Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Droid X: First Week Impressions

Things have been a bit quiet on the blog lately, but not for lack of activity on my part! I've been working on a fairly involved WebGL demo that I'm hoping to post soon (I'd like to get it out by Aug. 12...) that I feel is pretty dang awesome. Hopefully the rest of the interwebs will feel the same. :)

For the moment, though, I want to talk about something non-WebGL. I bought a new phone last week after my EnV Touch started randomly powering off... again. (For the record in the last two years I have cycled through 6 EnV phones: 3 EnV 2s and 3 EnV Touches. ALL of them had power issues within about 4 months or so of receiving a replacement phone. Don't get phones from the EnV line. Ever.) This time I decided to make the jump to smartphone land, and since Apple has yet to dump AT&T (and since I like to, you know, HOLD my phone) I went with the Android powered Droid X. I will admit that it was a close race between that and the HTC Incredible, though. Better battery life on the X won me over in the end.

Well, I've had it for about a week now and thought I would do a brain dump of my initial impressions of the device. Please keep in mind that this is the first Android device that I've owned or even used extensively, and as such I'm not 100% certain of where the line is between stock Android and the Droid X's software.

So, first things first: I absolutely LOVE Android. There are bits of it that are clunkier that I would like, and there are still some things that I'm trying to figure out how to do (can I get a contact link with photo on my home screen? Please?) but overall it's been a joy to use and become familiar with. Everything is super snappy too (once the default widgets are removed, more on that later), and I can jump around from app to app without a second thought. I very rarely, if ever, run into lag of any sort and if I do it's usually the result of something that I'm doing that I probably shouldn't be. (For the record, running Pandora, the stock music player, and the YouTube app all at once is just asking for stutters!) I have a friend who is very much in love with his iPhone, and he insists that menu transitions and the like are smoother on Apple's device but I'm pretty hard pressed to see the difference. Even if the iPhone does out-transition the Droid X I'm confident that the performance here will be good enough for pretty much anyone.

Aside from the processor, the rest of the hardware is pretty awesome too. Obviously the screen is the main attraction here, a whopping 4.3 inches. It's stunning to look at, and very crisp. I could easily see myself watching movies on it next time I fly somewhere. It's worth mentioning, however, that this phone sits somewhere between "very large" and "obscenely large" on the size scale, and which way that needle tips depends entirely on the user. I'm a pretty big guy with pretty big hands, and this phone is probably at the very limits of what I could use comfortably. My wife, on the other hand, is somewhat overwhelmed by the massiveness of the thing. I doubt she could ever use it as her personal phone, and would probably be far more comfortable with an Incredible. Otherwise it's slim form factor lets it fit well in my jeans and it doesn't weigh any more than my previous phone so the size isn't an issue for me. Your mileage may vary. Battery life is quite good too, and with a bit of smart management (no GPS if I'm not using it, etc) I can easily have Pandora running almost non-stop during my work day (~8hrs) before needing a charge. My bosses Incredible, by comparison, gets about half that.

I was less than enthused about the camera and buttons. The camera's pictures and video are really just on par with most other phones I've used, and that's not a good thing. It's sad, really, that a phone which proudly advertises the ability to take 720p video can't deliver image quality worthy of the resolution. It's not a deal breaker for me (I expect all phone cameras to be terrible anyway) but it's definitely an area that's lacking. The button are similarly lackluster. the volume rocker and unlock buttons are nice and solid, but the rest of them feel rather cheap. They wiggle around a bit and don't really seem to mesh with the rest of the otherwise very solid construction. I would have preferred touch sensitive buttons like the original Droid for the front but that's just me. It also would have been nice to have a trackball of some sort, but I haven't found that particular omission to be a problem so far (the huge screen usually makes it easy enough to hit what I want.) In the end these few bumps aren't anything that makes me want to trade it in.

The real frustration comes from Motorola's software. Pre-loaded on the phone are a bunch of MotoBlur-themed widgets covering everything from contacts to Twitter and, to put it as kindly as possible, they suck. They take up a ton of screen real estate, don't mesh with the rest of the phone's look and feel, constantly try to pull down data, and cannot be uninstalled. On top of all that, they're slow as dirt. Upon first firing up the phone and flipping between home screens there was a very noticeable stutter to any animation, and interacting with any of the moto-widgets was usually accompanied by a pause. This is the kind of performance you get from a Gigahertz processor? The saving grace here is that you can remove all of their custom crap from the home screens and use just the default Android widgets, at which point all of the performance issues disappear.

That doesn't completely clear them out of the phone, though. As I said, these custom widgets and apps can't be removed, only taken off of the home screen. As a result you get a lot of little annoyances like the fact that if I want to use the (superior) Google Twitter app I will forever more have two nearly identical Twitter icons in my Accounts page, forcing me to guess which one I really want to use. Also, services like "Skype mobile" and a Social Networking "FeedReceiverService" start up with the phone every time, whether you want them to or not. For the most part it's easily ignored but the idea that my Android phone, a system build on the idea of openness, refuses to allow me to remove the things I don't want grates on me. To add insult to injury on top of all that, Motorola has a bootloader protection mechanism installed on the phone (eFuse) that will lock it up if you try and modify the preinstalled OS. They must really really REALLY want you to use their ugly Facebook widget!

Now, I get that they want to brand the phone somehow and make it their own (cause the big "MOTOROLA" stamped across the top apparently just isn't enough) but is this seriously how they want customers to experience their powerhouse hardware? Stuttering and lagging and draining the life out of the battery? It's kinda like trying to show of your new Ferrari by driving it through a speed bump infested parking lot. It baffles me, honestly.

Now that's a lot of griping over an aspect of the phone that I ignore 99% of the time, but when everything else about the device is so stellar the clumsy Motorola software stands out like a sore thumb. In the end I'm keeping the phone and am thrilled with it, but I'm also crossing my fingers and wishing with all my might that the upcoming updated to Android 2.2 lets me clear off some of the crud.

Final Verdict:
Hardware - 9.8/10 - Cheap buttons mar an otherwise solid package. Might be too big for smaller hands.
Software - 7/10 - Android is awesome but everything that Motorola has added to it fails miserably. Extra points taken off for forcing me to keep said garbage on the phone.