My Verizon Droid

I got a Motorola Droid on Tuesday, and so far I'm very happy with it. I picked it primarily to stay on Verizon, but I've found several serendipitous features, mostly related to the user interface. While not perfect, I expect it will be an excellent smart phone, maybe even better than an iPhone.

While there are lots of really thorough Droid evaluations out there (I really liked the Gizmodo review), what I'm hoping to offer here is an "I'm a regular technical person who has lived with this phone exclusively" look at the droid. I'll go over

  • why I got a droid now (basically background),
  • what I wanted,
  • what has been awesome,
  • what has been just fine,
  • what has sucked,
  • and finally some overall impressions.

Although I have read and largely agree with the sentiment that the Droid is not aiming to be an iPhone killer, for me the decision really was iPhone or Droid, and so that's my vantage point. I was previously using a Blackberry Curve.

Background

Cell Phones (1 of 2)

Last Tuesday, my trusty Blackberry Curve finally gave up the ghost — the trackball fell out of the phone and I have no idea where it went, ending an otherwise lovely relationship. I had been considering a new phone for a while, and until hearing about the Droid, I was dead-set on switching to AT&T to get an iPhone. I've had an iPod Touch for a few years, and I've been mostly happy with it, so I felt like I knew what I was getting with an iPhone: a nicely designed device with lots of awesome applications and with a virtual keyboard that I find deeply frustrating.

The big unknown with an iPhone was the network; I see tweets and hear complaints about the lack of actual 3G coverage (and any phone coverage at all in parts of NYC and San Fran); I remember AT&T's network collapse during the inauguration (I only saw tweets from friends on other networks for most of that day); I read about AT&T's voicemail problems; and I get good value from Verizon's "in" program, since my family and many of my far-away friends (i.e., the ones I talk to on the phone) are on Verizon.

Had there been an iPhone on Verizon, I'd have almost definitely gone with it. But, after a week with my droid, I'm not sure that would have been the right decision. The iPhone is an incredible piece of hardware with a really slick OS on top, but so is the Droid. And, there are already things I really love about the droid that don't exist on iPhone.

What I was looking for

I'm not going to give numbered scores or anything, but I did try to come up with the things I was looking for in a new phone:

  • One device for media and communications, because I have only one pocket without keys in it
  • Good phone (as in talking on it) support
  • Better twitter and gmail clients than on my Curve
  • Better maps than my Curve with an un-crippled GPS
  • A reasonably good MP3 player that can sort through 10s of GBs of MP3s
  • At least 16GB for music, 32 GB would be better
  • Something like InstaPaper for reading web articles offline (on metro, specifically)
  • A platform that actually has apps
  • Fast internet and a reasonably good web browser
  • An app for reading books
  • A device that feels and looks good
  • A monthly bill that wasn't horribly higher than what I have now

I basically wanted my Blackberry to hook up with my iPod Touch and make me a new phone. The droid and the iPhone both fit that description, and in the end it was the "Fast internet" and "Good phone support" that tipped things for me.

What has been awesome

Cell Phones (2 of 2)

A lot, honestly. As soon as I got it, it had my gmail, had synced all my contacts to my google contacts, had my calendar, and within a few minutes was grabbing people's pictures and facebook statuses into my contact list. The phone part works really well, and as I'm used to, I have service pretty much everywhere I go that isn't a basement. Even better, I have 3G almost everywhere I've gone so far, so my phone's Internet connection is actually pretty zippy. The phone itself is really fast, too; apps launch pretty much instantly.

The operating system user interface is usable and powerful at the same time. I expected basic tasks (like finding the right app to launch) to be difficult, but instead I feel like in a lot of ways, this phone is easier to use than an iPhone. There's this "shade" status bar at the top of the phone that gives me notifications, such as new emails, voicemails, to-do tasks, and tweets. If I touch and hold it, I can drag it down for more information and touch on the notification to launch the appropriate app. This comes in handy particularly since there's multitasking -- I have apps running in the background and checking twitter, the weather, and even my location-specific to-do items (in Remember the Milk), so it's nice to have a heads-up display of notifications. Plus, for things that might have more interesting information that I don't want constant notices of (longer-term Todo items, the weather forecast, my current song I'm listening to), there's widgets that I can drop on my home screen. Finally, there's a back button on the phone and a cross-app history manager built in to the OS, so if I see a notice and go look at it, and then I want to get back to what I was doing, I just hit back and I'm back in the app I left to take care of the notification.

There's also a button on the screen and a widget on the home screen for search, which I find myself using often; if I can remember the name of what I want (be it person or application), I can just search and then take the appropriate action. There's also a pretty neat voice search built in, meaning often I don't even have to type — I just say what I want and it searches. If what I want isn't a contact or app, I get a web browser.

The combination of the speed of the phone and the internet, the notification system (with multitasking), and the excellent built-in search gives the phone a really powerfully usable feeling; it makes things feel instant. For a small, limited device, this is huge; when there's something I'd be interested in, it's in my notifications. Otherwise, I search for it. If I can't remember the name of the app, I can bring up all my apps and browse them alphabetically. If the app is something I use a lot (like my email), I can drop it on a home screen for quick access.

The operating system extends this "instant" feeling further by allowing apps to be designed for easy mashing-up; when I installed evernote, it became possible to send web pages and photographs to it from the native web browser and camera app. This is because the OS allows application developers to advertise "intents" that their applications support (such as sharing content or address-book functionality), and then to make reusable "activities" that can receive data from other applications. This makes it so applications reinforce one another, and makes the phone feel more powerful; it makes sense that I can share web pages through Evernote, Facebook, Gmail, Paperdroid, Google Reader, and Twidroid. What's nice is none of those developers had to collaborate to make it happen.

Additionally (and complementary), I've been very happy with both the physical and software keyboards. Android's text predictions are excellent and make typing on the screen pretty painless, and the physical keyboard is perfectly usable for me. A decent keyboard is a big win on a small device.

What has been just fine

There have been plenty of satisfactory-but-not-amazing experiences. I don't particularly love the look of the phone itself; it's not clunky or anything, but it does feel big and a little awkward because of the slide-out keyboard. It's definitely not sleek like an iPhone.

As for apps that I actually have cared about, I was able to find a twitter app (Twidroid, which is OK but definitely doesn't have my heart), something to get me metro times (DC Metro Train Info), and a good Amazon app. To replace InstaPaper, I found Read It Later and PaperDroid. I really hope PaperDroid adds tilt-scrolling; if it does, that'll pretty much entirely replace InstaPaper for me.

The media player on Android has been fine so far — it sorts my albums well enough that I can find what I'm looking to listen to. I'm not a particularly demanding music user though — I usually listen on random for a while until I hear a song on an album that catches my interest, then I listen to that album, then go back to random and repeat the process. I care more that I can hold lots of music on the thing, and I expect someone will release a really slick media player eventually.

The browser is as others have said: it renders pages well and the double-tap zoom is good, but the lack on pinch-zoom is lacking. It's a huge step up from my Curve's browser though, and doesn't seem to cause the Droid to crash the way Safari on my iPod Touch liked to, so I'll take it.

The battery life is neither great nor terrible. If I don't use the screen much, the battery holds out. If I do, I burn through it. That makes sense. If Motorola were to make a bigger battery that added a little more heft to the phone, I'd take it, as long as the phone still fit comfortably in a pocket. On the up side, the Droid charges over microusb, so I was able to get a bunch of cables for $3 a piece, and thus I'll have multiple chargers at home, one at work, and one in my messenger bag (you know, just in case).

I've barely touched the maps application, but it definitely uses GPS and knows where I am, and I hear the turn-by-turn directions are awesome, so I look forward to really putting it through its paces when I head out for thanksgiving.

What sucks

There's no doubt about the number or quality of apps compared to the iPhone: they're just not on droid. Many apps for droid from major companies are brand new, and lack the polish of their iPhone counterparts. The games in particular seem pretty pathetic. On the one hand, except for an iTunes remote that works, I've found apps for pretty much everything I want; on the other, it's hard not to notice the relative dearth of innovative apps. The lack of apps has meant no Kindle or Barnes and Noble apps, which means insufficient books for my taste; there just aren't that many ePub books that I want to read yet.

Worse than the lack of apps is a lack of momentum. I don't hear developers talking excitedly about developing android apps. I don't see lots of books coming out for android. I don't feel like there's a big market for the android apps people do develop. I don't think this is a permanent state; I think the lack of having Android phones on either AT&T or Verizon made the market too small. But, it's still worrying; someone's going to have to invest in even better developer tools and get people really excited. I have a number of additional thoughts on this topic that I'll hold for a separate post though; I'll update a link here once it's written.

Less bothersome but still annoying is the camera and the lack of a good music application. The camera seems to hate to focus. It tries, it gets in focus, then it takes the picture soft. I hear this is a software issue, but it's an annoying one. Getting music on the phone isn't a joy, either. On the one hand, you can just drag a bunch of folders on to the SD card and call it a day, which is pretty rad. But, that's not how I want to manage my music; I want to drag albums on and have them organized for me. That's not sync, but it's not the file system either. There's DoubleTwist, but it doesn't recognize the Droid as a media device and generally feels horribly buggy; it locks and crashes as often as it works. I've gotten music on the Droid and it hasn't been a dealbreaker, but it's still sucked. I have some hopes either someone like Lala will create a wireless sync, or maybe Songbird will step up and we'll see an Android plug-in there, which would be fine to me; I don't love iTunes.

Conclusion

One week in, I'm really happy with and excited about my phone. My girlfriend keeps grinning because I keep taking it out to play with it whenever there's downtime. The phone's UI and features give it an "instant" feeling that I've not had in many other computer devices. I've been able to find apps that do most of what I want; however, the app market in general is worrying because of a lack of momentum. The phone isn't perfect, as evidenced by the media player and buggy camera, but overall, I'm very happy with it and would certainly recommend it to other demanding technical folks.