Android with human touch
New Google handsets throw smartphone race wide open
THERE’S NO ESCAPING Google nowadays. Apart from being the number one search engine and creator of the world’s most popular web applications, Google is now taking on the cellphone industry head-on.
The first phones based on Google’s Android operating system – or, more precisely, the open source OS initiative backed by Google – are now available in South Africa. Be prepared to hear the words “iPhone killer” often when the new Android phones are discussed. Early indications are that such a statement has some merit – well, sort of.
Both phones are made by HTC, the Taiwanese phone maker represented by Leaf Wireless in SA. The newer Magic is exclusive to Vodacom and MTN sells the Dream (it isn’t locked in, so even if you’re an MTN subscriber you’ll be able to use a Magic phone, and vice versa).
Although the Dream is billed as a G1 (or first generation) Android phone and the Magic a G2, there’s little to choose between them. Both run the latest version of the Android called Cupcake ( no explanation given for the name) and it’s the uniqueness and versatility of the OS that make it different from handsets from Nokia, LG and others and not the form factor or the raw specifications.
The most obvious difference between the two handsets is that the Magic is a full touchscreen while the Dream combines a touchscreen with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Both have 3,2” screens with 320 x 480 pixel resolution, which is about as good quality as currently available: it’s the same as the Apple iPhone, although Nokia’s upcoming flagship phone N97 beats it hands down. A nifty trackball working similar to that on BlackBerries complete the input options and is a good alternative to touching the screen during many operations. The touchscreens are responsive and accurate, although your reviewer generally finds even the best to be fiddly to use.
Both HTC phones feature microSD slots for all your multimedia; but the Magic comes standard with a 2Gb card, while with the Dream you’ll have to buy one separately (for less than R200). On board memory is 512Mb for the Magic and half that on the Dream.
At 3,15Mp the camera capabilities are the same and so are the rest of the specs for GPS, WiFi, processor speed (a decent 528Mhz that doesn’t spoil the experience the way too slow processors do on so many smartphones) and battery life.
The Dream is quite heavy and thick, thanks to its keyboard, but the quality of the finishes is excellent on both. Not surprisingly, integration with Google services – such as Gmail, Google Maps, etc – is very good. The Magic also supports video calling – but, honestly, who ever makes a video call?
The future of smartphones lies with (relatively) open operating systems on to which users can load applications and make updates. In short, the line between smartphones and laptops is blurring. Acer, announcing a mini-laptop running Android, is an indication of what future trends are. While Apple has sold more than 1bn applications, available widgets, apps, games and personalisation options for Android are still somewhat limited. Leaf supports an app store in SA called OpenMarket and the number of apps for Android is set to grow fast. Nokia (through its Ovi service) is also getting into the app game and BlackBerry has a similar service (not yet available here).
Whether to buy Magic or the Dream is a matter of personal preference. Pricing from the two networks is similar and it boils down to whether you want a more stylish touchscreen only or can live with some bulk for the sake of a keyboard.
The bigger question is whether to switch to Google’s Android from Apple’s iPhone or vendors such as Nokia and BlackBerry. The answer depends on which platform will supply the next killer mobile phone app to rival SMS.