May 22, 2013
Attack of the Monster Phones
Posted on Sep 12, 2010
Despite being bigger than the Evo, the Droid feels lighter, and it’s thinner in places. It also manages to feel solid in the hand and pocket. It feels tougher, too, hard and menacing enough to present itself as something you might throw at the guy who just cut you off, until you thought better of it. Using the Evo, I can feel friction between my finger and the screen, whereas the Droid’s screen feels smooth and cool as I glide around it. The Droid’s screen has slightly more pixels than the Evo’s and it’s brighter, too.
I also prefer the Droid X’s hardware buttons, including a camera shutter button, to the Evo’s touch-sensitive alternative. HTC has kept the bezel of the Evo thin, which I appreciate, but it makes touch buttons a real pain and I often find, as I did with Google’s Nexus One phone, that I inadvertently send myself to the home screen or search menu when I’m in the middle of a long e-mail or text. The Droid’s buttons, by contrast, are clicky, more adult somehow.
The respective general themes extend into the user interfaces of the two devices. Both companies have arrogantly imposed their own user-interface layers or “skins” on what’s called “stock” Android. That is, they’ve taken Google’s mobile operating system, which gets exponentially more polished and useful every few months, and globbed on a kind of theatrical facade. There are added features unique to each brand, but not many worth talking about. All this gunking up the works tends to get in the way. It’s like buying a Malibu beach house and finding that someone has installed argyle curtains over the oceanfront windows. But while these added layers can be a headache, both phones run very similar software.
HTC has been working on what it calls “Sense” for years, and it shows. Though the skin is annoying to deal with at times, Sense grew out of a need to bring crucial features to phones, some that HTC made with Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, others it built with Google’s Android. Whatever one’s feelings about these skins—and the antipathy is running high among the chattering tech press—Sense at least had a reason to exist, and, in places, it still does.
I mostly dislike the experience of Sense running on the Evo. It’s fat and bloated and the phone’s girth only makes the problem worse. A list of text messages, for example, is turned into a busy mess of text and shading and hackneyed glass effects and rounded corners to the point that I get a little shapesick. It’s like the overdesigned website you’ll never again go to, but, oh wait, it’s your phone.
Sense is not entirely senseless. The phone’s dialer, for instance, makes up for its garishness with a clever trick. When I dial 262 the phone offers a short list of contacts with that combination of numbers and letters, including “Bob,” “Amanda” and any number in my address book with the digits 262.
The thing that really impresses, though—by far the phone’s greatest software feature—is a little innovation that really ought to be on every mobile device ever sold with a Web browser. The Evo, and a few other Sense devices such as the Droid Incredible, will reflow text to fit your screen. Imagine you are reading a website that is not formatted for a mobile phone. You zoom in to get a closer look at the text, but end up having to “tennis-scroll” back and forth as you read. As you zoom in and out, the Evo wraps the sentences to fit your screen. Zoom in to the point where a single word fills the horizontal, and the Evo will give you a column of single words. Pull out, and it instantly adjusts.
As with the phone’s exoskeleton, the Droid X’s software is more polished and clean than the Evo’s. That does not make it more functional. Flicking through your contacts, the dialer, menu options and messages will win approving glances from the fashionable. But that’s the trouble with fashion. You’re better off with the Evo’s TJ Maxx looks than trying to get anything done in the Droid’s couture heels. It’s not as feature-rich, there aren’t those little touches like the Evo’s alphanumeric dialer or Web text reflow, and while it looks better, inside and out, it has a most annoying phone “feature” that you can’t get rid of. Android, like the iPhone, supports multiple home screens. Swipe through them, attach widgets and apps and contacts as you like. Some of these devices handle the home screens differently. HTC’s phones, including the Evo, let you zoom out and select the screen you want. Motorola, no doubt looking to up the ante, has inadvertently developed a case of home-screen herpes. When you swipe in either direction, a completely useless navigation bar blisters up, preventing you from accessing the frequently needed buttons below (phone, web, apps) ... for a time. It goes away after a second, but that can be surprisingly frustrating for anyone who expects to be able to use the phone without delay.
What’s especially maddening about this is that it serves no real purpose. Eventually, if you stop swiping, the navbar recedes, letting you make a phone call or access your apps. It’s gone … but not permanently. You can’t eliminate it in settings. You won’t find a hidden menu where you can remove it. The only recourse is either to root your phone (you probably don’t want to if you’ve never heard the term) or download a home replacement such as LauncherPro from the Android Market; it’s the cure for what ails the Droid X. Otherwise Motorola’s little design flourishes, while mostly useless, are attractive and don’t interfere with the phone’s functions.
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