Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hands-on with the Google G1

One of the neat things about living in Silicon Valley is that sometimes mere proximity enables experimentation.

I've been doing a ton of work lately with DD-WRT and Tomato, two versions of open source firmware for consumer networking devices. I'm absolutely geeked about how much cool stuff I can do with these community-developed pieces of software. To think that there's a huge crowd of developers around the world contributing to projects like DD-WRT is pretty awe-inspiring.

Closer to home, equally awe-inspiring is how many innovate tech names, both big and small, are within 15 minutes of me. I'm fortunate that living in Mountain View, I have access to the Google Wi-Fi network which blankets the community. No, it's not my primary connection at home, but it's pretty cool to be able to fire up my MacBook just about anywhere in town and get on the Internet, for free. Just for giggles, I set up a router/AP running DD-WRT to serve as a repeater for the Google Wi-Fi network, to get signal into the house. The standard mechanism to do so has been the use of a Ruckus Wireless access point, but I found that I could do the same thing (and more) with a $30 router instead. Way cool.

So, back to my initial point about living here in Silicon Valley. I wouldn't have been able to do this in a lot of places, but yesterday I managed to get my hands on the Google G1, which ships on the 22nd. Many others have commented on features and limitations of the G1 from a services and connectivity standpoint, so I'll stay away from those topics here. I didn't have nearly enough time to do what I'd consider an exhaustive review, but a few items immediately come to mind, particularly from an ergonomic standpoint.

First, the device itself isn't as big and clunky as I'd expected it to be. Having owned a number of HTC devices (running Windows CE/Mobile), I've found HTC's typical industrial designs to be anything but alluring. And, while I wouldn't call the G1 sexy, I would call it reasonably cool. When the G1 was announced, I read something about this being a 2 1/2 year old HTC hardware design. I'm not sure I'd call the design that dated, but in a world of iPhones and Bolds, I think that the G2 (and other Android-based devices from HTC and other manufacturers) will catch up with the rest of the market soon.

Second, the screen's swing-out-and-up mechanism screams "Andy Rubin" (the man behind Android), in a good way. I was a huge fan of my original Sidekick, despite its shortcomings. Having used a bunch of HTC, Palm, Nokia, and BlackBerry devices, I still believe that the Sidekick (designed by Danger, which was founded by Andy Rubin and Joe Britt) was the best-designed device I've ever used. From the way the G1 screen slides out and up, I'm a little concerned about the long-term durability of the screen-device connector and interface, but only time will tell. After only a few minutes of playing with it, I liked it.

As a number of other reviewers have said, the G1's screen isn't particularly compelling from a visual standpoint. The size is decent, and the touch capabilities are nice, but the resolution is pretty underwhelming--having spent time on a BlackBerry Bold a couple of weeks ago, the G1 pales in comparison. Then again, so does everything else, including the iPhone--the Bold's screen is that good.

Regarding the touch screen, I've found that the trackball on my BlackBerry Curve provides me more than sufficient navigational capability, so much that I never yearn for a touch screen. When I made the move from a Palm device to a BlackBerry a few years back, it probably took me two weeks to fully break the habit of touching the screen. When I moved from my 8700 to my 8320 a year ago, it only took a couple of days to shed the habit of the scroll wheel in favor of the trackball. Net-net, I'm not really a touch screen guy, and don't find myself wanting one.

But, after about two minutes with the G1, I found myself instinctively using the touch screen for icon-based navigation. The G1's trackball is well-located, and readily enables one to use the trackball, touchscreen, or both. After three years or so of not using a touch screen, the design of the G1 had me thumbing away merrily.

Not so merry for me is the design of the keyboard. I'm a little surprised that with only a couple of exceptions (notably Walt Mossberg, as you might expect), other reviewers haven't mentioned this. Any transition to a new device requires some time to get used to; whether it's a new computer, cell phone, or TV remote, anything that necessitates input is going to have a learning curve. However, I'm a little fearful that the design of the G1 is going to result in repetitive stress injuries. Seriously. Typing with the left hand is pretty simple; coming over from a BlackBerry, getting used to key placement would take a little while, but I have no qualms that I'd get used to it. Typing with the right hand is my concern. If you look at the picture, you'll see that the navigation base (my term...I have no idea what it's really called) that's the bottom of the phone when held vertically makes for a big speed bump when held horizontally. Just about every QWERTY mobile device I've ever used has been balanced, with a reasonably even 50/50 weight distribution between hands. Not so with the G1. Because the G1 has the navigation base between your thumb and the keyboard, you end up having to reach waaaaay over to get to the keys, particularly the space bar. I'm a fast, accurate typist on my BlackBerry. And, while I'm certain that I'd get used to the G1's keyboard over time, I fear that I'd end up with a dislocated wrist and a really long thumb--the latter handy for hitchhiking, but not so helpful otherwise.

So, while I'm not going to run out and get a G1 on launch day, I do have a couple of final thoughts.

First, this is really an admirable 1.0 product; congratulations are in order for the Google and HTC teams. Delivering a product this comparatively well-designed at launch is no small effort; hell, look at how long Motorola has been making cell phones, and they still can't come up with a decent user interface.

Second, the fact that this is a six-band phone should be useful for a lot of users. My cell coverage at home on T-Mobile's 1900 MHz band is absolutely abysmal, but my 1700 MHz coverage on their new 3G band (which I've been testing with a Nokia handset) is really solid. Plus, inclusion of the 2100 MHz band makes the phone functional in Japan, which remains an Achilles heel for most U.S. cell phones.

Third, have I mentioned I really don't like the keyboard ergonomics?

Finally, and most importantly, I'm totally stoked about the potential for the worldwide developer community to deliver Android-based applications which pervert (in the best possible sense of the word) the G1 and future Android handsets for the customization and benefit of all. If you'd told me 5 1/2 years ago when I bought my first Linksys WRT54G that in late 2008 I'd be loading the router with newly updated open source firmware, enabling VPNs, VLANs, wireless repeating, Xbox connectivity, and much more, I'd've probably said you were crazy. But, lo and behold, that's what I'm doing. And, with 5 more routers sitting here waiting for experimentation with OpenVPN, wireless DLNA DMS serving, and much more, I'll continue to reap the benefits of the open source movement for years to come.

So too will Android users. A truly open platform enabling innovation from a worldwide community of developers will lead to awesome capabilities, more consumer choice, better carrier competition, and (hopefully) lower monthly phone bills. The G1 is a shot across the bow of the iPhone 3G, the Bold and the Storm, and every other smart (and dumb) phone. No, it's not perfect yet--far from it. But, just as my original WRT54G wasn't perfect, it's gotten a lot better with time. You've come a long way, Baby.

Android has a long way to go, but it'll get there. It's off to a great start.

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