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Jun 22, 2009

Review: Google Adroid 1.5

Very Good

Despite Android's huge initial promise, there's still just one U.S. smartphone running the OS: the T-Mobile G1. That device is now almost a year old—and it didn't look particularly cutting edge when it was released, either. Luckily, that situation will soon change, as Motorola, Samsung, and others have stepped up with promises to release Android-powered handsets. But Google itself hasn't rested, either. The latest version of the OS, Android 1.5, features a number of major enhancements, including video recording and playback, faster camera and GPS performance, and support for home screen widgets. Collectively, it's still not enough to overtake the iPhone's stellar media playback and broad third-party app support, however. And Android 1.5 isn't as flashy as Palm's new, multitasking WebOS on the Palm Pre, either. But version 1.5 is a big step in the right direction.

For current T-Mobile G1 owners, installing the OS is dead simple. If your handset doesn't already have it now, head to Menu > Settings > System Updates, and then tap Install and Restart. The T-Mobile G1 automatically reboots, downloads the 32MB installation package, and installs the new OS. On my test G1, the installation took roughly 10 minutes running EDGE; a Wi-Fi download would have been much quicker.
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One of the most obvious improvements is the new on-screen keyboard. At first, it may seem redundant, since when the G1 was first introduced, one of the its biggest advantages over the iPhone was a slide-out hardware QWERTY keyboard. Having said that, sometimes it's a chore to flip out the keyboard for just one or two words. The on-screen keyboard eliminates that problem, and offers rudimentary predictive text to boot. The new virtual keyboard is a little crunched in width compared with the iPhone's, and Android's doesn't rotate to landscape mode, either. But it's certainly better than nothing, and you always have the hardware keyboard for extended typing chores on the G1. The on-screen keyboard will come in especially handy for upcoming Android devices without a keyboard.

On the wireless front, Android 1.5 can now automatically pair with any nearby Bluetooth 2.1-enabled headset. It also adds support for stereo Bluetooth headphones. In one music test, Marcus Miller's electric bass guitar threw a wide stereo image, but sounded surprisingly muffled over a paired wireless set of Motorola S9-HDs, which are normally brighter and crisper sounding. The automatic pairing worked great with the S9-HDs, however. I also really liked Android 1.5's Bluetooth setup screen. It showed all nearby devices right away, along with whether they were paired, connected, or both. It also showed the Bluetooth profiles each one supported. These are welcome improvements, but, note: you still can't pair with an external Bluetooth keyboard

Android Camcorder

One new feature that ought to wow in Android 1.5 is Camcorder, a built-in video recorder. Unfortunately, it recorded dim, jerky 352-by-288 videos—worse than many smartphones. Outdoors in sunlight, the animation sped up considerably, however. There are virtually no software adjustments, so forget about improving matters. On the plus side, you can share videos via Gmail or even YouTube right after recording them; for the latter, you can even tag your videos and mark them as public or private. The regular camera is snappier now, with its near-instant recovery and quick save times. The auto-focus still causes a several-second delay before the shutter opens, though. You can upload pictures directly to Picasa.

A few other enhancements are included. There are new home-screen widgets for displaying photos, playing a music track, or showing the next event in the calendar. Google Talk is now a separate app, and it has a nicely designed interface with colorful icons and roomy dialog boxes. Google also added a voice-enabled Google Search feature, which was remarkably accurate for Web searches in a variety of tests. The mic icon in the top right makes it easy to run another search almost instantly after the first one displays the results page.

Web browsing was already excellent on the G1. Android 1.5 adds copy and paste, along with a find text feature for Web pages. Underneath, there's a revised WebKit core and updated JavaScript support, along with smoother Web page scrolling. I didn't see much of an improvement—especially over EDGE, which drags just about anything to a crawl. On Wi-Fi, though, the G1's Web browser soared—and looked great to boot.

A number of things are still missing from Android. Two of the biggest are built-in Exchange server support and Adobe Flash capability in the Web browser (although there are a few third-party Exchange sync options like ContactsSync and MailShadowG). The iPhone has the former, but not the latter—although Windows Mobile smartphones now get Flash support with the third-party, free Skyfire 1.0 browser. In addition, the G1 still feels a step behind the iPhone in overall UI elegance. The menus look much cleaner, but playing music feels dated. The Android 1.5 G1 feels Spartan when compared to the iPhone's stellar music and video iPod integration. Android 1.5 has very basic video playback, and no iTunes or video file sync. Even two-year-old BlackBerry Curves are better in this regard.

Despite its various omissions and disappointing video recorder, Android 1.5 is a must-have update for G1 owners. Android Market is a sharp, easy-to-use third-party app store with about 5,000 apps at the time of this writing (check out our recent android app reviews), and the overall OS platform is as stable and responsive as ever. If you can get past the dowdy hardware, the T-Mobile G1 running Android 1.5 remains one of the most powerful smartphones available today. It'll be interesting to see what new hardware can do with Android 1.5.

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