The HTC Magic and Google Android: a Real World test

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Perhaps I’m a luddite but my mobile phones have tended to be, well, pretty basic since my first, screen-less brick 13 years ago. My priorities had been limited to good signal quality, long battery life, the best possible camera and easy-to-use texting. Occasionally, I’d look up the football or cricket scores on the BBC’s mobile site but that was about the limit of my ambitions.  The BlackBerry passed me by completely (I don’t like phones with QWERTY keyboards) and I’d had little interest in the iPhone due to its long, expensive contract options and umbilical connection to the truly loathsome (on a PC at least) iTunes.

And then I found myself tempted by the Apple beast just because I’d come across some teenagers mucking about with theirs, leaving me feeling jealous and inadequate (shallow, me?). So I nearly gave in. But I just couldn’t justify it. I’d either have to pay the best part of £100 for the phone (pay? for a phone?) or saddle myself with a £45 a month contract for two years: that’s an expensive and long-lived mistake to make.

Thank heavens for Google’s Android OS. PC Pro has carried reviews of the latest Android phones and my attention was drawn to the HTC Magic and HTC Hero. In the end, I plumped for the slightly older Magic because I could get it free on a cheap but generous 18-month contract with Vodafone and the only practical difference appeared to be the slightly better camera on the Hero.

Holiday Hero

I’ve been away on a working holiday for a week and the Magic has excelled itself. In the past, it’s been necessary to boot up a laptop every day to check for emergency emails, but even that isn’t ideal as it might be hours after the client contacts me before I can get back to them. By setting up a special “emergency” email address and redirecting that to my GMail account, I was then able to use GMail’s filter functionality to mark as read all emails other than those routed from the emergency address. I then set up my phone to only synchronise with items tagged “emergency” so I was only disturbed when absolutely necessary.

Android itself is a joy to use. The Magic uses version 1.5 which is one minor version behind, but it’s missing very little and I live in hope that Vodafone will eventually allow me to update it. The onscreen keyboard is, for me at least, only usable in landscape mode and is less responsive in bright conditions. In general use it certainly beats using a standard mobile keypad but the predictive text is not nearly as intelligent as that on my Sony Ericsson, neither does it learn as it goes.  Call quality is excellent but battery life, as with the iPhone, was far shorter than the bog standard phone it replaced. However, it seems to me that this is the trade-off for the increased functionality and large screen size so charging it up overnight is a price worth paying.

Given the cost of replacing the phone, I immediately invested in a screen protector and a belt-pouch and augmented the standard Android implementation with a number of “essential” apps from the excellent (and largely free) Android Market. I’ve been using Swift for Twitter and Facebook’s own Android app which allows me to snap a picture and upload it to Facebook in seconds. Google’s voice-recognition search works well and avoids the need to use the keyboard at all in most cases. The built-in browser is excellent although, oddly, Opera’s mobile browser doesn’t work properly at all. Android includes Google Maps (surprise surprise) which provides simple navigation functions but for “proper” SatNav I purchased the Co-Pilot app. Given that it was the only app I had to pay for, I have to say I was unimpressed. It was very sluggish in use and took an age to fix my position.

Spotify on Android

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The pièce de résistance, however, is Spotify; the streaming music service. I’ve been using the free Spotify service on my desktop for some time, gritting my teeth as the small selection of adverts interrupts me every few tracks but unable to justify £9.99 per month for paid membership. The Spotify app for Android only works for paying subscribers and I decided to give it a try. Perhaps the single most useful feature of the Android version is the ability to create offline playlists. In practice what this meant was that before I went away I created playlists of my favourite tracks using the desktop client. I then connected my phone to my wireless network at home and launched the Android app. It automatically synchronises the playlists and then it’s a simple matter of clicking the “Offline Playlists” button and ticking those playlists I wanted to be able to listen when the phone wasn’t connected either to wireless or 3G. Indeed, the app includes an option to force it to work offline so you don’t use your data allowance accidentally. A few minutes later and all the tracks in those playlists were on my SD card and ready to go. What a cracking application.

Overall, I’ve been impressed in this real-world field test and won’t be going back to my faithful Sony. The Android OS is slick and easy to use. The only real failing I’ve found is that it can’t be used to establish a data connection via Bluetooth, unlike my Sony, so it can’t be paired with my TomTom for traffic reports. The HTC Magic itself is similarly impressive; robust and stylish it could hardly be easier to use, although battery life could do with improving and I still find myself getting confused between the menu, back and home buttons.

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