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Techology Untangled: The Android alternative to the iPhone

Stephen Bour
December 8, 2010
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Technology UntangledI bought a new smartphone recently. Since I wanted to stay with Verizon, I was unable to consider an iPhone (although Verizon says that iPhones may be available in several months). Instead, I chose a phone with the competing Android operating system. Today’s review will discuss the latest Droid phones by Motorola and their Android software.

Two of the newest Droid phones released by Motorola are the Droid X and the Droid 2. The main difference between the two is that the Droid X is a touch screen only phone, while the Droid 2 has a slide-out keyboard for texting. I have never been a big fan of touch screen virtual keyboards, so the choice was easy for me. The Droid X is wider and slimmer than the Droid 2, and very similar in form to the iPhone. Both phones have an expansive list of features and a seemingly unlimited menu of additional applications available for download.

While there are many, many applications available for download at several dollars a pop, there are many free apps, too; in fact, a lot more than I expected. One free application I enjoy is the scanner radio app that lets me to listen in on police and emergency radio calls locally, or from places all over the world. Another is the Lookout security app (mylookout.com) that can remotely turn on the phone GPS to help find my lost phone on a map and activate a loud alarm.

The navigation app that came with the phone and works with Google maps has been very useful and is beginning to replace my standalone car GPS. This application allows me to simply speak a destination such as “Starbucks” or “grocery store” and then receive spoken instructions with maps and actual street level photographs to guide me to the destination of my choice. Google owns the Android operating system, so you get all the benefits of Google’s databases when using it.

Aside from the fun applications, my more important business need for this new Droid 2 phone was its usefulness for e-mail and Web browsing. The e-mail works very well and the Web browsing is much faster than I expected. I guess I am starting to believe some of Verizon’s hype about its fast 3G data network. The browsing works even faster when you set up the phone to work with a Wi-Fi network instead of the 3G when a connection is available.

Here is a tip for even more efficient smartphone Web browsing. Check if the websites you visit regularly offer an Android application. For example, I found that the Android application for my local television news site had a cleaner, faster, and more efficient interface that simply worked and looked better than the “standard computer” page or the “mobile device” Web page.

Labeling a device like the Droid as a “smartphone” really isn’t descriptive enough. A better description for my Droid 2 is a computer that happens to include a phone app. And as a computer, it has many of the foibles of every other computer I’ve owned. For example, sometimes it will spontaneously lock up, and the only solution is to power down and reboot (at least it doesn’t take as long as rebooting a Windows computer). It struggles with certain applications for no specifically identifiable reason. Usually the expedient solution is to uninstall the offending application. This may simply be the nature of Android application market, where new apps are likely rushed to market without thorough testing.

A smartphone like this Droid has so many features and so much capability that actual phone calls almost become an interruption to my working with the applications! For example, I have had the verbal driving directions of the navigation app interrupted by a phone call right when I was at a critical turn. I have also had the directional instructions speak up and distract me while I was in the middle of an important phone call. These types of problems make me almost wish that I instead had a simple, standalone cell phone for communication, and a separate device to run all the intriguing apps. Well, isn’t that precisely the niche of the iPad?

I never understood the need for non-phone, non-computer devices like the iPad. I reasoned that a computer and a smartphone would pretty well cover all my needs. But I now better understand the appeal and see the utility of a device that acts neither as a phone or as a full-blown computer. Verizon does now offer the iPad, but I’ve taken a liking to the Android operating system, so the next Android device that I plan to consider is the Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet computer.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD, and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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