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Google-fueled Droid attacks iPhone
Bloomberg
Page 6
2009-11-09 12:00 AM
"It's kind of heavy, isn't it?"

Those are the first words people seem to utter when they heft a Droid smart phone. And the answer is, yeah, it is -maybe because so much is packed into it.

Start with the ambitions of Google Inc., whose Android 2.0 operating system powers it, and Verizon Wireless, which is backing it in the U.S. with a huge marketing campaign. And don't forget the prayers of Motorola Inc., the humbled former wireless-phone king, which is betting its future on Android.

Well, they can relax. Weight notwithstanding, the Droid may be the best smart phone not made by Apple Inc. And if it doesn't convert legions of iPhone addicts, it still provides a terrific alternative for Verizon customers, as well as for non-U.S. users when it appears later this month as the Motorola Milestone.

The Droid was the standout among three new phones I've been trying out. The others, both BlackBerrys from Research In Motion Ltd., will find devotees among RIM's faithful customer base and those who must carry a BlackBerry for business reasons. But it's hard to see them winning many new fans.

This is a golden era for smart phones, which are really pocket computers that can surf the Web, retrieve e-mail, run programs and play video and games. The iPhone, with its ease of use and 100,000 applications, sets the bar. But there are some things it doesn't allow that Droid does: running programs simultaneously, replacing the battery, correctly displaying websites that use Adobe Systems Inc.'s Flash multimedia technology. And U.S. iPhone users are locked into AT&T Inc.'s network, which is inferior to Verizon's in much of the country.

The Droid will cost US$199.99, after a US$100 rebate, on a two-year contract; it shouldn't be confused with a cheaper phone made by HTC Corp. that Verizon confirmed today it is launching as the "Droid Eris." Compared with the iPhone, the Droid is longer, thicker, narrower and, at 6 ounces, 25 percent heavier. (Six ounces may not seem like much, but you definitely feel the difference.) The touch screen, which provides the sensation of physically pushing a button, is particularly dazzling, offering noticeably sharper resolution.

Your first look at the Droid's slide-out keyboard might not be encouraging: The keys are flat and undifferentiated. But typing proves surprisingly easy; they are large enough so you can use your fingertip, rather than the fingernail that I had to resort to on, say, Palm Inc.'s Pre.

Less useful is the five-way navigation pad, which requires too much pressure and constant monitoring of the screen to see what it is highlighting. I found myself using my finger on the screen for scrolling, highlighting and selecting, even if I was using the physical keyboard for typing.

Also problematic is the camera. On paper, it looks great, boasting 5 megapixels and flash. But a lag between pressing the shutter and taking the picture meant that even slow-moving subjects yielded unsatisfying results.

The Droid features a Google Maps app that includes turn-by- turn navigation, and it is the first phone to make use of "eclair," Google's name for version 2.0 of its open-source Android operating system. Previous encounters with Android on devices such as the myTouch 3G from Deutsche Telekom AG's T- Mobile unit left me lukewarm. eclair, though, has a more finished feel.

Its window-shade metaphor - slide the top shade down for alerts, the bottom one up for apps - works well with the Motorola hardware, and the number of available apps, now more than 10,000, is steadily climbing. Android seems well on its way toward establishing itself as an important platform for developers.

Multitouch - the pinch and expand gestures that let you shrink or magnify what's on the screen - is missing from the Droid but apparently will be enabled for the non-U.S. Milestone version, which will be available from carriers including Vodafone Group Plc, Verizon Communications Inc.'s partner in Verizon Wireless, and Telefonica SA's O2.

The iPhone's margin in apps and its seamless user experience still make it the best smart phone out there. But the wireless world is big enough for more than one excellent phone; in the Droid, it has another.

Research in Motion's new BlackBerry Storm2 isn't excellent, but it's a considerable improvement over its predecessor. The original Storm, released a year ago, was the first BlackBerry without a physical keyboard, and reviewers savaged it: The New York Times memorably labeled it the "BlackBerry Dud" for its sluggish performance, lack of WiFi and buggy software.

The Storm2 fixes a lot of things, adds some new features and generally allows BlackBerry to at least figure in any discussions about touch-screen smart phones.

The most interesting feature of the Storm2 is a screen whose entire surface serves as a button, providing a tactile click when you press it, much like the touchpad on the current- model MacBook. (The clickiness goes away when the phone's off.)

If you're like me, you'll quickly banish the optional keyboard layouts that put more than one letter on a key. The touch-to-highlight, press-to-type system isn't half-bad, though it would take a lot more practice before I could match my speed on either the iPhone or a traditional physical-keyboard BlackBerry.

Positives for the Storm2 include WiFi (hooray!). Negatives are a clunky Web browser and many fewer apps than are available for the iPhone and Android devices. The Storm2 is available in the U.S. from Verizon for US$179.99 on a two-year contract, and in Europe and South Africa through Vodafone.

Finally, if you're old-school BlackBerry - as in, "I'll give up my physical keyboard when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers" - there's the Bold 9700, the newest iteration of the classic e-mail machine. Smaller and lighter than the previous Bold, it replaces the familiar trackball with a trackpad that makes scrolling easier.

The new Bold goes on sale this month from AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. for US$199 on a two-year contract, and from carriers including Vodafone and T-Mobile internationally. The T-Mobile version, for an extra fee, allows voice calls over WiFi networks.

Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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