If the Android operating system is to take over the world, it needs to get a move on -- seven months between handset launches isn't exactly what you'd call flooding the market. That said, the HTC Magic differs considerably from the T-Mobile G1 -- the only other Google Android-based phone available in the UK. Not only does it do away with the G1's physical keyboard but it's also turned up on a different mobile network, with Vodafone bagging the Magic as an exclusive.
Vodafone is offering the Magic for free when you take out a £30 contract with a long, 24-month lock-in period, or you can reduce the lock-in period to 18 months and pay a higher monthly fee of £35.
The Magic is, thankfully, a step up from the G1 in terms of design. It's a slimmer and more compact offering, partly because HTC has done away with the flip-out keyboard. As a result, comparisons with the iPhone are inevitable, and the Magic doesn't come off too badly. With a white or black plastic finish, it doesn't look quite as classy as Apple's handset, but the Magic is more comfortable to hold in your hand, as it's slightly shorter and narrower. This means that the screen is also slightly smaller, but, in truth, this isn't really noticeable when you're using the phone.
The most significant difference between the Magic and the iPhone as regards design is that the Magic has more buttons positioned below the display. As well as call-answer and hang-up buttons, there are dedicated home, menu, back and search keys. There's also a mini trackball. The trackball is an odd inclusion -- it feels almost as if HTC didn't have the confidence to allow users to rely totally on the touchscreen. In fact, the touchscreen is so good you won't need to use the trackball at all.
We like the fact that the rear of the handset slides off, giving you access to both the removable battery -- take that, Apple -- and the microSD card slot. But HTC gets points knocked off its score card for not including a standard headphone jack. Instead, the supplied headphones connect to the mini-USB port on the bottom of the phone. This means you can't use the phone to listen to music while it's charging or syncing.
The Magic is a quadband handset, so you can use it pretty much anywhere in the world. As it supports HSDPA at speeds of up to 7.2Mbps -- although you're more likely to get a connection of between 1 and 2Mbps when you're on the move -- it's fast to load Web pages, pick up email and display online maps. There's also Wi-Fi support, so you can surf the Web via your broadband connection when you're at home.
Like the iPhone, the Magic has a capacitive display, which is much more responsive to finger presses than a traditional touchscreen. This is especially important as there's no physical keyboard on the Magic, so all text has to be entered using an on-screen virtual keyboard. This soft keyboard is surprisingly easy to use, and the phone is set by default to vibrate slightly every time you touch a key, giving you extra feedback. You can turn this feature off in the menus, if you like.
The handset also has a built-in accelerometer so that, when you move the phone from a vertical to a horizontal orientation, the screen will automatically switch from portrait to landscape mode after a short pause. This is very handy when viewing Web pages or snaps you've taken with the rear-mounted 3.2-megapixel camera.
The Magic's camera is quite a basic affair. It lacks a flash for taking shots in low light and doesn't have a micro mirror to help you frame self portraits. But there's relatively little shutter lag and HTC has kitted it out with autofocus. As well as shooting stills, you can also use it to take videos. Unfortunately, the shots it takes are only of average quality and video tends to look quite blocky when there's much movement in the frame.
On the plus side, the phone supports Bluetooth, complete with A2DP (unlike the current iPhone models), so you can stream stereo audio to a wireless headset or speaker system.
The Magic uses the same processor as the G1. That's no bad thing, as it feels very responsive in use. The Magic switches between applications quickly, and the various animations dotted around the operating system are smooth and slick.
Unsurprisingly, as the phone runs Google's Android, integration with Google's core applications, such as Gmail, Calendar, Maps and Talk, is excellent. Also, because the Magic uses the latest version of the operating system, some of these apps have been updated with small but useful improvements. In Gmail, for example, messages can now be marked so that they can have labels added to them.
Another Google property, YouTube, is also well represented on the Magic. You'll find a dedicated YouTube player in the main menu, so you can quickly search for and view clips. When you click on a thumbnail to view a clip, the phone automatically switches to landscape mode.
The Magic's on-board GPS also works wonderfully with Google Maps to pinpoint your location, and some appealing extra features have been thrown in for good measure. For example, when you're using Street View, you can turn on a digital compass feature so that, as you turn with your phone, the view pans in real-time, following your movements.
Call quality is also first-rate and battery life is pretty good by smart-phone standards. We got around 2.5 days out of the battery with medium usage, making calls, surfing the Web and emailing.
Despite all this, however, the iPhone feels like a slightly slicker package than the Magic. This is partly because the Magic lacks multitouch. In the Web browser on the iPhone, for example, you can pinch two fingers together to zoom in on part of a Web page, and spread them apart to zoom out. On the Magic, you have call up an on-screen magnifying glass that's slower and more cumbersome to use. There are other issues as well. Scrolling around emails and Web pages isn't as smooth an experience as with the iPhone, and the Magic's menu system is more complex and fussy.
The HTC Magic is not quite the iPhone killer that some people expected it to be. As both cost roughly the same price on contract, we'd still recommend the iPhone over the Magic, mainly because the Magic lacks multitouch. But we can pretty safely say that the Magic is the second-best smart phone we've ever used, so, if you really can't stand the iPhone, this is the handset to get, as it's easy to use, fast and packed full of features.
Edited by Charles Kloet