Hands-on: Motorola's Droid Pro wins as a business smartphone

The new Android smartphone is today's Treo: Great at all the tasks you need to do

Let's cut to the chase: The best Palm Treo available today is a Droid Pro.

Droid Pro
Droid Pro

The iPhone's great and all -- it's got a first-class ecosystem, lots of apps and great audio/video. But until 2008, if you wanted a phone phone, the Treo was the bee's knees. It wasn't so hot with music, movies or games, but it was brilliant at what it was supposed to do -- let you make phone calls, send texts and e-mails, and create schedules and notes. It even synced with your computer. You could even buy one unlocked, so you could make calls anywhere in the world. In fact, until the old Palm blew up, nothing touched it.

Motorola's Droid Pro follows the Treo model of businesslike simplicity. A hard keyboard sits underneath a good-enough 3.1-in. display with 320-by-480-pixel resolution. The interface is straight-ahead Android 2.2, with Motorola's usual modest ability to integrate social networking services Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. There is a blessed lack of crapware. And the phone's Exchange support (with encryption coming in early 2011, Motorola says) is fully integrated.

How old school is the Droid Pro? Out of the box, the standard side button doesn't activate the camera, as it does on most Android phones. It activates the calendar.

Like the Treo, the Droid Pro isn't a physical lightweight. There's no slide-out keyboard or other tricky frippery. It's about the same height and width (4.7 by 2.4 in.) as an iPhone. At 4.7 oz., it's roughly the same weight as well, but at about four-tenths of an inch thick, it's somewhat thicker -- that's at least partly due to its SIM card.

SIM card?

I know what you're thinking: "This is a Verizon Wireless phone; CDMA doesn't need a SIM card." That may be the Droid Pro's neatest trick.

This is a world phone. Step into the civilized world where they use GSM, and you can use the GSM circuitry with the included Vodaphone SIM card. (Vodaphone, you'll remember, owns 49% of Verizon Wireless.) The service isn't cheap -- prices vary by country -- but you'll be reachable. Also, if you're a customer in good standing for more than 60 days, Verizon will let you use your own SIM, though you'll lose support and direct billing while you're using it.

How does the Droid Pro work? Quite well, mostly. Holding the phone requires a bit more physical effort than I've grown accustomed to expending. The keyboard feels a little cramped, and in portrait mode there's no soft keyboard available. In landscape mode, a soft keyboard appears when needed, but it's just a standard keyboard; no Swype here.

Also, the display on the sample unit was frequently too dim when I kept it on automatic brightness; setting the brightness level manually solved the problem, but that could cost you battery time.

Battery life is a bit of a problem, as it is with most Android phones. The Droid Pro will make it to the end of the day on its stock 1420 mAh battery if you're careful. You will almost certainly want the extended-life 1860 mAh battery ($50; available in a few weeks), especially if you use the wireless tethering feature. Also, there's a feature that locks the phone when you drop it into your pocket. It's neat and elegant and will save power without your needing to remember to lock the phone yourself.

The five-megapixel camera (which does video, too) is perfectly adequate, and if you watch video on the screen you won't need an optometrist later. Typical of Android phones, the voice input on the Droid Pro is startlingly accurate.

So if all you want is a phone that does e-mail with a hard keyboard, why not a BlackBerry? Because the Android ecosystem is now big enough and diverse enough to give you interesting software choices. There are alternative mail programs, lots of add-ons, even games if you're so inclined. Not so much for BlackBerries.

Verizon is selling the Droid Pro for $179.99, after a $100 rebate with a two-year activation and a data plan. A 3G tethering plan costs an extra $20 per month.

Bottom line

If you're looking for mobile entertainment, there are better devices than a Droid Pro: Android users can go for the Droid X, and Apple devotees have the iPhone 4. As a communications device, though, the Droid Pro has few peers. If you want a straight-ahead business phone, this truly may be the Droid you've been looking for.

Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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