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 by Motorola Inc., running on the Verizon Wireless network, is clearly not an iPhone killer. But it is still pretty cool, with multitasking abilities and Google Inc.'s touches, 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 to smartphone- and technology-savvy guys, and I mean guys, especially. It lacks the physical elegance and sex appeal (partly due to Apple Inc.'s marketing) of the iPhone and at 6 oz. is noticeably heavier than the 4.8 oz. iPhone.

The advance marketing of a physical QWERTY keyboard in the Droid in addition to a touchscreen appealed to me, initially. The Droid's touchscreen works very well, and with a remarkably clear screen. It responded quickly to my touches in a few hours of use, maybe as close 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, and certainly not as comfortably 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 fundmental 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.

Android today has only one-tenth the number of apps in the Android Market compared to Apple's App Store, but in two more years, that ratio could change drastically.

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

But when you fire up the Droid, you get an insight into how deeply involved 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 turned 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 with stealth fighter bombers dropping devices to Earth like bombs that are discovered by cowboys and others. This is the film noir version of a smartphone, especially when compared to the brightness and colorfulness of the Palm Pre.

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

I liked very much how the 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 to get to e-mail and even Android Market apps. I was able to quickly load Gmail and send and receive e-mail that way.

A home screen icon for music opened quickly to an list of songs, some free and some for purchase of 99 cents or more The sound quality on the songs was strikingly good, rivaling the iPhone's or the iPod Touch, although this is likely a result of streaming over a good wireless connection as well as the Droid itself. 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 every feature Droid has that iPhone does not. If the $200 device falls short of iPhone, it will still delight many users just for its sheer range of functions, giving the ability to multi-task, with such features as music playing while news and weather widgets constantly update themselves .

Droid is as close to the iPhone as I've seen, but I am 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 its huge push in the smartphone market, with many devices coming next year from a variety of manufacturers. And I'm happy that Motorola sees a future with Android to help bring it back from the brink of disaster. Apple needs the competition to keep its razor edge, right? That's the American way.

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Tags smartphonesMotorolaAndroidGoogle AndroidMotorola Droid

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)
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