First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.
HTC Droid Eris, the under-Droid
- — 11 November, 2009 06:05
It's apparently not common knowledge that there are actually two Droids: the Motorola Droid and the HTC Droid Eris. They're both Android-based phones, but significantly different in form and firmware. The Motorola Droid is a slider phone with a large screen and a physical keyboard that runs Android 2.0. The Droid Eris is cheaper, with a slower CPU and no dedicated GPU, but it's also far slicker than the Motorola Droid.
I played with both Droids for a few minutes at my surprisingly uncrowded local Verizon store, and it quickly became clear that the HTC Droid Eris was the sleeker unit. At $199 with a one-year contract and $100 mail-in rebate, it's cheaper, too. In fact, it seemed that most of my fellow shoppers gravitated to the Eris over the Motorola, which feels and looks like a brick and sports a nearly unusable keyboard. So I picked the Eris.
For a longtime iPhone user, the Eris is at once familiar and totally foreign. The touchscreen has similar functions such as simple scrolling and wiping to change screens, but also includes four function buttons below the screen. These buttons provide quick access to the home screen or a menu for the current application; return you to the previous screen; and launch a search function. Thus, to someone used to dealing with only a touchscreen, the flow of application interaction is somewhat stilted, with commands and selections requiring taps to the screen intermingled with taps to one of these buttons.
These buttons are in addition to the standard call answer/call hangup buttons and the inexplicable rollerball. For someone coming to a Droid from a mobile other than an iPhone, these interface elements are unlikely to be as noticeable, but when your reflexes are aligned to iPhone functions, they can be distracting.
The initial layout of Android 1.5 on the Eris is quite pleasing. The home screen offers a customizable selection of application shortcuts and a heads-up display with the current time and weather. Off to each side of this screen are three "desktop" screens that can be populated with widgets, application shortcuts, or any mixture of the two. The standard widgets, including an e-mail quick-viewer and a text messaging app, are extremely handy. The e-mail quick-viewer, for example, shows the last received e-mail and lets you flip back in your inbox easily, without opening the full e-mail client.
On the other desktop screens, you can easily drop in launchers for any application, additional widgets such as the one for Google search, and shortcuts to common tasks such as turning Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on or off. Once you grok the concept of having multiple configurable screens rather than, say, the iPhone's launcher-only screens, you'll appreciate the wealth of possibilities.
The Eris offers just about everything you'd expect in a modern smartphone: Bluetooth, 3G data, 802.11 Wi-Fi, a touchscreen, GPS, a 5-megapixel camera with video recording, a replaceable battery, and storage expansion with a microSD card. It lacks a physical keyboard, but that's actually a draw for me. I've disliked every physical keyboard I've ever used on a smartphone, and the on-screen keyboards work just fine.
The Eris wraps all these features into a very small, compact, and satisfyingly solid package. It feels good in your hand -- not too heavy or bulky, yet not too light.
I had no trouble whatsoever linking various Bluetooth devices to the Eris, and connecting to Wi-Fi networks was similarly simple. In my area, Verizon's 3G coverage is fast and widespread, especially when compared to AT&T's complete lack of 3G and spotty reception in the more rural areas. There's definitely some truth to Verizon's "There's a map for that" ads.
It's no surprise that the Android Market is roughly where Apple's App Store was in its infancy. There aren't a lot of apps, and they're nowhere near as polished as their iPhone analogs. After using an iPhone for years, I found that many of my go-to apps, including SSH and Sonos clients, simply weren't available. These will probably come in time, but for the moment, the lack of certain applications is bothersome if you've become accustomed to using them on a consistent basis.
The built-in applications are well formed and fairly intuitive, and there's certainly a focus on social networking; the Peep app for Twitter is a standard install, for instance, and there's a setting header for social networks that shows your status on Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr, as well as any others you might add. Communicating with these services is quick and simple, whether it's uploading a photo or posting to Facebook.
Connecting to an IMAP or POP server was straightforward, but confusion is circling around Exchange support. I had no problem connecting to a production Exchange server, but that appears to be highly dependent on security policies in place for Exchange. This means that Exchange integration will be hit or miss for many. On top of that, Verizon appears to be charging an extra $15 a month for Exchange use on the Droid, but only if you happen to mention you're going to use that feature, or subsequently call in for support of that feature. No, I don't get it either. Between that and the lack of central management features, the security of the Droid line might be best described as "minimal."
Storage and compatibility
As standard, the Eris comes with an 8GB microSD card, which is fairly large for an included flash memory card. It's accessed from a PC or Mac as a removable disk like any other flash drive, which is far simpler than the iPhone's reliance on iTunes for media updating. It's a somewhat cumbersome process to mount the microSD card on a system, however, requiring you to plug in the Eris, drop the notifications window from the status bar, click the notification that the USB cable is connected, then select Mount to present the microSD card to the system. But once that's done, you can drag and drop music and videos to the card, and retrieve photos either manually or with a photo management application.
Due to the flash-disk-like nature of the storage, you can use a Mac or PC to move content around, but the synchronization tools are PC-only, and do not function under Windows 7, requiring Vista or Windows XP. This is a bit of a problem for those who want to sync their address books with a Mac or with software other than Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express. I couldn't find a method to import standard contact lists in vCard format, for instance, as the only app in the Android Market that supposedly handles that crashed repeatedly when trying to import a few hundred contacts.
The back of the Droid Eris says "With Google," and it certainly is. The OS is tightly coupled to Google's various services, including Maps, Google Voice, and Gmail, among others. In fact, a Gmail account is basically required to take advantage of several of the phone's features. The Verizon associate made sure that I had a Gmail account during the initial setup, and the phone synchronizes contacts between the two -- which irks the privacy part of my brain, especially since there isn't a good way to synchronize contacts with any other address books. Google's fingerprints are everywhere on Android, and in most cases, that's a good thing, but there are times when you might want to de-couple from the mothership.
Google Voice certainly counts as a plus. You can quickly and easily link your Google Voice account to the Droid Eris, and set it to use Google Voice for all calls, only international calls, no calls, or to ask you every time you place a call. For those who use Google Voice regularly, this is a big deal -- especially after Apple dropped the Google Voice app from the App Store.
There are several items about the Droid Eris that just flat-out bug me. One is that the device is somewhat underpowered by a 528MHz CPU. Screen changes and application launches force you to endure inordinately long waits, interrupting normal, fluid use. If there's anything you can say about the iPhone, it's that it keeps up with you, while the Eris will stutter if you start switching between apps quickly or push it a bit.
The rollerball at the bottom of the Eris is a disaster. There's no need for it that I can see, and it just gets in the way. Also, the hangup/power button on the bottom of the phone, which is used to lock and unlock the screen, isn't very ergonomically sound and it's difficult to access with one hand. I also have to wonder about the sense of making the hangup button the one you press to wake up the phone.
There's also the matter of the keypress vibrate. Every time you hit a button or a letter on the on-screen keyboard, the Eris vibrates just a little. This so-called haptic feedback has always annoyed me. Amazingly there's no way to disable this "feature" throughout the phone. You can disable it for the onscreen keyboard, but not for other tapping functions.
When all is said and done, the HTC Droid Eris is a step down from the iPhone 3G or 3G S in form and function, but represents a significant step forward for Verizon phone offerings. Unlike other Verizon phones, the OS isn't horribly crippled, and the Android Market will hopefully grow quickly.
But it would seem that they missed the mark. If you could somehow take the significantly faster Motorola Droid and marry it to the Eris form factor, you'd have a faster, sleeker Android 2.0 smartphone than anything currently offered. Throw in some significant security and management features, and a much faster CPU, and we'd really be talking. There's much to like about the Motorola Droid and the Eris, but they're each missing several things -- things that the iPhone 3G S has.
Of course, the iPhone is still tethered to AT&T's troublesome network, so maybe the best bet of all is for the iPhone to land on Verizon's network. Unless and until that happens, the HTC Droid Eris is a capable smartphone on a better network.
The HTC Droid Eris packs lots of good stuff into a small, sleek package, but it can't run Android 2.0. It does make the most of Android 1.5, with all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a modern smartphone. It can't compare with the iPhone 3G or 3G S in most ways, but for our money it's the better Droid.
This story, "InfoWorld review: HTC Droid Eris out-Droids the Droid," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile, Google Android, and iPhone at InfoWorld.com.
Paul Venezia is senior contributing editor of the InfoWorld Test Center and writes The Deep End blog.