Dipped in clarified cyborg testosterone as it comes off the assembly line, the Droid X is sci-fi machismo congealed into a phone. Yet it’s gelded by steroidal software – a fussy, awkward android with acne the size of asteroids.
Available today, the Motorola Droid X on Verizon for $US200 after rebates.
The Droid X is the latest module in a curious outgrowth of smartphone evolution. An industrial slab as vast and barren as a desert planet, it revels in being the most colossal thing that could possibly be called a phone, stretching categorical credulity – and pocket fabric.
Unbridled masculine aggression isn’t simply a side effect – it’s a marketing tagline. “Are you man enough for this phone?” prods the cyborg eye ripped from a Terminator endoskeleton, chosen by Verizon to be Droid’s wordless representative. Is this insecurity? Or is it confidence?
As a pure expression of the limits of mobile hardware and industrial design, the Droid X is kind of a beautiful thing. But that’s about the only good thing about the Droid X.
The software – a discordant melange of the not-so-fresh Android 2.1 and various bits of the Blur “social networking” interface from Motorola’s lower-end Android phones – is the shudder-inducing poster child for the horrors that can occur when most hardware companies try to make software. It’s ugly, scattershot and confusing. It feels almost malicious.
The creeping feeling that Android is the new Windows becomes an overwhelming sensation the first time you boot up Droid X. Seven sprawling desktop screens, littered with widgets, oodles of little programs – the vast majority of which you probably don’t want or need. It’s overwhelming and utterly incomprehensible if you’re not the kind of person who’s seen at least two non-JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. The minutes lost to clearing them to get to a reasonably clean desktop, one press-and-hold-and-swipe gesture at a time, brought me back to the sullen days of removing crapware from whiny relatives’ Sony Vaios. Breathtaking hardware, filled to the brim with crap. Why would Motorola make this the first impression of its phone? Stuttering and confusion?
A grizzled nerd would see, on the surface, that the Droid X’s interface is a only slightly customised spin of Android – things are mostly just skinned to be Droidier – reds, greens and shades of steel. A more pronounced navbar at the bottom announces which of the seven desktop screens you’re sitting on as you slide between them, while a semi-permanent widget keeps the phone app and contacts at the ready. The overt Motoblur interface, upfront, is reduced to a handful Motorola widgets for things like the calendar or social networking. (They’re attractive by themselves, but amidst the cyborg orgy they stand out in a bad way.) The gimmick is laid thick, but it’s on top of Android, rather than replacing parts of it wholesale.
Software kneecaps this phone at nearly every corner. It makes the sizzling hardware look bad in the process. Watching this phone sputter, which it does occasionally for the even most menial of tasks, like opening the apps menu, feels more egregiously tortuous than normal, given its prodigious size and weight. It’s brain-stabbingly maddening if you actually know what’s inside of all that. (Verizon and Motorola would no doubt like me to you remind the build I’ve been using is not quite final, so performance could improve, but it seems like a systemic issue with Android 2.1. Android 2.2, with its massive speed boost, won’t be available for this phone until later this season.)
Update: It’s come to light that the phone might self-destruct if you attempt to mod it, like to run a different version of Android – which runs totally counter to what Android is supposed to be about. That’s a massive reason to think twice about buying this phone. Unfortunate, because it hits some of the people who’d most want this kind of hardware. Update 2: Motorola tells us they’re looking into the issue.
The camera app, while it has an impressive range of options and scenes and modes, can be ridiculously slow to actually snap photos on top of the dragged-down-gravel UI. (Try starting up the app with the camera button. “Is it being slow, or did it register?” is a popular game.) The shutter feedback it gives is poor too, so when I shot the Droid X alongside the iPhone for a day, I wound up reshooting most of the Droid X’s photos at least once. Focusing was a constant battle – it’d have something in focus, and then lose it. (As you might notice in the sample gallery. Also all photos taken from same position as other comparison cameras – the differences in perspective illustrate the difference camera lenses.) Also the camera quality is pretty soundly trounced by the iPhone 4 – both photos and video – which might be the most disappointing aspect of the hardware. (It’s possible a software fix could make things wildly better, as they did for the original Droid.)
The sole brownie point for Moto’s interface work is the keyboard. It’s the best Android keyboard yet, because it’s on an effing giant screen, and it’s truly multitouch. It’s also the one bit of design here that’s relatively clean, if unattractive. (If you don’t like it, the Swype system is built in as well, but most people will stumble over it like buried treasure, since it’s tucked under a contextual menu for input method.) Less successful is its attempt at an iPhone-style magnifying glass for text selection. Nailing the careful balance between triggering the magnifier and Android’s system menu for text is half skill and half luck.
The 3G mobile hotspot app was problematic – it’d drop connected devices for no discernible reason, without warning. It was Verizon-fast when it worked, though, and of course Verizon’s network coverage is the best. (Calls, in case you want to make them, were solid with the multiple noise-suppressing mics and multiple antennas, not mindblowingly good.) Average battery life – without 10 bajillion widgets running at once – was a little over a day’s use. (That’s good.)
We’ve come to a strange little place with Android, and maybe with non-iPhone smartphones in general. For the first year or two after the iPhone, most phones wanted to be just like it. Now it seems like they’re running away from it, to remould themselves into something as un-iPhone-like as possible. The Droid X is at the X-treme end of that spectrum. But it’s not any better for it.