Android G1 at six months

Mon, 15 Jun 2009 13:46:04 +0000

The trouble with doing long-term reviews of mobile phones is that by the time you’ve had them anything approaching a long time, they’ve been superseded already and are probably about to be discontinued.

But anyway. I’ve owned this thing since shortly after they came out and having recently finally peeled off the increasingly tatty piece of cellophane it shipped with to protect the screen, I reckon it’s time for an update.

The hardware

I won’t go into detail about the hardware, as the software aspects are going to be more interesting long-term. The summary is “good but not excellent”: it has not bent, broken, warped, wefted, spindled, folded or self-mutilated, but on the other hand its styling is still closer to a brick than to an Iphone. Apart from the battery, which deserves its own section, the single stupidest hardware feature is the plastic plug which is supposed to cover the mini-usb charging/headphone socket. Second stupidest is probably the socket itself: although mini-usb is the only sensible design for power and data connections, the adaptor necessary to plug normal audio headphones in is wickedly fragile and can be had only from chinese ebay sellers

I said the battery deserves its own section. Here it comes:

Battery life is crap. Recharge every night, because it will not last a second day

Message ends. I know it’s an incredibly versatile device that’s more like an ultraportable computer than a mobile phone as we know them, and also that by disabling all the interesting features I could probably get it to last two days, maybe, at a push, but that would kind of negate the point of having paid for the extra features in the first place, now wouldn’t it?

The software

It’s now six months after launch and I have to concede that despite having upgraded to the “Cupcake” OS version 1.5, the software still feels unfinished in some areas. The Google contact/calendar integration is a win, but it still lacks certain things that an ordinary phone can do without problems, like selecting a phonebook entry and beaming it or texting it to a friend. And some of the things it does do give the strong impression of never having been tested on real people. The Mail app at launch was famously bad enough that a third-party group of hackers forked it just to get it to a usable state (their fork, K-9, has since come on in leaps and bounds and I strongly recommend it for non-Gmail IMAP users). My particular ire is reserved for the calendar, which defaults to presenting a view of the month with coloured blobs to indicate when things are happening but no clue as to what those things are. And the camera – I don’t know whether to blame hardware or software or both, but I could probably paint the scene in less time than it takes to focus, and with a better result in any setting less well-lit than an operating theatre.

This sounds pretty negative and it’s mostly not. It’s just that when you do get smacked by the 10% stupidity sections after the 90% (in most cases) that is there has lulled you into quiet babylike stuporific contentment, it smarts twice as much. My recommended apps, for the record:

Development

The phone this replaces is a Sony-Ericcson M600. The PDA it replaces is a Palm TX. The first thing to say about it, then, is that for openness it’s light-years ahead of either. Reasonably well documented, easy to get into (no need to join developer programmes or send your apps away to be certified) and there’s a linux-hosted toolchain. I haven’t explored it extensively but I did without too much trouble write half an app that logged gpx tracks (but then My Tracks came along and obsoleted my effort), and poked around inside K-9 a bit. It’s Java (practically speaking: legally it’s merely Java-like) which language I grant you nobody ever expanded their minds by learning, but on the other hand has never caused anyone’s brain to leak out through their ears in quite the same way as C++ or PL/SQL can.

That sounds disturbingly – albeit quite faintly – like praise, so I have to add that the second thing to say is that they’ve tragically missed the point: it’s still an ocean removed from hackable in any useful sense. All the support is there to write your own apps is no use to you if you merely want to modify someone else’s app, and even if you are starting with one of the open-source apps you still have the burden of maintaining your own private fork just to support your private hacks.

It’s not all bad: the use of Intents should make it possible to “deep-link” into other people’s apps (see Oilcan for example), but it’s still more work than, say, Emacs hacking or Amiga ReXX ever was.

Hacking

Underneath it all, as I’m sure everyone who cares already knows, is an ARM chip running a slightly hacked Linux 2.6. If you install the Terminal Emulator app you can get a shell prompt: if you follow instructions on the xda-developers forum you can get root access too. I did: while I’m not sure it’s essential to normal use, it does open up a couple of bits that you can’t do on the regular phone such as wifi tethering and a task manager to kill apps you’re not using when the thing starts feeling sluggish. (In theory this is unnecessary, in practice I’m not convinced either way but at the very least it’s a great placebo effect)

But the bottom line is that it’s fun to play with, which is probably the major thing, and seems to be quite low risk: at least, going by the comparative rarity of “I bricked my phone” posts on the xda-dev forum, most seem to have managed it successfully. You can even install an entire Debian system that lives alongside Android, though I still can’t think of a better reason to do so than bragging rights.