Pimp My G1, and general Android comments

October 12, 2009
2009 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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In this article, I vent about my hopes and dreams for the smartphone of the future. But I also offer my list of the hardware that helps me do as much as possible with the smartphone of the present.

It's been a long time since I've written here. I've been busy, first with my music, then with a startup, goby.com. I've been working with Goby for about a year and a half now, and we've just gone into public beta. Check the site out if you're looking for something interesting to do for the weekend, or when you're traveling to a new city in the US.

But that's not why I'm writing today. About a year ago I retired my faithful Sidekick II phone. It's retired, although still powered up in a place of honor next to my Motorola Timeport 2000, which is no longer connected to SkyTel but still serves as my desk clock. My new (a year ago, anyway) connection to the outside world is an HTC G1, T-Mobile's first phone using the Android OS. The move from the Sidekick to the G1 was a generational shift, including a much more functional web browser, streaming music and video, GPS, Bluetooth, a far better camera (still, unfortunately, not a replacement for a dedicated camera), and a huge number of apps from the Android Market, which keeps improving in both quality and quantity of apps. I really think the Market again shows the strength in numbers that comes from open and mostly unmoderated development.

My feelings about open source software development are mixed, but Android and the Market showcase some of the best features of open source: rapid innovation, better security through code transparency, quick bug fixes, support through a user community familiar with the product down to the code level. Open source fits the mobile world even better than it fits the more established and conservative world of the desktop. As a bonus, the availability of Android to any hardware developer should enable handset innovation on a scale that is impossible when a single company designs a single phone around a single operating system and user interface. The real test of Android will be the number and variety of handsets available from multiple carriers over the next twelve to eighteen months. By that time, Android should be the default mobile operating system, and the iPhone, Pre and BlackBerry should be legacy products serving their own niches. Some of those niches may be quite large - the iPhone's connection to what is now the largest music distributor on the planet will assure its survival - but most smartphones should be Android-based. It's a good product, it's steadily improving, it has the open source community behind it, and , most important, it's free to whoever wants to design a phone around it. And the simple economics of a high quality free operating system, in a market where users and developers are not yet tied to an established OS, should virtually assure Android's success. The iPhone is not Windows, and the window, so to speak, is closing on it ever gaining Windows-like dominance in the mobile universe.

But enough about theory, and back to the phone itself. In most ways, I absolutely love the G1. It's smaller than my Sidekick, which is easy to do. It has a brilliant screen, it's a great phone, a decent GPS, a more than reasonable music player, and most everything about it works. Using this phone, I can begin to see how the center of gravity of the personal computing universe might eventually shift from laptops to pocket-sized devices like this. Add the ability to dock to a full-sized keyboard and screen, and a lot more computing power and internal storage, and this could be the only computer a person ever needs. But that's waaaay in the future, and this is now. And the G1, like most current smartphones, is far from perfect. Fortunately, many of its flaws can be addressed with a visit or two to Amazon.com.

Flaw #1: Awful battery life. I'm curious about the conversations that took place at HTC when they were settling on the G1's 1100mAh battery. The most important issue was clearly  how big a battery they could fit without making the G1 bigger than an iPhone. If anyone actually considered whether a battery of that size would power the phone for a useful length of time, the terrible battery performance of the G1 doesn't show it. The G1 offers many options for running at low power; taken together, they turn the G1 into the equivalent of my Sidekick. No Bluetooth. No WiFi. No music, streaming or local. No AutoSync for mail, contacts or calendar. Certainly no GPS. No 3G. The one place this hobbled G1 still doesn't compare to the Sidekick is in battery life - where the Sidekick could be heavily used all day on a single charge, the G1 with everything turned off would barely last four or five hours. Turn on 3G and watch a few YouTube videos, and battery life could easily drop below two hours. The phone was usable, as long as I spent most of my time near a power source, was reasonably careful when untethered, and constantly tweaked the power profile of the phone. I also had low expectations about the battery's longevity, since it drained and charged many times a day. At the core, the short battery life made the G1 something less than a mobile phone. I even took to carrying a second, unlocked phone to use when the G1's battery died, which happened often.

Fix #1: A big, honking new battery. A little research online brought me to Seidio's Innocell replacement battery for the G1. This battery's capacity, 2600mAh, is almost two and a half times the original. It's a drop-in replacement that takes about five seconds to install (try that, iPhone users). And it lets me run my G1 wide open for the whole day on a single charge. Bluetooth, streaming music, 3G, AutoSync are always on, and the GPS is ready to turn itself on whenever I start a location-aware app, which is pretty often. I unplug the phone at 7AM and plug it back in around midnight, often with 15 or 20 percent charge remaining. The Seidio has turned the G1 into a true, full-featured mobile device.

This battery does have two downsides. First is price: at $49, it's expensive. Then again, a stock replacement 1100mAh battery will cost the same fifty bucks at a T-Mobile store, and you won't be any better off than you were before. The second is size. If a battery this size could have fit in the stock G1 case, HTC probably would have offered it. The Seidio is about twice as thick as the original battery. The company thoughtfully includes a replacement back for the G1 with each battery; the shape and finish are so close that you'd swear it was original - except the battery and back increase the thickness of the G1 by about a third. The battery is also about three quarters of an ounce heavier. The added size and heft of the phone won't go unnoticed in your pocket, although it's actually easier to hold the phone while using the physical keyboard or talking on the phone. And even the new, thicker G1 will fit into the original slipcase that came with the phone, so there's no need to buy a new case.

On the whole, I can understand the marketing decision of keeping the standard phone within bragging distance of the iPhone's size. But in real life use, the increase in usability that comes with the added size and cost makes this a tradeoff worth taking. Just remember to keep the original back and battery in case you need to return the phone for repair or warranty replacement.

Flaw #2: Dedicated headphone jack. This is a "feature" of many new phones. Make the headphone jack and/or power port non-standard, and the world will beat a path to your $40 headsets and $30 chargers. HTC has done right by its users in one way: the G1 will charge through a standard mini-USB cable, so chargers are available at any computer store, and a standard mini-USB cable will turn any computer into a phone charger, as well as an outboard disk drive for transferring data to and from the phone. But HTC did not treat its headset users quite as well. Despite the universal acceptance of the standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, HTC insisted on having the modified USB port serve double duty as a headphone jack as well. The G1 is shipped with a set of earbuds that works as a phone headset and music headphones, but the sound quality isn't the best, and all cabled headsets eventually break. Plus, the use of one port for two purposes means you have to make a choice - listen to music, or charge the battery. The equipment shipped with the phone doesn't allow both at once, and the pitifully short battery life of the G1 means your listening time will be very short indeed.

Fix #2a: A headphone jack converter. This is an incredibly simple, almost indestructible piece of equipment that should have been shipped with the G1. It's a right-angle plug that turns the G1's single port into two: a standard USB port for charging and data transfer, and a 3.5 mm socket for standard audio headphones. Best of all, you can use both at once. Listen to music while your phone is charging - and all for $4.25.

This solution doesn't solve the phone headset problem, but neither does anything else I found. I tried a cable that ended with a microphone and a 3.5 mm jack/USB charger port, which in theory would allow me to use any standard headphones to make phone calls. The microphone was so weak people couldn't hear me, and the charger caused a buzz in the earbuds when the battery was fully charged. I gave up on that piece after a few weeks. So keep your original headset around if you want to make hands-free calls. I've also had some problems - pulling the converter out of the phone can leave the G1 in a state where the sound doesn't go anywhere, and your phone calls all end up silent. Turning the phone off and on will fix the problem, but that's a pretty drastic way to switch from headset to internal speaker.

One other fix would make this accessory ideal. The adapter is set so the headphone jack sticks out beyond the side of the phone, where it is unprotected in a pocket. If the manufacturer simply turned the thing around, the headset would plug in underneath the bottom of the phone, and be protected from bending or breaking.

Fix #2b: A great Bluetooth headset. I found these at my local MicroCenter for $40. The Kensington K33436 has everything: decent music quality, a built-in mic for phone calls, USB for charging, good battery life, good on-ear controls that make it possible to operate the phone and music player without taking it out of your pocket. Unfortunately, the one thing it doesn't have is availability: it appears this headset has been discontinued, and Kensington has not replaced the model. If I find these or another similar model, I'll update this post. If you find them, let me know.

Flaw #3: Poor in-car handsfree. The phone has all the features it needs - voice dialing from the contacts list, a speaker phone, and bluetooth connectivity. Problem is, the speaker isn't loud enough to hear in a car, and the microphone isn't noise cancelling.

Fix #3: Motorola T505 Bluetooth speakerphone/FM transmitter. This is a very worthwhile piece of equipment for anyone who uses the G1, or any Bluetooth-enabled phone, in a car. It clips onto the visor, pairs almost instantly with the phone, and provides a noise cancelling microphone and decent speaker. Even better, it has an FM transmitter that automatically seeks out an empty spot in the FM band, announces the frequency, and then broadcasts all sound from the phone through the car's stereo system. This is not all that uncommon a product, but the T505's execution is near-flawless. The pairing and un-pairing is nearly seamless, an important feature when leaving and re-entering the car. Sound quality is great, noise rejection on the FM bands is decent (better than decent outside of urban areas where there are FM stations all over the frequency band). Onboard controls are well thought out, and a single battery charge will last all day. As a bonus, the T505 will send your Shoutcast or Pandora streaming audio to your car stereo, and it will automatically stop the music for incoming and outgoing calls, and start it up again when the call is over. I've started listening to local radio stations through the phone and T505 instead of tuning them in directly, since the integration with the phone is so much better.

The T505 is $63 at Amazon, not cheap but an excellent device that can be moved from phone to phone, and from car to car. Consider it a universal car accessory for all your future phones and the price starts looking more reasonable.

Phones aren't cheap. Smartphones are especially not cheap, Building a collection of equipment to add what the phone designers left out will set you back, in some cases, more than the original cost of the phone. Just remember that much of this stuff will outlast the phone, and be useful when you go shopping for the next generation.

Total cost (phone not included):
$49.10: Seidio Innocell 2600mAh battery
   4.25:  Right angle 3.5mm headset adapter
  40.00  Kensington
K33436 Bluetooth headset (unfortunately discontinued)
  62.99  MotoROKR T505 Bluetooth speakerphone

That's $156.34 to turn the G1 into the phone it could have been - almost an ounce heavier, a third thicker, but with all the features you'll need, at least for now, and battery life that an iPhone user would die for.

I love the G1 now. Can't wait for the next generation.