I hate AT&T.
That might be an odd way to start a post about a cell phone that’s not on the AT&T network, but it’s at the heart of why I now have a Motorola Droid, on the Verizon network, in my possession. As people who know me already know, I’ve had every version of iPhone, currently the 32GB 3GS model, and am a huge fan of it. I’m also a Mac user and Apple TV owner, with a sizable investment in the iTunes way of managing media. I wouldn’t consider switching to another phone, except that I can’t use my iPhone as a phone most of my day. That’s right, my new office is an AT&T black hole. No signal at all.
Let’s face it: the killer app of any phone is being able to make and receive calls. Hence, the Droid.
The Droid is the first phone I’ve used that could even make me consider moving away from my iPhone. I picked the Droid up on release day, last Friday, and have used it all weekend. This post will be about my initial impressions from that period, and I’m sure there will be more coming over the next week as I try and decide if I can live with it well enough to have it replace my iPhone permanently.
Motorola makes the hardware itself. The initial impression it gives is that it’s solid. It’s a bit heavy, and I perceive it to be bigger and heavier than the iPhone until I hold them side-by-side and realize that while it is bigger and heavier, it’s insignificantly so.
While it’s well-built, it lacks the certain jewel-like quality I feel the iPhone has. The iPhone has few, well-placed buttons and almost imperceptible seams. The Droid, with its removable battery, more numerous buttons, sharper edges and corners, and dual branding on the front (both Motorola and Verizon get billing on the front of the device, with Verizon and Google on the back), misses the high bar set by the iPhone. That said, it’s tasteful as other cell phones go, and is at worst inoffensive.
I’ll leave the specs to sites that handle those things better than I could, but note some highlights. The screen is of much higher resolution and pixel density than the iPhone, and it’s gorgeous to look at. Going back to the iPhone after a day of the Droid makes one realize how jaggy that screen is. If you want to stay in love with your iPhone’s screen, don’t use a Droid for long.
It’s a touch screen, and as far as its performance goes, it’s fine. The iPhone seems more responsive to touches and gestures, but I’m not sure what part of the Droid is to blame. In any case, the Droid is not terribly far behind.
Micro-USB & Docks
Instead of a proprietary connector like Apple’s, the Droid is equipped with a micro-USB connector on its left side. It’s used for both charging and connecting to a computer. There are two docks available; I was only able to get ahold of the one for the car, which I perceive to be the more important. The other, for the home, turns the Droid into a capable alarm clock. The Droid, when put into a dock, goes into a dock-specific mode, with an interface that makes sense for that context. The car dock triggers a car mode which has large buttons and easy access to voice control and navigation options. More on that last bit later.
The battery that comes with the Droid, which is user-replaceable, lasts about a day with moderate call usage, fairly heavy other usage and all radios (Bluetooth, 3G, GPS) active. Good enough, but I definitely need a car charger to top it up for heavy-use days.
The camera is a 5MP model with a dedicated button to take pics with. It’s autofocus, but without the iPhone’s neat ability to pick a subject to focus and expose for. It’s serviceable enough, but even though it’s of higher resolution than the 3GS’s camera, I don’t perceive it to be better in the few times I’ve used it. In fact, perhaps it’s not as good–more use required to tell.
Slide-Out Physical Keyboard
The cool kids call the Droid a “slider”–it has a physical keyboard that slides out like a drawer from the screen. Bottom line: it works, but I don’t see the need. The software keyboard works better for me, so I never use the slider. In fact, I’d prefer a model that saved the weight and complexity the keyboard must add to the device.
The Droid has two physical buttons and 4 permanent “soft” buttons. The physical ones include one on the top right corner, in the same place as the iPhone’s, which wakes the Droid up or puts it to sleep. A long press provides a menu of power-related options. The other is a dedicated camera button on the bottom right, which fits under the finger when holding the phone horizontally to take a picture.
The power button is fine, but the Droid’s beveled top and the nearby headphone jack make it ever-so-slightly hard to find by feel, unlike the iPhone, where it falls right under the finger and is distinct from the otherwise smooth case. I would prefer that the camera button not exist.
The soft keys, as I call them, are at the very bottom of the touch screen, and are imprinted with icons. They only work when the phone is active, and can’t wake it from sleep. There is no front-facing button like the iPhone’s with which to wake the Droid, forcing one to use the top button. A minor quibble, but a noticeable difference for me. It’s a “small thing” that one uses constantly; the iPhone gets this just right and the Droid slightly misses.
The buttons include a back button, like a web browser’s; an option button which is context-sensitive, typically summoning an on-screen menu; a home button which returns one to the main screen from within any app; and a search button, which can always be used to search the phone or the web.
There’s a small LED on the front upper-right corner that can be set to flash when you’ve missed a call, have voicemail, email, or many other items. It pretty much flashes when some event you want to know about has happened while the phone is inactive. This is a nice feature that I wish the iPhone had; you can glance at the device to see if you missed anything.
The built-in Google apps are almost all wonderful, as are the Google-created optional ones.
The Killer Apps
I’ll go into detail about Google Voice in another post, but the Android app of the same name is a Google-written app that provides an on-device interface to the voice and messaging features of that online service. As an appetite-whetter for my future post on the topic, this could be a killer app for the Android phones, since Apple has not allowed a similar app on the iPhone.
Google Maps with Navigation
The Droid uses Google Maps with turn-by-turn navigation to provide the functionality of a stand-alone personal navigation device such as one by TomTom or Garmin. This free, preinstalled app, gets maps and traffic data from the Droid’s internet connection and uses the speaker to provide audible directions to a destination. A session can be initiated by the user asking for directions vocally, which works surprisingly well. Approaching arrival, the Droid uses Google Street View to show a picture of the destination. The app is wonderful, and I predict will deal an enormous blow to the personal navigation device market. This alone is a reason to buy the Droid.
When connected to the car dock mentioned earlier, a user interface appropriate to being used at arm’s length is presented, with navigation and voice command prominent on-screen. The navigation app also prevents the Droid from sleeping when navigating. Listening to music or podcasts happens in tandem with navigation when desired, and the navigation commands appropriately override the music, albeit temporarily.
Other Supplied Applications
There are two mail apps. One that handles Gmail, and one that handles everything else. The Gmail app feels very much like Gmail in the browser, collecting threads into conversations and labeling them based on your account’s rules. The other one works with Exchange, POP or IMAP mail, and provides a more traditional mail experience. It features a combined view of all mailboxes–something I’ve long wanted on the iPhone. Overall, I’d say that mail is handled better on Droid than on iPhone.
Like mail, there are two calendar apps. One is called “Corporate Calendar”, and handles Exchange calendars. The other handles all others, including Google’s own calendar service. Unlike mail, I find this distinction annoying, and also think that the interface of both apps (very similar) is well-behind the calendar on the iPhone. The iPhone’s not only looks better, but allows one to see personal and work schedules together if one chooses.
Generally, the WebKit-based browser on the Droid is good, but again falls behind the iPhone’s implementation. The Droid’s browser lacks multitouch zooming, although to be fair, I typically tap-to-zoom more frequently on the iPhone browser. Still, it’s an option that is frequently handy and is missing on the Droid. The zooming animation is far jerkier and less satisfying than on the iPhone. It’s another small thing that makes me aware I’m having a slightly less well-designed experience.
The rendering of pages on the Droid is also well-behind the iPhone’s. Many pages render somewhat oddly, but still legibly.
The contacts app is a shining star on the Droid, and is a great example of what can happen when an app is extensible and open. The contacts app syncs with Google’s contacts service and also pulls in appropriate data from other installed apps (with your permission). For instance, the Facebook app (installed by default on the Droid) allows one to add information about Facebook contacts to the appropriate contact card on the device, if desired. You can add all Facebook contacts, but the option I was impressed with was one that allowed me to augment only the contacts I already had on my device with additional information from their Facebook profiles. Consequently, many contacts on my phone now have pictures, birthday and other information I didn’t previously have for them. Very, very nice.
When you select a contact, you can see a list of available actions for that contact, based on the capabilities you have installed on the Droid. Online status, Facebook status, etc. are also listed. It’s very well-designed and I hope that Apple decides to incorporate similar hooks on the iPhone. This is a big win for the Droid, and it’s hard to explain how pervasive this kind of thing is on this device.
Support for Google’s instant messaging platform is built-in, and works very well. Taking advantage of the architecture that allows tasks to run in the background of the application in use, Gtalk on the Droid allows one to remain online even when the phone isn’t active. Incoming messages can notify the user in a myriad of customizable ways. Chatting is as-expected, and once activated the contact lists across the device shows the Gtalk status for that person.
The music player is pedestrian but functional. It’s another spot where the Droid, in stock form, falls behind the iPhone. You can put music on the Droid by connecting it to a computer and dragging music to the device as though it were any other USB mass storage device, such as a hard drive. The music app plays music and has basic functionality, but the overall experience is not nearly as elegant as the iPod app on the iPhone. There is also no out-of-the-box software to supplant iTunes as a hub to get content onto the Droid. I’ve been playing with Doubletwist, which is a Mac app that acts somewhat like iTunes and provides some synchronization with content from a Mac. I’ll post more on that later.
The Market and Add-On Apps
The Android Market is an analog to the iTunes App Store, which provides a marketplace to acquire free and paid applications to enhance the Droid. I’ll highlight a few that I’ve downloaded and used.
Another first-party app, this one is focused on podcasts. It does a far better job than Apple’s iPod app on the iPhone does of managing and acquiring podcasts. It supports subscriptions to podcast feeds, sorts incoming podcasts into a “listen queue” for consumption, and allows pre-downloading of content on both WiFi and 3G connections, with 3G as a configurable option. Listen runs a task in the background to get new content without user intervention. It can also start an arbitrary podcast with or without a subscription to the feed and download and buffer it on-the-fly if necessary to support on-demand listening. As a heavy podcast consumer, I find this app to be wonderful.
This app for interacting with Twitter is functional, but not elegant. Coming from both Tweetie 2 and Twitterific on the iPhone, this is a somewhat bitter pill. There are many Twitter clients available for the Droid, and perhaps another would be better, but Twitroid seems to be the community favorite.
An astronomy app that uses the accelerometer and compass in the Droid to display the stars, planets and associated data on screen. It’s a lot of fun, and very well-executed.
The pre-installed Facebook application is similar to the iPhone version. It works well, and has the added big benefit mentioned earlier of integrating with the Droid’s system-wide contact service, providing contact info and Facebook status to the device.
As mentioned, my main original motivator for acquiring the Droid was the lack of AT&T signal in my office. Somewhat ironically, which Verizon has strong reception in my office, it’s weak at home. That leads to decreased call quality while in my house, but some signal is better than no signal, so Verizon wins there. 3G speeds have been excellent–certainly faster than the AT&T-provided service on the iPhone 3GS.
I’ve been writing about the Droid as though it were a device unto itself, when in reality much of what makes the Droid special comes from its operating system: Google’s Android OS. I’ll write more about Android separately, but suffice it to say that the applications and marketplace are there because of the Droid’s use of the Android OS.
What’s Missing (For Me)
There are a couple of iPhone-specific apps that are ingrained in my daily life now that I am sorely missing on the Droid.
Omnifocus is a GTD app for the iPhone that acts in tandem with an app of the same name on the Mac. I use both to capture things I need to get done, and they’re both an important part of my GTD system. I lived without an iPhone app for this for a long time, so I know I can live without it, but it’s a definite big step backwards. Omnigroup, the makers of these apps, is a Mac shop, so it’s enormously unlikely there will ever be a port to Android.
1Password is a password manager, which makes it simple to have secure passwords for sites, all protected in one virtual lockbox on your computer. Of course, it’s impossible to remember those secure passwords without 1Password at my fingertips, and the 1Password app on the iPhone provided a way to always have them with me. Again, it’s unlikely they’ll port this app, and it’s a loss for me.
More to Come
As I said, I’m committed to using the Droid exclusively for at least a week; I have thirty days to evaluate it under Verizon’s return policy. I’ll be posting more all week.