Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Droid to overtake iPhone?

Based on recent write-ups, not likely anytime soon. But Droid seems like a good alternative if Apple and AT&T aren't for you (or me).

The basics:
Both the 16GB iPhone 3GS and the Motorola Droid (which goes on sale Nov. 6, and comes bundled with a bundled 16GB microSD memory card) sell for $199 with a two-year contract. (If you buy the Droid through Verizon, it's actually $299 with a $100 mail-in rebate; you can also get the Droid at Best Buy for $199, no mail-in rebate required). Each phone also requires a $30-month 3G service plan. Also, both phones come with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, 3.5mm headset jacks, and (of course) 3G support.

Look and feel:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, so you'll have to decide for yourself which phone wins the most style points. Personally, I happen to prefer the iPhone's sleek lines, slim profile, and relatively light weight. But while the Droid is a bit sharper and boxier, it has a bigger (3.7-inch), sharper display, and at just 0.5 inches thick, it's the slimmest QWERTY slider I've ever laid eyes on. The Droid tips the scales at 6 ounces, nearly an ounce heavier than the iPhone, but it fits quite nicely in a jeans pocket.

Input method:
This one's pretty obvious. For the iPhone, you do all your tapping and messaging on the virtual, on-screen QWERTY keypad, while the Droid has a physical, slide-out QWERTY keypad. Which one's better? Well, that'll mainly depend on your preference. Personally, I've gotten so used to virtual keypads that I often found myself tapping on the Droid's screen even though I had a slide-out QWERTY at my disposal. Then again, at least you have a choice with the Droid; the iPhone, of course, has no physical keypad at all. That said, keep in mind that the keys on the Droid's roomy keypad are so flat that they're almost slippery; yes, you get used to it, but there's a learning curve. Winner: Tie

Google's Android UI has come a long way in just a year, and with its speedy processor and first-on-the-market implementation of the new Android 2.0, the Droid does a great job of showing off what Android is capable of. I also love the Droid's ability under Android to let you add live widgets—be they for weather, sports, the music player, Facebook, or Twitter—to the phone's home screen, and arrange them in any way you so choose. But while the iPhone's interface isn't quite as flexible as the Droid's, it's unmatched at doing what it does. On the iPhone 3GS in particular, windows, menus, lists, and apps open smoothly and instantaneously, and you're never at a loss about what to do next. Peppy though it is, the Droid's UI still feels a big sluggish in comparison.

The iPhone's touch-enabled calling interface couldn't be any easier to use, and it'll even wirelessly hook into your iCal contacts if you're willing to shell out $100 a year for a MobileMe subscription. But the Droid arrives with the ability to automatically pull in all your Google and Facebook contacts, for free, and you can also use the downloadable Google Voice app (still unavailable for iPhone) to receive calls from a single Google Voice number, as well as send free text messages and place cheap international calls. Then there's the issue of which network—AT&T or Verizon Wireless—you want to be on. Your mileage will vary depending on your coverage area, of course, but if I had a nickel for every call my AT&T-bound iPhone has dropped, well ... Winner: Droid

Music and video:
Yes, the Droid comes loaded with a basic music player, and there's also a free podcast application ("Listen") for download over the Android Marketplace, but neither can hold a candle to the iPhone's best-in-class, touch-enabled iPod player. And while the Droid packs in a streaming YouTube app, same as the iPhone, it doesn't come with a build-in video player—that you'll have to find (and probably pay for) via the Marketplace, (I prefer the 99-cent Act 1 Video player, by the way). Indeed, the Droid doesn't even support the streaming video clips on Verizon's V Cast service. The iPhone, on the other hand, plays video out of the box, and you can also rent movies or buy TV episodes over-the-air via iTunes. This one's a no-brainer.

Mapping and navigation:
You can't beat the iPhone's Google-powered Maps app when it comes to ease of use, smooth operation, and overall slickness (slickosity?), but the Droid's mapping features under Android 2.0 pack more punch. Not only do you get the same basic searching and point-to-point direction features, but you also get the digital compass-aided Street View (which automatically changes the Street View perspective depending on the direction in which you're holding the phone), layers for traffic, satellite view, transit lines, and Wikipedia, and—best of all—Google's new Navigation app with voice-aided, turn-by-turn directions, just like you'd expect from an in-car navigation system. Great stuff—and free, to boot. Equivalent GPS navigation apps for the iPhone, on the other hand, all come with either monthly fees, exorbitant price tags, or both.

Web browsing:
The Droid's solid, touch-enabled Web browser is nothing to sneeze at, and come next year, it's slated to add support for Flash-powered videos and embedded content. But the Droid's browser doesn't support such handy features as multi-touch gestures (for "pinching" or zooming text on a Web page, for example), and it's not immune to sudden crashes, jerky scrolling, or jumbled HTML rendering. Meanwhile, the iPhone's Web browser—Flash-less though it is, for now—makes for the smoothest, speediest, and most seamless browsing experience you'll find on a smartphone.

The iPhone's middling camera has been its Achilles heel (or one of them, anyway) ever since it launched, and the iPhone 3GS's 3-megapixel, auto-focus snapper is only marginally better. The Droid, however, boasts a 5MP camera with auto-focus, a dual LED flash for night shots, and image stabilization, not to mention sharp (if not quite "DVD quality") video recording. The Droid's snapshots might not measure up to, say, the gorgeous photos you can get from the Nokia N97 or the Samsung Memoir on T-Mobile, but it easily bests the often-murky pictures that the iPhone cranks out, particularly in low-light conditions.

Pretty much an even playing field here, especially since AT&T finally enabled picture messaging for the iPhone. Both the Droid and the iPhone now support corporate Exchange accounts, not to mention push e-mail, Web accounts (like Gmail, of course, Yahoo!, AOL, etc.), and POP/IMAP mailboxes. Both handsets do threaded messaging for SMS and picture messages, but neither has a unified inbox for all your e-mail accounts and text messages (the Android- and MotoBlur-powered Motorola Cliq does, but the Droid doesn't).

The Android Marketplace is undeniably growing at a steady clip, with about 10,000 free and paid apps now available for download, including some (like Google Voice) that you won't find on iTunes (or at least, not yet). But who are we kidding: Apple's App Store has close to one hundred thousand apps, including a wide selection of cutting-edge mobile games (Real Racing, Doom: Resurrection, F.A.S.T. Modern Combat: Sandstorm, for starters), productivity apps (like DataViz's Docs to Go), communication (Skype, now over 3G), social networking (Facebook, MySpace, Foursquare), sports, weather, navigation ... the list goes on. The Android Marketplace may be gaining momentum, but the App Store has a massive head start.

Battery life:
The iPhone's become notorious for its iffy battery life, and for good reason. There are days when my iPhone barely limps past dinnertime, and that's after only moderate use, and since the iPhone battery is sealed inside the case, you can't swap in a fresh one when you're on the road. The Droid, on the other hand, does has a user-replaceable battery, and its battery life is pretty solid; in my tests, it made it though nearly six hours of voice calls on a single charge. Watch out for those multitasking Android apps, though. I unwisely elected to allow IM+, an instant messaging application, to stay connected while the phone was asleep; an hour later, the red-hot Droid was burning a hole in my pocket, and its battery capacity had plunged to just 25 percent. Oops.

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