By Harry McCracken | Monday, March 22, 2010 at 8:38 am
From July 11th, 2008–the day the iPhone 3G went on sale–until February 15th, 2010, I was an iPhone user. But for all the things that are wonderful about the iPhone, I was increasingly fed up with one, um, minor weakness: I had trouble making and receiving phone calls on it. That’s in part because I spend a lot of time in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, much of which seems to be Bermuda Triangle of AT&T coverage.
So after thinking it over for a couple of weeks, I took dramatic action: I bought myself a Motrola Droid from Verizon Wireless. Why the Droid? Well, with the profusion of new apps for Android phones, I figured I needed an Android phone on hand to review them . And the Droid is on the famously dependable Verizon network, is available now (unlike the Verizon Nexus One), and has a keyboard (also unlike the Nexus one).
Oh, and Amazon had the Droid for $109 with a two-year contract, no rebate paperwork involved. Which sounded like a great deal until it knocked the price down to $49.99 shortly after I placed my order…
(Side note: I also spent some time with a Verizon Pre Plus that Palm loaned me, and mostly enjoyed the experience. If I didn’t want an Android phone around as a review platform, I might have opted for the Pre Plus.)
Once I had the Droid in my possession, I used Google Voice and iPhone call forwarding to ensure that all my calls would reach me on my new handset. Then I put the iPhone on my dresser, and there it’s mostly stayed. I’m not saying I’m done with the iPhone–no matter what happens, I have no plans to terminate my AT&T contract, since I need the iPhone to review apps and am generally very happy with it as long as coverage isn’t an issue.
How am I liking the Droid after a bit over a month? Executive summary: There are a bunch of things about it that please me, most notably the fact that virtually always lets me conduct phone calls and connect to the Internet, including in spots where my iPhone is nothing but trouble. But the Droid is rough around the edges–really rough around the edges–in the way that Apple’s phones never were.
Want more detail? I think I’ll segue into list mode.
Note: The lists that follow don’t constitute a full-blown review of the Droid. I’m skipping multiple pros (the high resolution screen, for instance) and cons (the lack, until Verizon pushes out the 2.1 update, of multi-touch). These are just the things that have struck me about the phone over a little more than a month of real-world use.
1. Verizon. I understand that Verizon Wireless’s 3G is far slower than AT&T’s, and there are times when I regret the fact that I can’t talk on the phone and use the Internet at the same time. But I don’t think I’ve had a single call that dropped or was hopelessly unintelligible, or a single incident when I’ve been unable to get online at an acceptable clip.
2. Facebook integration. Google borrowed this idea from Palm’s WebOS and added it to Android 2.0, but it’s delightful: You can choose to have the Droid sync all your Facebook friends into its Contacts list. You get access to phone numbers and e-mail addresses from Facebook, and when a Facebook friend calls you, you see his or her photo as the phone rings. The intermingling of Droid and Facebook info seems to work perfectly; if I go back to the iPhone, this is the single OS feature I’ll miss most.
3. Google Voice. On the iPhone, Apple’s refusal to approve the Google Voice app leaves you with a not-entirely-satisfactory Web app. On the Droid, you get a real native app and the option of automatically routing all your outgoing calls through Voice, using your Google phone number. Which is what I’m doing–I’m trying my darndest to never use the phone number assigned me by Verizon, so I can switch to other carriers in the future without repercussions.
4. Multitasking for third-party apps. Mostly because it lets me listen to Slacker while browsing the Web or performing other tasks in the foreground. Oh, and it makes IM a lot more usable, too.
5. Fast access to recently-used apps. Hold down the home button for a moment, and icons for the apps you’ve used most recently pop up, letting you return to any of them with a tap. Apple could implement something similar without enabling full multitasking, and should: One of the iPhone’s biggest usability glitches is how cumbersome it can be to get to your favorite programs.
6. Its basic Googleosity. If you use Gmail, Google Calendar, and other Google services–and I do–the smoothness with which they’re integrated into the Android experience is a pleasure. (One nitpick: I want a Google Tasks app, too.)
7, Navigation. Sure, you can get a profusion of turn-by-turn GPS apps for the iPhone, but they all cost money. The navigation built into the Droid’s version of Google Maps isn’t bad, and the price–$0.00–is unbeatable.
8. Swype. You’re not going to see this ingenious alternative keyboard on the iPhone unless Apple decides to put it there. Actually, you’re not going to see it in the Android Market, either–Swype’s creators only want to distribute it by cutting deals with handset manufacturers and carriers. But they were nice enough to give a copy I could install on the Droid to test it out, and if you Google around you might be able to find an installable copy. Swype isn’t perfect, but it’s great for dashing off quick notes with one thumb–I’m using it a lot, and sliding out the Droid’s hardware keyboard less frequently than I expected.
9. Status notifications. Slide down on the System Tray-like bar at the top of the screen, and you get a list of updates–such as recent e-mails, IMs, installed apps, and calendar items–and the ability to jump to the originating app with one press. This feature isn’t perfect–I can’t always figure out the logic of the order, for instance–but it’s way better than the iPhone’s one-at-a-time alert messages.
10. The Back button. I’m not convinced that Android’s four-button interface (Back, Menu, Home, Search) results in a more efficient experience than the iPhone’s Home-only approach. (Overall, in fact, I’m pretty sure that I get stuff done faster on the iPhone.) But I do like the Back button–it helps compensate for the other ways in which the Android interface is less than gainly.
If the Droid had all these virtues and was competitive with the iPhone on all the fronts in which Apple’s phone was a delight, it would a thing of wonder. But like I said, it’s a far scruffier handset than the iPhone 3GS–there are ways in which it feels positively unfinished. Let’s count ’em…