty nice piece of work. What failings it has are all in software, which can be fixed as new Android releases become available, so it’s bound to improve over time. I don’t plan to give up my iPhone so the real value from this phone comes from its being unlocked and therefore usable world-wide. I mentioned just a few months ago that I keep my old unlocked RAZR around as a travel phone, so I can buy a local SIM from anywhere I go outside the US. With wifi, GPS, maps, and everything else in addition to being unlocked, this phone is miles ahead in usefulness as a travel phone. The RAZR has been replaced and is now for sale on Ebay (too bad these phones have almost no resale value).

More pictures on Flickr