An iPhone user’s week with the DROID

Last week I switched from my trusty original (non-3G) iPhone to Verizon for the much-heralded Motorola DROID. I’ve been seeing Google’s Android OS maturing over the last year and a half, and now I’m convinced that within the next couple of years, Android devices are going to be a huge deal. Right now we’re seeing pretty much all of the American wireless carriers release many next-generation Android devices with different form factors and fitting different price ranges – instead of the iPhone’s “one size fits all” approach, Android is taking the same route as Windows Mobile, getting packed onto many devices from different manufacturers with a bunch of different specs in hopes that each device will better appeal to a diverse customer base.

The HTC Hero hit Europe last July and it seemed like the perfect device for me – save for its sluggish speed. Then comes the Droid on Verizon, which had a big feature list that stood out to me. When I found out that my state employee discounts make the Droid cheaper than my old iPhone plan, I decided to give it a try. Verizon has an extended return period during the holidays, so I have until the middle of January to figure out if Android OS and the Droid are for me, or if my iPhone and I are in for a longer-term relationship than I had planned.

(This isn’t a full-on review of the Droid – Engadget has an excellent one – but this is more about my personal experiences with the Droid from the perspective of a 2+ year iPhone user.)

The short of it is that the Droid has an amazing list of awesome features, but it lacks the iPhone’s incredibly polished user experience and attention to every detail. That tradeoff will mean different things to different kinds of users; I’m a nerd who has to deal with complicated systems on a regular basis, but I have a feeling that people just looking for a phone that complements their lifestyle with minimal fuss will still fare better with an iPhone or BlackBerry experience.

A few things I absolutely love about the Droid:

  • Its 858×480 3.7″ screen is AMAZING. I love the iPhone screen, but I was surprised by the difference that the Droid’s insanely high PPI (pixels per inch) count makes. It’s most obvious when viewing websites, where much more content is clearly visible without the need to zoom in. In the dark, I did notice that the iPhone has a better viewing angle, and the ambient light sensor on the Droid is a lot quicker to change the screen brightness, so if shadows pass over your phone, it might decide to freak out on you.
  • Multitasking apps is a huge deal. Any app can continually run in the background – so all day, I get notifications from Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and Instant Messaging. Also, switching between apps currently running goes much quicker than the iPhone, which can be susceptible to lots of time waiting for things to load if you’re trying to, say, copy and paste segments between the browser and a notetaking program. I’m also glad that Android automatically manages your running processes; the multitasking Windows Mobile leaves everything running unless you open the task manager and quit processes, which most people don’t think to do, so their phones just get slow and lose tons of battery life.
  • Having a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus, LED “flash” and a physical shutter button is a godsend. Photo quality is still pretty miserable, but the experience is better than my older iPhone. (The 3GS has 3.2MP and autofocus as well.)
  • The LED message indicator flashes for notifications- something most phones have, but the iPhone doesn’t.
  • The mix of metal and rubberized plastic casing on the phone: this thing is durable, a weight that feels good in the hand, but still manages to keep an unpretentious look that wouldn’t look weird in a boardroom.
  • If you use Google services a lot – Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Voice- you can’t find a more seamless experience than Android.
  • Android 2.0 has amazing contact sync between Google, Exchange, and Facebook contacts. I didn’t have to enter a single phone number because my contacts just synced right away, and my contacts automatically get their latest Facebook profile picture and phone number.
  • The notification panel can be pulled down within any application – so I can see new e-mail subjects, tweets, and messages without having to stop using my current app.
  • It seems more stable than iPhone OS under heavy use- my iPhone pretty commonly crashes programs when it runs out of memory, especially when loading large webpages.
  • Not only is Google less of a control freak about application distribution, but the OS itself is much more customizable and extensible by third party apps. I didn’t like the lock screen or the music player app, but I was able to find great replacements in the Android Marketplace – something I couldn’t do with the iPhone.
  • Being on Verizon means not having to worry about reception just about anywhere in the United States. I’m no CDMA fan, but AT&T’s reception is truly frustrating.

I’m having a hard time deciding about text entry. I’m a very fast typist on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, and have learned how to trust its autocorrection dictionary and even type in Spanish. The Droid has both a physical keyboard and landscape/portrait virtual keyboards. The physical keyboard isn’t great by any measure, but I do enjoy using it while doing lots of messaging because I have the full screen showing the conversation. I don’t like Android’s landscape virtual keyboard, because it often maximizes the selected text entry field, taking away all of my UI view whenever I want to view text. The portrait mode keyboard is quite good, however. I am still adjusting to the (barely) different layout and sensitivity from that of the iPhone, so I’m not as fast yet, and the autocorrection is an adjustment too. Right now, I’d say that Android 2.0’s virtual keyboards are about 90% as good as the iPhone’s, so I’d be happy with a non-QWERTY Android phone too.

Despite all of these good things, the last week using the Droid has made me realize just how much attention of detail went into iPhone OS, and how I took some seemingly small features for granted. Here are just some of the annoying things I’ve run into:

  • The first-party music app is dismal, and doesn’t have podcast support. That said, there are third party apps that work better.
  • Notification ringtones for SMS and e-mail abruptly interrupt any playing music – the iPhone fades music before and after playing a ringtone.
  • The notification area is buggy and regularly shows notifications that I’ve already cleared out once a new one comes in.
  • When I receive an SMS message, the screen does not turn on to show me the message like the iPhone does. Instead, I have to turn the phone on, unlock the screen, and pull down the notifications area before I can see any message text.
  • The proximity sensor isn’t good enough- I frequently am on the phone only to find my cheek mashing the virtual keypad on an active screen.
  • The text messaging app gives unknown callers the image of the last known caller – so I get text messages from Verizon Wireless that have my mom’s image. It’s very awkward to think that my mom is telling me I can pay my bill online!
  • Android’s App Marketplace is quickly growing to become a huge one like Apple’s – but it’s not there yet. It has 12,000 apps to Apple’s 100,000, and there are admittedly a lot of lower-quality applications because there is little to no approval process. I am confident that this will be a very different story in a couple of years, but I still find myself sneaking back to my deactivated iPhone to use its better Twitter, Facebook, and Evernote apps.
  • Many Droid users, including me, are reporting that the battery door falls off very easily. I keep it in my front pocket and the friction from pulling it out is often enough to slide it off. I cut a business card to size and put that inside, and that cleared up the issue.
  • Despite the dedicated GPU and snappy CPU, some UI actions are still quite sluggish, and it looks like its graphics capabilities are nowhere near that of the iPhone. My guess is that Android’s Java base is to blame, since this powerful hardware is hampered by running a virtual machine and executing code at runtime. This platform is naturally going to give it performance penalties compared to OSes that allow precompiled binaries.

So overall, I’m on the fence about Android OS and the Droid. I have a very optimistic outlook for Android OS, and the Droid finally presents a very, very good Android device. Most of my gripes are related to software, which I suspect will be addressed sooner rather than later. I don’t see any Android device as an “iPhone killer” because I think both platforms have a very strong future ahead of them.

The question I have to ask myself, as do others, is about what they need out of their smartphone. Carrier differences aside, Android offers way more customization and features for power users and Google users. The iPhone experience is much more streamlined and polished; it’s straightforward and complements your lifestyle rather than trying to be the center of it. Right now, the iPhone has a much larger app store and much, much better games.

Am I going to switch back to my iPhone or not? I don’t know yet. It’s going to take a few more weeks to decide. The Droid tempts me with many things I couldn’t do with my iPhone, but I’m not sure if it’s worth leaving the amazing iPod app and ease of use behind.

8 comments

    1. I think that Android is taking the Windows Mobile approach of diverse device formats on one OS, but is not repeating some of Microsoft’s mistakes. So far Android seems to have handled different screen resolutions and input methods (relatively) well, whereas it’s been a real nightmare for WinMo.
      I also think that Android has chosen a much better approach to multitasking than the extremes on both ends: limitless processes on WinMo and no third-party multitasking on iPhone OS.
      Windows Mobile’s failure is due to a PDA OS that hasn’t had a major rehash since 2002 and has failed to respond to capacitive touch and better application development distribution models brought up by the iPhone. Basically Apple challenged the rest of the industry to step their games up, and Microsoft has failed to do so. We’ll see if Windows Mobile 7 comes in time to save them. (I’m not holding my breath.)

  1. You need to read your contract carefully. While you can return the Droid until January,I’m pretty sure you can only cancel your contract within the first 30 days. The extended return period is for gifts (where the phone won’t presumably be activated until around xmas day).

  2. Typical. Rarely -if at all – do developers for Windows or Linux PCs respect interface and design, or user experience.

    Plus runtime Java? Really? WHY? If it’s so slow, where phones need to be snappy and fast, WHY use Java. Completely boneheaded decision all the time for the PC. At least you can overlook the (few) Apple crap decisions on the iPhone because the user experience is so good.

    1. I think they went with Java for the extensive amount of developers that already know Java, and the extensive number of library’s and code already available for it. No new learning and troubles for a developer who knows Java, just code and go. Also, its no so slow, its a little slow, but there making improvements to the virtual runtime environment all the time, making the on the fly code faster and faster.

    2. Java these days actually has decent performance. While it’s probably not appropriate for apps where timing really matters (medical software, for example), it actually isn’t too bad in most common-use applications.

      So yeah, I think it makes sense to support Java on a mobile.

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