Motorola Droid vs Apple iPhone: yet another view

The Motorola Droid features a slide-out keyboard
The Motorola Droid features a slide-out keyboard

With the Droid, Motorola and Google have introduced a credible alternative to the iPhone and Apple’s vision of mobility.

Until now, the reaction among handset manufacturers to Apple’s innovation has been pretty disappointing. For more than a year, the best that the wireless phone makers could muster was mere imitation. One measure of the sheer terror that Apple has instilled in the mobile industry was the huge number of lookalike gizmos that were rushed to market, ripping off Apple aesthetics and featuring deeply-flawed touch-screen interfaces. These feeble pretenders achieved little besides providing a vivid contrast to the integrity of Apple’s product vision. Later, the success of the iTunes App Store inspired another round of craven clones. Around the world, major device makers and mobile network operators announced the rollout of their own app stores. Brilliant! Original!  For a while in 2008 it seemed like Apple had intimidated the rest of the mobile industry into abandoning their R&D efforts.

For Apple fans, this was probably sweet validation, but it was bad news for innovation. For years pundits and futurists had proclaimed that most people will use mobile devices as their primary point of access to the Internet. And now, with the global rollout of 3G data networks, there’s finally enough bandwidth available to make that claim true.

Now is the time for innovation, not imitation. We’ve barely begun the era of smartphones. Who says that Apple’s vision of mobile content is the only model?  That claim deserves to be challenged.  Right about now the world could benefit from having a lively debate about the future of mobility.

That’s why it’s so important that Motorola and Google teamed up to introduce a viable alternative to Apple. The Droid is a good phone with a fresh take on the smartphone.

As a ten-year veteran of mobile entertainment, a Blackberry addict and the proud owner of multiple Apple computers, phones and iPods, I was eager to check out the Droid, just to see what was new.

Disclosure: A few weeks ago, I visited Motorola‘s lab in Illinois, and they provided me with a Droid for my personal use. Motorola did not ask me to blog about it. The following review is purely personal, and it doesn’t represent the views of my employer nor is it a paid product endorsement.

1. Setting up the Droid:

The out-of-the-box experience was effortless. Truly. It was much easier than setting up the iPhone or the Blackberry (and those are pretty good, too). If you have a Gmail account, you can expect to set up your Droid in about ten or fifteen minutes. It was incredibly simple, and I never consulted a manual.

Nice touch: Gmail automatically pulls in your contacts and synchronizes them with your Facebook friends. So when a friend calls, you see their Facebook photo displayed on the screen.

I don’t use Picasa or Google Calendar, but it is a safe bet to presume that those apps synch up just as easily as Gmail, other Google Apps, and FB. In fact, I am eager to try them just to see how well they work on the phone. I expect them to work seamlessly and smoothly.

Linking the Droid via bluetooth to my new car was also a snap. It took about fifteen seconds, just following the menus on the screen. Simple and painless.

It’s worth noting that your choice of smartphone is likely to affect your desktop computing habits.  That’s because you swiftly develop a usage habit that drives your desktop computing behavior.  Blackberry users get hooked on MS Outlook.   iPhone users get addicted to iTunes, iCal and Mac Mail.  And likewise, it seems probable that I will rely on Google apps more if I continue using the Droid.

2. The Hardware

The Droid is comparable to the iPhone in size but it weighs more. Noticeably. It is dense and solid. It has heft. The shape is a bit more complicated than the iPhone. Apple’s minimalist aesthetic makes the iPhone a smooth slab with a mono-button. The Droid features several buttons: four main navigation buttons on the front screen, plus a lock/unlock button, camera control and audio volume buttons hidden on the sides. It doesn’t take long to figure out these buttons.

Some people may find the Droid ugly or boxy. The Apple is round, like an Audi, whereas the Droid is boxier and has sharper angles, like a Cadillac. It’s a matter of personal taste.

Nice touch: the Droid includes a slide-out hard keyboard with a rocker. That’s an advantage, especially during the setup when you need to key in your passwords to various email and social network accounts. However, the slide-out keyboard on the Droid has one big flaw: the buttons are flat and barely responsive. As a result, it’s much easier to make a typing mistake, especially if you have big fingers like me. For fast typing, the Blackberry still remains the undisputed champion of mobile gizmos. I personally find the iPhone virtual keyboard quite a poor substitute for a real keypad.

The Droid has some more nice touches: a ton of onboard memory, plus a slot for a memory card. The five megapixel camera really works well, even in low-light situations, recording still photos and motion video. There’s even a flash for still photos.

Battery life on the Droid is exceptionally good.   I gave up on my iPhone as a primary phone because it couldn’t hold a charge for an entire day:   if I had too many phone calls, it simply died in mid-afternoon.  As a result, my iPhone is basically a very expensive iPod touch, good for apps and browsing but nearly useless as a primary phone.  In contrast the Droid can hold a charge for more than a full day of work, including lots of phone calls, browsing, and even running desktop widgets that consume battery life fast.   In addition, Motorola allows their customers to replace the battery.  So if I have a lot of phone calls, I can simply bring a spare battery instead of lugging around a charger.

3. Voice calling quality

For some reason, many of the reviews that compare the Droid and iPhone seem to overlook the fundamental feature of voice calling quality. I still use the mobile phone for voice calls, first and foremost, so I care a lot about call quality. The Droid is the clear winner on this front. Voice calls on the Droid are crystal clear, and the phone has a powerful internal antenna which makes it possible to pick up a Verizon signal even in the hills where I live.

Many people deride AT&T for the poor quality of their network, but I think that this might mask an important weakness in the iPhone. The dirty secret may be that the iPhone is not a great phone. It’s an awesome device, a terrific handheld game machine, a good portable computer, but it’s just not that stellar at doing voice calls. That’s not a slam on Apple. Radio frequency is complicated. Battery management is difficult. Voice compression is difficult. It would be a surprise if Apple (or their suppliers) were able to master these skills in their first attempt.  As a Nordic engineer told me once:  “Anyone can go to Taiwan and build a device.  But it’s hard to build a phone.”  Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson have been conducting R&D on radio frequency for decades, and have innumerable patents to protect their secrets. In my experience, devices from these manufacturers are generally superior for making phone calls. Your mileage may vary, of course: mobile devices are subject to local conditions, variance in networks, topography and atmosphere.

4. Touch Screen

No contest. The iPhone has the superior touch interface. I have not yet witnessed any device with a comparable screen. (except for the amazing devices created by Jeff Han). A couple of days ago, the Droid downloaded a software update: since then the touch screen has been more responsive. So perhaps this will improve with time.

5. Software

Google’s Android operating system has improved a great deal since it was introduced one year ago, and it continues to improve. So there is no one version of “Android” to compare to the MacOS running on the iPhone. It’s a bit of a moving target. In the mobile content industry, it is widely acknowedged that there is a real risk that Android will fragment into many different implementations across multiple devices from different manufacturers. There are literally dozens of new Android devices scheduled for release in 2010.

I found Android on the Droid to be fast, intuitive and easy to deal with. The software is reasonably stable: a few apps crashed the Droid, but that happens with the iPhone, too.

One significant advantage of Android-powered phones is the ability to multitask.  You can run several apps simultaneously:   that’s not possible on iPhone today.

There are now 20,000 apps available in the Android App Market. That’s not close to the 100,000 available on iTunes for the iPhone, but honestly, a huge number of those iPhone apps are crap. Wading through 100,000 apps is a tedious chore on an iPhone. I had no trouble finding every app I needed for the Android.

The Android widgets are delightful. It’s great fun to see Facebook updates and Twitter stream and live news feeds from CNN or Al Jazeera running live on the desktop. The widgets definitely drain the battery faster, but I’ve had no problem with battery life on the Droid.

The best aspect of the software is the brilliant integration of the suite of Google apps. These work brilliantly, and there is much to be learned about Google’s mobile strategy by studying these apps. My favorites include:

Google Voice Search. Did you ever wonder why Google offered free 411 calls for years? I’m told that Google’s motivation was to perfect their sofware for voice recognition by testing on millions of callers to 411. If so, this was brillant. The result is the nearly-flawless Voice Search. It’s excellent. While driving, I can click on voice search and simple speak a command like “Call Joe Smith mobile” or “Directions to 500 Wilshire Boulevard” and the phone automatically proceeds. It works perfectly almost every time. I’ve tested this in my car, in noisy rooms, outdoors and with other people’s voices. Amazing.

Google Navigator. Another brilliant freebie. Free turn-by-turn directions for driving. I’ve tested this against the built in navigation package in my car, and it’s comparable. Those in-car nav systems cost thousands. And even a Garmin or TomTom costs several hundred dollars. This feature, coupled with voice search, is worth the price of the phone.

Google Maps. Again, this works great, as expected, with a couple of neat innovations: Latititude, which is an opt-in ge0-social network. You can see your friends as they move around the map.  You can turn Latitude off if you don’t want to reveal your location.  And Places Directory, which seems to be a Yelp-killer: you can instantly find the best bars, restaurants, stores, gas stations, hotels, parking places and everything else near you, along with reviews and ratings from other users. I travel a lot, so I plan to use these features.

There are lots of new apps arriving daily in the Android Market, so it’s pretty fun to check it out each day to find out what’s new.

Summary:

The Motorola Droid is a good phone with a lot of cool features. It’s not an iPhone. Instead, it’s a fresh take on the smart phone. And that’s great news for the mobile biz. Because nothing spurs innovation like competition.
Next year, dozens of new devices running the Android operating system will hit the market. Many of them will be priced to compete with the typical feature phone, which means that smartphones will be in the hands of millions of new users. There is bound to be a lot of creativity, plus a lot of confusion, as the new crop of non-Apple smartphones reach a new generation of consumers. Anyone working in media and software should be keenly interested in this evolving marketspace.    If you want to get an early glimpse of this future, check out the Droid.