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Review: Motorola Droid for Verizon

Nov. 6, 2009 (2:43 pm) By: Sal Cangeloso

There is a lot riding on the Droid. Motorola needs a hit more than just about any handset company on the market right now (think Palm circa late 2008) and Verizon is still looking for its super phone. This may seem like less than ideal circumstances to come out with a great device, but the timing is actually quite good. Not only does the Droid ship as the first phone with version 2.0 of the rapidly maturing Android operating system but it arrives at a time when consumers know that the iPhone is not a perfect device. And it’s even more clear these days that AT&T is not the perfect carrier.

If you’ve seen any of the “iDon’t” commercials then you’d think that the Droid was designed to be the anti-iPhone. More realistically it was designed for the iPhone buyer, specifically addressing the iPhone’s shortcomings. Looking for a hardware keyboard? The Droid has it. Removable battery? It has it. MicroUSB charging? Check. Five megapixel camera with a flash? That too. Haptic feedback? Of course. And if that stuff wasn’t enough, it’s the thinnest slider QWERTY made today, it has a ridiculously nice 854×480 display, and it runs the newest version of Android, complete with Google Maps Navigation.

Before we get going, don’t miss our initial impressions of the Droid or the photo gallery. These should get you up to speed.

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With the basics out of the way, let’s jump into the hardware. The Droid is nicely build, there is no questioning this. It’s a solid, metallic hunk with a a good sliding action and sharp, clean angles. The design is in keeping with the device’s killer robot demeanor, something you might love or hate but at least they follow through on it. The 3.7-inch LCD is the focus of the phone (as it should be) but it’s detracted from by the four touch-sensitive buttons and the phone’s odd chin. While the buttons are useful and form another distinction between the Android devices and the iPhone, the chin doesn’t seem like much more than a highly visible spot to put a Verizon logo. It actually holds the microphone and the antenna setup plus it makes sliding the screen easier, but it’s not as clean a design as it could be.

The Droid’s hardware, in addition to the cool factor of the large display and metal body, has a number of thoughtful decisions. There is a 3.5mm headphone jack and charging is handled by microUSB. There is a display/power button on the top and a volume control on the side… all where they are expected. As a perk there is a dual-stage camera button for using the 5MP digital camera which will combine with the dual-LED flash to produce some really nice shots. The battery is removable and the storage is expandable via microSD. It’s almost as if the phone was designed by handset geeks.

The hardware is very good, but it’s not perfect. The single biggest flaw is the hardware keyboard. It’s totally flat and rather smooth so distinguishing one key from another can be difficult. The end result is not just looking down at the keyboard as you type but focusing too much of your attention on it. Given how important of a factor this was supposed to be over something like the HTC Hero or myTouch 3G (Android devices without keyboards) it seems like Motorola focused too much on the slim design and not enough on the quality of the keyboard. Some people might like it more than others, but I’d have liked to see less prominence given to the 5-way directional pad and more to the keyboard, as well as more distinct keys with better tactile feedback. People that really like landscape keyboards might like this one, but if you don’t already prefer this style you won’t be won over (I wasn’t). The directional pad is useful for accurate cursor placement, but given the amount of time actually spent using it, it seems like the space could have been better utilized on the keyboard.

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The phone’s speaker gets nice and loud, which is a must for a good smartphone. It faces the rear of the phone and has a bronze-colored grill which is the only color on the handset aside from the camera button. Combined with a tool like Google’s Listen app or a few YouTube videos and the phone can be a really strong media device.

You can’t talk about the Droid without getting into the 3.7-inch capacitive touchscreen. It’s a big glass screen and it operates at an incredible 854×480, so you have some serious real estate. This makes the Droid really great on the web as you can view many websites at their native width. The touch works very well and there was very little lag, aside from the slightest bit when the phone is coming out of standby where I often did my unlock swipe before the phone was ready. One point that is important to note here is that Android 2.0 supports multi-touch but the Droid does not. Out of the box the Droid does not have any multi-touch features, including–disappointingly-the keyboard.

As for the camera–it’s disappointing. It’s great to shoot at 5MP and have autofocus and a flash, but the photo quality and shooting is OK at best. It’s process that could use some work and ended up not at all being in keeping with how strong the device looks on paper. It you take the time you can get a nice enough shot, but it’s more painful than it should be. The Droid shoots video at an incredible 720×480 so while you shouldn’t expect camcorder-quality stuff, you have the capability to take some very watchable video.

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Two hardware components not included with the Droid are the docks. There is a GPS dock for your car that automatically triggers the Car Home screen (the Droid’s GPS mode which utilizes Google Maps Navigation) and a Home dock. The Home dock puts the phone in a standby mode where it displays a clock and the weather, which is perfect for a nightstand or desk. While the GPS mode can be accessed through an app, the Home mode seems to require the $30 accessory dock. The docks are detected with magnets, so enterprising geeks will be able to hack together their own dock if they’d like.

The software side of the Droid is all about Android 2.0. This is the first device to ship with the new version of the OS and it brings along some significant upgrades from 1.6, though the OS itself doesn’t change that much. The Droid would not be possible without Android 2.0–the new OS version is what allows for the high resolution display and Google Maps for Navigation only works with it. Interestingly Motorola’s other Android phone, the Cliq, shipped with MOTOBLUR, the companies social media and UI overlay. MOTOBLUR included a few Motorola services that the Droid does not have, probably because this device is designed to highlight the partnership between Google, Motorola, and Verizon, as well as Android 2.0. This means that Motolora didn’t specifically add very much software, but they did throw in the docking features as well as corporate (Exchange) calendar support. That said, the Cliq has been relegated to a second-class device and Motorola’s flagship does not run MOTOBLUR.

Android 2.0 comes with a number other perks, most of which are aimed at more demanding users. There is now a universal inbox, support for multiple Gmail accounts, and an HTML5 browser with double-tap-to-zoom. There is Google Maps Navigation, which is huge. The free turn-by-turn navigation system is going to be an important feature on the phone as well as most high-end smartphones in the future, though the Droid is by no means the first device to have it (just the first to have Google’s version). Other great features include voice navigation, voice search, and very nice Facebook integration. The Facebook app allows for the syncing of all contacts as well as syncing of only the friends that you already have setup in your phone. This restricting of data is crucial to the integration of third-party services and while the Droid doesn’t do much of it, what it does do it gets right.

One of the best features of Android is the notification bar at the top of the display. Whenever you get a text, receive an email, or a download finishes (etc.) you get an icon there. The bar can be expanded with a sliding motion and in a click you can be at that text or email. It allows for a lot to be happening on the phone–and you to be keeping track of all of it–without constant interruptions.

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The browser was changed with 2.0 and it’s quite good. Maybe not as slick as the iPhone’s, but the higher resolution makes for an exceptional experience. You can now double-tap to zoom, which is great and it marks a nice change from the previous Android versions. The browser is quick and sites seem to render quite well including when shifting from portrait to landscape mode. Overall it’s a top-notch browser that is competitive with the best on the market. Plus it has an edge thanks to the high-resolution screen.

Combined with the Droid’s powerful processor Android 2.0 is fast and smooth. The OS moves along very nicely and there is almost no time spent waiting for it. Shifting from portrait to landscape is snappy and actions like flicks and program loads are all quick. It’s a really nice experience and while there is still some of the UI clunkiness of Android, you move through it with great speed.

As with all smartphones, typing is important. This is something that is going to be heavily dependent on personal preference but from what I’ve seen the Droid’s hardware keyboard is not good. Some reviewers like it and can deal with the key design, but I found myself avoiding the hardware keyboard whenever possible. Android’s stock software keyboards are not great either, and the lack of multi-touch on them remains a problem. The portrait keyboard is not terrible, but it could use some work. The landscape software keyboard was my pick on the device for emailing, but it still ended up being slow going. An improved keyboard would be a must for me if I was going to seriously consider this device. Again though this is just my opinion–it’s something people will have to try for themselves.

Despite all the software, the Droid is still a phone so calling is important. Here, and with 3G connectivity, Verizon’s network really shined. Being an iPhone user on AT&T based in Manhattan it’s a real change of pace to use the Droid because calls were dependable and reception was consistent. 3G speeds seemed excellent and the phone did its job as far as reception was concerned. Call quality is great and the Droid is a fine device to talk on, though it seems like you have to be careful with your ear placement as a bit to the side or too low and you miss out on most of the sound. Your aim will improve as you get used to the phone, though.

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Users should keep in mind that despite all that’s great about Android 2.0, everything is not perfect. This is still an OS that is best for people that like to tinker and know what they are doing. It does not have the user-friendliess of the iPhone nor does it have the excellently integrated media features. Android isn’t short on tools (or even apps) but it’s not for everyone. A quick look at the music player will make it pretty clear that the phone has some usability issues. Additionally there are messages and actions that consumers are going to find really hard to understand. For example, when you plug the phone into a USB slot nothing happens aside from it saying “Droid” in its robot voice, which it does all the time. To do something as simple as put a few songs on the microSD card you need to go to the notification bar, identify the USB symbol, and tell the phone to allow the computer to mount it. Then you find the Music folder (or create it–it’s not there), and copy your music. Not exactly intuitive.

The Droid packs a 1400mAh battery, which is very good for such a thin device. We’re still testing battery life, but it looks like the Droid is an all-day device, even for relatively intensive phone users. This is going to vary based on your email load, your apps, and your usage of tools like the GPS, but it’s not a phone that’s going to die on you mid-day. The battery is removable though, so while this probably won’t be necessary it is an option.

After using the Droid for about 10 days now I can say that I’m really impressed. It is, in my opinion, the best phone on Verizon at the moment, and an excellent all-round device for the right user. This user caveat is important though because even as Android improves it still has some rough edges and usability issues, but it’s getting better. It is, despite any problems, incredibly powerful and versatile and improving with each version. As expected Verizon’s network was great, and it remains one of the phone’s strongest assets, especially when compared to the iPhone.

Ultimately the Droid isn’t a phone for everyone but it’s an excellent device. Anyone looking for a phone that they can get a lot out of should consider it, so long as they are willing to put up with some annoyances, quirks, and a hefty handset. It doesn’t have the app market or polish of the iPhone but it does excel in a number of areas and for the power user it could be an excellent choice.

The Droid sells for $199 with a 2-year agreement and is available from Verizon Wireless today.

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