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The main story with the Android OS, which we tested on the T-Mobile G1 smartphone, is that it has attracted a legion of developers already – with about 5,000 apps available – but currently only runs on one phone in the US. Many other phone makers have promised Android-based handsets, but few have delivered the goods. HTC’s touch-only Magic phone has yet to ship in the US, and their highly-anticipated Hero phone (with customized “Rosie” Android interface) won’t be available until later this year. This means that as far as US customers are concerned, Android is a one-phone-OS at present, making it much less appealing if you want to create your own app (and appeal to a wide market) or buy the phone and expect others to create commercial-quality tools for such as limited platform. In every other way, Android is a solid step forward for a smartphone OS and makes us look forward to what Google can do on the desktop.
The G1 is essentially an HTC Dream branded with the T-Mobile carrier logo. The 5.6-ounce device runs on a Qualcomm MSM7201A processor at 528 MHz, has 256MB of internal memory, 128MB of RAM, and supports an external SD card – with a default size of just 1GB expandable to 16GB. The phone has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, GPS capability, Wi-Fi, a 3.2 megapixel camera, and sports a 3.2-inch 320x480 capacitive touch screen (sorry, no multi-touch).
The G1 running Android is not nearly as fast as the iPhone 3GS, and apps tended to start and run with a slight hesitation. For example, the Gmail client included on the phone takes about two seconds to load. The browser loads in 8 seconds (from finger press to Google.com), or an eternity when you just want to check the weather. (An AccuWeather app took four seconds to load.) At times, the G1 would become overloaded with too many open apps and would stall out or crash. We also saw a few force-close screens during our test period. Overall, the Android matched the slow operation of the Symbian S60 OS and the Palm Pre running webOS when we had too many apps running.
That said, once apps are loaded into memory, they appear instantly when you access them. And, Android uses keyboard shortcuts such as Search icon + B to open the browser, which promotes quick OS use. The OS manages memory more effectively than other OSes, closing down apps that are consuming too much memory automatically. For example, in one test, we opened Gmail, then another five or six apps, and noticed that Gmail had shut down to save memory.
None of the apps on Android – such as the scheduler – load particularly fast, usually in a few seconds.
The standard apps use a flat color treatment, but are not as textual as BlackBerry or Symbian apps.
Being that the Android OS is a Google product, the default apps are, not surprisingly, mostly from Google. There's a Gmail client, although you can also use a more general e-mail client for your ISP. The Contacts and Calendar apps integrate -- as you would expect -- with their Google Web app counterparts, and it is great to see your Gmail contacts appear automatically on the phone and sync with your schedule with no effort on your part. Google includes only the basic extras, though -- a simple calculator, browser, camera app, map with GPS and turn-by-turn directions, and a new voice search in the latest OS release that lets you perform searches with your voice. There's an Amazon client for buying music, a YouTube app, and a video recorder. Conspicuously absent: there is no H.264 or MPEG-4 movie player included with Android, even though the hardware supports video.
Even though Android is a major hit with developers, most of the 5,000 apps are "single use" in nature in that they provide a specific function, such as the ShopSavvy tool that lets you scan a bar code to check online prices, and commercial developers such as Gameloft and EA have avoided the platform. Some of the more unique apps, such as Translate, work well but look terrible. Android devotees will disagree, but there just isn't the same breadth and depth of apps as there is on the iPhone. What Android does offer are very specific options -- you can use Twittoo, Twitli, Twidroid, aTweeter or one of several other variations to update your Twitter status, for example. Or, you can use Loopt or Google Maps with Latitude for sharing your GPS locale with buddies. The major gripe is that, even though you have several options, there is often some obvious omission -- no Tweetdeck app, for example.
Even the browser app in Android is a bit slow loading, but shows up quickly in multi-tasking.
Twittoo, shown here in landscape view, is one of several Twitter clients for Android.
One of the more interesting apps on Android, ShopSavvy lets you search for product pricing by scanning a barcode with the built-in camera.
Android outclasses other OSes with multi-tasking support, allowing you to quickly switch between apps by holding down the Home button for two seconds and choosing the one you want. When too many apps are running, the OS will shutdown the memory hogs. You can access open apps very fast by pressing a keyboard shortcut, such as Search icon + E for e-mail. That said, we think Palm's webOS is easier to use for task switching, and BlackBerry OS is easier to access with Alt + Arrow.