Droid closes the gap on the iPhone

Source: http://ping.fm/MsIvF


This business of iPhone killing is a lot harder than it looks.

Putting together a package that can overtake Cupertino’s magic device has proven extremely difficult, mostly because Apple has created a tight product that is extremely elegent, fun to use and boasts not only a powerful piece of hardware but an almost infinite amount of third-party software.

But there are ways to blunt Apple’s advantage, even if you can’t go toe-to-toe with the iPhone’s overall experience. The Motorola Droid, which goes on sale today for $199.99 (after a $100 rebate), is a study in just that kind of striving.

While it doesn’t match the iPhone’s simplicity and produce the same end result, Droid creates a hugely compelling package that is the best challenger yet to the iPhone. In some ways, it even surpasses the iPhone though its list of advantages doesn’t provide the one killer punch necessary to knock the iPhone down.

Perhaps, the best edge for Droid is its network. On Verizon Wireless, the Droid has a powerful network that finds me in the nooks and valleys of San Francisco. I’ve had a better time finding a 3G signal with the Droid than with my iPhone 3GS, which is an AT&T exclusive.

This is not a trivial matter because Verizon folks are very loyal. Some have already left for the iPhone but they would love to stay on the Verizon network if possible. With a Verizon iPhone looking pretty far-fetched at this point, the Droid is a great device to keep those Verizon customers happy and away from the door.

Aesthetically, the Droid hardware won’t set any hearts on fire. Its best attribute is its beautiful 3.7-inch screen which is not only bigger than the iPhone’s but, at 854×480 with a 16:9 aspect ratio, it boasts a better resolution.

The rest of the phone design is rather ho-hum. It’s got a glossy black body framing the screen with four touch buttons for back, menu, home and search. The back of the phone has a more rubberized black matte finish with gold accents.

Despite being just about a millimeter and a half thicker than the iPhone 3GS at its thickest point, the Droid manages to hide a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately, it’s not a great type pad. To accommodate the thin body, the buttons are flattened and offer very shallow channels to differentiate one from the other. The result is some inaccurate typing.

The biggest head scratcher is the inclusion of a directional pad just to the right of the keypad. It’s also on the same side as a lip that extends beyond the body beyond screen. What it all means is that your right thumb has to extend a lot further than your left just to type, which gets annoying.

I’m more of a fan of the virtual keyboard, which thankfully has improved auto-correct software. Even for longer messages, I was tempted to just type using the virtual keyboard in landscape rather than pull out the physical keyboard.

The Droid is the first to run Google’s Android 2.0 software. The highlight of this operating system upgrade is the inclusion of Google Maps Navigation, a free turn-by-turn direction service that works pretty well. Since it’s Internet connected, the service can also pull up live traffic, nearby searches and also Google Street View for points along your path.

Android 2.0 also provides some other nice touches including the ability to collapse contacts and information from multiple sources into one view. You can sync your contacts list from Google, Exchange and Facebook. Your different e-mail accounts can also feed into one in-box. It’s not as elegant as HTC’s Sense user interface, but it creates some intuitive connections and integration that you can’t find on the iPhone.

Some other less pointed advantages for Droid over the iPhone is its ability to multi-task, customize and support widgets. The iPhone has multi-tasking for many Apple apps but third-party apps have to be typically closed out before a user can access another application. Android lets you leave things running in the background though it doesn’t provide a huge benefit. The ability to customize your home screen with your own picture is a nice perk but hardly a game changer. The widgets, like a Facebook status update widget, can actually be pretty helpful though with only three home screen panes, they can take up some valuable real estate.

Android 2.0 also provides support for more camera features. The Droid sports a 5 megapixel camera with a LED flash and some nice effects and modes like sepia or portrait. Despite its higher megapixel count, the pictures aren’t noticeably better than the iPhone’s though the video is pretty good. The flash helps at a certain range but too close and it casts a garish glare.

One of the iPhone’s strength’s is its tight integration with iTunes. You can not only sync media easily, you can buy songs, videos and apps easily right from your iPhone. Droid offers access to Amazon’s MP3 service but there’s no equivalent to easy video downloads. You can move your own media over just by plugging your droid into a PC or Mac and dragging and dropping your files onto the Droid.

The web browser is very nice especially on the Droid’s larger screen. It’s too bad you can pinch to expand and shrink the page but double tapping is a good alternative for getting a closer look. Pulling back is more tedious, requiring multiple presses on an on-screen magnifying glass. Another addition is the ability to see thumbnails of bookmarked Web pages. Overall, I’ve gotten quite used to the user interface of Android and the way a press of the menu button or a long press takes you where you want to go. The iPhone set my expectations for responsive touch screen interfaces but Android’s experience has been easy to grasp.

Finally, the app story is still very much in Apple’s favor. It’s not just the huge numbers advantage 100,000 to Android’s 12,000 apps. But Apple just has some very polished software coming out from both independent guys and big name publishers.

In the end, the Droid doesn’t kill the iPhone so much as offer a credible alternative. The iPhone still has an edge but considering the amount of distance the Android platform has closed in just one year, you have to wonder what the competition will look like in another year. That’s where Android can press its advantage. While the internal innovation that happens on the iPhone comes from Apple engineers, Android is managing to ramp up faster because its open source nature invites innovation from a host of developers.

The days of a true iPhone killer are still not here and in truth, that title is a misnomer. Nothing’s gonna just appear and mop up the floor with the iPhone. But we’re now with the Droid and its Android successors, you’re seeing a future line-up that could turn this argument into a toss-up pretty quickly.


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