With the DROID, the company has perhaps created its most attractive and intriguing piece of technology yet. Forging an alliance with both Verizon and Google, Motorola has come up with a second compelling reason to count the phonemaker down, but certainly not out, while the other two giants have finally found a seemingly worthy device to position against the iPhone. So we must pose these questions: is this the phone which will catapult Android into the mainstream? Is it the device that will pull Motorola back from the brink? And -- most importantly -- is it the lynchpin Google and Verizon have needed to challenge the leader in mindshare in the smartphone market? After putting the device through its paces, we think we can give you the answers you seek -- so read on to find out!
Motorola DROID review hands-on
- Handsome and unique design
- Hardware keyboard
- Google Navigation on-board
- Hardware keyboard isn't great
- Android software selection still thin
- UI still not a seamless experience
The DROID is an odd and beautiful device. Looking at the hardware from a purely philosophical standpoint, the ID of the phone seems staunchly defiant. Instead of taking its cues (and lines) from current contenders in the smartphone space, the DROID is all hard edges and angular slopes. The construction is a mix of plastic and metal, and the phone has a solid, expensive heft to it. Couple that weight with soft touch materials and gold highlights, and the effect is somewhere halfway between a Vertu device and the European version of the Hero -- and it's a good mix.
The basic structure of the phone is made up of two main pieces, the large, glass display up top, and the slightly longer keyboard / mainboard lower half. Above, the 3.7-inch screen dominates, almost filling the space edge-to-edge, though there are four capacitive buttons at the bottom of the display: back, menu, home, and search (which might be tricky for folks coming from other Android devices, since they've thrown the order of the buttons in the blender). The top section slides smoothly upwards to reveal the aforementioned QWERTY keyboard, though unlike other models of this ilk, it doesn't snap automatically into place; rather, it requires a bit of force to move up, then clicks firmly once settled. The keyboard is a wide (though mostly flush) affair, with minimal amount of spacing between the keys. To the right of the four row QWERTY is a 5-way rocker -- a bizarre deviation from the CLIQ's left-sided controls -- and the bottom piece has a strip which juts out from the device with a small mic hole (closed or open). It's almost like Motorola's version of the HTC chin... though tempered somewhat. Atop the phone is a 3.5mm headphone jack and a power / sleep button; along the right edge is a volume rocker, and camera button on opposite ends; the left side houses a MicroUSB port; around back the 5 megapixel camera (and flash) are revealed, along with a thin, gold, crosshatch strip that hides the DROID's speaker.
The thickness of the DROID is striking, coming in at just a hair (13.7mm vs 12.33mm) thicker than the iPhone 3GS. The body itself is actually narrower than the iPhone. While thinness is important (though typically not a deal breaker for us), the fact that the phone packs a larger, higher resolution screen and a physical keyboard in such a small frame is notable.
In all, Motorola has pulled off what seemed unimaginable for them just 12 months ago; they've made a device which is truly lustworthy, even next to the best efforts of Apple, HTC, and Palm.
Inside the DROID beats an Arm Cortex A8 CPU (a 600MHz, OMAP3430 chip downclocked to 550MHz), 256MB of RAM, and 512MB of ROM. If that CPU sounds familiar, it should -- it's similar to the chip inside the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre. If you're wondering about performance, you can breathe a sigh of relief... kind of. Yes, there is a noticeable bump in speed when switching applications on the phone, scrolling through lists, and generally getting any basic tasks done. We did notice, however, that paging through homescreens on the DROID actually seemed somewhat stuttery; odd, considering this phone is certainly better equipped than most Android devices to handle pixel pushing. Pulling down the window shade notification area also seemed less than optimal. We don't know if this was due to the screen resolution being jacked up, or just a software quirk, but it was mildly disheartening -- especially considering that the rest of the phone's performance seemed extra snappy to us. As an aside, in a totally unscientific test of playing a 3D game (Mystique, in case you're wondering) the rendering seemed considerably smoother on the DROID than with other, older Android-based phones we've used.
Throughout our tests, we were consistently impressed with the tightness and speed of navigation on the phone. The DROID makes Android feel modern the way the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre are -- like machines designed for a pace of life that's increasingly more Twitter and less USPS.
As we mentioned, the screen on the DROID is a 3.7-inch capacitive touchscreen -- a full glass display with a WVGA resolution clocking in at a handsome 480 x 854. We found the responsiveness on the DROID to be on par (if not better) than most of its Android contemporaries; gestures and flicks registered with little to no lag. Whether that can be attributed to Moto's screen technology, Android 2.0 improvements, or just the speedy CPU inside the DROID is anyone's guess, but we certainly won't knock the phone for it. Another perk to having that big screen is seeing webpages how they're meant to be viewed (or at least closer), and browsing on the DROID is a solid experience. Those additional pixels definitely come in handy when you're looking at something graphically intensive or wordy... such as Engadget.
As you have probably heard (or guessed), there's no multitouch on this device. That's clearly an issue with Android 2.0 and choices that Google is making about user interface -- we're fairly certain there's nothing technically holding back the DROID from utilizing multitouch input, and we wouldn't be surprised to see some tweaked ROMs hit the information superhighway with the functionality onboard. Regardless, the resolution, materials, and clarity of the DROID display make it an absolute pleasure to keep your eyes on. Motorola gets a +1 for the bump in resolution, and we can only hope everyone else follows suit.
Note: Android 2.0 does support multitouch events, but the functionality isn't implemented here.
A physical keyboard can be a blessing or a curse, depending on just how well (or poorly) it performs. In the case of Android devices, QWERTYs have definitely been hit or miss. We think the closest case for comparison with the DROID's version would be the G1; both have shallow, clicky keys, and both force your right hand into a bit of an awkward position. On the G1, it's due to the placement of the "chin," and with the DROID, it's all down to the five-way rocker living next to the 'board itself. We're happy to report, however, that after a short adjustment period, typing on the DROID is a reasonable experience. It's not as slick or comfortable as a nice, portrait-oriented Tour or (better yet) Bold layout, though it bests the CLIQ, and holds its own against other landscape contenders like the Moment.
Visually, the keyboard is an easier read (and more aesthetically pleasing) than those other QWERTY phones too, though sometimes the keys can feel a bit cramped. Additionally, we had major issues with the auto-dimming on the DROID. If we left the screen in auto brightness mode, the constant on / off dimming of the keyboard was intolerable; eventually we had to just switch the auto dim off altogether. We also had issues with the keyboard not lighting up at all in some instances, requiring us to close and open the pad again. Not a huge deal, but annoying when you're trying to quickly tap out a message. Admittedly, we missed the CLIQ's two-stage keyboard backlighting that only enabled the second light when ALT was pressed, but it's a luxury we can do without.
As you would expect, Android 2.0 includes the onscreen keyboard as well, but there don't seem to be many improvements in this area. As a backup keyboard for quick SMSs and the like, it works, though we eventually had to replace it with the Better Keyboard application -- which we think is more usable and snappier. In comparison to the iPhone keyboard (really the high bar for virtual keys) Android continues to feel like a distant second. Still, you won't go to it that much -- the DROID's physical keyboard is solid, but it's going to take some getting used to for most people.
Google has made some pretty major changes to the camera application in Android 2.0 (including more control over white balance, focal length, flash settings, and effects), and Motorola has smartly outfitted the DROID with a 5 megapixel camera coupled with an LED flash. It sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Well, not quite.
No, no, no. Yes! Our attempts to photograph a watch in broad daylight.
While the camera certainly seems capable of taking great looking photos, getting everything to play nice isn't as easy as it should be. First off, the camera is painfully slow to focus and snap pictures -- and when it does, the results can be unpredictable. Strangely, the lens seems to be able to take pretty sharp macro photos (it's even a setting in the camera app), but it struggled with getting adjusted to close subjects, even in broad daylight. Sometimes we got lucky and cranked out a decent pic, but the process was frustrating. Furthermore, the new settings Google has added to 2.0 are contained in a hard to get to and counterintuitive menu which sits to the left of your viewing area. Trying to make changes on the fly was a hassle. If this is the best the engineers at Google can do, they need to outsource this work.
Motorola DROID camera test shots
Video, on the other hand, was somewhat of a pleasant surprise. The DROID is capable of shooting at a 720 x 480 resolution, and in our tests, produced watchable -- if not totally shake-free -- video. The phone definitely fares better in this department than with stills, and we could easily see using the DROID as a stand-in for a flip cam. You can check out a little of the action in the video below (with a surprise cameo from !!!'s Nic Offer).
Speaker / earpiece
The sound on the DROID is second to none -- really. In fact, this is simply one of the best sounding devices we've ever used. Whether it's audio through the loud (but undistorted) earpiece, or a speakerphone call -- even music -- the sound which Motorola's device outputs is crystal clear. Now, obviously Verizon's reception has something to do with our in-call sound, but it's likely Moto put some thought into the aural aspect of the phone. There's not really much to say except that we were more than pleased with the audio fidelity of the DROID, and we can only hope that future phone makers (ahem, Apple) look to this device as a high water mark in this department.
Besides the introduction of the phone itself, obviously 2.0 is a major update for Android. Based on the launch and hype surrounding Moto's device, we'd say it's fair to assume that Google wanted as many eyes on the achievement as possible. They definitely got it with the DROID -- but was it worth all the fuss?
The first thing you should know is that Android 2.0 isn't drastically different than 1.5 or 1.6, save for a few notable features and tweaks that have significant impact. True to form, Google hasn't gone for visual flair or wild embellishments for the sake of a few dropped jaws; most of these changes are about functionality and usability.
One of the first major changes Google has made is support for multiple Gmail or Exchange accounts, and a new universal inbox which allows you to get a look at your electronic correspondences in a single view. For BlackBerry users, this concept is old hat, but for most people with multiple accounts, it should feel like manna from heaven. We would have been slightly more stoked about the feature if it allowed you to look at both Gmail and POP / IMAP / Exchange accounts in one field. Instead, you can view your Gmail accounts separately (not in a single stream, but in one place), and your other accounts can be blended in the "Combined Inbox" view. Not exactly a perfect implementation for those of us with both Exchange and Google accounts, but certainly a solution light years beyond what previous versions of Android were offering. Another minor niggle: deleting an email now takes you to the next email in your inbox rather than bumping you back out to the list of emails, as it did in 1.5 and 1.6. We preferred the old functionality, though we imagine some will prefer the new as well.
We loved being able to keep a few of our accounts in the phone, but we ran into a weird and annoying issue when attempting to remove one of them. We were using the DROID with two Gmail accounts active, but when we tried to remove the second one we'd added (note: not the account we used for our contacts or calendars) the device informed us that we would need to factory reset the phone because that account was "required" for certain applications. Try as we might, we couldn't find a way around the problem, and we eventually did reset the device. The behavior was strange to say the least, especially since it was a barely-used, secondary account -- not a daily use address which tied into services.
As you may have heard, Facebook account integration is now built into 2.0, and there should be more of that coming, as Google has created "sync adapters" which allow third parties to plug into the contact and calendars of your phone. Mercifully, Google has figure out that you might not want your Facebook contacts in your address book, and gives you the option to turn off contact syncing (as it does with Exchange and Gmail accounts). You're also given the option to sync contacts, but keep certain sets from displaying in your contacts list; this variation is best demonstrated with Facebook integration, because it merges duplicate names and pulls the accompanying images, but doesn't clutter up your Gmail contacts with additional names. Beyond that, the pairing doesn't go tremendously deep, even though we're told Facebook had a hand in this version of the OS as well. Really, you get a widget for your homescreen which auto-updates, and that contact integration if you really want it. This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg for this kind of... er, synergy, and we expect to see lots of people taking advantage of the feature (hello, Twitter). Regardless, it's a forward thinking move that will clearly obviate the need for some of the functionality built into BLUR, and makes the DROID (and other 2.0 phones) competitive against the Pre and Pixi when it comes to social networking integration.
Speaking of contacts, Google has made some big and thoughtful changes to how contacts are handled (and used) in Android 2.0, most notably adding a "Quick Contact" menu to your contact list. The quick contact function allows you to tap on someone's name and get a context menu with jumps to the various ways you can reach out; if you're friends with someone on Facebook, you'll be given an option to message them there, along with SMS, phone, and email choices. It's a brilliant little touch that makes quickly pinging someone a cinch. Android 2.0 also improves the SMS and MMS experience by giving you the option to search your messages, and also allowing you to set a limit on how many SMSs to store before beginning to delete old threads. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but nice choices to have (finally).
You'll notice some major changes within the browser, most notably the fact that when you load up pages now, you're presented with a fully zoomed-out "overview" (much like the iPhone and Pre). If you've been griping about that weird, half-zoom that Android has relied on for so long (as we have), this is a breath of fresh air. Coupled with the DROID's massive display, it makes navigating pages roughly a million times more pleasant. The updated browser also now supports double-taps to zoom (as does Google Maps) -- making navigation a bit more natural -- though we noticed some weird column display issues on our site and others. As we mentioned before, there's still no multitouch, but this does stand in quite well for pinch zooming. While the overall browser speed still isn't as snappy as the iPhone 3GS (or even the Pre), it's a step up from previous efforts, and when you factor in little touches like auto-prediction on URL entry, it's eminently usable.
As we said, most of the alterations are under the hood -- not stuff that immediately jumps out at you, though there are some notable visual tweaks which bear mentioning. Google has added some new fades and cross-application animations into 2.0 which makes Android seem a bit more contemporary. Of course, older iterations of Android contained animations, but 2.0 seems far more polished to our eyes. Additionally, icons and elements have been updated across the board to give the OS a more modern look, sadly there is much of this UI and its applications that remain unchanged -- and not for the better.
A few of the obvious spots include the music player, which is quite frankly a mess; not only is the navigation poorly thought out, but the application is just straight-up ugly. It's not easy on the eyes, and not much fun to use either. The same goes for the phone app -- the remnants of a hastily thrown together interface are plain here, and the functionality of the phone itself gave us some issues. Often the screen was confused or unresponsive during calls, as if the hardware and software weren't communicating with each other properly. It seems obvious to us that some portions of Android need a serious, ground-up reworking... but they don't get them here. Another annoyance was the home screen -- unlike with HTC's tweaks (or even Motorola's BLUR), you only get three screens for icons and widgets. Furthermore, the DROID doesn't come equipped with even the most basic widgets you see in most new builds, like weather. The weird thing is that there is a weather app in the dock display, but no way to access the application in standard phone mode.
Additionally, some third-party (and even some first-party) software seems unable to deal with the DROID's new resolution. There are bitmaps that look upscaled and jagged, such as the attachment icon in Gmail. The game Robo Defense seemed to play slower than it did on the Hero, which was a bit of a surprise, though it has been updated to support the new resolution. None of these problems are show stoppers, but it points to a disconnect between where Google is at versus its developers. There is catch-up to be played.
Also notable (and perhaps a selling point for some) is that the DROID is a Google Experience device, which should theoretically mean that it's more likely to receive fast and frequent software updates than its skinned cousins like the CLIQ. The Google Experience is sort of the "gold standard" Android showcase for the company, so to speak, and it's in Google's best interest to keep it rock solid at all times -- and since there's no third-party skin to revalidate after every Android version is released, the update process should go a heck of a lot smoother.
One thing to keep in mind: when it comes to media syncing, you're in the same boat you were for previous versions of Android -- which means sideloading or additional desktop apps. doubleTwist has just introduced DROID compatibility, though the experience leaves much to be desired. In fact, after our tests, we'd say you're better off just mounting that SD card and dragging your content over.
Motorola DROID / Android 2.0 screenshots
One of the biggest pieces of news (perhaps the biggest) to come out of the DROID launch was the introduction of dedicated, fully realized turn-by-turn navigation which integrates with Google Maps. The DROID makes further use of this functionality by switching into a nav mode when snapped into a dock (you can also enter the application normally, sans dock). Google has gone all out on this, providing a rich mixture of its satellite, map, traffic, and location info with text-to-speech directions. Of course, the big G takes it one step further and adds layers like parking info, ATM spots, restaurants, and gas station locations (amongst others) to the stew, making the navigation more robust than many dedicated PNDs -- which would explain that nasty drop in Garmin and TomTom stock we saw yesterday.
In our tests, the nav worked excellently for the most part, though as you can see in the video above, we did run into some minor issues on our hunt for cannoli. It's not uncommon for a GPS unit to send you the wrong way down a one way street, and maybe it was just unlucky coincidence that it happened on our first outing, but being told to turn left where you can't -- then being sent in a loop -- doesn't fill us with warm, fuzzy sensations. Still, the navigation is super intuitive and cleanly laid out, and even if there were major issues (which there really aren't), it's hard to knock a service that is completely free. We think a little more time and some longer trips will help put it in better perspective, but we like what we've seen so far.
The DROID will get a few nifty extras when it launches, most notably a dock for setting your phone on a nightstand (or appropriate flat surface), and a car mount for using the device as a proper GPS unit. Both are notable because they use sensors to alter the DROID's functionality. The dock turns the DROID into something that looks not entirely dissimilar from Verizon's now defunct Hub, while the car mount just boots the phone into nav mode. Both are nice touches, and you'll want the car mount if you plan on taking Google up on that offer of free satnav.
We haven't had a lot of time to put the DROID through its paces when it comes to battery life, but at a glance it seems to be holding its own against the current crop of 3G devices -- impressive considering it's only packing a 1400mAh battery behind that extremely sexy door. Paul Miller, who has been concurrently testing the phone, claims he had 24 hours of on and off usage before requiring a recharge (syncing, but no major phone calls or lots of screen time). In general, you won't be blown away by the DROID's staying power, but it doesn't deviate in any wild ways which should make you take pause. It's solid, not breathtaking, and it seems better than the CLIQ, which -- despite using the same battery -- typically manages to just barely eke through a day's worth of typical use.
It will be difficult for casual observers not to see the DROID as a kind of anti-iPhone in Verizon's arsenal. Certainly the company has played up the comparison with its "DROID does" ad campaign, and it's no secret that Verizon and Apple have previously had some friction -- the V famously passed on the first-generation iPhone, after all. Of course, it's easy to draw parallels between the two devices; as with most current smartphones, they share a tremendous number of similarities, though there is plenty that set the two apart as well. And that's really kind of the point -- it's useless to look at devices like this in black and white, or to try and figure out if an Android device on Verizon is better than an Apple device on AT&T (or any other device on any other carrier, for that matter). What it ultimately comes down to when judging this kind of device is more complicated than a "yes" or "no" answer.
If you must compare the DROID to the iPhone, then know that the Android platform still has a ways to go before the experience of using the phone is as seamless as the one Apple has created -- but also know that Apple has a long way to go before its messaging, email, and customization can match what Google is offering. Both products have very distinct strengths and weaknesses.
So, is the DROID a good smartphone? Yes, the DROID is an excellent smartphone with many (if not all) of the features that a modern user would expect, and if you're a Verizon customer, there probably isn't a more action packed device on the network. That's not to say the device doesn't have its faults; the camera was unpleasant to use, the application selection feels thin in both quantity and quality (despite the claim of 10,000 options), and the phone has bits of basic, non-intuitive functionality that might chafe on some users after a while. But even still, it's hard not to recommend the DROID to potential buyers eager to do more with their devices. It's easily the best Android phone to date, and when you couple the revamped OS, Verizon's killer network, and an industrial design straight from a gadget enthusiast's fever-dream, it makes for a powerful concoction. Ultimately, the DROID won't usurp the iPhone from the public's collective mindshare or convince casual users that they must switch to Android, but it will make a lot of serious geeks seriously happy -- and that's good enough for us.