Jaron's Realm

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Motorola Droid Does and Doesn’t

Posted by Eric on 23.11.09

I know, I know, I promised more on Paintball tips, but I’ve got to vent about this.

It seems like all carriers are mandating full data-plans on all their smart-phones now, so I upgraded to a Droid.  I’ve got to say I’m not a fan.  It’s a very competent device with a lot of power and potential.  It’s got a really nice display and the touchscreen works well.  It has a lot of great features on it, like the navigator, Internet browser, and the Facebook integration.  But I have to wonder how varied their product testers were.  I imagine the interface must be somewhat similar to an iPhone or even Blackberry, neither of which I’ve had much experience with, but it’s quite frustrating for someone coming from Palm OS & Windows Mobile, like me.

I won’t spend too much time on the good because you can go to CNet and many other sites where the reviewers absolutely gush about it.  The Droid certainly looks pretty and has a great display for anything: browsing the web, flipping through pictures, watching YouTube on the included app, etc.  Seriously, it really looks sharp and the full HTML browser on the phone, I imagine it’s a slightly modified version of Chrome, makes it simple to hit your favorite websites.  The browser has a great interface that tracks your finger taps quite well, even on small text links, without too many errors.  Some sites still see it as a mobile browser and you’ll get some simplified site versions.  While my old Samsung i760 with Internet Explorer Mobile was good enough for my needs, it had problems with some of my paintball forums.  I could view and read them fine, but leaving posts on some of them was impossible.  That’s no longer the case with the Droid.  The one strange exception is that I can’t log in to WordPress here.

The phone comes with some great apps and integration between them.  It has Google maps and Google navigator included, and with the GPS it makes searching and finding things pretty easy.  It also has a decent voice search function which will scour the web without you typing a thing.  The Droid also connects flawlessly with your Gmail and Google Apps accounts to import your contacts and calendar appointments.  Finally it includes YouTube and has a nifty Facebook integration that can update your contacts with Facebook profile pictures, status, etc.  The phone has lots of memory and processing power to do just about anything, and with the app market and included 16 GB micro SD card that’s a lot of “anything.”  The phone charges and connects to a PC through a micro USB port.  I would have preferred a mini USB since I already have a couple of those cables, but at least it’s a standard jack.  Also, the Droid has a 3.5 mm headphone jack meaning you can use normal headphone and earbuds with it.

But now for the bad.  Users coming over from Windows Mobile or Palm phones will have a lot of acclimation.  For starters, the Droid is skimpy on MS Office support so you can view but not edit Word, Excel, or PowerPoint docs.  That may be a small thing since I don’t know many people who really type up long docs on a phone.  However there isn’t Outlook support either, aside from MS Exchange.  This means getting your contacts, tasks, and calendar appointments off your personal Outlook on your PC is a big chore.  My first attempt at exporting a CSV from Outlook and loading it into my Gmail contacts had mixed results.  Though I had names and phone numbers, physical and email addresses were jumbled together in the notes field.  My second attempt took a few hours to custom map data fields from Outlook into a CSV format just for Google.  But even with that I lost some data, like contact pictures.  Even after getting contacts in, I still can’t sort them by last name.  Also, I can’t find any way to set a limited recurring appointment like a college class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from January to April.  Instead everything is indefinitely repeating.  Say you’ve got a regular Monday meeting at work.  If at some point it shifts to another day and time, the whole event series has to change which messes up your calendar history.  I know these aren’t huge problems, but they still bother me.  The interface is also quite a bit different from I was used to on my i760.  Different isn’t always bad, but I found it to me very inefficient.

The touchscreen is slick and very responsive.  Personally I found it too sensitive.  Maybe it’s my thick fingers, but many times it would register taps when I didn’t even touch the screen.  Along the bottom are four pressure sensitive “buttons” ( they’re really just permanent virtual keyboard, ) for Back, Menu, Home, and Search.  The Back buttons returns you to the previous screen you were at, be it exiting a menu or going back to the web browser after viewing a YouTube video.  Menu of course brings up app and context sensitive menus while the Home buttons returns you to the home screen.  The search button is fairly smart and will bring up a search box depending on what you’re currently doing, such as searching through contacts, the web, or whatever.  Holding the search button will activate Voice Search, covered below.

You get a pretty good virtual keyboard on the Droid, and it rotates to landscape with the internal accelerometer in most apps, but not the home screen ( though EVERY app shifts to landscape when the keyboard is pulled out. )  Speaking of the physical keyboard, it’s very poor.  The keys are very flat and close together making it difficult to type by feel.  The D-pad next to it is almost flush with the frame, making it hard to use as well.  The D-pad also offsets the keyboard so your right thumb has to stretch much farther than your left, again making typing awkward.  The D-pad also has different actions depending on the app you’re in, all of which you must find out yourself.  Sometimes it moves the cursor around, sometimes it scrolls the screen, etc.  Finally, when holding the phone landscape, either with the virtual or physical keyboard, it’s very easy to accidentally tap one of the four system buttons with your right hand, particularly the Back button.  It’s also very annoying to spend a few minutes composing an email only to find yourself back at your inbox.  Gratefully, emails and text messages are automatically saved to drafts, but having everything you’ve typed disappear from a web page is maddening.

While the virtual keyboard has predictive text and corrects many common mistakes while typing, the physical keyboard gets no such treatment.  It does have a setting to correct typing mistakes, but I’ve yet to see it do anything beyond changing “dont” to “don’t.”.  It really makes me miss the built-in spell checker my i760 had.  The word prediction does include names from your contact list though, and that’s a nice touch.  But there are no word auto-completion settings, such as how many spaces to insert after a predictive word entry.  Also, selecting text and copy/paste is nowhere near as slick as it was on my Windows Mobile touchscreen.  First you have to tap and hold to bring up a menu to select all text, copy or cut all text, or just to go to text selection.  Once in text selection mode, the cursor anchor can’t be moved so you can only tap and drag one way or the other.  After selecting text you have to again tap and hold to copy or paste.  Is it really so hard to have a set tap and drag interface to select words, or do double and triple tapping to select whole words or paragraphs?

Overall I found the system interface slick but inefficient.  Many tasks take more steps than they should.  While the Droid can run multiple apps in the background, there isn’t an easy way to switch between them.  Pressing and holding the home button will show a popup with your six most recently used apps, but that’s hardly good enough.  Instead, you usually have to go back to the home screen, then find and tap the icon for the app you want to switch to.  Without dedicated buttons or softkeys, this has to be done for everything.  Need to make a call?  Want to get your mail?  Want to check your calendar?  Hit the home button, find the right icon, and then tap it.  That’s not quick or efficient.  While there are 3rd party apps on the market that help with this, why wasn’t it included in the base OS?  This isn’t only problematic in switching between apps, it’s a hassle to manage running apps to conserve memory and battery life.  Without a native task manager ( again I had to hit the market to get one, ) there’s no way to close off running apps.  And many apps automatically startup, whether you want them to or not, and don’t have settings to disable the autorun.  While I still had to open Task Manager on my Windows Mobile phone to close out stuff, I never had the problem of unwanted programs starting up and running in the background.

Voice commands and voice search don’t always do what you expect and you have to be careful which you use.  The Voice Dialing app is intended for voice commands to the phone while Voice Search  will search through your contacts, calendar, messages, and the Internet for the search string.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  It’s compounded by the fact that the manual ( I didn’t have one in the box, I had to go online, ) doesn’t give a list of keywords for the voice commands.  Also, voice commands still require the touchscreen.  Using Voice Dialer results in a popup screen of what the phone thought you said, even if it only shows one item, and you have to tap it to confirm.  Or you can try using Voice Search for some commands too, but it takes longer for the vocal recognition to register what you said.  Instead of the confirmation screen from the Dialer, the Search will show what action the phone heard you say and it will automatically execute it if you wait a few seconds.  But again, you can’t use either Dialer or Search for everything.  While both apps will understand “call Michael Johnson home” and will offer to call Michael Johnson out of my contacts at his home phone number, only the Dialer understands “open calendar.”  The Search will instead Google “open calendar” from the Internet.  Indeed Search tends to favor web searches over looking through the phone.  I can say “Navigate to Michael Johnson” and the Google navigator practically ignores my contact list and instead searches for local Michael Johnsons from online phone directories.  It’s just clumsy at best.  The Navigator app supports text to speech synthesis, so why is there no voice confirmation on commands so I only have to say yes or no instead of tapping the screen?  Without a Bluetooth hands-free profile ( that’s right, you can have a wireless headset, but not one that supports voice commands, ) makes it not only difficult to operate in a car, but illegal in many states.  I’m sure the full hands-free profile is only a small update away, but how was this not included at launch?  Voice commands can be issued over a wired headset, but you still have to interact with the screen to confirm things.  Again, not a good idea while driving.

Since I’ve mentioned the Navigator, it’s actually pretty good.  It gives turn-by turn directions through synthesized speech so you don’t have to watch the screen the whole time.  The view also rotates to match you perspective instead of only displaying top down.  It’s still in beta so the interface isn’t fully polished and routes are mainly based on major roads instead of least distance, shortest drive time, etc.  It’s not integrated into the calendar either, so you can’t get immediate directions to appointments.  Instead you have to first open an appointment, tap the location to bring up Google maps, and then ask it to navigate to that point.

One of the Droid’s big marketing planks was the amount of customization it can do.  You can change the home screen background image and assign different sounds to just about any event on the phone.  You can even give different email accounts different notification sounds.  Different apps can also have separate volume levels so the system sounds, ringtones, app notifications, and even music player  can each be at your preferred volumes.  However there are a few small things that were neglected.  The Droid can link up to multiple IMAP and POP3 email accounts and has a combined inbox that will display all the emails together.  Messages get color-coded according to which address they were sent to so you can keep track of them.  The same thing happens for calendar items that get imported from different sources.  However you can’t change to colors assigned to the accounts.  And while multiple emails accounts are supported, the Google Talk app on the phone gets locked into the email you use to activate the phone.  I know many people who have both personal and work IM accounts, but the Droid makes no concessions for that.

For entertainment, as said you get an integrated YouTube app which works great, but the music player is extremely limited.  It will play most media formats, but it can’t create playlists on the fly.  The music player can also set your ringtone to songs in your library, but you can’t customize other system sounds.  Also it has no native syncing ability so you essentially have to copy and organize your song library onto the SD card yourself.  The camera is nice at 5 megapixel and has your standard assortment of adjustments and color balance controls.  However it has a rather long delay between when you hit the button and when the picture is actually captured.  Also, it would have been nice to have some better integration between the camera and the rest of your photo gallery on the phone.

My last complaint is the lack of a file manager.  Granted I’m used to Windows and Windows Mobile so I like being able to root around my device file structure.  I like arranging my files as I see fit, copying WAV and MP3 files into the system folders to use them as system sounds, organizing my documents, downloads, email attachments, etc.  Connecting the micro USB cable to a PC will give you mass USB storage access to the SD card, but not the device itself.  As usual, you can get apps to change this, but it is not native on the device.

Overall, I really wanted to like the Droid.  It has a lot of processing power and a beautiful screen.  Even with the big things aside, like MS Office support ( particularly Outlook, ) the lack of a Bluetooth hands-free profile, and the poor physical keyboard , there’s just so many small things that add up to a lot of frustration to me.

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2 Responses to “Motorola Droid Does and Doesn’t”

  1. jedEdgelm said

    Great work, hope to hear more from you.Are you working in a Group that you can make such a good Blog? 🙂

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