The $99.99 (with two-year contract and $100 mail-in rebate) Droid Eris is the smart phone for Verizon Wireless customers who are looking for something more pocket friendly and affordable than the Motorola Droid. While the Eris doesn’t have the latest Android 2.0 operating system or that other Droid’s high-resolution display, you get the intuitive Sense user interface and very good Facebook and Twitter integration. Add in a rock solid industrial design and a first-class Web browser (complete with multitouch support), and you have one of the best smart phones under $100. However, the Eris is not necessarily a better deal than its $179 cousin on Sprint.
The Eris measures 4.5 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches and weighs 4.2 ounces. It’s a bit lighter than the HTC Hero, its cousin on Sprint, and feels comfortable in the hand. On the front of the phone, its 3.2-inch, 480 x 320 resolution display is less impressive than the Droid’s 3.7-inch 854 x 480 resolution display. However, the Eris’ display is multitouch-enabled, where the Motorola Droid’s is not. The entire device has a matte black rubber texture surrounding all of the major buttons and the camera, which makes the Eris easy to hold.
Above the Send and End keys, which flank the trackball at the bottom of the Eris, there are four touch-sensitive buttons that are common on Android phones: the Home key, a Menu key, a return button, and a search button. Silver borders around the proprietary USB charging port, 3.5mm headphone jack, and 5-MP camera give the device a premium look.
The Eris runs Google’s open source Android operating system, which, in addition to allowing third-party software makers to create apps for the device, also lets manufacturers install their own custom user interfaces. Unlike the Motorola Droid, which has the most recent version of the Android OS (2.0), the Eris runs Android version 1.5—which means no free spoken turn-by-turn GPS, for one. HTC has said it will likely release an upgraded version of Sense with Android 2.0 in the future.
There are three primary buttons on the home screen: one arrow that brings up the application menu, another to access the phone app, and a third + button that lets you add widgets to the home screen. From the home screen, you can pull down a notification shade by swiping your finger down from the top of the display, allowing you to view missed calls, messages, or other alerts.
HTC’s Sense theme, also found on the HTC Hero, creates a rich desktop experience. From the home screen you can swipe your finger (or roll the trackball) right or left to explore a total of seven screens that you can customize with widgets. To add a widget, simply hold your finger down and choose either Android Widget or HTC Widget. Sense comes preloaded with tons of custom HTC widgets that you can add to your desktop. These include Bookmarks, Calendar, Clock, Footprints, Mail, Messages, Music, People (your Contacts), Photo Albums, Photo Frames, Search, Stocks, Twitter, and Weather.
Each of these widgets updates in real time, so if you have the Twitter widget (powered by Peep) on your desktop, for example, you can view your friend’s status updates as they roll in. These Sense enhancements are also available on the Sprint HTC Hero.
The aforementioned seven-panel home screen can be tweaked to your preferences, and you can save specific themes you’ve created. Different themes, or Scenes, as HTC calls them, can be applied by pressing the Menu button from the home screen and choosing Scenes. HTC includes a few basic ones, including Play, Social, Travel, and Work, all of which possessing predefined widgets that are designed to match the corresponding theme name.
Sense also contains some smaller (but important) touches. Inside the Contacts application, for example, you can create groups of friends, favorites, or even link people with Facebook to view updates or upcoming events. T-Mobile’s Motorola Cliq, which features Motorola’s Motoblur interface, offers a similar widget interface, but displays friend’s status updates from social networks like Facebook directly in your inbox, which may prove to be a more seamless and robust experience. On the other hand, Motoblur provides only five screens you can customize.
The Eris has a similar virtual keyboard as the Hero, which HTC tweaked a bit from the stock Android version. It’s easy to type on, but switching from vertical to landscape mode takes about 2 to 3 seconds, which is frustrating. Also, if you type fast, the phone starts to lag. Overall, though, it’s one of the better on-screen keyboards we’ve come across, so our quibbles are not a deal breaker.
E-Mail and Messaging
Support for push Gmail, contacts, and calendar comes standard on the Eris; merely log into your Gmail account. The device also supports POP/IMAP accounts as well as Exchange servers. Our biggest gripe is that you can only sync one full Google account, and if you want to change it, you actually have to reset the phone to factory settings. Quickoffice is installed for opening Office attachments, and there’s also an Adobe PDF viewer, but you can’t create any of these files.
As the Eris runs Android 1.5, you can’t simply click a contact and view Google’s Quick Contact interface for sending a message, e-mail, SMS, or Facebook chat. (This feature is available only in Android 2.0) However, HTC does let you sync each contact with their appropriate Flickr or Facebook account, so you can view status updates as well as recently uploaded pictures.
Google Talk comes preinstalled, but other popular chat clients such as AIM and Yahoo Messenger are not included.
The Eris packs a 528-MHZ Qualcomm MSM7600 processor with 512MB of ROM and 288MB of RAM; despite its slightly higher clock speed, the Droid’s 550-MHz Arm Cortex A8 processor offers better performance, especially when moving around the UI. Menus switch faster and areas like panning around Web pages felt smoother on the Droid. Even though they have the same processor, we noticed a bit more sluggishness on the Eris than we did on the Hero.
Unlike the Motorola Droid, the Eris’ display is multitouch-enabled. Zooming in and out of Web pages using two fingers was fluid. We easily enlarged the pages by pulling our fingers outward, and shrunk out by pinching them, much like you’d experience on an iPhone. Multitouch works with Google Maps, photos, and Web browsing, and we hope more applications will take advantage of this feature in the future.
We surfed the Web on the Eris using Verizon Wireless’ 3G EV-DO Rev. A network and the device’s 801.11b/g Wi-Fi chip. Over 3G, the Eris loaded Laptopmag.com in 38 seconds; that’s about three times as long as the iPhone (13 seconds) and the Droid (15 seconds). Other sites loaded more quickly: m.NYT.com took 5 seconds and m.ESPN.com 6 seconds. Over Wi-Fi, we loaded the same three sites in 26, 4, and 4 seconds, respectively. By comparison, the Motorola Droid loaded full HTML versions of both CNN.com and Laptopmag.com in 15 seconds.
You can double tap to zoom like you can in Android 2.0 and the browser lets you zoom in with pinch gestures, as well as two easy-to-use zoom buttons. Overall, we prefer Android’s WebKit browser to those found on BlackBerry devices, but not over the iPhone’s.
The Android Market is home to over 10,000 appliccations, which is shy of the over 100,000 that Apple offers in its own iTunes app store. Much of the market is filled with undesirable applications, but there are a few gems that we like to use. One, called Layar, relies on augmented reality technology to show you local restaurants, Twitter users, and more through your camera. Another favorite, called Listen, made by Google, lets you stream your favorite podcasts. Paid apps, which typically cost just a few dollars, can be charged to your Google Checkout account, which accepts major credit cards. Carrier billing is not currently available.
The Eris sports a 3.5mm headphone jack, but you have to supply your own headphones. It’s pretty easy to drag and drop music to the phone over USB (the Eris comes with an 8GB microSD card), or you can buy songs from the Amazon MP3 Store for 99 cents a pop. When played over the phone’s speaker, John Mayer’s “Who Says” came through loud enough to hear in a small room.
The YouTube videos we loaded on the Eris looked good. However, while the HTC Hero offers Sprint TV content, Verizon doesn’t offer V Cast TV service on the Eris. An Iglu & Hartly music video looked fine on the Eris’ display, but it wasn’t as crisp as when we watched it on the Droid’s higher resolution screen.
The Eris has a 5-MP camera with autofocus on the back of the phone, but lacks a flash. It took mediocre photos outdoors: Taxi cabs were bright yellow, but shots weren’t that clear and we couldn’t read signs across the street. As expected, darker pictures weren’t very good. Still, we think images were a bit better than those taken with the Motorola Droid.
We shot video in the maximum 352 x 288 resolution, which is shy of the Motorola Droid’s DVD quality (720 x 480 pixels). Video shot on the streets of New York City looked decent enough for uploading to YouTube but there were noticeable artifacts around edges, and cars slightly stuttered across the screen instead of flowing.
The Eris supports GPS applications, but you’ll have to purchase a navigation app from the Android Market like ALK Technologies CoPilot Live 8 ($34.99). The Motorola Droid comes preloaded with Google Maps Navigation (Beta), which delivers spoken turn-by-turn directions for free, while the Sprint HTC Hero offers Sprint Navigation (powered by TeleNav) as part of its data plan. Still, using the older version of Google Maps, the Eris accurately pinpointed our location outside our Manhattan office almost immediately. It took about two seconds for the app to create a route to our home, though the directions aren’t spoken. The app also gave us the correct subway lines to take.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Call quality with the Droid Eris on Verizon’s network was very good. We were able to hear our party clearly and callers did not complain about voice quality. We also didn’t experience any dropped calls during testing. When we left a voice mail on our landline from the busy streets of New York City, audio came through crisp despite some background noise from nearby trucks. We noticed a few clipped words when we spoke softer, but otherwise we found call quality to be acceptable.
Under heavy usage—surfing the Web, had our Gmail pushed to us, taking photos, and talking on the phone—we saw just over a workday’s worth of battery life on the Eris, which is good.
Data Plan Pricing and Overall Value
As tempting as the Eris’ $99.99 (with two-year contract and $100 mail-in rebate)sticker price is, the $179 Sprint HTC Hero is considerably less expensive over a two-year contract. On Sprint, a $69.99 monthly Everything Data plan includes 450 minutes, 5GB of data, unlimited text messaging, GPS navigation (through Telenav), and Sprint TV. On Verizon you’ll pay $99.99 for the same number of minutes, data usage, and unlimited messaging. And as we mentioned above, you’ll need to pay extra for GPS navigation. Overall, it would cost you $440 more for this device than the Hero over two years, so you’ll need to decide how much you value Verizon’s network.
The HTC Droid Eris has a lot going for it. We love its Sense user interface and slick design. Assuming you don’t need a hardware keyboard, the Eris is a better choice than the Motorola Droid for those who want to travel light. If you’re already on Verizon, the Eris is the carrier’s best smart phone under $100. However, if your contract is up (or almost up) the HTC Hero on Sprint is an even better deal.