Verizon's Motorola DROID, launched November 6, 2009, wasted no time taking it to Apple's iPhone 3GS, starting with a pre-emptive iDon't TV commercial that mixed unflattering fact and fiction to appeal to geeks and general consumers alike. Many have now hailed it as the best competition to the iPhone to date, and the first flagship device to match it. Are they right?
If you're interested in either an iPhone 3GS or DROID, here are some points to consider:
Network: AT&T vs. Verizon
Many would say pick your network before you pick your device, but sometimes we love a device so much we'll put up with limited or even lousy networks. However, it's important to remember that Verizon has better 3G coverage than AT&T. CDMA/EVDO (the technology Verizon uses) simply has greater range, and there are so many millions of data-hungry iPhones on AT&T that their GSM/HSPA towers can get overwhelmed (especially New York and San Francisco). So, yes, you will get more bars in more places with Verizon.
On the flip side, AT&T's GSM/HSPA network is the same standard used in almost all of the rest of the world. This means that you can use your iPhone when you travel (though you'll pay a premium for the privilege) on carriers from the US to Canada to Europe to Australia to... you get the idea. Verizon's CDMA/EVDO network, on the other hand, might roam in Canada, but that's it. If you go DROID, you're not taking it with you.
Lastly, AT&T's GSM/HSPA can handle simultaneous voice and data, so you can talk on the phone while surfing the web, emailing, or using apps over 3G. Verizon's CDMA/EVDO can't do that. If you're on the phone, you're off the 3G internet. Wi-Fi can make up for this if available, but if you're on the road you're out of luck -- and yes, that includes Google Maps Navigation for anything but cached data. (That is, if you have an AT&T 3G connection to work with, remember our first point above).
So if network matters to you -- and it should! -- figure out the best carrier for where you live, work, and travel, and that will help you figure out the device, be it iPhone or DROID.
Hardware: Slab vs. Slider
The iPhone 3GS is all about the singular slab, black and silver and glass, with rounded corners and ultra-slim profile, and only the Apple logo by way of branding. The DROID is in two "licorice and brown-sugar" parts, screen and sliding keyboard, with sharper angles, and Verizon, Motorola, and Google proudly etched all over it. Both are solid; both are well built.
Inside those bodies, the DROID boasts a 3.7-inch WVGA (480×854), 16:9 capacitive touchscreen with a 550 MHz processor, microUSB slot (comes with 16gb microSDHC card), user-changeable 1400 mAh battery (rated at nearly 6 and a half hours of usage time), and 5 megapixel camera with image stabilization, 4x zoom, dual-led Flash, and auto-focus. Oh, and a physical keyboard.
The iPhone is 3.5-inch (320x480) capacitive touchscreen with an undisclosed but snappy processor (600MHz Cortex A8 when investigated), no removable storage but 16GB or 32GB of internal memory, built-in battery with 5-hours of talk time, a 3 megapixel camera with auto-focus, and no physical keyboard.
So, DROID wins the spec battle, but there are a few caveats. Though capacitive and touchscreen, the Verizon DROID doesn't support multi-touch gestures. Yes, Android 2.0 supports them, yes the DROID's Euro-counterpart, the Milestone, includes them, yes developers can make apps that implement them, but for some reason, the DROID's built-in apps don't let you do things like pinch-to-zoom or multi-touch typing. The iPhone, on the other hand, is a multitouch monster. It's fully and uniformly supported on every iPhone, in every app.
Though it can use up to a 32GB microUSB card, unless you "root" (hack) the DROID, you can't store apps on that card. Supposedly due to piracy concerns, Android 2.0 only allows you to install apps on 256MB of internal memory (some developers work around this by installing a small host app, then downloading extra data to the card). Depending on your usage pattern, that may not affect you, of course. But for gamers who want lengthy adventures with tons of textures, or offline navigation with all the localized maps, it could be an annoyance. The iPhone, by contrast, lets you use almost all available space for apps -- up to just shy of 32GB on the high-end model.
While the DROID has a 5 megapixel camera, we've learned via the megapixel wars on point-and-shoots that size doesn't matter. Quite often small sensors are cut up far to much, sacrificing quality for quantity. When it comes to the DROID camera, while it's far from terrible, it's pictures aren't as pretty as the iPhone 3GS'. At least not yet. iPhone 3GS is currently auto-focusing better and its software is processing better looking stills.
Lastly, the DROID has a physical keyboard and a virtual keyboard. The iPhone only has a virtual keyboard. Early reviews suggest the DROID physical keyboard is a little flat, a little hard to differentiate one key from another, and a little off-center to accommodate the 5-way control. In other words, it's no BlackBerry. Likewise, the virtual keyboard is good but not iPhone great. If you care about physical keyboard, however, DROID has one and iPhone doesn't.
Both have top-of-the-line hardware, with the DROID raising the stakes to tip-top. It's not what you have, however, but what you do with what you have, and in that regard the scales look pretty well balanced.
Software: iPhone 3.0 vs. Android 2.0
Android is an open-source, Apache-licensed operating system that Google makes available free of charge to device manufacturers who can add their own proprietary "secret sauce" to the mix. So, there's no single, unified Android platform like there is for iPhone. On the plus side, you get a much greater amount of diversity, hardware and software, then the iPhone. On the minus side, it means what you see on one Android device may not be what you see on another. In terms of the DROID, this means you won't see HTC's Sense UI or even Mototola's own Blur social networking interface. What you do get is Android 2.0 Eclair with Google's proprietary Push Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Voice, YouTube, and Google Maps (now including the incredible looking Google Maps Navigation) rolled in. If you're heavily invested in the Google experience, that alone is compelling.
The iPhone doesn't offer as much Google goodness -- certainly and controversially not Google Voice for example, and not Navigation (yet?) either. It does offer some, however, including push Gmail, Calendar, and Contacts via GoogleSync, and built-in Google Maps and YouTube. By contrast, the iPhone has tons of Apple's very best software, and Android/DROID has absolutely none of that. For prime example, no awesome iPod app and everything that goes with it. The iPhone also supports MobileMe, which might be meaningless unless you're a multiple Mac user who lives on iDisk, Mac Sync, and Back-to-my-Mac.
Apps: iPhone App Store vs. Android Market
Apps are the current killer-app. Sounds funny, but from "app for that" commercials down to blogs keeping running tally of which platform has how many (100,000+ for iPhone vs. 10,000-ish for Android if you're curious), arguably nothing is supposed to matter more to consumers right now.
To be fair, not all those iPhone apps are what we'd call high quality. Apple's mature, well polished Xcode and Cocoa touch development environment and iPhone SDK makes it easier to build iPhone apps -- maybe too easy at times. By the same token, not all the Android apps are exactly golden either.
DROID's advantage is that Google offers a more open development environment, meaning they don't moderate their marketplace the way Apple does the App Store. Developers are free to make and upload pretty much anything they want, and only if there is a complaint will Google investigate and potentially remove it. Also, developers can provide "side loading", or apps that can be installed outside the market. This may appeal more to pro-level or geekier users, but it should be a consideration for everybody.
Apple only allows apps that Apple approves into the App Store (and limits side-loading to 100 "ad-hoc" seats, or custom Enterprise deployment). While this should theoretically make for a "safer" environment, the capricious nature of what's accepted and what's rejected really just makes it more frustrating. Again, for geeks. Most users, however, will never notice this. With 100,000 apps, chance are you'll find what you want and never notice what makes all the bloggers crazy. It's just not a consumer issue.
What's more noticeable is that DROID allows you to multitask all of its apps, built-in and 3rd party alike. You can keep apps open and running in the background, and with the press of a button, bring a 6-way app selector up for easy switching. If you want to run Pandora Radio while surfing the web or navigating a trip (as long as you don't take a phone call), or keep your Instant Message app open all the time, this may be a big deal to you.
Apple's iPhone only lets the built-in apps like Mail, SMS, Phone, iPod, etc. run in the background. So, you can listen to music on your iPhone, or streaming via Safari or iTunes, while you use most other apps (even the phone), but you can't do likewise with a 3rd party app such as Pandora. The iPhone does implement "push notification" to alert you to activity in Instant Message clients and other apps. It works in most cases, but lacks Android's more sophisticated notification management as well.
So -- and it's a theme that will come up over and over again -- Android offers the potential for more kinds of apps and more ways to get them, but the iPhone's controlled environment currently offers a greater quantity of apps, and among them many higher quality, highly polished 3rd party apps.
Ecosystem: Cloud vs. Cloud+
Google has virtually become the internet and their range of services from search to Gmail to Google Calendar to Google Voice... we're not going to list them all again but suffice it to say if there's a web-based service Google isn't currently offering they're planning it -- or planning to buy it. And all of those will, as mentioned above, work first and best on Android and DROID.
On the other hand, as mentioned, the iPhone supports most of those services and supports them good enough for many users. In addition, it plugs into Apple's cloud and client based iTunes ecosystem. It can't match Google on pure cloud, but it offers local sync many users still want and need. And just like Google works best on Android, iTunes and Apple works -- and just works -- best on the iPhone, that includes all the music and media, the Mac and Apple TV, and all the accessories that years of iPod dominance have made so popular.
If you love the freedom of a wireless world filled with free Google services, you can go all in with DROID. If you want most of that, and are heavily invested in iTunes and Apple, then iPhone might be a better fit.
Media: iPod vs. ??
The iPhone is, according to Apple, the best iPod they've ever made, and if you're interested in a media-equipped phone, that's hard to ignore. As we just discussed, the iPhone enjoys incredibly easy and increasingly robust sync with iTunes, and the massive music, movie, TV, podcast, and other content the iTunes store provides. And that's not even counting your existing iTunes content, if you've already ripped your CDs, DVDs, and other media into iTunes-supported format.
That last part is just as important, however. Not all media is supported by iTunes, and so it's not all supported by the iPhone. If you've built up a collection of Xvid, DivX, MKV, OGG Vorbis, etc. content (all from legitimate sources, of course), the iPhone won't play them unless and until you convert them to MP3/AAC or H.264 MP4. And that can be a hassle.
Now, Android's built in music player is... anemic, and its movie player even more so, but given their open environment if there's a format they don't play, there's a good chance you can find an app that will play it (or that one will be developed). It might not be as slick or elegant as the iPhone's iPod player, but if you need to play those formats, does it really matter?
User-Experience: Design vs. Engineering
There's no simpler way to put it, Google is an engineering company while Apple is a design company. The DROID was constructed to meet a set of features. The iPhone was crafted to meet the exacting tastes and incredible demands of one Steve Jobs. That might sound funny, but it's the difference between something that sounded usable in the schematics, and something that just works in the real world.
Android 2.0 is no doubt leaps and bounds ahead of Android 1.x (which famously presented users with a Google Search box and flashing cursor when no keyboard was present with which to enter any input), as DROID hardware is ahead of the original T-Mobile G1. It will even recognize desk and driving docks and become "finger friendlier" on contact.
Notwithstanding the lack of multitouch mentioned above, however, there's a reason why even the original iPhone revolutionized the smartphone space long before the App Store showed up -- it's interface is pure usability. From 2 year old to octogenarian, it's intuitive and consistent, and you can never underestimate the importance of -- or difficulty in achieving -- both of those.
Again, many consumers may not care. Good enough is often good enough.
Conclusion: Which One Should You Buy?
If you have to have Verizon, don't need to travel internationally, love you a physical keyboard, want everything Google has to offer, are a spec-fiend, chronic multi-tasker, and want a device that's arguably more complex but also arguably more flexible, this -- cliche warning -- might just be the DROID you're looking for.
If AT&T and international GSM compatibility is your priority, you consider virtual keyboards to be the future, are invested in the Apple/iTunes ecosystem, want those 100,000 apps unlimited by storage concerns, are a multitouch fanatic, want to talk while you surf 3G, and want a device that arguably is controlled and compromised but is also arguably the most usable on the planet, the iPhone 3GS could be what you want.
Try both. Try the Palm Pre as well while you're at it. Take them home if you can and use each for a while. Return the one(s) that doesn't suit you and enjoy the one that does. And just remember -- the smartphone space is evolving rapidly again. You can bet both Google and Apple are both hard at work on the next, even better version(s) of their devices.