At right: Droid unboxing & hands-on
With no shortage of manufacturers vying to be top dog in the booming smartphone market, a couple hundred million dollar ad spend certainly can’t hurt, right? Right. Especially if much of that ad buy is focused on hitting Apple’s iconic iPhone right where it hurts.
Well, at least in part thanks to its advertising muscle and little claim to fame as the nation’s largest wireless carrier, Verizon has managed to help Motorola stir up quite a bit of excitement around the Motorola Droid – Verizon’s first Android-powered handset and the first device to be equipped with Google’s turn-by-turn GPS navigation solution.
The Droid is arguably the first major sign of life from Motorola’s beleaguered handset division since its introduction of the RAZR. Propelled by no shortage of hype and media fanfare, the Droid stands to awake the Moto sleeping giant from its nearly six-year slumber – and there just might be something to all the hype beyond the dubiously compelling slew of Apple-esque Droid commercials.
When it comes down to it, the Motorola Droid is in more ways than not worthy of all the buzz and hype — even if it is the best hype money can buy. While there are some that might protest that the Droid has a face that only a mother could love, we learned to find beauty in the Droid’s unique looks and bold defiance of the conventional smartphone design (gold accents aside, of course). The keyboard could use a couple minor improvements, though for the most part we understand and appreciate why it was designed the way it was. The lack of world-roaming capabilities was a disappointment, and the camera certainly could have been more finely tuned.
Our comparatively minor criticisms aside, we are prepared to give the Droid the coveted moniker of the best Android-powered phone to date. Though the Droid undoubtedly had some fierce competition, we were won over by the Droid’s overall quickness and feel, gorgeous 3.7-inch touchscreen, and Android 2.0 updates — particularly those in the way of contact integration. The Droid’s inclusion of the Google Maps Navigation application put the bow on an already very nicely wrapped package, and sealed the deal for us.
Depending on who you talk to here at Wirefly, you are likely to get quite a range of opinion and emotion regarding the Droid’s physical attractiveness. Most will agree, though, that Motorola’s second Android phone and the first phone to be running Android 2.0 right out-of-the-box dares to defy the conventional smartphone look and form factor. In its own way, the Droid is a strangely beautiful device that almost mirrors the mystique of its commercials.
The relatively boxy Droid is a marriage of black metal and plastic. At nearly six ounces, the phone is surprisingly hefty – though, measuring 4.56 inches tall, 2.36 inches wide, and just over half-an-inch thick, the Droid is still easily pocketable. The phone feels impressively solid, and the slightly rubberized backing makes the device feel great in the hand.
Adding to its unique looks, the Droid’s display doesn’t fully extend the length of the bottom half of the phone, leaving a quarter-inch shelf (if you will). There’s also no shortage of gold accents on the device – including a golden back speaker grill, side camera button, and four-way directional key inlay. The gold makes the Droid almost reminiscent of an 80’s boom box rocking some gold trim. If you’re the nostalgic type, maybe this falls in the plus column for you, but we would have much preferred a more contemporary silver.
The Droid is dominated by a gorgeous 3.7-inch WVGA capacitive touch screen. At 440×854 pixel resolution, the display is truly among the most sharp and vibrant on the market. Underneath the display is a set of four touch-sensitive buttons – including a back, menu, home and search key.
A tap of the search key will bring up the Quick Search box where you can perform a quick Google search or easily find contacts and applications on the phone. It’s certainly worth mentioning that you can also tap the microphone icon next to the search box to speak a search phrase – a feature found on other Android devices, but one that worked impressively well on the Droid.
Unfortunately, unlike most other Android devices, there’s no hardware call button. As such, reaching the on-screen phone dialer, call log or contacts list requires a couple taps if you’re anywhere but the home screen when you happen to want to make a quick call.
On the left side of the Droid you’ll find a microUSB port for charging and synching the phone. On the right of the Droid is a volume rocker and shortcut key, that when held down for a couple seconds, will launch the camera application. On top of the Droid is a lock/power button alongside a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for your media listening pleasure.
The back of the phone is home to a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and a dual-LED flash (more on the camera later). Below the battery cover is a microSD card slot which can support up to a 32GB card – and the Droid comes with a 16GB card pre-installed and hungry for your library of music, video and photos.
Those familiar with the Android operating system will, of course, feel right at home on the Droid. Unlike the Motorola CLIQ and HTC Hero, respectively equipped with MOTOBLUR and HTC’s Sense user interface, the Droid runs Android’s standard 2.0 fare. While MOTOBLUR and Sense bring the Android platform some great additional features and customization options, we didn’t find ourselves missing anything too terribly much – though it would have been nice to have more than three home screen panels.
Like other Android-powered phones, the Droid’s three home screen panels can be customized with widgets, shortcuts and folders. Of course, the wallpaper can also easily be changed. The Droid comes with a number of helpful widgets, including a Facebook, Google search, calendar, music player and power management (easily toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, etc.) widget.
Long-tapping on the screen brings up the customization options, and we chose to include shortcuts to our most frequently used applications, one-touch dialing shortcuts for our most frequently called contacts, and a number of widgets. We also downloaded several additional widgets from the Android Market, giving us mission-critical capabilities such as the ability to update out Twitter status while on-the-go with just a few taps. Important stuff, we know.
We’ve had no shortage of Android phones cross our paths as of late – and we’ve been impressed with most of them. That said, powered by a Cortex A8 processor running at 600MHz, the Droid certainly rivals and in most cases wins over each and every one of them in the performance realm. From animation such as the pull-down ‘window shade’ notifications screen to scrolling through home screen panels and changing screen orientation using the accelerometer, everything felt superbly quick and smooth on the Droid.
The nicely updated phone dialer screen is composed of four tabs – Phone, Call log, Contacts and Favorites. Within the contacts tab, tapping a contact’s picture will launch a helpful menu displaying the contact’s latest Facebook update and offering the ability to call, text, email, or check out that contact’s Facebook profile. Instead of having to program favorite contacts, the Droid will automatically list the people you communicate with most frequently in the favorites tab. Though we originally wanted to program our own favorites (you can create home panel contact shortcuts instead), we learned to really like the automated Favorites tab.
Similar to Palm’s webOS, the Droid is capable of importing and merging contacts from your Exchange, Google, and Facebook accounts. For the most part, the Droid did a fine job identifying and merging contacts, though there were a few duplicate contacts the phone didn’t catch for whatever reason.
A small but indisputably handy update in Android 2.0 comes in the form of an updated lock screen. Of course, holding down the lock icon and dragging to the right, following the green arrow, will unlock the screen. Holding down the speaker icon and dragging left, though, will allow you to easily toggle silent mode.
Though we first saw it on the HTC Hero, Android 2.0 brings full Microsoft Exchange support to the Droid, including support for Outlook email, contacts, and calendar. Of course, the Droid also supports Gmail and any other POP3 or IMAP email account. As potentially a major added plus for those with many-an-email-account, the Droid can support multiple Exchange and Google accounts.
Exchange accounts can be set to automatically push new email as it arrives, or to check for new messages anywhere from every five minutes to every hour. As far as we could tell, Gmail accounts only offer push support, and POP3 and IMAP accounts cannot be set to push new email. Strangely enough, while all email accounts can optionally be integrated into the same inbox and color-coded by account, Gmail retains its very own inbox.
The Droid offers full-fledged Exchange calendar support. New meetings can be created with the usual information including required and optional attendees, meeting location, and description. The Droid, though, didn’t appear to be able to search for contacts on the Exchange server, limited invitees to stored contacts.
Personal and corporate calendars can be viewed in an effective visual format by day, week or month. Although the same calendar format, personal and corporate calendars cannot be looked at in a unified view, and instead open in separate calendaring applications.
Joining the ranks of just a few Android-powered phones sporting full physical QWERTY keyboards, the Droid offers a pretty decent four-line QWERTY. Although the right thumb will have to reach somewhat further than the left due to the placement of the directional key, the Droid feels comfortable in both hands and we didn’t experience any thumb fatigue when engaging in lengthy instant messaging diatribes.
The keys have a pleasant slightly rubberized feel to them, and are adequately sized for accurate typing. Though undoubtedly a space saving measure to allow the Droid to achieve its slim profile, we would have liked to see the keys slightly raised and perhaps offset in place of the directional key. While some users may find the directional key helpful in navigating web pages and menus, we preferred to opt for using the touch screen. Each to their own.
The bottom right keys on either side of the keyboard are, surprisingly enough, actually not keys at all. At first glance, we figured they might be programmable shortcut keys to favorite applications or something of the like. Oddly enough, they are merely dummy keys that serve no purpose.
When the keyboard is closed, you can opt to use Android’s virtual on-screen keyboard. There are no abundantly obvious changes to the virtual keyboard in Android 2.0 that we noticed, but we were satisfied with the keyboard’s accuracy and responsiveness and often used it instead of the physical keyboard for shorter messages. With multitouch support, rapid typers will delight in knowing that the Droid will register key presses even if keys are pressed simultaneously.
Although the browser in the Android 2.0 update now supports HTML5, there aren’t too many groundbreaking changes to report. Perhaps the most significant change comes in the form of the ability to double-tap to zoom in on a page rather than having to use the magnification buttons. While certainly a great step in the right direction, we would have liked to see pinch zooming capabilities as seen on the Android-powered HTC Hero. Additionally, the OS update brings visual bookmarks to the Android browser and pushing the menu button now brings up the URL field to avoid the need for an additional tap.
While there weren’t too many ohhs and ahhs when it came to new browser features, the browser’s speed in rendering web pages was a much different story. Running on Verizon’s EVDO Rev. A network, the Droid dominated the competition, rendering websites including CNN and ESPN more than twice as fast in some cases as other Android-powered devices that we had connected over a WiFi network.
With the obvious exception of video playback on the Droid’s dazzling 3.7-inch screen, media options on the Droid are pretty standard. The Droid supports MP3, WAV, AAC, AAC+, eAAC and WMA music play back with all the usual options you’ve come to expect including playlists and album art. Supported video play back formats include MPEG4, H.263 and H.264.
As we’ve noted before with other Android devices, the Droid unfortunately doesn’t come equipped with any quick and easy method of synchronizing your music library and playlists. Instead, you’re limited to using the drag-and-drop method. Motorola does offer a solution called Media Link that can be freely downloaded from their site and reportedly will sync up music and playlists, though we didn’t try it out. Amazon’s MP3 store offers the ability to purchase and download music to the Droid wirelessly.
The Droid is pre-installed with the same basic YouTube application that we’ve seen on other Android handsets. The phone also offers a well-developed Facebook application and the aforementioned tight integration with the popular social network. Of course, there are thousands more free and paid applications, games, and widgets available from the Android Market.
Android 2.0 offers some much-anticipated changes to the camera application. The Droid adopts an updated and sleek interface and offers greater control over images and settings, including a number of scene modes, white balance settings, color effects and focus modes. Google also added a toggle button to easily jump between camera and video mode.
The Droid boasts a 5-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, autofocus, and a 4X digital zoom. Despite the camera’s fairly impressive specs and respectable feature set, it wasn’t all that we were hoping for. While macro shots generally turned out clean and crisp (expect in lower light conditions), the Droid struggled with focusing in on close-up objects, often resulting in dull and out-of-focus images.
Where the Droid struggled in image quality, it somewhat made up for its shortcomings with remarkable video quality. The Droid is capable of recording video at a 720×480 resolution, and while we wouldn’t call it DVD quality as Motorola purports, we’d certainly say it rivals that of…the leading competitor on the market.
The Droid is equipped with WiFi and Stereo Bluetooth. New with Android 2.0, the Droid supports object push and phone book access profiles in addition to headset, handsfree, and audio/visual remote profiles.
Perhaps Motorola’s biggest Droid omission is dual-mode support, rendering the Droid incapable of hopping on GSM networks overseas and frustrating world travelers hoping to use their Verizon phone abroad. If you don’t often find yourself in foreign countries, the lack of world-roaming capabilities may not be worth a second thought – but it could be a deal breaker for heavy travelers.
The Droid is the first phone to boast Google Maps Navigation, Google’s free voice guided turn-by-turn GPS navigation solution. With Google’s navigation application and the Droid, the days of paying for VZ Navigator are over. An application called “Car home,” which can be manually accessed or will automatically launch when the phone is placed in an optional car cradle, provides large driving-friendly buttons that let you navigate to an address or point of interest, access contacts, and perform voice searches.
The software provides an attractive birds eye view of the route, and will even continue to guide you while you’re on a call. Given the software is still in beta, it’s not without some flaws and didn’t always guide us on shortest route available to get to our destination. But, all things considered, our hats are off to Google for developing an innovative product and the world’s first truly free turn-by-turn cell phone navigation software.