Deathmatch: Motorola Droid versus iPhone

Here we go again: Another swaggering company claims to have the iPhone killer. This time, it's Motorola and Verizon Wireless, with the Droid. You've seen the "Droid does" campaign, but let's cut to the chase: The Motorola Droid does not do that much. It's a real letdown after all the hype, with some amazingly dumb design decisions, such as lack of a multitouch screen (no gesture support) and a hard-to-use keyboard.

Worse for Motorola is that HTC, a company hardly known for its investment in design, has come out with a better Android-based smartphone. The consumer-oriented HTC Droid Eris has a surprisingly good user interface that could teach Apple a thing or two.

[ See which smartphone InfoWorld rates best for business in our six-way ultimate mobile deathmatch -- and create your own ratings with our Mobile Deathmatch Calculator. | Get the full scoop on the HTC Droid Eris in Paul Venezia's review. ]

Despite the flaws, the Droid does show real movement in the high-tech industry to truly compete with the iPhone. The Palm Pre earlier this year was the first credible competitor to Apple, while the Droid and the Droid Eris move that competition along. The iPhone remains the victor, but the number of viable competitors is sure to rise further.

Deathmatch: E-mail, calendars, and contacts The heart of what a smartphone user does -- maybe even more than talk -- is deal with e-mail and calendars, both of which tap into your contacts database.

The Droid's Email app is superficially similar to the iPhone's, but it lacks much of iPhone Mail's richness. For example, both let you select multiple e-mails for deletion, but the Droid doesn't let you quickly delete a message without reading it (the iPhone does it with a swipe gesture). The Droid's Email app doesn't let you move e-mail into folders, and worse, you can't search e-mails from the Email app in the Droid.

[ Compare the Motorola Droid and iPhone side by side in our Droid vs. iPhone mobile deathmatch slideshow. ]

Although Motorola advertises the Droid as supporting Exchange e-mail, it does so in limited circumstances. If your Exchange server doesn't have any ActiveSync policies enabled, you should be able to access Exchange e-mail from the Droid. If such policies are enabled, the Droid will let you connect to the server and send e-mail (I had to reboot the Droid after Exchange setup to get it to work), but it won't display your messages or folders. (My colleague Paul Venezia's testing shows the Droid can get e-mail from an Exchange server that does not use ActiveSync policies.)

It's not clear if the Droid supports any Exchange ActiveSync policies -- the tech support staffs at Verizon and Motorola had no idea, and the Web sites provide no details. The iPhone doesn't support all ActiveSync policies, but it works with a commonly used subset, and if it can't connect to Exchange due to a policy conflict, it sends you an alert.

There is a solid Exchange client app, Touchdown for Exchange from NitroDesk, that works with the Droid, but only by lying to Exchange about ActiveSync policy support for on-device encryption and password requirements. The tech support staff at NitroDesk told me I shouldn't use the app with the Droid because of that bug. Touchdown is a good app, with iPhone-like capabilities such as setting which folders to keep synced, and it even lets you set away notices, which the iPhone Mail app can't do. However, it doesn't display your Sent folders, which is a major gap.

For calendars, the Droid syncs to Exchange calendars (even if your server uses ActiveSync policies), but you can't accept invitations. On the iPhone, you can -- unless the invite came in as an e-mail attachment on a non-Exchange account.

The Droid displays Exchange calendars in a separate app, so you can't see your personal and corporate appointments at the same time. In the iPhone, you can see all or any calendars at once. (The HTC Droid Eris, which has extensions to the stock Android UI used by the Motorola Droid, also lets you see your Exchange and personal calendars in one app.) The one calendar advantage the Droid holds over the iPhone is that the Droid lets you select which personal calendars to view simultaneously; with the iPhone, you see all or just one.

If you intend to use your Droid for Exchange access, don't tell Verizon -- don't inform the salesperson that you'll be using Exchange or corporate e-mail, and don't call tech support with Exchange questions. Otherwise, Verizon will add $15 to your monthly data plan.

The iPhone can sync to Outlook on the PC, as well as iCal and Address Book on the Mac via a USB connection. The Droid cannot. Both devices support Gmail syncing (which you can use an intermediary to sync with Outlook and iCal/Mail/Address Book), though the Droid can do so over the air without a $99-a-year MobileMe account, as the iPhone requires.

Both the Droid and the iPhone let you view common attachment formats such as Word, Excel, and PDF; the Droid bundles the Quickoffice viewer apps to do so, while Apple has its own document viewer baked in to the iPhone. But neither can handle zipped attachments. I give Droid a nod for letting you save attachments for use with other apps, which the iPhone still can't do. (The iPhone can save image attachments.)

In its address book, the iPhone lets you jump easily to contacts by tapping an onscreen letter, such as T to navigate to people whose last names begin with T. Or you can search for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. The Droid lets you type a letter on the physical keyboard to jump easily to contacts; if you are using the touchscreen, you have to go through a menu command to search just your contacts (the standard Search button searches both the Web and the Droid). Both the Droid and the iPhone let you designate favorite contacts, which are handily displayed in a separate pane, and both have call log and phone dialer panes in their Contacts apps.

The winner: The iPhone, thanks to its real-world Exchange support and better calendar capabilities. The Droid's only advantages -- the ability to save e-mail attachments and over-the-air syncing with Google Gmail -- can't overcome its deficits.

Deathmatch: Applications Motorola has made a lot of noise about the Droid's ability to run multiple apps simultaneously. The iPhone can't do that, and often when you switch from one app to another and then back, the first app resets. The Droid easily moves among apps, but it does so in the same way as the iPhone: You have to return to the home page and select the app. I much prefer how the Palm Pre handles multiple simultaneous apps, letting you move among them through the row-of-cards metaphor, and I wish that the Android OS had something similar.

The iPhone, of course, shines in the amazing variety of iPhone apps. Although many are junk, there are some real gems in the App Store. The Android Market is too young to have anywhere near the selection of the Apple App Store, but I am encouraged by the number of high-quality apps that exist for the Droid and other Android devices. (Yes, there's a lot of junk, too.) And you can download apps for the Droid outside the Android Market and install them directly -- Apple gives you no such flexibility.

When using the Droid, I also miss some of the iPhone's apps-handling capabilities. For example, the iPhone lets you save Web pages as if they were apps; they display on the home screen for easy access. This feature lets me save as such an icon the Web page that tells me how long until my local bus arrives, and I don't have to wade through my browser's bookmarks to load it. On the Droid, I can't do that.

Apple's method of letting you rearrange your apps is more intuitive than the Droid's. When you select apps, they shake, and you can move them among the home screen's panes and put them where you want. If a pane is full, the iPhone moves an app to another pane to make room. On the Droid, you can move apps from the application window to your home screen's panes, but there is no visual clue that you've selected an app. Worse, if you move an app to a full home screen pane, you can't drop it onto that pane or scroll to another pane. Instead, you have to first go to the home screen pane you want, then the application window and drag the desired app to the home screen pane you previously switched to. It's the kind of rough edge you rarely see on an iPhone but crops up fairly often in the Android UI.

For business document editing, the $20 Quickoffice for iPhone lets you perform basic edits in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents and retain revisions tracking in the original documents. But it doesn't work with zipped files. Apple's prohibition against saving files on the iPhone means that Quickoffice can't get to those e-mail attachments. Quickoffice does offer a cool tool to transfer files to and from the iPhone over Wi-Fi, but you need your computer up and running to do that -- in which case, why would you edit the documents on the iPhone?

There is no business-class Office editor for the Droid. The bundled Quickoffice for Android is just a viewer, and the $30 Documents to Go app from DataViz is unable to edit files sent via Exchange. It does work with files received over Gmail, but few businesses use Gmail.

I tried using Google Docs on both the iPhone and Droid, with the same results. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows and edit an individual cell's contents. You can't edit a text document, and for calendars all you can do is view and delete appointments.

The iPhone's copy and paste capabilities are both richer and better implemented than the Droid's. To select text on the Droid, you have to use a menu option or keyboard shortcut to turn on text selection, then tap elsewhere to stop the selection, and use another menu option or keyboard shortcut to paste. It's also hard to tell where your text cursor is on the Droid, due to its tiny, thin appearance. The iPhone, by contrast, doesn't require menus to select or deselect text, and its menus for copying, pasting, and deleting come up automatically when you select, then disappear automatically when you deselect.

On the iPhone, copying and pasting e-mail text, Web text, or Web graphics is straightforward. On the Droid, copying graphics is not supported.

Furthermore, you can copy text in e-mail on the Droid only if you are composing a message in the text-entry window; you cannot copy text in received e-mails. The Droid does detect phone numbers and addresses in e-mails, turning them into hot spots that can be clicked to launch the phone and map apps.

The winner: The iPhone, though its lack of multitasking is a major obstacle to using the huge array of available apps, and it keeps them from working together. The Droid needs more business-capable apps in its repertoire, and it must fix some of the roughness in its UI for apps handling. Its awkward cut, copy, and paste capabilities could use some work too.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet The iPhone redefined the mobile Web experience, but the use of the Safari browser's WebKit technology in competing smartphones such as the Palm Pre and the Motorola Droid has largely leveled that playing field. Both devices let you scroll through real Web pages and take advantage of technologies such as JavaScript and QuickTime. Neither support Flash videos outside their YouTube player apps.

But Apple's Safari browser has a better UI. That means you can go forward without invoking a menu, as the Droid requires. You can also easily switch among Web pages without using several steps, as well as select text and graphics on Web pages for copy and paste, another multistep operation in Droid.

The Droid's lack of multitouch capability really shows on the Web; maneuvering through Web pages is difficult, as you have to use zoom buttons, which means you scroll on your page, then jump to the bottom of the screen to click an onscreen zoom button, watch the page zoom and recenter, then scroll again. It's just so much easier on an iPhone (or a Palm Pre).

The winner: The iPhone. Both the iPhone and Droid are real Web devices, giving you the true Web experience -- minus Flash -- but both navigating the Web and copying and pasting Web content are more difficult with the Droid.

Deathmatch: Location support Both the iPhone and the Droid support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. Both devices also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. Both devices let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

Where the Droid has an edge is in its bundled turn-by-turn navigation app. It may be beta (like most Google software), but it works darn well. The map and directions update as you travel, and you can have the app speak directions to you. AT&T charges iPhone users $10 a month for a similar service; you can also buy an app such as Navigon's $90 MobileNavigator or the $100 TomTom.

I like the Droid's implementation of Google Maps better when it comes to following directions. The iPhone pages from one junction to the next, so I lose the context of where I am in relation to my whole trip. The Droid -- like the Palm Pre -- moves the map along the path, so you have a better handle of the next junction point.

The winner: The Droid. The built-in navigation app sets it apart in a big way.

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