IN DEPTH REVIEW: Motorola Milestone – the Droid we’ve been waiting for?

IN DEPTH REVIEW: Motorola Milestone - the Droid we've been waiting for?


This aggressive attack on the Apple iPhone’s shortcomings resulted in Motorola selling as many as 800000 Droid handsets in the first week of US sales according to one analyst’s estimates and they’ve followed on by launching a direct to retail GSM version of Droid in Europe branded as the Motorola Milestone.

The following review is based on this European Milestone 3G HSDPA version of the phone which will work with all Australian mobile frequencies except Telstra’s NextG. Motorola Australia wouldn’t tell us if or when it would be released in Australia but it’s a pretty sure bet it will be coming soon given how dire Motorola’s situation is in the mobile handset market — it will want to get this product out to as many markets as possible to reinvigorate its ailing brand reputation.

As an interesting side note Verizon/Motorola had to pay a licence fee to sell the phone as “Droid” in the USA because DROID is a registered trademark of Lucasfilm.

Much to the dismay of Australian Star Wars and Android fans the high cost of licensing the name means it is unlikely a similar phone released in Australia will bear the Droid name.

Motorola’s big bet on Android

Motorola the company that invented mobile phones hasn’t released a cool new phone for so long that many people will have just about forgotten they still have a mobile division.

The Motorola logo displayed on screen when the Milestone is powered on is reminiscent of the Bat Sign displayed in the sky by Gotham City to signal an emergency that requires Batman’s help. We’re sure this similarity was unintended but it reminded APC that this is probably the last roll of the dice for Motorola’s stale mobile division.

Once the market leader with its RAZR phones Motorola realised it had been usurped by the iPhone Blackberry and other cool new smartphones and decided to make a big bet on Android in 2008 dedicating hundreds of developers and a substantial financial investment in the hope that hitching its wagon to the nascent open source Google Android mobile operating system would be successful.

So is this the Droid you’ve been looking for? Keep reading our in-depth review to find out if this rebel alliance of Motorola and Google’s Android 2.0 operating system will cause people to hesitate when they consider buying an iPhone.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Setting up Droid#]

Initial Setup

After unboxing the Milestone we manually entered our Australian mobile carrier’s access point name (APN) details. (All Android phones require a data connection to set up the phone with your Google Account on initial startup and the European model we had for review didn’t have APNs for Australian mobile carriers built-in.)

Thanks to an Australian Android fan iMuse you can find all the necessary APN details to use an imported Android phone on Telstra Optus Vodafone etc at sholes.id.au/apns.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Droid’s AMAZING screen#]

WOW Factors

Our first thought on seeing the Milestone was WOW. The 3.7 inch touchscreen has a jaw dropping WVGA resolution of 480 x 854 pixels which is more than twice the resolution of the iPhone 3GS and previous Android phones like the HTC Dream and HTC Magic.

This resolution meant that with the screen in horizontal mode we could comfortably and quickly read articles on the APC website for example without needing to zoom in. Even better the Milestone supports pinch to zoom while web browsing out of the box unlike previous Android phones like the HTC Dream and Magic which had to be hacked to enable multi-touch due to Apple’s sabre-rattling over its multi-touch patents.

While the Droid and Milestone don’t ship with browsers that can display Flash web content they are “Flash 10 ready” and the plan is to Flash-enable them in the near future.

You can display a lot of information or view large images with ease on the Milestone thanks to its very high-density 250+ ppi (pixels per inch) screen. (Bear in mind that the laser printers of yesteryear had a 300dpi resolution so it’s pretty amazing that this phone’s display is nearing laser printer resolution — and in colour which requires four times the number of sub-pixels than a mono laser printer!) However the contrast is still average with black backgrounds onscreen looking more like dark grey unlike the vivid OLED screen used by Samsung’s Galaxy Android phone which displays blacker blacks and truer colours.

Motorola has armed the Droid with the same Texas Instruments OMAP3430 CPU used in the iPhone 3GS and it shows. The Milestone is noticably faster than all the Android phones we’ve tested before (Dream Magic Hero Galaxy) in all aspects: boot time loading websites launching apps and multi-tasking.

Build quality is exactly that – quality. With a reassuring square industrial design this phone feels solid reliable and built to last.

The Milestone is very slim for a qwerty slider phone and easily fits into a jeans pocket. However its 165gm weight (30gm more than iPhone 3GS) is very noticeable if you’re using it with hand in front of your face or while lying down.

[#PAGE-BREAK#What’s in the new Android 2.0#]

Android 2.0

The Droid and Milestone are the first phones to market with Google’s shiny new Android 2.0 operating system.

The first notable improvement we noticed was multiple account support for email and contact synchronization including Gmail Exchange POP and IMAP email.

Pressing on a contact’s photo in the contacts list now activates the new “quick contact” feature which provides instant shortcuts to call view contact details SMS Gmail or even navigate to a person’s address.

In Android 2.0 Google has finally made the operating system stable and concentrated on improving the user experience and improving visuals via Open GL support with much faster scrolling in information heavy areas like the calendar and web browser.

Another much improved area is search with the option to use a “Global Inbox” to browse email from multiple accounts in one page and a Universal Search widget on the homescreen which lets you search Contacts Browser bookmarks/history Apps Youtube Media gallery Music or do a voice search from a single box.

Google Maps is one of the Android features most people use all the time on their phone and the Android 2.0 version of Google Maps has a lot more features such as data layers for Terrain and Traffic Density. The Milestone’s speedy hardware definitely assists in lowering the time taken to lock onto a GPS satellite signal to determine current location and view the map directions.

The much improved Android 2.0 Camera app takes advantage of the good camera hardware in the Milestone. There’s a stabilised lens a quite powerful built-in LED flash for low light/night photos and the software allows you to adjust the white balance color effects and choose whether the autofocus is set to landscape or macro.

While we’re mentioning multimedia features it should be noted that the Camera App also toggles to record Video at 720 x 480px (DVD resolution) and the Milestone has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack to let you easily listen to music stored on its MicroSD card.

The Android 2.0 web browser is a lot faster than before and sports a refreshed user interface including bookmarks with thumbnail preview photos double-tapping on the touchscreen to zoom (plus the pinch zoom we mentioned previously) and support for the new HTML 5 standard.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Shortcomings#]

Shortcomings

The most impressive feature of the Motorola Droid is the Google Maps Navigation app which includes free real-time turn-by-turn navigation with voice and 3D maps …….. when used within the USA. Major letdown!

Sadly the Milestone doesn’t have this feature. We checked with Google Australia who confirmed that free turn-by-turn maps is very unlikely to be enabled on any Android phone launched in Australia because it would require renegotiating the licence for Australian map data with the owner Mapdata Sciences.

One of Android’s big advantages over the iPhone is multiple homescreens that can be heavily customised with personalised wallpaper application shortcuts and a wide variety of widgets including music flipping date/time display weather and news.

Unfortunately the Motorola Milestone continues the trend started by the HTC Dream of only allowing three homescreens when Android is capable of five or more. It’s a bit hard to understand why Motorola has done this but perhaps it’s because updating that many homescreens in the background would slow the phone’s performance down too much.

On a positive note the Power Control widget included in all Android phones from 1.6 onwards is a great way to quickly turn Wifi Bluetooth GPS background syncing and three of screen brightness.

While the HTC Dream was roundly critisised for many flaws its slideout QWERTY keyboard was one of the best we’ve used on a mobile phone.

The Motorola Milestone also has a slideout QWERTY Keyboard but while it feels sturdy key pressing is very shallow there’s no dedicated number row. The four-way DPAD button also wastes space and all these conspire to make typing speed much slower than when using the HTC Dream’s slideout QWERTY Keyboard.

Overall considering that Android 2.0 features a much improved virtual onscreen keyboard we feel Motorola would have been better off ditching the physical slideout keyboard thereby also making the phone slimmer and lighter. However if a physical keyboard is important to you this is one of the slimmest phones to offer one.

To date all Android phones have had physical buttons at the bottom of the phone for commonly-used features like answer/hangup menu home and search.

Motorola has chosen to locate the home back menu and search as touchscreen buttons perhaps in an effort to to help the Milestone’s screen look larger and more imposing.

Unfortunately this means the buttons have no tactile separation and it’s quite easy to accidentally brush and press the search button (far right) or back button (far left) with your fingers while holding the phone which is quite annoying.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Battery life and apps compared to the iPhone#]

Like its nemesis the iPhone the Milestone’s 1400mAh battery can last a whole day only if used very lightly. We used our review Milestone phone for a week under different conditions and found that on average it lasted 10 hours ranging from 7 hours for heavy use to 15 hours on one day when it wasn’t used much. Charging from flat to 100% takes about two hours via the included power charger.

While the Milestone is bundled with a decent-sized 8GB MicroSD card (you can swap that for up to 32GB) all Android devices are still yet to catch up with the storage space offered by the iPhone 3GS which comes with 16GB/32GB out of the box.

Android Market now has better-defined categories and thumbnail screen shots displayed in app details to help people to decide whether to install them which is welcome. However now that the Market has passed 20000 Apps we’d love to see more ways to search and discover eg: dynamic categories like “Most Popular New Apps”.

It should be noted that the ratio of free/paid apps is inverted when comparing the Android Market (62% free apps) to the Apple iPhone Store (23% free apps) so Android users have a lot more apps available to use for free.

Over the Air Updates

You may not be aware that there are several kinds of Google Android licences. The Droid/Milestone uses the “with Google” licence which allows Motorola to fix any small bugs in the phone by automatically pushing updates to all the Droid and Milestone phones worldwide through the phone’s data/WiFi connection regardless of which mobile carrier the phone is being used with.

While the Droid and Milestone initially shipped with Android 2.0 an update to 2.01 is almost ready and will be distributed soon.

[#PAGE-BREAK#APC’s Verdict#]

Verdict

During 2009 APC reviewed many smartphones and saw that Android had great promise but was generally let down by poor hardware.

While it has shortcomings the Milestone with Android 2.0 is the first real Android challenger to iPhone’s crown and is clearly far superior to any of the Android phones sold in Australia to date by HTC or Samsung.

Keep an eye on APC for more smartphone reviews during 2010 because the trickle of Android handsets through 2009 will become a flood in 2010 starting with the much anticipated Google Nexus One rumoured to launch in the first week of January 2010.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Buying the Motorola Milestone/Droid in Australia#]

Availability

This in-depth review is based on the European Milestone Android 2.0 version of the phone. The Droid and Milestone are only available in black with gold detailing at this stage.

As of Christmas 2009 Motorola Australia said it had no comment to make about whether a version of this phone will be released in Australia or if so whether it would be direct to retail or via partnership with a mobile carrier like Telstra Optus or Vodafone.

The Motorola Milestone handset used by APCMAG to write this review has been imported from Europe by the Australian online retailer Mobicity which sells them for $849 with a local 12 month warranty.