Motorola’s Droid review: It’s the best phone on Verizon

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We’re getting this out of the way now: Motorola’s Droid is the best Google phone on the market.

Maybe that’s not saying a whole lot. The Droid’s only competitors in the U.S. are T-Mobile’s 1-year-old G1, its chubby younger brother the MyTouch 3G and HTC’s Droid Eris, a $99 Verizon Wireless phone that comes out Friday -- the same day as the Motorola Droid -- with an already-outdated Android operating system.


Here’s another one: Droid is the best phone on Verizon.

As we wrote last week, the Droid marks a notable shift for the nation’s largest carrier. Verizon -- often renowned for its service, not its selection of phones -- seems to be wisely minimizing its interference with handset makers.

What we get is an attractive and fast smart phone packed to the brim with features for $199 (with a two-year contract).

The Droid hardware is a technical feat. It has a 5-megapixel camera with a flash that doesn’t perform exceptionally well but still pretty great for a phone. The speaker is pleasantly loud. The touch-screen screen is gorgeous -- larger than the iPhone’s with way more pixels per inch.

Oh, and it has a keyboard.

After spending plenty of time with the iPhone and MyTouch, we realized just how much we don’t miss physical keyboards. Granted, the Droid’s isn’t as nice as most Blackberry keyboards. We spewed just as many typos on the Droid’s black-and-white-and-brown keyboard as we did on software keyboards. Only problem is that we’re not offered automatic corrections like we get on the touch-screen keyboard.

Impressively, the slide-out keyboard doesn’t add much thickness compared with the iPhone -- the Droid is only slightly bigger and noticeably heavier. The keyboard is a nice option (geeks will enjoy the pro shortcuts), but if you’re not digging it, you never have to pull it out.

Motorola takes a step back with its navigation buttons. Competing Android phones use a scroll ball -- you know, that little nub that makes the Blackberry so good for e-mail. Instead, the Droid opts for a four-way rocker navigation with a center button, which sits next to the keyboard and provides little utility.

Under the hood, the Droid runs a version of Android 2.0, becoming the first device that has it. That means it packs features and polish you won’t see on the other guys -- most notably the free Google Maps Navigation software.

Android has really come a long way in a year. The software keyboard is smarter, the included apps more sophisticated and the subtleties of switching between programs more natural.

But for as far as Google’s operating system has come, it remains several steps behind Apple’s iPhone in many respects. Even though we ripped on Apple for leaving out the copy-and-paste feature for so long, there’s something to be said about how it was finally implemented. It’s simple and works incredibly well.

On the flip side, selecting text on the Droid drives us nuts. The option is hidden behind a menu screen; there’s no clever magnifying glass to help you grab the right section; and to copy, you have to again find the option somewhere in the menus.

This design choice underlines a prevalent problem that still plagues Android. Some fairly common actions are hidden, including the basic ability to delete apps.

(Here’s a tip so you don’t look like a stooge at the Verizon store: Press the lock icon and turn to the right to open the phone. The majority of people who played with our review unit couldn’t figure out how to get into the phone.)

Button layouts can vary widely from app to app. Transitioning between the many programs that can run simultaneously works well enough, but some can’t be closed while others gobble up battery power with no warning.

Android’s Marketplace offers more than 10,000 apps -- that’s certainly not on par with Apple’s library of 100,000, but Android’s selection covers most of the main utilities.

As a game system, it’s severely lacking. As a media player, it’s even worse.

The iPhone can sufficiently replace a standalone iPod. The Droid won’t. Getting songs onto the thing is a hassle. No media sync, no smart playlists, no TV shows or movies.

Sure, we love some of the features Motorola built exclusively for this handset -- things that could never be done on the iPhone without Apple engineers building it themselves. For example, the Droid phone book integrates with your Facebook contacts.

But these little perks don’t make up for the intuitiveness and maturity of the iPhone’s operating system that Android has yet to match.

Yet, as a phone, the Droid is top-notch. It integrates seamlessly with Google Voice and runs on Verizon, a telecom with a superior reputation for reliable call coverage -- unlike AT&T, the exclusive carrier of the iPhone.

For at least the next couple of months, Droid will wear the crowns of best Android device and best Verizon phone.

But Google is constantly making improvements behind the scenes to its mobile system, so who knows how long that will last? With more phone makers on the Google bandwagon, next year could very well mark the Droid renaissance.

-- Mark Milian

Twitter: @markmilian

Video credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times