After months of hype, the Motorola Droid for Verizon has arrived, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. The Droid isn't quite the iPhone killer that Verizon's advertising suggests, but the handset raises the bar for app phones both in design and functionality. The sleek, touch screen handset runs on Google's Android 2.0 operating system and features a slide-out keyboard, removable battery and preinstalled 16-gigabyte microSD card. The Wi-Fi-enabled phone also comes with Google Mobile apps, including a GPS-enabled Maps app that offers voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions.
If you text but don't like paying fees, you'll love the Google Talk app -- it lets you exchange instant messages with your Gmail contacts. The Droid's 550-megahertz processor is capable of running six apps simultaneously, while a 3.7-inch screen makes for a painless video-watching and Web browsing experience. The Droid also features a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, a mail app that integrates multiple accounts (including Microsoft Exchange) and Facebook and Twitter widgets that provide real-time updates -- performing like a small computer.
By its name alone, the Droid inspires science-fiction visions of extra-terrestrials from faraway galaxies. The masculine, glossy black handset is chunkier than the iPhone, with a rectangular body and beveled edges. It's large, vibrant 3.7-inch screen takes up most of the front and toggles between horizontal and vertical view when the phone rotates -- all similar to the iPhone. Designed with a minimalist flair, the Droid is slightly larger and heavier than the iPhone -- weighing 6 ounces compared to Apple's 4.8 ounce device -- for a solid feel.
Right next to the headset jack, the power button along the top edge of the phone also serves as a "wake" function. The volume rocker and dedicated camera shutter are located on the right edge. On the left side, a micro-USB port recharges the unit and connects it to a computer. Four touch-sensitive keys sit just below the screen: back, menu (with changing menu choices depending upon which screen is open), home and search. You can type on the on-screen keyboard in vertical or horizontal view -- or you can use the roll-out keyboard.
When the Droid is opened, buttons on the keyboard are "sticky" and require a firm push or press -- adding to the solid feel of the phone. White and brown characters on the keys glow with a backlight, making them easy to read. The wide keyboard was built for big hands, but small thumbs. That's because the keys are flush with the surface of the keypad and hard to distinguish. You'll get used to the feel of the keyboard, but first attempts at typing are awkward. The keyboard can also be programmed with shortcuts to functions.
To the right of the keyboard a directional key with center select greatly enhances navigation. The back features a 5-megapixel lens, as well as the battery and memory card. The battery cover is user-friendly and comes off easily. Out of the box, the Droid comes with a battery, USB/wall charger, 16-gigabyte microSD card and user guide.
The Droid's 5-megapixel camera makes it a standout among smartphones -- since most phones feature a mere 2- or 3-megapixels. In addition to taking pictures in high-resolution, the lens includes a LED flash for shooting in low-light conditions. The camera also features a 4x digital zoom and auto-focus and image stabilization. For video, the Droid records at high-quality, 720-by-480 pixel resolution, as well as low quality for sending in MMS.
Pressing a dedicated button on the right edge turns on the camera. Its camera interface looks similar the iPhone, with controls located on the touch screen: shutter button, a button to toggle between camera and video, and a preview button that, when pressed, takes you to the photo gallery. There's also a shutter button on the phone's edge for shooting in horizontal view. You can access turn flash on or off and set the scene mode, white balance, focus mode, storage location or color effect.
The Droid also shoots in fine, super fine or normal quality in three sizes: 5-megapixels (2,592-by-1,936 pixels), 3.2-megapixels (2,048-by-1,536 pixels) and 2-megapixels (1,600-by-1,200 pixels). In the photo gallery shots can be cropped, rotated or shared, but the Droid lacks more sophisticated tools for color correction or red-eye removal. Videos, on the other hand, can't be cropped before they're shared with the world.
The Droid comes equipped with a number of apps and widgets that allow you to accomplish a number of tasks, from updating Facebook to scanning products at the supermarket. Even better, the phone runs up to six apps simultaneously. While the iPhone multitasks some of its functions -- for instance, letting users talk on the phone or listen to music while reading email -- the Droid can juggle six with a minimum of interruption.
When minimized, the open apps appear in the top menu as icons. Pulling down the menu and tapping on that app reopens it on the screen. That said, the Droid doesn't offer users a simple way to exit apps, which can be annoying, especially if the app has sound effects. For this purpose, a free app called "Advanced Task Killer" does the job.
When the Droid powers up for the first time, it requires you to sign in or create a Gmail account. Once connected, you'll receive a welcome email with links to "Get started" videos. While the videos provide a quick overview of the Droid's features and functionality, they aren't comprehensive, and pale in comparison to the instructive videos on Apple's Web site.
You can stay organized connected to the computing "Cloud" with a number of Google mobile services that come preloaded in the phone; Gmail, Calendar, Contact Sync, Latitude and Maps. For video watching, there's YouTube, and for messaging, there's Google Talk. For search, why waste time typing in the words when you can press Google Search by Voice and say what you're looking for? Google Maps Navigation, which is in beta, gives turn-by-turn voice directions, and comes free. Most phones, including the iPhone, charge for their GPS navigation apps. Navigation not only guides you to your destination, it shows street views, satellite imagery and local business information.
Android Market is the Droid's equivalent of Apple's App Store. You can browse music, games, ringtones, wallpaper and more than 12,000 apps, and then download them straight to the phone. However, since the Droid stores apps to its 560-megabytes of internal memory -- not the 16-gigabyte microSD card -- you're limited in the amount of apps you can download.
The Droid also comes with a fast, HTML5 browser which is expected to support Flash. The widget function, available in the main menu by press-holding an empty spot on the three-panel home screen, installs widgets that provide real-time updates as well as shortcuts to applications such as Facebook or Calendar. Apps such as a calculator or note-taker must be downloaded from Android Market. In addition to all of the Google apps, the Droid features an alarm clock, voice dialer, music player, a function-wide search that scours the phone for all mentions of a search term and contacts manager.
While the Droid has an abundance of apps for connecting to the Web and other people, it lacks a note writer or document reader and editor, although these apps can be found in Android Market. Word and PDF attachments can be read, but not edited, in Gmail.
The Droid's 3.7-inch screen high-end touch screen supports an amazing 16.7 million colors -- top-of-the-line. With a width of 854-by-480 pixels, videos appear with remarkable depth of color and detail. The display is slightly larger than the iPhone's screen, and the quality is perceptibly better. If you're used to watching fuzzy YouTube videos, you'll marvel at the crisp quality of the Droid. Photos on websites also appear in greater sharpness and contrast.
Its home screen is organized into three "panels" that can be toggled by flicking a finger to the right or left. Apps appear on the screen as small icons, similar to a desktop. By touching a menu tab on the bottom of the screen, you can access all of the available apps. Press-holding an app will load it to the main screen. Apps can be rearranged or moved to the trash on the touch screen. Pressing the dedicated "Menu" button reveals options for saving widgets or contacts to the main screen.
Like the iPhone, you can navigate the Droid's browser by touch. Tapping a photo or column brings it into prominent view on the screen. Dragging a finger down the screen scrolls it down. However, the Droid lacks the iPhone's "pinching" function, which comes in handy when zooming. Instead, the phone offers a clunky alternative, a plus/minus magnifier, which you tap to enlarge a portion of the screen. The magnifier isn't as precise as the pinching method, and the screen requires further adjusting to get to the right spot. Like the iPhone, the Droid comes equipped with an accelerometer, for horizontal and vertical viewing. When a text box appears on the screen, you can tap it with their finger to bring up the phone's touch keyboard.
The Droid comes with a robust speakerphone, accessible through the touch screen once a call is in progress. One complaint about the volume rocker: it's difficult to reach, especially if the slider is open, due to its location on the bottom half of the phone. The rocker's buttons respond slowly and require force before they respond.
You can set the media volume, or the maximum volume at which the handset plays music and video, in the settings menu. This comes in handy if you have sensitive hearing. You can also adjust the audio for incoming calls and change settings for ringtones, alerts and touch pad sounds.
The Droid's music app organizes music by artists, albums, songs and playlists. You can also download podcasts, music and videos from your computer. However, the Droid doesn't sync with iTunes directly. Instead, you have to download a free computer app called "Salling Media Sync," which allows you to drag and drop files to your Droid.
Besides the standard voicemail, SMS and MMS messaging, the Droid offers free instant messaging, voicemail, chats and notifications via Google Talk. Google Talk connects you to your friends' computers. Running in the background, the app links you to their Gmail contacts, keeping track of those who are online and notifying you of updates while it runs in the background.
Another great app in the Droid's menu is Visual Voicemail. Much like the iPhone's voicemail function, Visual Voicemail lists calls so that you can choose which ones to listen to, forward or ignore. Other options include forwarding messages as an audio file via email, reply by SMS or email, archive or call back.
Besides Gmail, the Droid comes with a customizable email app that integrates multiple accounts, including Microsoft Exchange. The app also sorts email into folders and can be set to put notifications in the status bar when new emails come in. For those times when finding an email fast is crucial, the Droid's system-wide search will include emails in its results.
With Android Market, the Droid offers thousands of entertainment options, from games and music to video and social media apps. With its glossy, DVD-quality screen, YouTube -- and video games -- never looked so good. And unlike iPhone addicts who game on a touch screen and suffer at its lack of precision, the Droid's actual keyboard bodes well for gamers. Besides old favorites such as Solitaire or Jewels, you'll find Gang Wars or Space Physics. If you consider news as entertainment, Android Market delivers local and national news apps, including CBS, Fox and the Wall Street Journal.
With over 12,000 apps, Android Market pales in comparison to Apple's App Store, which boasts more than 120,000 apps. However, with its open-source software development tools, coupled with Google's growing popularity, the Droid will most likely grow its app offerings within the next year. Maybe by 2011 it will even offer Rock Band.
The Droid can browse the Internet on Verizon's high-speed 3G network -- for typical download speeds of 600-kilobits per second to 1.4-megabits per second and upload speeds of 500- to 800-kilobits per second, but also supports Wi-Fi connectivity. Its HTML5 browser promises Flash 10 support. Besides surfing the Web, the browser opens multiple windows, saves bookmarks in thumbnail form and shows browser history -- much like a desktop computer.
The Droid's 550-megahertz chip delivers Google Maps, Google Maps Street View and Google Maps Navigation at warp speed. That said, a side-by-side comparison of the Droid's browser next to the iPhone's Safari showed little difference between the two. Depending upon the page, one or the other browser brought up a site faster. However, the Droid's large, colorful screen made surfing the web much easier on the eyes, and couldn't help but attract eyeballs to its crisp images.
One quirk: Visual Voicemail won't work with Wi-Fi on. You're instructed to disable Wi-Fi in order to get access. This seems counterintuitive, and becomes a cumbersome process, because you have to remember to turn it back on.
The Droid comes with 560-megabytes of internal memory and a preinstalled, 16-gigabytes microSD card. Since the phone's apps are stored to the phone's internal memory, the Droid can't download seemingly unlimited apps. In contrast, the iPhone can download as many apps as its storage size can handle, whether the limit is 16- or 32-gigabytes.
The Droid supports Bluetooth technology to connect to mono and stereo headsets, car speakers, and other Bluetooth accessories. It also connects to PCs via a micro-USB cable -- to transfer music, podcasts and videos from a computer library -- using desktop software such as Salling Media Sync.
The Motorola Droid for Verizon is a stunning smartphone. Loaded with free Google apps and a nimble browser that it displays Web pages and video on a large, colorful screen, the phone thrills and delights much as the iPhone does. Its stylish design, coupled with Verizon's service, could win over iPhone owners who are tired of slow speeds on AT&T's strained network. At the same time, the Droid comes up short on storage space for apps and offers only 12,000 to Apple's 120,000 apps.
The phone's navigation can be clunky at times, leaving you puzzled or trapped within apps and menus, or struggling to magnify and position a browser page. So while the Droid is no "iPhone killer," it's definitely a killer smartphone that only gets better as Google's features improve. ♦
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