Thursday, November 05, 2009

Google touches add value to Droid

I love it when big, rich technology companies start smacking each other around like robots in a Transformers movie, because you’ll generally find some pretty cool gadgets poking out of the wreckage.

the Droid, a new Motorola Inc. phone that uses the Android operating system developed by Internet search titan Google Inc. The first Android phone to be offered by the nationals largest cellular carrier, Verizon Wireless. The Droid goes on sale tomorrow for $199 after a $100 rebate, and with a two-year Verizon service contract.

No doubt you’ve heard of the Droid from one of its ever-present TV commercials. Most smartphone vendors have tiptoed past direct comparisons with Apple Inc.’s iPhone. But the Droid ads have taken dead aim, flatly declaring that the Droid is better. In some ways, it is.

Apple will survive the onslaught; the Droid, though excellent, is no iPhone slayer. But you might want to start digging a grave for makers of standalone navigation devices like TomTom and Garmin. Droid’s most remarkable feature, a fine turn-by-turn navigation system, matches up well against any of the standalone GPS units. And it’s free.

The Droid’s sleek, angular look is reminiscent of Motorola’s last big hit, the Razr phone. It’s got a big, bright touchscreen that serves as a virtual keyboard, but there’s a snap-out physical keyboard as well. Perhaps this was a mistake; the keyboard is easily the Droid’s worst feature, with flat, smooth buttons that offer no help at all to touch typists. The pushbuttons found on other Android phones are mostly replaced with touch-sensitive controls, but the Droid still can’t match the simplicity of the iPhone.

Apple claims there are about 100,000 of the specialty software programs called apps for the iPhone; only about 10,000 apps are available for Android phones. And lots of them are unreliable, or don’t work at all. Google makes it easier than Apple to produce and distribute Android apps, but this has resulted in a lot of lousy Android software.

Still, there are plenty of gems. These include handy “widget’’ programs that sit on the screen and constantly update themselves with news headlines, stock quotes, or weather reports. Widgets work because unlike the iPhone, the Droid can run two or three apps simultaneously.

Of course, it does an especially good job running Google software. Apple barred Google Voice software from the iPhone, perhaps because it enabled cut-rate phone calling and threatened AT&T’s profits. There’s no such limitation on the Droid; Google Voice works fine, and you can program the phone to use it for all your calls. There’s also a very good feature that lets you run Google searches with voice commands, like “How do I get to Cape Cod?’’

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