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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.

droid_navigation.jpg

(I suppose Verizon's PR types are wondering what happened to the Rob Pegoraro they knew, the guy who kept trashing every device they shipped.)

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.

moment_cliq_droid.jpg

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 6, 2009; 1:07 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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Comments

In the column, the link for "text messaging not included" is borked.
It tries to go to:
http://https/%3Cwbr/%3E/%3Cwbr/%3Etext1.vzw.com/%3Cwbr/%3Etext/%3Cwbr/%3Ejsp/%3Cwbr/%3Etext_messaging_faq.jsp#watsinmsging

Which looks like one of those links Brian Krebs is always telling us not to click on.

Posted by: wiredog | November 6, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Looks like $100/month gets 450 minutes of talk, "unlimited" texting and internet access .

Posted by: wiredog | November 6, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

wiredog - good catch! We're taking that link out of the story. In case you're wondering, our editing software doesn't always deal with very long or https:// addresses--and it responds to this confusion by corrupting the address in the way you saw here. (That's why there's a tinyurl shortcut in the "wrong quadrant of the District" link; the full Google Maps address had our software bamboozled.)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 6, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Lots of questions...

Can you keep your 3G data connection during calls? I heard this is a problem with EV-DO.

Do you know of any links contrasting the display with the iPhone? Or can you post? It sounds really good, I just want a visual confirmation.

Is there already an app for multitouch? And how did you feel about the storage issue for apps? I'm really confused about the storage. Is there no internal storage other than the 512MB for storage for apps so that you need to use the SD slot? And is the max there 16GB? Even so, this might not be such a problem if there is a way to move apps from the SD to the internal ROM disconnected from a computer? (I think some of the more storage-costly games might get over this size limit to a certain degree by accessing data files on the SD card. It is the same as accessing a music file.)

Finally, the camera... more pixels but do you know anything else about the camera? Your review (and a few others) implies the lens or sensor (or maybe processor) is worse than the iphone. Or do you think it's the flash causing problems? Can the flash be turned off?

Posted by: prokaryote | November 6, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Wired has a side-by-side view but at an angle... looks great for a visual, but not a good comparison of the screen quality.

http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/gadgetlab/2009/11/droid-iphone.jpg

Posted by: prokaryote | November 6, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Brian

You also have a faulty link in the following story:

From PC World >
Archos Internet Tablet 5

This Android-powered player crams a ton of Internet and multimedia features into its slim frame, but it still needs some refinement.

hhttp is the issue, but the remaining address doesn't come up.

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | November 7, 2009 3:59 AM | Report abuse

Rob, any comment on Verizon's plan to increase their early termination fee to $350? Doesn't that put rather a damper on this intriguing but new (and therefore of uncertain quality/reliability) item? New + Extreme Lock-in are not compatible features...

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | November 8, 2009 10:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm not a fan of the early-termination fee either--that kind of change is always going to risk losing the company more money, in the form of business taken to competitors with less stringent penalties, than it will collect in fees. It's an unforced error, in other words.

But in this particular phone's case, I don't know if the higher ETF is a big deal in practice. Verizon's coverage is a known quantity by now; I would think that most people are not signing up for its service in the hope of future improvements. This phone isn't, but you've got 30 days to try it out and return it without penalty.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 10, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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