These Are The Droids We’ve Been Looking For

Dec 17, 2009

Motorola Droid
It’s really a shame that currently in the United States one has to make a choice between the best cell carrier (Verizon) and the best smartphone (the iPhone). Fortunately there is finally something that is a next best option after the iPhone – phones powered by Google’s Android OS. By Apple staying exclusive with AT&T for so long they have left the door wide open for other Mobile operating systems and now Android options are really beginning to come on strong. When the Motorola Droid came out for Verizon I jumped on it the first day. I’ve been using it for about a month now and in many ways I am happy with this solution which allows me to use a cell carrier that has the best coverage and keeps my costs down (because of all my friends and family who are on it also) while using a modern touch screen phone that is loaded with useful features and highly customizable because of apps.

For starters, the Verizon coverage for voice and data is superb. I have already tested it out on some trips and as usual with Verizon I am pretty shocked to get coverage in some remote places.

I like the Google Android operating system a lot so far and it should only get better. The Droid is the first phone to use the improved Android version 2.0. Navigating around the phone is not as smooth as the iPhone. That’s a very high standard though and the way it is currently is much better than any other smartphone I have tried. As you would expect, there is tight integration with all Google products which is really nice if you use a lot of them as I do. Unlike the iPhone, you can take full advantage of Google Voice. You can multitask which you also, surprisingly still can’t do on the iPhone. The Droid GPS is excellent and any use I have made of it has worked very well including the free voice navigation. Another feature I really like is the ability to see everything that is consuming the battery and what percentage each function is using. Scrolling in Android 2.0 is still a bit choppy and not nearly as smooth as it is on the iPhone. The Android OS has the option for widgets, which are bigger than app icons and perform multiple related functions. I’m not a big fan of them. The way I see it is on mobile OS you have very little space to work with so what you have must be utilized well. I just turn off any widgets.

The Android Market does not have nearly the amount of apps the iPhone App Store has, but it is increasing rapidly with almost everyday bringing significant new Android apps. The Android Market just hit 16,000 and a couple of months ago it was at 10,000. 2010 is looking like it’s going to be the year of the Android explosion.

The Motorola hardware has strong points but also some parts that are my least favorite parts of the phone. Unfortunately hardware issues can’t be improved with a software update. The Droid has a really big 854 x 480 pixel resolution. This is higher than the iPhone, but I actually find the lower resolution iPhone a lot easier to do extended reading on. This is probably has more to with the fact that the Android app creators haven’t refined their apps as much iPhone apps which have been around longer. This being said the Droid’s screen is crisp and very impressive to look at. The 5 MP camera isn’t perfect, but it’s the best one I’ve had on a phone. At first I didn’t like the four haptic touch common keys(back, menu, home and search buttons), but I quickly realized I liked the feedback and feeling they provided. The universal back button is both a blessing and a curse. Unlike the iPhone where going back is someplace different in every single app, it’s really easy to get in the habit of using a back button that is the same for every app. I really like this aspect of it. The problem with it though is where it’s located and how easy it is to be pressed. With it near the lower left corner of the phone I found it way too easy to inadvertently hit it and go back multiple steps rapid-fire. I do like the feel of the haptic touch but if the common buttons were pressure-sensitive instead of touch-sensitive or just positioned differently, perhaps this wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

One of the biggest problems I have with the hardware is the placement of the light sensor. The sensor can be used to automatically adjust the brightness of the screen, physical keyboard and haptic buttons based on light levels. You have the option of disabling the auto-brightness but on the Droid you really can’t because you won’t be able to see the keyboard and haptic buttons in a low-light or dark area. The problem with light sensor comes about for me because when reading on a phone I often find it comfortable to hold hold it with my fingers hugging the top right corner. Because the light sensor is there and you are partially covering it, the screen brightness will flicker as you move your fingers. This is not really a problem on the iPhone because all buttons are virtual and thus you are not dependent on a light sensor to illuminate them. The simple way to fix this problem for me would be to place the light sensor towards the middle or on the left. Of course this issue really depends on your preference for holding the phone, but for me it was damn annoying.

And then there is the much discussed physical keyboard. Some people hate it and some people can’t live without it. To me a physical keyboard seems old school and the iPhone has proven to me that you can type quickly and accurately on a virtual keyboard. Even if you really want a physical keyboard, you may not like the Droid keyboard. The keys are fairly scrunched together and don’t have much in the way of feedback when pressed. I never use the directional pad and it’s a waste of space. The whole point of a touch phone is to use your finger on the screen to do everything. Also, if the directional pad weren’t there the physical keyboard could be far wider. I’ve been trying to use the keyboard to give it a chance but I keep having this fear I’m just going to be carrying around the dead weight. Sometimes when I use it I wind up doing some combination of all 3 keyboards (physical, virtual vertical and virtual horizontal) for one task and it’s hard to get a good rhythm going. I say just give me a virtual keyboard only and good or bad I’ll learn to live with it. I trust that the virtual keyboards will improve as the Android OS improves. There are also alternative virtual keyboards on the way like Swype.

I’d say the Droid gets 2.5 out of 3 things right, and that ain’t bad. Great cell service, strong operating system and hardware that is good but has some significant design flaws. Despite the hardware issues, the Droid is one of the best options after the iPhone and the best Android phone. For now.

Android Apps

Dec 2, 2009

Android Market

So I recently started using an Android phone, the Motorola Droid. The Android Market only has a fraction of the apps in the iPhone App Store, but there is an app for most of the key things you would want to do. There should be a ton more on the way with the Droid nearing one million units sold and the amount of Android phones growing quickly. Here is a list of some of the best and most useful apps I have downloaded so far. Oh and they are all free!


Shazam

Yes the free music identification app is available for Android phones too!

My Tracks
Awesome free app that let’s you record GPS and get lots of statistics like distance, time, elevation, speed and more. Lifehacker described it perfectly: My Tracks for Android is a Fitness Geek’s Dream.

Swift / Twidroid
Both are free Twitter apps but I’m currently kind of deadlocked on which one is the best. Swift easily has the better UI but Twidroid is a little more ahead on features.

USA Today
Probably the best news app currently available for Android. Unfortunately there is no New York Times app yet.

Google Voice
Besides getting Verizon coverage instead of AT&T, another HUGE advantage of going Droid instead of iPhone, you can use the Google Voice app. Like any other Google product, the integration with Android is very nice.

The Weather Channel
Not perfect, but the best weather app I have tried so far. Android could use some kind of basic, built-in weather app like you get on the iPhone.

Google Sky Map
A very nifty app that let’s you point your phone to the night sky and shows you what stars you are looking at.

AP Mobile
Another news app and one of the most polished apps for Android.

Talk to Me
A nice real time language translator. Good for helping you learn a langauge or getting by when traveling.

ShopSavvy
Allows you to scan bar codes to find the best prices. Handy if you’re standing in Best Buy. Their regular website is pretty cool too.

Where
You can do a LOT with this, but I tend to prefer my apps like I like meals. I’d rather have one good high quality meal than gorge myself with average food at a buffet. Where is like a buffet. It’s not a bad app at all, but I’d rather use individual apps that are designed precisely for a certain task. For now though while there aren’t that many Android apps, it can be somewhat useful.

PicSay
Really simple image editor and the only app I have used so far that actually does use multitouch in Android 2.0.

Google Finance
A solid app for monitoring stocks and finance and it’s made by Google so you know it has to be decent.

Key Ring
I refuse to carry a bunch of special cards in order to get the best price from a store. I already have enough crap to carry around. I won’t shop at Shaw’s supermarket because of this. Using Key Ring makes it a slightly more acceptable as it lets you copy the bar codes and/or keys from the cards.

Wapedia
It’s nothing mind blowing, but it’s the best Wikipedia app I could find.

It will be interesting to see how puny this list looks a year from now. My basic wishlist for future apps includes New York Times, Instapaper, a ready for prime-time sports app app like Sportacular, a Kindle app or other e-book Reader and better apps for food/restaurants. There is a Facebook app that is pretty terrible and it would be nice if Facebook got their act together and did some Android representin’. Also games are a hugely weak area for Android when compared to the gold standard, the iPhone.