Motorola Droid no iPhone killer despite innovations

Editor’s note: This is a review from our sister U.S. publication about the Motorola Droid, which will sell under the Motorola Milestone name in Canada.

Here we go again: Another swaggering company claims to have the iPhone killer.

This time, it’s Motorola and Telus Mobility, with Milestone. Let’s cut to the chase: The Motorola Milestone does not do that much. It’s a real letdown after all the hype, with some amazingly dumb design decisions, such as lack of a multitouch screen (no gesture support) and a hard-to-use keyboard.

Milestone has already been released in the U.S. on the Verizon network, branded as “The Droid.” It will be available in Canada in the New Year, on the Telus network.

Worse for Motorola is that HTC, a company hardly known for its investment in design, has come out with a better Android-based smartphone. The consumer-oriented HTC Hero has a surprisingly good user interface that could teach Apple a thing or two.

Related Story: HTC offers Canadians a ‘quietly brilliant’ Hero

Despite the flaws, the Droid does show real movement in the high-tech industry to truly compete with the iPhone. The Palm Pre earlier this year was the first credible competitor to Apple, while the Droid and the Hero move that competition along. The iPhone remains the victor, but the number of viable competitors is sure to rise further.

Deathmatch: E-mail, calendars, and contacts The heart of what a smartphone user does — maybe even more than talk — is deal with e-mail and calendars, both of which tap into your contacts database.

The Droid’s Email app is superficially similar to the iPhone’s, but it lacks much of iPhone Mail’s richness. For example, both let you select multiple e-mails for deletion, but the Droid doesn’t let you quickly delete a message without reading it (the iPhone does it with a swipe gesture). The Droid’s Email app doesn’t let you move e-mail into folders, and worse, you can’t search e-mails from the Email app.

Although Motorola advertises the Droid as supporting Exchange e-mail, it does so in limited circumstances. If your Exchange server doesn’t have any ActiveSync policies enabled, you should be able to access Exchange e-mail from the Droid. If such policies are enabled, the Droid will let you connect to the server and send e-mail (I had to reboot the Droid after Exchange setup to get it to work), but it won’t display your messages or folders. (My colleague Paul Venezia’s testing shows Droid can get e-mail from an Exchange server that does not use ActiveSync policies.)

It’s not clear if the Droid supports any Exchange ActiveSync policies — the tech support staffs at Verizon and Motorola had no idea, and the Web sites provide no details. The iPhone doesn’t support all ActiveSync policies, but it works with a commonly used subset, and if it can’t connect to Exchange due to a policy conflict, it sends you an alert.

There is a solid Exchange client app, Touchdown for Exchange from NitroDesk, that works with the Droid, but only by lying to Exchange about ActiveSync policy support for on-device encryption and password requirements. The tech support staff at NitroDesk told me I shouldn’t use the app with the Droid because of that bug. Touchdown is a good app, with iPhone-like capabilities such as setting which folders to keep synced, and it even lets you set away notices, which the iPhone Mail app can’t do. However, it doesn’t display your Sent folders, which is a major gap.

For calendars, the Droid syncs to Exchange calendars (even if your server uses ActiveSync policies), but you can’t accept invitations. On the iPhone, you can — unless the invite came in as an e-mail attachment on a non-Exchange account.

the Droid displays Exchange calendars in a separate app, so you can’t see your personal and corporate appointments at the same time. In the iPhone, you can see all or any calendars at once. (The HTC Hero, which has extensions to the stock Android UI used by the Motorola Droid, also lets you see your Exchange and personal calendars in one app.) The one calendar advantage the Droid holds over the iPhone is that the Droid lets you select which personal calendars to view simultaneously; with the iPhone, you see all or just one.

If you intend to use your Droid for Exchange access, don’t tell Verizon — don’t inform the salesperson that you’ll be using Exchange or corporate e-mail, and don’t call tech support with Exchange questions. Otherwise, Verizon will add $15 to your monthly data plan.

The iPhone can sync to Outlook on the PC, as well as iCal and Address Book on the Mac via a USB connection. the Droid cannot. Both devices support Gmail syncing (which you can use an intermediary to sync with Outlook and iCal/Mail/Address Book), though the Droid can do so over the air without a $99-a-year MobileMe account, as the iPhone requires.

Both the Droid and the iPhone let you view common attachment formats such as Word, Excel, and PDF; the Droid bundles the Quickoffice viewer apps to do so, while Apple has its own document viewer baked in to the iPhone. But neither can handle zipped attachments. I give Droid a nod for letting you save attachments for use with other apps, which the iPhone still can’t do. (The iPhone can save image attachments.)

In its address book, the iPhone lets you jump easily to contacts by tapping an onscreen letter, such as T to navigate to people whose last names begin with T. Or you can search for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name.

the Droid lets you type a letter on the physical keyboard to jump easily to contacts; if you are using the touchscreen, you have to go through a menu command to search just your contacts (the standard Search button searches both the Web and the Droid). Both the Droid and the iPhone let you designate favorite contacts, which are handily displayed in a separate pane, and both have call log and phone dialer panes in their Contacts apps.

The winner: The iPhone, thanks to its real-world Exchange support and better calendar capabilities. the Droid’s only advantages — the ability to save e-mail attachments and over-the-air syncing with Google Gmail — can’t overcome its deficits.

Deathmatch: Applications Motorola has made a lot of noise about Milestone’s ability to run multiple apps simultaneously. The iPhone can’t do that, and often when you switch from one app to another and then back, the first app resets. Milestone easily moves among apps, but it does so in the same way as the iPhone: You have to return to the home page and select the app. I much prefer how the Palm Pre handles multiple simultaneous apps, letting you move among them through the row-of-cards metaphor, and I wish that the Android OS had something similar.

The iPhone, of course, shines in the amazing variety of iPhone apps. Although many are junk, there are some real gems in the App Store. The Android Market is too young to have anywhere near the selection of the Apple App Store, but I am encouraged by the number of high-quality apps that exist for Milestone and other Android devices. (Yes, there’s a lot of junk, too.) And you can download apps for Milestone outside the Android Market and install them directly — Apple gives you no such flexibility.

When using Milestone, I also miss some of the iPhone’s apps-handling capabilities. For example, the iPhone lets you save Web pages as if they were apps; they display on the home screen for easy access. This feature lets me save as such an icon the Web page that tells me how long until my local bus arrives, and I don’t have to wade through my browser’s bookmarks to load it. On Milestone, I can’t do that.

Apple’s method of letting you rearrange your apps is more intuitive than Milestone’s. When you select apps, they shake, and you can move them among the home screen’s panes and put them where you want. If a pane is full, the iPhone moves an app to another pane to make room. On Milestone, you can move apps from the application window to your home screen’s panes, but there is no visual clue that you’ve selected an app.

Worse, if you move an app to a full home screen pane, you can’t drop it onto that pane or scroll to another pane. Instead, you have to first go to the home screen pane you want, then the application window and drag the desired app to the home screen pane you previously switched to. It’s the kind of rough edge you rarely see on an iPhone but crops up fairly often in the Android UI.

For business document editing, the $20 Quickoffice for iPhone lets you perform basic edits in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents and retain revisions tracking in the original documents. But it doesn’t work with zipped files. Apple’s prohibition against saving files on the iPhone means that Quickoffice can’t get to those e-mail attachments. Quickoffice does offer a cool tool to transfer files to and from the iPhone over Wi-Fi, but you need your computer up and running to do that — in which case, why would you edit the documents on the iPhone?

There is no business-class Office editor for Milestone. The bundled Quickoffice for Android is just a viewer, and the $30 Documents to Go app from DataViz is unable to edit files sent via Exchange. It does work with files received over Gmail, but few businesses use Gmail.

I tried using Google Docs on both the iPhone and Droid, with the same results. It’s barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows and edit an individual cell’s contents. You can’t edit a text document, and for calendars all you can do is view and delete appointments.

The iPhone’s copy and paste capabilities are both richer and better implemented than Milestone’s. To select text on Milestone, you have to use a menu option or keyboard shortcut to turn on text selection, then tap elsewhere to stop the selection, and use another menu option or keyboard shortcut to paste.

It’s also hard to tell where your text cursor is on Milestone, due to its tiny, thin appearance. The iPhone, by contrast, doesn’t require menus to select or deselect text, and its menus for copying, pasting, and deleting come up automatically when you select, then disappear automatically when you deselect.

On the iPhone, copying and pasting e-mail text, Web text, or Web graphics is straightforward. On Milestone, copying graphics is not supported.

Furthermore, you can copy text in e-mail on Milestone only if you are composing a message in the text-entry window; you cannot copy text in received e-mails. Milestone does detect phone numbers and addresses in e-mails, turning them into hot spots that can be clicked to launch the phone and map apps.

The winner: The iPhone, though its lack of multitasking is a major obstacle to using the huge array of available apps, and it keeps them from working together. Milestone needs more business-capable apps in its repertoire, and it must fix some of the roughness in its UI for apps handling. Its awkward cut, copy, and paste capabilities could use some work too.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet The iPhone redefined the mobile Web experience, but the use of the Safari browser’s WebKit technology in competing smartphones such as the Palm Pre and the Motorola Droid has largely leveled that playing field. Both devices let you scroll through real Web pages and take advantage of technologies such as JavaScript and QuickTime. Neither support Flash videos outside their YouTube player apps.

But Apple’s Safari browser has a better UI. That means you can go forward without invoking a menu, as Milestone requires. You can also easily switch among Web pages without using several steps, as well as select text and graphics on Web pages for copy and paste, another multistep operation in Droid.

Milestone’s lack of multitouch capability really shows on the Web; maneuvering through Web pages is difficult, as you have to use zoom buttons, which means you scroll on your page, then jump to the bottom of the screen to click an onscreen zoom button, watch the page zoom and recenter, then scroll again. It’s just so much easier on an iPhone (or a Palm Pre).

The winner: The iPhone. Both the iPhone and Droid are real Web devices, giving you the true Web experience — minus Flash — but both navigating the Web and copying and pasting Web content are more difficult with Milestone.

Deathmatch: Location support Both the iPhone and Milestone support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. Both devices also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. Both devices let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

Where Milestone has an edge is in its bundled turn-by-turn navigation app. It may be beta (like most Google software), but it works darn well. The map and directions update as you travel, and you can have the app speak directions to you. AT&T charges iPhone users $10 a month for a similar service; you can also buy an app such as Navigon’s $90 MobileNavigator or the $100 TomTom.

I like Milestone’s implementation of Google Maps better when it comes to following directions. The iPhone pages from one junction to the next, so I lose the context of where I am in relation to my whole trip. Milestone — like the Palm Pre — moves the map along the path, so you have a better handle of the next junction point.

The winner: Milestone. The built-in navigation app sets it apart in a big way.

Deathmatch: User interface Many users hate the touch keyboard pioneered in the iPhone, which is one reason the BlackBerry remains more popular. Milestone tries to let you have it both ways, with a slideout physical keyboard and an iPhone-like touch keyboard.

Milestone’s touch keyboard is very much like the iPhone’s. It lacks the multilingual support of the iPhone, but it lets you choose from suggested words as you type (the iPhone only lets you decide whether to accept its sole suggestion). Both are clear and easy to tap on, once you get the hang of touch-tapping. Call it a draw.

But Milestone’s keyboard is awful. The keys hardly move, and they’re flat and hard to distinguish from each other, so it’s difficult to carry off the two-thumb touch-typing that a BlackBerry Bold or Palm Pre user would expect. It’s hard to type accurately on it; I wish Milestone’s sugegsted-spelling feature worked when I as typing on the physical keyboard, not just when tapping on the touch keyboard.

I can type quickly on the BlackBerry Bold’s keyboard, but I barely inched along on Milestone’s physical keyboard. And the rocker-style trackball that works with the physical keyboard is equally awkward. Basically, Milestone’s keyboard is a waste of hardware, and as you’ll likely not use it, it simply drags down the phone, adding unnecessary thickness and weight.

The iPhone’s screen is smaller than Milestone’s, but it’s sharper and consistently holds its brightness level. I like the idea of Milestone’s larger screen, but it tends to flicker if you leave its auto-brightness setting on. Also, Milestone’s lack of gesture support, due to the absence of a multitouch screen, limits your ability to maneuver through apps and information.

Overall, the iPhone’s UI is cleaner and more intuitive, as examples throughout this review have noted.

The voice quality of Milestone’s phone is better than the iPhone’s — and in my home town of San Francisco, the reach of Verizon’s 3G network is much more extensive than that of notoriously stingy AT&T, so I expect speedy data access to be more available to Droid users. The two devices rapidly eat through battery life, each lasting less than a workday on a single charge if used for regular data access and a few phone calls. You can carry a spare battery for Milestone but not the iPhone, though most people will instead keep a USB cable handy to charge the devices from their computers (both use proprietary cables).

The winner: The iPhone. Milestone’s poor keyboard and lack of multitouch screen are inexcusable, and the fact that Motorola could think those were acceptable design choices reminds me why Motorola has been a nonentity in smartphones for the last decade. The fault is not just Motorola’s, though; Google’s OS also delivers an uneven UI. Milestone’s Android OS suffers from an ailment common to most OSes: lack of user-oriented elegance.

The Android UI is not terrible, but it clearly has not received the care and attention it deserves. It doesn’t have to be this way; the HTC Hero’ Sense UI extensions show that an Android device can compete with the iPhone in terms of UI quality.

Deathmatch: Security and management I was excited when I heard that Milestone would finally support Exchange servers. But as noted, it doesn’t support Exchange ActiveSync security policies, so Milestone removes itself as a smartphone option for many organizations. By contrast, the iPhone supports a decent set of ActiveSync policies and thus can meet the compliance requirements of many companies.

Milestone’s lack of concern over security extends beyond Exchange. It does not support on-device encryption, unlike the iPhone 3G S, and its palette of security features is quite limited: You can require a touch pattern as a sort of visual password to use Milestone upon startup or after a timeout (a nice feature), but there are no capabilities for, say, requiring complex passwords, disabling the device after several failed access attempts, or wiping the device remotely.

The iPhone supports several such security methods, though you need to use the iPhone Configuration Utility to set up most of them, and you need either an Exchange connection or a MobileMe account to enable remote wiping.

Milestone supports two additional security features worth noting. One, you can set it so applications use security credentials, such as those supplied on an SD card. Two, you can set up VPN access using several VPN protocols. The iPhone also supports security credentials and VPNs, but because the iPhone does not support removable media, credentials must be installed via e-mail, URLs, or the iPhone Configuration Utility.

Milestone also falls short of the iPhone when it comes to manageability. The iPhone has limited management capabilities via the iPhone Configuration Utility — which doesn’t work over the air and can’t enforce deployment of policies — but that’s better than the utter lack of management capabilities of Milestone. (Note that an increasing number of mobile management providers are promising iPhone and Android support, but that means getting an additional server product.)

The winner: The iPhone. Although it doesn’t match the BlackBerry’s security and manageability, it is far ahead of Milestone. Small and medium-size business can consider the iPhone seriously; Milestone is essentially an option only for businesses that don’t have security or management practices in place.

Where Milestone wins Milestone beats the iPhone in only two areas: location support, thanks to its built-in turn-by-turn navigation app, and phone voice quality. It does have some small innovations that Apple and others might consider adopting. For example, its gesture pattern “password” is an interesting approach that could thwart some device thieves, and its large screen is a welcome bucking of the trend toward smaller displays that are harder for us middle-agers to read.

Milestone also supports multiple simultaneous apps, but it provides no real way to take advantage of that fact, other than the ability to switch among them. The Pre is a better model for taking advantage of multitasking than Milestone.

Where the iPhone wins There’s no question that the iPhone is a better device for both business and consumer users. Its business capabilities are stronger, and it’s a better fit for corporate security needs. Its wealth of apps is unmatched, its ability to take full advantage of the Web is much stronger, and it simply is much easier to use than Milestone.

The overall winner is … There’s no surprise here. The iPhone significantly outclasses Milestone. After all the hype about “Milestone does” and how it could match or even beat the iPhone, Milestone has turned out to be much more like the BlackBerry Storm, a device with interesting ideas hobbled by stupid design choices. There are too many competitors for a Storm wannabe to survive.

Milestone isn’t a serious contender. If you want an Android device, consider the HTC Hero instead. Although not business-capable (it has the same limitations there as Milestone), it has a much more iPhone-like UI.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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