With Motorola Droid, Verizon puts doubts about Google Android platform to rest [review]

With Motorola Droid, Verizon puts doubts about Google Android platform to rest [review]

Summary: Motorola's Droid made a big splash when it debuted in a Verizon teaser ad during prime-time across the country and slammed America's favorite smartphone, Apple's iPhone. Now that it's finally been fully revealed, it's clear that the Droid has become the yardstick by which all Android smartphones are to be measured.

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Motorola is back in a big way.

Motorola's Droid made a big splash two weeks ago when it debuted in a Verizon teaser ad during prime-time across the country and slammed America's favorite smartphone, the Apple iPhone. Now that it's finally been fully revealed, it's clear that the Droid has become the yardstick by which all Android smartphones are to be measured.

The Droid is Motorola's second smartphone using Google's free mobile platform, joining the Cliq on T-Mobile. While that phone focused on social communication integration by adding an innovative layer of software and services called Motoblur, it was at times sluggish, much like the T-Mobile G1 and myTouch 3G handsets that also run on Android.

Up until now, Android hasn't had enough horsepower -- by hardware or software -- to give the well-thought out iPhone serious competition. That's no longer the case, as the Droid is bulging with premium features both outside and in.

[Image Gallery: Motorola Droid hands on photos]

The key to the Droid's success is its platform. It is the first smartphone to ship with Google Android 2.0 (Eclair), the next-generation version of that operating system. Running on a superior Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 processor, that translates to a snappiness that wasn't apparent in earlier Android phones and, until now, was limited only to the iPhone and Palm Pre, the latter of which shares the same chip.

Android has always offered multitasking and a clean, touch-optimized interface, but now the hardware has caught up sufficiently to allow the OS to really shine. Scrolling is incredibly quick and transitions are on point.

Taking advantage of this are a wealth of new features, starting with the hardware. The Droid offers a 3.7-inch, 16:9 widescreen display that's bright and brilliant. It's easily the best screen I've seen on a mobile device, improving the quality of the interface, rendered Web pages, photos and video.

Speaking of the latter two: Droid manages a 5-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, autofocus and 4X digital zoom, as well as incredible 720 by 480 video resolution -- unheard of for a device this small. True to form, it offers easy, streamlined upload to the Web.

The Web browser was also wonderful, amplified in utility by the phone's extra-long (or -wide, depending on orientation) screen. Those proportions allowed for easier viewing of full-feature sites. Droid also adds a few tweaks to the experience, including bookmarks with thumbnails and double tap-to-zoom capability.

What's amazing about this phone is how much is packed into its 0.54-inch-thick frame, just six-hundredths of an inch thicker than the iPhone 3GS. While that phone is full-touchscreen, the Droid manages a full QWERTY slider keyboard, including a right-aligned directional pad and dedicated menu button. I found the shallow, backlit keys to be quite easy to use, and the keyboard slides with a little resistance and very little clearance.

I've made it clear in the past that I'm fairly skeptical about physical QWERTY keyboards. I recognize that it boils down to preference, but I tend to fall in the camp that if I can save thickness and weight without one, I prefer to do so. Much to my surprise, the overall heft of the device -- 6 ounces, equal to other physical QWERTY Android phones -- is negated by its slim profile, and thanks to that, I didn't mind having the keyboard around, even if I didn't prefer to use it as my primary method of input.

If the Droid's camera makes the point-and-shoot and the mini camcorder nearly obsolete, its Google Navigation service -- free and in beta -- wipes out the dedicated GPS navigation device market. Motorola has designed the widescreen Droid to function as a voice-activated turn-by-turn navigation device, and Google's new software and "arm's length" interface makes it a reality. (You can read more about the service on Between the Lines.) It's worth noting that an inexpensive accessory arm can be purchased to dock the Droid on your dashboard for the purpose.

Speaking of accessories, there's also an innovative dock that saddles the Droid sideways on your bedside table while it charges, allowing it to function as a dedicated alarm clock thanks to a custom app that automatically loads when the handset is docked.

Android has always offered Microsoft Exchange support and tight integration with Google services, but now allows for an optional combined inbox, color-coded for clarity.

Android 2.0 also allows for homepage widgets, which serve as a great way to surface meetings and other calendar items, the weather, sports scores and other content.

Further, like Android 1.6, version 2.0 offers universal search, surfacing Web pages (history, bookmarks, etc.), contacts, applications and more all from the same search field widget. It's a welcome feature.

Finally, the build quality on the device is top-notch. The top surface is all-glass (but not oleophobic), and four touch buttons -- back, menu, home and search -- are integrated into the bottom of the display, and offer haptic feedback if selected. The back of the device is slightly soft in touch, and the camera button and back vent get bronze accents on an otherwise black-on-black device.

Not everyone will appreciate the squarish, 1980s look of the phone in the age of Apple, but it serves its function well, and certainly distinguishes itself in silhouette from the iPhone and Pre.

It's difficult to convey just how fully featured the Droid is. Verizon and Motorola are touting the phone as "without compromises," and for once, the marketing language rings true: it's the most powerful and versatile Android smartphone on the most widely-available carrier in the U.S.

By Lucasfilm-licensed name and feature set alone, this phone will appeal to the business customer, the technophile and the scorned BlackBerry Storm user for its combination of a crisp, clear interface, soon-to-be-ubiquitous platform and horsepower to get the job done. (Managers and students, you'll also like the preloaded QuickOffice document viewer for Word, Excel and Powerpoint files.)

But the Droid is no iPhone-killer. While it has matched and, in some cases surpassed that smartphone's capabilities on paper, the iPhone offers a radically different experience than this device, and remains the device with the broadest appeal. With a name like "Droid" and pedigree to match, this device won't be a runaway hit the way the iPhone was.

What it will do, however, is please the millions of customers served by Verizon who feel left out without an iPhone, Android or Pre. For them, the Droid is clearly superior to everything else available on that carrier, and most of the devices available elsewhere.

The companies that have the most to lose here are BlackBerry's Research in Motion and Windows Mobile's Microsoft, both of which support platforms that pale in comparison to this device in terms of usability and adaptability. Their market share is at stake here, as well as any customers that are on the fence about a touchscreen smartphone in the first place.

The silent pillar in this wager is Verizon. The breadth and strength of that company's 3G network is light years ahead of Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile, and a network that works makes a competent smartphone like the Droid that much more pleasurable to use. If you wanted an iPhone for what it can accomplish, the Droid fills that need to a T. If you want an iPhone because it's an iPhone, nothing else will please you.

Bolstered by growing development for the Google Android platform, Motorola's Droid makes the strongest argument yet that you don't need an iPhone or AT&T to reap the full benefits of the smartphone experience.

Looking for more answers? I've written a follow-up post to address your questions.

Topics: Android, Google, Hardware, iPhone, Mobile OS, Mobility, Smartphones, Verizon

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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152 comments
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  • Looks pretty nice, one comment on the article tho...

    [i]Further, Android 2.0 offers universal
    search, surfacing Web pages (history, bookmarks,
    etc.), contacts, applications and more all from
    the same search field widget. It?s a welcome
    addition.[/i]

    This is actually a feature of Android 1.6 and so
    not exclusive to the Droid or Eclair.
    DevJonny
    • Clarification.

      Please note that I never said this feature was
      exclusive to Droid, as it's available on the
      iPhone and Palm Pre.

      However, you are correct -- this feature is
      available on version 1.6. I've appended the post
      to reflect the change.
      andrew.nusca
      • Sorry I meant exclusive to Droid and not other Android phones...From what..

        ...I've read in your article though, Droid looks
        like the Android phone to have!

        Do you have any details on whether it will be
        coming the UK or which UK carrier(s) will have it?

        Thanks for the quick response as well, just
        thought I should point that out because I am an
        annoying git :).
        DevJonny
      • Clarification

        Here cpomes another GOOG-zealot (like Apple fan-boys). Who cares about the extra features that Android brings. Most people care most about the phone functionality of a phone, period!!!
        samofdetroit
        • TRue that

          And a phone can't fulfill its primary functionality (making calls) if its getting terrible signal. VZ has demonstratably the best signal coverage in the US, hence any phone on the VZ network is by definition more functional then any phone that isn't on said network.

          Second, the DROID is equally as functional even out the door as any smartphone on the market. There may be small areas of variation, but really, these are far too small to warrant calling one phone functional and the other not. They all work well - when the work. VZ phones just tend to work more often.

          "The views expressed here are mine and do not reflect the official opinion of my employer or the organization through which the Internet was accessed."
          gnesterenko
        • Smartphone users clearly want more.

          Phone functionality [b]is[/b] important, but I would propose that for most
          [i]smartphone[/i] users, the computing platform is more significant. I
          spend way more time using the browser and other apps on my iPhone
          than talking on it. The fact that there are now 100,000 applications
          available for it, and every other smartphone maker is implementing an
          app store of their own clearly reinforces the idea. I remember when early
          Blackberries had notoriously bad telephone capabilities (GSM for voice
          GPRS for data), but most users didn't care too much because the,
          excellent, email functionality was all that mattered.
          matthew_maurice
          • Smartphone users clearly want more.

            For those I know around me, most apps they download for their smart phones (iPhone or G1 or others) are games and really non-essential apps that do not give much benefit. For the really good apps, most smart phones, regardless of platform, are already supported: Twitter, Facebook, email, calendar, weather, news, traffic, maps, etc. etc. etc. In many cases, these apps (which I call really useful) have been supported for many years even on old Windows Mobile platforms. So, really who cares if the Droid brings new functionality or features here or there. They all are similar and it is up to the user to pick their preference. I just found the writer of the article exagiratingly zealous about Droid and Android, a trend I find in some of the tech writers recently on ZDNet.
            samofdetroit
          • Reinforces the idea . . .

            What idea? That *some* people want a virtual "dumb computer" that also makes phone calls?

            I concede that. I also said that the *majority* (like myself, who is very blue collar and makes less than 20K a year) do *not* want a overly-complicated POS with a QWERTY keyboard.

            For most of "us," the iPhone represents quality *and* affordability that we seldom have access to. WE can have the same *phone* quality that BMW and Mercedes (Lexus and Infinite) drivers enjoy with their *cars.*

            And, did I say mention it's *simple* to use? Simple in design? How many buttons on the iPhone? Uh, just one. I think.

            And, on the several occasions I've used a friend's iPhone to "check out something?" Come to think of it, I don't even remember having to use ... that button.

            Amazing me.

            The more I think about it, sitting here, right now, using my *computer,* the more I'm irritated that no other phone manufacturer can come with something as simple, elegant *and* functional, as the iPhone.

            I already have a computer. No, I have two.

            I'd actually buy a Zune, if I had to, to replace an iPod or two. It doesn't look half-bad, and it doesn't have a phreaking QWERTY keyboard. And it's not much more complicated than an iPhone.

            I won't settle for any less with a phone.

            Right now, I'm ready to switch to AT&T, in spite of all the horror stories I've heard and the *great* service I've had with VZW.

            So sad.
            brian ansorge
          • Biggest troll ever, and Best

            Seriously, if your post is serious, here is some advice.

            You obviously do not know how to manage money if you are wasting what little resources you have on a smart-phone. Save your money or spend it on worthwhile things that will not break or go out of style within a year. In addition to the initial cost of the smartphone, you have the monthly charges that can only be labeled as robbery; 70-90 US dollars a month for a freaking phone??

            I know a couple of my friends are running out to buy the droid, at retail price. 300 bucks could buy you a playstation 3 for goodness sake!

            This whole craze over smart phones make me furious, its such a rip off.

            Get a phone to use it as a phone. (PS: I am not 50, I am 22)

            Anarchaotical
          • iPhone =1001 Aps w/ 90% Worthless! Droid =Quality, Service & Functions :D

            blah...blah ba blah Apple is Apple Locked Closed Door Loonies that think their Shizt don't stink!

            Personally I avoid contact with iPhone Users at any cost. Mainly because of their smelly arrogance! :P ;) ....incidentally, you can also see one a mile away struggling w/ their phones, for a miserable AT&T dropped call connection! haha
            i2fun@...
        • re: Clarification...Verizon's Network

          speaks for it self. I average one maybe two dropped calls a YEAR with Verizon! That is why iDon't have an iPhone or AT&T. AT&T is horrible, I live 20 miles outside Pittsburgh and would drop 3 out of every 10 calls. When I was in Manhattan, I could not keep a call for longer than 5 minutes, if at all... IN freakin' MANHATTAN! Also don't forget Android has over 10,000 apps and are growing daily, without big brother Apple watching/approving. Droid has a flash and plays Flash videos. Android is an open OS. The Android SDK provides the tools and APIs necessary to make applications that run on Android phones. I pre-ordered mine yesterday at Best-Buy ($50 dollar hold). I will get it for $150, with a new contract.
          Mrwirez
  • Great phone - but the phone isn't everything...

    The big draw for the iPhone is the iTunes/App store integration. Second is the simple interface. If Google can put something together to rock those two elements, Apple will be in serious trouble because of the boat-anchor called AT&T. If ANYONE can create an experience superior to iTunes, it's Google. With it running on Verizon, everyone else would be in big trouble.
    BillDem
    • Thev've done so already....

      Google already has an App Market. And what difference does Itunes integration make. Buying music is buying music whether that is Itunes or Amazon. You download the music and play it. What other experience is there to have? And its rumored that Google IS developing its own music store anyway. And theres nothing about the Android interface that ISN'T simple. They both basically work the same way. You want to access something you touch it. Its easier to navigate around than an IPhone.

      I think this article said it all when it gets to the point of Android 2.0 surpassing the IPhone. It really doesn't matter how badly Android drags the IPhone through the mud. As long as the IPhone is in productions IFools will come up with some excuse as to why its better. The fact of the matter is that the IPhone was dead the day Android launched.
      storm14k
      • facts only

        you sound like you have a personal issue with the iPhone. please keep your emotions out of the discussion and state only facts. thank you
        stephen732@...
        • Oh, come now. Opinions are welcome.

          I don't think his issues with the iPhone are personal. I had one for a year
          and when it got stolen I chose not to replace it, and to wait for superior
          Android phones like this one to appear. Personal experience may be
          opinion, but they're relevant to the discussion.
          mikekayb
      • Doid will use

        Rhapsody as the default music store.. If it even matters. I load my own music free..
        Amazon=iTunes=Rhapsody=$$
        Mrwirez
    • you'd also be surprised...

      how many people don't use their iphones for music. I know at least five or six iphone owners that still use a separate ipod as their music player.
      crogs
    • Non-issue

      Now that more phones are available on a variety of carriers you will start to see the apps flowing.

      As for iTunes integration, I personally think iTunes is a piece of garbage. It's just a necessary evil. I have used PCs for years plus I have 4 Macs with 2 Nanos and 2 Touch and that application is the most non-intuitive I have ever seen. Actually, no. Sony had one for their MD players that was all sleek and shiny but horrible to use.

      My daughter has a cheap Sansa player and I find the manual copy process to put the music on those infinitely easier. If I could do it with my Touch I would.

      Too_Busy_To_Be_Here
      • iTunes?!?

        I've never understood the level of importance that people place on iTunes. I've never used it. I prefer to purchase CDs and then rip them to MP3 myself -- so I always have the original as a back-up.
        Bit-Smacker
        • amen to that

          I don't use iTunes either, so I could care less about it.
          fabioq@...