Correction to This Article
This review of Verizon's Droid smartphone incorrectly said that the Droid and other devices running Google's Android software can synchronize a user's calendars and contacts only with Google's Web-based applications. Some Android phones ¿ including the Droid, which is a Motorola phone sold by Verizon ¿ include tools to synchronize that data with Microsoft's Exchange server software.

Fast Forward: Verizon's Droid takes on Apple's iPhone

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Please don't call the Droid an "iPhone killer."

Verizon Wireless's new Motorola smartphone, running Google's Android open-source software, won't drive Apple's device from the market. (Besides, labeling anything an iPod or iPhone killer usually seems to ensure its quick demise.)

But the Droid is a worthy iPhone competitor -- something Verizon has struggled to find since the iPhone upended the phone business two summers ago. Unlike this carrier's disappointing lineup of Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices, the Droid can stand up to AT&T's flagship gadget.

Much of the credit for that goes to Android's developers. Like other Android phones, the Droid combines a simple, touch-driven interface, an operating system that can run multiple programs at once, a Web browser that displays full-size pages as well as the iPhone's does (both browsers run on the same open-source code framework) and a tap-to-install catalogue of more than 12,000 add-on programs, many as clever as anything on the iPhone.

The Droid -- $299.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate for new and renewing customers who sign up for voice and data bundles of $69.98 or more, text messaging not included -- also shares certain issues with other Android devices. You have to upload your existing calendars and contact lists to Google's Web-based services, which then synchronize with the phone over the air. (Other companies are working on software to allow direct syncing of those records, as well as iTunes music libraries, but they're not all there yet.) And its multitasking abilities can outstrip its hardware, leading to hiccups in music playback as other things happen in the background.

But Verizon's new model steps ahead of such older Android phones as T-Mobile's myTouch 3G and Sprint's HTC Hero in a few important aspects.

One of them is Verizon's extensive mobile broadband coverage, which outstrips Sprint's and dwarfs that of AT&T and T-Mobile. On an iPhone or a myTouch, WiFi wireless networking is a necessary backstop; here, it's more likely to be a convenient extra.

The Droid's hardware incorporates notable upgrades, too. Although the phone is hardly thicker than an iPhone 3GS, its chiseled, angular exterior hides a slide-out physical keyboard and a removable battery that kept the phone on a call for more than 7 1/2 hours. It also hides an SD Card memory slot, which Verizon fills with a 16-gigabyte card.

The Droid's flash-equipped camera, however, doesn't yield the quality that its 5-megapixel resolution might suggest. Photos appeared grainy, videos looked blurry, and it exhibited the same shutter lag as most other camera phones.

This phone runs the new 2.0 version of Android, while other Android phones ship with the 1.5 or 1.6 releases. This upgrade brings a vastly improved Google Maps program that provides turn-by-turn directions.

This is an amazing piece of work: Speak a request for directions -- I even had this work with a car's radio on -- and it quickly calculates the best route, updating itself as you drive and overlaying color-coded traffic-congestion data. Once you near where you're going, it displays a Street View photo of that destination. Traditional GPS units look like AAA TripTiks compared with this.

The only knocks against the new navigation software are its need for a data signal (good luck using it in the hollers of West Virginia) and the occasional, embarrassing inaccuracy in Google's data (as when it placed a restaurant in the wrong quadrant of the District).

In addition to navigation, Android 2.0 brings a few lesser but still welcome refinements. Unlike the iPhone, it properly supports Bluetooth, enabling wireless file transfers as well as connecting headsets and car hands-free kits. Another 2.0 feature allowed Verizon to include extra software to link your contacts list with your Facebook friends list, augmenting the phone's records with profile photos from the social-networking site.

Less impressive: Verizon's visual-voice-mail software, which allows you to play or delete messages in any order but costs an extra $2.99 a month.

The Droid's lack of multi-touch gesture input -- a standard feature on the iPhone, Palm's Pre and some other Android phones -- and its inability to open a few standard e-mail attachments constitute other disappointments.

But those glitches shouldn't negate Verizon's achievement. With this one phone, this carrier has made itself relevant in the smartphone market, made Android more competitive and maybe even made Apple a little uncomfortable.

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