Tech Talk with David Pogue

Call It an ‘App Phone’ (A What?)

Last week, I reviewed not one, but three new phones. You’d think that would be enough for a while, but fall is peak season for new mobile devices, and another major release — Motorola’s Droid — is upon us this week.

Motorola Droid

But before we get to today’s big review of the Droid, we need a noun.

What should we call these iPhone-like, touch screen Wi-Fi phones with music and video, real Web browsers, e-mail, sensors (light, tilt, location, proximity), and, above all, app stores? These machines can download thousands of free or cheap add-on programs — “apps” — and become GPS units, musical instruments and medical equipment.

“Smartphone” is too limited. A smartphone is a cellphone with e-mail — an old BlackBerry, a Blackjack, maybe a Treo. This new category — somewhere between cellphones and laptops, or even beyond them — deserves a name of its own.

I invited suggestions on Twitter. The best came from @mentalworkout: “app phone.” Bingo. Apps distinguish iPhonish phones from mere smartphones, so “app phones” it is.

The latest hotly anticipated app phone is the Motorola Droid, which Verizon will offer on Friday. (It’s $200 after $100 mail-in rebate, with contract. Tip: Get it at Best Buy, where you get the rebate on the spot.)

The name fits. First, it runs Google’s Android mobile operating system. In fact, it’s the first phone with Android 2.0, which offers a number of touchups and refinements.

Second, the Droid’s design screams “Star Wars,” if not “Darth Vader.” It’s jet black, all sharp angles and industrial-looking edges. Verizon asked Motorola to soften the design for better female appeal, but it’s hopeless: Droid is all masculine, all the time. When you slide the screen up to reveal the thumb keyboard, there’s no spring-assisted snap; it drags like a plow through soil. It’s all part of the manly man design concept.

Verizon is clearly taking aim at the iPhone. especially in its recent TV ads, which mock: “I don’t have a real keyboard. I don’t run simultaneous apps. I don’t have interchangeable batteries. Everything iDon’t, Droid does.”

So is it true? Is the Droid an iPhone killer?

No, but it’s certainly a killer phone. It runs on Verizon’s superior cellphone network, so it won’t drop your calls in New York City and San Francisco (as AT&T often does on the iPhone).

The Droid is just incredibly fast, so it’s a delight to use. Audio quality is superb, both on phone calls and music.

The gorgeous screen is slightly bigger than the iPhone’s; on close examination, its higher resolution (854 x 480 pixels) make text look sharper and curves smoother.

And the Droid multitasks — it can keep multiple programs open at once. Now, the usual response to this subject is: “Ooh, so you can check your calendar or e-mail while you’re on a call! You can listen to your music while surfing the Web!” True, but even the “nonmultitasking” iPhone does all that.

Still, the Droid’s multitasking pays off in two situations: when you want to listen to Internet radio while you work in other apps, and when you’re switching between programs a lot. Since they’re already open, you don’t have to wait for them to start up again with each switch.

Anyone who hates typing on glass will love that the Droid gives you a choice: on-screen keyboard or illuminated, slide-out physical keyboard. The Droid’s battery gets you through one day, just like the iPhone’s, but you can carry a spare.

(Apple has always argued that a keyboard and swappable battery would make the phone too thick. Motorola points out that even with these elements, the Droid is only 1.4 millimeters thicker than the iPhone: 13.7 versus 12.3. That’s not quite fair, though, because the iPhone’s curved case tapers in your hand; it’s 12.3 millimeters at its thickest point, so it still feels much thinner.)

In addition to great speed, great audio and great cell signal, the Droid offers Android 2.0’s new navigation software. It’s as close to a suction-cup GPS unit as you can get on a cellphone, with spoken street names, color coding to indicate traffic, map icons (for parking, gas and so on), satellite view and even street photos of any address. Buy the $30 windshield bracket, which fires up the GPS automatically when you insert the Droid, and nobody will know you’re not running some $500 GPS unit.

The real mind blower/game changer? This software is free. All of it. I’m guessing there wasn’t much cheer at Garmin’s Halloween party this year.

You can also buy a $30 home dock. When you insert the Droid, an alarm-clock/weather display appears. Why not let your app phone do something useful while it’s charging?

Meanwhile, Droid brings all the advantages of Google’s open, customizable, now more refined Android software: a single Inbox can consolidate all of your e-mail accounts; the software now handles corporate Microsoft Exchange e-mail/calendar systems; there’s a system-wide Search command (and a dedicated button) and voice search; you can put a Facebook widget on your Home screen; and so on.

For lots of people, these breakthroughs will be irresistible. But the Droid has its weak spots, and some of them are heartbreaking. The big one is polish and simplicity; the Droid just doesn’t have enough. Techies may go nuts over its flexibility, but normal people are in for some floundering. Sometimes the keyboard doesn’t light up when it should. Sometimes the screen image doesn’t rotate when it should.

The camera has an LED flash, which helps at close range at night, but the camera itself is balky and slow to focus and fire. You can record videos (at a high 720 by 480 resolution, although they don’t look any sharper) and upload them to YouTube, but you can’t trim the dead air off the ends first.

The Droid doesn’t work outside the United States, as the iPhone does (for an added fee). There’s no iTunes-like auto-synching software for the Droid, either, so loading music, photos and videos is a drag-and-drop operation.

The Droid’s Web browser is good, but slower than the iPhone’s. And you have to zoom in and out by tapping +/- buttons or double-tapping the screen. That is, you can’t control how much to zoom, so you get far less control (and pleasure) than “pinching and spreading” with two fingers on the iPhone and Palm Pre. Ditto with maps and photos.

The real bummer, though, is the apps. The Android Market may offer 12,000 of them, but the iPhone store has 100,000 — and over all, they seem to be more useful and imaginative.

Shopping is more awkward on the Droid, too, because you have to do it all on the phone; you can’t use your computer, as you can for the iPhone. There’s not much room for the apps on the Droid, either. Although Verizon includes a 16-gigabyte memory card for your music and photos, apps have to be stored in a 560-megabyte chunk of built-in memory. Some Droiders will fill that up quick.

Droid-versus-iPhone deciders should also take into account the iPhone economy: that universe of docks, cases, chargers, Web sites and information that surround Apple’s hype monster. The Droid will sell like crazy, but 30 million iPhones is quite a head start.

But never mind. Motorola’s new team faced a spectacularly difficult task and did a spectacularly great job. Since Verizon seems to want a Droid-iPhone faceoff, here it is: the Droid wins on phone network, customizability, GPS navigation, speaker, physical keyboard, removable battery and openness (free operating system, mostly uncensored app store). The iPhone wins on simplicity, refinement, thinness, design, Web browsing, music/video synching with your computer, accessory ecosystem and quality/quantity of the app store.

You’ll be very happy either way — with your shiny new app phone.