Review: Motorola DROID from VzWireless

Motorola DROID from VzWireless


Price: $199.99 after rebate, with 2-year plan
Pros:   Big screen, physical keyboard, navigation, voice-driven apps, Android 2.0, 3G coverage
Cons: Clunkier than iPhone or HTC, hard-to-use keys, tap-to-zoom, sometimes goes AWOL


We have to commend VzWireless: its “iDon’t DROID does” ad campaign sparked plenty of buzz about the Motorola DROID—arguably the first business-targeted Android phone. Over 250,000 DROIDs were sold in just the first week; total sales are expected to top one million by year-end.


But does the Motorola DROID from VzWireless really DO more than the iPhone or other Android phones? During our two-week test drive, we found that the DROID delivered what was promised—but still fell disappointingly short of perfection.


Getting physical







The first thing you notice about the DROID is its large, sharp 3.7-inch (480 x 854 pixel) light-sensitive WGVA display. Housed in a nearly-borderless 2.4″ x 4.6″ x 0.5″ black frame, the DROID’s frontal view handily bests any other Android phone on the market and rivals that of the iPhone. The only thing missing from this handsome display: pinch-to-zoom.



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If you’ve entered much text on the iPhone or other Androids, you’ve probably longed for a physical keyboard. Here, the DROID hoped to slay its competition with a slide-out QWERTY (above). Alas, we found this keyboard to be more of a detriment than an asset. It doubles the DROID’s thickness, increases its total weight to six ounces, and creates a multi-edged device that snags too easily and feels clunky in your pocket.


We might not mind if typing were indeed easier. But between keys that cannot be discerned by touch and the borderless display, typing (or dialing) in dim light or with one hand is tough. After a brief honeymoon, we rarely used this QWERTY. Instead, we actually preferred the DROID’s virtual keyboard, aided by its large display, haptic feedback, and multi-word suggestions.


Under its hood, the DROID has more to brag about. Its fast ARM Cortex A8 550 MHz CPU, 512 MB ROM, 256 MB RAM, 16 GB (max 32) microSD card, accelerometer, GPS, EV-DO Rev A, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, and 802.11b/g radios all meet or beat the competition. The DROID’s 5MP camera sports a 4x zoom, geotagging, image stabilization, and 720×480 video capture at 24 fps.


A removable 1400 mAh Lithium battery delivers roughly six hours of continuous use, tucked under a contact strip linking the DROID to an optional windshield bracket ($29), bedside cradle ($TBA), or anything else magnetic. The former turn the DROID into an automotive GPS or clock radio, but avoid the latter—a nearby magnet can siphon the battery by keeping your DROID awake.


Delivering the (Google) goods


Like other Android phones, the DROID ships with a suite of Google mobile services, including Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar, Google Contacts, Google Maps, and Google Search. These factory-installed apps are easily complemented by Android Market downloads.


For example, we installed Google Voice, Google Listen, and a Google Docs PDF viewer, along with a free Office Doc reader by DataViz. While the Android Market is an order of magnitude smaller than the AppStore, thousands of handy, interesting, and often free apps can be found there. Case in point: A quick search reveals over 200 Wi-Fi-related apps and widgets (below).



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This extensibility makes the DROID (and other Android phones) popular with consumers. New York Times columnist David Pogue even coined a new noun for the DROID and iPhone: App Phones. Both let users add apps and widgets, placed anywhere on the home screen or side panels. However, neither matches the degree of personalization delivered by “Scenes” on the Moto DROID’s slightly slower HTC cousins: the DROID Eris and Hero.


Consumers may enjoy apps, such as Facebook and YouTube (factory-installed), but enterprises are drawn to business apps. The Motorola brand is one of the DROID’s biggest business assets. Many enterprises are already comfortable with Motorola Windows Mobile phones. By introducing the DROID, Motorola lent credibility to Android 2.0, which includes businesses essentials, such as 802.1X TLS and VPN. Unfortunately, the DROID’s “office” apps are not very business-friendly.

Gmail, Email, and Exchange


E-mail is one area where business limitations surface. Motorola recommends using Gmail for the full DROID experience. We did, and Gmail worked great for our personal mail. The DROID can even keep you logged into multiple Gmail and Google Talk accounts automatically.


 


We also configured the DROID to pull e-mail on-demand from a corporate POP account and auto-sync message, contact, and calendar data with a corporate Microsoft Exchange server. Those (non-G) mails must be accessed through the DROID’s “Combined Inbox” which delivers both total and per-account message counts (below).


 


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This inbox drills down into one or all mailboxes to view, delete, reply/forward, and compose messages, aided by physical or virtual keyboard (above). But, even when push Exchange mail is enabled, this app retrieves message content in small batches only, requiring the user to repeatedly “load more.” The DROID includes Quickoffice to view .doc or .xls file
attachments, but after-market programs must be installed to read
Office 2007 or PPT files, or to edit any document. Messages cannot be moved between folders (e.g., to recover accidentally deleted messages from Trash). And signatures cannot be applied to outgoing POP/Exchange messages.


 


The DROID also presents appointments through two different apps: a personal Calendar (Google) and a Corporate Calendar (Exchange). Sadly, there is no combined schedule viewer, but all appointment reminders are signaled the same way, appearing as Android notifications at the upper left corner of the home screen.


 


Contacts synchronized from Gmail, Exchange, and Facebook do end up forming one merged list that can be filtered by source account. When adding a new contact, one account must be chosen for synchronization. However, when we edited a contact sync’d from two sources, changes were only pushed back to our Gmail contact list. A unified list turns out to be pretty essential because Contacts are used to drive several other apps (e.g., calls, messaging, navigation).


 


In our view, these DROID apps make only a modest and confusingly diverse attempt at integrating personal and business data. Furthermore, while the DROID uses ActiveSync to reach Exchange, it doesn’t support many of the attributes that enterprises rely upon for mobile device management. If you’re considering the DROID for business, check with your IT group.


 


Talk to me


Not surprisingly, we found the DROID to be a very good voice phone. Not only were we able to place and receive clear, uninterrupted voice calls with few coverage holes, but we enjoyed using the DROID’s many voice-driven apps.


 


Like any other cellphone, the DROID provides one-button access to voicemail. But it also provides Visual Voice Mail (below)—a factory-installed app used to scroll through, review, and selectively play messages in a VzWireless voice mailbox. (Note: Visual Voice Mail cannot be used over Wi-Fi or simultaneously with Google Voice.)


 


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The DROID also provides a Voice Dialer app (above) that offers a fast and fairly reliable way to dial Contact list entries or launch any other app (e.g., “open Skype”). Along the same lines, the DROID’s default home screen includes Google Quick Search Box and Google Search by Voice. Just tap the little mic on your home screen and tell the DROID what to search for—if your request can’t be understood, type a few words into the adjacent Quick Search box. This combo makes the DROID very easy to use in on-the-go, hands-free situations.


 


Ultimately, our favorite DROID apps were a voice-driven navigation duo: Google Maps Navigation and Google Maps Street View. Tap the Car Home widget to launch the alternate home screen shown above. From here, say a few words to search for an address to be pinpointed on a map, the name of a place (e.g., restaurant, store) to find, or person in your Contacts list. Any of those results can be used as a start or end point by Google Navigation (below).


 


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We found Google Navigation accurate, fast, and easy to use—in many cases, suggesting a better route or providing better directions than our three-year-old in-dash Garmin. The DROID’s screen is large and bright enough to present readable maps, spoken directions are mechanized but clear, and voice commands make navigation usable by a driver who can’t (or shouldn’t) be typing.


 


Dig deeper for useful features including Traffic View (color-codes traffic congestion along your planned route). The only drawback we could find: no option to repeat the last spoken direction. For best results, use the windshield mount and auto power adapter. In our view, this navigation feature alone—which requires no monthly subscription—justifies the DROID’s price tag.


 

Where the rubber meets the road


At the end of the day, a phone without connectivity is just an expensive MP3 player/camera. While VzWireless and AT&T squabble about maps, our experience in the Philadelphia-New York corridor mirrored the latest J.D. Powers wireless call performance study.


 


Specifically, we found the DROID’s CDMA EV-DO Rev A mobile voice and data services to be a major asset. Sure, EV-DO can’t do both simultaneously. But we ran into only one “no service” incident during our entire two-week test drive: a five-minute rural gap in central New Jersey. In every other case, we had coverage whenever we tried to use our DROID—often EV-DO, sometimes 1xRTT.


 


We used the newly-released SpeedTest Android app (below) to sample performance across a four-state area, measured to a server in Philadelphia. Our best EV-DO results: 2.34 Mbps downstream, 0.84 Mbps upstream. Typical results: 1.5 Mbps down, 0.45 up. This turnout is pretty much the best one can hope for in a VzWireless Mobile Broadband coverage area. Oddly, the Xtremelabs Speedtest app did not function correctly on the (Android 2.0) DROID.


 


 


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We were also happy with the DROID’s 802.11b/g performance. When measured by SpeedTest, Wi-Fi throughput peaked at 9.82 Mbps downstream, 0.99 Mbps upstream. However, those results actually measured broadband uplink capacity. When we transferred non-compressible files with Greyhound FTP, through a Ruckus 802.11n AP, to and from a local FTP server, we easily achieved Wi-Fi throughputs up to 25.6 Mbps downstream, 21.6 Mbps upstream.


 


Although some users have complained of difficulty associating to certain Wi-Fi APs, we had no trouble associating our DROID to any 802.11b/g or 802.11n AP we tried, with various WPA/WPA2 permutations. Unlike older Android phones, the DROID benefits from Android 2.0’s improved support for 802.1X. As shown above, it is now possible to configure connections to use PEAP, TLS, or TTLS; PAP, MSCHAP(v2), or GTC; and CA/user certificates. Credential storage has also been password-protected to prevent unauthorized use/modification.


 


Another Android 2.0 improvement is embedded support for most popular flavors of VPN. As shown above, the DROID can be configured to use PPTP, L2TP, or IPsec over L2TP (authenticated by preshared secret key or certificate). However, the DROID does not yet appear to include “vanilla” IPsec (that is, IPsec without L2TP). Third-party VPN clients are also available for download from the Android Market.


 


Finally, we had no trouble pairing the DROID’s Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR interface with hands-free and audio Bluetooth devices. Supported profiles include Hands-Free, Headset, Stereo (A2DP, AVRCP), Phonebook Access, and Object Push. Motorola included the latter to facilitate video/still image file upload; if you prefer using Wi-Fi, download the free SDCardWiFiAccess app from the Android Market. We were a bit disappointed to find no DROID support for Bluetooth tethering (an inexpensive way to share a phone’s 3G Internet with a laptop). VzWireless reportedly supports USB tethering for an extra monthly fee, but this feature was not activated on our review unit.


 


But is it a winner?


The DROID is undeniably fast—both at running apps and at using the Internet—but speed isn’t everything. Our DROID exhibited an unfortunate tendency to become unresponsive, distracted by who knows what for anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds, several times a day. Every so often, some apps closed unexpectedly—not just downloaded apps, but Navigation and Email. The DROID is a brand new phone, running a brand new OS version, so some growing pains are expected. However, we hope to see these kinks resolved quickly by Motorola/VzWireless updates.


 


In the long run, we would like to see the DROID deliver stronger out-of-the-box business apps, including a more feature-rich Exchange mail client, standard file attachment readers, and an integrated personal/business calendar app.


 


Combining such enhancements with the DROID’s already-strong voice-driven apps and embedded navigation would make this phone a stronger enterprise contender. Until then, we don’t see the DROID delivering a knock-out punch to the iPhone. We do, however, find the DROID worthy of serious consideration by anyone shopping for an “App Phone” this holiday season.


 


 


Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. Lisa has been testing mobile wireless phones since the late ’90s when she learned to “type” e-mail using Graffiti on her first GSM-connected Palm Pilot.

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