Gadget Review: Motorola Droid
I have a hate/love relationship with my iPhone. It does so many things right in a way that only Apple has been able to perfect. Easy to use and manage, consistent UI across all apps, and everything about it looks and feels good. And the apps . . . the term “app” has becoming synonymous with “iPhone app” already. Some six trillion available for download, or something like that (if this number is a bit high, check back in a while and it will eventually be correct). It’s a very nice package.
Of course, it’s nice if you want things exactly the way Apple says you want them. A substantial part of Apple’s magic comes from the fact that its products are closed with Apple being the wizard behind the curtain conducting their operation. The iPhone is single-sourced hardware (from Apple) running a single-sourced, single-tasking OS (also only from Apple), layered with applications that have to be approved by Apple and which can’t compete with Apple-supplied applications. The hardware has a non-interchangeable battery, non-upgradeable memory and no keyboard – because Apple doesn’t think you need any of those features. It even has a proprietary connector to recharge and communicate with it. All of this fixed to the so-bad-I’m-surprised-each-day-I-continue-to-use-it AT&T network. Oh and did I mention that the phone can only run one of the zillion apps it can carry at a time (yeah, I think I did)?
For sure, all of this obsessive control over their products helps and, in fact is required for, Apple to be exactly who they want to be. It’s very difficult to create the level of consistency and ease-of-use that is part and parcel of an Apple product without dominion over the entire platform. This product oversight has, in fact, made the iPhone the phenomenon and market leader that it is.
Having a fundamental problem with being Steve Jobs’ stooge (I’ll show him), though, I jumped all over the Droid the day it was released and have been an active user – my iPhone remains dormant on my desk – for the last 10 days. Does it blow away the iPhone . . . not yet. But it’s a pretty damned good smartphone and it has tremendous potential. Here’s the summary.
The first thing you notice when you hold the phone is its weight. It’s heavier than the iPhone. It’s also thicker, although not by a lot. In my experience, these are not noticed when in my pocket, although I thought they would be. Not that the perception of built quality is at issue with the iPhone, but the Droid feels like it’s built like a tank. Width and height are about the same as the iPhone. The Droid wows even non-technical users when they slide out the keyboard. Motorola did a great job fitting a sliding keyboard into such a small device. Nice engineering.
- Speed – I don’t spend much time waiting for responses, even when I’ve got a load of apps running
- Multitasking – Ahhhh, I had blocked out how much I missed having it. You may not think you want it, but the next time you cut and paste between apps and the iPhone makes you completely restart the target app, losing your original state, you’ll know you want it.
- Google Voice – Banned on the iPhone, it’s become the cornerstone for my SMS and phone messaging. If I could just port another number to it, it would take over for all my phones. Except my iPhone, of course, because it’s banned.
- Integration with Gmail/Contacts/Calendar – Seamless. I put in my Google account information before I left the store and I was completely synced up by the time I had walked a couple of blocks.
- ActiveSync – Don’t use Gmail? That’s cool. The mail app covers any POP or IMAP server. It also has an easy to use ActiveSync client for Exchange Server integration built in.
- Free Turn-by-Turn Directions – What can I say? Works great and it’s free. Sorry Garmin and Tom Tom.
- Virtual On-Screen Keyboard AND Physical Keyboard – While I’m still trying to get used to the physical keyboard (it’s far from perfect), it’s there as an option (with much easier navigation within text). The virtual keyboard works like the iPhone’s (see this in cons as well), although I like the word selection options and spell check much better than the iPhone’s.
- Fixed Buttons – Instead of chewing up screen space with functions common to all apps, the phone has four fixed touch-sensitive buttons to do things you often need to do – back, home, search and options. I’m strangely finding it difficult to convert from the way the iPhone does it, but it makes loads of sense. I’m sure that once I get used to it, it’ll be second nature and more practical. The back button really takes you back, even to previous applications (which are still running, of course). Nice.
- Interchangeable Battery/Memory and Standard (Micro USB) Connector – As God intended them to be.
- Verizon – AT&T isn’t all bad. It’s just mostly bad. While I’ve had problems with their customer service, I’ve never had any disaster stories like others have had. The thing that makes me like Verizon better is that it’s simply available in more places. And, I don’t mean only 3G (“we have a map for that”), I mean voice, 2G, etc. I can get a signal of some kind in way more places with Verizon than with AT&T.
- Weight and Thickness – See above. Minor issue IMO, but it might be a bigger deal for you.
- Physical Keyboard – Not quite enough tactile feedback to distinguish between keys and to tell if you’ve pressed a key. Some of this is just getting used to it, I’m sure, but I’m relying more on the on-screen keyboard to enter most text.
- Battery Life – This one could be big. Several nights I’ve had the phone run short of power fairly early. Some of this is because I’m tinkering with it often and some is because I have a load of background apps running trying things out. There is a nice app that tells the user how much power each piece of hardware and each application is consuming. It tells me that the display and phone app are usually the biggest culprits. I’ve turned down the brightness of the display. We’ll see how it works out.
- Rendering of HTML Email is Screwy – Several messages in the Gmail app don’t render correctly with some text extending beyond the right side of the display. This seems to only happen in portrait mode and is not a problem in landscape mode. Feels like a bug.
- No MultiTouch – I don’t use it much on the iPhone, so I don’t really miss it. You can still zoom in the browser by double-tapping a column or using the zoom buttons.
- It’s Not Very Pretty – Both hardware and apps are less pretty than their iPhone comparables. The messaging app is utilitarian and works fine, but I miss the little voice bubbles. Hardly a deal breaker.
- Must Tap on a Field Use the Keyboard – This one’s taking me a while to get used to. To enter text, even if the text entry box is highlighted on the screen and should be the default, you have to tap on the entry box to display the on-screen keyboard or to use the physical keyboard. If it’s the default, just let me go right to the keyboard without making me take another action. The iPhone does this well.
- On-Screen Keyboard Could be Better – For some reason, the Android folks decided to leave a gap between each of the characters in the virtual keyboard. This makes the keys smaller than they need to be. If they filled in the gaps by making each key larger, it would be easier to type on.
- Email Address Suggestions are in too Large a Font – Sounds like a nit, but it’s a real problem. Looks like the font that’s chosen to display email address suggestions (from your contacts) is sized to be appropriate for the display when in landscape mode. It’s too big when in portrait mode and you can’t see all the address – a real problem when the person you’re looking for has several similar addresses.
- Android’s App Market Doesn’t Hold a Candle to the iPhone App Store – For me, almost everything I care about on my phone is already available. A decent newsreader (NewsRob), a good Twitter client (Twidroid), Evernote (beta), OpenTable, Shazam, FaceBook, SportsTap, WeatherBug, etc. That said, there are many missing “apps-for-that (are you listening, Yelp?).” It seems like there are a lot of people working on porting their apps to Android, though, and I’m hopeful the decent ones will be available soon.
I’m concerned about the power consumption and I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the physical keyboard. Since the virtual keyboard works pretty well, this second issue really amounts to not wanting to carry around the extra size and weight of a physical keyboard that I don’t use. Most of the rest of the issues are just software and I suspect that they’ll be addressed to some extent relatively soon.
Bottom line is that there is a lot to like about this phone, but it’s not a slam-dunk upgrade from an iPhone yet. I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep the phone, but I fully believe that there will be a boatload of new Android 2 based phones flowing from manufacturers in the coming months. Unlike Apple, with only a single hardware platform, there will be many manufactures creating new phones and actively competing in the space – all enabled by Android (and Google, of course). This ecosystem is going to move fast and issues will be addressed quickly as companies close holes to create differentiation.
Apple’s Berlin Wall-like, communistic approach to the product line isn’t likely to fall any time soon or ever, in fact, but for those looking for more features, flexibility and options, Android’s capitalism is here to stay. I’m looking forward to it.