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First week with the Motorola Droid – a techie’s perspective

image I’m really going to have to concentrate on making this post reasonably-sized. If I do this, the post will probably be only book-length. If I don’t, I’ll run out of hosting gigabytes before I’m even half done.

You may recall my previous post about cellphones and how disillusioned I have been about what’s on offer. If you didn’t read that post, go ahead and do so now as it’ll give you some background into where I was at mentally as I took the dive into Android. I already explained my technical pedigree in the previous post so you should assume that what you read next is not just fanboy drivel but legit observations made by someone with absolutely no predisposed loyalty to any particular brand. If I had any kind of soft spot for Palm, it’s gone now that I’ve seen the Centro. And my faithful Sony Clie is like a ragged teddy bear missing one button eye. Stuck with me through the years, but it’s time now to mature and move on (dabs at teardrop with kleenex).

I had planned to make this a “first weekend with the Droid” post, which began in my mind as a rebuttal to the post made on the appropriately-named blog by Matt Haughey, “A Whole Lotta Nothing”, where he writes completely biased pro-Apple crap about the Droid versus the iPhone. Of course, he’s entitled to his opinion; it’s just a shame that his opinion will wind up inflaming the passions of so many other people with iPhone Stockholm Syndrome. I also initially did not want this to be a shoot-out between the Apple and the Google OSes. But that’s what it has inevitably turned into. Unfortunately my weekend report now has to be a week in review because last week was real busy for me and didn’t afford me a chance to blog.

So, in no particular order, I herewith roll onward with my observations about my new Motorola Droid after one week of solid futzing (and when I mention iPhone below, it’s only because it’s faster to type than iPod Touch).

  • Pre-purchase skepticism: I was initially skeptical about the Google OS. Someone at work already had the T-Mobile G1 and was extolling the virtues of Google Android to me in the lunchroom one day. But I’d freshly come back from my cellphone disillusionment post and was in no mood to seriously consider anything written by “big brother” in the smartphone arena. How wrong I was. It only took me about fifteen minutes of playing around with a Droid at the local Verizon store before I knew I desperately wanted one and that it looked like it would allow me to check off possibly all of my smartphone wishlist items.
  • Look and feel: This thing looks insane. I’m talking graphically; the resolution is an unbelievable 480×854; compared to the Blackberry Tour (480×340), the Palm Centro (320×320) and the iPhone (320×480). Externally, it’s kinda bland – just a piano-black rectangle without anything particularly sleek about it, but that suits me just fine. The screen resolution make the device’s GUI look so phenomenally crisp and detailed that I almost can’t stop looking at it, regardless of what’s actually being displayed. Then again I have been known to have shiny-ball A.D.D. syndrome, often staring at the graphical display of programs defragmenting my hard drives in slack-jawed, brainless delight, so take this observation bearing that in mind. *8-}
  • Operating system architecture: Perfect. As perfect as you could hope for. Firstly: multiple applications running at the same time – a no-contest win over the iPhone. Point #10 on Haughey’s blog post claims that the OS provides “way too much technical detail” and that he believes that Android’s capability of showing which application is using the most battery power is something that only an app developer would need. In reality, every single proper techie that I showed this feature to dropped their jaw in amazement. Being able to figure out what apps are battery hogs so you can make decisions as to which to can and which to keep based on usefulness versus resource drain? OMG. Count me in. And it looks like it’s Unix under the sheets – another plus.
  • Widgets: Boosts the user experience tenfold, if not a hundredfold. In addition to simply having icons on the desktop, you are allowed to install various “widgets”. These are floating information windows, some 1×1 icon sized, others taking up larger amounts of screen real estate, which can update in realtime with widgets that display everything from the current weather conditions in Zanzibar through to RSS feeds, your Outlook email and calendar, and much much more. There are some widgets that come by default with the Droid, others with various capabilities can be downloaded for free or a nominal sum from the Android Market. Each widget links to some sort of background service or process and therefore can be made braindead if you kill the wrong subsystem using a task manager – care has to be taken if you’re “going there” or you might wind up with widgets that are frozen and don’t update because you sliced their throats in your taskmgr app. But just the joy of being allowed to do this is pants-wetting stuff.
  • Market: One of the things that I came to appreciate about the iPhone/iPod Touch was the much-touted App Store. This is an online interface for downloading of free or paid applications which enables instant installing and use. Android has the same thing. Each store has categories with "top paid” and “top free” apps in each category. The iPhone’s app store inches ahead in design while actually IN the store, as far as I’m concerned, but where it falls down is directly after you choose to install an app. At this point the app store quits out and you see your program icon appear greyed out, and a little bar inching across the screen as it downloads before it lights up and is available for use. At this point you are free to reenter the app store and select another app. Tedious if you want to install multiple apps – you’re far better off using the iTunes desktop application for this (IMO one of the clunkiest user interfaces of all time). With Android, you remain in the Market app while programs are downloading, and can download multiple apps and watch nice progress bars download in serial from the notification area (that can be dragged down from the top of the screen at any time). Something else that made me rapidly clap in glee is one single option in the system settings. You can either check or uncheck an option to “Allow install of non-Market applications”. Market apps are safe, but if you don’t want to ride your bike with a safety helmet, you’re allowed to make that choice and download rabid freaky non-sanctioned apps from anywhere. Like Truman leaving his artificial reality through a door in the side of the world. Again, pants-wetting stuff. And WHAT I WANT.
  • App range and quality: The iPhone is streets ahead in the sheer volume of apps available at time of writing, but it’s still early days yet for Android. About 100k apps for iPhone, about 20k for Android. The difference is that Android apps can be designed to run in both the foreground and background, pushing and polling data if applicable on a schedule you choose. You can immediately assume that something you run (like an RSS feed reader) will simply drop into the background when you return to the desktop and run something else. My delight at using a real task manager app was and still is boundless. Various taskmgr programs out there can allow you to “endtask” one or multiple apps to reclaim system resources if needed, and have ignore lists (“don’t ever kill this particular app when you’re asked to end all apps”) and often widgets that you can install on the desktop for a single-click method of ending all background apps. One taskmgr I found even periodically polls the system for apps that aren’t “in use” but that are wasting system resources, and auto-kills them. I haven’t even found that sort of thing on Windows! Windows Mobile has a similar OS, but my experience with the HTC Titan (Verizon XV6800) running WinMo 6.1 was horrible. The apps were large and clunky and the OS appeared to have the rights to simply terminate apps without prejudice whenever you started to run out of resources, which was ALL. THE. TIME. With the Droid, I’ve comfortably run ten or more apps at a time (god knows how many background services that wound up being) and not even come close to running out of mem. I have a widget right now telling me I’m using 70Mb out of 261Mb resources. Despite it being early enough in my fiddling that I’m not exactly sure what that translates to (memory usage versus app space usage), that still reads pretty reassuring to me – especially considering how many apps I’ve already downloaded and am running in the background.
  • Resource availability: There appears to be an inherent limitation in Android’s available space for apps. Whereas you are allowed to use ALL of the iPhone’s system resources (8Gb, 32Gb or whatever) to store whatever you like – music, pictures OR apps – the Android is limited to built-in system memory for apps. You get a 16Gb SD card in the box with the Motorola Droid, which I thought was fantastic, but the reality is that only app DATA (you know, like downloaded podcasts, ebooks etc) can be stored on the SD card. The app itself has to exist in internal memory. More information here. This makes Android very similar to the Palm, but I’m betting that pretty soon Android developers will solve this problem the same way it was solved on Palm – launcher (replacement desktop) apps on the Palm allowed you to “install” apps on the external storage card, and when you click on those apps, the launcher plays a little trick and copies the app into internal memory first before running them. That might be slow and unwieldy on the Android system given the number of files that comprise apps (apps are written in Java, after all) but it might be a possibility. This really translates to a default ~256Mb of RAM for apps which IMO is a fundamental limitation – in the future, it may become a more serious issue to me than it is right now.
  • Customizability: God, it’s just amazing what you can do with Android. There are various desktop replacement systems, such as Open Home and Panda Home, which extend the default capabilities of the desktop environment with zero hacking required. Out of the box, the Droid has three virtual screens which can contain up to 16 icons, or widgets of varying size that fill up your 4×4 grid. There is a notification “drawer” at the top of the screen, similar to just about every other smartphone, which shows you the time, battery life and various notification icons, but you can slide this downward to show more detail. There is also an “app drawer” that you can slide UPward from the bottom of the screen, containing every single app that you have, arranged alphabetically. A ‘”longpress” on an icon allows you to drag it – either out of the app drawer and onto the virtual screen of your choice, or else from your screen to a trashcan icon at the bottom. This latter move doesn’t uninstall the app, it just removes the icon from the desktop – exactly the same effect as selecting an icon on the Windows desktop and pressing DEL. Your background can be changed at any time – there are built-in backdrops, or you can use a photo that you’ve loaded into the phone (or taken with the phone), or you can use the free Backgrounds app to allow you instant access to a crapload of internet-delivered backgrounds representing various categories. I’m not a bling-hound, but what I like doing is chopping and changing my operating environment to work better or smarter – so even the concept of being able to remove ALL customizations and have a solid black or blue desktop with plain white Arial icon text is just as appealing to me, as making the entire phone look like a rainbow threw up on it might be to someone else.
  • Processing power: Looks like it has loads of it. The Droid has the same CPU and GPU as the iPhone 3GS. Apparently the iPhone’s CPU is clocked at 600Mhz while the Droid’s is at 550Mhz. The OS slides and fades and other graphical delights are very similar to the iPhone’s – I noticed that they were a tiny bit jerkier at times, but that’s understandable when you consider the resolution difference – 320×480 versus 480×854. Higher resolution = more GPU power required. The implication here is that the GPU might be a little underpowered, but only for graphical motion bling. I didn’t buy this guy to play games, essentially, but then again I haven’t yet downloaded any high-motion games to try so far so maybe my fear is legit, maybe not. I’ll find out eventually. With what I’ve seen – scrolling through lists of contacts etc – it performs great, and PDFs look wonderful on it. If it can replace our iPod Touch with toddler games, so much the better! Giraffe’s Matching Zoo on Android would make my kid’s day.
  • User interface/keyboard: The screen is exactly the same capacitive touch sensing system as on the iPhone. I was skeptical about this (you can’t use it with a stylus or while wearing gloves, etc) until I saw just how easy and intuitive it was to use for my toddler to use the iPod Touch. Touching, flicking, wiping and pinching your fingers on the screen is a very natural user experience and I’m liking it a lot. Default apps on the Droid don’t seem to be as enhanced in a graphical sense as the iPhone – the Gallery picture viewer doesn’t let you flick pictures left and right – but I’m hoping third-party apps will give you these features.
  • Browser: Fantastic. The default browser is good, but I installed something called Dolphin which gives you more capabilities, including pinching to zoom in and out of webpages, along with double-tapping to “lock onto” and reformat a page paragraph so it fits neatly on your screen for reading. Beats the iPhone’s Safari hands down, but there still aren’t Flash capabilities available. Apparently Flash will be available early next year for all mobile platforms. Bring it on, Adobe. We’re waiting.
  • Camera and camcorder: 5 megapixel camera, autofocus, twin-LED flash capability. Camcorder records at 720×480, 24fps. Other features in there, like macro mode, white balance etc. Pics look great – very detailed, although the white balance inside turned pics a little too yellowish for me. Nothing that Photoshop can’t fix, of course. 16Gb SD card to store it all on. At time of writing, the largest SD card you can get is 32Gb, but Toshiba have a 64Gb card in the works. Neato.
  • Voice recognition: I’ve always thought this entire concept was a crock of bollocks, until I actually put it into practice. The Droid comes with a “Car Home” application which purports to allow you to speak into the device, then acts based on what you asked (like looking something up on Google etc). Last week I activated the voice recognition and said, in my Australian accent, “Navigate to Uncle Sam’s restaurant, 83rd Avenue, Peoria, Arizona”. Not only did the word-for-word text of what I said appear seconds later on the screen, but it then went into Google Maps mode, activated the built-in navigation system, located me on GPS, then plotted a course to the restaurant and began using it’s own synthesized voice to tell me which way to travel and turn. Jesus christ in a birchbark canoe. I was flabbergasted.
  • Killer Apps: This is the stuff I’m really about – stuff that makes your computing life a little easier. Even though for me it’s mainly a novelty, I (like the rest of the world) am blown away by Shazam. Imagine there’s some music playing and you want to know who sings it. You just activate this app and hold your phone up to the playing music. It samples the music for a few seconds, then compares it to its evidently incredibly extensive music database. A few more seconds and you have the name of the tune and artist on your screen. What the?! This ALSO dropped jaws of people that I showed the feature to. Other apps of note include App Organizer (an easier, more intuitive way of arranging/categorizing applications on your desktop), AndExplorer (a file explorer that allows you to examine your internal as well as external storage), BeyondPod, one of the best RSS/podcast aggregators I’ve ever used on any platform and Aldiko, an ebook-reader that blows the iPhone’s Stanza out of the water. I haven’t even scratched the surface, I’m sure – there are thousands of other apps out there and I’ve been having quite some difficulty trying to juggle my home chores, professional responsibilities and other entertainment ventures (== XBOX360 and telly) with frantic website browsing trying to pinpoint the best Android apps in order to save installing and uninstalling seventeen thousand apps myself. Just not enough hours in the day! I wish I was retired. Like today. Like right now. Retired. So I can play games and futz with this blasted thing all day long. Nnrgh! (stares at phone in trembling hand) I recently bought a copy of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book and god I hope it helps me in the new year.
  • USB mounting: Works great. Plug the Droid into your PC via USB, and you can then use the notification area to instantly mount your SD card as a removable device. Copy all the music and photos you want, disconnect and there they are – for ANY app to use. Impossible with the iPhone, in particular that latter bit.
  • GPS Navigation: Far as I know, this is the first Verizon phone where the GPS capabilities have been left intact. Verizon usually cripple built-in GPS with their phones, so that they can gouge you $15 extra per month for their crapburger VZ Navigator service. The GPS on the Droid is great – gets a location fix in seconds when outside and the Google Maps application looks extremely nice, especially when animating as you drive in navigation mode. It just made my Tom Tom GPS completely and utterly redundant. Craigslist, here it comes.
  • Google synchronization: Being a Google-created OS, it interfaces seamlessly with everything on Google – Mail, Calendar, etc. You can set up multiple accounts and sync all their data in the background in a fully-integrated way. Jack into Facebook, Google and your corporate mail system and you can aggregate ALL your contacts and have them available for phone calls and email across the entire device. Sensational in the extreme. But scary. Just what are you handing over to Google when you do this?
  • Productivity:Touchdown” is an Outlook synchronizer – email, contacts (including GAL), calendar and tasks – it’s not free, but what I’ve seen of it could convince me to buy it for work. “Astrid” is a free task manager that even enables you to sync with http://www.rememberthemilk.com – probably the most-loved online task management system around. Craploads of other stuff out there – and I hold out hope that Pocket Informant will become available for Android in the near future. We live in Salesforce.com at work – they have a mobile interface for smartphones (not available for Android just yet) – but the Droid’s web browser is so good that it actually negates the need for a separate mobile app. You can browse SFDC on your Droid almost as well as on a desktop.
  • Rooting: I don’t know enough to go into too much detail about this one (I haven’t felt the need to do it yet, but I’m sure I will at some stage), but essentially it is possible to “root” the phone. In British and Australian slang this sounds a little off-colour, I know, but in technospeak it means that you can hack into the operating system and become “root user”, allowing you to delve into functionality and areas that regular users are locked out of. Tempting, but an apple (ha ha, pardon the pun) that I’ll possibly take a bite out of a little later on, when I run out of beginner challenges.

Sigh. I knew it! This post turned into a freakin book. I have to stop now – the wife’s probably already pissed at me for not helping her with the Christmas baking, but I had my own bun in the oven and finally it’s baked and cooling on the windowsill now. I feel much better. Android is the bee’s knees of smartphone OS’s. And since it’s an OS, it can be run on multiple phones from multiple providers – whereas the iPhone is only Apple. And, here we go – iPhone’s OS SUCKS by comparison. My ask.metafilter.com response to a question from a user asking whether they should get the Droid or the iPhone might be fun reading at this point. But as for this review, it’s officially over. I’m off to download some more apps help the wife clean up the house. I hope this article served as a more realistic counterpoint to Haughey’s waste of time blog post. Seacrest out.