Android Review – Smartphone Round Robin
The second week of the Smartphone Round Robin is coming to a close here on Nokia Experts with my review of the Google Android platform and a couple of the premium devices, the Sprint HTC Hero and Motorola DROID. I posted a few questions in the Android Central forums and received some excellent feedback from Android users. Casey Chan helped me out a couple weeks ago with some hands-on time and face-to-face Q&A with the platform and several devices. Similar to my BlackBerry review last week, I am going to take a look at two pieces of hardware, the OS, some capabilities/functionality, a comparison to S60 and Maemo, and my closing thoughts.
Hardware: HTC Hero and Motorola DROID
The HTC Hero from Sprint was one of the first Android devices to launch this year, following the release of the T-Mobile G1 in October 2008. I am no stranger to the Android platform since I purchased a T-Mobile G1 on launch day as it was the first 3G smartphone on T-Mobile, who I have been with for many years. I enjoy using my T-Mobile G1, but found the HTC Sense in the Sprint Hero to be fantastic and wrote up a review of this device on my ZDNet blog. You can also find a full review of the HTC Sprint Hero from Casey on Android Central. If you are with Sprint, it is definitely a device to consider.
The first time I really had a chance to spend time with the Motorola DROID was at the Smartphone Round Robin weekend event. Verizon has been marketing the heck out of the Motorola DROID and I personally like seeing this kind of advertising for a smartphone other than just iPhone ads. To go along with my own thoughts below, make sure to check out Casey’s full review of the DROID.
There was a European HTC Hero released in the summertime that was similar looking to the T-Mobile G1, except without the keyboard, as it had the distinctive “chin” on the bottom. You can find a couple different versions of the HTC Hero here in the US as the Sprint HTC Hero and Verizon DROID Eris and both of these US versions have different form factors. The Sprint HTC Hero reminds me more of the T-Mobile myTouch 3G/HTC Magic than the European Hero too. The Sprint HTC Hero has a classy gray colored casing with complete soft touch back and it really feels great in your hand with high density and solid design features.
Some of the key specifications include the following; 3.2 inch capacitive touchscreen, 528MHz Qualcomm processor, 5 megapixel camera, and Google Android OS 1.5. All of the Google Android devices have capacitive touchscreens so this is one differentiator from Nokia devices we have seen so far (with the exception of the new X6). The 528MHz processor is also quite common in Android devices and one area where I have had issues in the past with apps sometimes stalling out. In 2010 we will see the 1GHz Snapdragon processor and more power under the hood coming though.
The Sprint HTC Hero has that great oleophobic display seen on the iPhone 3GS and something I would like to see on all smartphones focused on a touchscreen interface. Your finger just slides across the display with ease and far fewer fingerprints are left behind.
While the 5 megapixel camera is not as good as our Nokia 5 megapixel cameras, photos taken with it are better than I have seen on other HTC devices and is a good step forward.
The Motorola DROID felt much more solid in my hand than I thought it would be after seeing the photos and videos of the device online. It feels like an expensive device and the design is quite good. It is also thinner than I thought it would be and Motorola did a good job packing so much into this form factor device. The first thing that strikes you when you turn on the DROID is the fabulous high resolution display. Wow, it is beautiful and the 3.7 inches of 480×854 pixel resolution need to be seen to appreciate.
I only spent a short amount of time with the keyboard, but I didn’t really like it and thought it was a bit too flat. That said, I am good at adapting to any keyboard and could probably get used to it after a few days. I also think that having a physical QWERTY keyboard is a good thing, even if it isn’t the best keyboard. Motorola was able to keep this baby at about the iPhone thickness and do it with a full QWERTY keyboard so that is quite an achievement. I thought the gold directional pad on the right was a touch sensitive pad due to the design, but it is a traditional directional pad with a funky design.
It is a bit different to have the display not extend all the way across the top and there is a “reverse chin” down at bottom where the word Verizon appears and where the mic is located. I was particularly pleased to see Motorola use standard connection ports like the microUSB and 3.5mm headset jack rather than the proprietary Motorola charging adapter and headset jack we have seen on other phones.
The Motorola DROID is powered with an ARM Cortex A8 550 MHz processor similar to the 600 MHz one used on the Nokia N900. I saw good responsiveness and performance out of the DROID and don’t think you will find an issue with the processor.
The DROID also has a 5 megapixel camera, similar to many of our Nokia devices, but it didn’t seem to do that well. I understand there were some camera issues that were fixed with a firmware update so maybe they can continue to tweak it and improve it as well.
If I was a Verizon customer I would consider the DROID due to the QWERTY keyboard, but the DROID Eris with HTC Sense and more compact form factor may also be a Google Android device to consider.
Operating system: Google Android
The Google Android operating has been out for just over a year and we are already seeing a bit of divergence in the operating system with Android 1.5, 1.6, and 2.0 with rumors of 2.1 coming out in early 2010. We also see different user interface flavors with HTC Sense, MotoBLUR, Samsung TouchWIZ, and more. I wonder if all of these options will cause issues with applications and updates since some of these custom interfaces require the manufacturer to make changes to the software to get the device updated rather than having updates come straight from Google. If you are happy with the functionality in the device when you buy it, then you may be just fine with the custom interfaces. If you are a tweaker though and want the latest and greatest that Google Android has to offer then you may want to buy a vanilla Android device like the Motorola DROID or T-Mobile G1.
The Android OS appears very similar to me as the new Maemo 5 platform with multiple “desktops”, widgets, multi-tasking, multiple service integration and contact status. There are 3 “desktops” on a standard Google Android device compared to the 4 desktops seen on the Nokia N900 Maemo 5 device. Custom UI Android devices can have more “desktops”, up to 7 actually, so the operating system is flexible in this regard. Widgets are available on all Android devices with some custom ones provided on HTC, Samsung, and Motorola devices too. Like Maemo, developers can provide widgets in addition to the manufacturer and Google. Widgets are placed on the desktops where you want them too.
Multi-tasking is supported on the Android OS just like S60 and Maemo. I saw that a press and hold of a button pops up a task manager on Android devices like it does with S60 devices so you can easily switch between open apps. I believe Maemo 5 handles multi-tasking even better with the visual task manager though and prefer this approach.
Google Voice on the Android platform is awesome and I like the way it is integrated into the dialer so you can choose to make a regular call or Google Voice call. Maemo provides even better integration with Skype, Google Talk, and more to give you a similar experience. I wish that Google Voice was integrated further into Maemo as well. Some Android devices integrate other services like Facebook (HTC Hero) too.
The first time I saw live contact status in your contacts list was on my T-Mobile G1 and I though this was an awesome way to stay in touch with friends who you knew were online. This same live status is taken even further in Maemo with the multiple service options.
I use Gmail for all of my freelance writing work and find having full access to Google services to be essential. You won’t find a platform with better support for Gmail and Google Voice so if you live with these services then Android is a strong platform to consider.
I also rely on Exchange for my normal day job and have been using a 3rd party client on my T-Mobile G1 to connect via Exchange. It is great to see new and custom versions of Android including Exchange support and so far it looks like HTC does it best on the Android platform.
There are something over 10,000 apps in the Android Market and many are quite good with a ton of free apps to add functionality to the platform. Android does not seem to be big on gaming or multimedia though so if these are important to you then make sure to find out what the devices are capable of before you jump in.
If you are a Nokia fan, then you probably like that Symbian is available on devices in many different form factors to meet the needs of everyone. We see this same multi-form factor idea in Google Android with full touchscreen and QWERTY slider devices, but we still do not see any front-facing QWERTY devices and ALL of them have capacitive touchscreens too.
Google Android devices are very capable and I personally prefer them over the iPhone because they give me the same type of user experience with multi-tasking and more openness to do more without restrictions.
S60 and Maemo comparisons with Android
I’ve been integrating some comparison talk throughout this review, but here are some more comparisons to check out.
If I switch from a S60 device (say the Nokia n97 mini) to a Google Android device I would gain a MUCH better Gmail, Google Search, Google Maps, Google Voice, and Google Talk experience. S60 does have support for these services, but it just isn’t as integrated or feature-packed as what you find on Google Android devices. I would also be able to have a capacitive touchscreen device where the OS is optimized for this type of touch navigation. I would miss the strong multi-media capture capability of a Nokia device. I found voice quality on the couple of Android devices I have used to be decent, but still can’t match the Nokia phone call quality.
IMHO, Maemo offers a very similar experience to the Google Android OS. I would gain better Google services integration and a lot more 3rd party apps, but I would lose better media capture capability and even better multi-media playback performance. The web browser on the N900 is the BEST on any mobile platform, but the browser on the Android devices is quite good as well. A positive aspect of Android is that you can also use 3rd party web browsers (like Opera Mini) to get different browsing experiences. Both platforms are fairly open so there is a LOT of promise for both to get better too.
Wrapping up Google Android week
I purchased the T-Mobile G1 when it launched in 2008 and find the Google Android platform to be my second favorite after Nokia. My carrier, T-Mobile, has embraced Android and has quite a selection with more coming in 2010 so I may pick up another Android device next year. So much of what we see in Google Android is present in Maemo 5 that some think my N900 is an Android device. I would like to see Google start focusing a bit more on multimedia aspects to make Android devices even better.
I am a bit concerned about the divergence of the operating system and custom user interfaces taking away from the coherent Google experience, but then again the smartphone user community is still quite small and there is room for lots of entries to compete. You cannot beat the Google experience on an Android device and 2010 looks to be very exciting for both Nokia and Google in the mobile space.
Thanks to Casey for showing me more of the Android devices and platform at the Round Robin event. I enjoyed hearing from Android Central forum members and appreciate all the sincere responses. Remember to keep contributing to the various forums and threads to be entered into the Smartphone Round Robin contest where you could win your favorite smartphone. Stay tuned next week for my perspective on the Windows Mobile operating system and the HTC HD2 and Touch Pro2 devices.