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HTC G1 Cellphone
Prepurchase Evaluation

On about 2008-09-23 (all dates are ±a few days), the T-MobileTM G1 with GoogleTM was announced officially, slated for availability 2008-10-22. This is a cellphone, made by HTC, with 3G data capability, 802.11 family WiFi, a 320x480px touch-sensitive screen, and a drop-down QWERTY keyboard. It uses the AndroidTM desktop environment (Linux). The subsidized price from T-Mobile is US $179.

I would very much prefer if the Nokia N810 (my hardware review here) were able to communicate on the cellular network, i.e. to be a cellphone. But it can't. Can the HTC G1 replace my Nokia N810?

Table of Contents:

Key web links:

High Tech Computer (HTC) website G1 specification page
T-Mobile home page G1 product pages
Official site for Android Android Market (catalog of application software, some free, some not)

Context and Requirements

Readers should understand that I am very unusual as a cellphone user, and they should reinterpret my choices in the context of their own potential use of the HTC G1. While other people talk for hours and have a Bluetooth HSP earphone permanently attached, I have a cellphone for rare but high-value conversations, such as incoming calls from my wife, summoning aid for an automobile breakdown or other emergency, or reporting arrival and contacting the visitee after an airplane flight, which in some cases is international. Therefore, I use a pay as you go (POGO) cellphone plan, and use about half the airtime that comes with the minimum allowed revenue stream. I would like to make better use of the cellphone's data capability, and although the N810 can do Bluetooth DUN with the existing cellphone, there are integration issues which have made the experience frustrating.

I have the following intersecting requirements, met as indicated by the carriers in my area:

Requirement Verizon T-Mobile AT&T
International Phone No (CDMA) Yes (GSM) Yes (GSM)
International 3G Data No (CDMA) Yes (2100/1700MHz) No (1900/1900MHz)
Data for POGO No (?) For Sidekick Yes
Subsidized G1 No Yes (not for POGO) No

The AT&T data plan for POGO is expensive but is suitable for special or emergency situations: $0.01/kilobyte. If you invest $10 you can use 10 megabytes, which last for 30 days ($0.001/kilobyte). It is easy to burn through a megabyte of data ($10), and in the future I will make a practice of activating the 10 megabyte bundle before doing data activities. (Details from 2008; in 2009 the data feature pack is different.)

T-Mobile offers Sidekick to Go, a POGO plan intended for their Sidekick handheld computer. The terms (in 2008) are $1 on each day you use the service, $0.15/minute for voice calls, and unlimited data use on the paid-for day. (In 2009 it's $1 per day used or not.) Here is my query and T-Mobile's response about this plan. In their response they say it is for the Sidekick, but they do not actually come out and say that you are positively confined to their walled garden. Of course, the Sidekick is a closed-source machine and the server-based features such as e-mail will almost certainly only work with an actual Sidekick; in other words you will not be able to use their e-mail service without having their mail reader running on their OS and hardware. It's probably worth the effort and modest expense to try out this service, but absent a positive offer of generic data transport, I have to conservatively judge that T-Mobile does not offer generic data for POGO.

However, here are forum postings about the Sidekick to Go plan:

If I take the conservative interpretation, these requirements cannot all be met at once. I will have to accept this partial solution:

Update: T-Mobile's Sidekick to Go works. See the setup page.

Update: Starting about 2009-08-10, T-Mobile requires on the Sidekick plan that all web access (ports 80 and 443) be through their proxy, which does the WAP thing and also suppresses images, in line with the capabilities of the actual Sidekick. See Sidekick details here.

Presently, I keep with me the Nokia N810 ($440 from Nokia) and a Nokia 6126 phone ($200 from Nokia, unlocked, GSM). The latter is a good phone and serves the purpose. Why would I abandon my investment in this equipment and buy a new geek toy, the HTC G1? The purpose of this document is to answer that question. The main issue is unity and integration: relatively rare but high-value activities are easier to learn to do and to make to work if only one device is involved.

Any bean-counter would advise me to stick with the existing, paid-for and familiar equipment, to work harder to overcome integration issues, and to use Linux's unique advantage of being able to install arbitrary open-source software on the N810 to cover requirements that are met poorly by the Maemo distro and desktop environment. For example, I (like many users) found the provided mail reader on the N810 to be unsatisfactory, and therefore I compiled and packaged Pine for Maemo. So are there unmet requirements that are sufficiently hard to deal with to justify spending money, and even more important, spending time to learn how to make the HTC G1 do what I want?

Activities to be Performed

I perform these activities with the handheld device, or would like to perform them. My choice whether to get the new phone will be determined by how well it supports these activities. In many cases it won't be possible to evaluate activities before actually buying the phone, but some reviews and some hands-on experience have provided useful advance intelligence.

Update: Now that I've bought the phone, I have annotated each item with its current status.

Daily Activities
Non-Daily Activities

I'd like these to improve. Presently they are done exclusively from the N810 via WiFi, and when WiFi is available it is always cheaper and usually gives better communication performance than cellular data, particularly 2G. But on a recent trip to Europe before having the data-capable cellphone, I planned to report arrival by e-mail, but it took three days before I was able to hunt for and find an Internet cafe with WiFi service so I could do that. I really want to be able to do these things freely over the cellphone data network: free referring to when I can do them, not how much roaming charges I pay.

Wish List
Hardware Features

These are important features not covered above which the N810 has.

Two Reviews of the HTC G1

Here's a summary of a review of the G1 in Gizmodo by Jason Chen dated 2008-10-16. It is one of the longer and more two-sided reviews, but others have generally similar comments (good or bad depending on the review's slant).

Chen likes the quality and surface feel of the G1. But the buttons, trackball and USB connector (if running on line power) are on the right side, and they get in (his) way when he types. Jimc likes to hold the N810 in his left hand and work the arrow keys on that side, while eating with his right. Chen likes the trackball, and Jimc also found it to be pretty good. The G1 has a capacitive touch screen which worked well for Chen.

Chen gets a full day of use from a full battery. Jimc gets similar performance on the N810. Of course the more you use the machine the more battery charge will be used. The specifications say 6 hours 26 minutes of talk time and 13 days standby, of course with the lamp off and not doing anything except cellphone chatter.

Chen finds that the WiFi range is similar to other smart phones he's tested. In his test the 3G data rate was 433 kbps (presumably bytes per second).

There is no 3.5mm jack for a wired headphone; instead there is an 11-pin proprietary connector that interfaces to audio and USB. Chen does not give details whether you get a 3.5mm female extension to plug in your headphone, but HTC's specification implies that's how it works. (Jimc says: T-Mobile's website says the sales package includes a wired headphone; it isn't clear what format.)

The Android operating system was rock solid; Chen used it heavily for a week and never made it hang or needed to reboot. (Jimc points out that Maemo on N810 and OpenMoko on FIC Freerunner do not do so well.) The browser knows to clear its memory cache when the OS signals memory pressure. The user interface has some inconsistencies that irritated Chen, particularly in use of the long click (hold down the finger).

Micro-summaries of Chen's comments about specific applications:

Here is a discussion in Business Week of the HTC G1 by Stephen Wildstrom dated 2008-10-16. In summary:

If you buy a subsidized T-Mobile phone you are allowed to unlock it 90 days after purchase; ask T-Mobile and they will give you the unlock code. But a comment poster says that T-Mobile does not give out unlock codes for phones that are exclusive to T-Mobile. (Jimc has not further investigated T-Mobile's policy on unlocking. Caveat emptor.)

In Europe and most countries using GSM, voice and 2G data are in the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands; 3G is on 2100MHz. In the US, T-Mobile 3G transmits on 2100MHz and receives on 1700MHz. AT&T runs 2G on 850MHz and 3G on 1900MHz. The HTC G1 can do 2G (and voice) on 850, 900, 1800 and 1900MHz but 3G only on 1700MHz and 2100MHz. Thus an unlocked HTC G1 cannot do 3G on AT&T's network. It can, however, do 2G data. (Jimc reports the same issue with the Nokia 6126.)

Says Jimc: According to the FAQ for the G1 on T-Mobile's website, it will work on the international GSM net. But they don't specifically discuss international use of 3G data.

How Much Does It Cost

How much will an HTC G1 cost? That depends on your relation with T-Mobile. (This data is from Winter 2008, but prices and terms in Spring 2009 are similar.)

2-Year Contract

According to T-Mobile's website, a two-year contract is required including both a voice plan (Individual Basic at $30/month, and up) and data ($25/month and up), and the phone itself costs $179 (subsidized). If you remain within the carrier's clutches for two years you are committing to a total of USD $1500 excluding taxes. To break the contract costs you an early termination fee of $200. There are services which can come up with the unlock code for any phone, including the G1, for a fee of around $20, but you still need to pay for your contract or else pay the early termination fee.

Taking the 2-year contract route to an unlocked phone, I would have to pay:

Phone $180
Contract 1st month 55
Early termination fee 200
Unlock service 20
Total 455
Flex Pay

Similar to the contract pricing, you need a voice plan (Indivdual Basic at $30/month, and up) and data ($25/month and up), but there is no contract and the phone itself therefore costs $400. Some users say that after 90 days you can obtain the unlock code from T-Mobile, while others say that T-Mobile does not allow unlocking phones that are exclusive to T-Mobile. Jimc has not personally evaluated the unlocking policy -- caveat emptor.

If I broke the Flex Pay agreement in the first month and refused to wait 90 days for unlocking, I would have to pay:

Phone $400
Contract 1st month 55
Unlock service 20
Total 475
Gray Market

I have seen price quotes for an unlocked G1 on eBay, Craigslist and flea market types of vendors, ranging from US $300 to $650. Again, caveat emptor. I particularly worry about stolen goods, and about warranty claims.

Google Developer Network

I came across an article in announcing a source for a true unlocked HTC G1: Google itself. According to Google's Devices for Developers page, if you register as a developer ($25) you may buy one G1 phone for USD $400. The offered product is not labelled as a G1 but its hardware specifications appear identical. The sales program is available in a number of countries in addition to the USA. The offered product has these features:

Specifications of the HTC G1

From the G1 product page on the HTC website:

Dimensions 118 x 56 x 17 mm
Weight 158 grams (incl. battery)
Operating System Android (Linux)
Display 320x480 color TFT-LCD, 3.2in diagonal, touch panel (also see below under idiots)
Pointing Trackball, push it to click
Keyboard 5 row QWERTY, also 5 keys on front, and side buttons. Top row numbers & punct, bottom row shift-alt-space etc. 10 keys on most rows.
Processor Qualcomm MSM7201A at 528 MHz. On the chip: ARM-11 and ARM-9 dual processors, 3G cell support, 320x480px video, 2D+3D acceleration, camera controller, audio.
Memory RAM 192Mb, flash 256Mb
Removeable memory MicroSD (SD 2.0) up to 16Mb
Cellular HSPA/WCDMA: Europe 2100 MHz,
US (T-Mobile) 1700 recv, 2100 xmit
GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 850 900 1800 1900 MHz
GPS It has GPS, also a "digital compass" (magnetometer) and a "motion sensor" (accelerometer).
Bluetooth 2.0 EDR (what profiles? ask Android)
WiFi 802.11b/g
USB Proprietary 11-pin thing for audio; also accepts a mini-USB data and/or power connector.
Camera 3.2 Mpx, color, auto-focus, rear facing, doesn't say ASA. Can read barcodes with suitable software (on the Android Market).
Audio Internal speaker and mic; sales package includes earbuds with 11-pin connector; adaptor from 11-pin to 3.5mm and 2.5mm headphone jacks is sold separately; Bluetooth audio includes HSP/ HFP but A2DP was not ready for the initial release.
Battery 1150 mAh, talk (GSM) 406 mins, standby 319 hrs.
Charger 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz, output 5V at 1A

Idiots! Some very important and attractive features are nowhere mentioned either in the specifications or in HTC's or T-Mobile's product pages:

Display I borrowed a HTC G1 and took it outside, discovering that the screen is transflective. In fact, it is better than the one on the N810: in direct sunlight it provides full color and whites are at least 60% gray if not 70%. The viewing angle in reflection mode is not wonderful, 20 to at most 30 degrees away from specular reflection, but it's enough and is better than other transflective screens I've seen.
Vibrator Every modern cellphone needs the possibility of silent vibrating ringing, and the HTC G1 comes through: it has a vibrator.
DSP Indirect evidence, such as the presence of /dev/adsp, suggests that the Qualcomm MSM7201A System-on-Chip includes a DSP, even though it is not mentioned on any product pages. This is essential for playing audio while keeping down power use.
Programming Language The web site doesn't say, this not being a software spec, but Android docs and other reviews say that the major language is Java.

Evaluating Features

In which features is the HTC G1 superior to the Nokia N810 with a cellphone connected by Bluetooth?

In which features is the HTC G1 a step down from the equipment I have now?

Which important features of the HTC G1 are uncertain, in that they probably cannot be evaluated until I actually get the phone?

The Judgment

When in doubt, temporize. I am favorably inclined for this phone, but I think I will delay a final decision until I see progress in these areas:

With luck, the HTC G1 can be my Christmas present this year.

Appendix A: Wish List

If I were designing a handheld computer, what features would I put in it? Here's a short summary:

Appendix B: Android Market

The Android Market has been open only a few weeks, but the following third-party software has already been posted there. Likely more will appear as time goes on. I'm hoping to see these items show up: Ogg Vorbis codec; VLC media player; complete GStreamer-010 libraries and codec suite. Many of the programs depend on the generic GPS and mapping support in Android. Update: As of September 2009 the Android Market is vibrantly active and is filled with applications of varying usefulness. Most are free, some are not. The following list, from November 2008, should be taken as a small sample from the full collection.

General Software

Custom User Interfaces

These are clients for central sites that offer various services, most of which are not free.


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