Motorola Droid live review

CNET has the Motorola Droid in the house. Check out our live review as we poke and prod Verizon's first Android phone.

The Droid is in our hot little hands. Kent German/CNET

Editors' note: That's it for our live review! Over the next few days we will continue to test the Droid, including the GPS and battery life, and add in final results. For now, here is our full review of the Motorola Droid for Verizon Wireless.

Hooray! We finally have the Motorola Droid in our hands. Though it's much too early to offer a full critique, we can report that Verizon's first Google Android device is a looker. The display is gorgeous, Android 2.0 looks spiffy, and the handset appears to be lightning fast. Though we'll refrain from using the dreaded "iPhone killer" expression, comparisons between the two devices are obvious, particularly in light of Verizon's snarky ad campaign .

We're starting now and will continue posting our analysis this afternoon until we have a full rated review. So join Kent German and Bonnie Cha as we dive into the Droid.

12:30 p.m., PT
Design
At first glance you might not think that the Motorola Droid's design amounts to much. Its build isn't unique and the sharp angles result in a somewhat boxy look. But this is a smartphone that holds a lot of surprises, the biggest being the positively gorgeous WVGA display. At 3.7 inches it surpasses even the iPhone and is firmly in the bounds of what we consider to be an acceptable size for a touch-screen display. Color support is generous (16 million hues) and the resolutions (440x854 pixels) is some of the richest we've seen. We aren't kidding when we say that this display is bright and brilliant with vibrant colors and sharp graphics. It also lends itself well to the welcome Android 2.0 interface updates (more on that later).

Of course, with a large display the Droid is rather big (4.56 inches by 2.36 inches by 0.54 inch), but that's a small price to pay for the top-notch display. You'll notice that the Droid is a heavy (5.96 ounces) compared with other smartphones, but the trim design keeps it portable. We also welcome the solid feel in the hand, even if the slider mechanism is a little quirky. The actual sliding motion is quite stiff, but the front face doesn't really lock into place on either end. Indeed, we noticed that even a gentle nudge can start to close the Droid. No, it's not a big deal, but it's something to consider.

1:15 p.m.
The capacitive display's touch interface is quick and responsive and we love the added multitouch capability that lets you zoom in on Web pages with a double tap. As with previous Android phones, there's vibrating feedback only for certain functions (like a "long press"), though you can turn off the haptic feedback completely. When we selected items and scrolled through long lists, there was no lag time in performing the command (more on that later as well). You also can customize the display's brightness, backlighting time, and animations. The accelerometer will adjust the display's orientation as you rotate the Droid in your hands, but you can turn this feature off.

Outside of the upgrades from Android 2.0 and the Droid-specific tweaks, the basic interface will be familiar to Android users. You only get three home screens--we prefer the five we got on the Motorola Cliq--but you can customize each pane with widgets. And, of course, the central pane has the Google search bar. The main menu is accessible via the pull tab at the bottom of the display. The menu's design is mostly unchanged. You can move icons around and add shortcuts and folders. The Droid does not offer the MotoBlur interface, but there is a new integrated Facebook widget for viewing status updates and posting your own. We'll describe that in more detail in the Features section.

Below the Droid's display are four touch controls: Back, Home, Search, and Menu. They perform the same functions as on other Android phones, with the search and menu keys being the most useful. The former activates Google search with just one press, and the latter opens relevant menu commands for various handset modes and features. Though the touch controls are responsive, they're not very big. And at the end of the day, we'd prefer actual physical buttons. We know this all comes down to a personal preference, but that is ours.

Play

1:55 p.m.
In a baffling change from previous devices, the Droid does not have a physical Talk control. Instead, you'll have to access the calling functions through a widget on the display. We're not in love with this change, mostly because we prefer to be able to call up the phone dialer without having to go through the home screen. For example, you have to close the browser if you want to make a call while viewing a Web page. The phone dialer interface is mostly the same. The buttons are square rather than round, but you get access to your call log, voice mail, contacts list, and favorites.

When you open the Droid to display the physical keyboard, the screen orientation will change automatically. Though many users will welcome a physical keyboard, we weren't particularly impressed. The keys are flush and squashed next to each other, which makes it difficult to text quickly or by feel. Also, though the buttons do give a slight downward "push," they're a bit slick and we were thrown off by the "dummy keys" on either end of the bottom row. On the whole it is a better experience than the T-Mobile G1, but not nearly as comfortable as on the Cliq or even on the Samsung Moment. Sure, you'd probably get used to it eventually, but on the first pass we have our reservations.

The letters on the keys are large and backlit for dialing in the dark. Four rows of keys do mean that numbers and common punctuation and symbols double up with letters. That's common on smartphones, so we won't make a big deal and we like that the top row of keys isn't too close to the slider. Fortunately, there are a fair number of additional controls. We welcome the two Shift keys and the two Alt keys (they sit in pairs on either side of the keyboard), the large and convenient space bar, and the menu and search keys. You'll also find the usual back and delete buttons. Additional symbols, however, require a separate virtual keyboard. Speaking of which, the Android virtual keyboard is largely the same, but it offers a few 2.0 improvements.

The toggle and central OK button next to the display is easy to use. It can help you browse through the menus and select items, but we barely used it given the fantastic display. It's flush as well, but it's quite large and accessible. On the downside, however, it does shrink the width of the keyboard. Some users may not mind, but we noticed its impact.

The remaining physical controls consist of a volume rocker and a camera shutter on the left spine. Both are almost flat, but we could find the rocker when on a call. The Micro-USB port is used for a USB cable and (thankfully) the charger. You also use it to connect the Droid with the multimedia dock. We're pleased with the 3.5mm headset jack on the phone's top end. Not only can you use your own headset, but also it's in a convenient place. The camera lens and flash sit on the rear face next to the speaker. Unfortunately, you have to remove the battery to access the microSD card slot.

2:08 p.m.
Features
The Motorola Droid offers a number of the same core features as previous Android devices, such as the HTC Hero and the Samsung Moment. However, it's distinct in that the Droid is the first smartphone to run Android 2.0, which brings a crop of new features and interface enhancements. For this review, we'll concentrate more on the new rather than the old, but to learn more about some of Android's main functionalities, please check out reviews of other Android smartphones.

User interface
As we mentioned earlier, the home screen and main menu on Motorola Droid doesn't look terribly different from, say, the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G at a glance. However, as you use the device, you'll notice subtle changes and enhancements that make the UI a bit more refined and streamlined; the gorgeous display doesn't hurt, either.

Also, although it's a Motorola phone, the Droid does not use the MotoBlur software that we saw on the Motorola Cliq. Part of the reason is that the Droid is targeted for a bit of a different audience than the Cliq (read: older, a little more business-oriented) so it didn't really jibe with the experience that Moto and Verizon want to offer to its customers, and we think that was a good decision.

The UI is cleaner and offers three home panes where you can customize each screen with various widgets and shortcuts for easy access to you favorite apps. To do so, you can do a long press on the home screen which will bring up a menu where you can choose from a list of shortcuts or widgets. Of course, you can also drag apps from the main menu up to the home screen and conversely, dragging them down will remove them from the panel (though not delete them).

While MotoBlur is absent, there is a similar Facebook widget on the Droid where you can update your own status and scroll through your friends' updates. Other preloaded widgets and shortcuts include YouTube, a corporate calendar, and something called "Power Control" where you can turn on/off your wireless connections, adjust brightness, and so forth--quite handy.

Some other minor changes include the slightly revamped onscreen dialer mentioned in the Design section, as well a new lock screen that features a sliding curve that allows you to unlock the phone as well as adjust the phone's volume simply by dragging your finger from one side of the screen to the other.

2:53 p.m.
E-mail, calendar, and contacts
Perhaps one of the top highlights of Android 2.0 is the expanded capabilities of the personal information management tools, including e-mail, calendar, and contacts.

The Droid now offers native Microsoft Exchange synchronization out of the box for e-mail, calendar, and contacts, in addition to support for Gmail and POP3 and IMAP accounts. Note that only Exchange and Gmail offer push delivery, while POP3 and IMAP messages are retrieved at user-specified time intervals, starting at every 5 minutes up to every hour. With Android 2.0, you can have messages from various accounts displayed in one unified in-box; messages are color-coded by account so you can visually differentiate them at a glance. Of course, you can also choose to separate them if you like to keep your personal and work lives separate.

Unfortunately (well, depending on your preference), it doesn't appear that you can combine work and personal calendars like you can on the Palm Pre. Instead, you'll find separate apps for your corporate calendar and your personal one. The corporate calendar is pretty full featured in that you can send messages to meeting attendees, see who has RSVP'd to an event, and/or create your own invites and have it all synced back to your PC.

With the support for various accounts, contact management could get a bit dodgy but the Droid offers a pretty smart contact management system. Similar to the Palm WebOS Synergy feature, the Droid merges contact information from various accounts, Exchange, Gmail, and Facebook, and combines them on a single contact card for an individual. When you pull up a contact, you'll then be able to see that his/her's Facebook status, photos, various e-mail addresses, IM handles, and so forth.

There's also a handy Quick Contact feature where you simply tap on a contact's photo and a toolbar offers you the various ways to get in touch with that person. It's also smart in that you can choose to sync all your Facebook contacts or just those who are already in your contacts database.

3:31 p.m.
Browser
Android 2.0 also brings some improvements to the Web browser. The Droid features a full HTML5 browser that now allows for visual bookmarks and the ability to toggle between multiple windows through a simple list view. There's also support for multitap zooming, so you can now double-tap on the screen to zoom in and out of Web pages. It's certainly easier than tapping the magnifying glass numerous times, but we still like the simplicity and ease of use of the pinching gesture used on the iPhone or the Palm Pre.

Most importantly, though, the browser feels faster. With a cortex A8 processor and support of Verizon's EV-DO Rev. A network, CNET's full site loaded in 14 seconds while CNN's and ESPN's mobile sites came up in 8 seconds and 5 seconds, respectively. For comparison, we checked out the same sites on the Samsung Moment for Sprint and the Moment's browser results were 40 seconds, 9 seconds, and 8 seconds in the order listed above. We'll continue to test the browser over the next few days, but the difference in speed doesn't go unnoticed.

Finally, while the Droid's browser doesn't have Flash Lite support, it does have a plug-in that will support Adobe's Flash 10 player when it's available.

Universal search
With all this information stored on the Droid and the World Wide Web in the palm of your hand, search is key and the Droid certainly delivers on that front. From the home screen, you can easily enter terms into the Google search box either by typing it or using Google Voice search and the Droid will search the Web, your contacts, and your multimedia library for any relevant results. It can search through messages but you must be in your in-box to do so.

3:58 p.m.
Google Maps Navigation
The Motorola Droid is equipped with GPS/A-GPS but what's different is the new Google Maps Navigation app. While still in beta, you can now get voice-guided, text-to-speech directions, instead of just text-based instructions, on Google Maps. And the best part? It's free. You don't have to sign up for a monthly subscription or pay a day-use fee for a location-based service, such as VZ Navigator, and in fact, VZ Navigator isn't even offered as an option.

Google Maps also offers layered maps with traffic data, satellite view, and Google Latitude. You can perform searches simply by typing a term or you can use Google Voice search and speak a business name or general category right into the phone. Once done, Google Maps displays your search results; you can tap on a result, which will bring up numerous options, including navigation, call, or street view. While all of this is wonderful, there are some limitations.

Since we've only had the smartphone for a few hours, we haven't been able to take the Droid and Google Maps Navigation for a road test, but we certainly will over the next day or two. It looks very promising, however, and certainly a huge feature addition for Android 2.0. We'll be interested to see what kind of impact it will have on LBS providers if it takes off.

We should note that a separate car mount will be available for purchase, though pricing has not been revealed at this time. Once docked to the car cradle, the Droid will automatically display a navigation menu where you can plan a trip, view maps and directions, and search businesses. Undocked, there's an app called Car Home that shows the same options.

5:17 p.m.
Multimedia
One area that remains relatively untouched by Android 2.0 is the built-in media player. There aren't any major enhancements to the player in terms of interface or functionality. You still get support for MP3, AAC, AMR-NB, WAV, MIDI, and Windows Media Audio 9 formats and the player includes shuffle, repeat, and playlist creation. You can advance and revisit previous tracks by tapping the forward and back buttons or you can swipe the album covers using the touch screen. Unfortunately, there is no syncing software to help you manage and transfer your music. As it is right now, you have to use the old drag-and-drop method using the USB cable or sideload them using a microSD card.

Of course, you can also download songs via the Amazon MP3 store. The store allows you to browse by album, song, artist, or genre. You can download the DRM-free songs over Wi-Fi as well as Verizon's 3G network, though the Droid advises you switch to Wi-Fi when possible since it's faster. We downloaded several tracks from Amazon using the carrier's 3G network and it took an average of around 1 minute and 15 seconds from purchase to download.

Music quality was quite good. Thanks to the 3.5mm headphone jack, we plugged in our Bose On-ear Headphones and enjoyed rich-sounding songs. We listened to a variety of music, from punk rock to pop to classical, and found a nice balance between treble and bass. Songs even sounded decent coming from the phone's speakers. There was plenty of volume and while slightly harsh, the audio wasn't as tinny as some other smartphones we've tested.

Like other Android devices, there's a dedicated YouTube app. You can comment on clips, favorite them, or share videos via e-mail and Facebook as well as view them in high quality if available. Obviously, load times and quality depends on the video. One of the features that Motorola and Verizon highlighted when giving us a demo of the Droid was its multimedia capabilities, but we think that Google really has to step it up and make more moves like expanding the video capabilities (for example, the ability to purchase videos from other services) in the near future to make the statement really ring true.

5:28 p.m.
Call quality
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO Rev. A) Motorola Droid in San Francisco using Verizon service and call quality was excellent. We enjoyed crisp-sounding audio on our end with very little to no background noise, so we had no problems hearing our callers or using an airline's voice-automated response system. Our friends also had good things to say about call quality though they could hear a slight echo at the end of sentences when we activated the speakerphone. On our side, we had no problems with the speakerphone; volume was plenty loud with no disruptions.

We didn't have any dropped calls during our testing period and had no problems pairing the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset or the Motorola S9 Active Bluetooth Headphones. The Droid has a Hearing Aid Compatibility rating of M3 and T3.

More to come, so stay tuned!

About the author

Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.

Kent German

Senior Managing Editor Kent German leads the CNET Reviews editors in San Francisco. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he still writes about the wireless industry and occasionally his passion for commercial aviation. See full bio

 

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