Droid 4: A smartphone for keyboard purists

Motorola's latest version of its classic Android device boasts a slideout keyboard for those who just can't touch-type

There are too many Android smartphones to choose from, most with meaningless differences as so well parodied on "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend. But one real choice is the Droid 4, the latest version of Motorola Mobility's flagship Android smartphone. Sure, when it comes to its operating system and software, the Droid 4 is the same as Motorola's other business-oriented Android smartphones, such as the Droid Razr Maxx. But the Droid 4 has a significant hardware differentiator: its slideout keyboard.

Ever since the iPhone first shipped in 2007, there's been a contingent of mobile users who can't handle a touch-based onscreen keyboard, and as the world began to abandon the Research in Motion BlackBerry, the absence of an iPhone with a physical keyboard has kept many old-school users from switching. The original Droid, released in late 2009, essentially launched the Android device market we have today, providing the physical keyboard coveted by many. Since then, touch-only devices have taken the lion's share of smartphone sales, and subsequent Droid keyboard models have not done much to stem the tide.

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The Droid 4 gives you reason to reconsider getting a keyboard-based smartphone and provides BlackBerry-using holdouts a compelling reason to drop the dying BlackBerry Bold platform and switch to a modern Android device. The reason is simple: The Droid 4's keyboard is very nicely designed. It's crisply responsive, and its keys have enough shape so that you can easily detect when your thumb has shifted to an adjacent key -- as on a traditonal computer keyboard. The imprinted letters are easy to read even if you have middle-aged eyes, and you get a straight path to keys such as numerals and Tab that are often hard to access with an onscreen keyboard. Simply put, the keyboard is excellent for two-thumb-typing.

As for the rest of the Droid 4, it's a well-built but unremarkable smartphone. The screen doesn't use the superbright AMOLED technology that's increasingly popular on smartphones, so it's been criticized by some reviewers. AMOLED can be nice, but it can also be too bright and garish; the truth is the Droid 4's screen is perfectly good for everyday use. It's as bright and nearly as crisp as the iPhone 4S's screen, for example, but bigger (4 inches versus 3.5).



The keyboard puts the Droid 4 at 6.3 ounces, substantially heavier than other business-oriented smartphones: The Droid Razr Maxx weighs in at 5.1 ounces and the iPhone 4S at 4.9 ounces, for example. But the Droid 4 isn't uncomfortably heavy in your hand, though I was definitely aware of its weight in my shirt pocket, especially when walking or turning.

As someone who's comfortable with an onscreen keyboard, I found myself using the Droid 4 often in vertical orientation. The one drawback to using its physical keyboard is that you have to hold the device in horizontal orientation, which limits the depth of the window for your current app or website and, thus, the amount of information you can see onscreen. But that's still better than trying to use an onscreen keyboard in horizontal orientation, where you lose half of that limited depth to the keyboard. Overall, I found it easy to switch back and forth between keyboard and touchscreen as I switched orientations.

The Droid 4 has the typical front and rear cameras, a MicroUSB port, a MiniHDMI port, an audio jack, volume controls, and on/off button, all similar to that of the Droid Razr Maxx. I found battery life to be good, lasting a day of use, with minimal standby usage (unlike some other Android devices). You can hook up the Droid 4 to Motorola's Lapdock or its media docking station, both of which let you run a Linux-based Firefox browser in one window and the Droid 4's Android environment in another, as well as use standard Bluetooth or USB keyboards and mice for desktop-oriented work. The Droid 4 runs on Verizon Wireless's 3G and 4G LTE networks, and it costs $200 with a two-year contract or $550 without one.

The Droid 4 ships with the Android 2.35 "Gingerbread" OS and Motorola's MotoBlur UI skin and collection of "business-ready" software and security enhancements. Motorola says it will provide an Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" upgrade later this year. That's annoying, but every Android device except Samsung's Galaxy Nexus is in the same boat: Android 4 remains unavailable for them, though we're now 120 days past its debut. Blame Google, not Motorola.

In the meantime, Motorola's enhancements to Android 2.3 make it usable in most business environments, unlike the standard Android 2.3 OS. Aficionados of physical smartphone keyboards have no reason not to get a Droid 4 if they're on a BlackBerry Bold or older Droid model. The Droid 4 returns that keyboard love.

This article, "Droid 4: A smartphone for keyboard purists," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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