Review: Taking the Droid on the road

Is Motorola's new Droid good enough to vanquish iPhone envy? To find out, we took it on a 3-day trip.

I've lusted for an iPhone ever since it first went on sale -- but the nearest AT&T tower to my home is about 10 miles away. So I use Verizon Wireless and an ancient (four years old!) Motorola Q smartphone.

That's why I was excited to receive a Motorola Droid review unit. Could Droid be the iPhone substitute that I -- and undoubtedly many other Verizon subscribers -- have been longing for?

The Droid's arrival was well-timed: It was delivered just hours before I was to leave on a three-day, 1,000-mile road trip with my wife to see a family member in Ohio. This journey enabled me to put Droid through its paces.

My conclusion: My iPhone lust has been sated. The Droid, which costs about $200 after rebates and a two-year contract with Verizon, is superlative. On the whole, it is as carefully designed, useful and fun to use as an iPhone. At last.

Droid
Motorola's Droid

Some quick observations

First, a note about the Droid's general usability. In a word, it's excellent. Google's Android 2.0 platform, on which the Droid is based, feels fully formed and tightly designed.

With one notable exception -- getting media onto the device -- I never spent more than a few seconds figuring how to do something, which is the hallmark of a well-developed interface. For instance, when the device arrived, I immediately wanted to turn on Wi-Fi because of bad cellular reception in my house. At the Droid's home screen, I pressed the menu key, then Settings -- and there were all the wireless and networking options, just where I expected them.

The Droid's basic interface consists of four buttons below the screen for backing up to the previous screen, displaying the menu, returning to the home screen and searching the device's contents. Its home screen resembles the iPhone's, with icons for all included apps. At the top of the home screen is a Google search box.

A major advantage compared to the iPhone is that the Droid multitasks. For instance, I was able to listen to Pandora while checking e-mail. To switch among running tasks, you press and hold the home button and a dialog appears with icons for the six most recently opened and still-running applications. You just tap on one of those application icons to switch to it.

Like the iPhone, the Droid switches seamlessly between portrait and landscape mode when you turn the device 90 degrees. You scroll horizontally and vertically with finger-flicks across the touch screen. The most noticeable missing interface element compared to the iPhone is pinch zooming -- the ability to zoom in and out with a pinching motion. Instead, you double-tap a screen to zoom in; when you do that, icons appear for zooming in further or zooming out.

Unlike the iPhone, the Droid has a hardware QWERTY keyboard, which slides out from underneath the display. The keyboard is quite usable. My wife said that the Droid's keys were larger and easier for her to use than the keyboard on her beloved BlackBerry. I found the keys too small for typing with my large thumbs, although using my index fingers worked fine. Overall, though, I prefer the virtual keyboard, which works almost identically to the one I use regularly on my iPod Touch.

I found the Droid's 3.7-inch 480 x 854 TFT display to be noticeably crisper than the iPhone 3GS's 3.5-inch, 480 x 320 display, a clear advantage for the Droid. Speaking of size, the Droid, at about .5 inches thick, is just a hair thicker than the iPhone 3GS. It is the same width as the iPhone and a tenth of an inch shorter. It weighs about an ounce more, undoubtedly because of the keyboard.

I appreciated the device's haptic feedback -- a tiny vibration when pressing certain keys such as the phone dial pad. It was helpful to know through physical feedback that I had actually pressed an on-screen key.

A final quick impression: The Droid's five-megapixel camera (compared to the iPhone's three-megapixel camera) was quite good. But its video capabilities really shone, creating smooth, bright non-jumpy videos.

(For an up-close look at the Droid, see Motorola Droid: A visual tour.)

Getting ready for the road

I had just a few hours to set up the device after it arrived. I didn't need that much time.

In particular, it was brain-dead simple to set up e-mail, contacts and calendars because I use Gmail, which, not surprisingly, is well supported by the Google-developed Android platform. A set-up screen asked for my e-mail address and password -- and a few moments later, my Gmail e-mail, contacts and calendar had arrived on the Droid. You also can integrate Facebook contacts into the contacts app.

I have another e-mail account with EarthLink and that was almost as simple to set up, although oddly, you must use a separate application for non-Gmail accounts. That app asked for my e-mail address and password and, like the Gmail app, took it from there. The Droid also supports Microsoft Exchange 2003 and 2007, although not other server-based enterprise messaging systems such as Lotus Notes. (Note: An earlier first look at the Droid found it is missing some management and security features that many enterprises would need.)

Next, I downloaded a couple of apps. The Droid comes with an application for getting apps from Android Market; after you select the one you want, it downloads and installs automatically. Android Market has about 10 times fewer apps than Apple's App Store (100,000 vs. 10,000). That's a clear advantage for Apple -- but, as it happened, the apps I wanted most, Pandora and The New York Times, are also available for the Droid. (Also see 10 must-have free Android apps.)

I did run into a couple of glitches while getting ready for the road. The Droid comes with a 16GB microSD flash disk, but sideloading music to it from my Mac was an annoying process.

After connecting to the computer via a USB cable, you must press, hold and drag down the Droid's top status line, which lists ongoing processes such as downloads and USB connections. I tapped the listed item for the USB connection, and a dialog appeared asking if I wanted to mount the flash disk. After I did that, it showed up in Finder and I could drag and drop music files to the device. But there is no Mac application available for sideloading.

That wasn't the end of the sideloading process, though. After I finished transferring music, I had to unmount the drive by reversing the process. The contents of the SD disk weren't available for use until this process was completed.

Mounting and unmounting was also necessary to get music on the Droid from Windows PCs, but the mounted drive showed up as a drive in Windows Explorer without further manipulation required. Plus, I tested the Droid with the Rhapsody media application in Windows, which recognized the mounted drive so I could transfer files. But even in Windows, mounting and unmounting the drive was annoying and will be a bit too geeky for many users.

Another, more inexplicable problem was that although the Droid indicated it was connected to the Internet via my Cisco N UltraRange Plus home router, the device could not connect to the Internet. The Droid connected perfectly with my SMC travel router and every other Wi-Fi network I used during the trip. But I never solved the problem with the Cisco router, and I found a number of online discussions about similar problems with the Droid. A Motorola support person had not gotten back to me about this issue by my publishing deadline.

After my trip was over, I discovered I could get the Droid to work with the router if I switched the router to operate only in 802.11g mode rather than its default, 802.11n -- the Droid only supports 802.11b/g, but not n. I have several other devices, including my iPod Touch and my laptop, that don't support 802.11n but that work perfectly well with the Cisco router. But somehow or another, Droid and the router got their signals crossed.

Hitting the road

The first test of the Droid on the road was to use its GPS capabilities. Like the iPhone and many BlackBerrys, the Droid comes with Google Maps, which provides static lists of directions. But unlike those competitors, the Droid also comes with Google Navigation (in beta form), which provides spoken turn-by-turn directions.

Using the built-in voice search capabilities, I pressed the voice icon next to the Google search box on the home screen and said, "Oberlin Ohio bed and breakfast." Our B&B was listed; I tapped the "Get directions" button next to the listing and it generated a list of directions. Then I clicked the "Navigation" button that was embedded in the list, which started the turn-by-turn navigation.

Throughout the trip, navigation was comparable to other GPS systems I've used. That is, it usually worked well, but had a few quirks. For instance, at one point, it wanted to take us off the Interstate and onto state highways that went through a congested metropolitan area because that route was shorter, although obviously not faster.

Listening to music in the car was a pleasure. The interface for the music player is simple, with large buttons you can press to view your music by artist, album, song and playlist, although not by genre. One advantage over the iPhone (and iPod) is that you can add a new song or album to the end of the currently playing list of songs.

Sound quality through headphones (it comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack) was clear and bright. Sound quality on calls was also excellent.

Battery life was satisfactory. For testing purposes, after we left home, I didn't plug the Droid into our car's AC outlet. With the GPS and cellular radios on, making a number of calls and receiving e-mail, the battery lasted only a bit more than three hours. With the GPS off and using the device simply for the occasional phone call and for push e-mail, the battery lasted a bit more than six hours, which is consistent with Motorola's claim of about 6.4 hours of continuous usage.

When it was my wife's turn to drive, I browsed the Web looking for places to eat along the way. Web browsing is very satisfying with the Droid's crisp display, particularly in landscape mode. The built-in browser rendered all the Web pages I tried correctly.

I also viewed a few videos (the Droid comes with a YouTube application, which isn't surprising, considering that YouTube is owned by Google). I was very impressed that, with 3G access, the videos played with only a little jumpiness. In the hotel that night, with faster Wi-Fi access, videos played as smoothly as they do on my television.

Conclusion

Did the Droid put an end to my iPhone envy? Absolutely.

Sure, there are a few things that could stand improvement. Sideloading music should be easier, particularly from a Mac. And I can't wait for the number of apps in the Android Market to grow.

But it has four significant features that the iPhone can't match: built-in turn-by-turn GPS, multitasking, a superior display and a keyboard. And, like the iPhone, the Droid is powerful and elegantly intuitive to use. Better still, it's fun.

At last, my iPhone envy is gone. I will get a Droid. It's that good.

David Haskin is a freelance writer specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

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