HTC Magic review: Practical magic
User interface got polished
We covered the first version of the Android interface pretty extensively in our T-Mobile G1 review. The HTC Magic runs on the new v1.5 most commonly referred to as Cupcake, which brings a few tweaks but most things work the same way. That means that if you are making the switch from a Anrdroid 1.0-running HTC Dream or a G1 you won't find much to surprise you.
One of the biggest changes that Cupcake brought was the on-screen keyboard. We won't get into a virtual vs. hardware keyboards argument - both have pros and cons and which is best depends strongly on how the user works with the device and what they use it for.
The virtual keyboard is a nice option to have even if there is a hardware one, but it's not perfect. For one - the keyboard shortcuts are gone. In the G1, pressing the Search key + B launched the browser. You can't do that with the HTC Magic as there's no "B" key.
The homescreen of Android is very reminiscent of a computer's desktop - you have shortcuts and folders, not just widgets as other UIs have. A new addition in the 1.5 version, which we caught a glimpse of in the Samsung I7500 Galaxy preview, is Live folders.
The main difference with ordinary folders is that the live folders are automatically filled with content. All sorts of lists can go into Live folders - for example, you can have a folder that contains all the tweets from a contact, or an RSS feed, or maybe even a folder with all the good restaurants within walking distance from a given location.
The preinstalled Live folders are "Contacts with phone numbers" and "Starred contacts". They are filled with what you would expect them to be - contacts that have phone numbers or are starred. We'd have loved to see more - Live folders are a great feature, but an uncommon one - and if you it isn't promoted right, it might not pick up at all.
Another inhabitants of the Android homescreen are the widgets. There are two new preinstalled widgets that come with the HTC Magic - calendar and music player. The music player widget is simple enough - has a play/pause button, a next track button and shows the currently running track name.
The calendar widget is a little limited - it only shows upcoming events. That's nice since it manages to fit even long event descriptions but it doesn't show a monthly view mode, which is our preferred option on other UIs. TouchWiz, for example, shows a small image of the current month and tapping it makes the widget expand to fill almost the entire screen.
Tapping a widget to expand it to a bigger and more functional version is a great idea that didn't make it into this version of Android. It'd have been pretty useful to have onboard - it might have saved the users a few "No more room on this homescreen" messages.
The shortcuts, which have been around pretty much since the Graphical User Interface was invented, are here and despite their age they are still quite useful. A shortcut can lead to an app, a website, a contact (in which case the contacts picture is used as an icon), or even a playlist.
Putting contact shortcuts in a nice way of organizing your favorites, but in eyecandy terms, a folder with shortcuts is no match for, say, Photo contacs on TouchWiz.
One big advantage of Android is the notification area. As with the G1, there's a thin bar at the top of the screen with status info about battery, signal strength and others such as Bluetooth or missed events.
But if you slide it down you get a list of all recent notifications - that's the so called notifications area. Tapping one of the listed notifications takes a context relevant action - for instance, a tap on a notification of a successful installation would launch that application; a finished download notification will open the file and so on.
Since you can open the notification area from wherever the top bar is visible, new events won't interrupt your work. You can slide the tray down like a window blind just enough to see more details about what has happened and if it doesn't need your immediate atention you can let it slide back up and continue where you left off.
Android has some peculiarities too. It doesn't recognize the concept of "running" and "closed" applications. Instead it gives the impression that all apps are running all the time. The system may close an app that runs in the background to preserve resources but as soon as the user selects it again Android will restore it to its previous state so that the user never knows the app had actually been closed.
Here might be a good place to say that there are actually two different versions of the HTC Magic. One has 288 MB of RAM, while the other comes with only 192MB. We had the former version for this review and we are pleased to say that all this background activity doesn't lead to any hang-ups or slowdowns.
Holding down the Home key brings up a kind of "task switcher". It's not really a task switcher, though, as some of the applications you've already started may no longer appear running for the reasons described above. Still, the task switcher is useful as it gives you access to the six most recently used apps.
Gesture lock, the secret handshake
Gesture locks are gaining momentum and a cutting-edge OS like Android is bound to have them. While some versions require that the pattern is a letter, the Android way is to draw a pattern. The phone can be set to require a preset pattern of onscreen sweeps each time you're unlocking it.
The way it works is you're presented with a 3 x 3 grid of dots and you have to connect at least four dots in whatever order you choose. We'd advise against using too complex shapes, as you have to draw the shape again if you are to cancel or change it, so forgetting it would be an issue.
You can choose to have haptics enabled so with a little training you can unlock the phone without looking at the grid. There's even an option to disable the trail that connects the dots completing the pattern.
The letter-based locks have the advantage of different letters doing different things - not just unlock, but even launch an app. Android doesn't have it yet but maybe it will get it in the next dessert-named version.