Great googly-moogly, the sequel

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.

34 thoughts on “Great googly-moogly, the sequel

  1. Wow, Eric, you made me actually want to get a G1, and this is coming from a serious Apple-head. It seems that Google has learned a lot from Apple. I’ve seen commercials for the G1, and the interface was pretty good, but I’d have to actually try one out.

    Google is one of the few companies besides Apple that actually seems to understand human factors. I wonder if Google will ever release their custom Linux distro that they’re rumored to use in-house.

  2. What about battery life? ;)
    I know this phone is cool, but until it can stay on for a day while receiving mails every few minutes and having a few phone calls (like the BlackBerry) it’s still a gadget.

  3. >What about battery life? ;)

    In two weeks I have yet to run the battery to zero. The G1 seems to be pretty miserly with power when it’s not in active use, though I do notice the battery meter dropping when I have it active for longer than a few minutes. Twice, I’ve used it as a book reader (yay, Baen Free Library!) while waiting for a meal in a restaurant.

    Another review reports trying to drain the battery with six hours of continuous use and not succeeding. Their suspicion that the dwell time will drop some as T-Mobile’s coverage improves seems plausible, but on the basis of my own experience I wouldn’t be surprised if dwell time hangs in there at 3.5 to 4 hours in continuous use.

  4. This is not what I have read elsewhere, especially in forums. How many gmails a day do you get?

  5. Aaah I just understod – you can’t run it in HSDPA mode because of poor coverage! It explains everything : my regular phone’s battery life more than doubles if I tell to to connect in GSM/edge mode only.

  6. >This is not what I have read elsewhere, especially in forums. How many gmails a day do you get?

    I don’t use gmail, at all. I have my own domain and like it that way. But your guess is correct; I had forgotten that I run it in GSM mode only, having picked that up as a power-saving tip.

    I seem to have SMS, I don’t need gmail. What, if anything, am I giving up by not using 3G?

  7. By not using 3G you’re giving up bandwidth. But it’s true that I would like phones to only enable 3G when you start the browser. Video calls are no use at all.

    I have my own domain too but it’s Google Apps, so it’s then same engine as gmail. It’s push for android phones and for BIS (blackberry) phones. One major battery drain is receiving an e-mail every five minutes, which I sometimes do on busy days. And no, I’m not talking about ignorable mails that should (and do) get filtered.

    The real phone test for my use is that : receive one e-mail every five minutes, read it, answer every 10 mails, and a 5 minute call every two hours – how log does it take for the battery to drain? Throwing in 30 minutes browsing every 24 hours, same question? Many people are disappointed about the BB bold battery life in HSDPA mode, but I’ve been told the G1 is much, much worse.

  8. >By not using 3G you’re giving up bandwidth. But it’s true that I would like phones to only enable 3G when you start the browser.

    Hm. That actually strikes me as something that should probably be almost trivial to implement – that is, starting 3G as a per-application privilege. Does Android have a public issue tracker where I could file this suggestion?

  9. Did you hear about the rather bizarre, um, misconfiguration on previous versions of the firmware?

    Apparently, it started a root shell in the background – and while this shell was not displayed, it was reading all keyboard input and executing it!

    Report here

    I think this is my new all-time favorite bug, though one wonders how on earth it was missed for so long…

  10. Apparently, it started a root shell in the background – and while this shell was not displayed, it was reading all keyboard input and executing it!

    Relax, that’s just the back door the FBI uses to keep you safe.

    Don’t concern yourself with it, citizen, the Government is here to help you. Sleep, obey, consume.

  11. The reel-to-reel thing seems to be pretty standard, actually: my second-hand Nokia uses a reel-to-reel tape as its voicemail icon, and my girlfriend’s Sony Ericsson K750i uses an envelope with a reel-to-reel tape superimposed on it.

  12. Is the target really the iPhone?

    I’ve read other places–and it seems reasonable to me–that Android doesn’t exist to attack the iPhone so much as Windows Mobile. Google’s not interested in designing the ultimate phone so much as making sure that all third-party phones run their OS. Their move to partner with HTC (a long-time MS partner) makes it seem like their immediate goal would be replacing Windows Mobile wherever it can be found.

    Android can be a huge success even if nobody ever switches from the iPhone to the G1.

  13. I hate to mention this here of all places, but in interest of fairness:

    I like being able to attach my own MP3s to events.

    I like being able to GIMP my own contact icons.

    like having a beautiful glowing astrophotograph of the Andromeda Galaxy as my wallpaper.

    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.

    Everyone of those has been present in Windows Mobile for years.

    And finally:

    the icon for “You have voicemail” is a stencil image of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder.

    I haven’t seen a cell phone without this.

  14. Windows Mobile is no good. iPhone is for show : it doesn’t have cut&paste. OK, it has the best browser ever on a phone, but still – how much time do you spend browsing on a phone? And mobileme is broken. I won’t even speak about Symbian. Android is too young to judge yet, but it may in time replace the real king of the SMARTphone market, which is Blackberry – by far. Of course it suck because it’s not free ;) but it’s like emacs – shortcuts for everything. You really do save time using it. With the battery life issue, that’s what really made my choice, even if I’m a free software fan and a geek at heart. For now, android stays in its VM on my laptop. I hope that a year from now, that is going to change, but right now… Not for me.

  15. >I’ve read other places–and it seems reasonable to me–that Android doesn’t exist to attack the iPhone so much as Windows Mobile.

    You could be right; see my later post on Why Android Matters. I contrasted it to the iPhone because that’s the fashionable hotness in phones.

  16. >Everyone of those has been present in Windows Mobile for years.

    Have they? Then the interesting question is why Windows Mobile is stuck at around 10% market share and has watched the iPhone blow past it in the last 18 months. Either these features are implemented in really obscure or unsatisfactory ways, or the wireless telcos are resisting the Borg pretty strenuouously.

    Actually, I know for a fact that the second is true. The wireless telcos watched what Microsoft did to the PC industry, commoditizing the hardware and creaming off most of the profits, and don’t want to be the next victims. Some of their planners have said so in public. At least, with Android, they won’t have to pay someone else a lot of money for the privilege of having their own lunch eaten.

  17. Then the interesting question is why Windows Mobile is stuck at around 10% market share and has watched the iPhone blow past it in the last 18 months. Either these features are implemented in really obscure or unsatisfactory ways, or the wireless telcos are resisting the Borg pretty strenuouously.

    False dichotomy. Another option is that those features arent what drives phone purchases.

  18. Forgot to finish my comment…

    Apparently, Windows Mobile isn’t stuck at 10% as they had a pretty good quarter.

    a 42.9 percent growth in smartphone shipments for Q3 2008 compared to Q3 2007

    The Canalys study found that the whole smartphone market grew by 28 percent over the last year last year, meaning that Windows Mobile is growing faster than the overall market.

  19. You seem to be falling into the trap of believing that the iPhone is popular because apple is “cool” and because their industrial design is sexy. This is the error linux advocates have been making for the last decade, only to watch OS X outstrip linux in ever metric: quality, speed, market penetration & ease of use. Put another way, Linux gets all the hype, but Darwin is the most popular open sourced operating system.

    I’m not here to bash linux, but to say that I think you are probably missing what it is about the usability of the iphone that makes it so popular. I haven’t used an android devices, so I can’ say you are for sure, or that android has a bad UI. (From what I’ve seen its a good UI in comparison to most mobiles, but doesn’t reach the level the iPhone has achieved.)

    The “windowshade” status bars sounds like a bad idea- sounds like overloading a status indication device with interactivity that probably belongs somewhere else. It may actually work great, but using it that way implies a failure to be able to take a systemic approach to usability.

    But don’t believe the iPhone is selling well because people are stupid. Don’t believe that apple has duped people. They say never underestimate your competition, and I think that open source advocates have been having sour grapes for years based on denial of the importance of usability to users.

  20. >You seem to be falling into the trap of believing that the iPhone is popular because apple is “cool” and because their industrial design is sexy.

    Not a bit of it. I have huge respect for Apple’s ability to write good UI; the point of my report on the G1 is that Android seems to be matching it, or nearly so.

  21. I dropped the ball and didn’t even notice the G1 was coming until I read your first review of it. It came out in the UK a few days later and I went and bought one straight away, largely because of the notification bar. I didn’t quite know why I liked the notification bar so much, but your eloquent description of it as a “unitary monitor of the information stream” nails it.

  22. An interesting and scathing review from an user POV of an AT&T Fuze: http://www.penny-arcade.com/2008/11/14/more-buttflo/
    (I know, the URL doesn’t inspire confidence. Trust me).
    To summarize:
    “TouchFlo is like a very thin candy shell over the stinking pile of shit that is Windows mobile. Looking at my text messages for example is at first very cool. As I scroll through them each new message spins up from the bottom of the screen in what looks like a tornado of whirling letters before coalescing into a readable message. however as soon as I want to reply or get more information the TouchFlo interface disappears and I’m shoved into windows.”

  23. Question for any G1 users out there: I have heard a lot of reports that the GPS is pretty unreliable, even outdoors. What is your experience? Can you get a signal indoors at all?

  24. >Can you get a signal indoors at all?

    It’s unusual to get a signal indoors with any GPS. The G1’s seems normal (and normally limited) to me.

  25. Adriano,

    That coming from the comic artist who titled a post “EA? More like shit…A”

    Tycho and Gabe are the Dennis Miller and Norm MacDonald of webcomics, respectively, at least where their blog posts are concerned. One would meticulously fashion a rant that conveys the real or feigned erudition of the author, dropping similes and references to everything from T.E. Lawrence to MC Hammer; the other would go straight for the cock joke. Needless to say, the cock jokes are what usually win.

  26. Jeff, I know their attitudes. I’ve followed Penny Arcade since at least 2003. I meant that, _apart_ from the cock jokes, he had a point. It would have been much better without the cock, but it’s a good, user-POV review. It would have been even better if he’d said why ‘dropping to windows mobile’ is such a crock, but it’s also interesting that it takes it as an axiom.

    For all their attitudes, their website is respected because, even with the feigned erudition or the cock jokes, they’re honest about what they like and dislike. They are an excellent recommendation source.

    And by the way: in which way is the title you referenced not true? EA had been making crap after crap for years, milking franchises. This comic springs to mind: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2008/11/5/

  27. Adriano, I agree with you, but watching the way in which these two hold forth is simultaneously fascinating and amusing. They had a whole thread of conversation about the ButtFLO name right in their blog. They’re kind of hard not to take seriously, even when their presentation is like a pair of foul-mouthed 12-year-olds (or one foul-mouthed 12-year-old and a foul-mouthed Kelsey Grammer).

    Oh, and loyal avid reader since 1998. Suck it down. :)

  28. @Jay.

    You need to double check your ‘facts’ that are coming from your mouth..

    > only to watch OS X outstrip linux in ever metric: quality, speed, market penetration & ease of use.

    show me ONE source where any of that is true. the only thing you _might_ be right on is ease of use, but thats coming from a mac person. Give a windows person a mac and lets see how easy to use it is. As far as quality, speed and market penetration…you sir, need to check your head.

  29. esr:
    > Then the interesting question is why Windows Mobile is stuck at around 10% market share and has watched the iPhone blow past it in the last 18 months.

    Because Windows Mobils sucks to use, and the iPhone is Really Cool?

    I mean, even to non-geeks. It’s necessary to have steak under your sizzle… but steaks *sizzle* because they’re *hot*.

  30. So now that it’s been a few months – do you still like it? Is it holding up? Have you hacked any real code for it?

    How about one more post on it?

    Please.

  31. >So now that it’s been a few months – do you still like it? Is it holding up? Have you hacked any real code for it?

    Still like it, a lot. Haven’t hacked on it yet.

    I think my favorite feature, a couple months in, is the Google Maps and GPS integration. I navigated us to an SF convention in New York with it last weekend.

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