Tuesday, August 04, 2009

T-Mobile Android myTouch Review

I received my pre-order myTouch (aka, G2, or HTC Magic) 5 days ago, and have been putting it through its paces since then. The myTouch (stupid, cutesy name) is the second Android phone to hit the market in the U.S. It is definitely a geek phone. I didn't have the thing in my hands for an hour before I was feverishly downloading (mostly free) apps. I spent hours the first 3 days researching and downloading (mostly free) apps. I honestly don't think the vanilla phone would be very satisfying, either to a power user, or to a tech novice. So I definitely don't think it is in any danger of being an iPhone killer.

Rather than re-capitulate the basics that I have read in any number of other reviews, I will focus on the things I haven't seen mentioned.

Virtual keyboard. Every review talks about the ergonomic considerations of the virtual keyboard. What they gloss over is the loss of keyboard shortcuts--to me that is a very big deal. Maybe that is because most people never learn the G1 keyboard shortcuts, just as they never learn the PC keyboard shortcuts.

No PageDown Key. This is a subtle one, and probably bothers me more than most people...a signifcant use of a smartphone for me is as an eReader. Years ago, I used the PalmPilot for this same purpose. The Palm had a nice PageUp/PageDown rocker key. You could one-hand the device, with a thumb on the phone, and read pretty conveniently. With the myTouch, you can try to use the roller ball for the same purpose, but you have to twirl it a lot more, and it is still much slower. Most people will just reach up and swipe the page down, which is a real inconvenience on a tiny screen, because you have to do it about every 20 seconds.

Muting Phone Calls. I use my cell phone a lot for conference calls. I spend a lot of time on mute. So it is very important to me to be able to switch on/off mute quickly and easily. That was one of the things I hated about my previous phone--3-4 clicks to get to mute. So I had high hopes that ideally the phone itself, but if not, a third-party app would provide a super-convenient mute button. What I really wanted was a great, bug toggle button that would fill up half the screen, so you couldn't miss it. No such luck--it is still too many taps to mute a conference call. And the new 2-second timeout to lock the keypad on calls (a v1.5 feature) makes it worse.

The built-in speaker is several cuts above average. It is actually tolerable for listening to music, fine for audio, and loud enough to work okay to play podcasts in the car on the highway.

The trackball could be far more useful...it seems to scroll the cursor really slowly. As it is, I wouldn't miss it if they removed it. What I do wish they had was a "soft button", that could be configured per applcation. If nothing else, that would address my mute problem, albeit not as elegantly as I have envisioned in an app.

Okay, every review talks about two things. One, the lack of a 3.5 mm headphone jack. That is annoying, but to me, over-stated, since anyone cutting-edge enough to have an Android phone also is going to have bluetooth stereo. The other thing is the case the phone ships with. Instead of a cardboard box, you get a zippered, well-constructed case. Everybody makes a huge deal about this. To me, that is pure marketing attention-getting fluff. Nobody is going to carry their smartphone around in a case. But this small, inexpensive differentiator gets T-Mobile lots of attention.

Instead of a nice, but useless case, I would way rather have them include a second battery and battery charger! I suppose one downside with that, besides the cost, is the implication--our smartphone is such a battery hog that we had to include a second battery. Still, that would be a really nice touch (and it's something the iPhone can't do, with their sealed battery). (If they really had to economize, include the second battery and skip the stand-alone charger.)

The dedicated back key works very well--it's applications are intuitive (not just in the browser), and the IU responsiveness is very, very quick.

There are many obvious times the keyboard should pop up automatically, but doesn't. You have to do the long press on the menu key to raise it, when it is very obvious from the context of the app (composing a text for example), that you need it.

I found that some kind of Task Manager/Killer is vital. First I downloaded Taskiller, which worked very well, until it didn't. I wound up un-installing it, and it still left a residue of failed "widgets". I found another one, Task Manager, and it seems to work very well, with the added benefit of being a very easily-accessed Task Switcher.

Scrollling long lists is a real problem. One or two finger swipes is fine, but after that, it gets old. One app, PhoneBook, has a significant improvement--it pulls up a Windows-style scroll box. I don't for the life of me know why this isn't a standard part of ANdroid. Of course that is the beauty and the consumer buy-in of Android. Unlike with a traditional, carrier-captive phone--where an upgrade will only come when you get a new phone--we can hope maybe such an improvmenet will appear in a near-future release.

USB charger. Not that the myTouch is unique in this matter (I think all the new BlackBerrys have it), but this is a key item. Failure to provide a standard USB charger deserves as much criticism as failure to provide a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Just think how simplified our lives would be if all hand-held electronics charged via USB (I am particularly thinking bluetooth headsets).

Note-Taking. I downloaded a nice, free Notes app, AK Notes. This one does have the right idea, it automatically pulls up the keyboard when you start a new note. But it defaults to the Note list, requiring another click to compose a note; it would be nice to control this via Settings. You still can't beat the Palm Pilot for jotting a very quick ink-as-a-datatype note.

Speed. Performance is adequate, but not zippy. If it were 3-4 times as fast, it would really rock.

All in all, I am impressed, and I will probably keep it (5 days into my 14-day grace period). But I am already looking forward to the next generation of hardware and software. Of course, that is part of the whole Android concept--the consumer can hope for pretty continuous improvement. Hopefully Android system updates will not overly tax older hardware, I'm looking at a 2-year contract.

Okay, that's it for the first rev of the phone review. I will add some updates in a week or so, along with a review of some Apps. That's another thing most reviews gloss over. They definitely mention that apps store, and maybe comment on a couple of apps, but I get the feeling that most reviewers haven't downloaded all that many non-game apps. I on the other hand have installed a good 40 apps. Some are true apps, many are phone customizations and enhancements, the things absolutely necessary to make the myTouch feel like an iPhone-competitive, first-class device!


  1. Noelle07:30

    So only non-geeks actually say 'applications' anymore, yes?

    This was an interesting review, even though I have no plans to ever own one of these phones. I can't imagine living without a page down key and I'm talking about for general computer use here, because I do so much reading online. Sometimes they don't work and when that happens, it drives me crazy to resort to the mouse.

  2. Thanks Erik, our T-Mobile conmtract is up in April of 2010 so this is something I will be looking into.

  3. I have noticed that the PageDown key often doesn't seem to work in my browser now. I hate that, I too do a lot of reading online.

    The beauty of the app paradigm is that you can have a reasonable expectation that someone will come along and solve your pet peeve.

  4. I saw a "Total Cost of Ownership" comparison at billshrink.com/blog. Blogger won't let me link here, but the entry was dated 8/6/09.
    Greetings to the entire family from all of us!

  5. Great to hear from you, Lisa! I saw that TCO thing to, T-Mobile did well.