From the start, Google's Android smartphone software has garnered way more attention from hard-core techies than the general public. That's mainly because the range of handsets and carriers providing the software was uninspiring. Until now.
First, T-Mobile said a couple weeks ago it would introduce the social network-oriented Motorola (MOT) CLIQ. But the real game changer is Verizon Wireless' Oct. 28 introduction of the Motorola Droid, which is not only a very good smartphone, but throws the Verizon marketing juggernaut and its top-tier 3G network behind the fledgling Android operating system, now just over a year old. It comes as a breath of fresh air for the struggling Motorola, in desperate need of a promising handset.
I've only had a few hours to play with the Droid, which will be available Nov. 6 for $200 after a rebate, so consider this a first look; a more in-depth review will come in a few days. But I can already tell that both the Droid hardware and the Android 2.0 software represent a big step forward. Droid will be an overall brand name for Verizon Wireless Android-based phones, but only this model will be the Droid.
An Online Android Bazaar The new version of Android software includes a number of major improvements. The most striking—though I'm not sure whether this is an official part of the operating system or a newly available application—is Google (GOOG) Maps Navigation, the long-rumored free real-time, turn-by-turn nav service. I didn't have much opportunity to use it; my first impression is that it is far less capable than the $5-to-$10-a-month services offered on other phones. But you can't beat the price.
Other new features include synchronization with multiple e-mail accounts, contact lists, and calendars, with messages, contacts, and appointments from multiple sources combined in single lists, as on the Palm (PALM) Pre's WebOS. Sync with corporate Exchange servers is optional (and included on the Droid), though the lack of encryption of messages stored on the device will leave IT departments unhappy and demanding that workers use BlackBerrys instead to access corporate e-mail.
The Android Market, an online bazaar featuring downloadable apps for use on Android phones, continues to be one of the platform's more attractive features. Of course, with just over 10,000 apps, the Android Market has one-tenth the number available at Apple's (AAPL) iTunes App Store, which on Oct. 27 said its tally topped 100,000. But the numbers game is getting silly. What matters most is whether you can get what you want. With Android, odds are that even if you can't get what you want, you probably can get what you need. Certainly the store is far better stocked than its BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, or Palm Pre equivalents. And the payment system, using Google Checkout, comes close to rivaling Apple's in efficiency. Verizon plans to add its own store, with purchases to be paid for on your phone bill, but is vague about the timing.
Droid's hardware is equally impressive. The handset is about the same length and width as an iPhone and just a couple of millimeters thicker. That extra thickness allows for a slide-out keyboard and a removable battery. The only physical buttons on the phone are an on/off switch and a volume-control rocker. At the bottom of the screen, when the phone is held vertically, are four soft icons that, when touched, take you back a screen, bring up a context-sensitive menu, take you to the home screen, or initiate a search. As on earlier Android phones, search will either look through phone content or go out to the Web, depending on the context in which it is invoked.
Qualms About Keyboards The capacious (3.7-in.) touchscreen is fast and responsive, though the position-sensing accelerometer is sometimes a little slow at rotating the screen when the phone's position is changed. (The alternative, as on the BlackBerry Storm2, can be a screen that sometimes rotates when you don't want it to; it's not clear that you can win at this.) Unlike on the iPhone, you can have multiple apps open at once, though you have to be careful at this. If you leave an app that is actually active running in the background, it can seriously shorten your battery's running time.
My one serious reservation about the Droid: the keyboard options. An on-screen keyboard, available in both horizontal and vertical orientations, is decent, but falls well short of either the iPhone or my new favorite, the Storm2. The slide-out physical keyboard is more problematic. I have become increasingly disenchanted with slide-out keyboards in general because they tend to give you a handset that is unbalanced and awkward when open. The Droid has two additional problems. One is that the keytops are almost perfectly flat with little separation between them, making it very hard to do what passes for touch typing on a micro keyboard.
Second, the Android specification calls for handsets to have a navigation device in addition to the touchscreen. Most of the phones have used trackballs, but the Droid uses a fairly large five-way pad at the right side of the keyboard. This may be useful in some games. But for most apps, you will more likely use the touchscreen for navigation and the five-way control just gets in the way. In particular, it shoves the whole keyboard off to the left; leaving you with the odd sensation that you would be more comfortable typing if your right thumb were perhaps half an inch longer than your left.
The keyboard issues, while bothersome, are hardly disabling. The Droid takes the Android platform to a new level, and raises the chances that Android will join Apple's iPhone and Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry at the top of the smartphone heap.