The Motorola DROID
“But does it run Linux?” is a common refrain in some circles whenever a shiny new gadget hits the streets. In the case of the Motorola DROID, I am pleased to say it does, in the form of Google's Android mobile operating system version 2.0 (running Linux kernel version 2.6.29).
With its big, beautiful screen, fast processor, full qwerty keyboard and utilitarian looks, is the DROID a serious contender for the smartphone crown or just another pretender that's too little, too late?
Let's cover the basics first: call quality. It is a phone, after all. As a longtime user of another carrier and having had no prior experience with Verizon, I was pleasantly surprised by just how good the DROID (and the Verizon network) sounded. The improvement was noticeable to people I speak to regularly. The external speaker is well suited to its primary roles of speakerphone and ringtone playback, and it actually does a really nice job in media playback as well (an obvious lack of punch in the low end notwithstanding).
The dial pad is clean and well spaced, with large buttons. Once connected to a call, the buttons for doing useful actions (speaker, mute, three-way call and so on) are right where you need them to be (Figure 1). There isn't much else to say here. Making and receiving calls is straightforward and simple.
The screen is the first thing that catches your eye, and it definitely warrants the attention—in a word: stunning. In a side-by-side comparison with that other smartphone, the DROID screen is bigger, brighter, crisper and more clear (Figure 2).
Scrolling and dragging are smooth and fluid. The haptic feedback (feedback technology that interacts with one's sense of touch, for example, via vibration), where implemented, provides just the right amount of “buzz” without being distracting. The response to tapping is good, as long as you remember to use your fingertip and not your fingernail. “Tap” response does seem to taper off a bit near the top of the phone (when holding it in portrait mode), but I've noticed this really only in one application, so I'm not sure if it is the screen or the app.
One thing the DROID screen doesn't do is multitouch (multitouch technology allows user interaction by touching the screen in more than one place at the same time). This “shortcoming” has been well documented, but I haven't really found it to be a big deal. I am sure my opinion would be different if I were used to using a phone that did support multitouch.
Although not quite a holy war like with vi vs. emacs, the presence (or absence) of a physical keyboard is definitely a polarizing factor among smartphone aficionados. Based on my previous experience with touchscreens, I knew going in that I wanted a physical keyboard, and this one, for the most part, hasn't disappointed.
To expose the keyboard, simply slide the screen up. There's no springs or hinges, just a satisfying click when fully opened or closed. The lack of hinges or springs is, in my opinion, a positive, because it lessens the chances of having a “loose screen” result from a worn-out mechanism. It also means less moving parts to break.
The keyboard itself takes up about three-quarters of the full width of the phone, with the remaining quarter being lost to the slide mechanisms, the microphone and a directional pad, which functions just like the arrow keys on a standard keyboard (Figure 3). The presence of the directional pad, much like the “chin” on the G1, makes right-hand placement a bit awkward initially; however, it took only an hour or so of use to adjust. A person with smaller hands may need a bit more practice to adjust, however.
All of the keys are the same size, with the exception of the spacebar, which is three keys wide. The lack of a physical space between the keys was a concern initially, but is no longer. Each key is bubbled up slightly in the center. This subtle rise in the center of each key makes it easier to differentiate between one key and the next as your thumb slides across the board.
The keyboard is a standard qwerty layout, with each key having an alternate function. The presence of both an Alt and a Shift key in both bottom corners makes it very easy to switch lowercase, uppercase, numbers and symbols. The inclusion of physical keys that replicate the touchscreen Search and Menu buttons is a nice touch, as it allows you to use these functions while keeping your hands in typing position.
The most unusual thing about this keyboard is the presence of two unused “keys”, one each in the absolute bottom left and right corners. It'd be great if they were user-programmable, but alas, they don't even click. Although this isn't really the kind of thing you expect to see on a finished product, I haven't found myself reaching for a key that isn't there, perhaps with the exception of having a Ctrl key available when using an SSH client.
In addition to the physical keyboard, there are also four buttons on the touchscreen: Back, Menu, Home and Search. Back does exactly what you'd expect, as does Search. Home drops you back to the main (center) panel from whatever you were doing, and Menu opens the options and settings menu in most applications.
Besides the keyboard and soft keys, the DROID has three additional physical buttons: the power/lock switch, a volume toggle and the camera button. The power/lock button functions exactly as it should. The same can be said of the volume toggle, which is smart enough to adjust the volume of whatever you're doing at the time (that is, call volume, ringer volume and media playback volume). The placement of the volume toggle does make it difficult to adjust the volume when the keyboard is exposed.
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