November 11th, 2009
The Motorola Droid A855 is the first Android 2.0 phone. I have been using one since Monday, having switched from a BlackBerry Pearl. I also wrote about Terah’s iPod Touch recently, so I’ll be making comparisons to it too. Here’s my review.
Physically, the device is very nice. It fits well in my hand. It comes in a fairly small box. It’s surprisingly heavy for such a small device, but it isn’t so heavy as to be a problem. It feels solid, sturdy, and durable throughout.
Terah has the most recent iPod Touch 8GB, and compared to that, the Droid is thicker and heavier. The Droid’s screen is awesome; a little longer but not as wide as the iPod Touch’s. The iPod Touch screen seemed to offer less friction as I’d slide my finger over it, which was nice but not a terribly big deal.
I don’t share some other people’s annoyance with the keyboard. It is far better than the BlackBerry Pearl, or many other BlackBerries I’ve seen.
Along the bottom of the screen are some silkscreened buttons. My gripe with them is that they are easy to accidentally press. I’ve done that more than once while using the phone in speakerphone mode, but you can lock the phone keyboard while you’re on a call.
I also don’t share the complaint about battery life. It is excellent compared to the Pearl. Despite having a long-life battery, if I had it charged fully when leaving work at 5PM, by the next morning at 7AM it would often be completely discharged (though sometimes only half discharged). I believe that has to do with my home being in a poor reception area, and it spending a lot of energy looking for signals. In any case, the Droid has impressed me with its battery life and I have no complaints there.
The screen, as I said, is brilliant and sharp. It is readable in various lighting conditions. By default, its brightness adjusts with the brightness of the ambient light. That’s normally fine, but it can be annoying to stand in front of a light with the Droid in a shadow, watch its screen darken, and then shift a bit and it becomes bright again. There is a setting to disable “automatic brightness.”
Button-wise, it has four physical buttons: the power/lock button at the top, volume up/down on the side, and a camera button on the side. The camera button only works when the phone isn’t suspended (locked), and disappointingly can’t be remapped to something actually useful.
Just beneath the screen are four touch buttons: back, menu, home, and search. These are the ones I complained were easy to accidentally press.
MicroSD and USB
The Droid comes by default with a 16GB MicroSD card already installed. This is one huge advantage over the iPhone or iPod Touch: you can actually put things on the phone yourself, directly, without having to use iTunes and its limited features. I have, for instance, downloaded a PDF on the Droid and later copied it to my PC. I also copied a KeePassX encrypted password database from my Linux computer to the Android, for use with KeePassDroid. The iPhone/iPod Touch password programs don’t support this kind of copying of files from your PC to the device, though one will let you put a database up on a webserver you control and download it from there.
Plugging in a MicroUSB cable will start charging the Droid automatically. In order to make the SD card mountable, you must simply drag down the notification bar (which is how you get detail about what it’s telling you normally) and touch the USB icon. When the SD is mounted on the computer, the Droid won’t see it, of course. Touch the USB icon again to mount it on the Droid again, or just unplug USB.
Wireless and Wifi
The wifi support works like you might expect: pretty well. The cell phone reception works well, as does its Bluetooth support. It has an easily-activated “airplane mode” which disables all wireless features, which can then later be re-enabled. You can also individually disable wifi and Bluetooth.
Oddly, you can’t disable the cell phone network individually. The only way I could find to disable it is via Airplane Mode.
The user interface, overall, is very slick and polished. However, I would have to say it is not as slick and polished as the iPhone/Touch interface. A few of the animated effects have a low framerate, which isn’t really a big deal. More of a big deal is that settings and options can be scattered in many different locations, making them hard to track down at times. The device also offers fewer visual cues than the iPhone/Touch, though that is perhaps not significant. Like Apple’s device, the Android 2.0 UI offers you three home panels, which you switch between by dragging your finger left and right. The iPhone shows some dots at the bottom of the screen, a standard UI indicator on that device that you can flick left/right, while there is no such indication on the Android.
This is somewhat nitpicky though. I would put Android 2.0 and iPhone in the same general class of user interfaces, way above any other such device I’ve tried.
The Droid has an on-screen keyboard similar to the iPhone/Touch, though somehow it felt like the keys were smaller or easier to mistype. I’m not sure why that is; maybe they really are smaller. The physical keyboard can be used at any point too, of course.
This is an area where Android really shines over iPhone. Android supports background apps everywhere. That means that your weather widget can be always correct, instead of being hardcoded at the factory to show “73 degrees” as iPhone’s weather icon does until you tap to open it. It means that more apps remember where you were and what you were doing when you switch to/from them. And it means that you can do things while that PDF downloads. Finally, it means that you can have native Jabber clients on the Android without having to do some mess with Apple push notifications plus third party servers, significantly reducing the complexity of such apps.
Now moving on to the applications preloaded on the phone, I’ll start with the browser. It is, in a word, awesome. It is far faster and reliable than the browser in my N810. Compared to BlackBerries, of course, this is a real browser, not their limited one; and even so, it is still faster. It is also faster than the iPhone/Touch browser, sometimes significantly so.
The pinch to zoom feature of the iPhone/Touch is lacking, and it must be said is both useful and pretty. Zooming softkeys appear on the screen when you tap, and do work well. It also automatically zooms if you tap on the page to fill out a form, for instance. The bookmarks save thumbnail images similar to the iPhone, and you can put bookmarks on your home screens as well.
Rotating the Droid to landscape orientation causes the browser to also rotate, and on most websites it will also zoom in by default at that point, since it’s got a wider orientation and doesn’t have to shrink stuff to fit as much. The physical keyboard is very nice for filling in usernames and passwords.
iPhone-optimized sites, such as Bloglines, work great on the Android. Though many of them fail to autodetect the Android as an iPhone-like device, and thus you have to manually ferret out their iPhone-optimized URLs.
This is both a strong and a weak spot of the Droid. First off, it comes with two email client apps preinstalled: one for Gmail, and one for everything else. I haven’t used the Gmail one, so this review doesn’t consider it.
You can connect the “email” program to your IMAP, POP, SMTP, or Exchange (ActiveSync) accounts in the predictable way. Each account can be configured with its own notification preferences, so you can easily see an icon, vibration, or beep when you get new mail on one account and not the other. All folders on an IMAP account are accessible, which is a very nice feature that is not shared by the BlackBerry.
You can view your mail as a unified INBOX if you prefer. In such a few, a thin color bar to the left of each message summary tells you which account it came from by its color. This is a nice way to quickly deal with all new email, wherever it may be from, and ought to be emulated by some desktop clients. You can, of course, also view each account individually.
The email program supports attachments, both viewing and sending. It does not appear to have the iPhone/Touch bug if failing to display emails forwarded as attachments.
Now to the drawbacks. First of all, it inexplicably doesn’t support the IMAP IDLE command. As a result, IMAP accounts are polling-only; there is no near-instant notification of new mail as there is with Exchange accounts, even though IMAP supports that trivially.
Like the iPhone/Touch, Android 2.0’s mail program has a great deal of trouble with self-signed SSL certs, or SSL certs that are unusual in any way. Both devices refuse, by default, to talk to mail servers with self-signed SSL certs. Neither one offers to let you add an exception to recognize a particular cert in the manner that the built-in web browser on these devices would do. On the iPhone/Touch, at this point you need to obtain the cert by other means, stick it up on a web server, browse to it from the device, and add it that way. This trick doesn’t work on Android 2.0, nor does adding it using the “import from SD” option. There appears to be absolutely no way to teach the mail program to use a self-signed cert on Android.
The good(?) news is that you can choose to have Android “accept any certificate.” Many people in forums suggest that, and it does let it connect. Of course, it also removes much of the security benefit of using SSL/TLS in the first place, and is a terrible excuse for the lack of proper self-signed cert support. Both iPhone and Android devices have a horrible user experience in this area
The Droid comes with some sort of Quickoffice software pre-installed. It can be used to view PDF, Word, and Excel files (at least; maybe more). But it is a rather strange beast. It has no icon on the applications screen. The only way to open Quickoffice is by opening a file that it supports in another app. So, for instance, tap on a PDF in the browser or open a Word attachment in email.
I haven’t played with it much, but I can say that it’s read-only but seems to have high-quality rendering of all document types. Its PDF viewer is glacially slow on any page that has graphics. Flip the page to one with graphics and up pops a progress bar. And good thing too, because it might take 15-30 seconds to render a page. I will be looking for better PDF viewers in the Market; there are quite a few.
Lack of file manager
And that brings us to the next surprising limitation: there is no built-in file manager. I downloaded a PDF from the browser, and saved it to the SD card, but there was no way to look at it from the phone! Absolutely none. No way to delete it, rename it, etc. Several people recommended Astro, which solved all of those problems. Not having such a program built in is a weird glaring oversight.
Of course, the iPhone/Touch doesn’t have one built in, but in their case the glaring oversight is not having any files to manage…
Calender, Contacts, and PIM features
This is an area of exceptional strength for the Android. I believe it’s got the best PIM features of any mobile device out there, though it’s not without its quirks.
There are two calendar apps on the Droid, and they both have virtually identical interfaces and feature sets. I am rather at a loss as to why we are burdened with two separate apps. In any case, the app called “Calendar” works with a local calendar, or with Google Calendar syncing. It supports all the features you’d expect, and plenty you wouldn’t, including excellent support for meetings, viewing other people’s calendars that you’ve configured access to on google.com/calendar, viewing subscribed iCal calendars, etc. It has push syncing with Google Calendar, so new events appear in about 10 seconds. It is well-executed and completely flawless in every way I could see.
“Corporate Calendar” is the same, but for hooking into Exchange or Exchange-compatible calendars via ActiveSync. We are evaluating groupware, and have so far tested it with Zimbra and Scalix. It worked well with Zimbra, and not so well with Scalix. That’s not to say there were no problems. The meeting invitation emails Corporate Calendar generated appeared to have no body in the Zimbra mail client, or in Thunderbird (though if you look at the raw email, you see it does have a vcal entry in it). Meeting invitations sent to the Android can be displayed in the Email program, but the Email program doesn’t offer accept/decline buttons, so you have to manually pull up the event on your calendar to accept or decline it. Other than that, it worked flawlessly with Zimbra. Scalix exhibited several data integrity issues that will probably make it unsuitable for syncing with an Android at this time.
There is a built-in Calendar widget you can put on your home screen. It will show you the date and info about your next appointment. I miss the BlackBerry Pearl theme that showed me the next two appointments. There are some apps that claim to do this, but none of them work well.
Contacts are also quite powerful. The contacts viewer aggregates your contacts from multiple sources into a single view, which is nice. It can sync in Gmail contacts, ActiveSync, and Facebook contacts. (How’s that for a device with corporate and personal appeal?) The viewer works better than Apple’s, and creating a new contact lets you choose which source you’d like to add it to if you have more than one available.
Continuing the trend of many recent devices, the Droid has no task/todo list support built in.
I’ve heard people be all excited about Google Maps, saying it’s the best maps ever in a phone (though I suspect they have forgotten that Garmin has added on a phone to their GPS products in the past). In general, they are probably right. And also they are probably irrelevant.
The first thing that must be said is that the maps on the Android, like the iPhone/Touch and other such devices, are not actually installed on the Android. Consequently, for mapping or navigation to work, you must have a data signal, either wifi or CDMA. That immediately turns this into a GPS accessory, not a go-to device, because who wants to be stuck without a working GPS someplace without cell phone reception? (Such as several areas right near my house)
I have a Garmin Nuvi 500 (see my review), and despite not being a terribly expensive GPS, it runs circles around the mapping in Android 2.0 (or iPhone for that matter). The 3D display on the Nuvi is very helpful for driving in dense city streets, and that’s not available on Android or iPhone. The Nuvi has nice features such as one-touch detour calculation, excellent geocaching integration, accurate and sensitive receiver, etc. I will not be leaving it at home for trips just because the Android supports maps.
That said, there is something to be said for having maps of Android’s quality. It can be a nice crutch if you’re somewhere unfamiliar but didn’t expect to be, and thus left your GPS at home. It also can give you routing on transit sources, which Garmin can’t, so if you’re in an urban area with bus/subway options, the Android maps could be very helpful. I will probably try that out when we’re in Chicago next — and still pack the Garmin unit for driving around rural Indiana.
The last built-in “app” to discuss is the phone feature. Yes, the Android is a phone. As expected, the phone integrates well with the system. There is not much of any great interest to discuss here. It’s a phone. It integrates with contacts. It works.
I use Google Voice, and have had their BlackBerry app for some time now. The Google Voice android app is far nicer. You have the option to make all calls via Google Voice, none via Google Voice, prompt each time, or only international calls via GV (which is presumably cheaper for such than your carrier).
A couple of annoyances, though. One is that you have to touch a button to activate the keypad (to send touch-tone digits while you’re on a call). It should be activated by default.
Android Market vs. App Store
I know some people love it, but to me the Apple App Store is like a cross between the sleazy guy selling watches from his car trunk and the tourist trap strip malls that sell 50-cent useless plastic memorabilia for $20. Yes, there are some quality apps in the App Store that aren’t overpriced, don’t violate your privacy, and do something useful. But you’ll have to look hard. It still boggles the mind that most of the “secure” password storage tools for Android think they need access to the GPS, Internet, and at least one of your contacts, phone number, logs, etc. Yes, you heard me right. A password storage tool wants GPS and Internet access.
And, being Apple, we all know how tight they’ve locked down the App Store. Emulators are banned. Useful apps get arbitrarily banned at various points.
Now, the Android App Market is better than the Apple App Store in the sense that it has a lower percentage of the crappy apps, and perhaps more useful apps, at least to my taste. That’s not to say it’s without crappy apps. It boggles my mind why most weather applets on the Market think they need to know my phone’s status and identity, and why some apps that have nothing to do with the Internet or location services want to know all of the above. I don’t install such apps.
But there are gems out there. The small 400K weather applets that do what they advertise, and do it well. My absolute favorite is droid48, an emulator for my beloved HP 48GX calculator. Yes, an emulator. You can also find various NES, SNES, and C-64 emulators on the Market; Apple famously removed the latter from their App Store recently. And you’re not tied to the Market either; you can install apps from wherever you like.
KeePassDroid is another one. It reads the same database as KeePassX for Linux or KeePass (.kdb format only) for Windows. It’s a secure password management system, and I can periodically copy the file from my desktop over to the Droid and have all my passwords at my fingertips — but encrypted, of course. There is simply nothing that convenient for the iPhone/Touch because the device doesn’t permit it.
Music and Video
I haven’t played with these much, but the music player seems to just see MP3s placed anywhere on the SD and presents them as you’d expect a music player to do. It looks fully-functional and easy to use.
Overall, I think the Droid is a very nice phone. It isn’t perfect, but it bests the iPhone in a number of areas. I think it’s probably the best phone for many right now, and the iPhone for some others.
Update Nov 11: Two other annoyances I forgot to mention. One is that the power-button shortcut menu, as well as the lock screen, have a quick shortcut to put the phone into silent mode. Very well. Except, confusingly, these buttons not only enable silent mode but also disable vibrate mode — while checking the silent mode checkbox in settings does nothing to vibrate mode. There is no built-in shortcut to enable vibrate mode; you’d have to unlock the device, use the volume keys to go down the vibrate. The app Silent Mode Jammer helps with this.
Second is that the documentation is as poor as any other cell phone around. For instance, there’s a setting that says “Voice Privacy.” It’s a checkbox. The description is “Enable enhanced privacy mode.” Thanks, but that tells me nothing. Nobody online seems to know either. A few overconfident forum posters claim it’s encryption, linking to posts from 2003 about a Sony phone with a checkbox with the same name. Maybe it is encryption, but that is hardly definitive. The bottom line is it’s not documented anywhere.
Neither of these change my conclusion above though.