A few posts back, I described my good early experience with the T-Mobile G1, the first Android phone. It’s now two weeks later; I’ve learned the phone thoroughly and developed a stable usage pattern. That makes it a good time for a more considered verdict on the device.
My more considered verdict is this: HELL YEAH! The iPhone should be feeling teeth in its ass right…about…now.
It’s not any one feature that makes me say this. It’s that the gestalt, the entire experience, is so comfortable and pleasant. I enjoy using my phone. After two weeks, I think the biggest single reason is that the haptic responsiveness of the touchscreen is tuned just right – the flick-and-pick gesture (drag a selection list to start it spinning, touch it to stop) feels very natural.
The quality of the display is also a big factor. It’s not grainy or glary or tiring to look at; it’s good enough that I even find the browser usable, not the peering-through-a-grainy-porthole trial I’ve experienced with previous mobile devices, and much better than on my wife’s Blackberry. The Blackberry, however, still has a better keyboard; I’ve gotten used to mine, but I don’t like it at all and still consider it the weakest point of the G1 design.
I like being able to attach my own MP3s to events. I’ve been showing off my custom default ringtone, the Star Trek communicator chirp, to my geek and hacker friends; their reaction, unanimously, combines laughter with mild envy. I like being able to GIMP my own contact icons. I like having a beautiful glowing astrophotograph of the Andromeda Galaxy as my wallpaper. This is coolness.
Leaving aside these sexy superficialities: the big good thing to say about the Android UI itself after two weeks is that I have nothing to say about it, really. It neither hinders me nor gets in my face with how stylish it is. The few weak points are all near the T-Mobile “Faves” feature, which is pretty obviously a late and not terribly well integrated patch on the Android superstructure. (A clue to that is that Faves icons aren’t available for use on Android’s main contacts list; I noted this in my earlier post but hadn’t yet figured out what it meant.)
Thinking about it, I suppose there are two aspects of the UI that merit a mention: the status bar and the pull-down notification area. The main screen of the Android UI has a thing like a task bar at the top; it includes a clock, a battery-charge display, the familiar signal-strength indicator, and one or more status icons. The status icons are condition alerts: they tell you if you’ve had a missed call, or have voicemail, whether or not your GPS is active and has lock, that sort of thing. This is pretty normal, my old Samsung 660 had a status bar too.
One difference, though, is that the Android icons are…witty, is the best way I can put it. Not obtrusively clever or showy, but the designers made skilled use of the relatively high display resolution. My favorite example: the icon for “You have voicemail” is a stencil image of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder. I love that. I’d like to shake the hand of whoever invented that combination of representation, gentle irony, and retro respect.
When there is more information attached to an alert, the status bar grows a visual feature with a touch-me-and-drag affordance. Drag that down and the status bar turns into a windowshade-like object, taking up just as much of the main screen as it needs to display its event-message queue. Of course, each event message can be touched, starting your response actions.
Friends, this is the right thing. I checked with an iPhone-owning friend, and this feature actually out-Apples Apple in its utter appropriateness and quiet style. It’s so natural, and such a smooth transposition of pull-down menus into the key of gestures, that it took me a while to notice how clever and innovative it actually is. Besides being easy to operate, the notification pulldown implies a particular model of the phone’s behavior space; it is your unitary monitor of the information stream, helpfully aggregating events you need to watch for in one place.
Compare this with an alternate model we see on computers, where you often have separate apps open to watch for email, IM, system notifications, etc.; on a phone, that would be a mess. Also compare it with older cellphones, which had notification icons but no hooks to a message queue
that is implicitly a set of action buttons as well. As was once said of Robert Heinlein’s writing, the Android’s windowshade is the art that conceals art – no ostentation, but lots of understated effectiveness.
There’s been some criticism of the G1 that it’s bar-of-soap clunky, almost dowdy compared to the slick industrial-design sleekness of an iPhone. I now wonder, seriously, if this wasn’t a subtle and rather clever positioning strategy. Rather than proclaiming “I’mmmm so fahhhshionable, dahlink!” the G1/Android combination is unobstrusively effective. Nothing looks tacky faster than yesterday’s overcontrived hip hotness; the designers may have gambled that their more functionalist aesthetic would outlast the iPhone’s slick presentation.
I’ve seen one firmware update, on 3 November. It actually did something that I noticed: there’s now a status-bar icon for USB connection active, and if you pull down on that one you get an option to dismount the SD card from being used as the G1′s storage and offer a USB-I’m-here notification to your computer so it will mount the SD. This is better than the old way of handing off control of the SD card, which involved burrowing into a relatively obscure system settings menu.
So, yes, this is just Android 1.0, and yes, they are actively improving it even as we speak. I think it’s going to win.