Black Friday gadget review: Motorola Droid vs. iPhone

After giving up my iPhone and using a Motorola Droid for a week, I can say that no, it's not about to kill the iPhone. But it just might save the Android platform.

There was a lot of excitement last fall in the buildup to the G1, the first phone to run Android, Google's open-source, internet-focused mobile operating system. But when the Android phones launched (in the wake of the iPhone app store explosion), the platform couldn't get a real foothold. Android didn't have enough buyers to attract hordes of application developers, and it didn't have enough applications to attract lots of buyers. From that lackluster showing, Google's revolutionary mobile project looked like it might be just an also-ran.

Enter the Droid. It's got a crisp, handsome design and a solid build. A brilliant high-resolution screen. A slide-out keyboard almost 3 inches wide. A 5MP camera with flash and video.  The 16:9 screen is fantastic, with crisper images than the iPhone and almost as responsive a touchscreen. For me the physical keyboard was a dud -- the keys are flat and mushy, leaving me longing for my old Treo's keyboard. Good thing the software's on-screen keyboard is excellent, edging out the iPhone's with more keys and better autocomplete.

The Droid is the first phone to run Android version 2.0, and it's also the first phone I know of that includes free turn-by-turn navigation like a real GPS unit. This worked great in my road test: its spoken directions say street names aloud, it has some live traffic data, and it even shows you a picture of your destination on Google StreetView so you know what to look for when you get there.

Some ways the Droid shines compared to the iPhone: It's heavily customizable, with keyboard shortcuts and home-screen widgets. The notification area lets you keep on top of all types of alerts without being too obtrusive. GMail and Google Calendar integrate perfectly. The Droid even has a gee-whiz voice-search feature: at any time, hold the search key and say (for example) "Chinese food," and you'll get a list of Chinese restaurants near your current location, and from there you can call them or get directions.

So why am I happy to be coming back to my iPhone? The iPhone isn't just easy to use -- it's effortless. Using Android isn't hard, exactly, but it takes a little work, and it has its quirks. Pushing the "back" button seems to do something different every time. The physical keyboard works totally differently from the on-screen one. Its application store lists half its prices in British pounds. The third-party software for Android is still thin, too, about a tenth the size of the iPhone's catalog, and the games that I tried were uniformly weak. Playing Android games reminds me of the PC 20 years ago (another environment in which developers had to make compromises writing games for a wide range of hardware); the graphics aren't much better, either.

The Droid gives you more precise control over its applications than the iPhone ever has (Steve Jobs prefers to make those decisions for you), and it has some of the most powerful features of any smartphone out there. Taking advantage of all that power takes a little work and a little getting used to; ultimately, though, the Droid is a solid phone and is bringing some much-needed buzz to the Android platform, which should attract new developers and build some momentum. After a rocky start, the Android is finding its feet, and the whole smartphone market will be better for it.

--Dave Barker
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