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.