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Quick Take: Verizon Droid and Google Android 2


Quick Take: Verizon Droid and Google Android 2

A few months back, my wife surprised me by announcing her interest in the then as-yet-unreleased Verizon Droid smart phone. She surprised me further a few weeks later by trucking over to the local Verizon Wireless store on the day the device was released and purchasing one. I was on a trip at the time, and while she's obviously a fully-functioning adult, my wife has little to no interest in technology, so this was unusual. She had been using a sad excuse for a phone that couldn't even be charitably called a feature phone; in fact, the Verizon salesperson treated my wife like an Amish farmer based almost solely on the age of her previous phone. (My wife found this both slightly condescending and wildly funny.)

Anyway, my wife's the one with the Droid, not me, and despite the fact that the phone is both curiously masculine and decidedly techy in nature, she likes it quite a bit. Given the opportunity to do it over again, she might have chosen a non-Droid, but she thought she was going to prefer and use the hardware keyboard more than has been the case. What she is positive about, however, is the Android OS. She loves it.

Me, I was more interested in seeing how the Droid compared to the market leader iPhone as well as the Windows Mobile 6.5 phones I've been testing. Oddly, it sits right in the middle. From a functional standpoint, the Droid (in tandem with the Android 2 OS) is the only device I've seen that gives the iPhone a run for its money. But Android also takes the good parts of Windows Mobile--and yes, there are good parts--that are absent from the iPhone. And while the Droid never quite reaches the overall design apex for which the iPhone is famous, it's not far off. And you can tell that Android is right there on the iPhone's doorstep, waiting to overtake the market leader. It's very close.

From a hardware perspective, the Droid is big and bulky and surprisingly heavy. (Not necessarily in a bad way, however: There is a certain level of quality that comes with that heft, somehow.) In fact, despite being thinner than the HTC Tilt 2 (while having a similar form factor), it's noticeably heavier than that device (which runs Windows Mobile 6.5). On the other hand, the pull-out hardware keyboard isn't accompanied by a tilting screen, as it is on the HTC. It's not a huge deal, but it's not quite as nice.

Verizon Droid and Google Android 2
The HTC Tilt 2 (top) compared to the Verizon Droid.

One of the best aspects of the Droid is its 5 megapixel camera. My wife's smart phone takes much, much better pictures than any iPhone, and it's a big differentiator. On the minus side, the flash (which doesn't exist on the iPhone) is way too bright, and there's no way to turn it down. Still, a bright flash is better than no flash. Much better.

Verizon Droid and Google Android 2
Verizon Droid with hardware keyboard opened.

The Droid's OS, Android, is of course the primary concern here. Because while there is really only one iPhone (the iPhone 3GS, currently), there are numerous Android-based phones, of which Droid is just one. And until Google ships its own Nexus One phone, the Droid is also arguably also the most interesting Android device so far because it comes to market with a lot of input from Android maker Google, and includes the most recent Android software version.

I like it a lot. Yes, it's rougher than the iPhone OS, and there are weird inconsistencies between applications, something I attribute to Google's more open but less structured software platform. Where iPhone applications typically include the same UI elements, Android apps are all over the map, and while some are fine looking, many are not. The most interesting applications to compare, of course, are the ones that are available on both platforms. For example, the Facebook application on Android can take advantage of the Droid's proper Back button (and thank God for that; this is a simple feature that needs to be on all phones, especially the iPhone). But on the iPhone, Facebook needs to build navigation into the app itself, taking up valuable real estate; real estate that's already at a premium because of the iPhone's lower resolution screen. But I actually prefer Facebook on the iPhone simply because it's better looking. Like most Android apps, Facebook is just rougher looking on that platform.

As for the built-in apps, everything you'd expect from a first class smart phone OS is present, including of course all the requisite Google apps. (Too, the Droid comes with an industry-first free turn-by-turn navigation feature in the Maps app.) Email, Calendar, Contacts/Phone, Web browser, and an online apps store are all present. There's instant messaging, an alarm clock, and music playback.

Verizon Droid and Google Android 2
It starts off pretty bare, but you can customize Android to your heart's content.

Android pulls ahead of the iPhone in a number of ways. It offers true multitasking, which is not available on the iPhone. (Interestingly, this function works almost exactly as it does in Windows Mobile.) It has a Windows Mobile-like customizable home screen and separate "all apps" interface, which I prefer to the iPhone's more static and less customizable home screen set up. In fact, one of the cool things about the Android home screen is that you can put your own photo behind it and then organize icons as you wish; if you'd like five icons in the bottom right of the screen in a reverse "L" layout, Android lets you do that. The iPhone does not.

One of the distressing things about the whole Android vs. iPhone vs. whatever debate is that many people seem to be looking for a so-called iPhone killer. Android and the Droid do not, in fact, represent an iPhone killer, but then the entire notion of an iPhone killer is flawed. The Droid doesn't negate the iPhone, but does offer the only credible challenge to the iPhone, and is the one system today that could sway many people away from the iPhone. Likewise, the iPhone is not a Droid killer. Instead, each has many similar benefits, and each has a few unique advantages over the other.

On the iPhone side, you're primarily talking about the vast ecosystem surrounding the device, and this extends beyond the App Store to include hardware accessories and the like. Android, however, is more customizable, and is available from a variety of wireless carriers and in numerous form factors. And the Apple App Store advantage will soon cease to exist as the Android store catches up. Where Android is flawed is where Apple usually scores big: Fit and finish. Though I have no doubt that Android will eventually catch up to the iPhone in terms of overall experience, it's not quite there yet. The iPhone is slicker and, because of Apple's tight control, more consistent.

So for now, Android is the Wild West. But the intercontinental train is being built, and my guess is that 2010 will be a watershed year for the mobile OS as it negates Apple's App Store advantage and, I hope, offers a more cohesive experience. I understand now why people feel that Android will vie with iPhone for supremacy in the mobile space. I'm just surprised it's happening so quickly.

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