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Google's new G1 phone announced today is the first real competitor to the iPhone. Like Apple's product, it's a serious handheld computer with a powerful new operating system (called Android) and a clever touch-based user interface. Like the iPhone, it's likely to be a major new platform for third-party software. But it's also very different, and may appeal to different buyers.

The phone, expected to be the first of many to use the Android operating system, was largely designed by Google, and was built by HTC of Taiwan. It will be sold in the U.S. starting next month by T-Mobile, for $179 with a two-year contract.

Here are some first impressions of the G1, based on some experience with a prototype. This isn't a full review; that will come later, when I've had a chance to use a more finished device.

Most importantly, the G1 complements its touch screen with a physical keyboard, the lack of which has made the iPhone a non-starter for some users. The G1's keyboard is revealed when you slide open its screen. The keys are a bit flat, and you have to reach your right thumb around a bulging portion of the phone's body to type, but it's a real keyboard. And there's also a BlackBerry-like trackball that supplements the touch screen navigation. I found typing on this keyboard to be OK, but not great.

A second big feature, or limitation, of the G1 - depending on your point of view - is that it is tightly tied to Google's web-based email, contacts and calendar programs. In fact, you must have a Google (GOOG) account to use the phone, and can only synchronize the phone's calendar and address book with Google online services. Unlike the iPhone, it doesn't work with Microsoft Exchange, and it can't physically be synced with a PC-based calendar or contacts program, like Microsoft Outlook.



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