This week marks Android's fifth birthday. On 23rd September 2008, and available to buy a month later, the very first Android phone was unveiled, heralding an open source revolution that would challenge the norm of smartphones only supporting apps strictly controlled by manufacturers. Android has fuelled huge advancements in the last five years but how far has the operating system (OS) come since HTC, T-Mobile and Google teamed up to create the T-Mobile G1? We decided to compare that first Google phone to the latest and greatest in the series, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
Let's start with the similarities. They were both the first phones to be launched with the new version of Android – the G1 ran Android (this was before they needed numbers) while the Note 3 has Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. Both phones cost upwards of £40 per month on a contract at launch, placing them among the premium smartphones. And finally both were launched with a huge furore after months of rumours and speculation.
Now that we're done with the shortlist of similarities, let's take a look at the vast gulf that has developed over the past five years thanks to the advancements Android has made.
The most obvious difference between the phones is in the way they look. Put them side by side on a table and the Samsung looks enormous, because it is. But you'll also notice it's much thinner than the G1. Both of those facts come down to the awesome, massive screen on the Note 3. The 5.7" screen, compared to the G1's 3.2" display, means a wider body, which in turn lets you put a big flat battery into the phone to keep things slim. That means the new phone is less than half the thickness of the old one, making it much more pocket friendly than you might have thought.
It's not just size that's advanced with the Android software, screen quality has rocketed too. Google has continuously added support for higher and higher screen resolutions to Android, meaning we now get phones with full HD screens. That's what the Note 3 has, a 1080x1920 resolution. That compares to the G1's 320x480 resolution, which, even with the much smaller 3.2" size, leaves it with less than half the number of pixels per inch that the Samsung has. In other words, its screen is half as sharp as the Note 3's.
These advancements are all thanks to changes to the Android software. When it was first launched in 2008, Android only supported screens with a 320x480 resolution. It took a full year before Google managed to adapt the software to run on a variety of screen sizes and resolutions.
Fashions change and with them our mobiles evolve into new styles. From the physical point of view, Android phones have become much tidier. The G1 had five physical buttons and a track ball under the screen and a slide out QWERTY keyboard. All of which were necessary to get the full use out of the phone because, while it had a touchscreen, the first version of Android didn't support the things we take for granted. There was no on screen keyboard and no answer or end call touch keys. The G1 eventually got these functions as its software was updated to Android 1.6 Donut a year after launch.
By comparison, the Note 3 has just one button on the front of the phone, a home key. Everything else is touch sensitive. And that button is only there to keep with Samsung's styling; Android can work with only touchscreen input.
The look of the software has also completely changed and is now a lot more grown up. From the G1's first major upgrade, to Android 1.5 Cupcake, the look and feel of the OS was evolving. By the time the G1's final software upgrade, to Android 1.6 Donut, was rolled out it looked much neater. It was still criticised for looking cartoony but the foundations had been laid for continuing evolution. Compared to the Note 3 with Android 4.3, everything from the font to the colour scheme has been changed. The latest Android version has given us a phone that looks entirely sleek and professional.
While processors may be the headline grabbers when it comes to power, it's important to remember the part that software has to play. The Android OS on the G1 had very limited support for different processors, so its single core 528MHz Qualcomm chip with 192MB RAM was pretty much the limit of what the software could handle. The software itself, compared to what Android 4.3 can offer, was clunky and didn't make good use of the power available, further hampering the G1. But by the standards of 2008 it was quick enough, especially considering its extensive list of features and unique interface.
It wasn't until 2011, when Android launched 3.0 Honeycomb, that we got support for much faster multi core processors. This gave rise to the quad core beasts we've been seeing recently and has culminated, so far, in the Galaxy Note 3. There are two versions of the phablet, one with a quad core Snapdragon 800 processor that runs at a whopping 2.3GHz, and the other is a massive octa core processor made by Samsung that runs at 1.9GHz. Up against the little chip from 2008 it's obvious how Android's development has caused mobile power to rocket. Early tests of the Note 3 show it is up to 20 times faster than the G1.
The first Android phone had a 3.15MP camera on the back with autofocus and no flash. It took decent stills but they didn't match up to the ones taken by 3MP cameras on Nokias or Sonys. The biggest problem with the G1's camera at launch, though, was its lack of support for video recording. But it was corrected with an update and Android moved on as it always does.
With the latest version of Android there's not much the cameras can't do. The 13MP one in the Note 3 takes excellent stills and has a host of modes to enhance your photos further, as well as a huge amount of software to focus and sharpen your images. The front facing camera is another addition only possible because of the advancements in Android software. 4.3 Jelly Bean could actually support four cameras, while the original OS could only cope with one. The new software also supports full HD video recording at super smooth 60 frames per second and can even record 4K Ultra HD at the standard 30 frames per second.
In five short years Android has managed to hone its operating system in a way that has completely changed the look, feel and functionality of the smartphone. Even without looking at the obvious software advancements that have perfected the keyboard and made the graphics smoother, there have been massive advancements in areas you may not have associated with the OS.