Walt Mossberg

Motorola’s Droid Is Smart Success for Verizon Users

Verizon Wireless customers tend to love the company’s fast 3G network. But many tech-oriented Verizon loyalists gripe about the carrier’s high-end smart phones, which haven’t matched the cachet and versatility of the Apple iPhone sold by AT&T (T). In fact, some Verizon customers have switched to AT&T simply to get an iPhone.

But this week, Verizon (VZ) is rolling out a device that finally gives it a more credible alternative. This new $200 phone is the Motorola Droid and it’s the first Verizon model to run Google’s (GOOG) Android smart-phone operating system. I’ve been testing the Droid, and while it has some significant drawbacks, I regard it as a success overall. It’s the best super-smart phone Verizon offers, the best Motorola (MOT) phone I’ve tested and the best hardware so far to run Android. I can recommend the Droid to Verizon loyalists who have lusted for a better smart phone, but don’t want to switch networks.

Like the iPhone, the Droid is really a powerful hand-held computer that happens to make phone calls, and is a platform for numerous third-party programs, or apps. Currently, Android offers over 12,000 apps. That is just a fraction of the 100,000 apps available for the iPhone, but it’s well above what the newer BlackBerry or Palm (PALM) phones offer.

The Droid is also the first phone that runs the 2.0 version of Android, which sands off some of the rough edges of Google’s platform and adds some features—notably, a free voice-prompted turn-by-turn navigation program. Android still isn’t as slick or fluid as the iPhone’s OS, in my view, but it has some functionality Apple (AAPL) omits, including the ability to run multiple third-party apps simultaneously.

The Droid is a handsome, squared-off device with a gorgeous, huge, high-resolution screen, bigger and sharper than the iPhone’s. There’s also a slide-out physical keyboard. It’s only a tad longer and thicker than the Apple product. But it’s 25% heavier, which makes it less comfortable to carry around in a pocket.

The Droid also has a higher-resolution camera than the iPhone’s: five megapixels versus three megapixels. And the camera has a flash, which the Apple lacks. In my tests, pictures came out OK, though not dazzling, and videos I shot were quite good.


Motorola’s Droid

The Droid’s large 3.7-inch screen looked great, but it lacks multitouch features, such as two-finger zooming, and it seemed less responsive than some other touch screens I’ve tested.

Battery life is listed at a whopping 6.4 hours, and, in my tests, the Droid easily lasted through the day on a single charge. Phone calls were crisp and clear, and I never suffered a dropped call. Verizon’s network was speedy and reliable for Web surfing, email and social networking. I copied some songs and videos onto the Droid by plugging it into a computer, and all played properly.

The Droid, whose $200 price comes only after a $100 mail-in rebate, requires a minimum $70 monthly service plan for two years, and text messaging costs extra. It comes with 16 gigabytes of memory, in the form of a removable card, and can handle up to a 32-gigabyte card.

Unfortunately for lovers of physical keyboards, I found the one on the Droid to be pretty awful. It has flat, cramped keys that induce too many typing errors, yet lacks auto-correction. I found myself using the virtual on-screen keyboard, which was pretty fast and accurate for me, and did include auto-correction.

Another downside: The Droid’s screen has only three panels for displaying apps, versus 11 on the iPhone, and some large apps, called widgets, hog much of the space on these panels.

Like the Palm Pre, the Droid tries to integrate social networking with contacts, though in a more limited way. It handles Google’s Gmail and Facebook, as well as Microsoft Exchange for corporate email and data. A nice feature lets you tap a contact’s picture and get instant options for ways to communicate.

The Droid can do some cool tricks with a couple of $30 optional docks, one for the car and one for the desk or nightstand. When placed in the car dock, the phone automatically displays a horizontal view with large buttons, including one for the built-in navigation system. In my tests, this navigation system worked pretty well, even showing photos of certain intersections. But it also gave me a couple of bad directions, such as sending me the wrong way at a fork in the road.

When placed in the desktop dock, the Droid displays the time and a different row of large icons from when it’s in the car dock, including music and an alarm clock.

I ran into one odd flaw with my test Droid, and with a second test unit tried by a colleague. Neither could send a photo via multimedia messaging to either my iPhone or her BlackBerry. Verizon was able to send pictures this way to my iPhone from other Droids, and it suspects some flaw in our test units.

The Droid is potentially a big win for Verizon, Motorola and Google, as well as for loyal Verizon customers.

Find Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com

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