Nokia N900 Versus Motorola Droid/Milestone

The N900 and Motorola Droid represent the latest and greatest of the smartphone market. They’re closely followed by the HTC HD2 but I feel a compulsion to discount it entirely, not just because I don’t have one to hand but because it’s rocking Windows Mobile, the platform which I fled in favour of the iPhone.

What follows is a brief comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of the Motorola Droid (or Milestone in the UK) and Nokia N900 that I hope will lead you toward an informed decision if it comes to a coin-toss between the two. Suffice to say, I went for the N900, but am certainly no Nokia fanboy- I had my reasons!

Looks

I’m going to have to give this one to the N900. But it’s a definite matter of preference. The Droid is a little angular for my tastes and consequently looks very dated. But they say that styles come around so the Droid, for all I know, could well be ahead of the curve. The N900 is curvaceous, clean and simple. It doesn’t look stunning but is better than the Droid. The Droid also seems to have a bizarre lip, or “chin” if you will on the bottom half… is this an Android thing!?

Build

It’s tough to call here. The battery cover on the N900 is a plastic nightmare that makes hot swapping the MicroSD card a bit of a chore. The metal cover on the back of the Droid simply slides off with ease. However, hot swapping the MicroSD in the Droid is absolutely impossible, it’s locked in with the battery. Whoops! The N900 has a very snappy slider which feels great and snaps up/down with a satisfying promptness, the Droid is a little more sluggish but thankfully you’ll only ever need to open it to scare people with the horrible keyboard. The N900 is decidedly obese and doesn’t fit my favourite Proporta slip case (although Proporta have come up trumps with their Aluminium Lined Leather Case for the N900), whilst the sleeker, taller Droid will just squeeze snugly in to a Maya II case. The volume/zoom buttons on the Droid are a little rattly and loose, nothing serious but a little disappointing considering how solid the rest of the device is.

Handling

In landscape mode the N900 wins out, the shorter screen and lack of face buttons leaves two sizeable spots for resting your thumbs when grasping the phone. The Droid has no such space. In portrait mode? Well… the N900 doesn’t have any portrait mode to speak of yet so the Droid clearly wins out, it fits nicely into the palm of your hand and the extra screen width translates beautifully into height for showing lists of emails or articles in Google reader.

Sound

The N900 has the edge here. The Droid has a single speaker located on the right hand side (or bottom) of the phone which your cupped hand will serve to reflect sound from. The N900, however, has a speaker on each side making it a much better media device. Of course, plugging in a pair of headphones eliminates these differences entirely so it really depends on how you intend to use these devices.

The N900 has a built in FM-radio, plus the ability to transmit audio to an FM radio (albeit not with the best of signal strength), whereas the Motorola Milestone has neither.

Display

The Droid is a clear winner here. Not because of display quality but because of its slightly higher 856*480 resolution. It doesn’t sound much, but it makes a difference. I dare say that the display on the Droid also has slightly better colour reproduction. In portrait mode is when it really shines, getting extra lines of contacts, more web content, more apps and more everything else into a single screen.

Input – Touchscreen

There will always be sides in the Capacitive vs Resistive debate, but in a smartphone with this sort of screen density the latter is absolutely essential to make really good use of it. Trying to tap a specific link in the browser on the Droid is a frustrating nightmare when they’re close together, the resistive screen of the N900 allows for a far, far greater level of accuracy that lets those of us with long thumbnails and 20/20 vision make liberal use of the screen density whilst still being able to manipulate tiny onscreen widgets. Suffice to say I’m a heavy supporter of the Resistive camp, particularly when the N900 does it generally quite well and makes kinetic scrolling in the browser feel better than that on Android.

Sadly sensitivity goes right down on the N900 with the application of a screen protector, no such problems in Android. If you’re a proponent of finger-only input then Droid will most likely appeal more. I only wish both had a hybrid Resistive/Capacitive screen for the best of both worlds.

Input – Keyboard

I’m going to go right ahead and call this one in favour of the N900. There’s really no competition, with the embarrassingly ugly steamrolled Spectrum keyboard that the Droid boasts it doesn’t deserve to be called a QWERTY slider at all. If it were a touch cheaper, thinner or lighter and ditched the keyboard altogether it would be a better phone for it.

How Motorola came from the excellent keyboard on the DEXT to the abortion on the Droid truly boggles my mind, but to their credit they’ve included shift keys on both sides of the board (something that really irks me about the N900). The search and menu buttons are a waste of space, though, with them already being on the front of the phone.

Input – Virtual Keyboard

A toughie, the Virtual Keyboard is essential on the Droid, is easy enough to use and makes opening up the atrocious hardware keyboard unnecessary, whew. On the N900, however, we’ve got the peculiar presence of an onscreen keyboard on an almost-landscape-only device with a decent keyboard. The N900 keyboard uses the slightly irritating take-over-the-entire-screen method of presentation which makes it easy to type on and the Droid does the same in landscape mode. But the Droid does it better in portrait, occupying just under half of the screen.

Input – Directional

Again the Droid fails miserably here. The D-Pad, if you could call it that, looks like an RFID security chip and is about as efficient as one too. It’s on the wrong side of the device, is awful to use, looks ugly, and is bizarrely poorly placed. The N900 fares little better though, it doesn’t even have a D-Pad, favouring arrow keys instead. Anyone attempting to play an emulator will either use a Wiimote or WASD (with QEZC for diagonals perhaps). The “pad” on the Droid will select links in a browser, necessary for when the inaccuracy of finger tapping begins to drive you to frustration, on the N900 the arrow keys will very nicely scroll a webpage which is great if you’re lazy, and even better when the screen sensitivity, or lack thereof, gets the better of you. A bit of an all-round fail here, then.

Browsing the web

Despite lofty claims of Flash 10 support the Motorola Droid still has no such thing, so if you made fun of the iPhone’s “The Web, Without Flash” and plan on buying the Droid you might want to backtrack sharpish to save face. The N900 has flash right now, out of the box, and it works pretty damned well. You can browse YouTube or watch embedded videos to your hearts content.

Tapping a URL into both browsers and hitting enter simultaneously even with the Droid freshly and the N900 not, the N900 loaded flash sites faster than the Droid could load the same without flash. On sites like BBC.co.uk the Droid was served the mobile version, a sad waste of its screen density. Of course it’s possible to change this, but it’s quite surprising as a default behaviour on such a device. Suffice to say, the N900 currently runs rings around the Droid in the browsing department.

Apps, apps, apps!

Android has the edge here, Maemo (the OS on the N900) has been around in some form or another for a lot longer, but still hasn’t got a commercial store. Ovi store is on the way, but Android has a good solid lead of commercial apps dished out by an excellent store with background downloading and installation to boot. You can add repositories to the N900 if you’re somewhat technical, but the extra apps granted you by this process can leave you needing to re-flash your device through their irresponsible use of the extremely cozy root filesystem. If any of this is whoosing over your head then I’m afraid to say that the N900 is definitely not for you. It’s still very much a prosumer device which is far more intrinsically open than Android and quite easy to fark up if you don’t heed the warnings of community members in your quest for software.

The Droid is very much closer to the iPhone than it is to the N900. It’s very difficult to truly consider any capacitive input endowed device a true smartphone, and it’s clear that the Droid is out there to appeal more to the average joe customer wanting a super-powered phone than true power users. Power users still go for it however, which is a little bit confusing… but hey, I’m a little biased toward the N900 in this respect. And I can’t blame them for wanting excellent integration with Google’s services.

Games

The N900 doesn’t have much in the way of games unless you’re willing to delve into the development and testing repositories which contain a torrent of software waiting to burst onto the plain old Extras repository. The N900 is, however, a pretty standard platform to target with little to no rumours of another Maemo 5 powered device coming any time soon. Android 2.0 will find its way onto tens of smartphones in very short order, this will either mean we’ll see more and better games on this platform, or hardware so diverse and fragmented that making anything to take true advantage of it becomes impossible. This is a battle that is yet to play out, and with the controls on both phones not lending themselves well to gaming, and Open Pandora on the horizon it’s one I can’t really bring myself to care about!

Grunt

The N900 has an ARM Cortex A8 CPU clocked at 600mhz. The Droid has the same clocked to 550mhz. Both are fairly snappy devices, scrolling in the web browser is smoother on the N900, and switching applications seem smoother on the Droid. The N900 has a lovely thumbnail preview of all running applications, showing them actually running in the background… this can be seen with anything from a residual kinetic scroll in the browser to video, to QuakeLive (I’m not kidding) and is quite impressive but almost entirely superfluous. On paper the N900 is faster, but it’s going to take some time before we see one or the other truly utilised to its full potential.

Storage

32GB built in to the N900. Pretty much zip diddley squat built into the Droid. Need I say more? Yup! The Droid can take up to 32GB of MicroSD storage for a total of… well… 32GB. The N900 can apparently only take up to a 16GB MicroSD for a total of around 46GB. 2GB is reserved for applications.

The N900 supports MicroSD hot swapping, although it’s tricky to get to the card under the crappy battery cover. The Droid battery cover is easy enough to slip off, but you have to remove the battery if you want to swap out that MicroSD. This gives the N900 a massive advantage when it comes to storage, and nobody can argue that.

TV-Out

This is a great feature for emulation. When we finally see SNES creep back onto the N900 after the legal controversy with Nintendo we’ll be able to break out our Wiimotes and play some classic greats on the big screen, albeit in a somewhat naff resolution. But, hey, the original console was no better!

With the command line MPlayer it’s also possible, more or less, to play a video out to your TV whilst doing something else on the N900. This is pretty cool

The Droid? Zip!

Radio/Radio Transmitter

N900? Yup. Droid? You wish! It has to be said, though, that FM radio is an abomination which should be destroyed in favour of wonderful internet radio stations like Slay, and that the FM transmitter is so weak you have to duct-tape your N900 to your car aerial if you want to get a decent signal. But both features do work if you’re willing to compromise!

Conclusion

Yes, I’m a little biased toward the N900 but I must say that I absolutely loved the Motorola DEXT which brought all of Androids benefits to the table with a decent keyboard and a good-enough hardware platform. But my bias has merit. Buying the Droid for Android 2.0 alone is simply a poor justification when better, newer hardware is just around the corner. The awful keyboard, near non existent internal storage, slim set of features and naff browser are not redeemed by the excellent screen and surprisingly slim build of the Motorola Droid. It’s a phone that’s all about compromise and, at £500, there’s just no way any sane person should accept any of those compromises.

The N900 frustrates me with its godawful kickstand, a poor shadow of the excellent one on the N810, and the lack of any good gaming controls is a slight pain but all too common these days. Portrait mode should come shortly, but the phone works so well in Landscape that I find it hard to care.

My biggest single gripe with the N900, however, is that my Three Data SIM simply doesn’t work in it yet. A massive pain if ever there was one, but I’m being patient.

The Droid/Milestone, on the other hand, offends me and shocks me in so many ways that I refuse to believe it was conceived and manufactured this century. It seems to compromise on the most simple of things, and there’s frankly no excuse for it. I want to love it, I really do, I could pick one up for a paltry £50 alongside a £35 monthly contract from T-Mobile, toss away my doesn’t-work-in-the-N900 Three SIM and rock two excellent smart phones with an ear-to-ear grin of geekly smugness. But the fact remains that the Droid is not excellent, I can’t love it no matter how hard I try and I wish Motorola would explain how they can make such a great phone, with great software in one stroke, the DEXT, and such a lemon in another, the Droid.

If you like the sound of the N900, go for it. If you’re wanting to hold out for a Snapdragon powered Android 2.0 phone then you’re not going to be disappointed- at least as long as you wait past the somewhat lacklustre attempts of early 2010 (the Nexus, for example). Just don’t compromise in the mean time with the Droid, it’s not cutting edge, it’s not worth the money, and no matter how much I want that 856*480 screen those extra 26,880 pixels don’t get anywhere near making up for its faults.

The fact that Expansys have notched the N900 up to £504.99 whilst the Droid can be had for £449.99 is, I think, very telling of just how good the former is or, at least, will be when it finally gets some killer software. Of course, pretty much all the software currently available is free which is a nice bonus if you have shallow pockets.

So, If you’re even slightly interested in taking the plunge, do so. The N900 is a true smart phone, of which there are very few these days and I’m surprised day in and day out by just how many ex Android users are shocked by how easy it is to “root” or “jailbreak”. It’s not perfect, but it’s exceptionally good. (Don’t forget to grab a spare battery, too!)

 

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