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A smartphone worth lining up for

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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The people at Verizon Wireless expect lines at their stores next Thursday, like the ones Apple Inc. had last month when it debuted the new iPhone. It seems hard to believe; most people don’t get that excited over a new cellphone unless Apple chieftain Steve Jobs tells them to.

Verizon is expecting its own brand of excitement for the new Droid X, which comes from stodgy old Motorola Inc. Motorola delivered one of last year’s biggest hits, the original Droid. Based on Google Inc.’s Android operating system, the Droid became a legitimate rival to Apple’s iPhone.

The Droid X, which goes on sale July 15, is even better, but will carry the same price: $200 with a $100 rebate and a two-year service contract.

The original Droid’s worst flaw was its wretched physical keyboard. The Droid X gives up on the concept; as with an iPhone, you type by touching an on-screen virtual keyboard.

The lack of a hard keyboard makes the Droid X luxuriously lean. Its structure is thickened only along the top, where Motorola has installed an 8-megapixel camera with dual LED flashbulbs.

The same camera also shoots good 720p, high-resolution video.

But I wish Motorola had added a front-facing camera for videoconferencing.

The virtual keyboard comes with Swype, a program that lets you type by dragging your finger instead of poking at the screen. To type a word, touch the first letter, then drag your finger to the next, and so on till you’re done. Somehow Swype figures out the word, getting it right about 98 percent of the time. It’s almost creepy how well it works.

The Droid carries a 1-gigahertz processor and 8 gigabytes of memory. That means you will waste little time running Android apps; you’re more likely to get bogged down choosing which ones to get. There are 65,000 available, many of them free. That’s still far behind the 250,000 iPhone apps, but enough for most of us.

Don’t worry about buying a GPS navigation app. The latest version of Android includes Google’s navigation service at no charge. While not as polished as others I’ve tried, the Google service will get you where you are going.

The 4.3-inch screen is bigger than that of the iPhone and almost every other smartphone. The extra territory makes the Droid X a fine video platform.

Indeed, the video retailer Blockbuster offers a rental app for viewing the latest movie releases. My download of the George Clooney film “Up in the Air’’ cost $4 and looked excellent.

Another Droid X app cashes in on a cool feature found on many newer gadgets.

Ever hear of DLNA — the Digital Living Network Alliance?

It’s a consortium of tech companies whose products can talk to one another over data networks. Your typical Windows Vista or Windows 7 computer is DLNA-ready. So are many newer TV sets, home audio systems, and now, smartphones.

My home TV and audio system are on the household data network; so is my laptop. I connected the Droid X using its Wi-Fi wireless service. This let me shoot videos on the phone and play them over the TV, without plugging in the phone’s HDMI video cable. Or I could copy music from my laptop onto the phone. Or I could use the phone as a remote control, and order the laptop to play digital music over the living room stereo. The Droid X’s screen even showed the cover of each CD as it played.

Other smartphones can do this. But by putting the feature right out front, the Droid X could help make DLNA almost as popular as Wi-Fi.

Speaking of Wi-Fi, the Droid X can double as a portable Wi-Fi hot spot — something iPhones can’t do. Up to five computers or game consoles can connect wirelessly to the phone and share its access to Verizon’s 3G network. But this feature costs an extra $20 a month.

Owners of the iPhone 4 are still ahead of the game, except for those beset by the device’s antenna problems. Glitches and all, the new iPhone boasts built-in videoconferencing, and that vast library of apps. And with its confusing pushbutton controls, the Droid X can’t match the iPhone’s graceful simplicity.

Still, the advanced features of the Droid X show how quickly the gap has closed between the iPhone and its toughest rival.

Maybe the lines outside the Verizon Wireless stores will be longer than I think.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.