Motorola Droid review

4.5 out of 5
$199.99

For

Screen, Verizon network, Wi-Fi, QWERTY keyboard

Against

No multi-touch browsing, no emotion

When Google released its first Google phone with T-Mobile in 2008 the industry had high hopes. Here was an open source platform that would change the face of the industry and give Microsoft, Apple and anyone else who happened to be interested, a run for their money.

The problem was, that while the concept was there, the execution was poor. The G1 was a dog of a handset with a poor design and while sporting a promising interface, was lacking in many ways. Here at Pocket-lint we gave it a 5/10 citing the handset as a "not consumer ready device" and one that you should steer clear of:

"Our suggestion would be to wait 6 months to a year and by then you'll have so many handset choices (perhaps even the Touch HD) that will offer a far better, sexier, more consumer focused, offering that this will be old news and look, well, rather crap. A great OS let down by a shoddy handset design."

And guess what? 6 months down the line we started to get those far better handset choices in the guise of the HTC Hero and Samsung i7500. Now a year to the day since we posted our G1 review, has Android, Motorola and Verizon brought a handset to market that is any better? Read on to find out.

As a quick background, it's worth pointing out that this handset has been created by three parties, all hoping to get something out of the deal. Motorola has built the hardware, which we will come to in a moment, Google provides the interface and Verizon the network.

Motorola or Verizon have, it seems, been allowed to interfere with the software implementation. There is no Motoblur, no operator bloatware and certainly nothing that isn't Google.

Motorola might have been "allowed" to slap a user interface on the CLIQ (DEXT in the UK) but here, they haven't even been allowed so much as nuance. Its job has been hardware, and hardware alone. Even the name, Droid, is going to be used by Verizon to create a family of handsets from a range of manufacturers. Motorola is very much an OEM player in this threesome.

Sporting all the exciting features that you would expect (more in a moment) all of these features have been shoehorned into a handset that is surprisingly compact, but distinctively retro in its appeal. While the iPhone and iPhone 3GS is all about curves, the Droid by Motorola is about angles. It's not dainty by any stretch of the imagination.

Slightly thicker than the iPhone, it is weighty in the hand and comfortable in the pocket. It's not small, but its not HTC HD2 massive either.

Rather than opt for a white or silver, it's black and "brown sugar". That "brown sugar" will come across as "bling gold" though, and it's the first time we've seen gold on a phone that wasn't attempting to charge us thousands for the privilege. We're sorry to say that it's a bit too ostentatious for our liking. Luckily it's really only kept to three small details: the speaker grill on the rear, the d-pad on the front and the dedicated camera button.

There is a reason it has been called the Droid: the design, like a robot, has no emotion.

So what have they put inside? The key tech specs include a massive 3.7-inch screen, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, Android 2.0 and a processor fast enough (550MHz) to power it all. Storage is offered by a 16GB microSD card that comes pre-installed (not hot swappable) and there is of course the usual bevy of connectivity technology such as GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Quad-Band and, because of Verizon, CDMA.

There is a 3.5mm jack and speaker for the music savvy and a small green light that flashes when you've got a message or alert of some sort. You can turn it off, but it will keep the BlackBerry switchers happy.

Gaming-wise the processor is powerful enough to cope and with built-in Open GL support for the games we played (Robo Defence amongst others). With only 256MB of available memory for apps, the move could limit what games (i.e., high octane graphic-filled) will work. It will certainly make developers lives harder.

On the camera front you get a 5-megapixel camera with the ability to capture video at DVD quality up to 24fps and zoom in 4x via a digital zoom. There is a dual LED flash and it features automatic focus.

Within the camera application itself, which is turned on by pressing the dedicated button on the side of the handset, you have some control over the way the camera acts. There is of course the usual still and video modes and a quick access point to the photo galleries. There is also the ability to change the settings of your images like White Balance, Scene mode, Flash mode, Color effect, Store location, Picture size, Picture quality and Focus Mode. Scenes offered include Portrait, Night, and the like but there is no Macro.

In use and the camera struggled to autofocus on our subjects. You get a warning and the ability to take an image still, but what's the point if it's blurry? This is a nice addition rather than a reason to buy just like most phones that aren't camera focused. Dedicated compact cameras don't have too much to worry about just yet.

Then there is the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Used landscape it instantly reminds us of the HTC Touch Pro from 2008. The keys are arranged across four rows and lay flat. You'll either love or loathe this as it doesn't give you any indication of where you are on the keyboard - one of the key reasons for going QWERTY over touch. Next to the keyboard there is an overly-large d-pad.

Of course you don't really have to ever slide-out the keyboard as the phone's 3.7-inch touchscreen combined with Android's landscape and portrait keyboards, don't need you to. The screen is bright and as crisp as any other screen in the market that isn't OLED. Beneath the screen are four quick shortcut keys: back, menu, home and search and they get you to where you want to go quickly. All are touch-sensitive and all are built into the glass screen so it's a continuation, like the BlackBerry Storm 2, rather than four separate buttons.

Physical buttons, aside from the hidden keyboard, are kept to a minimum: dedicated camera, volume and lock. Even though it has a QWERTY keyboard, those keys are really just for that. There is no "Mail" key or five ways of accessing the home screen as can found on your average Nokia.

Power it on and the fun starts. Someone, somewhere, clearly has a sense of humour. While the notion of a HAL-esque eye looking out at me sends shivers down my spine every time I've booted the system, the fact that is plays an audio clip that says "Droid" in a robot accent does make you giggle. Expect yourself, if you sign up for this handset, to be boring you friends for days, if not weeks.

If you've used Android before you will know what to expect. As we said at the beginning, this is very much a Google experience. There are no tricks, no Sense UI elements, no Motoblur. You get a desktop, and the slide-out draw for your applications and that's it.

Sporting Android 2.0 there are a number of new features that have been added to the mix to justify getting this over the HTC Hero - for the time-being (HTC have confirmed 2.0 will be coming to the Hero). The OS is quick and nippy in use.

Android 2.0 offers more functionality improvements over 1.6, rather than visual flair or excitement in the same way that perhaps Apple concentrates on. But it's the little things that can soon add up to make it better than the sum of its parts.

One of those is the ability to mute the handset with a swipe of your finger before unlocking it. The other is the search box that like the Palm Pre and iPhone allows you to search the phone, and its data straight away. Where it beats the iPhone is that it automatically starts searching the web for you, integrating those results into the mix as well.

Among the improvements will be email and contact syncing with multiple accounts from multiple sources, Exchange sync support, a combined inbox for those multiple email accounts, better calendar, improvements in address book UI, loads of camera improvements including flash, digital zoom and a macro mode, a better virtual keyboard, improved graphics, three-point multi-touch, a better browser and Bluetooth 2.1.

Setting up email was (almost) straightforward. Gmail users will be able to punch in their username and password, while Google Apps users will have to make sure they are running all the right software on their domain. We had to enable Google Talk (Chat) before it would allow us to sign in to the service - cunning.

If you are a Google Apps user it will automatically sync everything to the phone. Contacts, Calendar dates, the lot. It's very pain free, In fact the most pain-free install we've ever experienced. Multiple calendars, multiple contacts, and over 10,000 emails accessible in about 60 seconds. This is very much the essence of Android for those already in the Google system.

As for browsing the phone as you covered too. It's not iPhone easy yet, but there are lots of impressive new features. The main one is that when you load up a page you get a full "desktop" view of the page you are looking at. Double tapping zooms you in to the page, but frustratingly there is no pinch zoom or multi-touch support. We aren't sure why as it's on the HTC Hero and the lack of it makes the browser harder to use. You do get zoom buttons, but they aren't the same.

We also noticed some strange page layout issues with the browser (see picture) that while not impeding your browsing experience completely, isn't how those pages were designed. YouTube videos are playable and loaded into the handset's media player. It's a painless experience.

One of the biggest elements to gain excitement on the launch of the Droid by Motorola and Android 2.0 was the introduction of Google Maps Navigation. Currently only available on the Droid, it brings true turn-based GPS to the phone for free.

The new offering aims to take on the GPS hardcore from TomTom and Garmin by offering a fully-functional GPS device in your phone. Users can speak their directions to the handset rather than having to type them in and access maps and Points of Interest via the "cloud", suggesting mapping updates and new features needed to be downloaded will be a thing of the past.

In practice and it's as good as it sounds. Telling a phone to "Navigate" to a destination is very Start Trek. Feeling peckish, our first request was to "Navigate to pizza in Hoboken". After it analysed our dulcet tones, it then offered us a number of pizza restaurants in Hoboken with the option to click on one to give us directions. No multiple menu systems, no working out where they were - just a phrase and off we go.

While the system waits for the GPS to kick in you get a run through of the route and then there are a series of different views you can catch including 2D, 3D, and Street View. You can also overlay layers on to the maps such as live traffic (where supported), Satellite, and Points of Interest like ATMs, Gas Stations and Car Parks.

The software does take some getting used to, we struggled at first, and it doesn't seem to be as intuitive from the outset as TomTom or Garmin. It lacks that experience of helping people out get from A to B, like easily finding recent destinations. There also is valueable information that is missing from the "dashboard", like estimated time of arrival, the ability to block roads, and other niceties that you just expect from even the cheapest PNDs. The voice is pretty ropey as well, and of course, you are dependent on downloading your maps too.

The performance is good, but Google has a long way before the dedicated manufacturers should really start the firesale. This is a free GPS solution and therefore one that isn't to be sniffed at, just don't expect to ditch your dedicated device just yet.

Being the most advanced Android handset on the block currently has its benefits, mainly that you have full access to virtually all of the apps in the Android Marketplace. While our recent review of the HTC Tattoo found that there is currently plenty missing from the lower end phones, this didn't seem to be the case here. 

So you've got your new phone, it's a funky new shape and there isn't the massive eco system. While the Droid doesn't come with speaker docks and cases, Verizon is offering two accessories that make perfect sense. The first is a docking station for your nightstand, the second is a windscreen cradle so you can use the Google Maps Navigation. Both cost $30 and really are just cleverly designed bits of plastic with magnets in the right place to activate software on the phone - hence the cheap price.

The docking cradle loads a dashboard style interface that lets the phone become a glorified alarm clock. It works too. You get a big clock, the weather, access to your music and photos as well as the ability to dim the light so you can sleep. There is also a quick button to the alarm settings. We really like it. It's a neat idea first seen on the BlackBerry Bold and one that is welcomed here. The car mount does a similar thing and loads the navigation interface. It doesn't however go the one step further - like the TomTom for iPhone cradle - and boost the GPS signal, but Google has confirmed to us that it would be possible within Android to do it if a manufacturer wanted to.

Verdict

It's the question that everyone will ask, so we might as well get it out of the way now - is this an iPhone or HTC Hero killer? And the answer is no.

Where the Droid by Motorola or Motorola Droid, as it will no doubt be known, succeeds is that it offers you a state of the art experience of Android 2.0 on a network that has flawless telephone reception across the country. Against the iPhone, which is a multimedia internet device first and a telephone second, that will be a deal clincher for many.

In tests around New York, a notorious AT&T blackspot, the Droid outperformed the iPhone when it came to network connectivity every time. Get past the small detail of making phone calls and there are some really nice features here. The docking station, the ease of setup and the sheer list of tech specs make this no slouch.

But there are issues. The QWERTY keyboard isn't that great, no multi-touch in browsing is frustrating, and the Google Maps offering is close but not quite there yet.

In fact the best way to think of this handset is the true sequel to the T-Mobile G1. For some, especially those who don't like the idea of their OS being meddled with (a la the Sense UI) this will be their calling. To others looking for that graphical eye candy you won't get it here.

This is a fantastic phone, but would we personally choose it over the Hero? Not if the Hero, as suggested by HTC, will be getting Android 2.0.