Android 2.2 on Motorola Droid: First impressions of Froyo

Fellow Android nerds, I have seen the Froyo and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do

Froyo ... FRO-YO! ... FRO-YOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ah, Froyo, also known as version 2.2 of the Android operating system. Rarely does a 2.2 release receive the amount of hype Google's latest mobile phone software platform was graced with by media and fanboys alike. It is perhaps a mark of how far Android phones have come, and how quickly, that new versions of Android get nearly as much attention as Windows 7 and new versions of the iPhone operating system.

Yahoo's ingenious plan to force users to switch to Gmail

I've been on the Android bandwagon for three months, since purchasing a Motorola Droid.  While my level of excitement at owning such a cool device is still relatively high, the speed at which the Android ecosystem develops is such that I'm already feeling pangs of envy toward people, including family members, with newer devices such as the Droid Incredible and HTC Evo. The Motorola Droid, on the market for nine months, was once the Android poster child but now faces speculation that Verizon and Motorola will stop selling the thing in favor of new models like the Droid X and Droid 2.

Signs that my beloved Motorola Droid is already falling out of favor include the fact that it was not the first phone to receive the much-hyped Android 2.2 update - Google's Nexus One received that honor, despite being discontinued shortly after its release. More tellingly, perhaps, is that Verizon stripped two of the key features out of the 2.2 update for Motorola Droid - the ability to tether the phone to a computer to share its Internet connection and to use the phone to create Wi-Fi hotspots.

Verizon claimed that the Motorola Droid hardware doesn't allow mobile hot spots, and said "there is no connection on the PC side that will allow you to tether the device." Since I'm already running two tethering programs that I downloaded from the Android market and work just fine, I'm not inclined to believe Verizon's explanations.

Still, I've heard enough about Android 2.2 - IT'S TWO TO FIVE TIMES FASTER THAN 2.1!!! IT MAKES COFFEE AND SCRAMBLES EGGS WHILE YOU SHOWER!!! - that I was looking forward to the Android update more than is reasonable for a normal human being with some semblance of a life. We finally got the news that the Droid would receive the update before the end of the week, and that was far too long a wait for me. So instead of waiting for Verizon to push the update to my phone, I downloaded a leaked copy of the update, a 45.2MB file, and transferred it from my PC to my phone, just as my work day ended yesterday.

First impressions:

*Android 2.2 is faster. I typically assume that claims about phone performance are exaggerated by vendors, mainly because manufacturer claims about battery life never seem to be accurate.  Android 2.2 was supposed to be two to five times faster than its predecessor, and lo and behold the claim seems to be true. The main reason I was looking forward to 2.2 was the promise of faster Web browsing, and navigating from page to page is now noticeably faster. In particular, opening emails in Outlook Web Access on the browser is much quicker. I've still gotten a few pages that don't load quickly, or at all, but the overall Internet experience is significantly improved.

*Video quality is better, but still behind the times. YouTube videos were always of poor quality on the Droid. The phone seemed to compensate by shrinking videos to about two-thirds or three-quarters of the screen, and it was always a bit fuzzy. You could try hitting the high-quality button to get a crisper view, but sometimes the high-quality version of videos refused to load or took so long to buffer that it wasn't worth it.

With 2.2, YouTube video quality is noticeably better, even on the low-quality setting. But switching to high-quality still takes 15 or 20 seconds, and even then requires some additional buffering time (I was testing this on the 3G network, rather than Wi-Fi). The quality is miles behind the new iPhone, and even lags behind my two-year-old iPod Touch.   

*The user interface is much better. The Motorola Droid's limit of three home screens always seemed silly, and forced developers to circumvent the problem by building apps that give users extra home screens to store shortcuts and widgets. With 2.2, the Droid now has five home screens, room enough for another 32 applications. There is also a new tab on the bottom of every home screen that offers easy access to your phone, browser, and full application list. This allowed me to move dedicated browser and phone tabs to another screen and install a larger weather widget on my primary home screen.

*The camera has a redesigned interface, the main advantage of which is easier access to the zoom function.

*The on-screen keyboard seems more responsive now. With 2.1, for some reason when I clicked the Google search bar on the home screen and turned the phone sideways, the landscape keyboard never popped up, forcing me to use the physical keyboard for most Google searches. With 2.2 the screen shifts to landscape mode, giving me the choice of the touch-screen or physical keyboard. The keyboard in portrait mode also seems to be improved. I'm not sure if the letters were actually increased in size, but I am making fewer typing mistakes since yesterday's upgrade. All in all, I expect to use the physical keyboard even less now that the touch-screen keys seem to be improved in both portrait and landscape mode.

*Battery life has seemed to run out more quickly since I updated to 2.2. This may be because I spent more time with the phone than I usually would, since I was testing out new features, but I did charge it for a while. The battery completely ran out last night, which has never happened before (and which was a problem because my phone is also my alarm clock). The task killer I installed seemed to keep its previous settings even after the 2.2 update, so I wouldn't have expected the battery life to change so dramatically. I can't make a final determination on this yet, but will keep my eye on it.

*Still having trouble with Flash. I downloaded the "Adobe Flash Showcase" app from the Android market but I get error messages when attempting to download the actual Flash Player 10.1. Does anyone know the secret to getting this to work? (Update: Flash works on Froyo).

*Application updates are now easier, because 2.2 gives you the option of updating all applications at once, instead of manually updating them one at a time. The new Facebook application, running on 2.2, gives access to more of the site than I was used to, but Twitter on the Droid doesn't seem to have improved at all.  

All in all, Android 2.2 is a worthy update and lives up to much of the hype. Providing a significant boost in Web browsing speed without making any hardware changes is impressive. Verizon is making itself seem petty by denying tethering and hot spot capabilities to Motorola Droid customers, but the company probably would have charged outrageous fees for the services anyway, preventing me from buying them. So it's all the same to me.

I'm a little worried about the battery life. Debates on this topic have already popped up on user forums, seeming to confirm my concerns, but for me it's too early to tell whether this will become a significant problem. Even if the battery life is slightly worse, the faster Web browsing justifies the update.

Fellow Android nerds, I have seen the Froyo and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.   

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.