A strong second Android phone from HTC. (June 22nd, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: HTC
Price: $150 on Rogers contract, $200 on T-Mobile con
- Great design to look at and hold in the hand.
- Android is powerful; good onscreen keyboard.
- Removable storage and battery.
- Good, not great, battery life and call quality.
- Capacitive (finger-friendly) touchscreen with trackball.
- Simple drag-and-drop media handling.
- Poor camera quality and features.
- Some stock apps limited vs. iPhone; Android Market has less than App Store.
- No 3.5mm earphone jack; proprietary ExtUSB port.
- Touchscreen isn't quite as bright or as smooth as Apple's.
- Currently in a limbo area for pricing.
the interface and on-screen keyboard
Android is now an established fact as far as operating systems, and so we won't go into too much detail about its inner workings. That said, we can say that it's intuitive but still rough around the edges in a few places. Google has managed a largely natural interface with a multi-page home screen that still allows for more customization than common mobile operating systems: you can have just a handful of apps at the top level for quick access, but the full app list is always just an upwards swipe away. Requiring dedicated "back" and "menu" buttons eliminates some of the on-screen clutter that takes away from the viewing area on an iPhone, and we like the notifications that can be viewed with a downward flick from the menu bar and dismissed just about as quickly.
Again, multi-touch isn't an option -- concerns over Apple patents likely preventing Google and HTC from implementing it -- but Android's default apps are largely as capable as what one would expect in those circumstances. The web browser is fast and accurate, the e-mail client preserves HTML and supports push data for Gmail, and Google Maps is not surprisingly very well developed. Most apps also change the function of the "search" hardware button depending on context, such as either searching the web, a location or for an app.
Even so, there are definite rough patches that show Google has some progress to go before Android is truly ready. E-mail is perhaps the most glaring example; there's no easy way to mass delete or move e-mail messages. More importantly, you can't switch Gmail addresses in the dedicated Gmail app without resetting the phone altogether, as Android only asks for the Google sign-in on initial setup. There's also a certain irony in that Google Maps on Android seems decidedly inferior to the iPhone version: the GPS is noticeably less accurate, and the options for mass transit and walking directions aren't there. Android at least brings Latitude to show and interact with Google contacts who are physically nearby.
Media playback is crude but at least easy to use. Any songs and videos stored in memory are automatically detected, including tags where available, but there's not much to do besides play songs, albums or playlists as well as individual movie clips. We'd also appreciate a more dedicated syncing app; drag-and-drop is uncomplicated and works on virtually any platform, but there's a good reason why iTunes is considered an advantage in streamlining media transfer for the iPhone.
Thankfully, there's little room to complain about the touchscreen keyboard, at least not for those who aren't dead-set against them in the first place. Although the layout is slightly different, the keys are well-sized and behave much the same way. At first, typing can be slow and deliberate as you learn to type without depending on physical buttons, but after weeks (or months) you soon learn to type with your thumbs. HTC has also taken one step more and added haptic feedback that vibrates the phone gently but noticeably on each button press. It can be disconcerting at first and doesn't truly replicate buttons, but it does help acknowledge that on-screen keys really did register a press.
carrier software and Android Market
What you'll see for default software on the Magic depends on which carrier. On Rogers, the default apps are almost exclusively devoted to selling its own goods, like ringtones. We honestly can't see many subscribers making use of these with support for the user's own audio as a ringtone or the existence of Android Market, but it's nice to have them available. Rogers is also courteous enough to tuck them all away on their own separate home screen.
The T-Mobile myTouch 3G is fundamentally similar with the obvious elimination of the Rogers apps, but adds a new third-party app, Sherpa. Made by Geodelic, it's effectively a substitute for Yelp and other location-based entertainment guides. It can not only tell you how close you might be to a given concert, hotel or restaurant but can make recommendations based on what you've tried in the past. Given that the market for this sort of software hasn't been tapped on Android with quite the same depth as it has on the iPhone, this is a minor but still useful touch.
We should add that the HTC Magic and myTouch 3G are superior to the G1 through e-mail support. HTC includes Exchange and ActiveSync support -- a crucial edge for anyone hoping to keep track of company e-mail on their personal phone, albeit only using IMAP. It won't satisfy those who need Exchange contacts and calendars but could mean the difference between getting an Android phone or having to use a company's preferred BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phone.
Most users will focus solely on Android Market, and those who've had experience with it in recent months can both vouch for it and curse it. At nearly 5,000 apps (as of June 2009) it has a broad enough selection that many will have their niche app needs filled. Google doesn't filter apps with nearly the same severity as Apple, and so you're more likely to find apps that bend the functionality of phone in dramatic ways or which allow more controversial content. Android doesn't forbid running in the background, either, so messaging or social networking apps like Twidroid (a Twitter client) can load on startup and even send the same alerts as e-mail or the phone client might.
Having said this, Android Market is still extremely small; it has about a tenth the apps of the iPhone and is less likely to have more professionally produced content or entertainment products. The same open-source, technical bent that makes Android so strong also tends to favor more austere apps, beta releases and other content that might have a harder time reaching the iPhone's App Store. We fully expect Android Market to surge in growth, but for now there's still a certain gamble to assuming a certain kind of app will be available.