Surprise! The Droid Eris is a better smartphone than the Droid

HTC's iPhone-like mobile device is more advanced in key areas than the Motorola Droid, whose physical keyboard is hard to use

This month's purported "iPhone killer" is the Android-based Motorola Droid, which Verizon began selling in the United States on Nov. 6. Unfortunately, it has some real flaws that make it less enterprise-friendly than the iPhone, so it won't kill off the iPhone in business. But the Motorola Droid is a surprisingly good device for individuals and businesses that uses Gmail, POP- or IMAP-based e-mail, or Exchange with no ActiveSync security policies.

But with all the hoopla around the Motorola Droid, a better and cheaper phone is getting ignored: the HTC Droid Eris.

Both Droids are compelling devices. Their WebKit-based browsers work well -- as well as the iPhone's. The iPhone's cut and paste is a bit more intuitive, but the Android approach is quite usable. Calendar and address book capabilities are sound, you get the map and messaging features you'd expect, some good apps are starting to emerge, you can sync files and music to the removable SD cards, the cameras are quite good (the Motorola Droid even has an LED flash), and both devices work well as voice phones. The Android UI is pretty intuitive -- not up to iPhone standards, but more intuitive than the Palm Pre's -- and frankly pretty darn good. And its multitasking, which is something the iPhone can't do, works smoothly and with no performance degradation.

I was surprised that I preferred the cheaper HTC Droid Eris over the "iPhone killer" Motorola Droid. First, HTC's UI is better, with cool features such as the ability to show e-mail previews on the home screen and provide a quick-access menu bar on the home screen. Another cool HTC feature: The onscreen keyboard shows the special symbols above the letters, and if you tap and hold a letter, a pop-up lets you choose a special symbol -- that's much easier to use than the switch-the-keyboard approach of the Droid, Palm Pre, and iPhone. The UI uses pop-down menus extensively in apps to set preferences easily. HTC's UI extensions have a bunch of such intuitive, quick-access capabilities.

By contrast, Motorola uses the stock Android 2.0 UI, which results in a more awkward experience. An example: The home screen's analog-only clock gets in the way of your major apps and useful features, such as seeing the time or how many new e-mail messages you have. The HTC Droid Eris uses the Android 1.5 OS, but the company says it is very likely to provide an Android 2.0 upgrade once it completes porting its UI innovations to Android 2.0.  Motorola has made a big deal of using Android to innovate, but HTC is where the Android innovation so far is actually happening.

Beyond the UI, the HTC Droid Eris has a multitouch screen like the iPhone's, which allows for the use of gestures such as pinching to zoom in. The pricier Motorola Droid uses a single-touch screen, so all you can do is scroll and swipe with your finger; you have to use onscreen controls to zoom, which is less exact than the HTC Droid Eris' gesture approach. The Motorola Droid's screen is larger and sharper than the HTC Droid Eris', but its automatic brightness adjustment can make it flicker in some environments (you'll want to turn this feature off), and the HTC Droid Eris has better default contrast and brightness settings.

The HTC Droid Eris' lighted trackball at first glance is like the Research in Motion BlackBerry Bold's, which is not very accurate. But I found that the trackball worked smoothly and accurately on the HTC Droid Eris. You don't need it to navigate the screen most of the time, but it comes in very handy for fine movements, such as when moving the cursor within text. The Motorola Droid has no equivalent, and so it's harder to work with text on it.

The Motorola Droid's biggest disappointment is its keyboard: The flat keys are hard to use. I could not easily tell which key I was pressing until text appeared on the screen. Plus the flat, low-travel keys were hard to press with my thumbs, so I ended up doing one-finger typing using my index finger. The result was that I simply could not touch-type on it as I could on a BlackBerry Bold. The lack of tactile context meant I had to look at the keyboard to type, and that made it much slower to type on than on a BlackBerry keyboard -- or even than on the Motorola Droid's onscreen keyboard.

I know that BlackBerry users hate touch keyboards, but the truth is that the Motorola Droid's touch keyboard is much easier to use than its physical keyboard, with good visual clues as you tap and nice autocomplete and autocorrect capabilities, which you can disable if desired. (The HTC Droid Eris' touch keyboard is even better than the Motorola Droid's -- and I would say as good as the iPhone's, with easier access to special symbols.)

If you won't get an iPhone because it has no physical keyboard, and you've realized that the BlackBerry Storm 2 is one of the worst touch-based smartphones ever made due to having both a bad keyboard and a bad touchscreen, I'm sorry to say the Motorola Droid won't satisfy you, either. The Palm Pre is probably your only realistic choice, and its keyboard is not as good as that in the BlackBerry Bold, Curve, or Tour.

But if you're not wedded to using a physical keyboard and not willing to use AT&T as your carrier to get an iPhone, the HTC Droid Eris is a great choice. (But be careful: The HTC Hero offered by Sprint is not as good as the HTC Droid Eris, despite superficial similarities.)  I only wish HTC had a model with the Motorola Droid's larger screen size. The HTC Droid Eris' screen size is usable -- the same as a Palm Pre's and slightly smaller than an iPhone's -- but the extra half-inch would make it fantastic.

If I were Apple, the HTC Droid Eris is the competitor I'd be most worried about today.

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Galen Gruman

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