Wednesday, November 19, 2008

G1: The difference between a mobile internet device and a phone

Last post, I talked about how remarkable the G1 in terms of gathering information about locations, thanks to its compass, GPS, and camera. Capabilities like these are why I decided to go with the G1. But devices can't always be great at everything. And if you evaluate the G1 based on its nominal primary function - as a phone - you won't be impressed, because it's a C at best.

Why? So many reasons.

The G1 has a green and black physical button on the front (on other phones, it's labeled "Talk") and pressing it brings up the Dialer - a tabbed interface with a soft ten-key for dialing, a call history, a Contacts list, and a Favorites list (for contacts you've starred). The contacts, by the way, sync beautifully with your Google Contacts (more on which later). So far so good.

Dialing goes as you would expect, but it's not intuitive that once you've dialed the number, you must press the green physical button.

Dialing into voicemail is similar to any other phone I've had: long press 1. No visual voicemail, but I can live with that. (A vendor is supposedly developing third-party visual voicemail.) But the ten-key fades from the screen after a few seconds, so navigating the voicemail tree - or any other phone tree - is not fun. You have to press a physical key to bring the screen back up, then press the soft key you want. If you get my voice mail and you hear me say "Clay Spinuzzi" followed by an uncomfortably long pause, that's why. Perhaps there's an easy fix for this issue, but it should work out of the box.

You have a similar issue when hanging up. Say goodbye, take the phone away from your face, and press the red-and-black hang-up button. The screen lights up to show your call is still going, Press it again, and after a pause the call ends. If you're impatient, perhaps you press it twice, in which case the call ends and the device goes to sleep.

If you use the headphones, as I discovered recently, it's almost impossible to tell if you've actually pressed the headphones button. I plan to put some kind of bump on the button so I can tell where the thing is.

On the other hand, the G1 gets some things very right.

For one thing, calls are much clearer than on my previous phones. Great. The headphones are also nicely done. I've seen some complaints about the setup: the headphones have a lower part that plugs into the micro USB and contains the microphone, and then a jack for standard stereo headphones. For me, that is not a problem -- unless you want to use the headphones and charge at the same time.

For another, the other parts of the dialer really work well. The call history is great, with visually sharp characters as well as well-designed and color-coded icons to show the kinds of events in the call history. The Contacts can show all contacts (including any email address you've ever mailed through GMail), particular categories of contacts, or just contacts with phone numbers. Star one of these contacts and it'll show up under the Favorites tab, which is a great way to track the people you call frequently.

But integration with online contacts is not the only kind of integration. If you use Google Maps to look up a business, you can add it to your Contacts. Name, address, phone numbers, website if applicable, all go to contacts. That's been a real timesaver for me. Incidentally, you can use Contacts to launch phone calls, text messages, email, web browsing, or Google Maps; it becomes a nerve center for a variety of activities.

One more issue. Unlike the other phones I've owned, the G1 doesn't appear to allow me to assign a particular key to a phone number. But you can assign a contact shortcut to the desktop, which functions the same way. It's less intuitive for me, but it works well enough not to be a deficit.

Okay, so that's the phone portion. Bottom line, if you're primarily looking for a phone, keep walking. But if you're looking for an internet device that by the way has phone capabilities, the G1 might still fit the bill. And if you are interested in text messaging, it's definitely a strong contender. More on that soon.

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