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Motorola Droid review

Motorola Droid review

The story of General Motors and its near demise is something of a zeitgeist for the first decade of the 21st century, a decade that was plagued with economic depression and the severe struggles of historically stable marques. More precisely, however, the story of General Motors is the quintessential lesson that warns business present and future of the perils of complacency. So too goes the story of Chrysler. And Palm. And Motorola.

Indeed, failure to innovate is often the cardinal sin of today’s multi-nationals. When presented with the harrowing reality of a “do or die” scenario, few of these companies ever respond with the agility or the inspiration necessary to turn back from the brink. Not so Palm and its gamble with the Pr?, and not so Motorola, which recently introduced the Droid as the bellwether device for an Android-centric business strategy that could quite literally destroy the company if mismanaged.

It’s all in for Moto, which–right now–fights to rescue itself from the brink with a war cry of “Droid does,” but that begs the question: Does the Droid do enough? Just maybe.

The woes of Motorola

People like to say an image is worth a thousand words, and that could scarcely be truer than with the following record of Motorola’s stock prices between 1 January, 2003 and 18 January, 2010:


But the misfortunes befalling the American phone maker don’t stop at the prices of its stock, which cratered to $3.52 in February, 2009, the company’s lowest level since 1989. Motorola’s market share had also tanked from a high of 21.9% in 2Q06, to a low of just 4.5% in 3Q09, a decline that has pushed the firm from a solid second place to flirtation with fifth. It is a long way between second and fifth, much less the pole position every company dreams of.

Data provided by Gartner

The fall, most say, is owed largely to that cardinal sin of complacency. In a time where smartphones were growing in popularity–evidenced by the upward trend of the “others” category, powered by brands like HTC, RIM and Apple–Motorola continued to rely heavily on the dated RAZR and its legion of iterations.

As a phone designed for luxury, the Motorola RAZR was the very model of elegance when it launched in 2004. Retailing for approximately $500, the sleek handset practically bathed in critical acclaim, including awards like twelfth place on PC World’s “50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years” list:

When PC World first wrote about the $500 Razr V3, we called it flat-out fabulous. The impressively slim and ultrasexy clamshell-style V3 sported a brushed aluminum casing, a color screen on the outside, and a strikingly bright 2.2-inch color LCD on the inside. The Razr V3 also included a 640-by-480-resolution camera with a 4X digital zoom, had MPEG-4 video playback capability, and was Bluetooth-enabled. It was so cool, you could almost see people drooling with desire when one came into the office. A great marriage of functionality and design.

But by 2006, the phone had conjured an entire range of ultra-slim “me too!” designs from competitors like Samsung and LG. No longer able to compete on the merits of design alone, Motorola committed itself to an aggressive price cutting policy that, by 2008, made the RAZR free to most under two-year contract.

In 2007, the RAZR² was introduced in an attempt to ride the wave of good fortune it had minted with the original RAZR. The RAZR² joined an entire family of phones with four-letter names, including the ROKR, RIZR and PEBL, which Motorola undoubtedly hoped would evoke the same techno-lust that consumed the public years prior. It didn’t.

The problem, noted critics, was that Motorola’s new designs were “nothing more than souped-up versions of devices the company has already been selling,” according to CNET writer Marguerite Reardon. Even so, Motorola’s then-CEO Ed Zander was convinced of RAZR not only as a device, but also as a brand on par with Kleenex for nose tissues.

“The Razr is more than a product, it’s a brand,” Zander said. “When I reach for a tissue, I grab a Kleenex. When I order a soda, I say I want a Coke. And even when I talk about an MP3, I call it an iPod. The Razr is also a brand, and we will market that for years to come.”

And market they did, to disastrous ends, which Business Week noted in January, 2008:

The company did sell more than 8 million Razrs, 3 million Krzrs, and 1.5 million Razr2s. But it struggled in sales of low-end phones; high-end, multifeature smartphones; and third-generation phones that download data at high speeds. The weakness was especially acute in places such as Europe and emerging markets.

And by Bloomberg, in March, 2008:

“The Razr was so successful as a unique product that it masked a lot of the underlying problems,” said Michael Walkley, an analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co. in Minneapolis. “Once Razr sales started to fade, their cost structure wasn’t competitive, especially now that they don’t have the right products for the market.”

In fact, Motorola trudged on with their uninspired phones all the way into 2009, making the once-celebrated handset maker an anemic image of its former self. With a roster of undesirable phones, no compelling smartphone designs and outstanding pressure from Apple, RIM and Android, something had to give.

A changing of the guard

While Motorola’s products went largely ignored by the public, a vast rearchitecting of the company was already well underway. Under urging from investors led by Carl Icahn (of Yahoo!/Microsoft fame), Motorola planned in 2008 to spin its handset division into an independent company by the third quarter of 2009 (it hasn’t pulled the trigger yet). Analysts and executives alike hoped that the maneuver would give the company the agility it needed to respond to market conditions. It didn’t hurt that greater Motorola was ridding itself of an increasingly insolvent division, either.

However, the real masterstroke throughout the spin-off was the August, 2008 decision to hire Sanjay Jha as the co-CEO of Motorola, and the CEO of the planned Motorola Mobile Devices. Jha had been a major proponent of Android during his time at Qualcomm, and he was unabashed in bringing that enthusiasm to the ailing Motorola. As a first order of business, Jha made the decision to cut the number of phone OSes from an unwieldy six to three: Android, Windows Mobile, and its proprietary P2K for dumbphones.

By October 20, 2008, it was known that Motorola’s experiments with Android were more than just experiments–a phone was coming. Lots of phones were coming. In fact, Jha had bet the farm on Android with the hope that Motorola’s mobile arm could be diverted from its collision course with failure. With losses approaching a billion dollars ($840 million, 3Q08) the company hired in excess of 300 Android developers, new hardware engineers, and gave them a single mission: Build a phone that people want.

The Motorola Droid

The Tao, the Sholes, the Droid–whatever you wanted to call it, the hype surrounding the Motorola phone that people wanted reached a fever pitch when leaked images began hitting the net. Described by Android Guys as a “sexy, shiny handset definitely worthy running Android,” the promise of a slick industrial design, an ARM Cortex-A8 CPU and Android 2.0 sent the Android–and smartphone–world into a frenzy.

Now that the Droid is a little more than 60 days out from its official debut, we’re taking a look at the device to see if it is indeed the phone people want and, more importantly to Motorola, if it is adequate penance for their stubborn reliance on the tired RAZR.

Specifications

Processor: Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 (550MHz ARM Cortex-A8 & PowerVR SGX 530 GPU)
RAM: 256MB
ROM: 512MB
Screen Size: 3.7″ diagonal
Screen Type: Capacitive LCD
Resolution: 854x480px (16:9, WVGA, 265ppi)
Onboard Storage: 256MB
Removable Storage: 16GB microSD included, expandable to 512GB
Camera: 5MP with 4x digital zoom and LED flash
Radio(s): 800/1900MHz EV-DO Rev. A (3G), CDMA2000 (2G)
WiFi: 802.11b/g
PAN: Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Size: 4.56″ tall, 2.4″ wide, .54″ thick
Weight: 6 oz

Though I will not be looking at them today, I’ve placed the Droid’s specifications in the following table with two handsets commonly cited as Droid competitors, the Apple iPhone 3GS and the HTC Nexus One:

Motorola Droid Apple iPhone 3GS HTC Nexus One
Processor 550MHz ARM Cortex-A8 600MHz ARM Cortex-A8 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon
GPU PowerVR SGX 530
(14 MPolys/s)
PowerVR SGX 535
(28 MPolys/s)
AMD z430
(22 MPolys/s)
RAM 256MB 256MB 512MB
ROM 512MB N/A 512MB
Screen Size 3.7″ 3.5″ 3.7″
Screen Type Capacitive LCD Capacitive LCD Capacitive AMOLED
Resolution 854×480 480×320 800×480
Display Density 256ppi 163ppi 252.15ppi
Onboard Storage 256MB (After firmware) 16 or 32GB 192MB (After firmware)
Removable Storage 16GB, expandable to 32GB N/A 4GB, expandable to 32GB
Camera 5MP, 4x digital zoom, LED flash 3MP 5MP, 2x digital zoom, LED flash
Radio(s) 800/1900MHz EV-DO Rev. A 850/1900/2100MHz UMTS 900/1700/2100MHz UMTS
WiFi 802.11b/g 802.11b/g 802.11b/g
PAN Bluetooth 2.1+EDR Bluetooth 2.1+EDR Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Size 4.56″ tall
2.4″ wide
.54″ thick
4.55″ tall
2.44″ wide
.48″ thick
4.7″ tall
2.35″ wide
.45″ thick
Weight 6 oz 4.8 oz 4.6 oz

Accessories

The Motorola Droid ships with a micro USB cable and an adapter that converts the PC end of the USB cable into a plug for AC charging. Rounding out the list of accessories, the Droid also comes pre-loaded with a 16GB class 2 MicroSD card.

What you might have noticed is that the Droid, despite the presence of a 3.5mm headphone jack, does not ship with a pair of earbuds. Chalking up our first disappointment–even before I turned the Droid on–I resorted to using a BlackBerry Bold’s earbuds for our evaluation period.

One would imagine that a flagship phone, both for Motorola and (at launch) for Android, would offer the same amenities as leading competitors in its space. I admit that this is a relatively minor quibble, but forcing customers to spring for the “overpriced” earbuds at the store is an irritation that could be avoided for pennies on Motorola’s dollar, and should be avoided for a customer’s $199.

Design

If I were a car reviewer, I might use tired phrases like “bold styling” and “aggressive lines” but, truly, they really get to the heart of the Droid’s design. Consisting entirely of sharp angles and severe bevels, the Droid’s planar exterior is the polar opposite of gently rounded designs like the iPhone and Nexus One; even the rounded corners of the Droid make a sharper turn than its competitors.

Done up in a livery of black and gold, the Droid’s unapologetic lines and industrial masculinity depart from typical smartphone fare and, perhaps, even dabbles in the avant-garde. The unorthodox design struck a chord with me, and really worked to evoke a sense of the futuristic. It’s no wonder that the art and advertising surrounding the Droid is overflowing with 2001: A Space Odyssey eyeballs, circuit boards and capacitors–there’s nothing else even remotely like it.

The Droid perches easily on the fingers. It is a very easy phone to hold.

In spite of the angular design, however, the phone feels excellent in the hand and in the pocket. Whether oriented in landscape or portrait modes, screen open or closed, I found that the device settles comfortably into a very natural position of the hand. Put simply, the dimensions of the Droid feel “just right,” even to such an extent that I could tolerate additional thickness for the sake of improving the keyboard, a topic I’ll touch on later.

At 6 oz, the Droid is also the heaviest of today’s leading smartphones. While some may prefer lighter devices, I felt that the heft of the Droid’s metal chassis imparted a certain confidence in the durability of the device, not unlike the old adage, which suggests that heavier power supplies are more reliable. I wasn’t alone in this impression, either. I handed the Droid to more than a dozen friends and acquaintances throughout our evaluation period, and none of them maligned the device for its weight. Instead, I most often heard that the device was “solid” or “sturdy,” and those are qualities I like in the age of plastic.

When it comes to mechanical controls, however, the Droid takes another stumble. Beginning at the top, the power button is a trapezoidal piece set behind a lip that prevents the user from accidentally pressing the button. Holding the button for approximately five seconds powers down the Droid, but most users will get vastly more mileage out of it to turn the screen on without opening the Droid, or to save battery life by turning the screen off in advance of the display timeout. It is unfortunate, then, that this button is pretty awkward to hit, particularly with headphones plugged in.

Moving down the right edge of the Droid, the next button is a rocker switch that controls the output volume of the earpiece. While it’s easy enough to hit during a call or on the desktop, the button is extremely squishy and offers little tactile feedback as to the direction it’s being pressed. Phone makers like RIM understand well the value of a button’s resistance and travel time, which is why handsets like the Bold and Tour offer satisfyingly clicky buttons.

Rounding out the list of mechanical buttons, the Droid’s lower right edge also contains a camera button that serves to focus the lens or snap a picture inside the handset’s camera application. Featuring two button states, a shallow press focuses the lens, while a deeper press takes the picture. The camera button also makes it especially easy to take self-portraits–take note, camwhores!

Moving on to soft keys, Motorola has placed the Google-mandated Back, Menu, Home and Search keys in a row below the display. The Back button exits menus or steps to a prior screen, the Menu button opens context-sensitive menus in programs, the Home screen returns the user immediately to the desktop, and the Search button opens the search context within an application. All of the keys provide haptic feedback in the form of quick a vibe from the Droid.

Flipping to the rear, we see the Droid’s external speaker meshed in gold, the 5MP camera, a twin LED flash and the battery cover, which hides the 16GB class 2 microSD card and the 1420 mAh OEM battery. Like many devices that use microSD, the battery must be removed to change cards, but that (very) minor irritation pales in comparison to the battery door.

In fact, the battery cover is one of my largest gripes about the Droid, chiefly because it has taken up permanent residence in the sands of Las Vegas, far away from our world headquarters here in Detroit. While putting the handset through its paces under the heightened demands of this year’s CES, the battery cover quite simply fell off of the phone and, as a holstered Droid puts its back to the world, was quietly lost to a taxi or casino floor.

Jumping on the Googlenets to assess the frequency of this issue, I discovered that both Verizon and the world are quite aware. Even our Verizon contact admitted that it was a “bit loose,” so future Droid owners should definitely take extra precautions to secure the door.

The engineer who designed this door should be sacked.

Display

Not only is the Droid’s 854×480 screen a defining feature of the device, it is one of the most gorgeous displays I’ve ever seen. Not just on a phone, but ever. Boasting a pixel density of 256ppi–the highest of any smartphone–the Droid’s screen is at least two and a half times more dense than a 30″ monitor running at 2560×1600, or 100.63ppi. This pixel density imparts an unbelievable clarity and sharpness, so much so that fonts considered illegibly small on a PC were perfectly readable on the Droid.

The pictures don't even do the Droid justice.

The difference between the displays on the Droid and the iPhone 3GS are so vast that it’s akin to comparing the iPhone with the RAZR. It’s that drastic. With superior clarity, vibrance and real estate, the Droid simply makes the iPhone’s display look like a relic from a generation of phones long forgotten.

Comparing the Droid’s screen to that of the Nexus One, however, is a more complicated story. I got the opportunity to take a leisurely test drive of HTC’s newest courtesy of IntoMobile’s Will Park, but when I placed the Nexus One and Droid side-by-side I immediately noticed what, at the time, I called a moiré pattern. More recent research into image artifacts suggest that the effect I observed is better described as a dithering pattern. It’s also possible that I was observing the sub-pixel arrangement of the Nexus One’s OLED display, which is configured with a PenTile Matrix.

Whatever the true culprit, Park and I mutually agreed that the Nexus One’s display suffered from some IQ issue that could not be unseen once the comparison was made. As I cannot be certain if the effect we observed was unique to that handset or endemic to the Nexus One, I am apt to give the device the benefit of the doubt. The critical acclaim surrounding the magnificence of the Nexus One’s display also helps to cement our resolve in that direction.

Based on that assumption, I feel that the Droid and the Nexus One have comparable displays, in that they are tied for brightness and sharpness, while the Nexus One comes up with a victory for its outstanding contrast and the Droid wins on resolution. In short, when considering the relative merits of display quality, the iPhone 3GS is a clear loser, while the Nexus One and the Droid are essentially equals.

Keyboard

Along with the Samsung Moment, Motorola Cliq, and HTC Dream, the Droid is the fourth US Android-based smartphone to offer a QWERTY keyboard, and the first since the Dream to be treated with all the trappings of a flagship device. This combination of cutting-edge features and a physical keyboard was of particular interest to me as a long-time BlackBerry user accustomed to the legendary QWERTY keyboards of RIM devices. In fact, a physical keyboard was so important to me leading into this review that I vehemently rejected any phone which did not offer one in an October 14 forum post:

I will say that QWERTY + touch is absolutely critical to me. I will not buy an all-touch phone. I just won’t. I want a hardware keyboard for typing, and a touchscreen for navigation/clicking. That cuts everything HTC makes/has planned beyond the G1 right off the table.

I also don’t want WinMo or Symbian at all, which lops most of the rest of the touch+QWERTY phones off of my options list.

My pipedream is a G1 with a bigger capacitive, multi-touch AMOLED screen, the same keyboard, thinner profile, EVDO (preferred), WiFi, Android, and a 3.5mm jack. If I could get that next August, I would hit it like the fist of an angry god.

For all intents and purposes, the Droid’s list of specifications is made in the spitting image of what I considered at the time to be the ideal Android phone. But I have since had a change of heart. The Droid’s keyboard is so plain and uninspired that I was compelled on a whim to try the virtual keyboard, and it was an experience I actually enjoyed. With significantly fewer errors and faster typing, I found myself relying almost exclusively on the virtual keyboard by the conclusion of the review period.

The problems with the Droid’s keyboard are legion, starting foremost with the geometry of the keys. Unlike a BlackBerry Bold or Tour, which clearly distinguish keys through beveled corners or a chiclet design, the Droid’s keys are so flat and uniform that it’s hard to identify the correct key under the thumb. The problem is only exacerbated with attempts at faster typing. A RIM handset’s key geometry also prevents the user from accidentally hitting unintended buttons, as the very shape of the keys demands a certain position of the thumbs that promotes a high degree of accuracy. No matter how I oriented my thumbs for the Droid, however, I simply could not get them into a position that even remotely had the same effect.

Another critical failure of the Droid’s keyboard lies in the travel time of the keys, which is best described as short and unbelievably mushy. Whereas a RIM device offers a firm and satisfying click, the Droid’s keys are so soft that it’s often difficult to determine whether or not a key has been pressed. This led me to frequently move on to the next letter of a word without realizing that the previous letter hadn’t actually registered. It quickly grew annoying to review every word with a level of care that would be completely unnecessary on a Bold.

The virtual keyboard is not without its problems, however. Precisely positioning the cursor via touch alone is an exercise in madness. I often found myself opening the Droid just to use the directional pad to the right of the keyboard to place the cursor quickly and accurately. Secondly–though more generally an indictment of virtual keyboards–the limited display area that can be allocated to the virtual keyboard means that symbols, numbers and “advanced” punctuation are accessed via alternate key sets that must be activated and deactivated. This setup can hinder typing speed if the user must change between the letter and symbol contexts to complete a string.

The ?123 key opens and closes the numbers and punctuation key set.

Lastly, I found myself frustrated with both keyboards for their inability to produce a capital letter by holding a key, a feature found on all BlackBerries. The same action on Android devices summons a menu for accented characters. I cannot even begin to express how much faster typing can be when mid-sentence capital letters can be made by holding a key, rather than switching to capital case, pressing the key and moving on.

Ultimately, with a physical keyboard that’s bland enough to convince a dyed-in-the-wool QWERTY fan to try touch, and a touch keyboard that is often in desperate need of mechanical/optical positioning, it is easy to see why devices like the G1, Moment and Nexus One placed a d-pad or trackball on their fascias. Doing this allows users to enjoy all the speed of Android’s virtual keyboard without frequently opening and closing the device to position the cursor as one must do with the Droid.

In spite of all the doom and gloom about the keyboards of the Droid I nonetheless want to impress that the situation isn’t a complete disaster. In my time with the Droid, I came to love the layout of the physical keyboard. With dedicated keys for the period, comma, at symbol and forward slash, it was far easier to hit these keys on the Droid than on the BlackBerry where a key combination is required. The virtual keyboard, meanwhile, was accurate and fast enough to bring my hatred for them to an end–that alone is the biggest endorsement I can possibly bestow.

If Motorola were to raise and firm the keyboard, place an optical trackpad on the fascia of the device and permit capital letters on the virtual keyboard with the hold of a key, then a theoretical Droid II would have a rather outstanding setup on its hands.

Android 2.0

Reviewing an Android-based device becomes difficult when it comes to the task of reviewing its software as, relative to other smartphones, Android is closer in design to an operating system than it is a firmware. With task management, application switching, multi-tasking, a desktop, and its own category of bugs that do not stem from hardware, it’s easy to see why some make the argument that the sins of the software are distinct from the sins of the phone. In fact, while explaining the list of pros and cons I had developed for the Droid during a brainstorming session, a colleague responded to a virtual keyboard gripe with, “but that’s an Android problem!” While comments like this are a testament to the progressive nature of the Android ecosystem, I think they’re a dangerous presumption when reviewing a device for consumers who may not draw such distinctions.

Lending credence to the notion that the Android experience is inseparable from that of the phone, carriers and OEMs are given free reign to modify Google’s default Android images in whatever manner they see fit. Whereas BlackBerry OS 4.6 offers an identical user experience, regardless of the host device, even identical versions of Android can look and feel vastly different.

Left: HTC Magic / Right: HTC Hero -- Would your average user know both are Android 1.6?

When considering the OS/device relationship in the context of the Droid, the notion of intertwinement becomes all the more real: Android 2.0 is the polish that makes the Droid shine, and the Droid is the way Android 2.0 is meant to be experienced. I earnestly believe that a great deal of Android 2.0’s beauty will be lost in translation if and when it gets back-ported to older Android devices, and I believe just as much of the Droid’s charm would be lost if it were just another model in the market’s glut of Android 1.6 devices.

What’s new in Android 2.0.1

You might have noticed that the header for this section reads “Android 2.0.1″ when I just spent time discussing the indivisibility of Android 2.0 and the Droid. It’s entirely deliberate: The Droid received an update to Android 2.0.1 in the early weeks of December. Version 2.0.1 is largely identical to 2.0, and any Droid you buy today will ship with the newer revision. That said, the video above only captures a fraction of the combined changes that distinguish Android 2.0 and 2.0.1 from 1.6; the rabbit hole goes much deeper to the particular benefit of the user:

  • Improved OS stability.
  • Improved battery life.
  • Free turn-by-turn GPS based on Google maps.
  • Three-way calling enhancements.
  • Incoming call quality is improved.
  • Speakerphone remains on when call waiting kicks in.
  • Better Bluetooth, background echo eliminated, improved phone book transfer of contacts to in-vehicle systems.
  • GPS icon will disappear after a GPS app is closed.
  • SMS and MMS messages can be received after an EMS message is received.
  • SMS and MMS can now go to seven-digit addresses.
  • Google contact merging supports seven-digit numbers.
  • Visual Voice Mail notices arrive instantly.
  • Corporate calendar widget is updated.
  • Sync support for contacts from multiple data sources including Exchange. Handset manufacturers can choose whether or not to include Exchange support in their devices.
  • Developers can create sync adapters that provide synchronization with additional data sources.
  • Quick Contact for Android provides instant access to a contact’s information and communication modes. For example, a user can tap a contact photo and select to call, SMS, or email the person. Other applications such as Email, Messaging, and Calendar can also reveal the Quick Contact widget when you touch a contact photo or status icon.
  • Combined inbox to browse email from multiple accounts in one page.
  • Search functionality for all saved SMS and MMS messages.
  • Auto delete the oldest messages in a conversation when a defined limit is reached.
  • Camera: Dramatically improved auto-focus
  • Camera: Built-in flash support
  • Camera: Digital zoom
  • Camera: Scene mode
  • Camera: White balance
  • Camera: Color effect
  • Camera: Macro focus
  • An improved keyboard layout to makes it easier to hit the correct characters and improve typing speed.
  • The framework’s multi-touch support ensures that key presses aren’t missed while typing rapidly with two fingers.
  • A smarter dictionary learns from word usage and automatically includes contact names as suggestions.
  • Refreshed UI with actionable browser URL bar enables users to directly tap the address bar for instant searches and navigation.
  • Bookmarks with web page thumbnails.
  • Support for double-tap zoom.
  • Support for HTML5.
  • Calendar: Agenda view provides infinite scrolling.
  • Calendar: Events indicate the attending status for each invitee.
  • Calendar: Invite new guests to events.
  • Revamped graphics architecture for improved performance that enables better hardware acceleration.
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • New BT profiles: Object Push Profile (OPP) and Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP)

In addition to this impressive (and exhausting) list of differences between Android 1.6 and Android 2.0.1, a revamped unlocked screen, refreshed widgets, an improved device settings menu and a retooled password screen also set the Droid apart from its predecessors.

In terms of actual usability, there is a relatively even number of stand out high and low points specific to this Android release; the following videos capture some of the ones which were most notable to me during my review period.

The good

The bad

Looking ahead

While Android 2.0.1 does have its annoying bits, none of them truly cripple the experience. With the exception of the Droid’s hard reboot–a lone occurrence in hundreds of hours of testing–all of my objections were made for the sake of thoroughness, not because I felt they actually compromised my experience in any substantial way. I never once felt compelled to abandon the platform for greener pastures as I feel on a daily basis with my BlackBerry Bold.

Ultimately, I feel that history will predominantly speak well of the Droid’s user experience. With an astonishingly large list of quality of life improvements, polished performance and an Android 2.1 update waiting in the wings, the Droid’s software experience is far and away superior to any Android device that has come before it. The Droid has been a coming of age moment for Android, and the experience is only going to get better.

Battery life

Battery life is a tricky metric to convey, particularly on a smartphone, as varied usage patterns can yield enormously different battery lives. Whereas someone apt to leave their phone on standby could go a day or two without charging, the mobile browser or GPS junky might devour the battery’s juice in less than 9 hours.

Before describing what sort of battery life different types of Droid users should expect, I want to reinforce that the screen is the single most power-guzzling component of the Droid; any task involving heavy LCD time can easily push the screen to more 40%–if not more–of all power consumed per unit of time. Anyone interested in prolonging the lifetime of a charge should keep the screen as dim as comfortably possible and make sure to turn the screen off immediately after use by tapping the power button on the top of the device.

That said, I gave the phone a trial of its standby time by charging it to 100%, disconnecting the phone and then leaving it on a table for several days. When I returned four days, one hour and 34 minutes later, the phone had dropped to 40% battery life. That works out to just about 15% battery life per day when the screen is off and no additional drains like Bluetooth or WiFi are placed on the battery.

Verizon and Motorola ascribe the Droid a standby time of 270 hours (11.25 days), but I think that’s a little unrealistic. Based on my superbly scientific testing, I think a more reasonable expectation is six or seven solid days of standby.

Moving on to a brutal worst-case scenario, I left the screen on full time, tossed some tunes on loop, did some browsing and occasionally puttered around town with GPS until the battery was dead. I managed six and change hours of battery life in this configuration, which is about the same experience I had when it came to talk time. That’s not a bad result and, more importantly, hardly indicative of a decidedly more average usage scenario where the phone spends a significant amount of time sitting around idle.

As I said, certifying the Droid’s battery life claims in a reproducible and broadly applicable manner is difficult. With that in mind, I think the best way to describe my experience with the handset’s battery is to say that during grueling 18-hour days at this year’s CES, I never once had a flicker of concern about its battery failing me when I needed it most. That’s all I can ask for of a phone.

Call quality

Over the years I have had the privilege of using many phones both dumb and smart for calls including, the Palm Pre, BlackBerry Bold (9000), Motorola RAZR, iPhone 3G, BlackBerry Curve (8310), and HTC Dream, but none of them have matched the Droid in call quality. Through the confluence of an excellent network and a well-designed earpiece, the Droid expertly conveys the caller’s diction and tonality with virtually no interruption or interference.

As a particular nod to the robustness of Verizon’s network, I never once had a dropped call in a little more than twelve hours of talk time conducted on the Droid. It’s a miraculous day when I can go even 40 minutes without dropping a call on my AT&T BlackBerry.

Final thoughts

Before touching on the Droid’s potential to start the revolution for Motorola’s bottom dollar, I want to begin by talking about the “Droid does” campaign and the press’ many comparisons to the iPhone: It’s not an iPhone killer. It’s not that the Droid isn’t sleek enough or that Android 2.0 isn’t ready to take on iPhone OS; instead, it’s that the two ecosystems fundamentally appeal to two completely different crowds.

To test this theory, I posed this question to my roughly 500 Twitter followers: “Do you have an iPhone? If so, why? What was the major selling point?” The answers came in different forms, but almost all of them ultimately cited applications–both OEM and third party–as the leading factor in their purchase.

But I feel it’s safe to say that Android has reached a point where it’s on the level with the iPhone. Both ecosystems have robust application stores which share all the major applications, both offer bright and polished UIs, easy app development and the list goes right on through MP3 playback, Exchange support, Google Maps, visual voicemail, a superlative WebKit browser, excellent video support and contact integration. For all intents and purposes, both the Droid and the iPhone will offer you a similar software experience.

While I will not understate the value of the app store as a sales motivator, the fact that Apple continues to move units in droves in the face of technically superior devices (Droid, Nexus One) with similar environmental experiences suggests something else is driving sales. Perhaps it’s the “cult of Mac” which gets tossed around ad nauseum, perhaps it’s the cool/hype factor cited thrice above, or perhaps it’s a matter of incumbency–the iPhone does have momentum as the first of many truly inspired smartphones the market now contains.

What is fairly obvious, however, is that iPhone users don’t care about things like “hackability” or “rooting” or Apple’s walled gardens. They are largely content with the device they are given, and the experience Apple permits developers to feed them. That, right there, is perhaps the defining difference between an Android advocate and an iPhone advocate: One wants customization limited only by ingenuity, while the other is content with what is enabled by a censure panel and meted out through annual firmware updates. I think this fundamental difference is echoed in the responses of Android users when posed the same question:

Further, a recent study conducted by research firm Essential Research concluded that your average user isn’t all that into smartphones. This finding suggests that people who are buying into smartphones are keenly aware of what they’re getting into, suggesting that users buy their devices according to a specific set of interesting features.

If this is indeed the basis on which smartphones are purchased, then no iPhone user will ever be swayed by the Droid, and no Droid hopeful will ever be swayed by the iPhone. Even in casual conversation, the only iPhone users I’ve found ready and willing to jump ship are those disgruntled with the many iPhone limitations not imposed by Android, and no Android user I’ve talked to is anything less than irritated at the idea of buying into Apple’s walled garden.

The Nexus One

Understanding that the Droid and the iPhone play in different realms, we find that Motorola’s competition comes from within the Android ecosystem: The Nexus One, a device some have already dubbed the “Droid killer.”

Many will say that the Nexus One is a superior phone to the Droid; with a fancy screen, a significantly more powerful CPU and a stunningly beautiful UI in the form of Android 2.1, I can hardly object to the technical merits of such a claim.

Even so, I think for many that the Droid will be every bit the equal. Those not convinced by touch screen, distrustful of the T-Mobile’s juvenile 3G coverage or those contracted into the Verizon network for a while yet will not see enough green in the other pasture to swallow a $350 ETF. When you further consider that the Droid will soon close the experiential divide with an Android 2.1 update, it will be mighty hard to decide which is better without resorting to semantics. In the end, I think the two devices can and will peacefully coexist in the way Android and iPhone do: Each will appeal to a different crowd.

Will the Droid save Moto?

Though Motorola’s stock has slid from a 15 month high, no doubt due to the arrival of the Nexus One and the recent Apple event, Motorola’s stock price of more than $7 a share is the highest it’s been since late 2008. Clearly someone is taking note of the master plan unfolding under the leadership of CEO Sanjay Jha.

Sales, too, have been more robust than expected. Financial firm Oppenheimer & Co. has estimated that Motorola moved 1.2 million units between its November 6, 2009 launch and the firm’s report on January 8, 2010. While contrarians will no doubt note the million plus iPhone 3GS units sold in the handset’s first week, it’s an insincere figure tainted by the sales of 20 other countries. When you learn that the figures offered by Oppenheimer & Co. don’t include European sales (where the Droid is known as the Milestone), 600,000 units a month looks quite a bit more reasonable. It’s also clearly enough to convince investors and analysts of Motorola’s positive momentum.

“Although the press is stating the Droid launch was not as successful as the iPhone launch, we don’t believe investors expected an iPhone like launch but rather a first step in a cadence of products that will help bring Motorola’s handsets out of the death spiral experienced during the past three years,” Citi analyst Jim Suva once wrote of the Droid.

And so too agreed RBC’s Mark Sue: “Motorola’s Droid landed at Verizon and while the new device is not the be all and end all for Motorola it’s an important beginning for a company that sorely missed out of a growing market.”

That, in truth, is the Droid’s crowning achievement. The Droid has convinced cynical analysts and picky consumers like me that Motorola is done fucking around with products and business decisions that can politely be described as “quaint.”

The final word

With an exquisite industrial design; a display that’s nothing less than remarkable; an app store that does not want for options or quality; an open development environment; and a carrier unrivaled in reliability and coverage, the Droid has been well executed virtually from end to end.

Even through the passable keyboard and a battery cover that abandoned me to hit the penny slots, the Droid is by far the best handset Motorola has ever made, and one of the finest I have ever used.

Comments

  1. AlexDeGruven
    AlexDeGruven Excellent review, and wonderfully exhaustive. I'd expect nothing less from IC.

    Your main complaint, the keyboard, is one that I've heard echoed around quite a while. Positive feedback from a hardware button of any kind is essential, particularly when phone users have been touch-typing almost their entire lives. Hopefully, for Droid II users, the keyboard will be improved.
  2. MachineDog
    MachineDog I have found the physical keyboard far more usable than the virtual one, and I never thought I would care about it considering I had an ipod touch for almost a year with no real issues. Having a physical keyboard, regardless of its tactile response, is a new requirement in mobile devices for me.
  3. ardichoke
    ardichoke Nice review Thrax. About the battery cover though, It has been redesigned to fix the problem. At one point Verizon was giving them away on their site. Right now they are listed at 4.99. You may want to go in and speak with them as you may be able to get a free replacement still (just not through their store).
  4. Sledgehammer70
    Sledgehammer70 Hey what was the black background used in the videos?
  5. Snarkasm
    Snarkasm Solid review. With the Android nags, I must protest - I've yet to see any version of Android rotate the home screen (and why? It'd break practically every widget), and icon drag-and-drop works - if you have space where you want to drag it. If your screen's full up, yeah, you have to do a silly shuffle, but if you're just moving icons around on an open screen, drag and drop is functional.

    The Droid would draw me if it hadn't been one-upped immediately by Snapdragon-powered sets (both WinMo and Android alike). I likes me some flashy hardware... and I bet the extra MHz helps with the scrolling issues. I see them on my Hero as well.
  6. ardichoke
    ardichoke Snark - Android home screens can rotate. By default, this only occurs on phones with a landscape slide-out keyboard and only when said keyboard is open. In some ROMs (such as CyanogenMod) you can enable Home screen rotation based on the accelerometer. Many widgets that would be affected by the rotation actually have a different layout programmed for landscape mode (such as the Weather Widget/Flip Clock I use). Some just scale (search box, power control, etc.).
  7. Todd J. List
    Todd J. List Well written. I didn't know about the corporate backstory when I got my Droid in mid-November. It replaced the second-suckiest phone I ever had (a Razr2). I should have known better than to buy another Motorola product...

    I wanted a phone that would let me stop carrying my paper planner around. It took some getting used to, but mostly it has done the job, although not as well as I would have liked.

    I agree with most of your conclusions:
    Pros:
    * The screen is AMAZING.
    * The OS is easy to use.
    * gmail integration is superb.
    * The built-in GPS/Google Map/Voice Search/Navigation Totally Rocks!
    * I just started tethering my laptop to it. Wow.

    Cons:
    * Buttons are mushy, hard to access.
    * It's ugly.
    * The sharp edges are hard on the hand after extensive use.
    * The physical keyboard sucks.
    * Lack of trackball/optical input on front screen is a huge shortcoming.

    I would add a few other complaints (TAAP = "That's an Android Problem"):
    * (TAAP) It's difficult to find a phone number quickly. The contacts tab doesn't automatically pop open the "search" box, you have to tap it.
    * (TAAP) Several PDA functions require too many steps (e.g. setting an alarm, changing appointments to something not ending in :00 or :30)
    * The dialpad doesn't open automatically when you go to speaker phone. Why not?
    * External sound is poor, scratchy (maybe because it has been dropped a couple times?)
    * gmail interface won't let you change the sender. This is a problem when you need to reply from a secondary account.
    * Sometimes the display doesn't wake up after talking, and you have to fumble for the power button to wake the phone up to hang up the call, leaving 20 seconds of random noise at the end of the voicemail you just left.

    Recently a buddy showed me some things on his iPhone, and I finally realized just why the Apple Fanboys are so rabid. Many of their apps are so much more refined than the apps for the Android. I can only hope that will change.

    All in all, I have developed a love-tolerHate relationship with my phone. It does what it needs to do for now, but there's no ring on my finger.
  8. ardichoke
    ardichoke Not to rag on you Todd, but the "ugly" factor isn't really a pro/con, it's an opinion. I know quite a few people that like the look of the Droid (myself included). If I could get Droid on any network but Verizon, I would be quite tempted.
    As for finding a phone number quickly, it's quite easy. Tap on the search widget and start searching. That widget will search your contacts and applications as well as the Internet as of Android 1.6
    The external sound is more likely hardware related. I've used bluetooth and wired headsets as well as the speakerphone on my G1 and not noticed poor sound. That's more likely hardware related than software.
    The hanging up a call issue, imo, is more of an issue with the Droid not having a dedicated hang up button. Still, you can change it so the screen never goes to sleep while on a call, but that would not be good for battery life. Otherwise, try hitting one of the soft keys, they should wake the display up as well.

    Of course I'm not trying to say that Android is perfect here. The other issues you pointed out are valid issues and hopefully ones that the OHA are working on.
  9. timuchan
    timuchan I'm not a moto fan-boy, but I kept my hacked RAZR until I could find another worthy phone. The sholes/tao/droid had me drooling the instant the pics started leaking. For a geek, this thing rocks... I've had mine since launch day, and am still loving it. I haven't even rooted it yet (something bound to happen eventually), but I am very satisfied with the product as-is for the time.

    Good article, lets hope they keep innovating and don't repeat the mistakes they made with the RAZR.
  10. GnomeQueen
    GnomeQueen Excellent Review, Rob. I completely agree with most of your points, especially about the keyboard. It's definitely awkward to work with, though I don't like the onscreen keyboard any better.

    The one point where I disagree is that I do actually dislike the weight and size of the phone. I have fairly small hands, and it gets tiring having to stretch my thumbs across the phone. I haven't heard anyone else complain about that though, so perhaps it's a problem that only I have. The size and weight of the droid eris is actually probably more suited to me, but it's clearly inferior in hardware to the droid.

    I would be interested to hear how other women that have the droid feel about it, considering how much of the marketing was clearly directed men, and women do tend to have smaller hands than men. Overall I am happy with the phone- the touch screen is beautiful and highly responsive- but for my next phone I'm definitely going to be looking at something a little smaller with a better keyboard.
  11. NiGHTS
    NiGHTS Girlfriend passed on the Droid namely for the same reason - weight, size, and feel. She's very happy with an Eris.

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