The propensity to tart up Google’s natty Android UI has seen the biggest mobile players rush to give the open source OS a fancy lick of paint. HTC Sense, Sony Ericsson Rachael and MotoBLUR all add a sharp, social networking edge to the vanilla operating system.
But with good looks comes less brainpower, as skinned versions of Android remain stranded on the old-school Android 1.6, known affectionately as Donut. Step forward, then, the Motorola Milestone, the first phone to loaded with Android 2.0, or ‘Éclair’.
A tale of two keyboards
It dispenses with the confusing MotoBLUR skin found on the Motorola DEXT, happy to simply be regarded as one of the most powerful Android offerings yet. With a stunning 3.7in WVGA screen and a slide out keyboard, it’s versatile and brilliantly productive.
The touchscreen itself is the best we’ve used on an Android phone. Unlike the Droid version found Stateside, the Motorola Milestone has full multitouch, which makes for super smooth browsing and easy scrolling through contacts, emails and texts.
It also makes the onscreen keyboard an absolute delight to use. Android 2.0 sees an improved layout on the virtual keyboard, on which we got dangerously fast in a matter of minutes. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the physical version found underneath that lush panel.
The keys are far too close together and the design, placing the entire layout flush to the left of the device, with a bronze nav key to the right, means the phone sticks uncomfortably into your right palm as you stretch your digits across to type.
Android on steroids
While Android 2.0 has already been gazumped by the smarts of the Google Nexus One and Android 2.1, what you get is essentially the same OS as Google’s own-brand blower.
The latter only adds interactive wallpapers and speech-to-text in all typing areas, hardly dealbreakers. But the jump from Android 1.6 devices to the Motorola Milestone is significant, placing it head and shoulders above the HTC Hero and Samsung Galaxy.
Google Maps Navigation is sadly missing from the Motorola Milestone here in Blighty, replaced instead by Motorola’s own Motonav. This is by no means as slick or easy to use, although it does store maps natively on the phone so, unlike Google’s software, you don’t need to reply on a consistent data connection to find your way.
Android 2.0 does also add features in key areas, with Exchange support, multiple email accounts and improved Maps all giving the Milestone a fresh feel. The update undoubtedly makes it as much a business tool as gadget-fiend’s plaything.
You’ll also find access to Google Goggles, the new visual search tool, which lets you take snaps to find results on the Big G. Sadly, when we took pics of our iPod touch, it returned with listings in Spanish.
That’s not to say that the Motorola Milestone doesn’t suffer from rather nasty kinks. The touchscreen remains active when you’re on a call, so move it ever so slightly and you’ll easily nudge the mute button, rendering you inaudible at the other end.
Likewise, the camera isn’t up to much. The 5MP number here has an LED flash and only takes its best pictures during perfect daylight. The video camera is, however, a marked improvement on older Android phones.
It’s easily accessible via a touchscreen slide in camera mode, with one button uploading to YouTube making it a true iPhone rival.As ever, media playback is a let down on Android, with the Motorola Milestone replete with the same juddery video as older models and the music player UI just not up to Apple’s high standards.
But perhaps the Motorola Milestone’s biggest failing isn’t with the phone itself, but its lack of availability through regular channels. With a lack of easily accessible deals, it’s a phone that will struggle to be seen in a year when smartphones are set to dominate.