Dipped in clarified cyborg testosterone as it comes off the assembly line, the Droid X is sci-fi machismo congealed into a phone. Yet it's gelded by steroidal software—a fussy, awkward android with acne the size of asteroids.
Available today, the Motorola Droid X on Verizon for $200 after rebates.
The Droid X is the latest module in a curious outgrowth of smartphone evolution. An industrial slab as vast and barren as a desert planet, it revels in being the most colossal thing that could possibly be called a phone, stretching categorical credulity—and pocket fabric.
Unbridled masculine aggression isn't simply a side effect—it's a marketing tagline. "Are you man enough for this phone?" prods the cyborg eye ripped from a Terminator endoskeleton, chosen by Verizon to be Droid's wordless representative. Is this insecurity? Or is it confidence?
The Droid X is even more mondo than the other Android phone of epic proportions—HTC's Evo, also a juiced-up technical demonstration of how much fancy silicon can be stuffed inside of a phone. The ice scraper-cum-phone is hardware unabashedly designed to provoke the most raging nerd boner possible: 4.3-inch 854x480 screen (slightly higher res than the Evo's 4.3-inch screen), 1GHz TI OMAP processor (a methed-out rendition of the chip inside the original Droid and Palm Pre), 512MB RAM, 24GB storage, 8-megapixel stills, 720p HD video, DLNA compatibility w/ HDMI Micro out, three mics for noise cancellation and wireless N with 3G hotspot powers.
As a pure expression of the limits of mobile hardware and industrial design, the Droid X is kind of a beautiful thing. But that's about the only good thing about the Droid X.
The software—a discordant melange of the not-so-fresh Android 2.1 and various bits of the Blur "social networking" interface from Motorola's lower-end Android phones—is the shudder-inducing poster child for the horrors that can occur when most hardware companies try to make software. It's ugly, scattershot, and confusing. It feels almost malicious.
(Click to embiggen.)
The creeping feeling that Android is the new Windows becomes an overwhelming sensation the first time you boot up Droid X. Seven sprawling desktop screens, littered with widgets, oodles of little programs—the vast majority of which you probably don't want or need. It's overwhelming and utterly incomprehensible if you're not the kind of person who's seen at least two non-JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. The minutes lost to clearing them to get to a reasonably clean desktop, one press-and-hold-and-swipe gesture at a time, brought me back to the sullen days of removing crapware from whiny relatives' Sony Vaios. Breathtaking hardware, filled to the brim with crap. Why would Motorola make this the first impression of its phone? Stuttering and confusion?
A grizzled nerd would see, on the surface, that the Droid X's interface is a only slightly customized spin of Android—things are mostly just skinned to be Droidier—reds, greens and shades of steel. A more pronounced navbar at the bottom announces which of the seven desktop screens you're sitting on as you slide between them, while a semi-permanent widget keeps the phone app and contacts at the ready. The overt Motoblur interface, upfront, is reduced to a handful Motorola widgets for things like the calendar or social networking. (They're attractive by themselves, but amidst the cyborg orgy they stand out in a bad way.) The gimmick is laid thick, but it's on top of Android, rather than replacing parts of it wholesale.
As soon as you dive into the bits that Motorola aims to seriously augment—the social networking aspects from its Blur interface, things gets really messy. Droid X comes with its own accounts and contacts system for Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, Exchange, MySpace, and more, that all resides on the phone. The idea is that you can update your status for every network simultaneously and keep track of all your friends, across every possible service, using Motorola's widgets and contacts system. While it offers more services, it doesn't work nearly as seamlessly as Android's native apps for Facebook and Twitter. The whole setup feels more like an elegant hack. And God help you if cross streams between Android's official Facebook/Twitter apps and Motorola's. We've reached the point where custom interfaces on top of Android really don't do anything better than Google does. They're almost universally worse.
Software kneecaps this phone at nearly every corner. It makes the sizzling hardware look bad in the process. Watching this phone sputter, which it does occasionally for the even most menial of tasks, like opening the apps menu, feels more egregiously tortuous than normal, given its prodigious size and weight. It's brain-stabbingly maddening if you actually know what's inside of all that. (Verizon and Motorola would no doubt like me to you remind the build I've been using is not quite final, so performance could improve, but it seems like a systemic issue with Android 2.1. Android 2.2, with its massive speed boost and other perks, won't be available for this phone until "late summer.")
Update: It's come to light that the phone might self-destruct if you attempt to mod it, like to run a different version of Android—which runs totally counter to what Android is supposed to be about. That's a massive reason to think twice about buying this phone. Unfortunate, because it hits some of the people who'd most want this kind of hardware. Update 2: Motorola tells us they're looking into the issue.
The camera app, while it has an impressive range of options and scenes and modes, can be ridiculously slow to actually snap photos, on top of the dragged-down-gravel UI. (Try starting up the app with the camera button. "Is it being slow, or did it register?" is a popular game.) The shutter feedback it gives is poor too, so when I shot the Droid X alongside the iPhone for a day, I wound up reshooting most of the Droid X's photos at least once. Focusing was a constant battle—it'd have something in focus, and then lose it. (As you might notice in the sample gallery. Also, all photos taken from same position as other comparison cameras—the differences in perspective illustrate the difference camera lenses.) Also,the camera quality is pretty soundly trounced by the iPhone 4—both photos and video—which might be the most disappointing aspect of the hardware. (It's possible a software fix could make things wildly better, as they did for the original Droid.)
The sole brownie point for Moto's interface work is the keyboard. It's the best Android keyboard yet, because it's on an effing giant screen, and it's truly multitouch. It's also the one bit of design here that's relatively clean, if unattractive. (If you don't like it, the Swype system is built in as well, but most people will stumble over it like buried treasure, since it's tucked under a contextual menu for input method.) Less successful is its attempt at an iPhone-style magnifying glass for text selection. Nailing the careful balance between triggering the magnifier and Android's system menu for text is half skill and half luck.
The 3G mobile hotspot app was problematic—it'd drop connected devices for no discernible reason, without warning. It was Verizon-fast when it worked, though, and of course Verizon's network coverage is the best. (Calls, in case you want to make them, were solid with the multiple noise-suppressing mics and multiple antennas, not mindblowingly good.) Average battery life—without 10 bajillion widgets running at once—was a little over a day's use. (That's good.)
We've come to a strange little place with Android, and maybe with non-iPhone smartphones in general. For the first year or two after the iPhone, most phones wanted to be just like it. Now, it seems like they're running away from it, to remold themselves into something as un-iPhone-like as possible. The Droid X is at the X-treme end of that spectrum. But it's not any better for it.
All things considered, it's a showstopping phone whose potential is mutilated by ill-considered, ugly software that's poorly done. The screen is sharp, colorful, resoundingly impressive. The guts are quick. The build is sculpted and robust. Unfortunately, you can't really get around bad software—it's is how a user touches hardware. It's less elegant and focused than the other monster phone of the moment, HTC's Evo on Sprint (and the Droid X doesn't even have four gees). If the Droid X was going to be your next phone, you realistically have three options: the HTC Incredible on Verizon, the Evo on Sprint—or you can hold your breath and hope the Droid X gets better via the magic of software update, since that's where most of the problems are. But don't let your lungs explode in the meantime.
Illustration: Nikki Cook
I like that honking screen
It's large and scoopy, so can beat potential muggers to death with it
Motorola's entire UI and software ruin the hardware's raw power