verizon

HTC Droid Incredible first impressions

My HTC Incredible came in the mail today from Verizon. After ripping the package open like a kid on Christmas, I ran into the good and bad of the device very quickly. I don’t have time to do a full writeup on the Incredible right now, but here are my impressions from the first few hours:

(for some perspective, I have been on an original iPhone for two and a half years, and I tested the Motorola Droid for a month after its release before deciding it wasn’t for me.)

Pro

  • HTC’s Sense UI is nothing short of amazing. I wasn’t surprised to see Android have a clunky default UI, seeing as Google is such an engineering-centric company, but HTC really put a lot of thought into streamlining the whole user experience. Sense has a much better keyboard and autocorrection system, which has me typing at almost the speed I type on my iPhone, on which I’ve had two and a half years’ practice. Also, the UI is fully multi-touch, and does so very well.
  • Performance wise, this phone screams. Nothing seems to choke it up.
  • I’m still getting used to the “optical trackball” at the bottom of the phone. I want to use it like an inertial scroll, similar to a finger swipe on the screen. It’s a pain to try and scroll with just the nub of my thumb, but once I swipe the whole length of my finger across the trackpad, it becomes a lot more useful.
  • Speaker quality is very good for both the earpiece and the speakerphone.
  • So far I am impressed with the quality of the camera and its dual-LED flash. The autofocus works very well. I’m disturbed that my phone captures images at 8 megapixels while my high-end point-and-shoot has six.
  • Complaints about the Incredible’s quality of materials are highly exaggerated. I prefer metal phones myself, but this hardware is very solid and have no doubts that it’ll last me through a 2-year contract. (I couldn’t say the same about the Motorola Droid, which had a loosely seated headphone jack and battery cover that was constantly falling off.) The soft touch plastic back feels great, and its unique angular design on the back is a lot more subdued than it looks in pictures- once you feel how thin the device is, it’s a lot less of a problem.
  • Likewise with the display- people say AMOLED displays like those on the Incredible and Nexus One are terrible in sunlight. Yes, it is not very good, but it only becomes a serious problem with the sun beating straight down on it from overhead. (Want a display that deserves a bad rap? Try a Palm IIIc.)
  • Verizon sent a free 2GB microSD card in the box that wasn’t advertised in the pre-order contents. My guess is that this is Verizon’s quick fix for existing compatibility issues for apps that don’t recognize the device’s 8GB of internal flash memory, which is a first for an Android device. Yes, it’s small, but it’s free and unexpected. My bet is that these phones will start coming with microSD cards preinstalled.

Con

  • The display is quite good, but doesn’t blow me away quite like the Motorola Droid did.
  • Cell reception is noticeably worse than that of the Motorola Droid. I haven’t tested this enough to know if it’s a serious issue or not.
  • The Incredible comes loaded with HTC’s version of Flash Light, which works with some stuff and doesn’t work with other stuff. It’s an imperfect solution, and becoming irrelevant as Apple forces the web towards HTML5, but Android 2.2 will have full-powered Flash anyways.
  • The USB port on the device plugs in on the bottom left side in portrait orientation- right where you want your left palm to rest while typing with both thumbs in portrait orientation. You can mangle your fingers around it in an effort to avoid it, but basically you’re going to want to use this puppy in landscape mode all the time while charging.
  • There are without a doubt some growing pains for a brand new device launching just today on Verizon. My data connection didn’t work at first, and Verizon’s technical rep told me it was likely a problem with HTC and Verizon’s initial network setup for this phone. They got it working for me eventually. (The problem was server-end.) Also, some things that could be fixed in a firmware update include an oversensitive ambient light sensor – it seems to make tiny adjustments when lighting conditions barely change – and navigation button LEDs that occasionally turn off when they shouldn’t.
  • Motorola preloaded a lot more interesting ringtones on the Droid than HTC did on this phone. That’s a matter of taste, but I found myself rushing to make my own ringtone ASAP on this thing.

So basically, this phone addresses almost all of the concerns that kept me from keeping the Motorola Droid. Sense UI is a joy to use, performance is increased, and the build quality seems much more solid to me (albeit not metal). I feel like I’m much more likely to choose to keep this and move my contract over to Verizon. The only holdout I have in my mind as of now is the quality of cell reception, which I’ll have to test some more outside of my signal-killing brick house.

Nexus One thoughts

Google announced the HTC Nexus One today. On paper, it’s just about everything I want: a touchscreen-only HTC device with a 1GHz Snapdragon processor. It’s headed to Verizon sometime in the first half of this year.

I returned my Droid last week and put my unlocked iPhone onto T-Mobile, which has a great lower-price plan for contract-free customers. I told myself I’d wait until better devices come along, and the Nexus One almost grabs my attention. Engadget posted a very thorough review of the device, and I’d say it meets 90% of what I’m looking for. There are but a couple of issues that give me pause:

  • The AMOLED display is supposedly better than the Droid’s, but it has some color balance issues – specifically, over-saturation in the reds and oranges. More importantly, its screen resolution is 58 pixels shorter than the Droid, at 800×480.
  • The speaker is described as “tinny.” One of the best parts about the Droid was its absolutely amazing speaker.

These issues are hardly dealbreakers for almost anyone. For myself, though, it’s enough to make me feel OK waiting to see what future phones offer, especially the next iPhone, which will likely have a boosted screen resolution, and possibly carrier support for Verizon.

After testing the Droid for a month and then reactivating my 2007 iPhone, I’m struck by just how well the original iPhone has held up to the competition of devices that are a full two and a half years newer. Other phones are just now catching up, and three major OS revisions are more than most could hope for. (Year-old Android phones are already missing out on new OS updates.) I could happily switch to an Android phone like the Nexus One now, but my financial situation as a student and the status of American GSM and CDMA networks just before the 4G LTE transition make me feel like having some patience will really pay off for me. Hopefully my geeky, impulsive side will be OK waiting until I’m on a real income later this year before jumping onto the new device train again.

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.