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Droid Incredible: Highly customizable, unabashedly complex

May 4, 2010 |  2:42 pm

Droid-incredible1 The launch of the Droid Incredible on Thursday marked the day that HTC's Android smart-phones stopped playing catchup to Apple and started moving in a different direction.

The Droid Incredible is the latest touch-screen phone based on Google's mobile operating system. It's only available on Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. cell network, and costs $200 with a two-year contract. ( sells the phone for $150.)

Whereas the last major Android phone -- Google's Nexus One, which was manufactured by HTC -- in many ways matched the current iPhone, the Droid Incredible diverges.

Instead of addressing the few quirks of Google's metallic gadget that made it seem like a sub-par Apple wannabe, HTC and Google have created a device that looks and operates distinctly different from its competitors. Whereas the iPhone is popular for its sophisticated design and simplicity, the HTC Incredible is for the tweakers, the multitaskers, the data nerds and the hyper social networkers.

A version of the Nexus One for Verizon had been scheduled for a spring release through Google's online store, but negotiations appear to have stalled. Google's Web listing now promotes the Droid Incredible for Verizon subscribers seeking a "similarly feature-packed cousin of the Nexus One."

While both devices run on Android 2.1 -- the system with pinch-to-zoom, a free turn-by-turn GPS and widgets galore -- the Droid Incredible really amplifies the aspects that set it apart from the iPhone. That's thanks in no small part to Sense, HTC's homemade software layer built on top of Android.

With Sense, the focus largely shifts from apps, an area where Android lags behind Apple, to widgets. The phone comes preloaded with about two dozen of these little interactive doodads that can stick to one of seven home screens, displaying various classes of data. These allow users to browse and update Twitter or Facebook and play games without opening a program.

HTC didn't invent widgets; they can be loaded onto many other Android phones. However, the Taiwan company custom built about half the ones on the Droid Incredible and presents a prominent link to download even more.

After unlocking the phone with a downward swipe, a combination over-sized clock and weather widget stares you in the face, taking up about half of the screen's real estate. When it's cloudy outside, a fluffy mist swirls across the screen. Add to that the live wallpapers, such as a water background that splashes when touched, and you have some superfluous (but entertaining) visual effects.

These widgets illustrate well the contrasting approaches between this HTC phone and Apple's.

Designers of the iPhone have refused to include or have delayed adding features they deemed not absolutely necessary -- in one example, waiting two years before including the ability to copy and paste text.

On the flip side, the Droid Incredible is a collaboration between HTC and Google that resulted in an abundance of options and tools and gizmos. Users can fill their screens to the brim with gee-whiz effects you will probably never see on the iPhone for, as Apple has argued, very good reason. Move two fingers apart on top of the screen, and, whoa, would you look at that, the pages zoom out collectively to reveal a pinch of visual magic not dissimilar from Apple's Expose feature on the Mac.

Droid-incredible2 The hardware itself is sturdily built. Aesthetically, its edges are more rounded than Motorola's Droid, but the back of the device, with its seemingly unnecessary curves and plateaus, is weird.

The Droid Incredible is incredibly fast, thanks to a processor that's twice as powerful as Motorola's Droid. That still doesn't excuse HTC's haughty name for this gadget.

HTC forgoes a physical keyboard, instead relying on touch-screen typing -- fine, considering Motorola's keyboard was substantially lacking. A small optical mouse replaces the trackball for fine-tuning -- a change that Research in Motion has been pioneering with its BlackBerry phones.

The camera is quite excellent for a cellphone. A large lens and flash accommodates the 8-megapixel pictures it shoots.

The next iPhone, which is believed to be coming out in the summer, sporting a front-facing camera and another on the back paired with a flash, won't really be competing for fans of the Droid Incredible. Apple says it will finally add multitasking, but it won't have widgets or interactive desktops or information from social networks feeding into various parts of the software.

AT&T and Verizon disputes aside, iPhone and Android target different types of people. Apple's products will still appeal to those who want something simple with the potential, through apps, to do a lot. HTC's Droid Incredible excels at flexibility -- to add layers of complexity and rich data presentations almost on par with a computer.

-- Mark Milian

Photos credit: Associated Press