The Droid X: Look out, iPhone

Verizon's hot new phone from Motorola definitely makes the smartphone supremacy duel a two-horse race
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A new Droid, top, and an iPhone

Verizon's hot new phone from Motorola definitely makes the smartphone supremacy duel a two-horse race

Reviews are flying off the fevered fingers of tech bloggers about the new Motorola Droid X smartphone from Verizon with the Android operating system. Probably the most detailed study I've read is from the Ars Technica 10-page Droid X review. I recommend it highly.

For my turn at bat, I thought the more cogent commentary would be a non-technical, user-level review. I kept looking for a way not to compare it to Apple's iPhone, but that's like talking about Seattle without mentioning rain. (Full disclosure: I own both an iPhone 3GS with theiOS4 upgrade, and the Droid X.) In any event, here's what I've found.

First off, this phone or any "smartphone" is a waste of your time and money if all you want or need is POTS (plain old telephone service). But if you grok McLuhan, need instant-information gratification, entertainment, books, music, travel, your social life (and several more et ceteras), this could well be the right phone. The Droid X is $199.99 with a two-year contract; full retail: $569.99.

Why do I want the Droid X?

It'ꀙs roughly 20 percent bigger in screen size than the iPhone while only slightly larger overall, about a half-ounce heavier, and roughly the same thickness. It fits easily into a pocket despite its 5x2.5 inch size. The screen is a marvel of resolution and brightness. The battery gives you over five hours of use: not great, not bad. An extended battery is said to be in the works.

Why would I choose the Droid X over the iPhone?

Here'ꀙs one big reason: Droid X is available only on Verizon, and the iPhone only on AT&T. If you have any network biases or reception issues, your choice is simple. If networks aren't a problem, then the choice is one of personal taste.

The Android operating system is more complex than the iPhone, but at the same time, its expandability and adaptability plus its grounding in the "cloud" (i.e., activities with their operations on the Internet, not software on your handheld) makes the Droid X/Android combo attractive. Getting the most from any Android phone requires some techie thinking. But so does learning the ins and outs of your TV remote control.

How'ꀙs the phone signal?

The incoming audio is clear, and most people haven'ꀙt even guessed that I'm on a cell phone.

What about the "death grip" that kills the antenna?

Apple recently dragged the Droid X into its battle over its own antenna woes. For the record, gripping my Droid X at the bottom does cause my bars to go down. Does it matter? Not really. Apple's essential argument is that the antenna issue is a tempest in a teapot. I agree.

I hear the screen is awesome.

You heard right. It's bright, clear, video looks great: everything from movies to live TV looks sharp. And that larger size is just the extra edge that makes the Droid X more viewable. I'ꀙm reading several books on the X with both Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook reader apps. It's a good reader experience, and the X feels lighter in your hands than a tablet.

Does Bluetooth work well?

Yup. Devices are easy to connect. And I've been able to add several gadgets to the phone, in addition to Bluetooth headsets, including a wireless keyboard and a wireless photo printer. One gripe: Bluetooth only works when the cell phone radio is operational, not when it's in WiFi mode.

How well does the GPS work?

Quite well. The navigation system, labeled "Navigate," is accurate: the GPS and phone stayed fully connected on a recent trip from Mukilteo to Columbia City, and every turn-by-turn voice instruction was precise, with plenty of warnings about lane changes in anticipation of turns, abrupt transitions, etc. Using the map at night also worked well. Contrary to standalone GPS devices, the Google/Android maps are free; no paid updates needed.

How'ꀙs the camera?

It takes good sharp outdoor pictures with lots of detail (befitting an 8mp camera). You'll still have to do some color adjustment; this is not one-for-one substitute for your regular camera, but you won't wince when you see the results. Look out for low light situations. Even with the "film speed" wide open (800 ISO equivalent), the pictures are not great. The high definition (720p) video is good but don't expect network-TV quality pictures.

Is the audio quality OK?

Playback is fine. I have my phone hooked up to play Internet radio stations in my car, with the audio coming through my car's sound system. It's quite good. Live audio recording, like a concert, is 'ꀦ meh. If that's a primary need, you should get the iPhone.

What'ꀙs most annoying about the phone?

The phone getting hot with heavy use on batteries, the operational buttons (the "home" and "return" buttons, etc.) that require a harder push than I like are two minor nitpicks. Nothing so far has me regretting my purchase. I have others with the Android system. But sometime this month, the new 2.2 Android operating system upgrade — a significant revision — is rumored finally to be available, so I think I'll hold my ire until I see what improvements it brings.

What about the apps?

By virtue of more years in existence, an excellent OS, and smart pricing, Apple has virtually owned the apps market. But the flood of new Android OS phones this year has prompted more developers to develop Android apps. With a few exceptions, my Droid X has every key app that was the exclusive province of the iPhone. The key word here is "key." If being in App-land is a primary occupation of yours, stick with the iPhone. But for daily usability, I'm happy with the Android apps selection. It's only going to get better.

This site, AppBrain, may give you some insight to what's out there in Android apps.

A final word: There'ꀙs been a lot of Internet talk about the Android system coming on strong and challenging the usability of the iPhone OS. I agree with many others that iPhone still is smoother and better — for now — but Android is changing and improving so rapidly that it's becoming a genuine horse race between the two OSes.

Bottom line: you won't be hurt no matter which OS you choose. And if you're happy with Verizon, and can embrace the Android OS, you will be a very happy camper with the Droid X.


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