Motorola Devour Review: What Have You Done To My Droid?

You can't talk about the Devour, Motorola's new slide-out QWERTY Android phone, without talking about the Droid, Motorola's favoured child. And it's precisely when pitted against the Droid that the Devour stops making sense.

The Price The Devour runs $US150, with a two-year Verizon contract. But not really. (More on that later.)

What It's Supposed to Be When the Devour was announced, I called it a "Baby Droid with Motoblur". That's not quite right, it turns out. Despite a measurably smaller screen, the Devour is actually a bit larger than the Droid. It's a hefty, machined aluminium slab of a device that feels sturdy in your hand and a bit fat in your pocket. It's a continuation of the Droid's design philosophy, if not its actual design: The Devour obviously copies some stylistic traits, but the Droid's goldish finish and sharp-edged evoke an entirely different past than the Devour's matte silver, slightly more rounded profile. A child of the '70s speaks the Droid's retro-futuristic design language; the Devour speaks more to a future-forward '90s sensibility. At any rate, it looks nice.

And it feels nice, too - gone is the Droid's lifeless slider, replaced with a springy mechanism that just begs to be fiddled with. The tapered sides give you a place to rest your index fingers during typing. Speaking of which, the Devour's keyboard, with slightly raised, perfectly rounded and neatly spaced keys, is a welcome improvement over the Droid's. And instead of a trackball, the Devour has a small, inset touchpad on its lower-left chin. So far, so good.

Then you turn it on. This is when it becomes clear what the Devour is meant to be, which, despite the apparent improvements, is something less than a Droid. The smaller screen - 3.1 inches to the Droid's 3.7 - pushes fewer pixels, too, at just 320x480 vs 854x480. The camera, which shoots 3-megapixel photos, suffers from poor colour and clarity issues to a greater extent than the already mediocre sensor of its predecessor.

And the software! Oh, the software. Here's how Jason summed up the Motoblur widget philosophy in his original Cliq review:

The four widgets of note are the status widget, the messaging widget, the happenings widget and the news/RSS widget. The news widget is self-explanatory, and really cool that a phone would have a built-in RSS reader right on the home screen, but the others are a little bit trickier. The status widget lets you update your "status" to any of your social networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter. The messages widget consolidates ALL your 1:1 messaging, like emails, SMS, DMs on Twitter or private messages on Facebook. The happenings is a feed of other people's status updates on your social networks.

Motoblur is as good here as it's ever been, aided by plenty of tweaks, faster hardware, and a more developed underlying operating system. (This is the first time we've seen it laid atop of Android 1.6; the Cliq was a 1.5 handset.) But as Motoblur has improved, Android has outpaced it. And unfortunately, its stablemate, the Droid, is one of the best exemplars of why you don't need to mess with Android.

What was so refreshing about the Droid was that its software was essentially untouched - Android 2.0, which was at the time the newest build of the OS, had been left alone to represent Google vision for Android, without interference from Motorola or Verizon. And because Android 2.0 was so good, it took the wind out of the sails of alternative Android interfaces like HTC's Sense or Motoblur.

Motoblur's greatest sin isn't that it can be a bit confusing to navigate at first, or that it feels a bit crowded on a 3.1-inch screen, or that its inbuilt Twitter and Facebook functionality depends too much on sending you to an external browser; it's that in pursuit of a custom interface and one-off features - Motorola's managed to include Flash Lite in the browser, which is just powerful enough to show ads, but not quite powerful enough to access most video sites, while DLNA streaming and proprietary voice command app - Motorola has left Devour users with an out-of-date version of Android. Android is an OS that's fragmented, and 1.6 is one of the fragments that's getting left behind. Even some Google apps won't work on Android 1.6, like Goggles or Google Earth. Of course, an upgrade is possible, but a Blur-adorned Android will always lag behind vanilla Android, which seems to be assimilating many of its most important features anyway.

The redeeming factor here should be that it's cheaper than the Droid by about $US50, positioned to appeal to people who might otherwise buy a messaging phone, but who don't want to put down for a Droid. But even at launch, this price positioning doesn't work.

What It Really Is Before the Devour hits shelves in the States later this week, it will have been undermined by one of its biggest sellers. Best Buy, at launch, will be selling it for $US100, alongside the Droid, also priced at $US100. The $US150/$200 Devour/Droid distinction will remain intact at Verizon stores, but you can probably depend on these lower prices to be an option from here on out.

What you're getting with the Devour, then, is a downgraded Droid. Sure, the keyboard is a bit better, and the styling may appeal to some people alienated by the Droid's aggressive lines, but if you're a Verizon customer, holding these two potential purchases in your hands - which, by the way, have access to the exact same smartphone plans - it's hard to imagine why you'd opt for the silver one.

Elegant, brushed aluminium design

Better keyboard and slider than the Droid; generally better hardware than the Cliq

Motoblur works reasonably well for social networking hounds, but later versions of Android with dedicated social apps serve just as well

Same street price as the Droid, which is just a better phone.

It's stuck on Android 1.6, rendering it incompatible with some newer apps - even apps from Google

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