Google-Phone Review: Brains over Beauty

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Mark Lennihan / AP

T-Mobile's G1 Android-powered phone, the first cell phone with an operating system designed by Google

Most first-generation gadgets aren't really worth the bother. They're overpriced, buggy, hard to figure out, and they break too easily. But the G1 is none of these things. Not only is it worth your while, the Google phone is easily the most exciting new tech product of the year.

If the iPhone is the beauty, then the G1 is the brains. Sure, the Google phone lacks much of the iPhone's external finesse: it's thicker and has a slew of buttons and a slightly smaller screen. But spend more than five minutes with T-Mobile's G1, which runs on Google's new Android operating system, and you'll uncover its inner brilliance.

The G1's Google Maps app, for instance, is genius. It incorporates 360-degree views of urban streets, plus an innovative compass mode that shifts the onscreen image depending on how you hold the device. Hold it up, and you'll see rooftops and blue sky. Point it down and you'll see car wheels and pavement. No other smartphone is so transporting.

The G1's 3.2-in. touchscreen works just fine, but I often found myself reaching for the built-in trackball instead. As BlackBerry aficionados will probably agree, the impressive precision and frictionless gliding of a trackball makes clicking on links quicker and easier. It's also indispensable for selecting text to cut and paste (something you can't do on the iPhone).

The home button at the bottom of the phone is a multitasker's must-have. The G1 remembers the last six applications you used and keeps them running and easily accessible in the background; press the home button and a small menu pops up displaying the icon for each open app. It's handy for those times when you want to play a game, check the news online and snap a quick picture all within a matter of minutes.

Google's Android Market, which will eventually include thousands of add-on applications, doesn't officially open until the G1 goes on sale Oct. 22. But the dozen or so free apps I tested in the market's beta version worked great. Addictive games include a shape-matching brainteaser called MisMisMatch, a beeping Simon Says–type game called Android Says and classics like Pac-Man. The BarCode Scanner is a handy app that lets you use the built-in camera to scan a product's bar code at the store, then instantly compare prices online. But my personal favorite has to be Cooking Taster, which includes short how-to videos and easy-to-follow recipes for ethnic food.

Other goodies: T-Mobile's 3G network was faster and more reliable than AT&T's (Apple's carrier) in my New York City–based tests. The speakerphone is louder and clearer than the iPhone's. And the removable battery will save you money and time should it ever quit on you — instead of bringing the whole device in to be repaired, you can just swap out the battery yourself.

About the only thing the iPhone has on the G1 is the onscreen magnifying glass, which lets you zoom in on text you want to edit. Otherwise, the functional differences between the phones were either inconsequential or improved in the G1. I thought I would miss Apple's iTunes, but downloading music on the G1, from Amazon's MP3 store, worked just fine and none of the songs were copy protected. And I definitely did not miss having to sync my phone with a computer to transfer applications, download songs or update my operating system — something you often wind up doing with the iPhone. The G1, in contrast, is its own self-contained mobile device.

In short, the $179 G1 is the one smartphone that won't make you jealous of people with an iPhone. Google's commitment to a mostly free and open market for add-on applications — users can even tweak the open-source Android operating system — also gives gadget lovers something to cheer. If nothing else, G1 will win geeky hearts and minds everywhere with its reassuring end-credits-style device info: "No robots were harmed in the making of this product."

(Click here for the best shots from Google's Candid Camera.)

(To see inside Google's headquarters, click here.)