By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 2, 2010; G03
It's an exciting time to shop for a new smartphone. Which is to say, it's a confusing and maybe frightening time to buy a smartphone.
Consider the sleek Droid device, running Google's Android software, that Verizon Wireless's site touts. Its form and features could make that carrier's older devices look a little old and busted.
That might be a problem if you bought the sleek Droid device that Verizon touted in November. While the Motorola Droid finally gave Verizon a respectable competitor to Apple's iPhone, it compares poorly with the HTC Droid Incredible that Verizon began selling Thursday.
That smartphone, $199.99 to new or renewing customers, is a remarkable piece of work by multiple measures. Its 3.7-inch touch screen has a higher resolution, 480 by 800 pixels, than my first laptop's display. Its camera's 8-megapixel resolution exceeds that of many "real" cameras, even if its lack of an image-stabilization mode limits you to blurry or flash-oversaturated photos indoors.
At some point, HTC's engineers even crammed an FM radio into the thing.
And where Verizon offered no way for Droid owners to lend that device's mobile-broadband connection to a computer, the Incredible ships with "tethering" enabled. Note, however, that Verizon provides software only for Windows and charges $25 a month extra for tethering in most cases; the unsupported PdaNet program also works on Macs and is free.
(The Incredible requires a voice-plus-data bundle, starting at $69.98 but not including text messaging or visual voice mail.)
In a quick evaluation, the Incredible showed itself to be one of the fastest, most responsive smartphones I've seen. With multiple applications open, it zipped from screen to screen without bogging down or pausing. Older Android devices can stumble when multitasking, and the iPhone, for now, doesn't let add-on programs multitask at all.
Barely thinner than Apple's iPhone 3GS despite employing a user-replaceable battery, the Incredible lasted five hours and 50 minutes on a call even with its Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi wireless options all enabled.
And, like other Android phones, the Incredible can run a vast and growing number of add-on programs -- some 50,000 by an outside estimate -- in addition to such standard applications as the brilliant driving-directions software introduced on the Droid.
(Confusingly enough, Verizon's two other Android phones, HTC's Droid Eris and Motorola's Devour, ship with significantly older versions of Android.)
HTC added to Android's usual features with some worthwhile enhancements, most notably a smarter, auto-correcting on-screen keyboard that gets closer to, but doesn't match, the elegance and efficiency of the iPhone's.
Its included Windows software can also synchronize the Incredible's calendar and contacts list with Microsoft's Outlook. That remedies one sticking point for many would-be Android users: the need to move their data to Google's own Web services first.
But HTC and Verizon missed a chance to include comparable sync tools for a Mac's Address Book and iCal and for Apple's iTunes music software. The model lent by Verizon had enough storage to do much of an iPod's work, with about 6.5 gigabytes of storage free and a microSD card slot open for more.
It could be enough to make a Motorola Droid owner think again about the wisdom of that purchase -- but then again, the phones forecast for this summer might inflict the same punishment on Incredible buyers.
Sprint's Evo 4G, for example, will match the Incredible's camera but will add a second, front-facing camera for videoconferencing; offer a bigger screen; and connect to that carrier's new, much faster 4G network.
Verizon, presumably, will have to match that with its own upgrade at some point -- perhaps with a "Droid Inconceivable"?
And then there's whatever new iPhone Apple will ship this summer. The prototype model infamously lost in a Silicon Valley bar featured a higher-resolution screen and pair of cameras, among other virtues.
And Microsoft, after years of inertia, has decided to rewrite its smartphone software from scratch. Its upcoming Windows Phone 7 may bring a surprise or two toward the end of the year, if buyers can wait that long.
More so than in any other area of computing, the smartphone market looks like a hothouse environment right now. It's fascinating to watch things grow so fast -- but at some point, I won't mind seeing it return to the placid stability of the digital-camera business.
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