Sunday, November 22, 2009

This is the DROID I've Been Looking For

Like most people, every two years I get a new cellphone whether I really need to or not. My last phone, the LG Voyager, turned out to be a bit of a let down in terms of its ability to access the Internet. So, for the last two years I've bided my time until my next upgrade date and read reviews of various smartphones. Until recently the choices for smartphone operating system were Windows Mobile, Palm OS or Blackberry. None of these particularly appealed to me. When the iPhone hit the market, it seemed to have set the mobile device world on its ear and showed that a hand held device really could be both a phone and a solid device for accessing the Internet. The problem with the iPhone was (and in my opinion still is) the fact that it is exclusively on the AT&T network. I remember reading a lot of reviews of the iPhone complaining about this fact and that Apple had signed a five year exclusivity deal with AT&T. So, when I found out that Verizon had launched a new smartphone a few weeks ago that utilized the Android Mobile OS developed by Google, I became quite excited. No other smartphone in the VZW catalog has appealed to me as much as the Motorola DROID, so I embarked on doing a lot of research on this new device. I read reviews, watched YouTube videos, weighed all the pros and cons and finally made my way to the nearest Verizon Store to check it out for myself (which means, I went to go play with it *grin*). It didn't take long for me to be hooked and within a few minutes I had made up my mind that I wanted to use my upgrade eligibility to get the DROID. I've had it now less than twenty-four hours, but I want to share my first impressions.

First of all, I love the size of the phone. I've heard a few people say that think the phone is to big. I love the fact that this device is not the tiny, small-buttoned phone that seems to permeate the market. I'm a big guy, with fat thumbs; I need the keyboard (be it virtual or real) to be large lest I hit the wrong keys. The DROID has, essentially, three keyboards; one physical, slide-out keyboard and two virtual on-screen keyboards (I say two, because the virtual keyboard can be used when the phone is either vertical or horizontal). The dimensions of the phone aren't really that large; it's essentially the same size as my Voyager (perhaps slightly wider, but also a bit thinner). It just appears larger because of the generously sized 3.7 inch screen (to put that in perspective, my Garmin Nuvi 255W GPS has a 4.3” screen, so it's not much bigger). The phone also has some heft. That's not to say it's heavy, but it's not feather-light either; personally, I like that too. I would prefer that the physical keyboard's keys were a bit larger as I have hit a few wrong keys (again, fat-thumb syndrome), but I'm sure I'll get used to the layout soon. Overall, the phone feels very solid and is very easy to handle and see. In fact, most of the reviews I've read seem to point out how easy the screen is to see both in terms of it's size and it's very vivid resolution.

Ok, enough about how the phone looks, let's move on to function. I'll start with the phone functionality itself, since that's probably what it will be used for the most. I have to say, it's very different not having a send or end key (even the Voyager had that even though it is also a touch screen device). Other than that it is pretty straight forward to use the phone on the DROID. Simply press the phone icon and up comes the dial pad. Dial the number, press the green phone receiver icon, and there you go. When you're done, tap the red phone receiver icon and the call is ended. It's just that simple. The contact list is very impressive thus far. It automatically integrates and syncs with my Google Contacts, which means I didn't have to spend an hour manually transferring my phonebook from the Voyager to the DROID or trying to use the wireless backup service from VZW (which doesn't work the same with the smartphones as it does other phones). Of course, the fact that I had put everyone's email addresses and phone numbers into Google some time ago helped, but it's still pretty cool that the sync feature works so smoothly. Dialing a number from the contacts list is pretty easy, even it does require more screen taps to pull off. I also like the fact that I can set Favorites in my contact list so that the people I call most are placed in a shorter list rather than having to scroll through all of my contacts looking for them. The only cons I can think of here are the lack of a speed dial list (at least, I haven't found one yet) and that the phone does not support one touch voice dialing via my Bluetooth headset. The phone does have a voice dial app already built in, however. You just have to tap it first, so I've put it in a very easy to find spot on the home screen should I need it while driving. So far, I've really only made one phone call with the DROID, but the sound quality was superb. I switched from the Bluetooth to the speakerphone seamlessly with the controls on the screen that come up while in a call and the I have to say, the speakerphone on this thing is loud and clear (on the Voyager, the sound was muffled unless you opened the flip to expose the speakers).

Now for the fun stuff (the Android OS, the Browser and the Apps) that make this a smartphone instead of just another cellphone. I won't lie, I immediately starting playing with these features before I made my first phone call or sent my first text message. In fact, the salesperson had me enter my Gmail account information in the store before I even left as part of the phone's initial setup. The touch screen is very responsive (in fact, I may need to see if I can adjust the sensitivity in the settings). I love that I can customize the home screen, not only in terms of what applications are there, but also in how the icons are laid out. Naturally, being a Google Android based device, Gmail, Google Calendar and YouTube are preloaded as applications. Being that I've used Gmail as my primary email for several years as well as using Google Calendar for keeping track of birthdays and appointments, this was a big plus. Facebook mobile is also preloaded, which is a nice touch (although, I'm sure I would've downloaded it anyway). One of the features of Android that I love is how it notifies me of when I get an email or text message. Rather than popping up on screen automatically (which I've always found annoying, especially if I'm already trying to read a previous message or compose one) it uses the status bar at the top of the screen. When I'm ready to view the message(s), all I have to do is expand the status bar to full screen. This has the added benefit of allowing me to read messages in any order I want instead of having to read them in the reverse order they arrived in.

The browser on the DROID is awesome! Unlike the Voyager, it's not limited to WAP versions of websites or simple HTML. So far, every site I've pulled up has loaded just as it would on my computer. Of course, it's much smaller, so I do usually have to zoom in to read the text, but the fact that I can even view sites with dynamic elements like Fash and Java is great. On the Voyager, I eventually dropped the unlimited mobile web feature from my plan because I just wasn't using it. On the DROID, I'm almost glad to start paying an extra $30 a month again since I can actually see my favorite Internet sites as they are intended to be viewed. Again, this is why I love the size of this phone, because if the screen were any smaller, it would be useless for web browsing (of course, any larger, and it would become to cumbersome to carry around).

Let's talk about Apps! The Android Market (which is the equivalent to the iPhone's “App Store”) has been criticized for only having around 10,000 apps compared to the over 100,000 available to iPhone users. So what? 10K applications to choose from is plenty, especially when you consider that both the DROID's and iPhone's users aren't going to come close to using all of those. For every useful app I've found, I've found dozens that have no appreciable use (at least, not to me). Either way, the fact that I can download applications to customize my DROID to suit my needs versus not being able to do that with my Voyager, is just plain awesome. So far, I've found several apps to make life a little easier or fun, especially when I'm away from my computer (like when I have to sit for an hour getting my oil changed or if I decide to go sit at a coffee shop to just get out of the house for a bit). Here's a list of some of the apps I've downloaded so far:

  • Aldiko – an eBook reader; came preloaded with The Art of War and The Invisible Man, and has a pretty big library of free, public domain books available. There are serveral eBook readers to choose from in the Market, some free, some that you have to pay for.

  • Pandora – a free streaming Internet radio application that is customizable. The fact that the DROID (unlike the iPhone) can run multiple apps at once makes this a very usable music app since I can continue doing other things while still listening to music.

  • Barcode Scanner – this turns your DROID's camera into a barcode scanner and links with Google Product Search so you can shop online for the best price on an item while you are still standing in the store.

  • Key Ring – this one seems pretty cool, but has gotten mixed reviews, so I'll have to test it out to see if it's worth keeping. What it does is, allows you to scan and save all those little discount club cards you keep on your key ring into your DROID so you can clear your key ring of all the clutter.

  • United States Constitution – there are several apps like this available. The one I selected includes not only the Constitution but also the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, et.,al.

  • Twidroid – a Twitter app available in both free version and a paid version if you need more features.

  • SportsTap – a sports score app that can be configured to send you updates on your favorite team(s) for when you can't watch the game yourself.

There are also a few other apps I'm considering such as “Open Home” which allows for more home screen customization and “Locale” which allows you to use the DROID's built in GPS to set profiles for your device based on where you are located (like automatically going into silent mode when you are at your favorite movie theater). Visual Voicemail is also available on the Android platform and while the app itself is free, to use it I'd have to pay an extra $2.99 a month on my monthly bill, so I'm still debating if that's really worth it or not.

All-in-all, I love the DROID. I finally am able to have an iPhone-like experience without having to deal with AT&T's questionable 3G coverage or Apple's proprietary nonsense. I'm very pleased that Verizon chose to let the Android OS do it's job as intended without imposing their standard VZW UI as they usually do giving me the freedom to do what I want with the device, while still having access to Verizon's superior (in my opinion) 3G coverage and speed. As I said though, it has not even been twenty-four hours, so I'll have to let you know about other things (like battery life, which so far seems low, but I've also been using it rather heavily downloading apps and getting used to the UI, so once I start using it “normally” I'll have to see how the battery does). For now, I have to give the Motorola DROID 5-out-of-5 stars.

~ JC

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