Hands on with the Android G1 phone

The applications on board are the coolest part

T-Mobile, Google and High Tech Computer (HTC) unveiled the highly anticipated Android phone in New York on Tuesday, and I got a chance to try out the new handset at HTC's office in Taipei.

The applications on board are by far the coolest feature of the T-Mobile G1 handset, or the "Dream," as HTC calls it. My favorite was Google Maps Street View, which allows you to view a snapshot of an entire street scene at any of several U.S. cities. I chose 42nd Street at the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, and once the information downloaded from Chunghwa Telecom's mobile network, I was able to see the street on the handset's screen. It's cool (see video).

There are three ways to navigate a street scene with the G1. You can use the touch screen to look around or use the trackball at the bottom of the phone. But the most fun is to hit the "compass" function on the handset and move it around by hand. You pan the G1 up and view the screen as if it's the LCD viewfinder on a digital camera, and you're looking at building tops or into trees. Pan down and you can see if anyone dropped some coins on the street. Pan around for an entire 360-degree view of the street from where you are, including taxis, buildings, or a guy walking down the street eating a sandwich.

I can't think of any useful reasons to use Street View -- Google Maps is enough to get you where you want to go -- but it sure is fun. Google is still expanding the Street View database to include more cities.

Finding apps

T-Mobile G1 screen
The G1's screen is beautiful.

The applications aspect of the G1 may make it one of the most expandable handsets around. You can already find fun and useful programs from Android, many of them free, and they're easy to find and download.

An icon on the desktop of the handset sends you right to an Android apps page, where applications roll across a panel at the top of the screen. You can use your thumb on the touch screen to make the panel move left or right for more choices, and then tap an app's icon to choose it.

I picked ShopSavvy because the demonstration of it looked fun and I wanted to see it in actual use. Bargain hunters will love this program.

ShopSavvy turns the G1's onboard 3-megapixel camera into a price tag scanner. It starts to scan immediately when ShopSavvy is on. No need to snap a photo or anything -- just run a red line in the middle of the viewfinder over a bar code and it scans the information.

It took me a few tries to scan the bar code of the book Execution by Larry Bossidy, which was one of the few things at HTC's office with a bar code. But once I got it, it only took several seconds to navigate to a site with a book review and other information, as well as suggestions on where to buy. It costs $21 new at eCampus.com, or $2.50 used at Half.com, while the retail price listed inside the cover of the book itself was $27.50.

The ShopSavvy application took only about 40 seconds to download. I also downloaded Pac-Man, which took about 33 seconds.

What about the hardware?

T-Mobile G1 keyboard

The screen flips up to reveal a QWERTY keyboard.

The handset itself feels good, solidly built and with beautiful screen quality. Even when you flip up the screen to reveal the QWERTY keyboard below, it's quick and smooth in a way you can tell won't break easily.

Flipping up the screen, by the way, is the only way to turn the view on the handset screen sideways. Unlike other handsets that turn the screen view sideways when the handset is held sideways, the G1 turns the screen view sideways only when the QWERTY keyboard is showing.

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