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A Test Ride with the Droid

Motorola’s new Android-based smart phone is a viable iPhone alternative.

Most geeks have been curious about Motorola’s Droid, the first phone to run the newest version of Google’s mobile phone operating system, and the first Android phone on Verizon Wireless, the biggest mobile network in the United States. I took the Droid, which goes on sale Friday, for a test drive–literally, evaluating the phone on a Sunday morning road trip around Austin, TX.

Smart bar: The status bar always appears across the top of the Droid screen (except when videos are playing or the camera is active). It provides continual notice of new voice mails, e-mails and text messages, as well as information about remaining battery life and available connectivity.

Instead of the soft curves and rounded edges brought into vogue by the iPhone, the Droid has a brick-like look and feel. It’s angular and solid, with a flashing green LED on the front to notify you of waiting e-mails, text messages, or voice mails. The QWERTY keyboard slider has a nice, smooth action and locks easily into place. While the Droid matches the iPhone very closely on size, the slider does make the phone ever-so-slightly thicker. The Droid’s heft (169 grams to the iPhone’s 3GS’s 135) also meant that, while I barely notice the iPhone in a jacket or jeans pocket any more, the Droid’s weight was more appreciable, pulling the left side of my jacket down on my neck.

The Droid’s screen resolution, at 9.3 centimeters diagonally and 480 by 854 pixels, is incredibly sharp and bright, noticeably more so than the iPhone (which has an 8.9-centimeter diagonal screen with 480-by-320-pixel resolution).

Setting up the Droid was dead simple. Using Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Talk was as easy as entering my Google account username and password once. The phone can support multiple Google accounts, and Android 2.0 adds support for Microsoft’s Exchange e-mail server, used by many companies, allowing you to sync e-mails, contacts, and appointments from a corporate Outlook account as well. I did have trouble displaying some Outlook e-mails that displayed perfectly on my iPhone, but I encountered this with fewer than one in 50 messages or so–a minor annoyance.

Pairing Bluetooth devices was also very straightforward; my Plantronics headset was up and running in less than five minutes. One feature I could not get to work, however, was the Wi-Fi connection. I tried accessing four different Wi-Fi networks in three different locations and could never get the Droid to connect. My laptop and iPhone both joined all of these networks without any trouble.

Learning to navigate the Droid’s touch screen is fairly intuitive, as well. The phone has three customizable “home” screens, on which you can add shortcuts to applications and file folders, as well as active widgets. Available widgets include a power manager that allows you to turn power-hungry features such as GPS, Bluetooth, and e-mail syncing on and off with a single touch; a Google search box; or live updates from various weather, news, or sports services.

The touch screen is every bit as responsive as the iPhone’s, and the Droid’s four touch keys–back, menu, home, and search–make it a little easier to switch between applications and tasks than the iPhone’s single home key. Though the specific touch screen motions are different, all will feel very familiar to users of most touch-screen phones, including the iPhone. Haptic feedback (a brief vibrating buzz to let you know definitively when you’ve hit one of the phone’s four keys) is another welcome addition.

But to me, the Droid’s handiest navigation feature is the status bar. Always visible at the top of the screen (except when videos are playing or the camera is active), the status bar displays different icons to notify you of incoming e-mails, missed calls, voice mails, or text or multimedia messages. Unlike iPhone notifications, which pop up in the middle of the screen, interrupting whatever you might be doing, the Droid’s notifications are unobtrusive yet useful. Touching the bar and dragging it down reveals details about each notification–for instance, which calls you missed, which accounts have e-mails waiting, or which widgets have received new information.

This ease of navigation is essential on the Droid, since it’s possible to run multiple applications at the same time with Google’s Android operating system. For the most part, I’ve grown accustomed to running just one application at a time on the iPhone. The strength of Android becomes apparent, though, when you decide to search the Web in the middle of, say, looking up a contact or using driving directions within Google Maps. Simply touching the back key or tapping the application icon takes you right back to where you were, instead of stopping and restarting the application, as on the iPhone. It seems like a little thing, but over the course of a day, it can add up to a pretty significant savings in time and frustration.

The Droid supports a large number of media file types (MP3, Apple’s AAC, MPEG-4, WAV, and WMA, to name just a few). It also has a YouTube application built in, like the iPhone, but that’s the only way to access video “over the air” on this phone. The Droid can access Amazon’s MP3 store, and Verizon says that its V Cast video and music services are coming to the Droid, but for the moment, it’s still much easier to get music and other media on the iPhone. It’s not terribly difficult to load files from a computer onto the Droid using the provided USB cable, but it’s a strictly manual process. Every time you want to add another video or song to the phone, you have to plug it in, locate the file on your computer, and drag and drop. Alternatively, you can upload media using the miniSD card slot.

I listened toa range of song styles, from rap to pop, on the built-in speaker of the iPhone, then the Droid. The Droid’s sound quality was at least equivalent to the iPhone’s, if not slightly better–but who listens to music that way? I couldn’t say the same for the sound quality of the phone itself, however. Something about the way the Droid processes voices lends them a tinny tone. This was true whether I used the handset, speakerphone or Bluetooth headset. And callers mentioned that my voice sounded “metallic,” regardless of the input I used. A small thing, maybe, but even though making phone calls may be the least of what these devices can do, I want them to do it well.

Battery life is a huge factor for many mobile users. On this count, the Droid is comparable to the iPhone–not better, not worse. In two separate tests, both phones clocked in at just about six hours of continuous use. The Droid, with its replaceable battery, offers the option of carrying an extra charged battery to swap in. However, with the number of devices available to provide extra battery life to the iPhone, this doesn’t feel like a major selling point to me. And let’s face it, by the time the battery needs to be replaced for good, there’s going to be a shinier, fancier, better phone out there that most gadget lovers will have to have.

Much has been made of the fact that Apple’s iPhone App Store has roughly 100,000 applications available for download, while the Android Marketplace has “only” around 10,000. Let’s be honest, though: an awful lot of those apps do very similar things. Just how many restaurant finders, digital “levels,” and tip calculators do you need? Granted, I’m not the heaviest user of the App Store, but for everything that I need or want my iPhone to do, I was easily able to find a fairly useful Android version–and most were free.

Yes, I encountered more app crashes and general “bugginess” with Android applications and widgets than I have with iPhone apps. But none of the crashes were severe enough to destabilize the phone. The rating system on the Android Marketplace is also not yet as robust as that on the App Store. But as the number of Android users increases, so will the number of developers and applications, particularly since the Android Marketplace is completely open, unlike the iPhone App Store, since Apple must pre-approve an app before it’s available for download.

The one area where the Droid trumps the iPhone hands-down is in coverage. On one trip, I drove about 30 minutes south of Austin, TX, to visit family, and the Droid never lost 3G coverage on the Verizon Wireless network. In the meantime, my iPhone (on AT&T Wireless) dropped a plain-vanilla voice call on one lonely stretch of road. The Droid’s built-in Google Navigation Beta also performed flawlessly, guiding me from door-to-door in two of Austin’s newer communities (which don’t always show up accurately even on current maps on dedicated GPS devices). And because of its full integration with Google Maps, the Droid (rather creepily) showed me a street-view picture of my uncle’s house, just in case I wasn’t sure which one was his.

The next morning, I headed out of Austin with a friend to give the network a real test. We drove two hours north on US-183, out past Lampasas, a small city in the middle of farm and ranchlands. Just 30 minutes outside of greater Austin (Leander, to be precise), my iPhone 3G and my co-tester’s 3GS both lost 3G signal and remained on AT&T’s slower EDGE network the rest of the trip out. The Droid, meanwhile, speedily fetched e-mail, YouTube videos, and Web pages from Verizon’s 3G network until we were about 15 minutes north of Lampasas–pretty much the definition of the middle of nowhere. I’m now a believer in Verizon’s coverage claims, and I think its network will give the Droid–and the Android operating system along with it–a big boost.

In the end, though, gadget lust, an open development platform, and even the superior network weren’t enough to convert my copilot–or me. The iPhone is just too simple to use and integrate into daily life. In my friend’s words, “Even as much as I hate AT&T and dislike Apple’s closed ecosystem, [the Droid] isn’t enough to make me switch. But if I were a Verizon subscriber, it would definitely make me think twice about switching away for the iPhone.”

And a year from now, when my AT&T contract is up, I’ll definitely take a hard look at Android before recommitting to the iPhone.

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