When APC gets the latest smartphone we don't just have a cursory play with it. We give it a thorough roasting, a grilling, a pounding with our thumbs... heck, a few flecks of spittle may even land on the device. Here's our in-depth review of the Australian HTC Dream.
It’s not often that the Yanks get a smartphone before we do. Apple did it with the original iPhone, and last October, HTC did it with the Dream, which was dubbed the T-Mobile G1 but widely referred to as ‘the GooglePhone’ because of its strong software ties to the Internet juggernaut.
The HTC Dream is the first smartphone to run the open source Android operating system, developed by the Open Handset Alliance (a Google-led consortium of 47 companies including HTC, Intel, Motorola, Samsung, LG and Qualcomm). It’s also the first handset we’ve seen from HTC that runs something other than Windows Mobile. We're guessing there are a bunch of engineers at HTC breathing a sigh of relief that they can finally stretch their wings and use something other than WinMo in their handsets.
The HTC Dream has a lot of strengths – which we’ll get to in a moment – but sex appeal isn’t one of them. To look at, it bears a close resemblance to one of HTC’s older smartphones, with a touchscreen dominating the front and a QWERTY keyboard that slides out from behind the display.
But it’s not a completely recycled design; the screen is a larger 3.2 inches with a 320 x 480-pixel resolution (previous models stuck to the 2.8-inch 240 x 320 formula), there’s a trackball to supplement the touch navigation, and there are subtle changes to the hardware that sees the screen sliding up in an arc motion and a row of hardware buttons that tilt forward at a slight angle.
Bucking against the trend of small and sleek devices, the HTC Dream is a positively brick-like, weighing a portly 158g. It’s also longer and thicker than most other phones, measuring 117mm long and 17.1mm thick. By comparison, the iPhone 3G (which isn’t exactly the poster child of portability but is at least relatively thin) weighs only 133g and measures 115mm long and 12.3mm thick.
Then again, the HTC Dream also comes with a full QWERTY keyboard and the iPhone doesn’t, so it’s really apples and oranges to compare the two. With the screen flipped up, the Dream starts to resemble the Hiptop Slide, with a spacious five-row QWERTY keyboard layout that includes a dedicated number row.
It’s easily one of the best smartphone keyboards we’ve typed on; the keys are slightly raised with a satisfying click when you press them, and there’s ample room to manoeuvre both thumbs around.
Like the iPhone, the Dream uses a capacitive touchscreen, which means it only responds to finger presses. It's seems to be not quite as sensitive as the iPhone's screen, so you do have to press a tiny bit more firmly. It doesn’t come with a stylus, but you won’t even notice its absence thanks to the large icons and screens you can scroll through by dragging your finger up or down the display. Nor is there an overflow of nested menu options to puzzle over; clicking the Menu button brings up the relevant options for that screen.
The only time a stylus would be handy is when you’re on a web page that’s dense with hyperlinks, but that’s where the trackball comes in handy. Other buttons include the call keys, home key and back keys, a volume rocker on the left and camera button on the right.
Annoyingly, HTC has persisted with its all-in-one ExtUSB port for charging, syncing and connecting an audio headset, so if you want to use your own headphones, you’ll have to spring for an adapter.
From the first time you power on the Dream, it’s clear that you’ve entered the universe according to Google. As part of the setup procedure, you’re asked to enter your Google account details, or you can create a new one on the spot. The Dream then syncs your Gmail, Contacts (from Gmail), and Calendar with your online data, and you’re good to go. Also on offer from Google’s suite of web services are YouTube, Google Maps and Google Talk.
Unlike other smartphones that offer desktop synchronisation with Outlook and other vendor-specific software, there are no such applications for Android. It either syncs with Google or not at all, which will prove problematic for corporate users that want to tap into their company Exchange servers (although there are third-party apps available that offer this functionality).
Aside from the native Calendar and Contacts sync, though, it’s really nothing that we haven’t seen before on smartphones running other operating systems. The Gmail Java application has been available to most phones for awhile now, offering similar functionality, and Google Maps with Street View is available for all the main smartphone platforms.
The YouTube application is slightly better than the clients we’ve seen on the iPhone and some of the HTC Windows Mobile handsets, but not by much. An interesting point is that like virtually all other smartphones on the market, the phone cannot display Flash in the browser, and that includes YouTube. However, if a page includes a YouTube embedded video, the Android browser substitutes that with a box that looks like the YouTube player that allows you to link straight off to the phone's YouTube player and view it there.
Also, with the launch of Google Sync for numerous handsets
including iPhone, Nokia Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile a couple of days before we wrote this review, which offers push synchronisation of Google Calendar appointments and Contacts with iPhone and Windows Mobile devices, that same function on the Dream looks less impressive, though it is
impressive, and it's just good to see the same functionality getting out to more handsets (thanks to Google, more than the handset makers).
That said, Android’s Gmail application is a lot easier to use than the Java one, supports rich text and HTML, and offers one thing you can’t get with any other smartphone accessing Gmail: push technology. (One exception is Blackberry, which has a special deal with Google to push Gmail users' messages out to handsets, but you must still pay for the Blackberry service.)
New email is instantly delivered to the Dream (usually before it appears on the web client), along with an optional beep and an on-screen notification.
Comparing standard POP3 access of Gmail to the special Android Gmail client, we definitely prefer the latter as you get the benefit of conversation-style email (where emails of the same topic are grouped together in a single thread), labels, and the ability to mark certain messages with a star for review later.
The only drawback to accessing Gmail on the Dream is that there’s no native support for Office and PDF attachments. Gmail renders them as inline HTML files, but you can’t save them as there are no viewers or editors on the phone. In that sense, we wish Google had widened the scope of services available on Android to include Google Docs and Spreadsheets -- or at very least, a real PDF viewer. Given online docs are one of Google's strengths it's quite surprising that they're not available on Android -- it would have been a big differentiator of Android from other smartphones.
It is somewhat evident that the Android email client and Gmail client will develop over time. At the moment they feel rather basic (like the iPhone's mail client) and lack the many tiny refinements in mail clients found in long-established mail-oriented smartphones like the Blackberry.
Other on-board apps
Thankfully, Google hasn’t limited the on-board software to its own services only. Android also includes an alarm clock, browser, calculator, email (for non-Gmail accounts), messaging (SMS and MMS), music and pictures. Interestingly, tasks and notes applications have been omitted, as has a video player, but these gaps are easily filled with third party software.
Android’s web browser is WebKit-based like the one on the iPhone, and we found it rendered pages slightly faster than Safari on the iPhone. Over Optus HSDPA, the Dream fully loaded the APCmag.com website in one minute and eight seconds, versus one minute and 19 seconds on the iPhone. Similarly, the SMH website loaded in 29 seconds on the HTC Dream and 40 seconds on the iPhone, both over HSDPA on the Optus network.
The browser loads pages fully zoomed into a portion of the page;
tapping anywhere on the screen reveals controls on the bottom for
zooming in and out of the page, as well as a button to view the page in
its entirety, with a magnifying glass you can drag over any part of the
page to zoom in on it.
The rest of the controls are accessed by pressing the Menu button, but, annoyingly, the oft-used back and forward controls are hidden one layer deep behind the ‘More’ button.
It doesn’t offer multi-touch like the iPhone (reportedly the technology is built-in, but disabled so Google doesn't fall foul of a patent dispute with Apple), but panning and scrolling around the page is smooth using your fingertips.
Most sites loaded quickly and error-free, but it let us down when it came to Internet banking; it logged into the Commonwealth Bank's Netbank site just fine, but kept on throwing us back to the login screen with a security error whenever we tried to make a transaction – a problem that wasn’t replicated on the iPhone’s browser.
If you’re not using Gmail, Android thoughtfully includes a generic email client for other POP3 and IMAP4 accounts, and automatically detects the relevant settings for popular services like Yahoo and Hotmail. It’s not nearly as good as the Gmail program though – you don’t get niceties like conversation threading, search, attachment viewing or push synchronisation.
Obviously modelled on the iTunes App Store, Android Market lets you download applications and games directly to the HTC Dream. The layout isn’t as fancy as the App Store, but we found it to be just as easy to navigate. Featured applications are displayed in a row across the top, and software is split up into Applications and Games, which are then further divided by categories like Communications, Multimedia and Arcade & Action.
Programs can be viewed by popularity or date, and each listing shows the price, rating and developer – clicking through to the individual listing shows a description of the application, ratings from users, and a one-click ‘Install’ button to download it.
Thankfully, you don’t have to wade through pages of user agreements to get the download going (a problem we noted on the BlackBerry Storm
) – you only get one screen that tells you what the application will have access to when it’s installed, such as system tools, network communication, services that cost you money, your messages, phone calls and hardware controls.
Eventually, developers will be able to sell applications through the Android Market, but for now, all of the applications are free. There’s no approval process for listing applications on Android Market – all you need to do is pay a one-time $25 application fee, register, upload the program, and publish it.
Already, there are dozens of applications and games available for download. Lots of these are duplicates of one another, but we did find some genuinely useful applications, like Meebo for multi-platform chat, Locale for changing phone settings based on your location and time, and Barcode Scanner for scanning the barcodes of CDs and books using the built-in camera.
One limitation is that applications can only reside in the phone’s main memory, which is only around 50MB to start with. We installed 15 programs and were down to a measly 33MB to play with.
The Android user interface is refreshingly simple. You can have up to three home screens populated with your choice of shortcuts, widgets, bookmarks and photo speed dials.
There’s also the main icon-driven menu screen (which isn’t
customisable) where all the programs, functions and settings live.
Android uses the BlackBerry style of menu system, where options and settings are only shown when you press the dedicated Menu button. The rest of the screen real estate is dedicated to the program, save for the system bar at the top: the right-hand side shows indicators for battery, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the time, while the left-hand side shows any new notifications like email, text messages, missed calls and downloaded programs.
This is kind of similar to Windows Mobile, only far more sophisticated, as all of the programs tap into this unified notification system, and you can tap and drag the notifications section to view all of the notifications in one screen.
Unlike the iPhone, Android can run programs in the background, so it’ll happily download email, keep chat sessions open and play music and Internet radio while you’re doing other things.
Tapping and holding on the Home button brings up the last six applications open, although there’s no way to shut down programs – Android automatically manages this for you.
One thing we found irritating with the Dream is that it doesn’t have offer an on-screen software keyboard to use while it's in portrait (closed up) mode. Instead, you have to slide the keyboard out every time you want to enter text, which can be clumsy if you’re trying to use it one-handed.
Given the HTC Dream’s strong consumer focus, we’re surprised it hasn’t got more going for it in the multimedia area. There are simple Pictures and Music programs in the base set of software, and that’s about it. The 3.2-megapixel camera, too, is extremely basic, with no settings to tweak whatsoever. It’s got auto-focus, but no flash or video recording, and image quality is poor to say the least.
We took a few test shots on an overcast day, and compared to photos taken with an entry-level point-and-shoot, pictures from the Dream looked like they were taken through a thick film of cloudy plastic.
As mentioned earlier, the Dream doesn’t have a dedicated audio jack, so you’re limited to using the bundled set of earbuds or plumping for a mini-USB adapter. This really is one of the biggest flaws with this particular hardware design for Android -- you can’t even use wireless headphones, as the Bluetooth is limited to mono headsets only. For a phone that's clearly going to compete directly against the iPhone, the lack of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack is just stupid. Note to HTC: the era of getting people to pay for your crappy headphones when the bundled set break is over; there's too many good competing handsets in the market with standard headphone jacks.
The speaker on the back is decent, but it certainly won’t set any records when it comes to volume or audio fidelity -- we tested it on a bus at maximum volume and couldn't actually tell whether it was playing without holding it up close to our ear.
We’re not sure why Android omits a video player, as it’s technically capable of playing movies encoded H.263 or H.264 quite smoothly with the downloadable Video Player application from the Android Market, and while freeware applications designed specifically for ripping videos to the HTC Dream are thin on the ground, we found the iPhone export settings in QuickTime to be a perfect match.
The HTC Dream is almost as full-featured as other smartphones when it comes to wireless functionality. Almost. The quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE radio means you’ll be able to at least get GSM reception in all the countries that support it, but the single-band 2100MHz HSDPA radio limits its 3G coverage – even in Australia, as you won’t be able to use it on Telstra’s high-speed next-G network.
Even more importantly, since it's only being sold through Optus at the moment, it also means you can't use it on Optus' new 900MHz 3G network, which provides far, far greater coverage than the carrier's congested and slow existing 2100MHz 3G network.
It’s also got GPS, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.0, although the latter is limited to mono headsets only – those looking for stereo Bluetooth functionality or wireless file transfers are out of luck.
Performance and battery life
We’ve really got to hand it to the Open Handset Alliance when it comes to Android’s performance and stability – not once did it crash or show the slightest hint of system lag during our tests, even with a bunch of applications open at the same time.
Part of the credit can be laid at the feet of the HTC Dream’s beefy system specs: a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7201A processor and 192MB of RAM, but the user interface itself also feels a lot more streamlined and bloat-free than other smartphone operating systems.
Its battery life leaves a lot to be desired, however. The rechargeable (and replaceable) Lithium-ion battery is a relatively small 1150mAh, and with moderate use, it can only just stretch to a full 24 hours between charges.
Even with the screen brightness set to low, we only managed a wee seven hours of heavy usage (without Wi-Fi turned on) during testing. This makes it slightly better than the iPhone 3G, but not by a lot.
The HTC Dream has a lot going for it: the Android Market has dozens of free applications and games available, the web browsing experience is top-notch -- seriously the best we've ever seen on a smartphone -- and the keyboard is probably also the best one we’ve used on a smartphone.
But it seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis that sees it sitting in a weird halfway point between consumer and corporate.
On the one hand, it’s pitched as a consumer phone, with easy access to commonly used Google services like Gmail, YouTube, Maps and Search. But it’s missing many of the key features that mainstream users look for in a mobile, like a sexy form factor, solid multimedia performance and a decent camera.
Plus, it’s only available on a post-paid plan with Optus, and even on the most expensive $129 Unlimited Timeless plan, you’re looking at $3 extra a month to pay off the phone (by comparison, the iPhone 3G is free on that plan). This handset is simply too expensive -- hopefully future Android handsets will get the pricepoint down.
On the other hand, its hardware design makes it perfect for business users and road warriors, who are less likely to balk at its premium pricetag, but the lack of Exchange/ActiveSync or BlackBerry sync and other corporate-friendly applications means that the IT people who specify phones for company fleets are likely to give this phone a wide berth for now anyway.
Despite the lacking out-of-the-box support for multimedia and the mediocre camera, the HTC Dream is a very strong option for those looking for an easy-to-use smartphone to access the Internet and email on.
The Android user interface follows the Google ethos of being intuitive and user friendly, and the Market application makes it a no-brainer to install lots of extra software and games. Plus you may benefit from the warm and rosy glow of knowing you are supporting a promising new smartphone platform that will give the ever-dominant Apple a run for its money against the iPhone.