(If you just want the quick version, skip to the decision code)
When the iPhone slid on to the scene, it didn’t so much displace any current phones; it created an entirely new market segment. It decimated the status quo, and it has taken a couple of years for competitors to catch up.
In the intervening time, I’ve fondled and fumed over more phones than you could shake an accelerometer at. None has come close to the usability of the original iPhone. When you combine that usability with the the feature set of the latest 3G S revision, Apple might as well just provide me with an industrial shredder in which to toss each phone I’m sent to review.
So you could say my expectations of Vodafone’s HTC Magic were modest. The Magic is the second hardware revision from HTC to run Google’s Android operating system. The first one – the G1 – was not widely released outside of the USA, and was subject to some faint praise. By all accounts, the 1.5 version of Android – cutely codenamed Cupcake – is greatly improved over the 1.0 version. Combined with this new OS, the HTC Magic is the first phone I’ve reviewed that comes close to competing with the iPhone for usability and sheer fun.
The physical similarities between the Magic and iPhone are striking, but then again, layout options for a full-screen, touchscreen phone are few. The Magic has a slightly smaller screen than the iPhone, and a slightly more ‘plasticy’ feel overall. I like the hardware buttons on the Magic, including the back button and call buttons which make it easier to answer a call without seeing the screen. The menu button also allows applications to use more screen real estate, with no requirement for a permanent toolbar as is common on a lot of iPhone apps. One glaring omission is the lack of storage on the Magic: 512MB. It’s expandable via micro SD cards, but with todays flash memory pricing, I really can’t see why they didn’t solder in at least 8GB.
In terms of radio hardware, the Magic runs 3G on 900/2100MHz, so is practically usable only on Vodafone, and not XT. As an aside, you’re going to see numbers like 900/2100 a whole lot more in phone reviews in New Zealand, due to the similar-but-different nature of the two main 3G networks. In a nutshell:
- Phones with 900/2100 will work great on Vodafone 3G, and barely at all on XT.
- Phones with 850/2100 will work great on XT and pretty well on Vodafone 3G (in main centers), and will probably still be able to do calls (but not 3G) on Vodafone anywhere.
Back on topic: you’ll also find the Magic reasonably intuitive to use from a software standpoint. The concept of multiple home screens are supported, with the addition of ‘widgets’ on each screen. The Google search box you see in most screenshots is a widget, with other options being clocks, media players, and possibly 3rd-party widgets. One thing I really liked about the Android OS is the way it handles notifications. All notifications are ‘stacked’ in a panel that can be slid down from the top of the screen (the devs call it a window shade). Everything is there: sms and email notifications, missed calls, and notifications from third party apps such as twitter messages from Twidroid.
The Magic includes access to the Android Market. Similar to Apple’s App Store, you can download applications directly onto your device. Market’s 4,000 apps pale compared to Apple’s 50,000, but all the essentials are there. You’ll find the staples like casual games and social networking apps among others.
When you really get under the hood, you actually start to notice places where the Magic outpaces the iPhone. Being a completely open operating system, applications are free to behave however the are allowed to. Of course you’ll be prompted to allow an application to access your phone memory, make data connections, or anything else ‘risky’. Once you’ve granted that access, the applications can run in the background, participate in the shared notification system, and access hardware features like the notification LED light or GPS sensor. Sure iPhone apps can talk via similar APIs, but I just got a more comfortable feeling that apps on Android are more tightly integrated with the ‘workflow’ of the phone.
So the several-hundred-dollar (because Vodafone aren’t telling us how much it will cost yet – you can register your interest, but that’s all) question is: should you buy one? Going on overseas rates, I’m guessing the pricing is going to be not too dissimilar to an iPhone 3G. Based on that, you can use the following guidelines to help your decision.
- If you’re a regular Google user, including a standard GMail account, Calendar, and frequent Google search and Maps usage, you’ll find the Magic a fantastic mobile companion. I loved the way all my Google contacts came across as soon as I entered a Google username.
- If you use a Google Apps Enterprise account, with your own domain name, for some bizarre reason you can’t link that account up with the Magic. You can use the very competent browser to access the mobile web versions, but you won’t get syncing or push email. My bad! You can use an apps for domain account with no problems.
- If you use a corporate email account with Microsoft Exchange, you’ll need to fork out money for a third-party syncing application, or talk to your IT guys about opening up an IMAP connection. At the moment, the iPhone’s support of Exchange is massively better than Android – this happens to be a showstopper for me.
- If you’re an open-source zealot, then Android is the platform for you. There’s none of the lock-in you get with the iPhone.
- If you have an extensive iTunes library and don’t want to carry a separate iPod, then an iPhone would be a better choice than the Magic.
IF You = Open source zealot OR ( Magic Price < iPhone Price AND You = GMail user AND You != Microsoft Exchange user AND (You don't have iTunes OR You already have an iPod) ) THEN Magic ELSE iPhone
So there it is. The Magic is a damn good effort: nothing else I’ve tested has come as close to the iPhone’s usability and quality. The Magic doesn’t best the iPhone, but if it comes out marginally cheaper or if you have some niche requirements, it’s going to be a damn hard choice between the two.
Full specs are here, and I’ll update this post once Vodafone deigns to let us know a price.