Motorola's brash advertising for its Droid series of phones touts this "evolved" second-generation as the ultimate productivity tool, as well they might. But with very little different on the outside, how much has changed inside to draw you away from stiff competition from Samsung and HTC's Androids?
Sleeping in your clothes
Have you ever had a big night, woken up the next morning in the same clothes you wore the day before and wondered, "who's going to notice that I haven't changed my shirt?" Did you get away with it? Motorola hasn't. The Milestone 2 looks almost identical to its predecessor, but then, the first Milestone was impeccably dressed. The Milestone 2 seems just as sleek: its boxy-feel, reflective surfaces and stiff sliding keyboard suggests a man who doesn't look out of place in a boardroom overlooking the city or a booth seat in a smokey top-notch night club.
And, yes, we did say man. There's something unashamedly masculine about this phone, something removed from the soft curves of the Samsung Galaxy S or the neutral steel colour of HTC's Desire. The QWERTY keyboard is amongst the best we've seen this year, with keys that feel stiff and spring back after being pressed, helping your fingers to almost glide over them while typing. With four rows of keys there's plenty of space for extras, with Motorola placing common punctuation, like the comma, full-stop and "@" symbol on dedicated keys. Gone is the five-way directional pad of the first Milestone, and in its place we find a more space-economical collection of directional keys, making it possible to navigate the menus without using the touchscreen, thanks also to dedicated "search" and "back" keys on the pad.
More important than the keyboard's design is that you can control most aspects of the phone without the touchscreen. In the settings there is a menu for creating Quick Launch keyboard shortcuts for any app you have installed, plus there is a detailed range of shortcuts recognised by the Android OS. Between the two we found it possible to go long stretches of use without touching the screen at all.
It's a good thing too, because while we love the keyboard, the touchscreen is a bit of a disappointment. The 3.7-inch LCD seems right on paper, but in reality the screen feels small and the touchscreen lacks the precision we've come to expect from capacitive screen technology this year. That the screen feels small is down to the fact that the custom font Motorola has opted for is itself tiny.
It's strange to think that when we reviewed the original Milestone nearly 12 months ago, we noted that it would have been nice to see Motorola incorporate a custom user interface. Since then we've seen the Motorola-designed UI and we don't like it. It's called MotoBlur, and it is comprised of about a dozen widgets and a deep layer of social networking integration. When you first power on the phone you'll be asked to create a MotoBlur account, attaching each of your social networks to this address. Thereafter all traffic through Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and others will be aggregated in MotoBlur, pushed down to your phone and displayed in the custom homescreen widgets.
We have a few problems with the MotoBlur system, the most important of which is that you can't opt out. You can't skip the log in screen and you can't associate your email accounts with the phone without using MotoBlur. Far less important is how ugly the homescreen widgets look. The dozen or so widgets are a motley collection of oddly shaped boxes and tickers, and the obsessive in this reviewer struggled to find a layout which pleased his aesthetic sensibilities.
On the hardware side of this equation, the Milestone 2 has quite a nice bump in power, the 600MHz processor of the original is now a 1GHz Snapdragon processor in the sequel. There's also 8GB of internal storage plus a microSD card slot (our review unit came with a 2GB card). It also runs on the latest version of Google's Android platform (version 2.2) giving access to Adobe Flash 10.1, amongst a bunch of other software enhancements.
On top of the standard collection of connectivity options, the Milestone 2 allows users to stream media over a Wi-Fi connection using the DLNA protocol. DLNA is software that streams and transcodes media, like videos and music, from one compatible device to another. With the Milestone you can, for example, store a video file on its 8GB memory then stream this file to a Playstation 3 and watch the playback on your TV. The DLNA client on the Milestone allows you to both send and receive media, and it has the capability to download the file to your phone to playback later on the bus.
Another software feature added to the basic Android experience is the excellent Swype on-screen keyboard for the times you don't feel like using the hardware keyboard. With Swype you slide your finger across the keyboard connecting the letters in the words you're typing, rather than tapping on each letter individually. There's also a new battery saver option in the menus which allows you to create custom power states for when the battery is running low, and a built-in data meter for monitoring your data use and dictating when to use 3G data and when to avoid it.
Doubling the processor grunt in the Milestone range beings Motorola up to the standard we've seen throughout the year from other Android products in Australia. The 1GHz processor does a fine job of ploughing through the day-to-day tasks of a smartphone, so it's a shame that the Milestone's sticky touchscreen at times gives the impression that the processor in this phone isn't keeping up. The best example of this is when you unlock the phone after it's been in standby. You do this by swiping a bar on the screen from left to right and "pulling" an animated icon along under your finger. This simple animation should look smooth, but instead it jumps from point to point as your finger progresses — touchscreen, we suspect, struggles to accurately map the motion of your finger.
We assume this is a problem with the screen because it's hard to replicate a performance issue throughout the system when you're not using the screen. The Milestone 2 benchmarks well with a Neocore 3D amiation result of 40 frames-per-second, as well as slightly above average results in other computational benchmarking tests. It also executes a range of apps we commonly use on Android phones, including popular games like Angry Birds. Any lag we've experienced during our tests has always been lag in relation to the screen when our input has registered micro-moments after we've touched the screen.
Some phones wow us the moment we lay eyes on them, sometimes proving to disappoint over the course of the review. With the Milestone 2, we had the opposite experience; its less sensitive touch display created the illusion that the Milestone 2 was a sluggish smartphone, when it is in fact quite a strong performer. Once we had researched and begun using the built-in Android keyboard shortcuts we found our productivity on this handset increase dramatically, and with it our impressions as well.
The excellent QWERTY keyboard offers something to Android that we haven't seen this year. Sure there's been pre-paid Androids with keyboards, but the Motorola matches this keyboard with best in breed hardware, creating an Android offering that we suspect will appeal to business users who would have previously stuck with their BlackBerrys. If you choose the Milestone make sure you spend the time to learn the keyboard shortcuts and to create your own own Quick Launch combinations for the apps you use everyday. The more you use the keyboard, the more you'll love the Milestone 2.