This May Be the Droid You're Looking For

I wouldn't go so far as to call the new Motorola Droid an "iPhone killer" but it's the best challenger yet to Apple's popular smart phone.

The Droid, which will be available from Verizon Wireless on Friday, is the first phone to use the latest version (2.0) of Google's Android operating system. Like the iPhone, it has a touch screen but it also has a slide-out physical keyboard. In addition to Verizon's 3-G network, it also has WiFi.

There is a lot to like with this new phone. A faster processor makes it snappier and more responsive than previous Android models and its bundled 16 gigabyte MicroSD memory card gives it plenty of space to store data, music and videos. Unlike the iPhone, both the battery and memory card can be removed.

Both the backlit physical and virtual keyboards are less than ideal but still quite usable. The physical keys are a bit too flat for my liking, but the keyboard is reasonably big and relatively easy to use. Like the iPhone, the virtual keyboard gets wider when you hold the phone in landscape mode, but it's not quite as nice as Apple's.

Although the touch screen is generally pretty responsive there are times when you might experience a short lag, including an occasional delay before you see the result of keystrokes on the virtual keyboard or dial-pad.

You can configure the virtual keyboard to automatically correct mistakes as you type. By default, it presents you with a list of suggested spellings as you enter a word. There is optional vibrating (haptic) feedback to let you know you've pressed a key. The fact that you can easily switch between a virtual and physical keyboard is a big plus.

The camera's 5-megapixel still and video camera is quite good. There is even an LED flash that's surprisingly bright for a phone camera. My only complaint is a relatively long shutter lag which could cause you to miss a fleeting shot.

The Droid's user interface is intuitive once you get the hang of it. Though it's a close contender, it's not quite as easy to use as the iPhone's. I'm not sure how Apple does it, but I find myself not having to give much thought as to how to use any iPhone feature even when I haven't used an iPhone for several weeks.

The new Android 2.0 operating system now includes the ability to access multiple e-mail accounts in a single in-box. The Droid is able to merge content information from different sources. I configured it to update my Gmail contact information with photos and updated contact data from Facebook.

The most significant enhancement is turn-by-turn directions within the included Google Maps application. I used the Droid to navigate around Silicon Valley and Washington D.C., taking advantage of its voice commands and robotic voice telling me where to turn. The service also has free real-time traffic information. Most standalone GPS vendors offer traffic information for a monthly fee.

The improved browser lets you tap the screen twice to zoom in or out - a nice touch, but not nearly as nice as the iPhone's pinching gestures to zoom.

The phone has an excellent media player but lacks the drop-dead-simple syncing you get with an iPhone and iTunes. Media is sync'd by plugging the device into a computer's USB drive and dragging files over to the Droid. Once on the device, you'll see album art, playlists and all the usual media player features.

As you'd expect from Google, the phone has an excellent search application which searches both the phone's content and the Web in one step, making it easy to find a contact to call, message or text, or to find Web content.

While there aren't as many Android apps as there are for the iPhone, there are thousands of them, with the number growing rapidly, especially as more carriers and handset vendors start deploying the open source operating system.

The Droid is a tad bigger and heavier than many other smart phones. It measures 2.4 x 4.6 x .5 inches and weighs 6 ounces, but it's only imperceptibly bigger and heavier than an iPhone. Part of the Droid's size and weight is due to the slide-out keyboard and its excellent (480 x 854 pixels) 3.7-inch touch screen. Below the screen are four touch-sensitive buttons: back, menu, home and search. There is a standard (3.5 mm) headphone jack and a Micro USB connector for charging and syncing from a PC.

If you're a Gmail user you won't have to do any synching. As with other Android devices, once you give it your Google user name and password, it keeps your e-mail, calendar and contacts in synch with your Google Web data. It also supports Microsoft Exchange and other standard e-mail accounts.

Not surprisingly, Android is the perfect mobile operating system for Google Voice users - the invitation-only service that provides transcribed voicemail, cheap international calling, call recording and other features. Although Google recently announced a stripped-down version of Google Voice that doesn't require that you change your number, the full-featured service requires users to get a new number from Google.

Trouble is, when you dial-out or send a text from most cell phones, the person on the other end sees your cell phone's number rather than your Google Voice number. Though there are clunky workarounds available for some other phones, users of the Droid can configure their phone so that the call and text recipients see the Google Voice number on their caller ID.

And by the way, the call quality is pretty good, based on usage from both the San Francisco Bay area and Washington D.C.

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