Last year, while I was on a business trip, my wife surprised me during a phone call by telling me that she was going to purchase a Motorola DROID and finally enter the smart phone age. This was surprising on a number of levels. She's notoriously tight-fisted with money, for starters--is there a nice way to say that?--and isn't the type of person to jump at the chance to toss $80 a month into the wind. She's notably ambivalent about technology, too, which may be a shocker to some given to whom she's married; to her, computers are a tool, and years of Mac usage did nothing to indoctrinate her into the Apple cult. (In fact, she uses--chose--a Windows 7-based Dell laptop last year.) And then there's the DROID itself. This is a decidedly masculine smart phone, the antidote to Apple's namby-pamby iPhone, and it was marketed then (as now) in a very aggressive fashion.

"You're getting ... a DROID?" I could hardly believe it.

But she did it. And for the past year (almost), she's been quite happy with her choice. She's a Gmail and Google Calendar user, so the Android OS makes sense for her. And watching her latch onto things like Facebook has been both fascinating and disturbing.

But I'm not here to write about that. No, this is about something even more disturbing than my wife posting to Facebook. Last week, after a flurry of sudden work-related activity, I found myself the somewhat bewildered recipient of my own Android-based smart phone, in this case a DROID X. The reasons for this are complex, but basically I'm now an employee of Penton, the owners of this site, and I'm expected to meet certain corporate expectations. I've resisted, tried to, held out as long as I could. But now I have this phone.

DROID X
The DROID X: Fantastic hardware, great software, middling media and app services.

\[ Read more about the original DROID and Android OS 2 \]

 

So. Unlike much of the world, I'm not "switching" to Android or anything. Indeed, over the past several months, I've killed myself racing to write and finalize a book about Windows Phone 7 called, of course, "Windows Phone 7 Secrets." And what I discovered, to my delight if not surprise, is that I truly love this smart phone OS. Windows Phone is, as far as I'm concerned, the way to go. And I'll be buying a Windows Phone-based smart phone as soon as I can. (I'm currently using a developer-oriented prototype device as my primary phone.)

\[ Read more about Windows Phone 7 \]

I had sort of figured that just having an Android phone in the house would satisfy my need to keep up on Google's smart phone offering. But really, it's not convenient or politically wise to borrow the spouse's phone, as you can probably imagine.

So I've got this DROID X. And I have to say, suddenly, I get it. I understand why this thing is surpassing the iPhone as we speak. Aside from one killer mistake, something that would be oh so easy to fix, this phone is hands-down superior to anything designed in Cupertino.

First, the screen. While some will be turned off by its palatial dimensions, others will swoon with delight. I fall into the latter category. The DROID X screen is a whopping 4.3 inches diagonally, dramatically bigger than the screen on any iPhone, or, for that matter, my wife's first generation DROID. It runs at a stunning 854 x 480 and is simply gorgeous to look at.

DROID X
The DROID X screen is huge, high-res, and beautiful.

The other hardware, too, is stellar. The DROID X is lightning fast, with a 1 GHz processor and a powerful GPU, and I've never noticed any pauses or waiting times. It plays games and movies full-screen, full-speed, and can handle virtually anything you throw at it. (Assuming you can figure out how to get that content on the device; more on that in a moment.) The camera is a whopping 8 megapixels and is quite decent, the first smart phone camera I've seen that could possibly replace a point and click, and it takes 1280 x 720 (720p) video at up to 24 FPS. We're in a different world, people.

From a software perspective, the Android OS hits all the high points. It supports customizable home screens, has a wealth of high quality applications, and the important apps--Gmail, Calendar, and so on--all work exactly right. This is an email triaging machine.

DROID X
Google's Calendar app.

Where the DROID X--Android, really--falls apart is on the services side. As with Apple and, soon, Microsoft, Google supports Android with an online marketplace, in this case the Android Market. It's horrible. And I don't just mean it's lacking in some vague way, I mean that it is an absolute disgrace. For all the criticism Apple has received for its heavily curated App Store, Google should be held accountable for the unprofessional, low-quality Android Market, which features an unbelievable amount of borderline illegal content that rips off intellectual property in obvious and egregious ways. For example, there are dozens of "The Simpsons" rip-offs, with obvious and purposefully misspelled names. It's just shameful.

In the Android Market, the fears of Google are realized: This is a company that simply doesn't care about protecting the rights of other companies. I am honestly shocked at how bad this is. Just finding the content you want in the store is difficult, because it's not laid out in any logical fashion. I searched for--and found--most of my favorite iPhone apps, in Android versions. But if I didn't know they existed, I'd never know what to search for, and the Android Market does nothing to promote decent apps. It's just a terrible experience, worse still because it's something Google could easily fix.

DROID X
Popular iPhone apps, like The New York Times, have been ported to Android too.

This is perhaps less dramatic, but because Google doesn't (yet) have an online store to match Apple's iTunes Store, the Android experience for loading, syncing, finding, and playing media (music, movies, and other content) is truly second rate and, I suspect, must vary from phone to phone. I was able to cobble together a rough iTunes equivalent with a terrible bit of software called DoubleTwist, but as had been the case previously with my wife's phone, it took over an hour to get it to work at all, and then the actual content syncing occurred at glacial speeds. If this is the state of the art for Android content sync, it's time to start over.

Aside from the abysmal online store experiences, however, Android and the DROID X are first rate. And looking ahead, I'll be comparing this system to the upcoming first generation Windows Phone 7 devices, and to Apple's latest iPhone, to see where these systems fall. For now, however, Android and the DROID X are, warts and all, already neck and neck with the iPhone 4. It's scary to think how one-sided this would be if Google just put a handful of UI experts on the marketplace. Game over, Apple. Game over.