Smartphone smackdown: Motorola Droid vs. iPhone 3GS

We break down the differences between the Apple iPhone 3GS and the Motorola Droid

Several devices, from the BlackBerry Storm to the Palm Pre, have hit the market hoping to be an iPhone killer, but none of them have so far succeeded. And while it's unlikely the new Motorola Droid will knock the iPhone off its perch as the top consumer smartphone in the world, it could be in a position to pose the most serious challenge yet to the iPhone's unquestioned supremacy.

One reason for optimism is the fact that the Droid is the first Android-based phone being sold exclusively by US telco Verizon. Although Verizon has lagged behind Sprint and T-Mobile in releasing devices that run on Google's open source mobile platform, it is aiming to catch up quickly. Verizon and Google recently entered into an agreement to jointly develop wireless devices based on the Android mobile platform. With more than 86 million wireless subscribers, Verizon is the largest carrier so far to support Android-based devices.

The other big reason for optimism is the device's hardware: Like the Palm Pre before it, the Droid uses Texas Instruments' OMAP 3430 processor, which runs at 600MHz and integrates several different functions, such as graphics processing, onto one single chip. This will give Droid users the ability to run multiple applications at once and switch between them without having to close any of them.

The combination of strong hardware, Google's brand strength and Verizon's network could present the iPhone with a formidable foe over the next few months. In the rest of this article, we'll break down the differences between the Apple iPhone 3GS and the Motorola Droid, from their hardware to their operating systems to their carrier strengths.

Round 1: The hardware

As noted previously, the Droid runs on the TI OMAP 3430 processor, one of the top processors on the market. All indications are the Droid will exploit the processor's potential to the fullest, as Verizon is touting the device's ability to run simultaneous applications as one of its key features. In addition to its application-switching capabilities, the TI OMAP 3430 is also a very fast processor. The Boy Genius Report says that the processor has made the Droid "the fastest Android device we've ever used."

Of course, the iPhone 3GS' processor is no slouch either, as its Samsung S5PC100 processor also runs at 600MHz and includes a central processing unit, a graphics processing and a memory controller all on one chip. The iPhone's processor has the ability to support multiple applications at once just as the TI OMAP 3430 processor does, although Apple has not chosen to utilize this capability yet. Even so, the Samsung S5PC100 compares very favorably with its rival at Texas Instruments.

Edge: It's a draw. Both processors have similar capabilities and ensure that each device's users will have top-notch processing power in their hands.

Round 2: Keyboards and screens

One of the few complaints users have about the iPhone is that it doesn't have a physical QWERTY keyboard users can access for easy typing. The Droid plans to one-up its rival by offering users a full horizontal slide-out keyboard that features broader keys than devices such as the BlackBerry Tour.

As far as screen displays go, Computer World's Seth Weintraub has noted that according to Federal Communications Commission filings, the Droid's screen displays video at 854x480 pixels, which is higher than the 640x480-pixel display that is used by the iPhone 3GS.

Edge: On paper, the Droid seems to have an edge here. Of course, we won't know for certain until we see how it works out in real life -- after all, remember how cool we all thought the BlackBerry Storm's clickable keyboard sounded when it was first released?

Round 3: The operating systems

J.D. Power's surveys of smartphone users have consistently given the iPhone operating system the highest scores for reliability and ease of use. The Android operating system, on the other hand, is still a relative unknown even though devices that employ it have been on the market for more than a year.

One reason Android is a wild card is that its performance so far has largely depended on the quality of the device on which it runs. If the Droid really does live up to the hype as the fastest Android smartphone yet to hit the market, we could see Android live up to its potential for the first time.

Edge: Until proven otherwise the iPhone operating system is still the top mobile operating system around. The release of the Droid, however, will give Android its first real showcase device along the lines of the iPhone, the BlackBerry Tour or the Palm Pre.

Round 4: Applications

This is another advantage for the iPhone, as Apple's App Store has been a runaway success that has served more than 2 billion downloads and features more than 85,000 applications. When Google first developed Android as an open source mobile operating system, it said the platform's goal was to spur innovation within the mobile development community and also to give users the ability to switch to new carriers without switching their mobile devices. So far, though, Google Android Market has not yet been able to create an online applications store comparable to the App Store, although that could change once Android becomes available on more devices over the next year.

Edge: This one goes to the iPhone, whose App Store has been a remarkable smash hit.

Round 5: Carrier quality

IPhone users love to complain about AT&T. And they've got lots of survey data to back them up, as Verizon has continuously come out ahead of AT&T in customer satisfaction rankings and studies on call quality and data coverage. The problem for Verizon is that it has lacked a home-run device such as the iPhone to drag away customers from rival carriers. With the BlackBerry Storm selling well initially but also receiving mediocre reviews,  Verizon is hoping that either the Droid or the Storm sequel will give it the flagship device it has been looking for.

Edge: Unless Verizon suffers a massive network meltdown between now and November, the edge goes to the Droid. Also of note: Verizon will be the first carrier to start rolling out 4G LTE technology sometime next year.

The Final Verdict: While we obviously won't know how well the Motorola Droid stacks up against the reigning smartphone champion iPhone until it gets released, it has a lot of things going for it that previous devices have not. If it performs as well  as early reviews suggest, it could certainly become a big hit for Verizon and could be the device to launch Android into the mainstream for mobile device users.

Of course, as Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica notes, none of the Droid's dazzling tech specs and open-development platforms will matter much to customers who mostly care about a device's ease of use and its overall performance in sending and receiving calls and data. If the Droid doesn't get the basics down, then its flashy extra features won't mean much.

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Tags smartphonesMotorolaGoogle AndroidiPhone 3GSMotorola Droid

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Brad Reed

Network World
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