Heft and handiness but apps lapse for Droid smartphone

I've been toting the new Droid smartphone from Motorola and Verizon Wireless the last several days, which runs Google Inc.’s Android operating system. I plan to share my impressions here and in a future column about the latest iPhone chaser.

I'll start with the good:

• The phone is hefty. It has a metal back, interchangeable batteries and a nice display. The first comment I get from everyone I hand the phone to is: “Wow, it's heavy.” I got used to the weight quickly, and like that it feels substantial.

• The 5-megapixel camera is great. Same with the video: very nice. But I wish someone would put an optical zoom into a smart camera phone. It will happen, someday.
• The Web browser is nice, too. And fast. The connectivity to the Web via the Verizon 3G network is comparable to, and sometimes faster than, what I get on my AT&T-backed Apple iPhone.

• The user interface works well. The four buttons on the bottom of the screen (back, info, home, search) come in handy. Navigating between applications and getting back to the home page is very intuitive. The wake-up button on the top right of the phone is not so intuitive. I have to show people where it is most of the time.

• The built-in speakers have decent sound. I downloaded Pandora Radio and went to my personalized station. The music sounded good as I used the Droid as my background music while working on my laptop.

• The phone features both virtual and real keyboards. The choice is nice, although I find the keys on the virtual keypad too small. The actual keyboard slides open in the horizontal mode and takes some getting used to, like any new keyboard.

Now the not-so-good:

• Lack of ability to import Yahoo or Mobile Me contacts. Sure, there's built-in integration with Gmail contacts and mail, but I don't have all the information for everyone in my contacts list there. I’d love to see an app that lets me import everything from wherever it lives. I especially would like to have access to my Mobile Me calendar, but no such luck. I don't maintain a Gmail calendar, so I'm out of luck.

• Many of the third-party apps I have installed don't work. I have uninstalled them and reinstalled at least three different apps, and they just won't perform. These include AP Mobile News, Handmark Express News and myNPR from National Public Radio. I also searched for other apps I love on my iPhone, but they aren't available for the Google platform yet.

• The phone's battery was completely drained after carrying it in my pants pocket all day. I slipped a fully charged phone into my pocket, and was surprised to find it drained when I went to use the camera late in the afternoon. I'm not sure what was running that caused it to drain, but I had to plug the charger in to get back to working order. Not good. At least the charger worked quickly.

The phone will be available to the public Friday. It's a very good option for Verizon customers, who can't yet use the iPhone due to Apple's exclusivity with AT&T. This may not be an iPhone killer, but it's the most formidable iPhone rival I've seen so far.

I'll have more on the Droid in the weeks ahead.