Motorola Droid

Monday, 17 May 2010

My first cell phone was the Motorola e815, one of the first 3G-enabled phones on the market. It was a great little phone that could get a signal in a canyon in the middle of nowhere, far from where Verizon said it should. Before Verizon killed the program, it also gave me 3G Internet access at the expense of my minutes via a bluetooth connection to my laptop.

For Christmas and my birthday this past year, I got a new phone: a Motorola Droid, which runs Android. In some ways it is a step back, but in even more ways it is a huge leap forward. The step back is of course battery life; it seems I am charging it every 20 seconds. The huge leap forward is the number of features it offers, of course. Web browsing, Google Voice integration (one of my favorite features), email at your fingertips, and full-featured navigation complete with street view and live traffic are just some of the main features. Those are the features covered in numerous reviews, so I’m going to sail right over them and skip to what makes this phone special.

First though, I want to differentiate this phone from that “other” popular phone, the iPhone. I wanted the original iPhone when it came out. There, I admitted it: I used to like the iPhone. However, Android is much much better for someone like me, a developer. Android is open. The iPhone is a classic case of Apple control, a walled garden. Apple has rejected applications because they might possibly “confuse the user.” On Android, there are so many applications that may not be the most intuitive, but are awesome to the point you wondered how you lived without them. Can my phone be a FTP server? Check. SSH server? Check. SSH client? Check. VNC client? Check. GPS device with GPX export? Check (it also syncs with Google Maps). A barcode scanner? Check, complete with barcode generation for sharing with other phones. Translation tool? Check. Gaming platform? Check, and I can even use a wiimote to control the games. The phone even comes from Verizon loaded with a proxy that you can use via USB, and with some playing around you can even make it a wireless access point via Wifi or Bluetooth. The iPhone can of course do many of these things too, but for every story where I hear of Apple blocking some innovative application for some obscure reason, I find that my Droid lets me do whatever Apple will not. Oh yeah, and the Droid has a keyboard. After experiencing the disaster in GUI design that is the N800, I decided that a physical keyboard is a prerequisite for almost any mobile computing device I purchase. Indeed, after using the iPhone for the first time, I am extremely happy the Droid has a keyboard.

Let’s take a look at some of these features in more detail. Note, many of these features require installation of applications from the Android Market.

  1. HTTP Proxy – The phone comes loaded with a proxy all ready to go. Just install the Android developer tools on your desktop or laptop, and you have port forwarding between your computer and your phone. The same developer tools also give you shell access to your phone, no additional software installation on the phone required. Install Privoxy on your phone, and your phone is now an HTTP proxy accessible from your computer.
  2. Google Goggles – Google Goggles is one of those magical Google labs products. Take a picture of text, and it scans it for you, translating if necessary. Take a picture of a landmark, and it recognizes it. Take a picture of a logo, bookcover, or movie poster, and it searches for information about that graphic. Take a picture of a business card, and it offers to add the person’s contact information to your address book (which in my case then syncs with Gmail and my desktop email client’s address book). It isn’t perfect, but what it already does is pretty amazing. For example, I was sitting in a ski lodge at Howelsen Hill, home of the US Ski Team (Jumping), surrounded by the flags of the various countries of the Olympics, and I wanted to know to which country a particular flag belonged. Google Goggles not only found the right country, but it linked me to the Wikipedia article about the country so I could read more about it.
  3. Games with a Wiimote – Who said gaming for phones was restricted to onscreen controls? The Droid has an accelerometer built-in, as well as a D-Pad and a multitude of buttons for gaming. But the most fun (and probably battery-taxing) feature comes with the help of a Wiimote and the WiimoteControl application. As the Wiimote connects via bluetooth, and the phone has a bluetooth radio, the two can connect to each other. WiimoteControl makes the Wiimote look just like another input device, available for use by every application on the phone. Combine this with one of the popular games that support input customization, and the Wiimote turns the Droid into a gaming device full of fun. I do not play games much myself, so this is perfect to fill the occasional car ride on vacation, as I lack any other kind of portable gaming device.
  4. SSH Client – I realize most people do not want a phone so they can use it as an SSH Client. Most people probably do not even know what SSH, let alone why they would want it. That doesn’t stop the Droid from having an awesome shell client, ConnectBot. This lets me connect to my server or desktop from anywhere I have cell service, which is just about anywhere. I run irssi on my server inside a GNU Screen session, so this lets me keep up with the IRC chatter from anywhere. For those that want shell access to their local phone as well, ConnectBot allows you to open a local shell.
  5. FTP Server – The Droid supports local file access just by plugging the phone into the computer. But who wants to play with cables just to transfer a single picture? Enter SwiFTP, an FTP server for Android. Fire up the application, start the server, and connect from any FTP client to transfer files. It is not as fast as a USB connection, but it is far more convenient.
  6. GPS – For awhile now, I have wanted a handheld GPS device for hiking, biking, skiing, etc. However, I usually could not justify the benefits of a GPS based on the cost of the devices on the market. However, now that I have my Droid, I no longer need a GPS. Google My Tracks, another Google Labs product, records GPS tracks. It records your location at various, configurable time intervals, allowing export via standard GPX files or upload to Google Maps. The application also shows graphs of speed and elevation vs time, various statistics such as max speed, and a map overlay of the route taken. It’s perfect for telling me that I can take a ski run 1.2 miles long at 99.6 km/h, or showing the maximum gradient I took while riding my mountain bike. Want more information about the GPS satellites themselves? GPS Status tells you how many satellites are in view, in addition to accuracy information and a radar map showing marked waypoints. Finally, I should note that the camera application can record your location when taking a picture, which is pretty neat when the data is overlayed on a map after a trip. The usually gets a fix before I can frame the shot, so it’s fast too.
  7. Barcode Scanner – The Barcode Scanner and Google Shopper applications have to be my most unexpected use of my phone. Picture this: you are in your bookstore wondering if the store is charging far too much for a book. You whip out your phone, take a picture of the barcode on the book, and your phone returns a list of prices from various online retailers. These applications, which work well together, are quite handy. In addition, URL and contact sharing is easy. Just take a picture of a barcode, which can even be generated by another phone, and the application will recognize the type and offers the appropriate actions.
  8. Google Sky Map – This application has to be the most innovative use of my phone so far. Combine the phone’s GPS, the phone’s accelerometer, and a connection to a catalog of astronomy data, and you have Google Sky Map. Start up the application, point the phone at the night sky, and watch as constellations, stars, and planets are identified on the screen.

These are just some of the reasons my Motorola Droid, and Android itself, are awesome. This isn’t to say my Droid doesn’t have its faults as well. It is not close to perfect. For example, when the phone is done charging, it immediately starts to drain the battery and refuses to charge until the power source is killed and then reconnected. Google Voice sometimes decides to not sync properly, resulting in issues. For some reason, the phone has both a Gmail client and an email client, two separate applications with similar feature sets (except for the fact the email client cannot move a message from one IMAP folder to another). The same is true of the Corporate Calendar application and the Calendar application; the former connects to Exchange while the latter connects to Google Calendar and Google Tasks. Android fragmentation is indeed a problem as well. Many different phones run slightly different versions of Android, and carriers are slow to upgrade their devices, resulting in numerous devices unable to run the latest applications. Hopefully these issues are solved in the future.

My phone is awesome; Android is awesome. Hopefully they’ll get even better in the future.