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Google's Android operating system is on the way to getting huge , especially with Motorola's Droid and HTC's Droid Eris handsets available through Verizon this holiday season.
But are they any good? We've played around with both phones for the past few weeks and found a few things we love and a few things we hate.
Our baseline of comparison was an iPhone 3G which we've been using since the first day it came out. Compared to that phone, the Android operating system falls flat. But that doesn't mean the phones aren't worth buying.
While it was once easy to argue in favor of leaving Verizon for the iPhone, these new handsets coupled with Android's features make it a tougher sell.
What's wrong with Android? The user experience as a whole just isn't as good. Its native applications, as well as its third party applications have wonky--and at times, frustrating--design.
This is a knock against Android, but it should be expected. Apple has been designing operating systems for thirty years. Google has been doing it for two. In those two years, it's created a pretty incredible system that offers plenty to like.
The beautiful home screen design with colorful backgrounds and fat widgets makes the iPhone look positively dour in comparison. The notification bar across the top is also a nice touch, though it can be a bit overbearing at times, reminding us of a Windows based PC.
As for the handsets, they have ups and downs too. The Motorola Droid is a powerful machine that really flies. Pulling up the Android Market on it and downloading an App was a much faster experience in our limited testing compared to the iPhone.
However, with great power comes great bulk, weight, and bad looks, as the saying goes. The Droid is clunky and doesn't feel right in our hands. The physical keyboard isn't anything to write home about. It also has that weird lip at the bottom that just looks bad.
The Eris on the other hand is a lightweight, pretty phone. It's not as powerful though. Its small screen and weak touch screen keyboard aren't great. Its also buzzes every time we hit the home or menu buttons. This haptic touch is not needed or welcomed--and as far as we can tell, can't be turned off.
Overall though, we think each of the phones has a lot to offer, especially in combination with Google's Android operating system.
1. Apps experience is worse
Both the third party applications, and the native applications are worse on Android phones than the iPhone.
There is no multi-touch pinch and zoom for the maps or browser for the Droid (on the Eris, you can pinch the browser, but it hangs a bit). The user interface on the maps is just not as good. It's not as intuitive, or easy to use. This is a recurring problem with Android.
Android's Market is a decent experience, but it's not better than Apple's App Store. There's fewer selections, and the selections that are available for both the iPhone and Android seem to be worse on Android.
We think the Android Market will improve over time. But, for right now, and probably the next year at least, the gap between the two app stores is huge. If you want a phone for gaming or lots of apps, the iPhone is still the one to buy.
2. The hardware on the Droid is awkward, Eris is okay
The Droid is a heavy clunker of a brick that feels weird in the hand, while the Eris is nice slim phone that feels natural. Both phones' keyboards are weak.
The touch screen keyboard on the Eris is maddening. It's hard to hit the right keys. The touchscreen and physical keyboards on the Droid aren't spectacular either.
We like the trackball on the Eris, especially when it glows to let us know we have an e-mail. The slideout keyboard on the Droid is nice to toy with when we're sitting around, bored or nervous, but feels like it would break off after a year of serious use.
3. Running programs in the background rocks
While we were initially skeptical of the importance of multiple apps running at once on the phone, we must say it's a great feature.
Having Twitter and e-mail open at the same time is fabulous. We like being able to see across the top bar when there's new Tweets to check, as opposed to manually logging in on the iPhone, or getting push notifications.
4. Verizon slays AT&T
In our experience with the Droid and Eris on Verizon, we've been pleased. Phone calls aren't getting dropped, and the wireless connection is fast. When we come over the Manhattan Bridge on the subway, we can check e-mail, Twitter and maybe one or two other things. On the iPhone, not so much.
There's a reason iPhone users in major metro areas hate AT&T. It's not just a cliche, the service is not that good. It's erratic, and phone calls are regularly dropped as well.
5. The design and screen look great
We really like the big clock on the Eris, as well as the way it displays the weather. We also like the colorful background. In comparison, the black background on the iPhone feels dour. These are enhancements HTC made.
Further, the screen pops in bright, sharp focus. The iPhone looks flat. We have our iPhone on a dimmer setting to keep the battery running longer. Even when it's fully bright it looks worse than Android phones. The iPhone almost looks out of focus in comparison.
6. Syncing with a computer is not that great
It's great for syncing with the "cloud" and the web, but not the PC. We plugged the Droid into our computer. We didn't see it on the desktop. We had to mount it on the computer as a separate step.
We wanted to add music. It wasn't showing up in iTunes, obviously. So we just dragged songs from iTunes to Amazon MP3. The music showed up in our phone, which was nice, but this is a much worse experience.
7. Music isn't as central
When you see the white ear buds, right out of the box you know the iPhone is made for music. The Droids have no headphones.
On the iPhone when we have our music on, and the phone is locked, we can double click the home button and get the basic player to work. We can pause, or skip songs. On the Droid, that's not feasible. It's a small thing, but it fits into a bigger theme.
As we said previously, the sync with the computer isn't as good either for the music. When we were playing the music player we opened another music application--Listen--and when we played Listen, it overlapped so we had two things going at once. On the iPhone that doesn't happen. One thing fades out, the other fades in.
8. It's LOUD!
It might not work particularly well for music compared to the iPhone, but lordy is the phone loud! The speaker that runs along the back is awesome compared to the iPhone. It's especially awesome to hear the weird robot voice belch out "DROID" through the booming speaker. And the songs sounded better on the Droid, at least to our tin ears.
9. Sorry kids, e-mail is worse
We've read many a glowing review about how awesome the GMail integration is with Android phones. We have to say, we're not into it.
The iPhone's e-mail is just flat out better. We don't like the interface on the Droids compared to the iPhone, we don't like that we can't look at the first few lines of an e-mail with Android, and a number of other small frustrating things.
We like the fact that e-mails arrive sooner with Android, but that's about it. The experience is decidedly less pleasant.
10. Nitpicky stuff that makes a big difference
There's a few small things that are weird or frustrating with the Droids.
- Not a fan of the button being at the top of the Droid to turn it on. Apple's design is better with the home buttom at the bottom and the power button at the top. The Eris has one button awkwardly placed to the right of the trackball.
- On the Eris we can't turn off the haptic buzz that happens each time we hit the home or menu buttons. That's terrible.
- Unless you download an SDK to the phone, and tweak it, you can't do screengrabs with the Droids. That might not seem like a big deal, but if you've ever traveled abroad with an iPhone, you might appreciate why it stinks. We like to get a spot with WiFi, pull up a map for where we are or where we're going, then save screen grabs so we can use saved maps to get around.
So, should you buy one? If you're still confused about whether or not to get the phone, we'll make it simple.
Buy the phone if:
- You're on Verizon, and love it.
- You're a hardcore Google user, who wants to stay in the cocoon.
- You're a developer and you hate Apple's in-control app experience.
- You're a contrarian that doesn't want to be with faux-cool sheep and their iPhones
Don't buy the phone if:
- You use a Mac, or iTunes, and like to sync your iPod with ease.
- You're in it for games and applications.
- You're a current iPhone owner; it's not better.
- You want to watch legally downloaded videos. Still can't do that easily on the Droid.