Verizon’s Motorola Droid: Some Thoughts

First, this is not a review. It’s a collection of thoughts given my recent experience as an owner of a Motorola Droid. If you want a review, there are a number of excellent ones out there already. This is simply a collection of my thoughts. Take them with a grain of salt. Second, this piece was typed using pretty much only the Droid. Images and edits were done on a computer, but otherwise it was done using the free wpToGo app from the Android Marketplace.

I realize this is a long piece, so I’ve included an audio version (created using text-to-speech software) so you can listen instead of reading. I recommend reading, though: better visuals. Download the Motorola Droid Review (Audio)

There are three things I hear about constantly when the Droid is being talked about. First, the boxy design with the gold accents; second, the keyboard; and third, the inevitable comparisons to the iPhone due in large part to Verizon’s “iDon’t” commercials. I’m sure that if Verizon had decided instead to compare this to a Windows Mobile phone or Blackberry then that’s where comparisons would start, before inevitably moving to the single most popular phone on the market now. (For the record, though, it’s not the most popular platform. That crown belongs to Symbian, which as of this writing still holds over 40% marketshare.) I’ll address these and more throughout the piece. 

First Impressions

Looking at this phone on the net, I couldn’t help but wonder what on Earth Motorola’s chiefs were thinking about when their design team handed this to them and they OK’d it. The phone is boxy, the keyboard is flat with no space between the letters, it has gold accents reminiscent of a state of the art design from 1999, and it has this weird chin thing that I’m sure makes Jay Leno more than a bit jealous. It is only when you hold and use a live unit in your hands what you can really appreciate exactly how attractive and well designed this phone is.

Motorola Droid by Verizon
When holding it for the first time I couldn’t help but notice how heavy the unit was. It has a metal body and just holding it simply exudes the confidence of a well built product. Size-wise, practically speaking, it’s about the same size as an 80GB iPod Classic (6th gen), a few millimeters narrower, a third of an inch taller, and an eighth of an inch thicker. (I figure more people have iPods than iPhones, and I didn’t have anything else immediately identifiable available to me, hence the comparison.)

Motorola Droid vs. iPod Classic
iPod Classic vs. Motorola Droid thickness

(If you don’t know which is which, this shouldn’t matter to you.)

When you test out a live unit (don’t bother with dummy units if you’re actually considering this phone), you’ll notice right away how clear and sharp the screen is; I’m hard-pressed to think of a phone with one sharper. In fact, I did side to side comparisons with the Samsung Moment, the HTC Droid Eris, and the Samsung Rogue and in all those cases the screen was clearer. I’ve heard that comparisons to the iPhone 3GS yielded similar results, but not having done the comparison myself I can’t say. (If you can, then by all means please do.)

The User Interface and Experience

While looking at the screen, I also got a good look at the Android 2.0 interface. It felt pretty much like I was looking at a computer, not a phone. The gestures used to do things like add icons to the desktop or group icons in folders were pretty intuitive, and those that weren’t were assisted by feedback from the phone: if you put your finger somewhere long enough the phone would give a slight vibration, meaning something just happened. This was usually followed with a menu popping up on the screen.

Android 2.0 Homescreen
As for comparisons in this area, if you’ve used the Blackberry or Windows Mobile operating systems then you’ll probably find this an improvement. If you’re used to the iPhone, then you’ll either love the customization–icon placements, background and home screen images, widgets, reminders–or hate the fact that icons aren’t all the exact same size, although they snap to a clean, sequential grid. This holds especially true for widgets which can make the desktop look pretty messy since there doesn’t seem to be a standard size. Very useful, but messy.

This actually brings up another point, and that is the much touted ability to multitask. Frankly, the only reason this is such a big deal is because the iPhone can’t. Otherwise it would be more a matter of how it was implemented, rather than whether it had it. Its implementation is pretty good, sort of like a desktop OS. I can get a list of all currently running apps and jump around back and forth between applications. If one is busy, I can jump to another while that one finishes. Or like now, I can be writing a blog post while I listen to music and get new email notifications. This ability alone allows me to use my phone like I want, instead of having to tailor my working methods around its limitations.

One last thing, the fact that it has three home screens (you can swipe between the three) allows you to organize information like you want. For example, I have one screen for one-touch access to my frequently called contacts; a page for time management, weather updates, search tools (by voice and typed), mapping tools (Where, Places Directory, Maps), and a couple of other widgets; and finally a page for apps I use often (browser, RSS and podcast tools, music and movie players). I wish there were more screens, though, or that I had the ability add more. HTC, with their SenseUI interface has this won hands down.

Applications

Because the operating system is built on Android, which is developed by Google, the software is tied in pretty tightly with the Google services, most notably Gmail and Google Maps. (FYI, you’ll need a Google account to get the most out of your phone.) In fact, the phone’s most talked about functionality is the included turn-by-turn directions app which all but makes your GPS obsolete on the roads. (I still haven’t used the phone while hiking so I can’t say how good it is in the woods. For now, hang on to that Garmin.)

Google Navigation Turn by Turn
In addition to the awesomeness of that tool, I should mention the voice search on the phone, which allows you to press a button, say what you’re searching for, and have the system find a class of businesses, locations for a specific business, a specific address on a map, related items on and off the web, phone numbers… frankly, just about anything I could look for. (In fact, the voice enabled search is integrated with the turn by turn directions feature.)

Droid Navigation Gallery
On top of that (and as I’ve mentioned before) there’s the Android Marketplace. This is where another of the direct comparisons to the iPhone is made. The iPhone currently has over 100,000 applications while the Android Market has a tenth that number. In my case, that number includes just about every application I’m interested in–word processing, blogging, banking, searching, social media, games–so I don’t feel like that number is all that bad, even if 3,000 of those apps are soundboards and fart apps. (OK, not nearly that many, but it seems that way.) In other words, despite the platform’s youth, you can still be pretty productive right off the bat. In fact, back on the subject of finding things, enhanced with tools like Where and Places Directory, I’m never at a loss to find what I want, where I want. The voice-to-text software has proven to be impeccably accurate. Your mileage may vary, however.

As for the app store itself, navigation could definitely be improved by doing little things, like mentioning how many results a particular search pulled up. On the bright side, for you cheapskates and penny pinchers out there, a good number of very useful apps are free. Many of these include a donation version, usually $.99, so if you like an app, consider paying for it.

What About Jailbreaking?

On the Android, like in just about every other smartphone operating systems, that’s not really an issue. Unlike with the iPhone, you can install any Android application you want on your phone, regardless of whether it comes from the marketplace or whether you download it to your microSD card from anywhere else. (You will have to set the option to allow applications to be installed from untrusted sources (ie, not from the marketplace) on, though.) The only fear of bricking you have is from installing a bad application from an “untrusted source”, not from the phone’s manufacturer deciding you’re not allowed to use your phone how you want. Freedom: no jailbreaking required.

The Keyboards: A Writer’s Perspective

The Motorola Droid includes two different keyboards, software and hardware. Given that writing is the very reason I got this phone, this functionality has been thoroughly tested.

Motorola Droid Software KeyboardFor those of you who like on-screen keyboards, the default Android keyboard is available to you in both landscape and portrait format. If you’re used to typing at breakneck speeds with your iPhone keyboard then I got some bad news: while Android supports multi-touch, none of the Android apps do so by default. (I still haven’t heard a definitive answer as to why, although the rumor is that it involves Google and Motorola running into some legal issues with Apple.) For the avid keyboard user (me), the onscreen keyboard can get annoying at times, until you get used to it. The predictive text functionality is excellent because when you type a word, above the keyboard a list of possible words appears from whence you may choose one or continue to write your own. This is better than Apple’s functionality, which gives you a possible alternative, although that alternative is usually right, in large part because the multi-touch keyboard implementation on the iPhone results in fewer errors. In Android, a long press on a key will also allow you to enter alternative (non-English) characters.

The second choice, and for those who must have a hardware keyboard, the only choice is the included slideout keyboard.

Motorola Droid Physical Keyboard
As far as physical keyboards are concerned, this one is average. Not quite the quality of a Blackberry Tour, bur certainly better than some of the others out there, and less likely to cause “Blackberry thumb” than the Curve. The keys are almost entirely flat, with just enough of a rise for it to be noticed tactically, if not visually. Of course, if you’re going to make the world’s thinnest slideout QWERTY phone than the keys will probably be pretty flat.

A very strange decision in the keyboard design was the inclusion of a large 5-directional D-pad right next to the keyboard. Mind you, it has come in handy plenty of times (for example, when moving through multiple fields or scrolling to a specific spot in a long blog post), so I’m not about to knock the concept. Still, the same effect could have been accomplished using less space, leaving more room for the keys themselves, and making the keyboard a bit more centered. For example, when writing words which are very left-side heavy (e.g., dressed, warden, dreads), my left hand thumb has to squish over to compensate for the design. Despite this, and despite the proximity of the keys to each other, the error rate on the physical keyboard, even with my inexperienced, fat, squishy fingers, was pretty low and with a good typing speed.

Two big downers with the physical keyboard. First, the spell checker: I wish the same predictive text functionality available for the onscreen keyboard was available to the hardware keyboard. Seriously, no predictive text? It would be just as useful to have! Second, if you press Shift and Alt, you have access to all kinds odd symbols and letters, such as ß, ¥, €, £, ¡, and ¿. Too bad none of these are marked. Would be kind of useful if they were.

Frankly, this was the biggest issue for me in the keyboard department, and if someone could make a iPhone-like multi-touch keyboard for the Android but kept all of the Android’s predictive text and foreign character functionalities I’d more than gladly pay. (There’s an app called BetterKeyboard but after having tried I wasn’t too convinced it was really that much better than the standard Google keyboard. Others will disagree.) Still, all in all I think that what the Droid offers is pretty good.

On Contacts and Social Media

Much has been said about the Droid’s integration of Facebook into this phone. Mostly that involves bringing in your contacts and matching them with your Gmail contacts (the ones pulled in from your Gmail account; remember, too, that you can join and split contacts). This includes getting their profile picture, if they don’t already have one in Google, and you haven’t already associated one with them on the phone. In a way, the excitement is justifiable: the Facebook widget allows you to keep up with what your friends and family are doing and allows you to post from your home screen. Although frankly, that sounds creepy. You don’t need that much Facebook, no one does. It’s almost as creepy as that Google Locale which tracks you using Google Maps. Of course, this can come in handy if your phone gets stolen, but at what cost?

Android 2.0 Contact
By the way, that shot on the right is correct: you have a choice between viewing a combined inbox with all your email accounts or an individual with one. Very nice, very useful.

One minor complaint I have, and this may just be ignorance, if you accidentally delete a Facebook contact from your phone, you don’t have to worry: the contact isn’t deleted from your Facebook account, just hidden from your phone. Problem is, I still haven’t found a way to unhide people, so as far as I know, once they’re gone, they’re gone. Sucks for me: I accidentally erased my wife’s Facebook contact page. Oops.

Camera

Speaking of which, the phone includes a 5MP camera for your point and shoot pleasure. Pictures and videos taken with the thing can be easily shared to Facebook, YouTube, and a number of other services.

Despite the camera’s 5MP image size, taking photos leaves a fair amount to be desired. Yes, it has flash, but I have a feeling vast software improves are needed (particularly when it comes to the time it takes from one shot to the next, or the lag after the click) before someone can totally rely on this camera without worry of missing a precious moment. If I have one major complaint with this phone, it is that.

Sample Shots:

Royal Painting Garbage Day
View From My Desk Bathroom Reading
Side Note: For the record, unless you’re about to start printing 8×10 pictures, there’s really no practical difference between 3MP and 5MP camera phone. There are a few other things which factor into quality, which is why your 4MP dedicated camera will still take better pics than this 5MP phone.

As for the video, I really haven’t used that very much, so I’ll refrain from mentioning anything about it other than “it’s there”.

On a related note, a major over the air (OTA) update is scheduled for December 11 which includes some camera changes as well as a ton of bug fixes. Just thought I would throw that out there.

FYI: There was a sooper seekrit silent update on November 15 which delivered some major improvements to the camera software. It still needs a bit of help, but it’s a hundred times better than what shipped.

Multimedia

Note: I own a Mac, so this is from a Mac owner’s point of view. Things are probably very different in Windows and Linux (and FreeBSD, and whatever else is out there). The software mentioned here is available for both Windows and Mac. I’m sure Linux and FreeBSD already have tools available for free, although off the top of my head I don’t know of any.

So here’s the big enchilada when it comes to iPhone comparisons. How well does this phone do with movies and music? The answer is that it depends on what you’re looking for.

The Droid is not part of a multimedia ecosystem like the iPhone; there’s really no iTunes equivalent for it on the desktop, though some software can get close. Therefore what you use is wide open. Whether this is a plus or minus is up to you.

On the phone itself, users have the ability to buy and download songs from the Amazon MP3 store directly. I haven’t seen any way yet to buy and download video, let alone rent it (streaming video apps like Tv.com and YouTube not withstanding). To upload music to or download it from your computer, you simply have to plug the computer in via a standard microUSB interface. It will mount as an external hard drive if you allow it to (the phone will as if you want to mount the SD card; otherwise it just recharges.

When plugged into the computer, you may have a media app which already detects the phone and allows you to start managing music and videos. If you like iTunes, then you will want to give doubleTwist a try since it looks and acts like iTunes, or if you’re willing to drop $40, MissingSync, which actually allows the device to be connect to iTunes directly, as well as adding a large number of other features. (Note that MissingSync, as of this writing, still doesn’t have support for Android 2.0, though the company says that’s forthcoming); also, support for any non-Apple devices is uni-directional, so you can download from iTunes, but not upload to it. If you buy music on your phone via Amazon you will need to upload it into iTunes manually by copying it directly from the SD card. (This is a limitation imposed by Apple through the magic of their legal department, not a technology related limitation.)

When in the phone, browsing media is a bit…anachronistic. The media browser has very limited functionality. Not a problem if you have a small or very well organized library, but a huge problem if your library is like mine, full of music you’ve lugged around from system to system for years.

If you’re into podcasts then that’s another issue for you to think about: you’ll have to download those directly onto your phone using an app downloaded from the app market, since doubleTwist doesn’t do podcasts (yet), MissingSync is missing, and I know of no other software that synchronizes podcasts in both the desktop and phone.

With all this said, I will confess that since I got this phone I haven’t really touched my iPod. After I downloaded the audiobooks and my favorite music from my computer using doubleTwist, and set up my podcasts in the CarCast app, I haven’t felt the need to touch the thing. I would still want it on a trip, though: why would I want to waste battery on multimedia when I could use a dedicated device? Of course, if I could only carry one, then the choice is clear.

Still, if you’re looking for a phone primarily for multimedia and entertainment and AT&T coverage is good in your area, and you don’t mind being attached to the iTunes ecosystem, then do yourself a favor and get yourself an iPhone instead.

Battery Time

It’s a smart phone. That’s all you need to know.

Because of all the services, the battery on this thing drains fast. (After a regular 12-18 hour day of average use the battery will be pretty low if not gone.) You’ll want to keep a charger handy, and if you plan on an especially long trip, it’s wise to also carry an extra (charged) battery. Sure, turning off all the services for this thing (network updates, WiFi, bluetooth, GPS, tactile feedback, etc.) will work wonders, but if you need a phone with super long battery life right now you may want to wait a few years before grabbing yourself a smart phone. Services take energy.

Onboard Storage

The phone ships with a 16GB microSD card. 32GB cards will be coming out soon, so anyone interested in more space can upgrade to one of those. I’ve found 16GB to be plenty for the moment, but only because I’ve limited what I put in there.

Call Sound Quality and a Bit Extra

Lest we forget this is a phone, you may be wondering about the quality of calls. It is great. Not one dropped call yet. Nuff said.

The Droid also has access to the Google Voice app, so I can not only receive calls on my Google Voice number, I can also make calls as that number. I’ve added the number to my calling circle to see whether calls made though that number to non Verizon Wireless and non calling circle numbers are treated as calls to the Google Voice number and don’t therefore go against my minutes. I’m not yet sure about that, but I’m crossing my fingers. Maybe someone can verify either way?

Note that this app was blocked by Apple and AT&T so iPhone folks are out of luck.

Conclusion

Someone recently asked me whether I would recommend this over the iPhone were they on the same network. I answered that it depended heavily on what you wanted from your phone.

If you’re looking for a phone primarily for media and entertainment, get an iPhone. The iTunes ecosystem is simply unmatched, despite the Android’s ultra sharp, ultra clear screen and ability to play more audio/video formats than the iPhone.

If you’re looking for a phone primarily for connectivity and communications, get a Droid. With Gmail plus Facebook, all your contacts are brought to one place, communications are merged, and you have access to all the Google functionality, including Google Voice, Docs, Reader, News, Picasa, Turn by turn navigation, etc.

For me, after having used the iPhone 3GS and the Droid, I’d be hard-pressed not to choose the Droid, primarily because writing is such a large part of what I do, and the Droid gives me both an onscreen and physical keyboard. Now, if I could just have voice to text… (I can record notes to myself via a widget, though, which is very useful when the muse strikes on the road.) Additionally, since the phone is centered around information, the search functionality integrated into the phone puts the entire internet a voice command away.

All in all, I’m really loving it. Easily the best phone I’ve owned, and arguably the best phone I’ve used. Of course, considering I just bought one, and understanding the psychology of purchases, I’m biased, so take this with a grain of salt.