Hands on: Motorola's Droid 2 is a refresh, not a revelation

The Droid 2 is a reasonable update of the original Droid. But does it break new ground?

As the Smartphone Summer of 2010 lurches to a close, Verizon Wireless and Motorola have refreshed their product lines with the Droid 2 ($200 with a two-year contract), an update to the 10-month-old popular Droid slider phone.

Motorola Droid 2
Motorola Droid 2

It's a nice update -- the first phone to ship with Android 2.2 (a.k.a. Froyo) -- with some good tweaks. However, after spending a few days with one, I've concluded that it's unlikely to make your heart go pit-a-pat.

Physically, the phone is nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor. At 2.4 x 4.6 x 0.5 in., it's nearly the same size as an iPhone 4 -- just 0.1 in. thicker, thanks to the slide-out keyboard. Although, at 6 oz., it's slightly heavier than a Droid X (again, keyboard), it's a half-inch shorter and about a quarter-inch narrower, with a 3.7-in. screen instead of the X's 4.3-in. display. It's a good size for one-handed operation.

The four function keys along the bottom are fixed-function targets rather than actual buttons that move when you press them, as they are on the Droid X; they're in slightly different order on the Droid 2 than on the original Droid.

Where pressing a physical button on the Droid X will wake that phone, one consequence of the Droid 2's buttonless buttons is that you'll need to find the hard on-off switch along the phone's top edge to wake it from sleep. And because the phone is so very rectangular, that key can be a little hard to find.

The physical keyboard, a landscape-oriented affair which slides leftward from behind the display, is a marked improvement over the original Droid's. The keys are more domed, there are now inverted-T cursor keys instead of the previous square pad, and other keys now have more room. Opening the keyboard automatically causes the display to orient toward it. The keyboard feels more substantial than, say, a Palm Pre's, but it's not nearly as refined as a BlackBerry's. Also, it's meant for two-handed (or two-thumbed) operation.

If you're devoted to single-handedness, the Droid 2 also has an excellent soft keyboard that can use the excellent Swype entry system. But the smaller size of the Droid 2 compared to the X makes the soft keyboard feel a little cramped. For this function, slightly bigger would have been slightly better.

Despite its 1-GHz processor, a significant upgrade over its 550-MHz predecessor, during testing the Droid 2 frequently felt slow and underpowered. Contact details were sometimes agonizingly slow to come up -- a particular disappointment because the software brilliantly pulls together contact information and recent activity.

Similarly, the powerful K-9 e-mail app, available for free through the Android Market, was sometimes sluggish to the point of apparently hanging. When you're standing on a street corner waiting for a taxi, you don't want to your phone software to be lagging.

Bottom line

In the end, the Droid 2 might be more important to Verizon Wireless and Motorola than to their customers. The smartphone business moves pretty fast, and after just 10 months, the original Droid is getting a little old. The Droid 2 fills a gap in their product line: the hard-keyboard Android phone.

If you like Verizon's network and you want an Android phone with a hard keyboard, the Droid 2's your baby. But if the keyboard is negotiable and you don't mind a slightly bigger phone, you may want to step up to the Droid X.

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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