HTC’s Dream merges the generally excellent Google-backed “Android” phone operating system with a handset that is in many respects rather average. The result is still an enticing phone, but we can’t help but think that future Android-based offerings might be even better value. At last the iPhone 3G has some serious competition.
The HTC Dream (also known as the Android G1 internationally) is a combination touchscreen and keyboard based smartphone with a sideways sliding mechanism that reveals the QWERTY keyboard and switches the phone into landscape orientation. The front face sports a menu button, calling, home and return key and a trackball for navigation. In order to incorporate the keyboard, the base of the phone juts out at a distinctly weird angle, making this a phone that’s definitely more about function than form. You might wow your tech geek friends with it, but fashionistas will wonder why you’re carrying a phone from 1998.
At a technical level, the Dream is a 3G handset running on the 2100Mhz frequency – our review sample was an Optus model, and they’re the launch partner for the phone, but it’s not exclusive to Optus. WiFi is supported, as is Bluetooth, but in common with the iPhone 3G, Bluetooth stereo is conspicuous by its absence. It’s equipped with a GPS, but like the iPhone, mapping is provided by Google Maps, so you’ll need to have a data connection active to make use of it. Storage is an incredibly small 256MB onboard, but it’s microSD compatible, so you can punch up the storage pretty easily.
The hardware only tells part of the story, however. The Dream is the first phone launched in Australia to run Google’s Android operating system. Android has a number of interesting features that push it ahead of the pack. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Google’s own applications feature strongly, which makes it easy to search, check Google Mail, Maps and so on – but the open nature of Google’s answer to Apple’s App store, “Market” features applications of pretty much every type.
Google’s approach to Market is quite open, which means that applications that are yet to get much traction in the iPhone world – such as alternative browsers, VoIP clients and the like – are freely available. At the same time, Market doesn’t have the scope of applications that the App Store does, especially in multimedia and games. In our tests, we also hit a number of applications that were listed as “free” that repeatedly failed to download; we’re still not sure why.
One of Android’s neatest operating system features is the notification bar, which works like a pull-down blind, in essence. When you get a new notification (a new mail, incoming twitter tweets, or even just an application finishing installation) an icon will appear in the top bar. A quick swipe of the finger pulls the shade down, revealing the full details and allowing you to easily switch to the relevant application if it’s of interest to you.
Android’s an interesting operating system; leaving aside the philosophical argument over its Open Source nature, it’s also a curious mix of desktop PC metaphors and phone ones. Applications can be brought up en masse from a menu screen, or dragged to separate window spaces, and the easy availability of Apps from the Market makes it simple to set up the Dream to your own specifications. We found the in-built browser a little underwhelming, but quickly replaced it with the excellent Opera Mobile, for example. The notification system is excellent and unobtrusive, and it highlights the multi-tasking nature of most of Android’s applications. Whereas with the iPhone you’re basically limited to one non-Apple application running at a time, Android adroitly manages multiple application notifications with grace.