Motorola, Droid X

Wow!

Motorola Droid X showing my homescreenFinally, a pocket device that delivers most of what I want.

The iphone now bores me

Back in 2007, the first iPhone really impressed me, though I never liked AT&T, and ended up despising their service. But it had limitations that drove me crazy: the crappy camera, the miserly memory I couldn't do anything about, and the baffling built-in battery decision. Today, the iPhone strikes me as dated, same basic form factor, same small screen size, same locked-down ecosystem. Frankly, even with the new industrial design skin, it bores me, and I find the idea of a glass back totally stupid.

The Nexus One just didn't excite me

I was ../doing fine with the Nexus One, but it just didn't excite me (though I did really like the update to Android 2.2 Froyo). The camera still wasn't good enough to make me put away my point and shoot. Even though the screen was larger than the iPhone's, it was still smaller than I wanted. The design was okay, but it reminded me of the average family sedan you see running around on the roads, inoffensive, blandly curved, not worth a second glance. And there was one design implementation that I considered a flaw: I couldn't check whether or not I had it turned on without turning it on if it was actually already off. Also, I didn't like the touch buttons (home, menu, back, search); they didn't feel responsive enough to me. FInally, for where I live, T-Mobile was no better than AT&T, though it was less expensive.

The Droid X has captured my attention!

Droid X sideThen I got my hands on the Motorola Droid X, and I'm holding on! And since nearly its entire surface other than the glass screen has a grippy, soft-touch texture, it's easy to hold on to; this phone won't accidentally slip out of your hands. Here's an industrial design that did get a second glance from me, then a long, appreciative stare. In my big hands it feels great. And the size enables a feature that totally wins me over: a big, sharp, bright 4.3” capacitive touchscreen with a 16:9 aspect ratio (854 x 480 pixels). This is the screen I've always wanted in a pocket device. I'm actually amazed how much difference the increase from a 3.7” to a 4.3” screen makes, and my eyes are thrilled. I can't imagine a phone being any bigger than this, but after using the Droid X for a couple days, my old phone felt totally puny in my hands, and after feasting my eyes on the Droid X screen, my old phone's smaller 3.7” screen leaves me feeling like I need to squint. Pity the poor people who are still using a 3.5” screen!

The "bump" and the camera it makes possible

One design aspect that's unlike anything I've seen on a pocket device before is the bump at the top of the back of the phone. Most of the phone is incredibly thin, less than 10mm (about 3/8”), but the bump is about 14mm (a bit more than 1/2”). It's purpose is to house the camera, as well as a dual-LED flash and, apparently, one of the two antennas that gives the phone its great reception.

Droid X backI wondered whether the bump would bother me until I got my hands on the phone and found I actually like it! It gives my fingers purchase when I'm holding the phone, feels nice because of how smoothly its curve is sculpted into the design of the phone, and adds so little to the thickness that it doesn't affect how well the device fits into my pocket, which is very well.

The 8 megapixel camera that the bump enables is reasonably good, enough so to finally let me leave my 10 megapixel Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot at home. The lens, unlike that on any other phone I've seen, has a mechanical shutter. There is a physical camera button, right where you'd expect it to be, and you can depress it halfway to lock the focus. The camera is fairly fast and has a reasonable collection of settings options. It also takes 720p HD video. I'm quite happy with the quality of the shots, especially given that I don't need to carry an extra device anymore. Here's a photo from our trip to the farmers market today:

Farmers Market

Physical home row buttons: menu, home, back, search

I simply LOVE having physical buttons for these actions. They feel much more responsive than the touch buttons on the Nexus One, and when I click one, I know I've clicked it. Yes! I find it strange that Motorola decided to change the order of the buttons, but it only took a few hours to get used to the new positions. Neither the Droid X nor the Nexus One are in the order I would design, which would be home, menu, back, search, but it's not a big deal.

Performance

Everything is fast and smooth. Touch scrolling and zooming are both silky smooth and very responsive, and I haven't noticed any jittering anywhere. YouTube videos play smoothly. This is a great device experience.

Motorola's widgets and icons

I've read some criticism of Motorola's widgets, but I actually like their design. They share a clean, squarish looking theme. There is a matching set of toggle widgets for wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and--I really like this--airplane mode.* There's also a really nice Motorola weather widget powered by Accuweather with visually attractive graphics of the different types of weather and times of day. I'm pretty comfortable with Twidroyd and stopped using FB last year when the privacy fumbles got too stupid for me to tolerate, so I'm not interested in Motorola's implementation of social and deleted those widgets, but they looked okay to me. There are a few other widgets that looked fine, but I wasn't interested in their functionality, so I cleaned them off my off my home screens, too.

Motorola also has designed its own versions of many of the app icons. Some are good looking, some not so much so. Unlike with their widgets, overall it feels like there is a lack of a unifying theme between all their icons. In this case I think they would've been better off sticking with the standard Android icons.

LauncherPro customized home screens

I'd been using and really enjoying the LauncherPro Plus custom home screen app on the Nexus One, so it was one of the first apps I installed on the Droid X. I'm a minimalist. My home computer desktop is just a painting by Garima (for the cover of her book, Kitchen Botany) that I love to see when I sit down to use my computer, with no icons. I use the dock (set to automatically hide) to navigate and open things.

Now my phone is set up the same way. All my most used apps and shortcuts are in the 3-pane, infinite scroll dock, which can hold up to 15 items of your choosing, plus 15 more via a swipe up gesture. The only widgets I have installed on one of the home screens are the radio toggles, which I use quite often, and Moon Phase Pro by Udell Enterprises, as I like to be able to see at a glance what phase the moon is in. My primary home screen has just the photo of Garima and the dock. Even the notification tray is set to auto hide (a press of the home screen button opens it). I love it!

Of course, that's only one way to set things up. Most people will want lots of app shortcuts, widgets, and other shortcuts on their home screens, and LauncherPro gives you a lot of flexibility to do that. You can have up to seven home screens, and can customize their look and behavior quite a bit. Pretty cool. The app, created by Frederico Carnales, has over 250,000 downloads and more than 37,000 reviews with an overall rating of 5 stars. Nice work!

eBooks

This is the first pocket device with a screen large enough to provide a comfortable reading experience for me. I use the Aldiko Book Reader to read O'Reilly titles. Aldiko also provides access to a good selection of public domain books, including some great classics. That said, I look forward to more options, options that aren't tied to a single vendor.

Music

Sounds so sweet!

The phone itself

Oh, and this is a phone, isn't it? Bottom line: the evening I got the phone I successfully made the first ever cellular phone call from my home. Where lesser phones have gasped and lost the grip on their last bar, this one clings tenaciously to a signal. Nice. And when I make calls in areas with normal signal strength, the Droid X call quality sounds better to my ear and to the ears of the people I'm calling than previous phones I've used.

Battery life

Surprisingly very good for a device with such a big screen. The 1540 mAh Li Ion battery easily takes me through a full day. I purchased an extra battery just in case, but haven't had to use it yet, though I'm glad to have it because it's a hassle to have to think about where to find power when traveling.

Memory

SanDisk Micro SD 32 GBIt comes with a very healthy 512MB RAM, 8GB internal memory and a 16GB Micro-SD card. I took advantage of a special offer Verizon had to get an additional 32GB Micro-SD card. It's great to have so much storage space, and also to have the option to swap in a fresh card, for example, when taking lots of photos and videos on vacation. It's such a kick that 32GB of data can fit on something the size of a thick fingernail.

The regular dock

The Nexus One docking design spoiled me. The phone has little contacts on its bottom edge, which means you can just set it in the dock and it starts charging. The Droid X needs to be pushed onto both a micro-USB connector and an HDMI connector in order to seat it in the dock, and it's not as easy as I'd like it to be. Once it's in the dock, I like it better that it's horizontal, rather than the Nexus One's vertical orientation. Unfortunately, it also takes too much effort to pull the Droid X out of the dock. The dock itself is solid and reasonable looking with a gunmetal gray matte plastic finish, but I may end up abandoning it and just plug in the micro-USB cable for charging.

Later: Just tried the dock again, and once again struggled to get the phone to seat. This time I took a closer look at the connectors and found the design flaw: the micro-USB connector is quite loose, while the HDMI connector is more firmly seated. I think the micro-USB connector is moving around and out of the correct position when I try to seat the phone in the dock. If this is actually how they're shipping these and not a one-off manufacturing defect, I think they're going to get a lot of returns of this dock. I'm going to try some super glue to see if I can stabilize the errant connector.

Still later: Put super glue around the base of the dock connectors, and now I can't get the phone out of the dock! Just kidding, I let it dry over night, and now it's easier to align the phone with them, though it still takes effort to push it onto and pull it off of the two connectors. Pulling off works best as a two-handed operation. I hope the connectors loosen up a bit over time. The design of this accessory, which is a quite expensive item considering it's just a piece of plastic and a few connectors, doesn't match the design quality of the phone itself.

The car dock

Well constructed. Unlike with the regular dock, it's reasonably easy to mount the phone into it, probably because there's only a single micro-USB connector. I like it that I was able to customize one of the Motorola Car Dock app's home buttons (I added Audible), and also that I can add several favorites to the caller screen buttons. The Droid X connects easily via Bluetooth to the Sony deck I have in the car, which makes listening to audiobooks or music quite enjoyable, and it's also quite easy to make or receive calls via the car's audio system.

The crap apps

I despise the preloaded crap apps that I can't uninstall. For example, there's a bookmark in the browser to the Verizon Mobile Web site, something I'll NEVER use (even more so because they're pushing it on me rather than inviting me), but I can't uninstall the bookmark. That sucks. There's a Backup Assistant app for storing contacts on Verizon's servers that is totally unnecessary when you're using Gmail, which securely and effortlessly stores your contacts in the cloud, making them available on any device you use. But I can't delete the Backup Assistant service app. That sucks. Finally, there's a 15-day trial for a caller ID app, CityID, for which there's an annoyingly repetitious nag screen with only the choice to continue the trial or buy the monthly subscription. That sucks even more. Come on, Verizon, why spoil a great phone with this kind of crap?

There are a few more preinstalled apps that I won't use and can't get rid of like Voice Commands, Social Networking, Skype mobile, and Amazon MP3. The worst thing about these apps is that they keep running background processes, eating up memory. I'm using Advanced Task Killer to keep zapping them, but they keep coming back, like mosquitos at a picnic. (By the way, Advanced Task Killer is a great little app, which I like so much that I paid for the ad-free version.)

The juvenile red eye theme

The Droid's red eye theme and robot sounds strike me as silly and juvenile, so I immediately got rid of as much of that as I could (the only trace of it I couldn't get rid of is the start-up animation, which is totally boring compared to the beautiful animation the Nexus One has, but it's easy enough to ignore. I replaced the home screen wallpaper with my favorite photo of my sweetheart sitting on a ridge top with the hill our little home is perched on across the valley behind her, and the peaks of the Rocky Mountains beyond. Much nicer!

View of our home turf

The major drawback of the custom Motorola skin

Because of the skin, the Droid X is still on an earlier version of Android, 2.1 Eclair. Motorola's customizations are simply not worth the price that the phone can't automatically be updated to the latest version of Android and must instead wait until Motorola's engineers can muck around with the latest version to add their stuff. Android 2.2 Froyo is a great upgrade, with awesome speed and functionality improvements, and it's painful to have to wait for it, even if it's only a couple months. In my opinion, Motorola should abandon its custom skin and just focus on building great widgets and apps to deliver their custom experience.

The lack of a good offline movie solution

There still isn't a good offline movie solution. The one and only thing I miss from the iPhone is the ability to buy or rent a movie that I could watch while flying. There is a Blockbuster app on the phone, but I don't want to subscribe to Blockbuster just to be able to watch the occasional movie when traveling. So this is just another crap app that I can't uninstall. That sucks. Fortunately, I can fill my flying time listening to an audiobook instead, so not a total loss, but I hope somebody fills this gap in the Android ecosystem soon.

Oh, and …

I can check whether the Droid X is off without turning it on if it's actually already off. Nice little touch that I appreciate.

Later

With each passing day that I use this phone, I'm liking it more and more. It has become my portable computing device, something no smart phone before it accomplished.

Still later

It's pretty astonishing how much more I'm using this device than any previous pocket device I've had. I attribute that to three factors: the screen obviously, the great selection of apps available, and the ease of use. Because of these, when I'm home I'll often grab the DX to check email and read the news rather than turn to my desktop. I love the LauncherPro Plus bookmark widget (and LauncherPro in general), and most of my favorite news sites and blogs have either a great mobile site or a great app, which makes breezing through them on the DX a pleasurable experience. Finally, being able to listen to books is a huge deal for me and drives my usage rates way up.

It's no wonder Android devices are being activated at a rate of 200,000 per day now, and the folks at Motorola must be really proud of what they've been able to do with it. Congratulations Android and Motorola teams!

July and August, 2010

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