Initial impressions of the Android G2, plus comparison with iPhone

2010-10-03 16:19

Well, it’d been a while since I last got a phone, and I was due for an upgrade. And Microsoft seems pretty firmly committed to destroying the old Sidekick line. Worse, my Sidekick has a habit of stuttering when trying to send touch tone signals during a call, making online systems a nightmare to navigate. So I popped over to Radio Shack and got a G2.


Overall… This is an impressive bit of hardware, but I don’t think they’ve quite figured out what they’re doing. It’s a really interesting experience comparing this to the iPhone, which I also have. On the whole, I can see clear cases where each of them is more useful than the other. I’m not gonna be ditching the iPhone any time soon, but I’m also not about to give up the G2. (The Sidekick, by contrast, is completely replaced by the G2.)

So, thing one. Modern technology is getting pretty far ahead of me these days. I mean, seriously. The Sidekick, which I got two years ago or so, came with a 128MB additional memory card installed. The G2 comes with an 8GB card. (Nominal internal storage is 4GB, although you only get about 1.2GB for apps as of this writing.) The resolution on the G2’s display is ridiculous; I can’t see the pixels, but they tell me it has a lot.


Screen: I haven’t got an iPhone 4 to compare with, although I have seen one. The G2 and the iPhone 4 were both gorgeous. The 3GS display is clearly lower resolution, but quite pretty. The G2’s display is a little further from square — not sure whether that’s good or bad. Between the G2 and the 3GS, though, the G2 clearly wins. The display is sharper. I can’t really tell you whether one or the other has “better” colors for sure, but I think the G2 colors look a little richer.

Battery life: Both wear down pretty fast if you’re running a lot of apps. Solution: Keep USB cables handy.

Charging cable: Neither uses the normal standard mini-USB connector. The iPhone has, of course, the special magic ipod cable. Boo. The G2 has a cable I’ve never seen on anything else… except my Nook. So I guess I have to take back the claim that they both have a nonstandard cable, and revert to the more subtle complaint that they both have a cable which is apparently standard but not the standard I’m used to. I still wish they’d just have used the cable everyone else did — I have a ton of chargers for that kind of cable, and not many for the new one these guys used.

Storage: The iPhone comes with a bunch more onboard storage, but isn’t expandable. You can get a 64GB iPhone. The G2 is 4GB, as advertised, but in practice has about 1.2GB available for apps. On the other hand, you can get expansion cards for it at least as large as 64GB, and you can swap cards. (Swapping, though, is a huge pain — the card is behind the battery, so you basically have to shut everything down to swap.) On the other hand, I don’t plan to use the G2 to hold a complete copy of my music library, so I don’t actually care… That said, I have a lot more than 2GB of apps on my iPhone, so the G2 really does need that expansion slot. On the bright side, they ship with an 8GB card for it, as mentioned previously.

Processor performance, and so on… Eh, whatever. Modern phones are, for the most part, Fast Enough. I don’t remember how fast either of these is, and I don’t care. They both do stuff fast enough that I’m a lot more concerned about network performance.

Network performance: T-mobile utterly stomps AT&T here. I can’t even pretend to find this surprising or noteworthy. (This isn’t just an HSPA thing or whatever; the AT&T network sometimes underperforms my years-older pre-3G hardware.)

User Experience

But… where it really gets interesting is the user experience. The iPhone tends to win on simplicity and clarity. It takes a while to learn the idioms, but once learned, they’re pretty consistent and they’re pretty easy to remember and use. The Android interface tends to be a bit less polished. For instance, to delete a bookmark on the iPhone, you swipe across it and hit the delete button which suddenly appears. On the G2, you click-and-hold on the bookmark, at which point a sub-menu appears, which does not contain the word Delete, nor a scrollbar… but it’s scrollable and if you scroll you can find a delete option. (There is a brief flash of a scrollbar just as the menu pops up, but you can easily miss it.)

The G2 has some nice features, though. Many buttons have tactile feedback, because the phone twitches momentarily when you hit them. This is something I got used to on the Wii a while back, and I really do like it now — tactile feedback is good. The lack of consistency, though, is not so good — only some buttons have this feedback, and I can’t tell you which ones or why.

The G2 has an additional touchpad thing, which I am hugely impressed by. My blackberry and sidekick both have a trackball, which can be used to scroll around or click. On the G2, there’s a similar device, but it’s a touchpad that can be used for scrolling and clicking. I’m really impressed by it — it’s about a quarter inch across, but is suitably tuned so that scrolling with it does what I mean.

The G2 and iphone software keyboards both suck, in different ways. Or, alternatively, they’re both pretty nice. In different ways. The G2’s big thing is the “Swype” typing mechanism, where you just draw a sorta swoopy line through the letters of the word you want and it guesses what you want. This works amazingly well, but not flawlessly. Still, it’s pretty good. The iPhone’s feedback on what key you’re actually selecting works better for me, though. Still, both are at least usable.

The G2 wins hugely on having a hardware keyboard. Sorry, Apple. Nothing you do on screen seems to be able to come close to the quality of the hardware keyboard experience. Even though this is not an amazingly good hardware keyboard. This, in fact, is the one place where I’d say the old sidekick was superior to the G2. Possibly because its keyboard had another row so it could separate out numbers from letters, and generally have a few more options. That said, the G2’s feels nicer.

The iphone wins big on accessibility, in that it has some built in. Apparently you can download a screen reader from the android market, but the iphone has the functionality built in out of the box. (A blind user reviews the iPhone.)

Built-in software

Software… It’s really hard to usefully compare these. They’re not better or worse at somehow similar tasks. They’re basically not trying to do the same thing. The iPhone’s built in software is slick, polished, and fairly limited. The G2 has questionable polish but is loaded with interesting options that make no sense and you’d never want to use them except… woah, I just thought of a great use for… yeah, that kind of thing. (Sorry for the stream-of-consciousness presentation, but I can’t figure out a clearer way to articulate it.)

Neither phone lets you delete the built-in apps. This annoys me, because they’re taking up space, and also other resources. For instance, I have a flickr account. As a result, I have a very low level of interest in photobucket support… But the built-in photobucket app is running, taking up memory, and I can’t make it stop. (I can kill it using a task manager applet — I just can’t make it stop coming back from the dead. … edited to add, maybe I can, I found an option somewhere, but I can’t tell whether it worked.) Similarly, there’s a voice dialing app. I don’t care. I don’t use voice dialing. And yet, I can’t find a way to turn it off. Annoying. But, in the defense of each phone, the other is just as bad.

Basically, if I just wanted to hand someone a device and have them be able to use it to do whatever it does, it’d be the iPhone. If I wanted to hand someone a device to play with and maybe see what they could make of it, it’d be the G2. The G2 rewards playing around more, but it’s harder to get it to do simple stuff.

Third-party software

The iphone app store is in many ways more polished; it certainly has a lot more categories and divisions. On the other hand, a lot of the stuff in those categories is just plain miscategorized. The android app store has a lot more under-the-hood stuff available, which I think is a very good thing. The G2 wins big on security, here — it tells you what each application wants access to in order to run. On the down side, a lot of applications want access to things that, frankly, they have no business accessing. But! At least you’re told about it. It’s sort of a step forwards, eh?

The most obvious difference between them, from my point of view, is that you can get a shell program for the G2. Apple’s phone isn’t about to give you a shell. You’re in a cage, and the cage is really pretty, but it will always be a cage. By contrast, the Android market gives you a ton of options for stuff that may or may not be safe, or legal, or whatever. There are apps for it to let you tether it (use the phone as a network connection for a laptop or something). Apple is pretty hostile to that sort of thing; Android just puts ‘em up, and it’s up to you whether you think your vendor will let you get away with it or not. (Many carriers, T-mobile included, refuse to sell tethering plans, but are pretty apathetic about preventing people from doing it if they really want to.)

If I could only have one…

It’d be a hard choice. I think I’d go with the G2 — more flexibility. The phone where “USB Debugging” is a selectable option is more appealing to me than the phone where you need a $99/year developer license to upload even your own home-written software. Note that this is specifically in response to the question of which phone I would prefer; I don’t necessarily think most people would agree. Android’s certainly maturing quite a bit, but it doesn’t feel like as polished a platform as the iPhone yet. For users who don’t mind not being able to see under the hood, the iPhone may be a more pleasant environment.

If T-Mobile were to get their act together and provide a working tethering plan so we could use the standard, built-in, already-fully-developed, tethering features of Android, the G2 would be a much more compelling win for gadget geeks. As is, it’s still better, I think, but not by as much.

Note that this all assumes carrier is a non-issue. I have overall had a much more positive experience with T-mobile than I have with AT&T, and in general, I go into any interaction with AT&T’s network expecting it to be dodgy and slow, while the browser on the G2, I expect to Just Work. (In the iPhone’s defense, Safari works wonderfully over WiFi. It’s the network, not the phone, sucking.)

Peter Seebach