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

Open-source fans will love this Android 2.0 smartphone

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.

Google, Motorola and Verizon seem willing to win over rough and tumble types with Droid, but possibly at the cost of other demographic groups. (Two teenage girls saw a Droid and one said, "Oooh, Droid! What a terrible name!" while the other picked it up like it was indeed a deadly missile.)

I liked very much how Droid's interface connects a user quickly to functions and apps such as Google Maps, even if they all seem Google-focused. Steps seem to have been eliminated from the process of accessing e-mail and Android Market apps. I was able to quickly load Gmail and then use it to send and receive e-mail.

A home screen icon for music opened quickly to an list of songs, some free and some available for 99 cents or more. The sound quality on the songs was strikingly good, rivaling that of the iPhone or the iPod Touch, although this could be attributed not just to Droid itself but also to the fact that the audio was streaming over a good wireless connection. Google Maps loaded fast and worked efficiently with GPS, quicker than any of several phone-based navigation systems I've used.

Nobody said that Droid had to be an iPhone killer -- except indirectly, when Google, Verizon and Motorola aired their "iDon't" ads, describing features that Droid has but the iPhone lacks. If the $200 device falls short of the iPhone, it will still delight many users just because its sheer range of functions will make it easy to multitask -- on Droid, music can play while news and weather widgets constantly update themselves, for example.

Droid is as close to the iPhone as any smartphone I've seen, but I'm still not sure a new two-year agreement with Verizon for a Droid instead of an AT&T contract for an iPhone would lure me in. (I imagine this money question will weigh heavily for most potential buyers.)

In general, I'm delighted that Android is making a huge splash in the smartphone market, with many Android-based devices coming next year from a variety of manufacturers. And I'm happy that Motorola thinks Android has a future and that Android can help bring Motorola back from the brink of disaster. Apple needs the competition to keep its razor edge, right? That's the American way.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon