The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the G1 Google Phone and Android

A one-stop guide for the T-Mobile G1 phone, running Google’s Android mobile operating system. Android is an open source project, designed specifically to make it easy for developers both professional and amateur to create their own applications which access every part of the phone’s hardware.

First Android phone from Google

This update seems to be pretty much as listed above, adding the ability to save pictures and files with a long press, fixing a few minor bugs (none of which I’ve personally experienced, but which have been bothering other people) and adding Voice Search (which is apparently pretty cool). It’s come to a bunch of customers in the US but there’s not much more in terms of information about it, probably because it’s rather basic. There seems to be some concern about Voice Search becoming available in the UK – apparently it has a problem with our accent! This may delay or alter the UK release.google

 

Interim Update (starting 5th of February)

From Android Talk (3rd of February):

“To ensure a great experience with the T-Mobile G1 with Google, customers with these devices will receive an Over the Air (OTA) update to their devices between February 5 and February 15. This OTA will include new system enhancements such as the ability to save pictures or files to file by long-pressing an item, check for system updates, and use the Google Voice Search feature. The OTA will also fix a number of known issues. New G1 activations will receive the OTA up to three days after service has been activated.”

If you don’t want to wait for the push from T-Mobile, there’s a trick to allow you to force the G1 to check for updates, courtesy of a poster on the Android Talk forums. You’ll need Anycut installed from the Market. Now long-press in a blank space on your screen, and choose Shortcut/Any cut/Activity/Device info. When you tap this shortcut, it’ll take you to a screen with a range of interesting system information. Scroll all the way to the bottom, and there’s a button to check for updates. If you click it and it just says “CHECKIN_SUCCESS”, there’s no update yet.

Coming Update – Cupcake

There is a major update, or series of updates, coming in the first quarter of 2009 for the G1 and other Android phones. It comes from the development branch called Cupcake, and will include a number of fixes and improvements and add a lot of features to your phone. It should download straight to your G1 over the air and update easily.

The official Google position is still that it’s ready when it’s ready, but is targeted for the first quarter of 2009. We do know that a very early version was released to application developers around the 16th of January, and that T-Mobile have taken note of the flood of emails and calls about the issue and are trying to push this forward as fast as possible from their end.

Some predicted features for this update are:

* Option to save pictures and attachments from text messages
* Ability to copy and paste text in the browser
* Search-within-text for the browser
* Improved video support – video recording, better playback and thumbnails
* Stereo Bluetooth support
* Onscreen keyboard, so you can type on the screen rather than having to slide the keyboard open
* A reduction in battery drain, mainly through more efficient use of processing power.
* Latitude, a geo-aware contact system

The soft keyboard is one of the most eagerly-awaited features of Cupcake – the ability to enter text via an onscreen keyboard, without having to open the slide on the G1. This feature is now provided by a third party application – dotphone.org’s Softkeyboard, available in the Market now. I’ll give more details and some information how to use it (the functionality isn’t immediately obvious) in my second article on Applications.

Features: What works, what doesn’t, and how to fix it

Headsets

Bluetooth headsets seem to work fine on the whole, but the device doesn’t yet support stereo over Bluetooth, so any audio playback will be mono sound only. This will be fixed with the Cupcake update.

The wired headset that comes with the G1 gives good sound quality, but the limitation of the phone is that it doesn’t have a regular headphone/earphone socket, so for wired accessories you have to buy those that are specifically designed to be compatible with the phone.

However, in the US the G1 now ships with an adaptor which allows you to plug in a regular 3.5mm headset. This is not yet the case in the UK, but T-Mobile have told me that if they receive enough feedback they make well change this policy and even ship out adapters to existing customers. If you are a UK G1 customer, go to T-Mobile’s Contact Us page, scroll down to “send us an email” and fill in the form to let T-Mobile know their customers want this accessory!

I got a response to my own form, telling me that T-Mobile have no plans to make this change in the UK. That basically means they haven’t had enough complaint emails/calls to make this an issue – let’s get on this, people!

File Transfer

As yet, disappointingly, Android doesn’t support file transfer between the phone and your computer by Bluetooth. This should be added with the Cupcake update in mid-January. Because this feature is actually missing from the underlying structure of the operating system, it’s almost impossible for somebody else to add it (through a downloaded application for example) until the update.android

File transfer over the USB cable works fine, although the method has changed from the Quick Start guide that comes with the phone, which has confused some people (me included). When you plug the USB cable in, a prompt will come up on the G1’s notifications area (the pulldown at the top of the screen), saying “USB Connected – select to copy files to/from your computer”. Tap the message, and when the next box pops up on screen select “Mount”. After that, your computer will see the G1’s SD card as an external drive, just like a Flash drive.

Everything the phone has stored on your SD card is organised pretty clearly, and your digital photos are under the folder called “dim”. You can copy your music, photos etc. into any folder and the G1’s software should find them.

Synchronizing With Your Applications

The G1 is designed to synchronize seamlessly and continuously with Google’s own solutions for calendar, contacts, email etc. Therefore there are unlikely to be direct solutions from Google to sync your G1 with your Windows, Linux or Mac desktop over Bluetooth or a cable.

However, there are a number of ways to sync Google’s online services with your desktop, giving a two-stage solution. I’m not going to go into them here because I feel they’re outside the scope of this article, but they’re well documented on Google’s own help pages and on the web.

Using Your G1 As a Modem (“Tethering”)

Hooking up your G1 to a laptop or desktop computer, so the machine can access the phone’s internet connection: Again, this isn’t yet directly supported by the operating system. However, there is a workaround which will let you do it, as long as you don’t mind tweaking a few settings. “Tetherbot” by Graham – a guide to tethering your G1 as a USB modem. Note: The easiest way to point Firefox to the proxy is to install the Foxyproxy plugin.

It’s still experimental and tricky, but now it’s been proved possible, someone will no doubt make a friendlier easy-to-use solution very soon. When there is one, I’ll post it here right away.

June Fabrics are in the early stages of developing a tethering solution for Android phones, and an Android version of WMWifiRouter is also in development. Both will be commercial (but affordable) solutions to the problem, and (if they work like both companies’ previous releases) will effectively turn your G1 into a wifi hotspot without needing any other software installed, making them compatible with any desktop operating system.

Audio Playback and Recording

At the moment Android can play audio in the following formats: AAC, AAC, AMR-NB, MIDI, MP3, Ogg, WMA and WMV. Playback is pretty good and stable in my experience. See my next post on applications for more information. Other formats may be added with future operating system updates, or new applications may expand that list.

The G1 can record audio, and a few applications already use the functionality.

Video Playback and Recording, and Flash

Right now the Android only supports video in MP4 format and from YouTube (not through the browser but through dedicated programs, which are actually grabbing MP4 versions of the YouTube videos), and it has to be in quite a restricted format. You can use any video converter compatible with the iPod Touch or iPhone to make videos which will play in Android – Videora is very good.

Other video formats will probably have to wait for an operating system update, although someone may figure out a way to add formats with an application. Flash support is said to be coming very shortly, with Adobe promising that they are working closely with the Android team. We might even have Flash in January. When it comes out, I’ll let you know!

Although Android doesn’t yet officially support video recording, a third party application does now provide this feature. This is exactly why an open source phone is an exciting proposition – the potential for unofficial third party projects to fill the gaps in the available functions!

Dotphone.org’s Video Recorder/Video Camera, now available from the market, provides recording of video to the SD card and playback with some efficiency. It’s still in beta and a little flaky, but works pretty well for me – although it will drain the battery in minutes.

The Battery

The big failing of the G1 is battery life. Between the big screen, multiple wireless connections and heavy processor use from the constantly running background applications, the installed 1150mAh battery doesn’t last long.

Current word from T-Mobile is that they have no plans to release an improved battery for the G1 in the UK. Some G1 users in the US have been shipped replacement batteries – an internal memo has apparently instructed their helpline advisors to do so in response to complaints – which increase battery life by 22% without increasing the size of the phone.

If you are a UK G1 owner, I recommend going to T-Mobile’s Contact Us page, scrolling down to “send us an email” and filling in the form to let T-Mobile know their customers want this service. With enough users pitching in, we can demand a better device for our money.phone

Managing your wireless features can help. The Power Manager application from the Market allows you to control Bluetooth, wifi, GPS and cell location on one screen, and flip from 3G to 2G, all of which extend the charge on the battery.

The big drain is the 3G – the G1 wastes a lot of power searching for a 3G connection when one isn’t available (hopefully this will be improved with the Cupcake release). I’d suggest turning it off when you’re not actually browsing/downloading – your email etc. will still sync just fine, and if you get notified that, for example, a podcast is downloading in Podweasel, you can flip it on. This added almost 50% to my battery life immediately.

Many users can also improve things by calibrating the G1’s Lithium Ion battery. It turns out that Li-Ion batteries have internal electronics that keep track of their charge level, but sometimes need calibrating, and the G1’s battery often doesn’t ship ready-calibrated.

To calibrate your battery, let the G1 run all the way down, past the warning messages about low battery charge, until it turns itself off. You may need to turn it on again a couple of times – keep going until it won’t power up at all. Then recharge to full and leave on charge for at least a couple more hours. You should find a significant improvement in battery life. This may need repeating every month or two, but don’t do it too often as fully cycling the battery causes extra wear (mostly due to heat).

 

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