It goes by many names. The HTC Magic on Vodafone here in the UK, Google Ion, when handed out as a freebie at the search giant’s developer conference, and the myTouch 3G on T-Mobile in the states. But, whichever way you slice it, the second Android-powered Google phone, manufactured by HTC, is an improvement over the original T-Mobile G1 in almost every way.
Where the original G1 is clunky, in part due to its death-trap of a slide-out keyboard – OK I exaggerate but only slightly – the HTC Magic is relatively slim with subtle curves and a much reduced “chin”, which is a universal complaint of the G1.
Of course, without a physical keyboard, the Magic has to compromise with an on-screen QWERTY – more on that below – but doesn’t do away with hardware keys altogether. There’s call start and end, as well as ‘home’, ‘search’ (it is a “with Google” phone after all) and dedicated ‘menu’ and ‘back’ buttons. These, particularly the latter two, when combined with the clickable BlackBerry-style scroll ball means that, for the most part, the Magic can be operated one-handed. This is something that I struggle with on the iPhone and many other touch-screen only devices, and the slightly narrower width of the phone – due to its smaller 3.2 inch screen – also makes it more comfortable to hold in one hand and that bit more pocketable, although, admittedly, this is very subjective.
On the Magic’s touch screen itself, it’s a joy to use. Like the iPhone, it’s capacitive rather resistive, responding to the natural electrical charges emitted by a finger rather than using pressure to register a touch. It’s bright with vibrant colors and, despite being smaller, the screen resolution also matches the iPhone’s 480 x 320. One thing I noticed, however, is that the touchscreen doesn’t seem quite as responsive near the edges. Finger smudges also quickly become an issue but this is common with all touch screen (and even some non-touch screen) models.
A few immediate complaints hardware-wise: The 3.2 megapixel camera is very average – and that’s being generous – and HTC’s insistence on omitting a standard 3.5 inch headphone jack in place of its all-in-one USB port used for headphones, charging and data transfer, makes a mockery of the phone’s media playback ambitions (the included buds are lousy). There’s also very little on-board storage, and although Vodafone’s Magic offering does come with a 2GB microSD card, it wasn’t long before I replaced it with an 8GB one.
On the software-side, and this is increasingly the battleground for today’s smartphones-come-mini computers, the HTC Magic uses the latest “Cupcake” 1.5 version of Android, which introduces a number of UI improvements, new features (such as video recording) and of course that virtual keyboard.
Talking of which, it’s pretty good as far as on-screen keyboards go (I’m not generally a fan). The auto-suggestion feature works well, offering a number of suitable choices in a strip just above and haptic feedback (a slight vibration) can be optionally turned on. When the phone is in portrait mode the keyboard is pretty cramped, switching over to landscape naturally works a lot better.
As you’d expect from a part Google branded phone, integration with the search giant’s own PIM apps is seamless. Just enter your Gmail credentials, and email, calendar and contacts are synced over-the-air, including their avatars, which show up in the Magic’s address book and caller ID. It works just like Apple’s MobileMe but without the cost. Updates can be constantly pushed to the phone in the background or can be toggled on or off on a per-application basis.
There’s also a very robust and feature-rich version of Google Maps, including street view and the location-aware social network Latitude. Using the phone’s built-in compass you can also operate street view as if you are there, which is fun if a bit gimmicky.
Photos taken with the phone’s camera can be uploaded to Picasa and videos shot, to YouTube. There’s also a native client for the video sharing site, with the option to view in low or high quality. The former is designed to conserve bandwidth when on 3G, the latter more suited to WiFi. All very nice, all very Google.
Third-party apps are a bit of mixed bag. There’s tons of potential and the Android Market, Google’s own app store, is really easy to use and has certainly filled up since I first looked at the G1. Having said that, I challenged my iPhone touting friend to pick 10 of his most used third-party iPhone apps and I’d try and find an equivalent on the Magic. For the most part I succeeded – streaming radio, podcast client, Twitter, London Underground status, cinema times etc. – but the iPhone choices are many and a great deal more polished.
This reflects not only the success of Apple in attracting developers to the iPhone but also perhaps the different approaches the developer tools take themselves. Apple, I’m told, provides a lot more out-of-the-box help with UI / look and feel than Android does.
A few areas where the Magic definitely trumps the iPhone: The app store (Android Market) feels more open, so for example, there’s a BitTorrent remote control app that has the same functionality that got a similar app banned from the iPhone App Store. You can also bypass the store altogether and download apps from anywhere on the web if you’re willing to ignore the security warnings.
The Magic, when plugged into a computer can be put into USB mass storage mode so that the phone shows up as a USB hard drive for easy transfer both ways of music, photos, video or any other file type. In other words, you don’t need to be tethered to iTunes. Media playback is pretty much on-par with the iPhone in terms of file format support – sans DRM – and any MP4 video file I threw at it that had been formatted for iPhone/iPod just worked.
Sadly, though, you can’t transfer files via Bluetooth to a PC or other phone, one sign of Android’s immaturity as a mobile OS.
Multi-tasking and background notifications is another area were the Magic performs well, and prior to iPhone OS 3.0, definitely beats Cupertino’s best efforts. However, I’m not sure this is the case anymore. Although the iPhone’s ‘push’ solution is still a bit of a fudge for managing multitasking and notifications, judging by the Magic’s limited battery life – if background syncing is on for Google apps and third-party goodness, let alone home screen widgets that pull in data from the web – Apple could be right in limiting the way the iPhone handles its always-on connectivity.
I also think Android’s notification system is kind of inefficient. An icon appears at the top of the screen to indicate a new email, for example, but you still need to drag that draw open to view the first line and click on it to launch the phone’s Gmail app where you’re taken not to the full email message itself but to the in-box. Worse still, the Magic’s home screen doesn’t show the most recent emails either, even though there are numerous home screen widgets for almost everything else (weather, twitter etc.)
I’ve purposely left the best to last. The Magic’s Android web browser is closest to iPhone’s yet, although I haven’t tried the Palm Pre, which also gets favorable comparisons. Admittedly, there’s no multi-touch (pinch to zoom) or double tapping but the on-screen zoom in and out controls that appear when you move around the page work fine. You can also copy and paste links, save images, open multiple windows but, frankly, its the speed and quality of rendering and the fluidity when scrolling or moving around the page that impresses most.
Again, like the iPhone, Flash isn’t supported, although the included YouTube client and other available third-party video apps (StumbleUpon, iPlayer etc.) go someway in making up for this.
Bottom line: if you want a phone to surf the web on and can’t afford the expense of an iPhone, or are already overly reliant on Google apps (that’s me by the way), you won’t be disappointed with the HTC Magic.