Smartphone Showdown: iPhone 3GS vs Motorola Droid

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Update: When you’re done with this post, check out Round 2

If hype were to be believed, the Motorola DROID is the pièce de résistance of the mobile world; the conclusive creation sent down by the Great Smartphone in the sky to rid us of our woes. It would prepare your breakfast promptly each morning, tuck you in at night, and, maybe — just maybe — knock the iPhone down a notch or two.

Beginning about a week before its launch (largely due to Verizon’s incredibly intense marketing campaign) I began getting calls and tweets from friends and colleagues asking about the Droid. They always had two questions: the first would be something like “What do you think of the Droid?”, followed by “Would you recommend it over the iPhone?” Same questions, each.. and.. every.. time.

I’ve been using the Droid as my primary phone for a few days now, and I think I’m finally ready to answer them.

A bit about the reviewer:

Being that I’m only human, it is absolutely impossible for me to be 100% objective when comparing two phones. Thus, my only option is to be as transparent as possible. Going into this review, I had used an iPhone (which, for disclosures sake, I pay for in full) as my primary device for around 2 years. I also regularly use a Palm Pre, Nokia N97, BlackBerry Tour, T-Mobile G1, and an HTC Touch2 to ensure a general knowledge of all the major platforms. I am an iPhone developer by hobby. This Droid unit was provided by Motorola for review.

The Looks:

sidebysidea

Comparing the aesthetics of the iPhone and the Droid is.. ludicrous, if not impossible. It’d be like having a heated argument over whether Angelina Jolie was more or less gorgeous than Halle Berry. Each is stunning for their own reasons. Same deal here; the iPhone is engulfed in glistening curves that give it a softer, friendlier look, while the Droid is wrapped in tight, clean angles that make it a shining example of great industrial design.

If we were to consider the overall designs par-for-par, all we’d have left to nitpick is the details. In the Droid’s case, the gold details on the camera button, 5-way D-Pad, and rear casing lose it some points for looking like something straight out of a bad 70’s bachelor pad. The iPhone then loses its ground for the fact that the glossy back casing is damned near impossible to keep clean and free of fingerprints.

The Winner: It’s a tie. Both are drop dead gorgeous, and the only flaws of each are downright trivial.

On-Screen Keyboards:

iphonekbdroidKB

In preparation for the onslaught of candybar Touchscreens that were sure to follow after the success of the iPhone, Android earned on-screen keyboard support shortly after the launch of the G1. At first, it.. well, it sucked. A lot.

It has gotten better since, however – on the stock build of Android 2.0 I’ve got running on this Droid, I’m able to blast about at nearly the same rate as I can on my iPhone. That’s impressive for Android’s sake, considering that I’ve spent considerably more time on the iPhone keyboard.

That said, the iPhone’s autocorrect seems a bit better at properly attending to my typos, primarily on shorter words that have more potential alternatives.

The Winner: iPhone, by a very slim margin. It just does a better job at guessing what I’m trying to type as I poke my way around a sea of glass. That said..

Physical Keyboard:
keyboard

For many, a physical keyboard is a must-have. Every smartphone I had prior to an iPhone had a physical keyboard, and I still prefer a physical keyboard after two years. The Droid has one, and the iPhone doesn’t – so it wins this one by default.

That’s not to say the Droid keyboard is all that great – nor is it terrible. It is decidedly average. The buttons are practically flush with each other, and it’s quite easy to jam down on two buttons at once.

To rank it amongst some of the more well known keyboarded handsets of the past few years: the Droid keyboard is better than that of the G1, Helio Ocean, and the BlackBerry Curve, but not nearly as good as anything from the Danger Sidekick line, the BlackBerry Tour, or the HTC Touch Pro 2.

The Winner: Droid, by default.

The Browser:

iphone browseandridbrowse

On the popular web-standards test known as Acid3, the iPhone scores a 100/100 while the Droid caps out at 93/100. Thus, if we’re going purely by measurable standards here, the iPhone browser wins. That said, we’re not robots – standards schmandards, we like what we like.

With that said, I still prefer the iPhone browser. It tends to render pages pixel perfect (as implied by the Acid3 test results), while the Droid would occasionally fall short. Oddly, it renders pages more accurately when they’re being viewed in landscape mode than in portrait mode. What really sealed the deal, however, was multi-touch in the browser. Once you’ve grown accustomed to pinch-zooming, the level of accuracy provided by tap-zooming alone simply doesn’t cut it.

The iPhone browser is also considerably faster, with page loads completing anywhere from 15-30% more quickly with both handsets on WiFi.

The Winner: iPhone, thanks to multitouch, faster pageloads and web standards compliance.

Navigation:
Screen shot 2009-10-30 at [ October 30 ] 7.28.42 PM

When it comes to the standard mapping/directions stuff, the two phones are about on par. Turn-by-turn voice navigation is a whole different matter, however.

Out of the box, the iPhone 3GS has Google Maps, which does not currently do turn-by-turn voice navigation. The App Store provides a bunch of solutions for this, ranging from a few bucks a month all the way up to a one-time payment of $99 bucks.

The Droid also has Google Maps, but it’s Google Maps with Navigation – and it really, really rocks. It does nearly everything the iPhone Maps app does, with the addition of toggleable layers (show/hide traffic, satellite views, Wikipedia entries, and transit lines), support for Google’s Latitude location-sharing service and, most notably, completely free turn-by-turn voice navigation. You can also search for locations by voice, something we were surprised was absent when Apple added voice recognition to the iPhone.

Like with the browser, we miss the multi-touch support – but we’d gladly give that up for the free voice navigation.

The Winner: Droid. None of the for-pay apps we’ve used come close to the ease of use and functionality Google provides in their free app.

Lock Screen:

iphoneunlockAndroidunlock

On both the iPhone and the Droid, the lock screen is essentially just that: a screen which shows when your handset is locked. The Droid has one small (but clever) bonus feature thrown in which allows you to quickly silence the handset with a single swipe – but considering that the iPhone has a physical silence switch on the side, this isn’t a defining feature. Out of the box, both handset’s lockscreens are equally meh.

Yet, this is still somewhere the Droid manages to outshine the iPhone, by playing on the open nature of Android. Right within the Android Market, you can download applications which greatly expand the functionality of the lockscreen, such as the widget-based Flyscreen.

You can do similar things on an iPhone – but not without jailbreaking. Considering that Apple wanted to make jailbreaking illegal, it’s hard to consider things that require jailbreaking as fair equivalents to things that come straight from Google’s own catalog.

The Winner: Droid.

Battery Life:

lemon

I’ll be honest: I haven’t done a formal battery life test with the Droid. Hell, I’ve never done one with the iPhone, either. That said, I’ve been using both devices equally throughout the day, and they’re both hovering around a 50% charge. This holds true with what I’ve seen for the last few days of testing; the Droid’s battery life is right around par with the iPhone’s. The Droid’s 1400 mAh battery is slightly larger than the iPhone 3GS’ at 1150mAh 1219mAh, but the battery hungry multi-tasking probably cancels that out. Without any formal testing, I’ve got to declare it a tie.

The Winner: Tie (With a slight lean in Droid’s direction as it has a swappable battery – but really, what percentage of the population carries one?)

App Stores:

iphonestoreandroidstore

Google’s got around 10,000 apps in their collection. Apple’s got somewhere around 10x that, with the App Store currently floating right around 100,000 items.

Of course, quantity does not equal quality. As anyone who’s really spent a ton of time in either App Store would agree, the majority of applications in both range from bad to horrible, and their are plenty of gems in both. Both have a great application (and a handful of not so great alternatives) for nearly every common need.

The primary strength of the Android market is its openness. Google has stood quite true to their original promise of allowing anything outside of what was undeniably illegal or malicious. This is something members of the tech industry like to tout about as a killer feature – but in the end, it simply doesn’t matter. The only way to gauge the success of an App Store is to try to view it as an average consumer — you know, the ones spending the most money — would. By and large, the average consumer would not care about any of the things Apple has thus far banned. To make an argument that could go on for many pages very, very short: your grandma does not care about Google Voice.

After spending a lot of time in both stores, I feel that I can honestly say that the selection and overall quality of the App Store is significantly better. Everything we’ve seen and all conversations we’ve had with big development houses indicates that they’re putting much, much more effort in iPhone app development than they are with Android.

The iPhone has a tremendous lead here, both in quantity and quality. In time, as Android handsets flood the market and hopefully do away with the feature phone all together, it may very well catch up – but that’s simply not the case in the foreseeable feature.

Winner: iPhone.

Customization:

The smartphone is the fifth limb we never knew we needed. It goes with us wherever we go, helps us function from day to day, and serves countless purposes. Where as many turn to body art to customize their original limbs to express themselves and claim ownership, many will customize their smartphone for all the same reasons.

Customization on the iPhone is depressingly limited. You can customize wallpaper of the lock screen, change your ringtone, and.. well, that’s it. Want to add your own text alert sound? Nope. E-mail alert sound? Nope. That would be absolutely okay be it that the iPhone was a Nokia from 1998.

The flexibility of Android customization is still somewhat limited, but it at least has the basics covered. You can change e-mail and text alerts, app icons, and your ringtone/wallpaper.

The Winner: Droid

Camera Quality Samples:

Photos on the left are from the iPhone; photos on right are from the Droid. Click through to see bigger samples.

The Winner: Based off these photos alone, we can’t say. We had a hard time getting the Droid to focus, especially in lower light. While the iPhone was focusing just fine, the details kept getting lost.

The Screen:

iphoneresdroidres

The iPhone rocks a 3.5″, 480×320 touchscreen display, while the Droid has a 3.7″ 854×480 touchscreen display. While the Droid’s screen isn’t that much bigger, they’ve crammed over 160% more pixels onto that tiny little screen. The result? The Droid screen is absolutely, jaw-droppingly stunning.

Now, no one was complaining that the iPhone’s screen was junk. Given more than 10 seconds from device to device, most people probably wouldn’t even notice a difference. When you’ve got both devices side-by-side, however, the difference is clear. Text is that much clearer; curves just that much curvier.

The Winner: Droid

Interface:

This is a huge point, and one that often goes overlooked in reviews. For the past 10 years, Apple has really only done one thing, over and over: they’ve taken something we thought worked fine, and then simplified the hell out of it while maintaining the feature set. That’s exactly what they did to the idea of the smartphone with the iPhone, and it turned the damned market on its head. Windows Mobile suddenly looks like a hot mess by comparison, and most people would go into shock if they tried to screw with S60.

Even in version 2.0, Android does not match the intuitiveness of the iPhone. If you need to change a setting on the iPhone, you always know where to go: the Settings app. On Android, it can be in one of any number of places.

You can hand an iPhone to a toddler, and they’ll figure out the general gist of things in an instant. (No, really – we’ve done it.) That ease of use is one of the things that makes the iPhone so damned appealing.

The Winner: iPhone

Multi-Tasking:

I can listen to Pandora on the Droid while I peruse around the Facebook App. I can’t on the iPhone. Enough said.

The Winner: Droid

Conclusion:

There are really many, many, many dozens of categories we could dive in to – hell, I’ve got 10 more scratched out in my head alone. But we’d be avoiding an inevitable truth: apples-to-apples, the Droid tends to beat or meet the iPhone. Remote wipe and GPS location? Droid. On-device search? Droid wins. Voice control, contacts, coverage, and call quality? Droid, droid, droid, droid.

Now, back to the two questions we had at the beginning:

Get it? He's on the fence. HAH.

Get it? He's on the fence. HAH.


What do I think of the Droid? It is incredible. It is, hands down, the nicest Android handset on the market. A very significant chunk of this is not so much the Droid’s doing as it is Android 2.0’s, but the hardware is also leaps and bounds better than anything we’ve seen so far.

Would I recommend it over the iPhone? Two thousand plus words later, you might be a bit sad to read: Nope. But I wouldn’t recommend the iPhone over the Droid, either – and that’s the Droid’s real win here. This is the very first phone in over two years that I would consider carrying for day-to-day use instead of my iPhone, but that doesn’t mean I would recommend it whole heartedly to everyone.

Each phone platform has such tremendous merits. Androids got better navigation; the iPhone has a better browser. Androids got unbeatable expandability and flexibility; the iPhone OS is mind-numbingly easy to use and the rate of growth and drive behind the App Store is simply explosive.

With Android 2.0, we’ve come to a very difficult crossroad. No longer can we recommend one handset over the other simply by its feature set. At this point, it’s all about the person who will be carrying it. For you, dearest TechCrunch Network reader: Yes, I’d probably recommend the Droid over an iPhone. Would I recommend it for your mother, father, or little sister? Nope. If you want a phone that just works and does damned near everything you could want and don’t mind Apple’s closed garden: by all means, get the iPhone. If you can handle a bit of complexity for the sake of flexibility and don’t mind having to tinker a bit: by all means, get the Droid. At this point, I honestly feel that either choice would make any sane person incredibly happy.

Update: You wanted more, so we brought more. Join us as we dive even deeper with iPhone vs Moto Droid Round 2

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