Verizon's Droid reboots its smartphone business
Whatever happened to the Verizon Wireless we knew -- the carrier with the great network but the boring, uncompetitive phones, the company that never met a phone feature it didn't want to limit or disable?
The Motorola Droid, this carrier's first phone to run Google's Android software, doesn't come from the Verizon I've gotten used to. As I write in today's column, this phone reboots the company's presence in the smartphone industry.
The Droid isn't cheap, at $299.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate and with service starting at $69.98 before text messaging and visual voicemail. But like the first Apple iPhone, it justifies that price and lives up to its advance billing with its fusion of advanced hardware and smart, capable software.
Let me share a few more details about the Droid that I didn't have room to get into in the column:
* The camera's LED flash is a lot brighter than most cameraphone flashes. Learn from my experience: Don't test this thing's performance by taking a self-portrait. (For a look at how the Droid's camera compares with that of the iPhone 3GS, see this collection of sample shots on Flickr.)
* The Droid's physical keyboard is pretty big, as phone keyboards go -- if you're used to hammering away on the skinny keyboard of a Research in Motion BlackBerry or a Palm Treo or Centro, you may find that your thumbs aren't used to all the horizontal travel this device entails.
* The Droid's screen, at 854 by 480 pixels, has a substantially higher resolution than the iPhone's 480-by-320 LCD -- and you can easily notice the difference if you bring up the same page on both phones. On the Droid, text appears sharper and fine details in photos aren't blurred or bitmapped out.
* Without multi-touch gestures to zoom in or out of Web pages, the Droid limits you to double-tapping the screen to zoom in --most of the time, its browser correctly zooms in just enough to have a column of text fill the screen -- and plus- and minus-sign buttons. They work, but they're not nearly as fun or flexible as multi-touch. (Android allows outside developers to add multi-touch capability, which is how Sprint's HTC Hero includes it in its browser.)
* To go with its new navigation software visible in the photo above, the Droid includes a helpful "Car Home" interface that replaces its usual home screen with a strip of five large icons (Voice Search, Navigation, View Map, Contacts and Search), all easily selected with a fingertip when the phone is in a car cradle.
* The Droid's default notification alert is a robotic voice saying "Droid." You will want to turn that off, unless you want to advertise your choice of phone to bystanders every time a new e-mail arrives.
* The Droid's e-mail software worked with both my home and work accounts and includes a "Combined Inbox" view of all your incoming traffic. But as I noted in the review, it balked at opening a few random attachments. It opened most PDFs but said others "cannot be displayed," then coughed up the same error with a Word and an Excel file -- right after properly displaying word-processing and spreadsheet documents saved in Microsoft's newer, less widely supported Office 2007 formats.
I have to think that bug-fix updates will address those issues -- and considering how rapidly Android has advanced over the past year, I don't think we'll have to wait too long for the necessary patches.
Other reviewers share my high opinion of this device.
At the Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg compliments the Droid, although he didn't appreciate the physical keyboard. Read through to the end of the piece to see his assessment of the Droid's optional car cradle and home dock, two accessories I haven't been able to try out.
In the New York Times, David Pogue applauds the Droid as well but identifies two shortcomings in how it deals with add-on applications: You can't shop for apps on a computer, and you can install them only in the Droid's limited internal memory.
PC Magazine's Sascha Segan compares the Droid wityh, in succession, every other Android phone available in the U.S. (in addition to the Cliq and the Moment, T-Mobile's G1 and myTouch 3G and Sprint's HTC Hero), Research in Motion's BlackBerry Storm 2 and HTC's Windows Mobile 6.5-based Imagio, and the iPhone. (He pronounces it better than all those competitors save the iPhone, which he sees as slightly superior.)
Have any other questions about this, or about Android phones in general? Fire away in the comments ... and read on after the jump for my assessments of two other new Android phones.
Alongside the Droid, I've been trying out two other devices running Google's software: the Samsung Moment, sold by Sprint for $279.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate, and the Motorola Cliq, offered by T-Mobile for $199.99.
The Moment (at the bottom left of the photo) and the Cliq (at the top right) include the same kind of slide-out keyboard as the Droid (top left), but each is thicker. The Moment's keyboard features a separate row of numerical keys, freeing you from the need to hit an Alt key to type numbers; the Cliq keys' raised bumps make them a little easier to type on. The Moment offers a slightly faster processor than the Cliq, but both run slower than the Droid -- with all three phones on about the same signal strength, the Droid loaded the same Web page a few seconds before the Moment, which in turn finished the job a second or two faster than the Cliq.
The Moment's screen outshines the Droid's, literally, thanks to its bright AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) technology. But it can't outdraw the Motorola device with its 320-by-480 resolution. A small, rounded black shape below that display turns out to be a miniature joystick, which can help you zip to some tightly spaced Web links faster than touching the screen.
The Cliq's distinctive feature is extra software from Motorola that can link it to such social networks as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. But this program consistently refused to accept my Facebook username and password.
T-Mobile says the Cliq provides six hours of talk time and Sprint says the Moment will run for "up to 5.5 hours" (while Samsung claims only "up to 5 hours"); I haven't had time to verify those figures in my own testing. Each device comes with a 2 GB SD memory card.
Neither phone includes the Android 2.0 software of the Droid, or even the 1.6 version; instead, they ship with the 1.5 release that arrived back in the spring. It's unclear when software updates for these phones might arrive; T-Mobile says it plans to do so but hasn't released details, while Sprint has yet to make any statement.
Some clarity from each company on that point might help these phones compete better with the Droid. As is, they're no better than second-best choices.
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