When it comes to GPS car navigation, the new Droid phone from Verizon Wireless could change everything.
That's right -- from a phone.
Mounted to the windshield with an optional holder, it provides a voice-activated GPS system with so much potential that mainstream GPS companies may have to scramble to catch up. Someday.
It's not quite there, however, as a consumer-friendly navigator. But the possibilities for the Droid as a GPS guide as well as a smart phone are enticing.
The phone, which Verizon announced Wednesday, will go on sale Nov. 6 for $199 (with a two-year contract). It's the first to be powered by Google Inc.'s updated mobile software, Android 2.0.
The navigation system, which is the software's most prominent new feature, is included in the base price.
With Google in its corner, the Droid can use the Web search giant's excellent mapping and navigation tools, including tracking down addresses, finding businesses by name, mapping routes and even displaying real-life photos of locales.
And of course it's a phone, too, with features obviously designed to challenge the king of telecommunications cool, Apple Inc.'s iPhone.
But maybe not for long. At a news conference earlier in the week, Google executive Vic Gundotra said the company has been talking with Apple about bringing the navigation system to the iPhone (which already has available a GPS system from TomTom International that costs $100).
Gundotra would not give details on the talks.
For now, Verizon and Motorola Inc., which makes the touch-screen Droid, have exclusive use of Android 2.0. Its features include the ability to use several applications at once as well as Web surfing, e-mailing and instant messaging. As with the iPhone, other apps can be added.
Unlike the iPhone, it comes with a slide-out, real-world keyboard, but that makes the Droid a good bit heavier than the Apple phone.
There are also two optional devices to go with it -- a car cradle to attach the phone to the windshield or dash, and a charger dock that turns the phone into a table-top alarm clock. They also go on sale Nov. 6, but Verizon and Motorola representatives declined to say how much they will cost.
The Droid is not only a chance for Google and Verizon to shine, but also troubled Motorola, which is badly in need of a hit.
It's the navigation system that's sure to catch attention, especially at first.
Here's how it did during go-home rush hour in Los Angeles.
First, the positives: The location/search engine was fantastic, which was of little surprise. I used the voice command mode (which was hit and miss, but mostly hit when I was in a quiet car) to input addresses that were quickly found.
It then came up with quite reasonable routes (locals usually know some tricks that GPS units don't). The on-screen maps, showing the turn-by-turn directions, were easy to understand, as was the voice announcing turns (including street names).
All in all, a classy presentation. And if you touch the little figure of a person on-screen, it shows you a real-life picture of the destination, if available.
The software also worked well when, instead of an address, I asked for the name of a restaurant. And when I asked it to find "Mexican restaurants," dozens of search results popped up.
The downsides mostly had to do with the hardware. The touch screen and especially the buttons were not responsive enough for easy use, and just getting to a screen to input voice commands was a chore.
Not much about the process was intuitive. Over time, it might get closer to second nature, but it was not consumer friendly at first.
Although the navigation system, right out of the box, was clumsy to operate, a preliminary look at other aspects of Android 2.0 found them to be at least as useful as in the 1.0 version that came out a year ago -- and that's a compliment.
No matter how successful the Droid is, there is already a winner that has earned money off of it. Or rather, just from the name.
Motorola had to license the smart phone's name from a film company dominated by one of the most successful movie makers of all time. Here's a hint: 3-CPO and R2-D2.
Yes, Lucasfilm Ltd., of "Star Wars" fame, owns the trademark to Droid.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Verizon Motorola Droid smart phone
The new smart phone is the first to use Android 2.0 software from Google Inc. Here's the rundown:
Weight: 6 ounces
Size: 2.4 x 4.6 x 0.5 inches
Screen: 3.7 inches (on the diagonal)
Manufacturer: Motorola Inc.
Carrier: Verizon Wireless
Price: $199 with a two-year contract
Available: Nov. 6
Keyboards: Physical and on-screen
E-mail programs: POP, IMAP, Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, others
Browser: HTML 5-based
Headset: Bluetooth- and jack-enabled
Camera: 5 megapixel
Video: Record/playback at 720x480 resolution
Audio formats: MP3, AAC, WMA, others
Memory: 16GB, expandable to 32GB
Options: Car holder, music/clock dock
-- Compiled by David Colker