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Hands-on with the Droid X | Kestrel's Aerie

Hands-on with the Droid X | Kestrel's Aerie

Hands-on with the Droid X

Droid-X

As some of you know, I was parked at our local Verizon Wireless store at 8 a.m. on July 15 to upgrade my cellphone to the new Droid X smartphone from Motorola. (The store opened at 9.) The “X” is Verizon’s latest smartphone offering, and as such, is positioned against AT&T’s Apple iPhone 4, Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G, and T-Mobile’s even more recent release of the Samsung Vibrant (T-Mobile’s name for the Galaxy S handset in the US).

I’m certainly not in a position to compare the X against any of the others; however, if you want to read an in-depth review of the Droid X, you could do a lot worse than check out Ars Technica’s review (with lots of pics and some video samples). For an even more technical view of the phone, Anandtech has this offering.

Cutting to the chase, I love this phone! Not one iota of buyer’s remorse here, believe me.

Size and Layout

Now that I have that out of the way, a few details about the phone. The phone is not small: 2.6″W x 5″H x 0.4″D (6.5cm x 12.8cm x 1cm). The top of the phone has a bulge on the rear to house the camera and associated electronics: it’s 0.6″ (1.4cm) thick there. The large size accommodates a 4.7″ diagonal (11.9cm) screen. As stated, it’s by Motorola and uses Google’s open-source Android operating system. Currently, the phone ships with Android 2.1, but Verizon will be pushing out version 2.2 (Froyo) this summer.1

While everything about the X seems pretty snappy, Froyo is expected to improve performance considerably (perhaps halving the time it currently takes to draw screens), and will also incorporate Adobe Flash, among other improvements.

I’ve stated the phone is big (in fact, the front area is larger than any other current smartphone, although it’s slimmer than most), but I can easily reach every part of the touch screen with my thumb, so navigation is not a problem. As shipped, the phone has seven home screens, so you can spread applications and widgets around to your heart’s content.2 You can position your most-used icons wherever you find it most convenient, and get to the rest by hitting an Applications icon. While the stock interface is okay (it’s a slimmed-down version of Motorola’s Motoblur layer), there are several launcher apps available from the Android Store (most of which are free). I plan to review some of them in a future article. For the time being, I’m using Launcher Pro.

The bottom of the X has four plastic buttons (which, personally, I love; others would prefer the buttons be part of the touch-screen): From left to right, they are Menu, Home, Back, and Search. There is also a rocker switch on the top right of the case for volume, and the bottom right has a manual camera shutter button (unlike many phones, which only have a touch-screen button for the camera). On the left side at the bottom are a micro-USB connector for charging the phone or connecting to a computer, and a micro-HDMI connector (the phone has an HD resolution of 720p).

Inside, the phone has 8GB of onboard memory, and comes with a 16GB micro-SD card installed. It will support up to a 32GB micro-SD card. The only issue with the memory card is, you have to remove the battery in order to get to the card. But with a total of 24GB of RAM, who’s going to need to do that? ;)

Connectivity

Of course the phone operates on Verizon’s 3G network, but it also (as befits any smartphone worthy of the name) sports WiFi capability as well as Bluetooth. Verizon requires you to sign up for its (currently)3 unlimited broadband plan for $29.95/month.

A bonus feature of the X, and the reason I chose it over the Incredible (or instead of waiting for the Droid 2 or a possible Galaxy S offering from Verizon) is that the X incorporates a 3G mobile hotspot, which can host up to five wireless connections. However, use of this service incurs an additional charge of $20/month for up to 2GB of data4—less than half what Verizon charges for 250MB via a 3G USB modem or their MiFi modem. And, the $20 is charged only when and if you use the hotspot connection—that is, “month to month.” The reason this appeals to me is that when we are at our vacation home in California, there is no Internet connection. Last January, I used the MiFi and used less than 2.5GB. Twenty bucks makes a lot more sense than $70+.

Camera

Merlin and Mocha—The LaserCats

Yes, there’s a camera. In fact, it’s an 8 megapixel camera, capable of more than passable video, up to a resolution of 720p. The Ars Technica review, linked above, has quite a bit to say about the camera. I haven’t used it except to take a couple indoor shots, including the one to the right (click to embiggen), but I can confirm that flash shots can be quite noisy (or grainy, as we used to say back in the days of film).

Using the camera is pretty straightforward (especially compared to using the camera on my older LG Voyager). You can either select the camera via the camera app, or simply press and hold the shutter release button for several seconds. I’ve read some complaints about the lack of a software (touch-screen) button for snapping pictures, but I’m completely in favor of hardware switches. An added benefit of the X’s button is that a half-press frames and focuses your shot.

Once you’ve taken your shot, you can then edit it, including adjusting brightness and contrast, color and saturation, apply different effects, crop, annotate, or resize it. And then, of course, you can upload it to your favorite image hosting service.

Software

Of course, one of the biggest selling points about Android phones is the Android operating system itself. I must say, it’s pretty slick; I really am looking forward to 2.2. The X comes bundled with a lot of “stuff” already, including Amazon’s Kindle application (quite readable, by the way—even better than Kindle for iPhone/iPod Touch), Twitter and Facebook apps, Skype mobile, and gateways to Blockbuster and Amazon’s MP3 store. There is even a trialware version of “Need for Speed,” which, incidentally, is the only application that can be uninstalled.5

In addition to the built-in applications, you have access to the Android Store, which currently boasts 75-85,000 applications. (I keep seeing the “over 100,000″ number bandied about, but that just isn’t the case. Yet.) There are also apps available other than through the Android Store. For those, however, it’s buyer beware. I did download one such app, and the author’s reason for not having it on the app store was reasonable. 6

Among the apps available are just about the entire Google suite, including Google Earth, Google Sky (very cool app for astronomy buffs!), and Google Voice. I also found one that will let me make ringtones out of any of the songs I copied from iTunes to the phone. For the curious, I used doubleTwist to transfer my music.

The built-in browser is pretty snappy, but it’s surprising there isn’t yet a true mobile version of Google’s Chrome, which has become my browser of choice. However, I do appreciate sites that are geared specifically to the mobile user. For example, I was away from the computer, and remembered I wanted to read Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column at Sports Illustrated’s site. So I typed “si.com” into the address bar, and was immediately taken to “m.si.com.” From there, it was a matter of just two or three taps before I was reading the column, perfectly formatted for my screen.

For sites that aren’t quite as accommodating, the X is: It supports two-finger swiping to enlarge or compress text, as well as double-taps to zoom or pan out. And then there is Swype…

Swype

Swype on Droid X, courtesy of Swype, Inc.

Swype is an innovative input method for screen-based keyboards that, for me at least, is considerably faster than the “double-thumb” method of traditional text input.7 With Swype, you do exactly that: Swipe your fingertip from one letter to the next in a word. When you lift your finger then put it down again, Swype is smart enough to input a space and start a new word. If you happen to swipe a word the software doesn’t recognize, it will pop up a small window with up to eight choices (on two screens), from which you can select. Swype is adjustable with respect to speed or accuracy, but I’ve found the middle setting is sufficient.

Notice in the picture, the word “quick” is spelled out, but the c is barely touched, while the x is clearly swiped over. Yet, when I did exactly the same thing, “quick” was typed, not “quixk.” That’s pretty cool.

There is a built-in tutorial that will bring you up to speed (literally!) in less than five minutes. After you start Swyping, you’ll never go back to tapping. Swype is installed on the X and some other Motorola phones, as well as on phones from Samsung, HTC, and myTouch. I’m not positive, but I think it’s bundled in Android 2.2 for phones that will be getting that version of the operating system. It’s not available for download, unfortunately: Swype’s business model is to integrate with OEMs. Hopefully, it’ll be coming to your smartphone soon.

Summary

So there you have it, a quick and dirty look at the Droid X from one user’s perspective. As I said at the top of the article, I love my phone. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else on the market today.

I know I only touched the surface of the X (so to speak), so I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have. In later articles, I fully intend to explore the wonderful world of Android apps, so if you have some to suggest, start a conversation below!

  1. Other Android offerings from Verizon include the HTC Incredible (good luck getting one, though: they’ve been backordered for weeks, and current shipping expectations are sometime in August) and the Motorola Droid. The Droid 2 will be released later this summer—probably in late August.
  2. Unlike, say, the iPhone, on which all the apps and widgets fill the screen.
  3. There were some fairly strong rumors late last week that VZW will move to a tiered broadband pricing scheme, much as AT&T did with the release of the iPhone 4.
  4. This originally said 5GB; my error, now corrected.
  5. Word came out over the weekend that the Droid X has been rooted—that is, hacked to provide access to the phone’s root directory—which allows one, among other things, to jettison unwanted bloatware. I’ll pass for now.
  6. I also performed due diligence before downloading it, such as reading reputable reviews and the like.
  7. Of course, the X allows for—and defaults to—”tap to type.”
 

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7 Responses to Hands-on with the Droid X
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve Hall (Kestrel), Steve Hall (Kestrel). Steve Hall (Kestrel) said: This just up at the Aerie: "Hands-on with the Droid X" http://bit.ly/aH4UaL #android #droidx […]

  2. Byaghro
    July 26, 2010 | 18:42

    I do wish I could run an Android device and my iPhone side by side for a couple of months to be able to really compare. I really like some of the things that are done on the Android platform that I do not have native access to, the largest of which is integration with Google Voice.

    Swype looks interesting. I’d love to play around with it and see how it feels, though I have gotten quite good at using the “double-thumb” method :)

    Something I’ve heard others talk about on occasion is the need to monitor running processes, though perhaps need is to strong of a word, in order to kill some items to prolong battery life. Is this actually an issue you’ve seen or worry about, or is that a relic from the first iterations of the Android OS? What kind of battery life have you seen on average, and do you use the device heavily over the course of the day?

    Those are the main things I’ve heard comments about but haven’t had an opportunity to actually try out a device to know how it compares to others…
    Byaghro´s latest blog post is The iPhone 4My ComLuv Profile

  3. Kestrel
    July 26, 2010 | 19:12

    I don’t use my device heavily: Being retired, I spend a lot of time at home. And, I splurged $50 for the HDMI dock (not that I necessarily intend to stream HD content out of the phone), so keeping it charged is not an issue.

    As this is my first Android phone, I’m not that conversant yet with which services are needed and which are leftovers. I know this is still a bit of an issue with Android 2.1, and I believe it’s addressed to some extent in Froyo. Certainly, WiFi, Bluetooth, and especially GPS will tax the battery a lot: I’ve seen battery supply drop 10 percent in just a few minutes of active GPS.

    I can adjust the polling interval for Twitter (currently using Seesmic until TweetDeck releases an Android version) and GMail, but I’m not certain what processes get killed when I go back to the home screen: I suspect it’s few or none.

    However, everything I’ve read regarding the X seems to indicate its power management (which, by the way, is configurable on the X) is better than any other smartphone except the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4. And again, Froyo is expected to improve on that (but not, I suspect, to iPhone levels: Apple scored a home run there).

  4. […] at least for the Android mobile operating system. However, as nice as it is to read an e-book on my Droid-X, there’s no question that readability is considerably enhanced on any of the other dedicated […]

  5. Mazil
    August 8, 2010 | 06:07

    Hmm, interesting! I was wondering just the other day whether (or rather, “when”) people would come up with a new, more intuitive method of text input, making the most of touch-screen devices. I’ve never really been a fan of the mini-keyboard provided by the iPhone. I’m used to double-thumb typing on a num-pad, but if there’s a keyboard, I wanna touch-type, dangit! ;)

    Swype looks like a great improvement… that’s very cool to see!

    • Kestrel
      August 8, 2010 | 09:50

      I could never use the virtual keyboard on the iPod Touch (same as the iPhone) at all; finally, I got a conductive stylus for it (which is okay, but takes a fairly firm press to register).

      But Swype takes normal (or less) fingertip pressure, and even at the default settings, is very forgiving. If you type a word it doesn’t know, it pops up those choices. Teaching it new words (“screenshot”) is as easy as tapping the letters one at a time, followed by a space. Zip! It’s part of Swype’s lexicon.

      Swype may even be more natural than a hardware keyboard, which is something I did not want.

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