Mulling Things Over


My new Motorola Droid

Here are some notes from my initial experiences with a Verizon Motorola Droid phone that I just recently started using.

This is my first “smartphone”, and I’m pretty impressed. (Those closer to the tech edge will find little of interest in this article.)  My old phone was an LG VX3850 (not quite smart, perhaps a cleverphone?). The hinge on the VX3850 broke a few weeks ago, which  is what prompted this new purchase. The Droid is definitely a palm-sized computer, and not just a mobile phone. The versatility will be welcome; although I use a cell phone every day, I’m not one to spend much time on the phone, and my calls are invariably brief. The other things I can do with this device will very much justify the effort required to tote it around and keep its battery fed.

Some useful roles I’ve found for it so far, each of which I’ll talk about briefly, below:

  • eBook reader
  • guitar tuner
  • Music player
  • Web browser
  • alarm clock
  • GPS navigator
  • text messaging tool

It’s fairly easy to use the Market application to search for and download applications from the Android Market. There are lots of free ones, and many that you have to pay for. The prices are very modest, not at all like the very few applications that were available from Verizon for my old phone.

One note about purchasing applications:  Save yourself having to enter credit card info on the phone by setting up a credit card in Google Checkout from a real computer before trying to buy applications from the Market. Note that Discover cards can’t be used to buy applications that are priced in non-U.S. currencies. In fact, from what I’ve read, you might need to have a VISA card set up for this.

I bought an eBook reader with an electronic ink display two years ago, and got quite hooked on the convenience and the reduction in the rate of accumulation of book mass in our house. However, the device died after an unfortunate fall after only a year and a half, and I’ve been postponing the purchase of a replacement while watching the explosion of new eBook readers coming out. I pooh-poohed the idea of using something like a cell phone as a reader because of the small display, but of course I had to try this out anyway on the new toy. To my surprise, it works quite well — you just ending up flipping “pages” very frequently, which is not a problem for very linear reading of fiction. I read about and tried and  several different applications. The one I settled on for now is called WordPlay. It’s free, although I plan on making a donation soon. The only downside I’ve encountered, and it is significant, is that the battery life is very much shorter than that of a dedicated device with an electronic ink display – on the order of six hours continuous reading instead of eighteen or more. The screen on this phone is gorgeous, but it’s also very power-hungry.

(Note that choosing a device and software for eBooks can be complex, because there are a variety of formats and encryption schemes in common use by different vendors. It’s too large a topic to go into here.)

The guitar tuner thing — well, it’s cute. The guys I play guitar with have an iPod and an iPhone, and they both had an inexpensive guitar tuner application on their devices. There was an application like this available for my old VX3850 through Verizon, but it was way overpriced. So of course I had to look for one for the Droid right away. There are numerous free tuner programs available for this phone;  at the moment I’m using gStrings. I already have a very nice dedicated electronic tuner, and I’ll probably keep using that because I can plug an electric guitar into it directly for “silent” tuning, but it’s nice to have options.

I also installed “Robotic Guitarist”, which includes a tuner, but mainly it lets you use your phone as a virtual, strummable guitar. This is amusing, and I’m sure it would be big hit with kids.

The built-in music player application is reasonably easy to use, so I haven’t looked to see if there are others. The phone can take a micro SD card, which installs behind the battery. (You won’t be popping these in and out frequently.) Mine came with a 16 GB card, which is just big enough to hold my entire music collection with a bit of space left over for pictures. This, together with the guitar tuner, quenches my incipient iPhone-envy.

Being able to browse the Web from anywhere is going to be great. On the VX3850, you could sort of do this, but were trapped in the restrictive Verizon  gateway and lousy browser software. General Web browsing really wasn’t at all practical. Now, I’ll be able to Google anything at any time, which always makes me feel smarter. It’s the next-best thing to the neural interface to the global data cloud that I expect will be available in a decade or so. The browser is quite usable, but of course it’s a tiny screen. You often have to zoom in and pan around to be able to navigate links on a page.

One non-telephony role that my cleverphone did serve was that of alarm clock. (And wristwatch, for that matter, since I hate wearing wristwatches.) The new phone can of course perform this function, using pre-installed software. But there’s a whole bunch of choices available for download that will turn it into the Ferrari of nightstand alarm clocks. The one I’m going to try out when my vacation ends next Monday morning is Gentle Alarm, my first paid-for application. It sounds promising. It has a nice discreet low-light time display, programmable alarm “profiles” that allow your chosen alarm — vibration, ringtone, music, or even a random selection from a playlist — to start out gently and get gradually louder. It has, of course, snooze functionality. And optional ways to make sure that you don’t turn the alarm off to easily. And even an optional method of attempting to avoid waking you up during a “deep sleep” cycle. Very promising. This application, by the way, is priced in British pounds, hence the earlier note about credit cards.

I don’t do a lot of text messaging, but I imagine that I will be doing a little more soon. The slide-out keyboard on the Droid doesn’t make me want to type a long letter on it, but it’s a hell of a lot better than cycling  through letters on a numeric keypad. And the text messaging interface is pretty nice when you get used to it. It’s a lot like a chat application on a computer, encouraging you to think of text messaging as an ongoing back-and-forth exchange instead of a one-shot transmission.

One feature that I really like is the auto-synchronization feature of contacts. When you first set up the phone, you have to connect it to a Google account. If you have a Google Mail account, the contacts can be kept automatically synchronized in both directions. To initially populate contacts on the new phone, I downloaded a CSV file from Verizon’s backup of my old phone’s contact list. (This existed because I had installed a free auto-backup utility from Verizon on that phone quite a while ago.) I then imported this into my Google Mail account. Soon afterwards, the list showed up on the new phone. This activity also prompted me to do some much-needed maintenance on the list, which I did from my home computer. All the changes appeared seamlessly on the phone.

Your contact list can also show all of your Facebook contacts, merged with your Google Mail contact list, if you set up the pre-installed Facebook application on the phone. Very nice! The Facebook app also makes it dead easy to upload photographs that you take with the phone.

The phone has a built-in GPS receiver, and various applications can take advantage of this. Google’s Maps application, which is still in beta (you’ve been warned), includes a full-blown talking navigation application. This makes it rather tempting to buy Motorola’s car mount for the phone. I haven’t tried navigating with it yet, so I can’t say how well the GPS locator works compared to, e.g., the GPS dongle that we have for our netbook computer.

Here are all the applications that I’ve installed so far, only some of which were mentioned above:

There are also a lot of pre-installed things, some of which have been mentioned, but also including basics like a calculator,  the browser, calendar, music player … oh, and an application that lets you make phone calls, believe it or not!

All in all, I think this is going to be a fun daily companion. I hope this more or less random walk through my first experiences is useful to you.

[Typos fixed 2010-01-03]

12 Responses to “My new Motorola Droid”

  1. 1
    Cathy Barnard Says:

    Wonderful – thanks for doing this Danny!

  2. 2
    Dan Says:

    You’re welcome! Here’s an amusing addendum.

    Shortly after I posted the article, I stumbled across the weirdest application so far: It turns your phone into a metal detector. Apparently, many of these phones have some kind of magnetic sensor in them. Well, I mentioned this to my wife, and she said something like “Gee, it won’t take long now before we have tricorders.” Light bulb goes on, I do a quick search, and sure enough, somebody (Moonblink) made a free Tricorder application! It’s hilarious. It displays data from the GPS receiver, the magnetic sensor, the microphone, the accelerometer (which measures motion and orientation), and the compass (I didn’t even know it had one). It shows cell phone signal strength, local wireless networks and their strength, and, finally, solar weather data apparently snarfed from the network. All with Trek-styled buttons and graphs.

    My life is complete. 🙂

  3. 3
    Cathy Barnard Says:

    If I get that app, Jimmy will always be playing with my phone… too funny

  4. 4
    Bruce Says:

    Hey! I bought of them there fancy schmanzy droidy smartphone thingies last month too! Great brothers think a like.

    Download Dolphin browser to get true multitouch pinch to zoom.
    And grab a copy of 91PandaHome to have as many desktop screens as you need to organize the ever-growing collection of apps.

    The GPS Google Maps Navigator works like a charm. We used it on our 1800 mile marathon road trip over the holidays to Arizona and round about southern New Mexico home. Turn on the gas station and restaurant layers to find what you need on the road.

    And if you have a picky wife in regards to how level the van is for camping, grab a copy of Bubble.

    Thanks for the tip on WordPlayer; I’ve been thinking about adding a book reader. And the tricorder is just awesome! The geeks at work are going to be psyched!

  5. 5
    Dan Says:

    Cool! Thanks for the tips. Good to hear that Maps works reliably enough for real use. I don’t need 91PandaHome yet, but I suspect that I will soon.

    Regarding WordPlayer: If you decide to seriously get into eBooks, let me know, I can point you to a lot of resources on this topic. I almost wrote a blog article on this, but it never made it past draft stage; maybe I can salvage parts of it as an intro to the headache of dealing with different book formats.

    Going to go download Dolphin and Bubble now…

  6. 6
    David Bradstreet Says:

    Aldiko e-reader for Droid.
    Ultimate Stopwatch
    Google Goggles!!!
    Lookout Anti Virus
    Astro File Manager
    Task Panel
    Ring Droid

  7. 7
    Dan Says:

    Dave, since you’re into sound recording: I found this article about music applications for Android. Not much there yet, but some.

  8. 8
    Bruce Says:

    Regarding David’s list:

    Pandora: yes! For me, that’s the app that makes the monthly fee worth while.

    And Astro File Manager is a key tool for validating the Verizon ad campaign of ‘droid does’. Unlike on an iPhone, you have full access to the file system.

    I’ve used Google Goggles a few times on book covers and even on the mountain view outside our house. It works most of the time!

    Haven’t used Task Panel but I do run Advanced Task Manager (the free version) to kill off apps that don’t shut down when you close them. I haven’t figured out yet how the system deals with all of these apps in terms of memory and resource usage. But it seems like a good idea if app developers would add a quit option on closing their app.

  9. 9
    Dan Says:

    I had looked at Aldiko but passed over it. I’ll give it another try. I did briefly try FBReaderJ (the Android version of the popular open-source FBReader), but didn’t like it.

    I saw a demo of Google Goggles online a few weeks ago and was wowed. Couldn’t remember the name, though. Now installed.

    I’ve used Pandora Radio on my desktop PC, and it rocks. I’ll eventually install it on the phone no doubt.

    Has anyone tried any of the barcode scanner apps? They sound promising for mobile comparison shopping.

  10. 10
    Doug Says:

    I like the ZXing Barcode scanner v3.1 which comes to the top of the app list when you search barcode in market. I set it to default to Dolphin browser to get info about the barcode product. Works great.

  11. 11
    Dan Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Doug! I hadn’t tried ZXing yet, I’ll be sure to do so.

    In the meantime, here are some of the other apps I’m currently trying out after reading reviews and trying a few things:

    dxTop for an additional home page and some other organization changes. This looked more attractive to me than PandaHome. I need to also try organizing things in folders; this can effectively give you as many pages as you want, without /any/ home page app.

    ASTRO file manager.

    Pandora. Of course. Great in the car, I already had a Bluetooth-to-FM tranceiver.

    Dolphin — not yet sure if I like it that much more than the standard browser.

    Bubble. 3Banana. Shop Savvy.

    Dock Runner. I would like to find a customizable alternative to this, to run Gentle Alarm instead.

    RPN Calculator (Yay! I like RPN calculators. No docs, you either recognize the HP ripoff UI or you don’t.)

    I also figured out a number of basic new things about Android, like how to add widgets and folders, how to get the screen to stay on when the cable is plugged in, stuff like that. The “documentation” is basically useless, this really is a phone for people that already spend half their lives on the Google search form. 🙂

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