August 16th, 2009
Before upgrading from a “dumb phone” to a “smart phone,” I did a lot of online research. I read reviews. I watched YouTube videos. Unfortunately, most online reviews are kind of useless. They’ll say things like “There’s a nifty little switch over here. And you can press this button. That does this. This also does that.” I’m hoping my first-impressions review will be a lot more useful, and I will follow up with a more extensive review after I’ve had a few weeks to really get to know this phone.
Background (narcissistic babble—feel free to skip)
For the past few years, I’ve always had a “dumb” cell phone. It makes calls. It receives calls. It allows me to check voicemail. That’s about it. I’d never understood the need for Blackberries or other “smart” phones. I saw people in expensive business suits using those phones and figured I’d never have use for such a thing.
Then the iPhone happened.
Both my wife and I were very impressed with Steve Jobs’ demonstration of the iPhone. I saw it as revolutionary, even though it had its faults. My wife, a big Apple fan, still waited until at least the the second-generation iPhone came out to get one. Once she got it, though, both of us were impressed.
The whole time she’s been using the iPhone, I’ve been enviously looking on, wanting a smartphone of my own. Unfortunately, since I am a Linux user, and hell will freeze over before Apple makes a Linux port of iTunes, an iPhone is out of the question. And, no, I am not going to dual-boot with Windows to run iTunes. No, I am not going to try to jailbreak the iPhone and then have some update break everything so I can no longer sync with Ubuntu. I want something that just works.
Windows Mobile was out of the question. No more Windows for me, thanks. I got a little bit excited about the Palm Pre, but two things held me back from it. 1) all the reviews said the battery life is terrible and 2) it uses the WebOS, which doesn’t look as if it’s going anywhere, unlike Google’s Android, which is far more likely to be installed on more and more phones as the years go by (making its Android Market—the equivalent of the iTunes App Store—increasingly robust).
Like my wife, I don’t like to buy first-generation products. So the T-Mobile G1 was out. But then the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G arrived. Google Android. Second-generation. Linux-friendly (Linux-based, actually). And with my wife complaining about dropped calls with AT&T (American iPhone users have to sign up with AT&T to use a non-jailbroken iPhone), I was ready to give T-Mobile a chance. So I took the plunge. After one day of use, here are my first impressions.
What I don’t like
- If you’re filling out something, instead of automatically focusing on the text box to fill in, the interface waits for you to manually click on the text box in order to bring up the on-screen keyboard.
- A few dialogues will give you the option to click Done when you’re done with the on-screen keyboard, but most will have only a Return key to go to the next line. So in order to get the keyboard to go away, you have to hold down the Menu key (a plastic key, not a touchscreen key).
- Even though there is an onscreen touch keyboard, there are eight hard plastic keys as well. Once you get used to them, they’re fine, but at first they’re a bit confusing, especially what the difference between Menu and Home is. I’ve found the Menu key to be invaluable, no matter what application I’m in. If I’m ever lost, I can press the Menu key and something useful will come up. The search key is completely useless. I have done quite a bit of fiddling in the last day, and I have never used the search key.
- There is an option to turn off “background data” to save battery life, which is great. Unfortunately, you have to enable it in order to browse the Android Market for new applications. Not awful, but a little annoying. So to browse the Market, I have to turn on Background Data, browse, and then turn Background Data off again.
- I don’t know why T-Mobile or Google didn’t just include this app as part of the default OS, but there is an app to give you visual voicemail (so you can click to listen to or delete messages instead of going through the menus of a call-in system). Unfortunately, in order to use it, you cannot be connected to a wireless network (unencrypted, WEP, WPA, WPA2). You have to be connected to the regular T-Mobile network only.
- You have to have a Google email account or sign up for one before you can use the phone. I had one already (which I don’t really use). Still, that’s a ridiculous requirement.
- There are a lot of times when you’re confronted with a screen and no immediately obvious way to proceed (no submit or enter button, no next or finish button). At first I just got kind of confused and hit the Back plastic key. Eventually, I learned to press Menu to get a contextual menu up, which usually had a useful option. A bit counterintuitive.
- There’s an automatic playlist (what Apple calls a “smart playlist”) in the music section called “Recently Added.” There does not appear to be a way to add other smart playlists, though (recently played, most frequently played, etc.). You can create new playlists manually, but that’s also not obvious (you have to do a long click on the first song you want in the playlist and then select to add it to a playlist and then select to create a new playlist).
- There is no official Facebook app, so if you want to do mobile uploads, you have to use third-party upload-to-Facebook apps (which are kind of annoying and don’t always work) or email the photos or videos to the secret upload-to-Facebook email associated with your account.
- It isn’t obvious how to connect the MyTouch to your computer in order to drag and drop files. I plugged in the USB cord, and it didn’t show up as a removable drive. I checked the output of dmesg | tail in the terminal, and it definitely showed up as being plugged in, but it didn’t show up in sudo fdisk -l even. Eventually, I figured out that you have to go to notifications in the MyTouch and manually dismount (from the MyTouch) the SD card so that it will automatically mount (to your computer). Then after you unmount it from your computer, you also have to manually remount it to the MyTouch.
- Like the iPhone, the MyTouch will switch from portrait to landscape mode if you rotate the phone, but the animation is not smooth at all. First the screen gets a little blurry, and then it jerkily rotates over. It happens quickly… just not smoothly.
- The touchscreen isn’t as sensitive as the iPhone touchscreen. In some ways, this is a good thing. For example, no matter how slim your hands are, the tip of your finger will always be bigger than the onscreen keyboard keys. So when I try to type on the iPhone, I often end up pressing the wrong key (and the autocorrection never works). With the MyTouch, I pretty much never make a typing mistake. On the other hand, I’m not always typing. Sometimes a simple swipe to scroll up or down in a list or on a page will just not register, and I’ll have to swipe again a little harder to get the scroll to actually work.
- Some reviews I read complained that you can’t just plug a standard headphone into the MyTouch. I can see how that might be annoying, but the MyTouch does come with a USB adapter with a little microphone and play/pause button built into it (and headphones that are half-way decent).
- There’s no Flash in the web browser. This is makes certain websites non-functional, but the iPhone doesn’t have this either. In fact, I don’t think any smartphone has it. Isn’t this an Adobe issue?
What I like
- The voice recognition for voice searches is really good. Sure, you can’t mumble. You do have to enunciate. But you don’t have to train it to recognize your voice, and if you do enunciate, usually Android guesses right on what you want to search for. If I’m in a public place, I may feel a bit self-conscious doing voice searches. If I have to do one, though, it’s nice to know that it works, and it’s much quicker than typing using an onscreen keyboard.
- You can easily delete or move desktop shortcuts by holding them down and dragging them around or to the trash. You can also easily add desktop shortcuts by holding down an empty space and creating a link to an application or even to a browser bookmark.
- Any song on your phone can easily be made into a ringtone. Just do a long hold on the song, and a context menu will pop up with that option.
- Apps can be easily installed and removed from your phone.
- Once you do figure out the whole mounting/unmounting thing, the MyTouch Micro SD card just shows up as removable storage, even in Linux, and you can just drag and drop pictures or music to various folders, and the MyTouch will immediately recognize those once the card is remounted.
- I like the way the phone unlocks (press the menu key twice) better than the way the iPhone unlocks (press the hard button and then draw a horizontal line with your finger).
- Web searches seem pretty fast. And Opera Mini is available for free in the Android Market. I’m going to keep both the default browser and Opera around. With Opera, I have it configured not to load images, so when I do text-only searches, it’ll load even faster. With the default browser, I can see websites that do require images.
- The back button (as a plastic key) is very handy, and it really will bring you back to whatever screen you were last on, regardless of whether you are going from one webpage to the last webpage or from one screen to another screen.
- I knew ahead of time that Android 1.5 did not support multi-touch (the “pinch” that the iPhone has for photos and webpages to zoom in and zoom out). I thought that missing feature would annoy me, but I haven’t found a lot of situations in which zooming seems necessary. I won’t complain if the 2.0 update includes multi-touch, though.
Overall, I’m quite pleased with it (granted, after only one day). Most of the reviews made it sound as if it’s nothing special (not an iPhone killer, not that much better than the G1). With all the pros and cons I’ve laid out, though, it is still fun and easy to use. It has some counterintuitive or annoying elements, sure. Nevertheless, even after only one day, I’m getting used to those or finding workarounds for them. If American Linux users are looking for a good smartphone that works with Linux, definitely consider the MyTouch 3G.