With the release of its Droid smartphone at the end of the year, Verizon Wireless entered into the world of open-source software in an effort to compete with archrival AT&T, which offers the iPhone.
With the release of its Droid smartphone at the end of the
year, Verizon Wireless entered into the world of open-source software in an
effort to compete with archrival AT&T, which offers the iPhone. The Droid
runs Android 2.1, which is the latest version of Google's operating system that
has already been adopted by the other three major U.S.
carriers for some of their phones. Android 2.1, which is a minor upgrade of the
2.0 version that initially shipped with the Droid, supports a number of
iPhone-like features such as a multitouch screen.
As is the case with most other Android phones, the Droid, which is available for $199 with a two-year contract,
connects through its carrier's 3G service and with WiFi. It has the full suite
of multimedia capabilities, access to the Android Market, applications that
take advantage of the device's GPS (such as
Google Goggles and Google Maps), and, of course, e-mail. The Droid features a
slide-out keyboard, as well as an on-screen keyboard for use when the slide-out
keyboard is closed.
In other words, the Droid is a lot like many other
Android-based devices out there from other carriers. The biggest difference
between them is the operating system and the applications that ship with the
device. Verizon would contend that another important difference is its 3G network,
which, if you believe its ads, is more widely available than AT&T's. I
didn't find that to be the case, however, in the Washington,
D.C., area, where the device was tested.
What I did find is that the Verizon Droid is a competitive
Android device. Like other similar devices, it provides a nice alternative to
Apple's iPhone, it has features the iPhone lacks, and lacks a few features that
the iPhone has. Android 2.1 multitasks very well, which is something the iPhone
can't do, and it can connect with two Microsoft Exchange e-mail accounts, which
the iPhone, BlackBerry and earlier versions of Android can't do.
On the other hand, Droid doesn't come with an easy
synchronization service such as what you find in iTunes, or a sort-of-easy one
like in the BlackBerry. There is the capability to sync with Microsoft Outlook,
however. Transferring music from your computer is a multistage process that
involves manually enabling the USB port,
mounting the mass storage capability, opening the Droid as a mass storage
device in your computer, copying the files, then turning off the USB
port on the Droid. It's not hard, but it's not exactly the elegance of iTunes.
Otherwise, the Droid is easy to use, as you'd expect. The
multitouch interface allows you to zoom on an image by putting two fingers down
on the screen and spreading, or to zoom away by using the opposite motion. The
onscreen keyboard uses multitouch to reduce typing errors, according to
Motorola, although my typing may have overwhelmed it. On the other hand, the
physical keyboard isn't all that much easier to use.
Fortunately, for those of us with fat fingers, the Droid
includes software that tries to guess what you really mean, so you only need to
get close and then choose what the Droid offers up. It was nearly always right.
The keyboard also has a directional touchpad that acts like the arrow keys on a
regular keyboard. Unfortunately, it doesn't act like a mouse pointer on Web
pages as it does on the BlackBerry.
The touch keyboard, which is what you get when you need to
type something in portrait mode, seems very sensitive to the position of your
fingers, sometimes reacting just before your fingers touch the surface of the
screen. I got around this problem by using a stylus designed for the iPhone. One
thing that doesn't work in portrait mode is the automatic rotation of the home
screen when the phone is rotated counter-clockwise to landscape position.
Despite promises in the menus and the manual, you had to slide out the keyboard
for the home screen to rotate. Some other screens did rotate automatically,
however, and some did not.
The Droid promises that it will be a very fast smartphone.
It has a lot of memory and storage, a fast processor and both 3G and WiFi. Most
of the time it was indeed pretty fast, but the range of the WiFi was
surprisingly short. Unfortunately, some features such as the ability of Google
Goggles to look up a bar code and compare prices depend on a reliable
connection. Goggles also has the ability to work as a sort of augmented reality
layer, wherein if you stand on a street, for example, and hold the phone in
landscape mode the phone will present labels of whatever you're looking at.
Unfortunately, you have to be outdoors to do that, and the Droid screen isn't
very visible in sunlight.
All things considered, the Droid is one of the better
Android phones. It's thin and light, it has a real keyboard, and it does e-mail
very well. It does require that you have a Gmail account in order to get
updates and the like, but it will handle an unlimited number of POP
and ActiveSync accounts and two Exchange accounts. Battery
life is quite good, and unlike some of its competition, it works well as a
phone. I had no problems with dropped calls or poor voice quality.
Whether it's a phone you should consider depends on
Verizon's service in your area, whether you like the way Android works, and
what you need in terms of other corporate support in your business. As an
Android phone, it's one of the best.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.