Test Drive: Droid X

Lots of kudos for the new Android smartphone, and a few things that need to be tweaked; iPhone reception improves.

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By Cary Chin
As we look at power usage and efficiency of mobile devices, it seems only fair to expand our view beyond my personal stable of iOS devices. This month, I’ve picked up a new Motorola DROID X phone, one of a spate of recently introduced smartphones looking to take a bite out of Apple’s iPhone business.

It’s an impressive piece of hardware, with similar specs to an iPhone 4. A bright 4.3” display with 848×480 resolution is bigger, but lower-resolution compared to the 3.5” 960×640 “retina display” on the iPhone 4. The processors both run at 1 GHz, so each phone is quite capable, responding quickly to the multitouch interface, switching between applications and tasks with no problems. I like the removable (and therefore upgradable) micro SD card on the DROID X, but mine initially was unrecognized in the device. I had to take out the battery and reseat the card for it to show up, and even now it’s a little flaky.

The quick hardware comparison round goes to Apple iPhone 4, most for fit and finish. It’s just a plain sexy piece of technology. The DROID X kind of reminded me of a Palm 3 (which I loved) when I first picked it up – a little “plasticky” compared to the evolved sensibility of the iPhone 4.

But perhaps the most important piece of hardware isn’t on the phone itself. It’s the cellular infrastructure that transforms these phones from novelty devices to modern day computing and communications devices. My initial data on the “network” for each of these phones is a solid win on the DROID X side. Verizon coverage is clearly superior to AT&T in the Palo Alto vicinity, including in my house (Palo Alto) and in my office (Mountain View). It appears that with a good signal, the AT&T network may indeed be faster (I’ll have some additional tests on that later). Either way, from a user standpoint, consistent coverage definitely trumps network speed. The network round easily goes to the Verizon DROID X.

On the software side, my new DROID X is running Android 2.2, the OS that has overtaken iOS on smartphones in only one year! I’m new to Android, so not qualified yet to comment about daily usage, but my first impressions were that it seemed quite capable and on par with iOS. However, I found a few subtle nuances in the user interface that were a little disconcerting. For example, scrolling the display had a slight delay, making it feel more like a simulation than the instant response on my iPhone, which really feels like you’re moving a piece of paper around. And for the 2.2 rev of the OS, I found Android to be fairly unstable.
In addition to several apps crashing, my droid hung up quite a few times in the first couple of weeks, requiring reboot, and even got so far off into the weeds once that I had to take out the battery to reset it—something I can’t even do on my iPhone! More for stability than for features, iOS wins this round.

Software appliations are difficult to rate. Both platforms have many more apps available than I’ll ever try, but all of the requisite pieces seem to be there. However, with regard to the overall user setup and interface, I have to say that I like the iTunes “all in one” idea much more than the “maybe-more-capable” but “definitely-more-hassle” setup on Android. After seeing how much trouble it is to try to get everything set up on a new device, I’m much more forgiving (and appreciative) of some of iTunes’ restrictions. Chalk another one up for Apple.

Killer apps on either device? The one that sticks out on the DROID X is the nice integration in Android of voice-activated mapping and directions. Say “Navigate to Starbucks in Palo Alto” and it will do it! I currently use a combination of google voice, google maps, and Navigon to do the same thing on my iPhone 4. Nice job on this, Google. On the Apple side, the killer app is simply that you get a piece of technology that lets you forget about technology. If you can ignore the spotty coverage, it just works (someone should coin that phrase…)! Next time we look at head-to-head power tests on the two platforms.

LATE-BREAKING FOOTNOTE: After my initial experience with the superior network coverage of the DROID X (Verizon), I went to the AT&T store and filed a complaint. They gave me an “AT&T 3G MicroCell” device, which basically creates a mini cell site in your house! I’ve been playing around with it, and I can now play the recent Star Trek movie on my iPhone 4 with just 2.8 Watt-hours of energy, streamed over 3G using the MicroCell—and with a never-before-seen 5 bars of signal strength). My previous tests consumed 3.4 Watt-hours in the same spot in my house (about 3 bars), and 5.3 Watt-hours in my poor-coverage (1 bar-ish) office. And all of these measurements with brightness and volume at maximum.

As I postulated last time, signal reception may very well be the “smoking gun” of mysterious battery drain on these devices. That’ll make running comparable power tests between the iPhone4 (AT&T) and DROID X (Verizon) a little trickier…