At 6:58 A.M. on Friday, I pulled into the parking lot of my local Verizon store. Exactly 30 minutes later, I was back in my car, with a splashy new Motorola Droid in hand. Now, after spending three days with the device, I feel prepared to offer my own take on the latest, and clearly greatest, Android phone.
There's no denying it: The Droid is a heavy phone. Sure, it's only a couple ounces heavier than the iPhone 3GS, but you feel the difference immediately. And if you're moving from a BlackBerry Curve, as I was, the weight difference is significant. However, the Droid's music features mean I no longer have to carry an iPod Touch around, so I've actually made a net reduction in the amount of device weight I shuffle around with each day.
Some critics, such as my friend Dylan Tweney at Wired, have remarked that the Droid's slide-out keypad seems like an afterthought, an unnecessary appendage given that the phone's on-screen keypad is adequate for most tasks. I agreed initially. In fact, I scarcely touched the physical keypad for the first half of the day on Friday, until I found myself in an extended IM session with a colleague. For typing-heavy apps, that physical keypad has proven indispensible, and I now intuitively switch between the on-screen and physical keypads while using the phone, without losing a beat. I suspect I'd be somewhat less satisfied with the Droid at this point if that slide-out keypad weren't there.
The direction pad, on the other hand, has yet to prove its value to me. Because it takes up a fair chunk of real estate to the right of the keys, it increases the learning curve on using the keys for someone who's grown accustomed to BlackBerry keypads. I might feel differently about it if I were a gamer, but I've yet to download any games for this thing, and I doubt I'll get around to doing so anytime soon.
Of course, the Droid's biggest asset, quite literally, is its display. Web sites, pictures, and videos look fantastic on the 3.7-inch, 480x854 touch screen. It's hard to feel disappointed about the phone's boxy carapace when the only thing my eyes take in is this massive, beautiful screen.
Some critics have rendered sweeping comparisons of the Android interface to that of the iPhone, and found Android wanting. However, I find such comparisons unhelpful, as they generally focus on the look and simplicity of the menus, rather than on functionality.
There is little question that the iPhone has, for a couple of years now, represented the platinum standard in smartphone interface design. It's simple, elegant, and intuitive. However, that simplicity comes at the expense of customizability and control. Apple has deliberately barred developers from tweaking the iPhone interface in an effort to keep the look and feel of the device consistent for all users. There is a certain logic to this policy, and the payoff for iPhone users is unrivaled ease of use.
Contrasted against the iPhone, the Droid's menus are somewhat complex. Fortunately, Verizon stayed its typically heavy hand and spared this device the usual Verizonization of the menus. So what you get with Droid is a standard Android 2.0 interface, for which there is much to be said.
The phone's main screen is divided into three areas, only one of which is visible at any given time. You slide the window left and right to get to the other two areas, which you can populate with apps or widgets, at your liking.
The notification bar at the top of the display is expandable to give you access to the apps that demand attention. For instance, when an e-mail comes in, you can slide the notification area down to get details and--if you want to--tap the message to view it in Gmail. This is a terrifically convenient feature that lets you see what's happening without necessarily having to go to a specific app.
Android's settings menus can be somewhat muddled, however, and force you to tap through multiple levels of submenus to do things like change wireless networks.
By default, the main screen features a search widget, which you can tap on to initiate a Google search. The drawback to this is that it takes up space that could otherwise be used to place more apps on the home screen. Meanwhile, you can get to a search widget anytime by tapping the Search button on the front of the phone. So within a couple of hours of turning on the device, I ditched that widget to make room for more app icons.
Some iPhone fans have derided Android's interface as a Linuxy kludge, and I have to take exception to this. This OS features as many slick effects as the iPhone does, with smooth sliding menus and subtle animations throughout. And while it's possible to load up as many ugly icons and wallpapers as you like, this is a matter of user choice, not a design issue.
As a fun bonus, the Droid switches to a streamlined clock mode when docked in its optional Multimedia Station accessory. In this mode, it displays the time and date, the local weather, and offers options for listening to music, viewing picture slideshows, and alarms. It even sports a little dimmer icon, so you could use it as a bedside alarm clock, if you wanted to.
All in all, the Droid's interface is that of a mature mobile OS.