It’s the first device in Verizon Wireless’ lineup in a long time that we would call cool. And that means a lot, especially since it seems as though the carrier’s customers have been whining (and rightfully so) for the two-plus years the iPhone has been available. The Droid from Motorola is not only a cut above the BlackBerry Storm2, but every other Android phone in terms of its rock-solid design and speed. The 3.7-inch display is positively huge, and for the first time on any smart phone you get free turn-by-turn GPS navigation. Plus, with the new Android 2.0 OS under the hood, you can reach out to contacts any way you like (phone, text, e-mail, Facebook) with a tap.
The Droid is not for everyone. It will be too hefty for some, and its hardware keyboard is a bit cramped for rapid text entry. Nevertheless, the Motorola Droid is hip, powerful, and smart, making it our top smart phone pick for Verizon Wireless.
From its scratch resistant glass display to its metal chassis, the black Droid looks and feels the part of a luxury handset. It measures 4.6 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches, which is thinner but longer than the BlackBerry Storm2 (4.4 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches) and a hair longer than the iPhone 3GS (4.5 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches), but just as thick. The front has four touch-sensitive buttons: one to return to the previous page, Home, Menu, and Search. It seems awfully odd to us that there aren’t send/end keys, but you can create shortcuts to your contacts on the home screen, so it’s not a deal-breaker.
At 6.0 ounces, the Droid is significantly heavier than the iPhone 3GS (4.8 ounces) and slightly heavier than the Storm2 (5.6 ounces). We have a feeling some will balk at this extra weight and gravitate toward another device in Verizon Wireless’ lineup. On the other hand, since this device is relatively thin, it didn’t seem too bulky in our pocket, and feels like it can take a serious beating.
The 3.5mm headphone jack is up top with the power button, and the thin volume control and camera launch key are on the right side. Motorola didn’t include a set of 3.5mm headphones with the device, but it does come with a 16GB microSD Card.
The Droid’s 3.7-inch 854 x 480 display is the star of the show. It’s bright and bigger than the screens on both the Storm2 (3.3 inches) and the iPhone 3GS (3.5 inches). In comparison to the iPhone, the screen’s 0.2-inch increase in size doesn’t matter much, but its higher resolution made videos and images very sharp. Its large screen with haptic feedback also comes in handy when it comes to GPS navigation. This is not a multitouch display (no pinching or zooming), but we found it to be accurate and responsive.
The hardware keyboard on the Droid isn’t the best we’ve used. Each key offered good feedback, but the layout feels cramped, and we made errors when we tried to type quickly. Part of the reason why there’s less real estate for a bigger keyboard is because there’s a 5-way directional pad to the right, with a gold center button. This makes it easy to make finer cursor movements, but the Droid wouldn’t need a D-pad if it had a looking glass feature like the iPhone.
The keyboard felt very solid and well built. Our only current gripe is that pulling the keyboard out feels stiff; we’re hoping the mechanism will loosen with continued usage, but so far it has not.
Google slightly improved the on-screen QWERTY keyboard with the Android 2.0 OS update, but we still found it less accurate than the keyboard on the HTC Hero, the iPhone 3GS, or even the BlackBerry Storm2, which has an improved SurePress keyboard.
The Droid is the first smart phone to run Google’s Android 2.0 operating system, which features two major improvements over the previous version. First, when you tap a contact, there is now the option to call, message, e-mail, or—if you have the app installed—reach out to that person via Facebook. For every use case, we found it worked seamlessly. The second major feature in Android 2.0 is the ability to add more than one Google account for Gmail, your calendar, and address book. We’ll revisit this in the messaging section.
The Droid features the stock Android 2.0 interface, as opposed to the Motoblur interface found on the T-Mobile Cliq. Some will prefer the latter because of its social networking widgets and five home screens, but we can live with the plain menus on the Droid. This phone offers three home screens that you can switch between with a swipe of your finger and customize with a variety of widgets from the Android Market. Each home screen can update in real time, so it’s possible to put a Facebook widget on one screen and a BBC news widget on another to see the latest status updates and news headlines.
Like previous Android phones, to view missed calls, messages, or other alerts, simply slide your finger from the top of the screen downward to reveal a notification shade.
Android 2.0 also has a few other enhancements that we’ll discuss later in this review, including improved browsing with HTML5 support, Bluetooth 2.1 support, and an improved Market.
Specs and Performance
The Motorola Droid has a 550-MHz Arm Cortex A8 processor (the same found in the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre), along with 256MB of RAM and 512MB of flash ROM. Compared to the Cliq, Motorola’s other Android phone that sports a 528-MHz Qualcomm processor, we noticed a few minor speed differences. The browser on both phones opened just as fast (almost instantly), but YouTube opened a hair faster on the Droid, and the Droid was also much faster at loading its photo gallery.
By clicking the Search button on the phone, we were able to hunt through our contacts, applications, and even phone settings, but we couldn’t search for individual messages from our e-mail inbox. You have to go into the messaging application to do that kind of search, which is annoying.
Android 2.0 now lets you use your voice to search Google Maps with Navigation for turn-by-turn directions. It was very accurate when we searched for “Starbucks,” but you can’t navigate to a contact’s address by saying “Navigate to Todd,” for example. You also can’t use it to search for things on the phone itself; when we said “Open Settings,” it simply searched Google using “Open Settings” as a search term. Still, this feature is useful for Google searches in general. When we said “Wikipedia, Pocahontas,” it returned accurate search results.
Droid supports contacts from Exchange, Google accounts, and Facebook, as well as any you may have on your SIM card, and unifies them seamlessly. Simply log into an account and it pulls down all of the required information, applying them to each address entry. When we clicked our friend Tom’s username, we had a choice to contact him on Facebook (there’s even an option to jump over and view his Facebook profile), chat with him, SMS him, or e-mail him. Assuming you have that person’s address, you can navigate to him or her with a couple of taps. You can also easily search for contacts or create shortcuts for them from your home screen, or you can just start typing when you’re within contacts.
The Android Market is home to over 10,000 applications. That’s about a tenth of the size of Apple’s App Store, but there’s still plenty of quality content to be discovered. Facebook and Pandora rank among our favorite apps, and the former comes preinstalled on the device. Some of our other top picks include the TwiDroid Twitter client and Layar, an augmented reality application. However, when we installed Layar, we noticed that the camera wouldn’t angle properly, causing the application to work improperly.
Paid apps can be charged to your Google Checkout account, but there isn’t an option for carrier billing yet, which we’d like to see added. The store’s interface is much cleaner and more intuitive than in the past, and it’s easy to toggle between the most popular free and paid apps in a given category.
Unlike other Verizon Wireless phones, the Droid doesn’t come preloaded with Verizon Wireless applications such as V Cast Navigator for GPS or V Cast Music and Video, although that functionality may be added later. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering GPS is free on the Droid, On the other hand, some Rhapsody fans may miss the support for syncing their accounts and playlists. Verizon Wireless’ Visual Voicemail application is available in the Android Market.
E-Mail and Messaging
It’s no secret that Android is a Google invention, which makes it a killer operating system for anyone who relies on or heavily uses Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Calendar. Once you log in with a single Google account, the Droid automatically pulls in all of your events, contacts, and mail. As noted earlier, the Droid lets you add more than one Google account. However, we found that we couldn’t combine our Gmail inboxes into one. Instead, we had to click Menu > Switch accounts. If you want to combine inboxes, you’ll need to set up your e-mail accounts inside the separate Mail application, which color codes your work/play accounts, but doesn’t support push functionality. We set up two different IMAP accounts and in a few minutes saw them both inside the Mail application, one labeled with a pink tab and the other with an orange one.
If you have an Exchange account, you can log in and view your corporate calendar, contacts, and access your work e-mail. The Droid even separates your Google and Exchange calendars with two icons inside the main menu. If your office uses Google Gmail for e-mail, you’ll receive push notifications.
A word of caution: Once you add a Gmail account, you can’t remove it without resetting the Droid and starting from scratch. When we tried to delete our secondary Gmail account, it told us that it was in use by other applications and that to remove it we would have to reset the phone to factory defaults.
Android 2.0 adds a few improvements to the Web browser, including support for HTML5 Web sites and the ability to tap and zoom. The Droid doesn’t have a multitouch display, so you can’t pinch and zoom, but we found double tapping to be an effective method. Thanks to the 550-MHz processor, the Droid was smooth and quick when we panned and scrolled around large full HTML Web sites.
When loading Web pages, the iPhone 3GS proved slightly faster. The Droid loaded NYTimes.com in 21 seconds, compared to the iPhone’s 16 seconds. When we tried CNN.com, the iPhone loaded the site in 13 seconds, and the Droid took 15 seconds. And when we loaded Laptopmag.com, the iPhone took 13 seconds to the Droid’s 15.
Over our Wi-Fi network, the Droid loaded the same three Web sites in 19, 14, and 12, seconds, respectively. The iPhone took 13, 10, and 9 seconds; the iPhone 3GS is definitely faster, but the Droid is no slouch.
The biggest difference in the browsing experience between the iPhone and Droid is that the latter’s larger display size allows you to see more of the page at once. Plus, the higher resolution allows you to read text more clearly without having to zoom in.
On the other hand, you can bookmark more easily on the iPhone by tapping the plus symbol on the bottom of the screen, whereas you have to press the menu button first on the Droid. Plus, the iPhone handles multiple browser windows more elegantly with graphic thumbnails, while the Droid (and all other Android phones) uses a text list of sites you have open. Oddly, bookmarks are displayed with thumbnails.
Verizon Wireless didn’t pack any of its multimedia offerings into the Droid. That means you won’t have V Cast Video or the V Cast Music store with Rhapsody support, but the Droid still serves up multimedia on a silver platter.
Users can purchase songs from Amazon’s music store for 99 cents each, or entire albums that often cost under $10. We loaded Dierks Bentley’s “Down The Road I Go,” from a microSD Card and found the music was loud enough to fill a small room. The audio was balanced, too, and didn’t sound too tinny or washed out. YouTube videos looked excellent on the display, and thanks to its high resolution, you can choose to view higher quality YouTube videos, too.
There’s a $29.99 bedside accessory that lets you use the Droid as an alarm clock stand. When it’s placed in the stand, the Droid displays the date, temperature, time, and weather. But you can also choose to set an alarm, or use the phone as a photo frame or music player.
The Droid has a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and flash, but we were unimpressed with its performance. On a clear day in New York City, shots were washed out and grainy in the darker areas of the picture. Shots are fine for sending as an MMS or uploading to Facebook, and they look good on the phone itself, but we wouldn’t leave our point and shoot at home.
A 720 x 480 and 24 frames per second video taken near Times Square in New York City looked good on our computer, and we think it meets the claims of DVD quality that Motorola is offering. While there were some artifacts as we spun around, colors were represented well and the audio was clear.
Unlike most smart phones, the Droid features free turn-by-turn navigation—complete with spoken street names—courtesy of the new Google Maps Navigation (Beta). In our tests we found this app to work very well, even if it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of services like TeleNav Navigator.
After we entered a destination and clicked Navigate, the Droid calculated our route in just 6 seconds and displayed a detailed map. The top-left portion of the screen shows you the distance to the next turn along with a turn arrow; the top shows you which road you’re on currently; and the bottom left displays the estimated time of arrival. You can click the Menu button at any time and select Route Info. From there you can either pull up a text list of directions or look up an alternate route.
You can also select from multiple layers to add to your map, from gas stations and ATMs to restaurants and parking. Other layer choices include a very cool photorealistic Satellite view and a Traffic view; the Droid successfully identified congestion on Route 495 leading into the Lincoln tunnel. We also found the phone quick to reroute us when we changed course on a trip through central New Jersey. Also, if Google Maps has a street view of an intersection along your route, the app will briefly show that view prior to that turn.
So what’s not to like? First, the female voice that speaks directions sounds more robotic than others we’ve heard on competing navigation services. Also, though you can conduct searches while you’re driving, the map view zooms out and doesn’t show you the location on your route map. And even though Google Maps Navigation has up-to-date traffic info, it doesn’t suggest alternate routes proactively; you need to do the work.
Nevertheless, this app will meet most people’s needs, and you don’t have to pay $9.99 per month to use it. Plus, if you spring for the $29.99 car dock, the Droid is smart enough to automatically fire up a special home screen menu with car-friendly options, including Contacts, Navigation, Search, View Map, and Voice Search (which is front and center).
Call Quality and Battery Life
Call quality on the Droid was good but not stellar. We didn’t have any complaints from callers, but when we left a voicemail on our landline phone, we heard our voice bounce back a few times. When we played it back, we thought we sounded a bit watery.
We used the Droid for about 5 hours of nearly nonstop e-mail, Web, music, and phone calls before the phone died, so with moderate use you should be able to get through a full day. Plus, a power control widget lets you toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, sync settings, and even the brightness right from your home screen.
The Motorola Droid is hands-down our favorite smart phone for Verizon Wireless. We love the large display, free GPS navigation, and the way Android 2.0 streamlines your contacts. This is also the best mobile Web experience you can get on Verizon’s network. The Motorola Cliq and HTC Hero have snazzier user interfaces, but we think a lot of consumers will gladly forego those for snappier performance. The iPhone 3GS is lighter, surfs the Web faster, and offers a much more vast array of apps, but we think Verizon Wireless customers who have been waiting for a multitasking touchscreen powerhouse will be excited to own this device.