HTC Magic: Observations

It’s been almost two months since I got my eager hands on the Android powered HTC Magic. Now seems like a good time to put down my thoughts on the phone. Plus, blogging about techie stuff is an easy way to get out of a blogging funk. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice the lack of posts lately!

But first, since this is bound to be in the back of your mind, let me put this out there: I’ve never owned an iPhone and I’ve never used one. Oops, let me correct that. I’ve never used an iPhone long enough to see what the experience is like. The longest I’ve used an iPhone is when I was using the stopwatch on it to time a short 10-minutes-per-half soccer game. I think we can all agree that pressing the start, stop and reset buttons on a screen, however pretty they may be, isn’t enough to form an opinion on the device.

Having said that, based on my limited iPhone handling experience, I can confidently say that the iPhone is comfortably ahead of Android at least in the slickness department. No questions there Sir! As for everything else, ask someone else.

(Note: I’ve not tried the HTC Hero interface yet. Once I do, I’ll let you know how good/bad it is.)

Okay, now on to the HTC Magic. This phone is really two things: the hardware and the software.

The Hardware

This is the first HTC phone I’ve owned. In my mind, HTC was always the company that was in bed with Microsoft and tried real hard to make Windows Mobile look good. So it was a surprise to see them come out with the first Android powered device; Android, of course, being everything that Microsoft Windows isn’t - both technically and philosophically. I wonder if/how this spoiled HTC’s relationship with Microsoft.

The HTC Magic looks great. I like the size, shape and build quality very much. It is a bit larger than my previous phone, a Nokia N73, but not by much. Overall I am happy with the hardware and I won’t describe its every little detail here, just what I especially like about it and what I don’t.

There are two little dots on either side of the ear-piece, one is a notification LED while the other is supposedly an ambient light sensor. I say supposedly because I’ve yet to see any evidence that the phone is responding to ambient light in any way. Like say, by dimming the screen in a dark room. The LED though is neat. It does the usual thing like other phones where it lights up when charging or when on low battery. And it flashes when there are unread messages, emails, etc. But what makes it really neat is that application writers can choose the LED colour! So without even picking up the phone, I can figure out whether I have unread email (light green flash), unread SMS (dark green flash) or unread tweets (violet flash) waiting for my attention. If it is of low priority, like unread tweets, I can confidently ignore the flashing knowing that I am not missing on any urgent notification. This is one of those things which, once experienced, you can no longer live without.

Regarding the camera, I’ll just say this: it is bad, really bad. Then again, I am spoiled by my old Nokia N73 which had a better camera than this even when it launched back in 2006! Seriously, Nokia and Sony are so far ahead in the camera-phone game that it is embarrassing to even compare their offerings with HTC or the iPhone. Yes my dear, clueless, US centric tech bloggers and journalists, you heard me! The iPhone’s camera, even in its 3GS avatar, can’t hold a candle to Nokia or Sony’s phones.

Coming back to the camera on the HTC Magic, I get that it isn’t especially good in the optics department. But at least make good use of the hardware that you have! The pictures that come out of this device are usually dull, life-less and have color-cast issues from time to time. Overall, this is my biggest disappointment with the phone’s hardware, spoiled as I was by the sweet, sweet photos from the N73. I guess I’ll have to get back in the habit of always carrying my Ricoh GX100 around!

The location of the loud speaker is completely retarded. It is on the rear plate of the phone, just above the camera lens. Thus, watching videos on the phone (built in Youtube player FTW!) is a slightly “disjointed” experience what with the audio coming from a seemingly different place than the video. Moreover, the effect of this placement is that many times, if I am watching a video with the volume a bit on the low side, I have to actually form a wave reflector with my palm so that I can hear clearly. Again, the N73 did it better: it had not one but two speakers, arranged to produce stereo output!

The screen is clear, bright and very responsive to even the lightest touch. The trackball is nice to scroll through long pages or flipping through photos, etc. I also like the pulsating glow it emits when there is an incoming call.

The battery life is decent. It lasts a day and a half easily with always on 3G/3.5G, frequent WiFi use and couple of hours of music listening thrown in. Oh, and a few voice calls too :-) It can charge over USB which is great. Side-note: my workplace forbids use of USB devices and although they’ve disabled USB ports, they’ve thankfully not physically blocked access to them! Thus, I can at least use the ports as power sources :)

The Software

Okay, now the real reason I bought this phone is because I wanted an Android powered device. You see, every time I buy a phone, I buy it with grand plans of writing apps for it. When I bought the N73, it was because Nokia had put out a Python runtime for S60 and I really thought I’d soon be writing lots of Python apps for the phone. And write I did: Hello World. Twice!

This Android phone purchase is no different. The appeal of writing apps for your phone, in a language that you already know, without having to fork out an additional gatekeeper fee to anyone, is too good to resist. Then again, it has been several weeks and I’ve not written even a Hello World yet so you could say I am all talk no walk :-) But I am more hopeful this time, simply because this Android device doesn’t suck in the software department when compared to the N73. (Seriously, why doesn’t Nokia just pair their awesome hardware with the goodness of Android?) And I do have some nice ideas that I’ll totally implement as soon as I clear my current backlog of side projects :)

So what do I like about Android? You must’ve already seen a hundred videos and already have a good idea what Android looks like so I won’t rehash all of that. Instead, I’ll just highlight the things that I really like or hate. Broadly speaking though, I am pretty pleased with the Android experience. It isn’t as visually pleasing as the iPhone but it feels solid and works well.

I really like the Google Experience. Seamlessly synced GMail, GCal and Contacts are pretty awesome. The Google Talk client is fantastic. Everything just works. The only hiccup I had was that, like most people, my GMail Contacts were a mess and syncing them right off was a bad idea. Hundreds of useless gmail contacts in your phone address book isn’t pretty. You will have to spend some time cleaning up your contacts database (this bug doesn’t help) but it’ll be worth the pain to have your address book synced with the cloud. Having lost a phone - RIP Motorola E680 - the pain of recreating a phone book from scratch is not unknown to me.

Simply put, if you are already a heavy Google Apps user, getting a Google phone is a no-brainer.

The dedicated back key and the whole “apps are a collection of views” metaphor is fantastic. Clicking a link in Twidroid opens the Browser. Clicking a Youtube link in the Browser opens the Youtube app. Click back to go back to the Browser. Another back and you are back in Twidroid. Or say while you are in the Browser, an email notification comes in. You slide down the notification bar, hit the notification to open GMail, read the mail, hit back and you are back in the Browser! As Borat would say, NICE!

Speaking of the Notification bar, this could easily be the best feature of the OS. Coupled with the back key, it makes multi-tasking a breeze on the phone.

A pleasant usability detail is the way desktop switching works. When you slide one desktop to the next, the icons and the wallpaper don’t move together. Instead, the background wallpaper moves at a rate slower than the foreground icons, creating a much more physical interface.

In the Things I Don’t Like department, the default Music Player comes at the top. The best you can say about it is that it is functional. An iPod it is not. There are a bunch of alternative music players in the Android Market but all the ones that I’ve tried tend to go overboard with features. TuneWiki, for example, seems to drain my phone’s battery within a few hours.

I must note that the commercial Android Market (i.e. paid apps) is still not available in Singapore. Thus, even though there may be good paid apps out there that address my problems or provide some other whizbang functionality, I can’t buy them :-( But with more Android handsets hitting the local market soon, I am hopeful the commercial Market can’t be far behind. And perhaps, by the time it comes to Singapore, they would’ve fixed the search feature. The Market search functionality is laughably bad and coming from a Search company, it is embarrassing to say the least.

I also don’t understand why Google doesn’t provide a way to associate GTalk contact photos with regular address book contacts. I had to make use of the (excellent) FB Sync app to attach nice photos to my contacts. Although it did a great job, it is something that should be part of the Google Experience.

The software keyboard on this phone is not the stock Android keyboard but an enhanced version developed by HTC. Android has this neat feature where you can install third party keyboards as default keyboards. Moreover, developers can tweak keyboard layouts to suit individual apps, e.g. the browser app has a dedicated .com key when entering a URL. The HTC keyboard is nice in that it provides word suggestions as you type. But it isn’t nice in how hitting space accepts the currently hightlighted word suggestion. Quite often, I’d type a word that isn’t in the dictionary and hitting space after my typed word would replace it with the offered ‘best suggestion’. Worse, in landscape layout, the way the suggestions are rendered actually hide the text input field! I found this behaviour irritating enough that I turned off suggestions entirely. Plus, using suggestions while learning to type on the virtual keyboard is like using training wheels when learning to ride the bicycle. That’s no way to learn!

This “review” has gotten way longer than I expected it to be and taken way longer to write too. So I’ll wrap up here by noting that it’ll be hard for anyone to go back to the mess that is Nokia’s S60 once they’ve experienced Android. It already kicks its ass in every possible way and it only gets better from here!