Four weeks with a Droid (and two weeks with an unlocked Nexus One)

Gadget pile

In response to my first few frustrating hours with a Droid, my friend Gina asked if I'd post my thoughts four weeks on, instead of first impressions which can often be deceiving (but amusing -- I encourage others to do it sometime even if half your blog entry ends up bemoaning the difficult packaging to get to the item). Now that I've learned the ins and outs and gotten to kick the tires on Android, the Droid, and a Nexus One, I feel like there is a lot to say about it, especially in comparison to my years on an iPhone and previous to that, a Blackberry.

I'm much less frustrated by Android and the devices it runs on, after tweaking things and getting to know it better. There are a lot of similarities to the iPhone, many places I think it even excels over the iPhone, and quite a few areas that can be improved. In no particular order:

The Good

- Though I didn't like it at first, I've grown to like the desktop metaphor for the Android home screen. Simple shortcuts to just the apps or views of apps that you use the most, it's a great timesaver and once tweaked to my liking, I found I only hit the applications button once every couple days because all the key things are on my desktop.

- The Android 2.1 OS in the Nexus One is brilliant looking and the desktop and apps views are much nicer looking that earlier releases. It's a shame they don't deploy those equally to all Android devices.

- The software keyboard is on par with the iPhone's, though I miss the hidden hold-drag shortcuts (on an iPhone you could hit the 123 button, hold it, and slide over to that one number you needed, when released the keyboard would bounce back to alpha). I love the suggested words showing up above the keypad and I've found it to be a huge timesaver, guessing correctly for what I'm typing over half the time and saving valuable keystrokes.

- The hardware keyboard on the Droid is too small and largely useless to me. The auto-correct and suggested words go away on my Droid when you pop out the slide-out keyboard, even though I type just as many if not more mistakes than the software keyboard. It adds quite a bit of thickness and weight to the Droid, both of which I'd prefer to go without.

- The way Android and Google Chrome on the desktop integrate the search bar and the web address bar into a single UI feature (when every other browser separates them) is pure genius. On my Android phones, I don't even have to recall the full URL of anything, just remember a keyword or two that I know will end up at that site. On the Android, I get location awareness with a phone number, map, and link to driving directions in the Navigation app.

- The Google Navigation app is simply incredible. I bought a TomTom GPS unit for my wife's car a couple years ago and liked it enough to get the TomTom app on my iPhone for driving directions when I travel and rent a car, but I've found the TomTom iPhone app is difficult to input addresses to and has minimal integration with the iPhone's address book (it requires me to confirm every aspect of stored addresses). The Google Navigate app can be launched from addresses found in the Android browser, offers several views of your trip, and it's remarkably easy to enable or disable the voice prompts when driving (every other app and unit buries that several menus deep). It's a pleasure to use and I carry my Droid in my car even though I already have a factory installed navigation system in it.

- Gmail and Google Voice are also killer apps for Android. For people addicted to scanning and archiving items out of their Gmail inbox, the Gmail client is a pleasure. Google Voice is incredible and sorely missed from the iPhone and the stupid iTunes App Store policies that barred it from entry. Google Voice gives you the same sense of freedom and control over your daily interruptions that a DVR attached to a TV does -- once you've experienced it you can never go back.

- The Android ecosystem doesn't require a computer at all. At first I found this slightly frustrating as it takes some tweaking to get music on or off the device, or get movies playing back smoothly, but over time I've come to appreciate this and enjoy it. Having to dock my iPhone to a computer (and wait for it to backup and transfer files when I just want to go out the door with a new podcast on it) is a regular hassle and I can tell the Android OS was designed for people that may very well not even own a desktop or laptop computer. The phone itself is almost as powerful as a laptop. I haven't played with podcasting apps much on Android, but I imagine it must be as easy as it is to update apps and download music from Amazon.

- The form factor of the Nexus One is amazing. Super thin and light, with a huge bright screen. Being that I don't have a SIM card in it, its first charge ran for a week with occasional use over wifi. My Droid feels blocky, heavy, chunky, and barely holds a charge for a 24hr day of use.

- Verizon on the Droid is a much better phone service than AT&T on the iPhone. I know, totally obvious, but the difference is so great that I'm paying for a second cellphone because AT&T has gotten so bad in the last few months. I live outside of Portland, Oregon, and while 3G and phone service works great in my small town of few iPhone users, the moment I go near the city of Portland I get dropped calls galore and 3G data issues. I've taken to calling friends back on the Verizon Droid often enough that having a backup phone on another network is a necessity.

- I missed multi-touch the first time I used Android, but after a day or two I got used to double-tapping to zoom in apps and dragging with one finger to accomplish the same thing. It probably sucks for games to not have multitouch, but it's fine in apps.

- The notifications bar with pull-down alerts is great for finding out a bunch of information coming from a variety of your apps at once. I wish the iPhone had something like that.

- Being able to "return" any app in the Android Market within 24hrs for a full refund is fantastic.

- Having all your apps, desktop wallpapers, etc. saved on the server side somewhere at Google is a pretty amazing thing. After I popped onto the Nexus One for the first time and inputted my Google details, the phone picked up most of my preferences from my Droid phone. This will make switching phones in the future from one Android device to another much smoother.

- It's clear Android is going to be a popular phone operating system available on pretty much every carrier in the US. Overall, I'd say it's about 80-90% of the way to the kind of experience you get with an iPhone with several things I feel it does better than an iPhone.

Areas for improvement

- The iPhone came from the iPod world so it's an incredible media playback device and the Droid and Nexus One feel like multimedia is just an add-on that isn't central to the device. There's no iTunes to sync with Android (I tried doubletwist and it was buggy) so you either have to buy music directly from the Amazon MP3 store (which I actually prefer to the iTunes store for music even on my Mac desktop due to cheaper songs and no DRM) or you have to navigate mounted USB folders in the file system by hand, which is a chore at best. It took a bit of reading forums and blog posts to figure out the correct Handbrake settings to get a movie to playback smoothly on either Android device, and I had to make a directory called "Video" in the right place and download a playback app from the Android Marketplace to even watch it. The Nexus One has a bigger, brighter screen than any iPhone or iPod I've used so you'd think they'd make media more a focus given the great hardware.

- The Android Market for Apps is good but feels like it could be a lot better. There doesn't seem to be nearly as much curation as the iPhone App Store for making you aware of the best of the best (I had to rely on twitter and blog posts to figure out what to try out). The reviews are listed by the last three reviews first, even if they are a frustrated user (iPhone App Store lists highest rated first, right?) so the reviews are choppy (lots of either 1-star I HATE IT or 5-star AMAZING reviews). There is no "Update all apps" single button to push which gets tiresome as your Android device tells you every few days you need to update four apps by clicking over and over and over.

- The iPhone has only one button, Android has four along the bottom. iPhone puts it on developers to code up their own navigation buttons and labels, while Android just gives developers hooks to those four hardware buttons. The problem? There's no consistency and a distinct lack of labeling on Android. On an iPhone, developers have to create "back" buttons and they get to label them as well so you always know where you're going to end up if you push it (like "Inbox" or "back to twitter"). On Android it's a blind button without a label and sometimes when you hit the back button in a web browser you go back a page and sometimes you jump back to an application that launched the web browser. Sometimes the back button lets you go backward in an app and many times you get the haptic buzz telling you THERE IS NO BACK BUTTON and you're stuck on that screen. I've played with an Eris Android phone as well and the big surprise there was the four hardware buttons aren't even in the same order as my other two Android devices. That seems insane to me.

- Google's internal teams sometimes slap existing features into their apps or they change key features of public apps with little warning (like Google Reader suddenly making the Share button public ages ago). Android is a phone, and every phone needs an address book, right? Google decided to slap my Gmail contacts into the phone and call that the same as an address book, which was a surprise to me. My Gmail contacts are mostly people I email often (including tech support questions to my many websites) and the Venn Diagram of people I email a lot and people I call a lot are vastly different things. I didn't have phone numbers stored in my Gmail contacts for longtime friends I would like to call from the device, so essentially the moment I logged into Google I had a phone with hundreds of people I barely know over email that I would never need to call plus I didn't even have phone numbers for the few I did want to call. If I want to morph this into a usable address book, I have to delete a lot of people and add a lot of data to my contacts, but that might affect how Gmail works on my desktop browser. If I delete someone does that mean their new emails to me might show up as unknown spam? I don't know.

- The iPhone has a lot of "hidden" features. Stuff like holding down keys on the virtual keyboard giving you new options, and screenshots by touching two buttons at once, but the amount of what I'd classify as "hidden" features in Android feels much longer. Every button has a separate long-hold state that offers up menus and options you can't find unless you know to click. The web browser doesn't show you how many windows are open like Mobile Safari. I never know how many apps are even open and running aside from the reports in the upper taskbar. I didn't know silent mode could be accessed from holding the top button for a long time. Every day there's a new hidden feature I'm accidentally stumbling upon to the point the phone feels like a linux command line or a wiki with its own cryptic syntax you have to learn slowly to the point of memorizing lots of keystrokes.

- The trackball on the Nexus One is next to useless. It's much faster for me to point and tap something I want on the screen than scroll through every option with a trackball. It's easy to ignore though.

Like I said, overall, I'm happier with the Android OS, and I'm in love with the Nexus One hardware. The moment the Verizon branded Nexus One goes on sale, I'll pick one up and try to unload my blocky Droid. Despite some issues I have with the iTunes App Store, I do love almost everything about the iPhone for its intuitive interface, great gaming, fantastic multimedia playback, and overall utility, but Android is definitely going to give it a run for its money and I look forward to both platforms innovating. At this point, I feel like each platform has enough strengths that I've become the kind of weirdo that carries two phones around, using the best of both worlds depending on usage.