John Brandon

First Look: T-Mobile G1 is a real Web 2.0 stunner

By John Brandon
October 16, 2008 10:50 AM EDT
What if you had a phone that had an unlimited potential to extend well beyond its core functions? What if most of that extensibility was free? What if the integration of that extensibility was so simple that you could not resist downloading just about all of them right away?

If you think it's the iPhone that delivers on the promise of extensibility, think again. The T-Mobile G1, which I have been testing for about a week and will come out officially on October 22 for $179, is a powerful Web 2.0 device. While the G1 is primarily a phone with a touchscreen and good music capability (by way of the Amazon MP3 service), it's really the Google Android operating system that is the most remarkable feature.

For starters, I love how easy it is to access YouTube.com videos over either a 3G or Wi-Fi network. It's easy to find the latest vids, and they play smoothly. Google Maps can either use cell phone triangulation (which is the default setting) or you can use the built-in GPS locator. Gmail is just a breeze on this device -- when you first turn on the phone, you are prompted to enter your Gmail account info, and then the G1 uses push technology to deliver your mail without having to click send/receive. If you are using other apps, Android will show you a pop-up that you have a new mail message.

However, extensibility is the key here. In the Android Market, a subtle icon in the G1 interface, you can quickly browse through multiple categories such as games and productivity. Okay, there are only a handful of good ones at launch (e.g., Pac Man), but the promise is that many new apps will be available in the next few months, many for free. The Android platform is amazingly bug-free -- I have not had one crash with any apps or any phone reboot problems. The phone also lasts about a day on one charge for all-day Web 2.0 use.

Okay, so what about the browser? Like Chrome, it uses WebKit and it's blazingly fast, especially for script-heavy sites like IGN.com. I tested about ten sites including Techmeme.com and NBC.com and got the mobile version without Flash in most cases (Flash is not supported) with no problems.

The only minor glitch I had is that, if I enable the BSecure filter on my router, the G1 can't access the Web at all -- I never get prompted to configure the device for my network. That's a minor point. Overall, the G1 has huge potential -- adding new apps is painless and quick, and the YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and browser are all stable and easy-to-use.

So far, the reviews on G1 have been sound. LifeHacker loved it but is not ready to jump off the iPhone ship. Gizmodo basically agrees and says it is a work in progress. Walt Mossberg essentially says it is the second best smartphone next to the iPhone. David Pogue really hates the weight and size, but seems to be a fan of the Android OS. CrunchGear did not like the battery life too much, but I had better luck.

I can't say I prefer the G1 to the iPhone for Web use quite yet. For one thing, the iPhone supports more "flick" movements for zooming, and the screen is bigger. The G1 could beat the iPhone if Google delivers on the promise of extensibility and there are so many compelling apps that you just have to use it. At that point, if Google makes an impact in mobile, we'll probably start comparing them to Microsoft in earnest...