Review: HTC Droid Eris

Naming a phone after the Greek goddess of discord and rivalry is a bold, possibly crazy move. But it’s a sign of how competitive the smartphone market is right now and how far HTC, whose latest phone is the Droid Eris, will go to take on its rivals.

At a mere $100, the Eris is the cheapest smartphone to run Google’s Android operating system. It’s a simple, yet handsome device that attempts to marry beautiful design with a slick user interface but the result is a slightly, ahem, chaotic experience that strikes a discordant note more often than not.

The Eris is roughly the same thickness as an iPhone. With rounded edges and a smooth, soft-touch finish, it has a luxurious pebblelike feel in the palm. The phone’s 3.2-inch capacitive touchscreen is bright, and fairly responsive to finger swipes. And at 320 x 480 pixels, its screen has about the same resolution as the iPhone 3G, but much lower quality than the (higher priced) Motorola Droid’s 480 x 854 pixels.

Despite its slim profile, the Eris’ hardware is far from perfection. Most annoying are the four touch-sensitive controls (home, menu, back and search) that sit below the screen. These buttons easily blend into the screen and offer vibrating feedback for users. But they can be temperamental. Slight pressure is not always enough to activate an icon and it can get annoying to keep pecking at it to elicit a response. Also, you’re pretty much hosed if vibrating feedback annoys you. There’s no way to turn off that feature.

The Eris’ major problem is that it feels sluggish. Running a Qualcomm 528-MHz MSM7600 processor, it’s slower than the Palm Pre and the Motorola Droid, both of which run the much faster 550-MHz Arm Cortex A8 processor. Oh, in speed tests the similarly priced iPhone 3G (not even the 3GS) proved to be quicker, too.

This translates to every task on the phone taking a second or two longer than you want. Apps such as Google Sky Maps (available exclusively for Android OS) feel lethargic and the browser isn’t very zippy.

The Eris runs Android 1.5 (and not the latest 2.0 version seen on the Motorola Droid). But HTC’s custom user interface, the Sense, dresses up the OS. The opening screen includes icons for browser access, mail, messages and the Android app store.

The user interface is certainly not on par with the Droid, iPhone or Palm Pre. Though the Eris is a touchscreen phone, many tasks require a clumsy Kabuki dance between the virtual keypad and the physical buttons. Check this: While checking e-mail, you can reply and move to the next message using virtual icons on the touchscreen. But to delete a message, you have to click on the menu button on the phone’s hardware to pull up a new user interface that has delete as one of the options.

Is this a lot of work? Not really. But could it have been accomplished in fewer steps? Oh, you betcha.

Because the Eris runs Android 1.5, Google Maps turn-by-turn navigation — a very impressive feature on the Motorola Droid — isn’t available. HTC says it does plan to update the Eris to Android 2.0. The Sense UI works well in some places like the phone’s browser, which renders web pages well and supports the pinch to zoom out, and the two-finger spread to zoom in, that’s familiar to iPhone users.

The Eris has a pretty decent 5-megapixel camera that takes images that are brighter when compared to the iPhone 3G’s 3-megapixel camera. But the Eris certainly gets smoked by other 5-MP camera phones like its older cousin the Droid. Sharing photos, though, is easy. With a single click you can upload to Flickr, Picasa or post an image on Facebook.

The phone also has a camcorder but video is often choppy and there’s a conspicuous lack of editing tools.

Surprisingly, call quality is rather pedestrian. Verizon’s powerful network generally equates to no dropped calls and strong signal. But in our call tests, most of our conversations were stained with a great deal of background noise.

The Eris is a valiant attempt to make an Android phone widely available on a decent network. But the phone’s many flaws — its unresponsive physical buttons, middling call quality, poky performance — make it positively difficult to recommend. If you want an Android phone for a hundred bucks though, there’s really no other option. For now.

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