Smartphone Showdown: iPhone 3GS vs Motorola Droid Round 2

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My inbox is in pain. Almost immediately after I hit the publish button on last week’s iPhone 3GS vs Motorola Droid Smartphone Showdown, a torrential blast of comments and questions has been barraging just about every communication inlet I’ve got. Phone calls. Twitter DMs. Lots, and lots, and lots of emails. Across the board, it all seems to indicate one thing: people want more. We hear you.

There are a number of worthwhile topics I simply didn’t get a chance to touch on, and a few observations I’ve made since that are worth mentioning. For those, may we present: Round 2.

Before we start, I should say: these aren’t all details everyone will care about, by any means. Some of them are quite important; others are downright nitpicky. I highly recommend that you read Round 1 before you read this – it covers many of the major topics, from aesthetics and keyboards to browsers and user interfaces. Also — and I might regret saying this later — feel free to use the comments section down below to ask any lingering questions you may have. I don’t have nearly enough time to test every last minutia – but if you’re curious and I’m able, I’ll add a bit to the post about it.

Foreword: While we are expanding upon the things mentioned in Round 1, the overall conclusion remains the same. To summarize where we left off last time: both the iPhone and the Droid are absolutely incredible for their own reasons, and both have far too many merits for one to truly “defeat” the other. How happy you are with either depends largely on who you are.

With that said, lets begin.

Screens, Part 2 – the Sunlight Test:

sun

As stated in Round 1, the Droid screen demolishes anything we’ve seen in a US smartphone to date – including the iPhone. While the iPhone’s 3.5″, 480×320 will more than satisfy anyone but the pickiest gadgeteers, the Droid’s 3.7″ 854×480 screen is, to resort to an incredibly cheesy cliche, a thing of beauty.

However, there is one place it falls very, very short: under direct sunlight. It is not alone in this, however – the iPhone, too, fails this test miserably. Both handsets essentially go blank under direct sunlight, even with the backlight cranked all the way up. I’m about as suntanned as Casper’s backside in the middle of winter, so it’s not too big of a deal for me – but for anyone who does, you know, go outside, know that you’ll probably need to turn in such a way so as to shade your handset just to make it usable when the sun’s on high.

Winner: Neither.

Ringer Volumes:

Screen shot 2009-11-05 at [ November 5 ] 8.09.47 PM

I always carry my phone in my pants pocket and rely primarily on the vibration to alert my concert-deafened ears of incoming calls. After Round 1, we got lots and lots of requests from people who carry their handset in purses/backpacks, and thus rely on it’s ability to sing.

To be completely candid: We do not have a scientific way of testing this. To be completely candid for 99% of other gadget blogs, neither do they. Our completely unscientific test involved putting each handset exactly 5 feet from a microphone with the speaker in roughly the same place, recording their default ringtones into Audacity, and then comparing overall loudness. I also tested it by putting it in a backpack and pretending my ears were sensitive enough to unquestionably decide.

Winner: Droid, in both tests. Its default ring appears to be about at least 30% louder at its peaks than any of the iPhone ringtones we tried, and it was audibly louder in my bag.

Camera:

We weren’t ready to make a final decision with the Droid camera in Round 1, considering that we’d only taken a handful of pictures. We’ve taken a bunch more since, and our final verdict: it’s average at its best, and terrible at worst.

Droid photos are on the left, with iPhone 3GS photos on the right:

2009-11-05 16.27.23

The main issue is with the auto-focusing system, primarily because it just doesn’t work. More times than I care to count, I’ve seen the Droid auto-focus, lock on as clear as day for about half a second, and then immediately blur. This happens at short range, at long range, at medium range.. it’s just really, really bad at focusing. This can presumably be fixed in a software update, so all hope is not lost.

The one strength the Droid has over the iPhone in the camera department is its flash – but it’s probably not all you’d hoped for. It’ll up the quality of your drunken bar shots a bit, but the vignette effect caused by the LED flash is almost unbearable for anything else.

Android 2.0′s camera user interface is a bit more messy than the iPhones, but it also offers up considerably more: flash settings, white balance, color effects, etc. They tucked all that stuff into a slide out drawer that .. doesn’t like to slide. Pro-tip: Tap the drawer, don’t slide it. It’ll work a bit better.

Winner: The iPhone, if only because it focuses when I ask it to.


Video Quality:

I shot the same video on both phones whilst holding the two phones as closely together as I could without blocking either phones lens.

Droid:

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=7465561&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1

iPhone:

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=7465528&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1

How is it as a phone?:

There are a number of points to touch on on this matter, so we’ll break it down thusly:

  • Call Quality: We got a surprising number of questions about this. Turns out, people wanted to know how well this phone served as, you know, a phone. We’ll keep this one simple: The Droid, in combination with Verizon’s network, is an absolutely shining example of how call quality should be. Both the earpiece and the speakerphone go all the way up to 11 without fidelity failures.

    To compare sound quality, we called a handful of people back-to-back. The Droid’s incoming sound quality was noticeably better in each call, to the point that we thought we were doing something wrong. I switched locations and tried again on a different iPhone (note: a 3G, rather than a 3GS) – same story. The Droid’s incoming call quality is simply superb.

    The difference in outgoing sound quality wasn’t nearly as clear cut. One of our callers thought we’d just called back on the same phone. Four of the five callers thought we sounded better on the Droid when we were in a semi-loud environment (by that, we mean a crowded coffee shop – not a construction site), but only one felt they noticed a difference when we were in a more standard environment.

    Winner: Droid, because it completely floors the iPhone on incoming voice quality.

  • Visual Voicemail: We hate, hate, hate the traditional voice mail system around these parts, so Visual Voicemail is a plus. The iPhone does it out of the box – the Droid doesn’t. You can pay Verizon $2.99 a month for the feature — which is a crock of nonsense — or use Google Voice, for free. I’ll probably have to argue with my TechCrunch colleagues about this for the rest of the night, but Google Voice isn’t enough. It’s a great alternative, but it’s just that: an alternative. At this point, the Droid (and all smartphones) should do this, for free, out of the box.

    Winner: iPhone.

  • Phone Interface: The phone interfaces on both are very, very similar. You’ve got the Keypad/Phone, Call Logs/Recent, Contacts, and Favorites on both, and the aforementioned Visual Voicemail on the iPhone (which we won’t count against the Droid here, as we counted it separately above). These interfaces are so damned similar, we were just about to tie it, but…

    Winner: Droid. The default contacts system on the Android 2.0 is outstanding. It pulls everything from Facebook, constantly syncs profile photos to contacts, and shows Google Chat online status. It’s polish, but it’s polish we appreciate.

  • Carrier Signal: I live in an interesting area of California when it comes to testing phones. We’re mostly blanketed in 3G on both AT&T and Verizon, but we don’t have a big enough population that it ever strains either network. I don’t see the same dropped call rate my iPhone-carrying colleagues in the Bay Area and New York see – in fact, I rarely drop a call. However, I do regularly see my iPhone’s signal go from full to empty in distances of a few feet. At the top of my entryway, for example, I’ve got full 3G and can make a call – if I take two steps down, I lose everything (including EDGE) and calls fail immediately.

    I’ve only been testing Verizon’s network for a week now while I’ve been on AT&T for two years, so to directly compare my experiences would be unfair. I can say, however, that I’ve yet to find any dead zones — and trust me, I’ve looked — and the spots where my iPhone fails, the Droid has no problem. It’s two entirely different networks (and radio technologies), so this is to be expected – but I must say that, at least for little nook of Central California, I’m mighty impressed by the coverage. Winner: Unable to fairly determine; while the Droid hasn’t shown any faults yet, it’s going up against 2 years of AT&T experience.

  • Multi-tasking while talking on the phone: Background processing is one of Android’s much touted strengths, but in the case of the Verizon Droid (or any other CDMA phone), it has one fault: you can’t make a call and use the data connection at the same time. On a call with your sweet one and need to look up the address of the restaurant you’re meeting at tonight? If you’ve got a WiFi connection, you’re golden – but if you’re relying on 3G, you’ll get a big ol’ error alert. It’s not an issue that comes up for me a whole lot, but it’s something we hear VZW customers rant about on the regular.

    However, it’s worth nothing: if WiFi is available, Droid is definitely the superior multi-tasker. Even if you don’t have a need to pop into a specific app, being able to check all of your incoming notifications at a glance is incredibly helpful.

    Winner: If WiFi isn’t available, iPhone. If it is, Droid.

Start-up time:

We got more than a few e-mails about this, so for good ol’ comparison’s sake:

  • iPhone 3GS: 30.2 seconds
  • Motorola DROID: 38.6 seconds.

This was measured by recording both on video, starting each phone from a completely powered down state, and then determining the time based off the videos. Both handsets have e-mail configured, a few dozen apps, and plenty of usage on them.

Winner: iPhone, by a bit over 8 seconds.

Notifications:

IMG_0204 device

Background notifications are like a godsend for iPhone users and developers alike – but it’s still a tacked on solution. Apple didn’t really go about developing the iPhone OS with the idea that such things would be necessary, and so the solution isn’t optimal. You get a maximum of one at a time, and they’re fired at you like a baseball to the crotch in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

I absolutely prefer the Android notification system. They’re thrown into a slide-out drawer rather than into your face, and can be pulled out, viewed, and cleared at almost any time. This also lets them throw in reminders, such as Birthday alerts (pulled from Contacts/Facebook) and calendar items.

Android is also the only one of the two that allows you to turn off notifications without diving into the settings, via the fourth icon on the “Power Control” homescreen widget. When you’ve got 5+ apps constantly firing off bleepy-bloopy noises, being able to stifle them with a single click as opposed to four or five is a nice – if very small – touch.

With all that said, Android’s system notification may be a bit much for the lay user. We’re not trying to underestimate the lay user here, but additional layers of complexity tend to.. well, complicate things. If I handed this phone to my mom and asked her to “slide out the notification drawer and check for new emails”, she’d probably respond with “So wait, I open my Google?” It’s no sweat for even a fledgling geek, but it might bewilder anyone who’s new to the smartphone scene for a day or two.

Winner: Android/Droid. Its notification system is a bit more complicated, but far more capable.

The Smudge Test:

Here’s one you don’t see in reviews very often, but it’s important if you actually plan on using the phone. Any phone can be gorgeous when it comes out of the box – but carry it around in your lint-filled, sandy pockets for a few hours, and it’ll look like its seen wars.

I’m not exactly a dirty person. I wash behind my ears and, outside of the days where I get to stay at home in my pajamas, tend to dress well enough. I ..can.. not.. keep my iPhone clean. Specifically the backside. After I lug it around for a full day, it comes back looking like it spent the afternoon in someone’s mouth. It’s inexplicably gunky and covered in fingerprints, to the extent that I’m convinced someone is stealing my iPhone and putting crap all over it. The Droid’s admittedly less exciting matte backside does a far better job of keeping prim and proper, in that I’d gladly hand it to someone without having to rub it across my pant leg first.

The tables turn slightly when you start talking about the front side, though. While the Droid screen does just as good as the iPhone 3GS’ much touted oleophobic screen (in fact, we think the Droid screen might have an oleophobic coating as well), there is a gap around the edge of the screen that is juuuust big enough to pick up random particles of whatever crap you have in your pocket, but not big enough (as with the iPhone) that most of it falls right out.

Winner: Tie. The Droid does a better job of keeping its backside clean, but the iPhone tends to have a neater face.

Media playback:

IMG_0207 media

Considering that Apple spent six years making the iPod prior to launching the iPhone, it’s no surprise that the iPhone’s iPod functionality is damn near flawless. The UI is drop dead simple, and it’s about as pretty as things get before things start getting extraneous. The Android Media player is none of those.

The Droid music playback interface is all over the place, and the design is a sea of black. It’s not unusable by any means, but it lacks any real sign of polish or grace.

The Droid video playback interface.. doesn’t exist. Even in Android 2.0, Android lacks out-of-the-box video support. You can download video apps from the Market, but we’ve yet to find one – be it free or paid – that is really up to snuff. We’d recommend the free Video Player app over anything we’ve seen so far; the interface is very bare bones, but it’ll play 3GPP and H264 videos.

The Winner: iPhone.

App Storage:

Google made a fairly huge mistake in the design of Android, and they haven’t fixed it with Android 2.0. You see, the Droid only has 512 MB of internal memory. This is made okay by the fact that it supports microSD cards up to 32GB, and comes with a 16GB card. But here’s the catch: you can’t use that microSD card for app storage. In fact, you can’t even use all of the 512 MB of internal memory for app storage – you’re limited to 256 MB.

Many Android applications are just 500 KB to 3 Megabytes, so you can squeeze dozens of them into memory without any issue – but that doesn’t mean everything is okay. On the iPhone, applications have free reign over whatever storage space is available on the internal hard drive, opening the door for rich 3d textures and high-fidelity voice/sound files. As a result, many iPhone applications are in the 40-50 megabyte range, with some (such as Myst, or Secret of Monkey Island) reaching up into the hundreds of megabytes.

There is one solution: developers can make the application they host on the marketplace only a few megabytes large, and then have the application download the rest of its media onto the SD card after installation. From a user experience standpoint, however, this is a fairly terrible solution – once you’ve downloaded and installed, it’s time to play.

Google needs to fix this as soon as possible, or its applications will be forever stunted. You can argue that mobile applications shouldn’t need to be hundreds of megabytes large, but I won’t be able to hear you over the awesome voice acting in Monkey Island.

(Note: I am well aware that you can save apps to microSD if you root the Android device. We didn’t count jailbreak-only stuff in Round 1, so we definitely won’t count root-only stuff in Round 2)

Winner: iPhone

Conclusion:

I stand by our original conclusion from Round 1 – heres the important bit:

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.

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