Surprise! The Droid Eris is a better smartphone than the Droid

HTC's iPhone-like mobile device is more advanced in key areas than the Motorola Droid, whose physical keyboard is hard to use

This month's purported "iPhone killer" is the Android-based Motorola Droid, which Verizon began selling in the United States on Nov. 6. Unfortunately, it has some real flaws that make it less enterprise-friendly than the iPhone, so it won't kill off the iPhone in business. But the Motorola Droid is a surprisingly good device for individuals and businesses that uses Gmail, POP- or IMAP-based e-mail, or Exchange with no ActiveSync security policies.

But with all the hoopla around the Motorola Droid, a better and cheaper phone is getting ignored: the HTC Droid Eris.

[ See why the Droids are too risky for use in business. | Find out Android 2.0's real odds of unseating the iPhone in "Android 2.0: The iPhone killer at last?" ]

Both Droids are compelling devices. Their WebKit-based browsers work well -- as well as the iPhone's. The iPhone's cut and paste is a bit more intuitive, but the Android approach is quite usable. Calendar and address book capabilities are sound, you get the map and messaging features you'd expect, some good apps are starting to emerge, you can sync files and music to the removable SD cards, the cameras are quite good (the Motorola Droid even has an LED flash), and both devices work well as voice phones. The Android UI is pretty intuitive -- not up to iPhone standards, but more intuitive than the Palm Pre's -- and frankly pretty darn good. And its multitasking, which is something the iPhone can't do, works smoothly and with no performance degradation.

I was surprised that I preferred the cheaper HTC Droid Eris over the "iPhone killer" Motorola Droid. First, HTC's UI is better, with cool features such as the ability to show e-mail previews on the home screen and provide a quick-access menu bar on the home screen. Another cool HTC feature: The onscreen keyboard shows the special symbols above the letters, and if you tap and hold a letter, a pop-up lets you choose a special symbol -- that's much easier to use than the switch-the-keyboard approach of the Droid, Palm Pre, and iPhone. The UI uses pop-down menus extensively in apps to set preferences easily. HTC's UI extensions have a bunch of such intuitive, quick-access capabilities.

By contrast, Motorola uses the stock Android 2.0 UI, which results in a more awkward experience. An example: The home screen's analog-only clock gets in the way of your major apps and useful features, such as seeing the time or how many new e-mail messages you have. The HTC Droid Eris uses the Android 1.5 OS, but the company says it is very likely to provide an Android 2.0 upgrade once it completes porting its UI innovations to Android 2.0.  Motorola has made a big deal of using Android to innovate, but HTC is where the Android innovation so far is actually happening.

Beyond the UI, the HTC Droid Eris has a multitouch screen like the iPhone's, which allows for the use of gestures such as pinching to zoom in. The pricier Motorola Droid doesn't support gestures (apparently, its screen does, but not the bundled apps), so all you can do is scroll and swipe with your finger; you have to use onscreen controls to zoom, which is less exact than the HTC Droid Eris' gesture approach. The Motorola Droid's screen is larger and sharper than the HTC Droid Eris', but its automatic brightness adjustment can make it flicker in some environments (you'll want to turn this feature off), and the HTC Droid Eris has better default contrast and brightness settings.

The HTC Droid Eris' lighted trackball at first glance is like the Research in Motion BlackBerry Bold's, which is not very accurate. But I found that the trackball worked smoothly and accurately on the HTC Droid Eris. You don't need it to navigate the screen most of the time, but it comes in very handy for fine movements, such as when moving the cursor within text. The Motorola Droid has no equivalent, and so it's harder to work with text on it.

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