Google Android

Google in your Pocket

Forget Apple; they'll make their iPhones, people will buy them, spend money on their applications and download their music. There's certainly money in it, but virtually no variety. You won't see many emulators or free fun apps in Apple's Marketplace. The operating system on the iPhone moves very fast, but any company can make a mobile operating system work well on only one particular device, and you certainly won't see any non-Apple handsets using OSX. Making a mobile OS fast AND flexible - an operating system that can run on a number of different handsets - is a technical challenge.

I have used Windows Mobile phones for many years. I love the idea that I have a device that has the potential to do pretty much anything you can do on a laptop or desktop - email, Internet, Remote Desktop, music & video, emulation, sat-nav, and so on. Windows Mobile had little competition in terms of mobile computing, so it'll take a company with big pockets and a global influence to try and take Microsoft head-on. Here comes Google once again.

I didn't really take much notice of Google's mobile operating system until after its release. I was using a HTC TytnII device at the time; should have been an amazing little device except that HTC "forgot" to write any hardware-accelerated graphic drivers for it, meaning that performance was poor. This co-incided with my Orange contract coming up for renewal and, duly enraged by the poor 3G/GSM signal from Orange's network, I jumped ship to T-Mobile and the first Google-powered mobile in the UK, the G1.

T-Mobile G1

It's surprising to many that most smartphones/PDA devices are made by the same company; HTC. They have been churning out PDA devices for years, and up until recently, haven't taken the credit for them; they would sell them to O2 and Orange so that they could be rebadged and called the XDA and SPV. There is a rumour that the iPhone was made mostly by HTC too, but is covered by a non-disclosure agreement.

Anyway, most Windows Mobile devices run on HTC-derived devices, and Google's first device runs on a HTC device too. The G1/HTC Dream is a strange looking device for a few reasons:

It has no stylus. Up until very recently, all touchscreen Pocket PC devices were meant to be used with a stick. The G1 is made for the finger, and actually does not respond to stylus screen presses.

It has a "kink" at the bottom of the device. I read a review saying that this kink actually sticks into the leg when in the pocket. All I can say is that this guy must have no muscles and wear skin-tight leotards. It is a very slight angle, not enough to be awkward but does provide better access to the buttons and rollerball.

It has a hinged screen. Underneath the screen is a full-sized keyboard. Rather than sliding up on "rails" like the TytnII, it is hinged and kinda moves out then back in. The overall effect is strange but extremely stable when using the touchscreen.

The hardware offers 3G, GPRS, wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, has a QWERTY keyboard, touchscreen, 3.2MP camera, rollerball, speakers, and accepts miniUSB power connector and MicroSD memory card (2Gb included). Ignoring the software, the handset is solidly-built, feels good and isn't awkward to use. I would not like to say how robust it is though due to the unique screen hinge, but in theory it should be more robust than the "rail" type slide-away keyboards.

Android

Bearing in mind that this is the first Google Android phone out, and that I come from an extensive background in mobile devices, I was expecting "bleeding edge" technology with Android. In fact, this is probably the best phone I've ever used.

Firstly, Android requires a GMail account to synchronise with. If you don't have one (which I didn't when powering up this device), it takes you through the process. This is very interesting; I am a great believer in using Windows Mobile devices with an Exchange server Over The Air (OTA); this ensures that all the information on the handset is backed up on another device. Using a GMail account in this manner parallels Exchange.

Don't be put off if you don't use GMail; I don't use my GMail account for anything other than storing contacts and calendar. On my G1, I have GMail (not used), POP3 (main email account), Yahoo (sucks up spam) AND an Exchange account running. All can exist with each other which is marvellous!

Once the device has booted and signed into the Gmail account, you are presented with the Main screen. If you flick your finger to the left and right, you have additional desktop screens to play with. Initially, they looked pretty static BUT you have the ability to create folders and widgets on it. From the screenshots, you can see that I have an analogue clock, BBC News, a Bluetooth and Wifi toggle and some icons to Mail, Messaging and the Browser. If you don't want to clog your screens, then a quick flick of the finger brings up the main list of applications. Holding down on an icon within this application list allow you to drop it onto the Main screen, but this is down to your own preference.

As you would expect, Google has packed up a few of their own apps with Android. There is a search widget that allows you to search directly from the Main screen. Google Maps allows you to search for directions and find your location (although using this as a real-time sat-nav isn't an option). However, the most awe-inspiring app is Google Sky Map.

Using the sat nav/GSM to pinpoint your position and the electronic compass, you can use your G1 to identify stars in the sky. Simply point your G1 at a patch of sky or a star, it'll show you what you should be looking at. Pointing this at the floor shows you the stars on the other side of the earth, which can blow your mind. Not very useful unless you're an amateur astronomer, but it is an impressive toy to show others. On the iPhone, Pocket Universe does the same thing.

All notifications are handled by a bar at the top of the screen. Dragging this bar down with your thumbs gives access to all alerts and messages. If you press the Menu hardware button, then Settings, this will display all phone options such as available wifi spots, Bluetooth settings, phone number and so on. These menus are extremely well-placed and saves a lot of intuitive searching. If you do find yourself in a screen and want to come out, simply press the Home button.

The dialler function, something which is very hit and miss on Windows Mobile devices, is near-perfect. it doesn't lag when you press the numbers on the screen - something which always annoyed me on the TytnII, Trinity and Wizard devices.

Overall, the interface is slick, smooth and has a fair few fade/transition effects. However, the best is yet to come. As Google has to take on all-comers, they have attacked Windows Mobile by allowing a larger, less-formal development audience on it; Android is simply Linux running underneath a Java-based interface. In theory, this should allow applications to be developed easily on it. They have equally attacked iPhone by giving access to the Internet via a very capable web browser (a Mozilla-based browser), Youtube through an app pre-installed in Android, and a Marketplace to download applications easily through the device.

There are several other niceties on the G1.  I won;t go into all of them, but take a look at the picture accompanying this module; that's the security screen.  Rather than tapping in a PIN, you have a security pattern to draw.  Unique and a hell of a lot easier than trying to tap in a number.

Applications

It has been said that mobile applications "will be bigger than the Internet".  Excuse me while I laugh; without the Internet, there will be no applications.  Without Internet connectivity, these devices are largely useless so I disagree with this statement.  Hugely.

That said, applications are extremely important for customising your device.  The neat thing about Android apps verses iPhone and Windows Mobile (WM) apps is:

Android apps are much cheaper/free than both WM and iPhone,

Android apps do not require a PC to install (WM).

There is little known about the applications on Android at the moment; try searching for the best apps on Android and not much will be listed.  Well, here's a list of apps to search for and install!

Astro - provides access to the file structure on your device.  It also backs up your applications to your SD card, meaning that you don;t have to download them all again if you end up swapping/resetting your phone.

BBC News Widget - Excellent widget for the Main screen.  Downloads the main stories and displays them at the brush of a finger.

Bluetooth Toggle Widget - allows you to toggle your Bluetooth on and off from the Main screen.

DroidLive - Allows you to search and play ShoutCast music streams from the phone.  Excellent if you have ever used ShoutCast from within Winamp.

Express News - similar to the BBC News Widget, this downloads more stories and displays them within tabs.  Good if you like to sit down and read the newspaper.

Kids Paint - Plain silly fun, it randomises a colour and brush, then you draw with your finger.

Movies - Delivered by Flixster, you can browse and stream movie trailers to your device.

SnapTell - Impressive; allows you to take a picture of a DVD or book, which it will then recognise, tell you what it is and find out prices online. 

Solitaire - Yep, you know it.

TouchDown Pro - allows synchronising with an Exchange server.  Only relevant if you are looking at Android in the corporate environment.  It works oh so well - better than Blackberry but not as good as Windows Mobile's Pocket Outlook.

Apart from TouchDown Pro, all the above apps are free from the Market.

Google Sky Map

Should you get one?

Since getting this device, I have managed to "viral-sell" three G1s to work colleagues so far.  I find it a lot more fluid to use - moreso than any Nokia and almost all Windows Mobile devices, although the HTC Touch Pro2 Duo is pretty hot, and Windows Mobile 6.5 should be quite competitive if on the right handset.

The Android G2, a non-QWERTY variant of the G1, is available now on Vodafone.  HTC are releasing a few more devices along these lines but powered by a HTC-developed OS and a WM device too.  HTC recently said that 60% of their devices in the future will run Android, probably because of the low cost of licensing and the relative success of the G1.

In terms of Android, Samsung and Motorola are currently working on their own Android-powered handsets.  I would be interested in Motorola's take on it; I've been fortunate to fool around within Moto's development labs and they are promising some cool WM devices this year, let alone Android ones.

Unfortunately, there are some missing elements within Android that can only be plugged up by third parties:

Flash plugin for the browser (or a flash-enabled browser).

Official PDF viewer,

A good supported sat-nav application such as TomTom,

Microsoft Office document support,

A capable video player (something like TCPMP on WM),

OpenOffice/Microsoft Office,

Native Microsoft Exchange support.

Since Windows Mobile has all this and more, I would say it is still more useful to have a WM device than an Android device at the moment IF you are in business.  For personal use though, you cannot do better than the G1.  The final magical thing about this handset is that for £35 per month on T-Mobile, you get 600 minutes, 300 texts, unlimited Internet usage, and a FREE G1 handset.  FREE.  An awesome handset; get one.

Showing Off the G1

Showing off the G2

Donut? Not Here.

26th Aug '09

As with all "constantly refined" products, Android is regularly updated.  These releases are performed Over The Air (OTA) via the various mobile operators with Android devices in their portfolio.  Google has the habit of naming its updates - so revision C is called Cupcake, the next one will be called Donut.  E and F should be Eclair and Flan respectively.

Anyway, I have learnt that the G1, being "bleeding edge", hasn't got the onboard ROM size to take the Donut update and therefore will be omitted from this and future major updates.  Donut will/should include several nicities, such as multi-touch support (meaning that, like the iPhone, you can touch several points on the screen) and universal search (which searches your device AND the web as yoo type.

This is a massive blow; there isn't a handset out there running Android that I like other than the G1, so what is a man to do? 

Answer: keep an eye on Samsung and Sony Eriksson, as they look extremely close to releasing the next Android handsets.  For the moment though, don't purchase the G1. 

Donut Release - Early October

2nd October '09

It's almost here - Donut will be rolled out across mobile operators supporting Android any day now.  Guess what?  Yes, Donut WILL be available for the G1.  Phew - I am pleased!

In an nutshell, Donut is going to maximise the hardware potential of the current GX handsets and bring it in line (and even maybe a little over the top) of the mighty iPhone 3GS.  Check out the video next to this capsule - pretty impressed with the text-to-speech function and the enhanced search function. 

Upcoming Handset - Samsung i7500

2nd October '09

Check this handset out - the Samsung i7500.  Watch the video and note how fast the menus move.  This definitely is the fastest Android handset I've seen so far, and this is definitely without the Donut update too. 

Motorola Dext

2nd Oct '09

Motorola have come to market with their first (of ten apparently) Android handset, the Dext.  Immediate hit with me due to the hardware keyboard.  Below is the link to the official specs.  It does look like a carbon-copy of the G1, EXCEPT that Moto have stuck in a couple of tricks that is their trademark.  The most noteworthy is the dual-mic noise cancellation.  For those who have been fortunate to have a dual-mic noise cancellation bluetooth earpiece from Motorola, you'll know that you can have a conversation with someone in the noisiest conditions.  It is a remarkable technology. 

The other technology is MotoBlur which looks to be an overlay for the normal Android interface.  I'm never a fan of operators and manufacturers messing with operating systems (Orange could ruin a perfectly good Windows Mobile device with their Orange sidebar) but I may be proved wrong.

It looks to be available on Orange at the moment.   

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