The Google phone upclose and personal

By Scott Moritz

NEW YORK – A brief hands-on experience with the Google (GOOG) G1 phone gives the impression that after a slew of touchscreen duds from other telcos, Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone finally has a worthy rival.

The highly-anticipated HTC phone for T-Mobile (DT) was unveiled in New York Tuesday, and kiosks with technical experts were set up so media people could run the first Android-powered phone through some tricks. T-Mobile will start selling the phone Oct. 22 for $179 with a two-year contract.

The G1 has a large touchscreen, nearly the same size as the iPhone. But unlike the iPhone, there is a physical keyboard under the slide-open screen. People familiar with the iPhone will find the G1 a little lighter and thicker. The G1, for you ultra-thin fans, is about 3/4 of an inch thick, downright portly compared to the svelte half-inch iPhone.

Navigating the screen is fairly easy and there are several ways to move around. The touchscreen has a swipe capability that allows you to flick up and down or side to side. There is also a small trackball-type button at the bottom of the phone for scrolling.

The 3G network coverage at the show – only 16 cities currently have T-Mobile’s 3G networks – was fast. Google’s homepage loaded in five seconds and Google search results also popped up in five seconds. Sites like CNNMoney and Fortune took about 17 seconds to load. That is a fairly standard 3G speed.

Calls worked, and the sound was clear, for those considering the device as a phone primarily.

It is clear, however, that with Google’s support, Android and HTC have made a solid Internet device that combines web access with technology like GPS and software like Google Maps. Applications like Compass Mode, as Fortune’s Philip Elmer-Dewitt explains, gives you a 360-degree street view, a trick that has been limited to PCs until now.

The phone has so-called push e-mail through its Gmail service. As Fortune reported Monday, T-Mobile was considering a low-tier price plan that would give G1 users free e-mail without a data plan. T-Mobile technology chief Cole Brodman says the company looked at a few different pricing plans, but decided that the e-mail only data plan “doesn’t do the device justice.”

The G1 will have two monthly price options, $25 for data plan limited to 400 text messages or $35 for unlimited data. That’s compares with AT&T’s $30 and $45 data plans for the iPhone.

HTC’s touchscreen has some familiar features, like a shifting orientation if the user tips the phone on its side. It also has a zoom-in function that is done with plus and minus buttons on the screen rather than the two finger pinch or separate approach on the iPhone.

The G1 allows dragging and dropping of pictures and text, a feature the iPhone still lacks. The music player was easy to use and there is a direct link to Amazon’s music store.

Overall, and first impressions being what they are,  the G1 stands well above disappointing touchscreens like Verizon’s (VZ) LG Voyager or Sprint’s (S) Samsung Instinct. And until Research in Motion (RIMM) delivers its touchscreen Storm BlackBerry, T-Mobile’s G1 is the toughest competition yet to the iconic iPhone.

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