Hands on with HTC's Android phone

T-Mobile, Google, and HTC unveil the first Google Android phone and the applications on board are by far the coolest feature of the handset

T-Mobile, Google, and High Tech Computer (HTC) unveiled the highly anticipated Android phone in New York on Tuesday, and I got a chance to try out the new handset at HTC's office in Taipei.

The applications on board are by far the coolest feature of the handset, especially Google Maps Street View, which on the handset, allows a person to view a snapshot of an entire street scene at any of several U.S. cities.

[ See  related story "Android to debut in T-Mobile's G1 smartphone." ]

I chose 42nd Street in New York City at the Avenue of the Americas from Google Maps, and once the information downloaded from Chunghwa Telecom's mobile network, I was able to view the street on the handset's screen. It's cool.

There are three ways to navigate a street scene with T-Mobile's G1, or the "Dream" as HTC calls it.

The funnest was to hit the "compass" function on the handset and move it around by hand. You pan the G1 up and view the screen as if it's the LCD viewfinder on a digital camera, and you're looking at building tops or into trees. Pan down and you can see if anyone dropped some coins on the street. Pan around for an entire 360-degree view of the street from where you are, including taxis, buildings, or a guy walking down the street eating a sandwich.

I can't think of any useful reasons to use Street View -- Google Maps is enough to get you where you want to go -- but it sure is fun.

The other two ways to navigate on Street View are by using the touchscreen to look around or the trackball at the bottom of the phone.

Google is still expanding the Street View database to include more cities.

The applications aspect of the G1 may make it one of the most expandable handsets around. You can already find fun and useful programs from Android, many of them free. And applications are easy to find and download.

An icon on the desktop of the handset sends you right to an Android apps page, where applications roll across a panel at the top of the screen. You can use your thumb on the touchscreen to make the panel move left or right for more choices and then tap an app's icon to choose it.

I picked ShopSavvy because the demonstration of it looked fun and I wanted to see it in actual use.

Bargain hunters will love this program.

ShopSavvy turns the G1's on-board 3-megapixel camera into a price tag scanner. It starts to scan immediately when ShopSavvy is on, no need to snap a photo or anything. Just run a red line in the middle of the viewfinder over a barcode and it scans the information.

It took me a few tries to scan the barcode of the book, "Execution" by Larry Bossidy, which was one of the few things at HTC's office with a barcode. But once I got it, it only took several seconds to navigate to a site with a book review and other information, as well as suggestions on where to buy. It costs $21 new at eCampus.com, or $2.50 used at Half.com, while the retail price listed inside the cover of the book itself was $27.50.

The ShopSavvy application only took about 40 seconds to download. I also downloaded Pac-Man, which took about 33 seconds.

The handset itself feels good, solidly built and with beautiful screen quality. Even when you flip up the screen to reveal the QWERTY keyboard below, it's quick and smooth in a way you can tell it won't break easily.

Flipping up the screen, by the way, is the only way to turn the view on the handset screen sideways. Unlike other handsets that turn the screen view sideways when the handset is held sideways, the G1 only turns the screen view sideways when the QWERTY keyboard is showing.

I can't say I was wild about the handset's overall design. It's a bit thick and industrial, especially compared to HTC's last major release, the Touch Diamond, which is beautifully crafted.

But unlike the Touch Diamond, which is made of a clear plastic that's a bit slippery, the G1 has more of a rubberized feel for easier handling.

The face of the G1, when the QWERTY keypad isn't showing, is mainly the touchscreen, which looks like it's about 3-inches, with five navigation controls at the bottom, including the trackball in the middle.

Navigation on the touchscreen was smooth and the software responded quickly to tap commands. The trackball, also worked well, but took a bit of getting used to.

The keypad was easy to use, even with my big thumbs, but I didn't have a chance to actually type out a message. I did make a phone call, which was easy to do and the voice quality was clear.

One warning to sound out to anyone interested in the G1 (Dream) handset is to take care on your choice of mobile phone service providers.

The only service provider today is T-Mobile and some fine print on their Web site betrays a stingy allowance on data services: "If your total data usage in any billing cycle is more than 1GB, your data throughput for the remainder of that cycle may be reduced to 50Kbps or less."

For a handset designed for the Internet, with so much downloadable software applications from Android's Web site that are heavy on data usage, as well as music downloads from Amazon and online videos from YouTube, it seems likely users will need more than the 1GB allotment.

More likely than not, other service providers will launch a version of HTC's Dream as well. They may offer better terms.

T-Mobile's G1 will first be available in the U.S. on Oct. 22 for $179 with a two-year contract and subscription to a limited data plan for $25 a month or $35 for unlimited data access.

T-Mobile will release the G1 in the U.K. in early November and other European markets in the first quarter next year.

The G1 is currently only available in English, but translation into other languages is already underway, an HTC representative said. It will take six months for the handset to be made available in nearly all languages.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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