Review: T-Mobile G1 is a serious iPhone challenger

Apple iPhone loyalists, beware, there's a new kid on the block

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The T-Mobile G1 smartphone, which comes out October 22 for $179, is a serious upstart challenger; a device that provides an easy-to-use touchscreen display, lets you download music directly to the device from the Internet, and has a full QWERTY slide-out keyboard. Using the G1 is intuitive and enjoyable. It reveals to the world once again that every other smartphone you’ve ever used besides the iPhone (Motorola, Samsung—are you listening?) now seems clunky and old-fashioned.

So what did they get right? For starters, the G1 uses the Google Android operating system. When you first turn on the device, you’ll see a prompt to either create a new account or to sign on with your existing Gmail account. Since 100 million people use Gmail already, many users will likely choose door number two. There is hardly any fanfare when you first use the G1: your Gmail messages arrive automatically using push technology so you don’t have to click send/receive.

The home screen is sparse, but that’s a good thing. To place a call, you just click the green button and type in a phone number. It’s easy to add contacts and dial them instantly.

If you click the Menu button, you’ll see tools for browsing the Web, viewing contacts, and downloading music using the Amazon MP3 service. To place any of these tools on the home screen, you just press down on an icon with your finger, hold down, and drag it over to the home screen. You can drag the home screen with your finger to the left or right to see more “screen real estate” and add more icons.

When you are browsing through your mail, you can flick up and down to see more messages. Click down with your finger and hold for a second, and you can access another menu to delete an e-mail. The Menu button is always just a click away and hides many more options, such as a mail search.

The G1 is what techies call “extensible”—meaning, you can add lots of stuff to it. Sure, there’s only a handful of tools you can add now (such as Pac Man). Yet, the phone uses the Google Android operating system with a promise that many more apps will be available soon. To access them, you click a Market icon. Downloads over 3G or Wi-Fi are quick and install reliably.

The G1 has built-in GPS locator, so an app could let you view nearby coffee shops, or check real-time bus schedules. Other apps could become even more location-aware: is a G1-toting friend close enough to me for a quick lunch meeting? Is a movie theater within easy driving distance based on actual traffic data? The potential is almost limitless, and many of the Android apps are free.

Battery life is just passable. My G1 lasted all day, but I wasn’t using it constantly. David Pogue at the New York Times says his G1 only lasted about 3.5 hours, and that the removable battery adds bulk. I found the device to be highly portable, even with the slide-out keyboard. You can slip it easily in your pocket, and the device comes with a carrying pouch.

My only real gripe is that the G1 does not provide a standard mini headphone jack — it only uses a proprietary headset. It means, as a music device, you can’t use your own high-end earbuds.

The G1 uses the T-Mobile network, so plans cost about $55 per month for 300 minutes and unlimited data usage. That’s a good deal, and cheaper than the iPhone. The catch: T-Mobile 3G service is not nearly as widespread as Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and is only available in 19 cities. I have not had a chance to test a variety of Bluetooth headsets yet, full-length movies, or the very latest Android apps. Yet, the G1 is an amazing device — compact, yet with a full keyboard. It’s fast for browsing the Web, and offers push e-mail. Android promises to deliver amazingly useful applets. Overall, the G1 is a stunner.