Revisiting the Motorola Droid on Verizon: evaluating the details

You wanted to know more about the quirks of Motorola's new Droid smartphone. On the eve of its launch on Verizon, I address all your questions.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Exactly one week ago, I wrote that the Motorola's new Droid smartphone on Verizon -- billed to be the iPhone killer to end all iPhone killers, as far as cliches are concerned -- was "the yardstick by which all Android phones are to be measured."

In that review, I took a high-level approach and focused on the significance of the device for Motorola, Verizon and the Android ecosystem at large. But many of you rightly wanted to know more about the quirks and details of the handset, and on the eve of the Droid's nationwide availability, I've decided to write this post to address as many of those as I can.

I also snapped new pictures in daylight that illustrate key features, which you can view here.

With that in mind, I'll address things by feature.

The style

Stylistically, the Droid is a completely polarizing device. When I first saw it, I thought it was a joke, but I've since warmed up to it to some extent. To be sure, it's a complete departure from the rounded, glossy direction toward which phones have been evolving, but I don't think it went far enough.

I was told by representatives that Motorola rounded the edges some just before it was finalized to 'appeal more toward women,' but I don't see the connection. This isn't about gender, it's about style -- you either prefer iPhone-esque rounded edges or Droid-like hard edges. I wish Motorola had kept the truly hard edges, because the slight rounded nature of the lines gives exudes more 1989 Buick LeSabre than 2009 Cadillac SLR.

Some have complained that the gold accents on the device -- the camera shutter button and the center of the D-pad shine with gold, as does a strip of venting on the back -- are too Tony Sirico for them. To be honest, I barely noticed. The prevailing feel of the Droid is black on black, and the hardware tends to recede from one's attention when the brilliant screen is on.

The form factor

Reviewers are also split on the Droid's keyboard, which is extremely flat to keep the device thin. Some said they had trouble typing because they couldn't "find" the keys, but I had less problems than with other QWERTY handsets, from BlackBerrys to other Android sets. For me, keyboards are about width -- the better spaced the keys, the better typing I have.

The virtual keyboard is slightly tweaked on the Droid. The horizontal version was easy to use, but the vertical one was cramped, albeit accurate. This was the main downside to the 16:9 screen -- narrower than that of the iPhone.

I found the D-pad to be genuinely useful in selecting a specific character or item -- more exact than one's finger on a touch-only device.

The back panel of the device is ever-so-slightly rubberized, to the point where I nearly didn't notice at first. I found it useful for gripping the blocky device, but barely perceptible otherwise.

I found all other buttons on the device to be placed comfortably save one -- the power button, which obvious doubles as a lock/screen off trigger. The button sits flush against the top right corner of the device, and I found it to be rather out of the way for how often I use it -- walking around a big city, I tend to lock the screen myself, rather than wait for it to automatically do so. To wrap my finger over the top corner of a rather tall device and find a flush button was not intuitive, and remains a minor irritant.

The Droid is rather heavy at six ounces, but is on par with the weight of smartphones that have QWERTY keyboards.

Finally: some swear by Motorola build quality, others despise it. I found the Droid to be as durable a device as any, including the sliding mechanism, which satisfyingly clicks in and out of place.

The operating system

The Droid is the first handset to come with the Android 2.0 (Eclair) operating system, and until others follow -- the HTC Hero will soon sport the OS, as could others, albeit with slower processors than the Droid -- it remains a defining feature.

There are little things that make Android 2.0 better, and you can read about them here, here and here as detailed by our own Ed Burnette. The main changes include multitouch support (faster typing, zoom, scroll), unified account management, multiple account support for e-mail, contacts and calendars, support for touch-sensitive soft keys for main functions (home, menu, etc.), searchable SMS and MMS, and a new browser.

Speaking of that browser -- it's much improved, and about on par with mobile Safari on the iPhone in terms of usability. The only thing missing is pinch and zoom gestures, which Droid works around with a double-tap-to-zoom, which worked better than I expected in practice. Otherwise, the interface was cleaner, there are now thumbnails for bookmarks, and there's better HTML5 support (but still not as compatible as mobile Safari).

You can also add widgets to the home page, a distinct feature that's missing on the iPhone. It's not a necessary one, but I rather enjoy always having the weather on my "desktop."

One more thing -- as in version 1.6, search is universal...sort of. It will surface apps, web results, bookmarks, contacts, music and YouTube, and it can be controlled by voice commands, too. But for some reason, messages and e-mail can only be searched from within their own apps. I hope this minor kink is worked out in version 2.1.

The input

I mentioned that Android 2.0 provides soft button support, and that's what the Droid has. Every Android device has had a different approach to the button set. The Droid's take is a layout with four dedicated, backlit touch buttons in a strip beneath, not on, the screen: back, menu, home and search. I chose to turn on haptic feedback for the buttons, which helped them stand out to me.

But while the buttons for the most part were fine -- occasionally they didn't register a command but provided haptic feedback, which is more an operating system hiccup -- I found that I brushed them when holding or using the phone as a camera, which would prompt a menu to pop up that wasn't intended. The slight "chin" to the Droid helps keep my palm away from them, but accidental triggering definitely occurred from time to time.

Call and hang up buttons are relegated to the screen itself. You may dislike it; I didn't find it to be a problem.

The display

The display is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. With such a high resolution (854x480), it packs far more pixels in than an iPhone (480x320), and is larger, to boot. I also found it to be much brighter than most smartphones I've used (it's got an ambient light sensor to keep the levels environmentally relevant). It's extremely colorful, and the detail allows the icons to pop off the screen and elict the same feeling I had when I first turned on the Microsoft Zune HD player. I'll tell you this: it's very hard to go back to another device once your eyes get comfortable with this level of detail.

The performance

Thanks to the same type of processor that's in the iPhone and Palm Pre, performance of the Droid is much snappier than previous Android handsets, where performance was problematic. But Android 2.0 still needs some work, and it's still a few steps behind the iPhone in terms of how menu items and other screen elements track with your finger.

The easiest way to see this is to drag the tabbed menu (or top windowshade-style status bar that expands) back and forth -- it's always a few milliseconds behind you. The good news is that it's sliding out and in much faster. The bad news is that it's not perfect.

Still, the most obvious show of performance muscle is scrolling through a contact list with more than 1,000 people, where (most times) it spins through with blinding precision.

I also enjoyed how running a few apps with notifications didn't drag down general performance of the handset, which happened with older Android handsets.

The battery life

Battery life on the Droid is rated at 6.4 hours, 1.4 hours more than the iPhone and others. In practice, the Droid definitely exceeded expectations. I will never forget when I first reviewed the T-Mobile G1 a year ago and it was dead by dinnertime. The Droid not only lasts all day (while updating e-mail, sports scores, etc.), but I even had a little juice left the next morning. That doesn't sound like much compared to a normal "dumb" phone, but it's considerably better than most smartphones on the market, especially when you consider how thin this device is.

Using Wi-Fi will obviously decrease battery life expectations, but I rarely had to thanks to saturated Verizon 3G coverage in NYC.

The apps

Android Market is still far behind Apple's App Store, but it's way ahead of Palm's offering and is growing rapidly thanks to all the Android handsets coming to market. With all that attention, the market is a good bet for the future, and I was able to get all the basics (stocks, sports, streaming music, Facebook, Twitter) without trouble.

Like the App Store, Android Market still needs to figure out a way to weed through all the apps on the site and surface the ones that are the most reliable. But with Android phones set to appear on every carrier, it's a good bet that bigger organizations will look to the device. Tops apps include Bank of America mobile banking, the Weather Channel, TV.com (owned by ZDNet parent company CBS) and a few notes and file manager apps.

The camera

It's not evident in the picture above, but the five-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash and autofocus is simply awful on the Droid. No matter what situation I took pictures in -- a sun-drenched Fifth Avenue, a shady indoor office, a dark night club -- photos came out grainy, washed out and simply disappointing. I did appreciate white balance, color and scene settings, but it's lipstick on a pig, as far as I'm concerned.

The videocamera, tucked away inside the camera app (it's a simple touch toggle), performed much better, and was pretty good at capturing movement and such things in high-quality. But the same optical problems that plague the camera also plague the video -- it is the same lens, after all -- so while the result is better overall, it still has room for improvement.

The navigation

One of the other features of Android 2.0 that is unique the Droid for now is Google's beta Navigation app. The app brings turn-by-turn navigation to the device -- not just in a list of directions, but literally navigating the way as you move along the route, recalculating if you diverge from your path. What's neat is that Google redesigned the UI to function better as a true navigation device (read: big icons, simple menus), which works nicely with a $30 dashboard stalk that situates the Droid appropriately for a vehicle.

While the software was neat, free and up-to-date, it's still got some kinks to be worked out. Some menus are a bit confusing and the whole process isn't as smooth as I'd like it to be when used while speeding along in a vehicle. That's why the software is beta, of course, but it's worth noting that it's not yet a complete tit-for-tat replacement of your dedicated GPS navigation device. But it's very close.

The multimedia support

UPDATE: I stand corrected. Motorola has just told me about "Motorola Media Link," which is supposed to accomplish this and works with iTunes and Windows Media Player. I was unaware of this until now.

For some reason, every single smartphone to date -- except the just-announced Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Android handset -- leaves the multimedia area of Android as vanilla as it first came, and none offer any easy-sync software solution for people with existing music libraries. (You can dump your music on a microSD card and pop it in, but it's a copy-paste files affair, not a "load my music" integrated experience.)

I think this is a big mistake, and a wholly underestimated part of the value of a smartphone. Multimedia needs to be easily moved around, and it's just not there yet, even with the Droid. If you're already in the smartphone fold, you probably care less, but for folks who are upgrading from feature phones and already own iPods, it's a big deal. I found myself reaching for the Droid time and time again for almost everything except music. For that, I reached for my iPod touch. That's a problem.

The contacts

Contacts can be imported from Microsoft Exchange, Facebook and Google. I found it to be an easy, straightforward thing, and chose Facebook as my contacts baseline (pull in more than one, and Android will remove duplicates and merge as needed). The neat trick here is that it unifies these things to an identity, so under my Dad's entry, it shows his picture, his work e-mail account, his two personal e-mail accounts, and his latest Facebook status message along with a link to his profile. When he calls, his profile picture and number surface.

But you might have a lot of contacts across all those services. There's a favorites tab to pick out the people you actually call on a regular basis -- you know, the folks you'd normally set to speed dial or voice dial. I found having that amount of information at your fingertips a monumental improvement over a "dumb" phone. My only wish is that it integrated with more services, such as LinkedIn, Twitter and IM services such as AOL and Yahoo.

The phone

If you're looking for a good-sounding phone, don't buy a smartphone. It's that simple. Every smartphone I've tested has had middling call quality, a bit muddy and "far back" in how it sounded, even with proper volume. In testing, the Droid occasionally had a hollow sound to it, which I haven't heard before. But generally, don't expect any of a smartphone's intelligence to seep into the "phone" part of it. These are primarily connectivity devices, and voice calling is but one road to Rome. Keep that in mind.

The case for business use

The iPhone's use in business and the enterprise is growing quickly, but that's only because Apple's recently made a case for it. The Droid makes an interesting play because it's much less restrictive than the iPhone in terms of customization (put your icons and widgets and shortcuts however you want, for example) on the software level, and it's got a QWERTY keyboard on the hardware side of things, playing for BlackBerry users.

Android 2.0 supports a combined or separate inbox, contacts and calendars, and carries support for Microsoft Exchange, used by many corporations, IMAP and POP. The Droid is also preloaded with QuickOffice, so you can instantly view an Excel spreadsheet properly from an e-mail attachment.

And obviously, if you're a Google services junkie, an Android phone is a revelation.

The price

The Droid is $199 with two-year contract on Verizon, entirely acceptable for a top-flight smartphone in 2009. I was discussing this point with a fellow tech blogger at a mobile event recently, and we both agreed that carriers simply can't get away with pricing phones any higher than $199 anymore. The iPhone 3GS, RIM BlackBerry Bold and Motorola Cliq all sell for $199; the HTC Hero, Samsung Moment and BlackBerry Storm2 sell for $179, the T-Mobile myTouch 3G and Palm Pre sell for $149, and so forth, all on contract.

At least half of those are brand-new devices and almost all are flagship handsets. What that means is that a company simply can't price a phone above that figure unless it's targeted directly at business users, whose purchases are made by their companies. HTC's Tilt2 is priced at $299 on AT&T, HTC's Touch Pro2 is priced at an astronomical $349 on T-Mobile and Sprint, the Samsung Instinct HD sells for $249 on Sprint, etc. These are impossible price points for the consumer.

But look at that first list again. You can get a Droid handset for the same price as a Cliq, even though the former is superior hardware. The Droid costs $50 more than the myTouch 3G, which has a slower processor, older hardware (even RIM is moving away from the scroll ball) and not nearly as brilliant a screen. I don't say this to justify the Droid's pricing, but rather to illustrate how competitive this market has become.

The carrier

Residents of major cities generally have their pick of carrier, but others aren't so lucky. That's why the Droid is so important. Verizon has by far the largest 3G coverage in the nation, and an immense customer base. That means there's more potential for smartphone adoption among its customers, who for years have been accustomed only to RIM's aging BlackBerry family of handsets. While RIM's problems are a topic for another blog post, the importance of the Droid is that it brings a modern touchscreen handset to a major carrier that hasn't had one. It's meeting a need.

One note: You can't, for now, bring it abroad and expect it to work. I find this to be a big problem for a customer base that is accustomed to BlackBerrys -- and though Verizon insists this is a "consumer" device, I don't think it's fair to assume one group needs it and one doesn't.

I also don't like that Verizon's service is attached to the device, versus to a SIM card that you can swap in and out. I understand that's a business consideration, but I also think these handsets are enough of an investment that they should be more open. If you can't offer service abroad, the least you can do is make it possible for a customer to use their capable handset with another carrier abroad.

The bottom line

Motorola's Droid is a powerhouse. It's better than every other Android phone out there, and it goes toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It's not nearly as intuitive as that device, but it's much more versatile, and while the iPhone has the advantage by nature of its earlier success, Android may pay off more for folks who aren't already dependent on Apple's ecosystem via heavy iPod use or with a Mac.

If you're buying the Droid, you're buying the most powerful Android handset on the market with the most advanced version of that OS. You're buying a device with a brilliant screen, wonderful Google integration, most improved performance, so-so phone, poor camera, take-it-or-leave-it keyboard and the possibility of being part of a much larger customer base over time. As I've written before, the Droid can do everything the iPhone can do. Some things, not as well. Some things much better.

What matters to you most is what will inform that decision. I've attempted to address as much of that as I could in this post.

The Droid is available Nov. 6 online and at Verizon stores for $199.99 after $100 mail-in rebate with two-year contract.

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