Big Phone, Big Screen, Big Pleasure

You think technology moves too fast now? You think your camera, camcorder and computer become obsolete quickly?

Try buying an app phone. In this business, the state of the art changes as often as Lady Gaga changes outfits.

Suppose, for example, that you want one of the increasingly popular phones that run Google’s Android software.

Last November, you might have been tempted by the Motorola Droid, “the best Android phone on the market.” A month later, the HTC Hero was “the best Android phone on the market.” By January, “the best Android phone yet” was the Nexus One. In April, “the best Android device that you can purchase” was the HTC Incredible. In May, “the best Android phone on the market” was the Sprint Evo.

Either “the best Android phone on the market” is a tech critic’s tic, or we’re witnessing one seriously crazy game of leapfrog.

Motorola Droid X
Source: Motorola
Motorola Droid X

The latest buzz is about the Motorola Droid X, which Verizon will offer in mid-July for $200. (That’s after a $100 rebate, with a two-year contract for new customers or existing ones whose contracts would expire this year; plans start at $90 a month with unlimited Internet and texting.)

The physical keyboard of the original Droid is gone; you do all your Droid X typing onscreen. The phone is impressively thin — all the way to the camera bulge at the top back. That bump makes it easier to pull the phone from your pocket, but it has a bizarre look.

There are physical Menu, Home, Back and Search buttons below the screen, and a dedicated camera/shutter button on the edge. Great, great idea.

The most notable physical characteristic, though, is the Droid X’s size. It’s absolutely huge (5 by 2.6 by 0.4 inches). It’s easily the biggest app phone on the market. You feel as if you’re talking into a frozen waffle.

You know what’s intriguing? Apple seems to think that people prefer smaller phones; Android phone makers keep making them bigger.

The point, of course, is to have bigger screens — and wow, does the Droid X deliver. As on its blood rival, the Sprint Evo, this phone’s immense 4.3-inch screen does wonders for e-books, maps, photos, movies, e-mail, calendars and so on. Oh, and for typing: the keyboard is so big, you don’t have to switch to a special punctuation layout for the period and comma.

Who’s right? Do you want a big phone, so you can have a roomy screen? Or a small one that doesn’t feel like a VHS cassette in your pocket? Both arguments carry weight; let the public decide.

The Droid X is loaded. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, two mikes for noise cancellation, powerful speaker, unusually powerful vibrate mode (hurrah!), FM radio and Verizon’s expensive but not-call-dropping network.

Like the Evo, the Droid can turn into a portable Wi-Fi hot spot; up to five nearby laptops and other gadgets can get online almost anywhere. This feature slurps battery power like a thirsty Labrador, so it’s best when the phone is plugged in. Verizon charges $20 a month extra for this feature (it’s $30 on the Evo).

In general, the Droid X is a speed rocket, much like its recent rivals. It’s impossible to overstate how satisfying it is to use a snappy, responsive gadget.

But there are weird stutters — in prominent places, too, like the little onscreen button you slide to unlock the phone, and when swiping your finger to move among the seven home screens.

The Droid X has an 8-megapixel camera with dual LED flashes. Of course, if you still believe that megapixel count is a useful metric for photo quality, help yourself to the photos from these phones. They’re fine in sunshine, but they’re sometimes washed out, and disappointing in low light.

Similarly, the ostensibly high-definition video recordings are good for a cellphone, but awful in low light. On this phone, there’s an actual tiny H.D.M.I. jack so you can connect directly to a TV to watch your latest footage (the cable costs $25). Supposedly, you can also play your video recordings, either wirelessly or, uh, wirefully, from the phone to a TV that bears the D.L.N.A. (Digital Living Network Alliance) logo. (Mine doesn’t, so I couldn’t try it.)

You can now download recent movies directly to the phone from Blockbuster ($4 for a 24-hour rental; about 90 minutes to download). Obnoxiously enough, you can’t watch them on your TV using any of those special phone-to-TV connections. The lawyers are determined to ruin everything.

What will determine your happiness most is how well you like Android software. It’s been getting steadily better through frequent updates; the speech button on the keyboard, which lets you dictate text directly into any place you could type, is just one highlight. And Motorola promises that when the next Android version appears this summer, you’ll be able to watch all Flash videos, including blinky Web ads. Take that, iPhone!

Although Android is much more open and customizable than the iPhone, it’s also more complicated and less polished. For example:

  • When you download any app from Google’s catalog (now, with 65,000 apps, about a third the size of Apple’s), you get an alarming security warning. For example: “This application has access to the following: Your location. Your personal information. Phone calls.” Yikes! What does that mean? Should you never download an app, then? How are you supposed to make that decision?
  • The screen rotates 90 degrees when you turn the phone — but only counterclockwise, and not in all apps. Frustrating.
  • Inexplicably, there are two separate e-mail programs to learn: one for Gmail, one for other types. Each works differently. Why?
  • Skype comes preinstalled on the phone — but it doesn’t work over Wi-Fi. In fact, you have to turn off Wi-Fi completely. Bizarre.
  • There is no way, in Gmail, to change the type size for e-mail. Evidently nobody who works at Google is over 40.

On an iPhone, the free iTunes software is the loading dock for videos, photos and music from your computer. There is no standard equivalent for Android phones. The free DoubleTwist app does an admirable job, but it’s another app from another company, and nobody tells you about it. You think your mom is going to figure that one out?

This isn’t about nitpicking; it’s just to underline that Android phones are best suited for technically proficient high-end users who don’t mind poking around online to get past the hiccups.

What’s so cool about the Android system, though, is that each phone maker can enhance what Google provides. Motorola has added a thin layer of its own that cleverly ties in Twitter and Facebook posts. For example, you can see all Twitter, Facebook and e-mail messages that each person in your address book has sent, all in one place.

Motorola also offers a couple of truly inspired accessories. The Droid X’s battery gets you through a full day easily. But since you’ll want to charge it every night, why not make it useful in the process? So when you slip the phone into the $50 bedside dock, it goes automatically into an elegant alarm-clock mode, complete with buttons for tomorrow’s weather, your music and even a dimmer switch.

Similarly, $40 buys a suction-cup windshield mount. That, of course, is for use with Android’s fantastic built-in, spoken, turn-by-turn GPS software.

In any case, it’s thrilling to see the array of excellent app phones that the original iPhone begat. If you who crave power, speed, flexibility, dropless calls an almost-Imax screen and Verizon’s network (as opposed to Sprint and its similar Evo), the Droid X is a big, beautiful contender for the “best Android phone on the market” crown.

This month’s crown, anyway.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: