It’s been a long road to the T-Mobile G2 (and this review). Just two years ago, Android made its entrance into the smartphone market with the G1, a partnership with the fourth-place carrier, and a lot of promises about keeping things open. Since then we’ve seen the likes of the Droid family, Google’s Nexus One, and the powerhouses that are the Samsung Galaxy S line — to name a few. Yes, the Android landscape has become more than just a little crowded. But of those many, there are few who leap beyond what we’ve come to expect from the Google-backed enterprise into the realm of the top tier. For all the Android devices you can purchase, only a few rise above the noise. At a glance, the G2 looks like one of those handsets — designed and manufactured by HTC (and known as the Desire Z in Europe), outfitted with a (nearly) stock build of Android 2.2, and equipped with T-Mobile’s new HSPA+, which the carrier claims can offer network speeds nearly equivalent to 4G. So is the G2 the sum of its parts — the pure Android experience you’ve been waiting for — or does it fall short of the hype? Find out below in the full Engadget review!
The G2 is a tough looking device. It’s not exactly rugged, but it looks like it means business. The housing is made up of two distinct surfaces: a gray, soft touch plastic, and silver brushed aluminum. The overall design is reminiscent of the Nexus One, though more squared off and stately. The phone feels higher end than a lot of previous HTC devices, with little touches like a standalone release latch for the battery cover. While the phone is handsome, it is on the thick side, clocking in at 0.58 inches (the device itself is 4.68 inches by 2.38 inches in length and width). It’s not light, either. The G2 weighs 6.5 ounces, which has a notable heft in your hand. Next to an iPhone 4 it looks massive, though it’s only a bit bigger than something like the BlackBerry Torch or Droid Incredible.
On the front of the device, the glass, capacitive screen is surrounded by a silver band, and HTC has chucked off the trackball for a BlackBerry Bold-esque optical trackpad. You’ve got the standard Android hard touch buttons here, and we can attest to much better tracking on these than with the Nexus One. On the right side of the phone is a two-stage camera button and release latch, on top is a power / sleep button and 3.5mm headphone jack, and the left side of the phone sports a volume rocker and micro USB slot. Around back is the 5 megapixel camera’s lens alongside an LED flash.
Of course, this isn’t just a touchscreen device — the face of the phone slides and pivots up (using HTC’s “z-hinge”) to reveal a full QWERTY landscape keyboard. Now a lot of fuss has been made about this hinge design, and we can tell you that the reports are mostly true. The hinge works beautifully, but if you tilt the phone so that gravity is working on the screen, it will slide back down or dangle. It just doesn’t lock tightly into the “open” position. This wasn’t really a problem in nearly all of our use, but it will be a major bummer if you’re planning on laying down and holding this above you while typing. Besides the very minor hinge issue, the keyboard itself is one of the best landscape QWERTYs we’ve ever used. The keys are excellently sized and shaped, and have a good bit of space between them. The tactile feel of the keys was just clicky enough to reassure, but not too stiff to move quickly. Additionally, HTC thoughtfully has included three dedicated quick keys which can be user assigned to just about anything, and the keyboard has a standalone “www / .com” key — a big help. If you like landscape keyboards, it’ll be tough to find a superior choice.
Overall, from a visual standpoint the G2 is a handsome phone which is well made, but it won’t appeal to all tastes. It’s a serious device, and we’re fairly confident that for many in the Android community, this hits a lot of the right notes.
The G2 sports a Qualcomm MSM7230 CPU clocked at 800MHz, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of internal storage, and has a microSD card expandable to 32GB (it comes with an 8GB card). The display is a 3.7-inch, 800 x 480 capacitive touchscreen (S-TFT), and the phone sports a 5 megapixel camera with LED flash, capable of 720p video. Of course there is WiFi here (802.11b/g/n), along with Bluetooth 2.1, an AGPS chip, proximity sensor, and an accelerometer.
The G2 packs in a 1300mAh battery inside, and we found that it performed excellently in daily use, even with constant Twitter updates, lots of pushed email, browsing, and phone calls. You’ll have to get the phone on a charger come nighttime, but for us that was pretty late in the day and we’d only just tapped orange on the battery icon. We were impressed by the phone’s ability to sip juice even though it was pushing quite a bit of content over the network.
On the display side, we’re happy that HTC went with an LCD panel for the G2, but there are still some visibility issues in direct sunlight. It’s not impossible to see the screen, but it’s not that easy either. Otherwise, colors looked far more balanced than what we’ve seen on a lot of AMOLED screens, blacks were deep, and text looked especially crisp.
Overall performance on the device was extremely speedy — we never saw lag or stalls when switching between apps or opening tabs in the browser and loading pages. Don’t let the 800MHz number fool you, the G2 is as fast or faster than most top-end Android phones we’ve used.
Phone / speakerphone / call quality
The earpiece on the G2 sounded excellent to us, and the most of the people we spoke with said it was all clear on the other end. We had a few calls where the other party said we had broken up, but it was unclear which phone was responsible. The phone software seems to be working better on the G2 than any previous Android 2.2 device we’ve used. Maybe it’s the proximity sensor, but sensing when we had it against our ear or away was way faster and more accurate, and the phone just seemed to be generally snappier.
The speakerphone, unfortunately, was downright painful to our ears. It has a tinny, shrill sound that made taking hands-free calls unpleasant, and was a total non-starter for music. In a pinch it’ll do, but we’d suggest getting yourself a good Bluetooth headset instead of having to hear the audio this phone puts out over the speaker.
The G2 camera looks promising on paper, with that 5 megapixel sensor, autofocus lens with macro, single LED flash, dedicated 2-stage shutter button, and support for 720p video recording. While relatively standard today, these specs improve upon HTC’s former 5 megapixel Android flagship device, the Nexus One. In practice, the camera produces very reasonable results (and is sometimes even exceptional), though it can be tricky to attain solid focus in darker settings. Color balance seemed good if a little washed out, exposure is generally accurate, and low-light performance was decent, with noise only becoming problematic in extreme conditions. As you can see in the handful of side-by-side shots with the iPhone 4 below, the G2 performs admirably, but it seems to be lacking the clarity and color depth of the competition.
Video recording suffers from artifacting, however, and lacks autofocus. Like other HTC phones, the G2 camera uses low bitrate codecs (like AMR), which result in visible compression artifacts and poor audio. While video recording improves marginally upon the Incredible / EVO 4G, it still falls short of the Galaxy S / Wave, the Droid X, and the iPhone 4. The G2 camera interface is stock Froyo and is shared with the Nexus One. It covers the basics, but we prefer the Sense interface, which features tap-to-focus and additional settings. As we said previously, the screen washes out in direct sunlight, making it difficult to properly frame shots. Overall, the G2 camera is solid but not mind-blowing. It’s capable of excellent still shots and acceptable video, but it’s not necessarily going to blow you away.
The first thing you should know about software on the G2 is that it’s basically stock Froyo… except when it’s not. Overall, if you’ve used 2.2 on something like the Nexus One, everything here will seem very familiar. However, T-Mobile (and Google, apparently) has loaded the device with some software you might not want — and can’t get rid of. For instance, Sky Map, Latitude, Shopper, Earth, Tracks, and Finance are among the apps that come pre-installed with no way to delete. Also on that list is bloatware like web2go, Photobucket software which annoyingly prompts you to sign up and / or use the service unless disabled from within the app, and the somewhat useful (though not always wanted) QuickOffice. Again, unlike regular Android apps, whatever shipped with the phone cannot be uninstalled.
Admittedly, there isn’t anything here that’s overwhelmingly offensive, but to have a phone that’s so close to “pure” Android and have to be saddled with software you might not want is frustrating. Adding to that frustration is the fact that Google’s Froyo-standard ability to use the phone as a tether for your laptop has been clipped out, and there’s no Mobile Hotspot here either. That last point is doubly insulting considering the fact that T-Mobile’s Cole Brodman made claims during the launch of the G1 that the company wouldn’t stand in the way of tethering, and Verizon is throwing around hotspot apps like they’re going out of style.
Other than those added or missing elements, this is Android the way Google intended it, which in the case of 2.2 means fast, significantly cleaned up, but still carrying around some 1.0 baggage, like the exceptionally bland music app. If you’re looking for a fast, clean Android experience, the G2 more than delivers, and we’re happy to see at least one device in the market that actually retains some of the natural spirit of Google’s OS.
Network performance / HSPA+
Most of the testing with the G2 was done in Brooklyn, where we have to admit we were not seeing HSPA+ speeds. However, T-Mobile’s new addition to its network isn’t widespread at this point, so there are bound to be holes. Typical download and upload speeds were good, and while not quite as speedy as the iPhone 4 on AT&T’s network, the G2 certainly held its own. Typically we saw downstream holding between 1 and 1.5Mbps in northern parts of Brooklyn, while upstream was at 1 or just below. The results were radically different when Engadget Mobile editor Myriam Joire tested the phone at her office in San Francisco, consistently getting nearly 4Mbps down.
When taking the phone out and about in NYC, we did experience a small taste of HSPA+, garnering slightly faster downloads on a few occasions (with most of our downstream speeds peaking at around 6 or 6.5 Mbps). The uptick was impressive, though not barnstorming. Of course, that’s nowhere near the “theoretical” speeds of up to 21Mbps that T-Mobile touts, but again, the company is still building out this network. On 3G to 3G, the G2 did better than any CDMA handset we tested, but when it comes to HSPA+ vs. 4G, there’s still a considerable gap.
The G2 is not just an awesome Android phone, it’s an awesome phone, period. It’s clear that HTC has taken its years of experience with devices in this form factor and applied that knowledge to this device. From a hardware perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more attractive, elegant, or capable landscape QWERTY phone, and as far as software is concerned, T-Mobile seems to be doing its best to offer Android in an untainted form. Yes, there is a little bit of bloatware here, and yes, there seems to be something amiss with the G2’s potential for hacking, but as a standalone Android device in a world of iPhone 4s and EVOs, it’s packing some serious heat. Every phone on the market right now has its own set of idiosyncrasies and minor shortcomings, and the G2 is no different there, but HTC and T-Mobile have pulled the device together in a way that makes those dents pretty easy to ignore. If you’re looking for a top-tier Android player with little in the way of compromises, look no further. The G2 has arrived.