Android Review - Smartphone Round Robin

DROIIIIIIIID. Week 1 of the 2009 Smartphone Round Robin had me going hands-on with the Verizon Motorola Droid and the Sprint HTC Hero. Now that my time with these out of this world devices has come to an end and I've procrastinated all that I could, it's time to reflect on my Android experience from the perspective of the BlackBerry user that I am. Because we're looking at more than one device here and I want to throw out some thoughts on Android as a whole, I'm not going to dive into the little details on each device like I would in my normal BlackBerry device reviews. For that kind of stuff -- features and specs and anal observations -- click the two device links above and you'll jump over to for their excellent in-depth reviews. That said, I know there are a huge number of you who want to know my thoughts on the Droid, so I'll be sure to give you what you want!

But First... I Want to Say Thank You

In following our own Android forum and seeing threads like this pop up at Android Central (which bring a tear to my eye), I know there is a contingent of ex-Verizon BlackBerry owners / CrackBerry members out there who are currently giving the Droid a go. Some of you crazy crackies won't give up your BlackBerry quite so easily (is a life without BlackBerry Messenger really a life worth living??) but are compelled to give change a chance so have even gone to the extent of paying for two plans and are concurrently running a BlackBerry and a Droid.

So before I move on, I just wanted to give a big Thank You to anybody who has moved away from BlackBerry for the time being (I'm sure RIM will win you back one day soon!) but has been a reader, member, customer and supporter of CrackBerry while they were a BlackBerry user. It means a lot to me personally to step back and look at this site and see the amazing community that you have all helped to create. And remember, just because you may be sporting a device other than a BlackBerry doesn't mean you can't stop by for a visit from time to time. I might think you're crazy for leaving BlackBerry, but I know you'll still refer all your BlackBerry-using friends, colleagues and family members to, so it's allll good. We can still be friends ☺

I also want to thank everybody at Android Central who helped me on my Round Robin forum thread over the past week, answering my questions and sharing their Android insight with me. Greatly appreciated!

A Look Back at My FIRST Look at Android.

This isn't the first time I have experienced Android. In the 2008 Round Robin I went hands-on with the T-Mobile G1. The G1 hardware was a little underwhelming and awkward and the Android software was at version 1.0, but overall there were a lot of things I liked about Android. I figured just for fun I'd maybe share that first look again with anyone who cares to watch:


Verizon Motorola Droid Impressions

BlackBerry Storm2 vs. Motorola Droid 

The Motorola Droid makes me mad, but not for the reasons that you might think. It makes me mad because it's soooo close to being a really great smartphone, but then it falls short on little details that I think Motorola could have addressed from the start had they given it just a little more thought. Though I have to say, this device puts Motorola back in the manufacturers' game, at a time when I think most people have long since written them off.

Droid Turn Ons:

  • Build Quality. It's a really solid device. Deceivingly heavy for the size due to a lot of metal construction, but I like that. Weight = Quality.
  • Awesome display. The 480 by 854 resolution is impressive, the image quality is good and the touchscreen is very responsive. Oh, and the screen doesn't click, which many will love and some will miss (as much as the BlackBerry Storm2's hardware is improved over the original Storm, I'm still not sold that I personally need SurePress. I prefer the effortlessness of a standard capacitive touchscreen).
  • It's fast. The Droid's processor seems to do a really good job of keeping the Android 2.0 operating software moving along. Keeping the experience snappy definitely helps to provide an overall positive impression of the device.

Those are the big hitting points on the hardware side for the Droid itself. Short and sweet, but very positive for the Droid. We'll talk actual Android operating system software in a bit.

BlackBerry Storm2 vs. Motorola Droid

Software keyboard on Storm2 vs. Slide Out Keyboard on Droid

Droid Sticky Points:

  • Keyboard. Come must have already known I was going to say that. If you're used to the Storm/Storm2, you might actually like the Droid's physical keyboard. But if you're used to a traditional BlackBerry like the Tour or Bold or Curve then the Droid's keyboard just doesn't compare. It slight off-centering is awkward (though you do get used to it) and the keys are just a little too flat. I'm not a fan of wide landscape keyboards - they're inefficient. You need to move your fingers further as compared to a tighter portrait qwerty to accomplish the same keystrokes. I have a feeling that if I used the Droid for a longer period of time I might eventually use the software keyboard over the physical keyboard altogether (as was suggested by some of the Droid users who provided me with feedback). And if that's the case, why not scrap the physical keyboard altogether?
  • The navigation pad. This is the gold thing on the right hand side of the keyboard that looks like it should be something cool like a fingerprint reader or retinal scanner, but instead is just your standard old navigation pad which I found in my time with the Droid didn't get used that often. I guess I used it a little bit for scrolling down, but for the most part went back to the touchscreen.
  • Camera. As of now, the Droid's camera is proof that more megapixels doesn't always mean a better camera. The pictures don't compare at all to the 3.2 megapixel camera on my Bold 9700. Doing some reading around on it, it sounds like this could be a software thing that hopefully will improve with time.
  • CDMA only. I won't harp on this too much, but it's too bad the Droid couldn't hit the market as a world phone, like BlackBerry did with the Tour and Storms (and 8830 before that). Kind of makes it difficult (errm.. impossible) to use the device overseas.
  • Bluetooth issues? I didn't experiment with this too much, but from the feedback I received from Droid users this seems to be an area with where the Droid/Android have work to be done, in terms of difficulty with pairing and staying connected with different Bluetooth services (like MS Sync).
  • Look and Feel. I know this a matter of personal preference and opinion, but I personally think the Droid is fugly. Well, maybe it's not that it's actually that ugly per say, but more so that it's non-iconic and easily forgettable. Even my mom can pick out a BlackBerry or iPhone these days - once the Droid gets replaced becomes obselete by a newer device, the Droid's look is gone. Like the T-Mobile G1, it's just underwhelming (at least the Droid's chin is less disturbing than the G1's was). But with the Droid I'm more disappointed than I normally would be in regards to a smartphone's looks, because with the Droid you see all these awesome Verizon commercials hyping it up, and then when you see the actual phone you're thinking really, that's all you've got to show me? It looks more industrial or military to me than the out of this world coolness the name and marketing suggest. It's definitely targeted at all the male tech/gadget lovers out there, though I'm sure at least two out of every hundred or so females would like the look and feel of the device as well. One thing is for sure though. Between the Droid name (licensed from LucasArts, aka Star Wars), the Droiiiiid soundbyte and the evil Droid red eye (that brings up visions of the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings), there is no doubt that if the movie The 40 Year Old Virgin were being produced in 2009 instead of 2005 that the Droid is the phone Steve Carell would be using.

Joking aside, the Droid really does pack performance where it counts, which means that most people who pick up the Droid for the first time will walk away with a positive experience. That says a lot right there.

HTC Hero Impressions

HTC Hero

Available from Sprint, the HTC Hero is full touchscreen device (no physical keyboard) currently running on the Android 1.5 platform with HTC's own Sense user interface layered on top. Whatever the difference is between 2.0 and 1.5 is, it was pretty much lost on me because on this device you're really living in HTC's take on the smartphone operating system experience, which is pretty cool. As you'll see when we get to Windows Mobile week in the Round Robin, HTC also runs their Sense UI there. The Sense UI is very, very widget based and is kind of pretty and fun to use (skip to 4m30s in my first impressions video to see it in action). I REALLY love the innovation they have worked in called Scenes. This is something I've been wishing BlackBerry would do for a long time. Essentially, you have the option to choose modes of use for the phone - work, social, play, HTC default - which then reorganizes your homescreen experience to be optimized for each of those user cases. I LOVE THAT. I think one of the reasons the BlackBerry OS gets beat up a little bit these days is because they're only shipping the device with one theme that is fairly business-oriented. Including more themes that are more focused on the needs of individual user groups would really freshen things up and help with perception (building choose your theme into the Setup Wizard would make sure it gets noticed). I focused my time more on the Droid than the HTC Hero, so can't really dive into the Turn Ons and Sticky Points as much, though I can say it has one BIG a$$ trackball. Whether that's a turn on or turn off, I'll leave up to you!

BlackBerry Users on Android

If you want some really great feedback from BlackBerry users who have gone Android and what they are experiencing, check out the forum thread I made over at There are literally hours of feedback. For the most part, it seems that in general those who have made the switch from the BlackBerry Storm to the Droid have been pretty happy. And even as a BlackBerry fanatic, I can understand why. One of the biggest issues I have against RIM's BlackBerry Storm and even the Storm2 is that the initial user experience is not all that welcoming or positive. The first time you grab the Storm, you're a little distracted by trying to figure out how SurePress works, and then you're figuring out what's under a menu option vs. an on screen option and there's nothing that entertaining going on the screen to keep you thinking "wow that's cool" while you're trying to figure out what to do - it's fairly rigid and static. Once you get over the hump and start actually using your BlackBerry, well that's when the crack sets in and most people grow to love it, but that initial phase is never all that oh my god this thing is so cool I love it! RIM's touchscreen experience on BlackBerry to date is still in the form of their non-touchscreen operating system getting converted to accept touchscreen input - it hasn't been designed from the ground up with the thought of "touchscreen" in mind. It still works, and works pretty well now on a device like the Storm2, but there are also areas that can be improved.

As mentioned above, Android seems to do a pretty good job of making a positive first impression. It's strange. Speaking on the "Google Experience" Android 2.0 operating system of the Droid, I find there's almost something BlackBerry-like about it (I can't quite figure it out to put words to the thought - maybe some of you out there who have used both know what I'm talking about). There's still structure to it, there's still menu options and a back button, but it's more customizable and fluid than the current BlackBerry OS, which makes it come across as being a little more updated and modern. If you think about the Apple OS, Palm Web OS, and Android, it feels like of those three Android would be the one that RIM could most easily evolve the BBOS into, or just for the hell of it, throw onto BlackBerry hardware to see what would happen.

My guess would be that most current Verizon BlackBerry Storm owners are Storm owners vs. Tour or Curve 8330 owners because they value the things that a big touchscreen phone brings to a smartphone - more screen real estate that makes room for a better media experience, web browsing experience and app experience. And if those are your priorities, then the Droid is honestly a compelling device to check out. Looking at the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs, whereas RIM is literally building their pyramid from the ground level right to the top one step at a time, the Droid reaches pretty high up the pyramid though it leaves some gaps here and there that may tick off some (like me) but not bother others.

The Android native web browser is faster and renders better than the native BlackBerry browser and is WebKit-based. No surprise there. Come on RIM... us BlackBerry users need you working night and day to get this new WebKit BB browser released!

Android Marketplace is up to 10,000 apps now - some of which are pretty cool and some of which are pretty crappy. I really don't think it's the quantity of apps that matters, but rather that you can find the five, ten, 15, 25 apps that you personally find value in. Coming out of the BlackBerry Developer Conference this year and all of the recent announcements, I have pretty high hopes for BlackBerry to deliver what they're calling "transformative experiences" on BlackBerry in the near future (I think of them as super apps that fundamentally change the way you do things). So that said, I'm not sure apps would be a reason for me run to Android anytime soon. Android definitely has some solid momentum behind it, coming from Google's push that has helped lay the foundation for a growing Android developer community, but I think RIM will hold their own in the app arena as well. And with RIM's announcement and upcoming rollout of the Advertising APIs, you should start to see the price of BlackBerry apps go from being on the expensive side to being cheap or free as it'll be dead simple for developers to monetize their apps via ads. As for running apps, both BlackBerry and Android can run multiple apps (multi-task) and both face that dreaded issue of not having as much app memory as their users would like. The Droid does a good job of running apps. RIM really screwed up when they only put 128MB of flash memory into the Storm 9530/9500. If they could have doubled the memory to 256MB as it is now in devices like the Storm2 and Tour and Bold 9700, Storm1 owners wouldn't have had such a rough time with device lag caused by low memory and the need for daily battery pulls. It's not the greatest experience to deliver to customers if you want to build loyalty for your products.

Media is one of those areas where there is still a lot of room for development on Android (you drag and drop your music and movies onto the device via USB), but at least it does play some beautiful HD youtube videos to make up for where it lacks on the traditional media front.

And if you're a Google person, obviously Android caters well to your needs, offering tight integration. So long as you don't mind Google knowing all your stuff, then that's a good thing. Though I've pretty much been a Google guy since about 48 hours after their web browser went live and I find the BlackBerry / Google services to be pretty solid for the most part. Props go to Google for always taking care of us BlackBerry users too, even though now they are pushing their own thing.

If you're a BlackBerry user that place communication and productivity as a priority, then a device like the Droid loses some of its luster. Gmail on Android does look really pretty, but pretty much every ex-BlackBerry gone Droid owner I have encountered to date concedes BlackBerry crushes it on email (speed of delivery, managing multiple accounts, managing multiple messages, etc.). I think for most BlackBerry users on Verizon who have gone Droid or are contemplating giving Droid ago, living without BlackBerry Messenger and RIM's pushiest of push email services are the two most difficult things to cope with.

After that, comparing platforms and devices becomes more of a preference thing. Are you using your phone for business or pleasure? Maybe both? Do you want your mobile phone to work as an extension of your computer, or is it your laptop replacement? Do you sit down and kill time on your phone? Or do you reach for it 200x per day for a minute at a time? One of the things we realized early on this year during our Round Robin editor meet-up was that pretty much every editor, if need be, could use any of the smartphones in this year's Round Robin as their primary device and make it work for them. There may be some things they would gain or lose between switching platforms that would take some adjustment and workarounds, but in general smartphones have gotten to a point where they're all pretty good, with each one tending to specialize a little bit more in certain areas. And if you want the no compromise solution, the one that would completely fill up the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs from top to bottom with no gaps, we're still living in a time where you're going to have to carry two devices around do it all in best of class fashion (a BlackBerry in one pocket and a iPhone or iPod touch in your other pocket??).

Some Closing Thoughts

My Android review in 2008 was pretty positive, so it makes sense that in 2009 my Android review remain positive as well. After all, there are now more Android devices, they are better devices, and the software platform is more advanced. Looking at my Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs, a year of Android development and a device like the Droid has made some significant leaps in filling in gaps and cracks Android and the G1 left last year. The biggest issues for me with a particular Android device like the Droid is not so much the Android software, but that it still lacks the magic in the more basic area of daily usability and productivity, which are a combination of the hardware and software working together to provide an overall experience. Things like speed of use, ergonomics, aesthetics and even brand image (I actually had another 1500 words written just on this subject but am going to save it for some of our future Round Robin articles in the coming weeks) which are areas I really put a lot of value on, are things that lack on the Droid compared to a traditional BlackBerry experience from my point of view.

One thing I've realized in recent months is that you can sort of divide BlackBerry owners into two categories: BlackBerry users and people who use BlackBerrys. If you fall into the category of BlackBerry user, I think you immediately know what I mean - there's no living without a BlackBerry. The way Research in Motion has filled out those first few levels of the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs (they've done that better than anyone - especially when you think of the traditional BlackBerry with physical keyboard; arguable point on the Storm) is simply pivotal to the way you communicate and manage your life - just the thought of not having a red light call out to you drives you mad. So while you may long for an improved browser and some of these "transformational experiences" from your device (I know I'm longing for them!), you're willing to wait it out while RIM gets their stuff together to climb even higher up the pyramid and fill it in more fully because you just wouldn't be able to cope without it (and if you're impatient, grab an iPod touch to fill in the in the void while you wait for your BB to get there).

As for Android, I'm really curious to see what 2010 will bring. What will Google releasing their own phone do for the platform? It'll be be interesting to see what the top Android phone looks like when the Smartphone Round Robin 2010 flies into town.