The 'Google Phone': A Challenge to the iPhone?

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T-Mobile's G1 — the first mobile phone to run Google's operating system, Android — will go on sale Oct. 22 for $179

On Tuesday morning, the most conspicuous absence at the New York City launch of the "Google phone" — the first mobile handset to run Google's new Android operating system — was the Google folks themselves. But about a half an hour into the event, and well into the question-and-answer session hosted by the phone's wireless carrier, T-Mobile, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page suddenly rolled onstage wearing in-line skates, blaming Manhattan traffic for both their delayed arrival and their choice of transportation. Cameramen snapped to, reporters pounded furiously on their notebooks and the crowd buzzed.

Like the Google guys themselves, T-Mobile's G1 is a little late to arrive (Apple's iPhone 3G has already been on the market for two months), but it's still pretty cool. A tad heavier and narrower than the iPhone, the G1 features a petite keyboard, a handy trackball and a higher-resolution, three-megapixel camera (the iPhone has a two-megapixel camera). Along with its Google-designed browser, the G1 features a more powerful version of Google Maps with a built-in compass and 360-degree photos. And Gmail users get instantly notified when new messages arrive in their inbox, instead of having to check manually. The G1 goes on sale Oct. 22 for $179 ($20 less than the iPhone) and will be available in white, brown or black.

It may be more of a bargain, but the G1 is far from perfect. The keys on its keyboard are almost comically tiny. The touch-sensitive onscreen zoom feature isn't as intuitive as the iPhone's. And the rumored cut-and-paste function in e-mail is a bit dopey: it doesn't let you rearrange individual words or phrases; instead, you can only cut and paste an entire message. And while the built-in camera is a full megapixel higher than the iPhone's, you still can't record video. One big drawback for music lovers may be the G1's lack of iTunes; without it, you can't play copy-protected songs purchased from Apple's music store unless you convert them to MP3s first. There is an unbranded music player built by Google, however, and Amazon is the default music merchant.

The G1 is certainly slicker than the photos that were leaked on the Internet earlier this month suggested. But we won't know how well it performs until buyers can actually use it in the real world. Among the key questions: How good will the add-on applications currently being developed for the G1 be? How fast will T-Mobile's 3G network work in cities like Memphis and Miami? And how well will Google's browser-based applications, including Google Docs, work on the G1? We'll let you know what we think as soon as we road test the G1 next month.

(See photos of iPhone 3G mania here.)