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First look: Droid not an iPhone killer, but still pretty cool

Open-source fans will love this Android 2.0 smartphone

November 5, 2009 11:10 AM ET

Computerworld - The new Droid slider smartphone from Motorola Inc., running on the Verizon Wireless network, is clearly not an iPhone killer. But it's still pretty cool, with multitasking abilities and several touches courtesy of Google Inc., such as quick access to Google Maps for turn-by-turn navigation with GPS.

This Android 2.0 slider smartphone, which goes on sale Friday for $200 after rebate and a new two-year contract, is mainly geared and marketed toward smartphone- and technology-savvy guys -- and I mean guys, especially. It lacks the iPhone's physical elegance and sex appeal (which comes partly from Apple Inc.'s marketing), and at 6 oz. it's noticeably heavier than the 4.8-oz. iPhone.

The fact that Droid has a physical QWERTY keyboard -- which as been played up in advance marketing for the gadget -- as well as a touch screen appealed to me, initially. Droid's touch screen works very well, with a remarkably clear screen. It responded quickly to my touches in a few hours of use, maybe as well as any smartphone on the market. (However, the accelerometer seemed to work too slowly when switching from landscape to portrait.)

But the physical keyboard has flat keys that made typing and texting difficult with my big thumbs -- they certainly weren't as comfortable to use as the beveled keys on my BlackBerry Curve. (And the BlackBerry keys are even smaller than the Droid keys.)

The keyboard and its ergonomics and functionality are fundamental to a smartphone, and if you can't get past keyboard concerns, you won't care that Droid has a 5-megapixel camera, can multitask and runs the open-source Android 2.0 operating system.

The Android Market online software store currently has only one-tenth as many apps as Apple's App Store, but that ratio could change drastically in two years.

The Droid smartphone
The Droid smartphone.

The voice quality on Droid is superb, even on speakerphone; it's better than the voice quality of my Curve and any previous phone I've used, including Motorola's original Razr. Motorola deserves the credit for that.

But when you fire up Droid, you can see how deeply Google has been involved with Android and this particular device. There seems to be a ton of Google-inspired input into minor, but not inconsequential, features that reflect Google's marketing genius in working with Verizon and Motorola. For example, when the device turns on, a machine voice in a low register says "Droid" with robotic reverberation, evoking the spaced-out Droid ads we've seen on TV.

A gray-colored home screen, resembling etched leather or a scratched blackboard, reaches for the same dark look of the latest Droid TV ad -- the one where stealth fighter planes drop objects that look like bombs across the countryside, and cowboys and others discover that the projectiles are actually capsules containing Droids. This is the film noir version of a smartphone, especially when compared to the brightness and colorfulness of, say, the Palm Pre.

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