Motorola Droid 4: Snappy performance and a great keyboard

The Droid 4 is the phone to buy if you are looking for a physical keyboard, though the blurry display leaves some room for improvement.

With its slide-out QWERTY keyboard and latest version of Android, the original Motorola Droid stood for everything the iPhone wasn't. However, Motorola's interest in QWERTY Android phones has been downplayed with each new model. The Motorola Droid 4 ($200 with a new 2-year contract on Verizon; price as of 2/13/2012) is the latest in the keyboard toting Android phones. Unfortunately, the Droid 4 lacks the same excitement the original Droid sparked-- the excellent keyboard and zippy processor is overshadowed by a blurry screen and poor camera.

Design

The Droid 4 has the same angular design that we saw on the Droid RAZR. At 2.75 by 4.98 by 0.50-inches, the phone should fit comfortably in most hands and pockets. Like most Android phones the Droid 4 features two cameras; a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel camera on the back (more on those later). Aside from the full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, buttons on the Droid 4 have been limited to just a volume rocker and power button. While I found the QWERTY keyboard extremely comfortable to use, the same cannot be said for the loose power button and overly stiff volume rocker. The sliding mechanism, which initially felt rigid, seemed to get better the more I used the phone. The back cover on the Droid 4 can be removed, though it requires the use of an included small plastic tool. If you lose the tool, you can still use a paperclip to remove the back. Once you do get the cover off, however, there isn't much you can do. The battery is not user-removable and the SIM and MicroSD card slots can be difficult to get to.

As I mentioned earlier, the QWERTY keyboard was a joy to use. Even with my pudgy thumbs, I was able to accurately and quickly type out long emails and text messages without any real problems. Compared to the Droid 3, the keys on the Droid 4 have a slight bump to them and are a tad more spaced out. This makes typing a lot more comfortable, though I find that I still preferred the keyboard on the MyTouch Slide 4G.

The Droid 4 ships with a 4-inch 960 by 540 (qHD) display. Like with the Droid 3 and the Droid Bionic, this is a PenTile display that has many of the same problems that we saw on prior PenTile-equipped Motorola phones. Individual pixels were visible to the naked eye, there was a considerable amount of ghosting when scrolling, and visuals overall just were not very sharp. Simply put, it's disappointing to see Motorola go back to using PenTile screens after phones like the RAZR and the Atrix 2 forwent them in favor of much cleaner looking LCD displays.

Performance

The Droid 4 comes with a 1.2 GHz dual-core TI OMAP processor, the exact same processor found in the Droid RAZR and Droid RAZR MAXX. Overall the phone was extremely responsive to my input and was able to handle anything and everything I threw its way. Even graphically intensive games, such as Dead Space and Osmos, ran without any stuttering or slowdowns.

I got excellent reception here in San Francisco, with the Droid 4 reporting between 4-5 bars of LTE service in most places. The phone didn't do all that well at filtering out background noises during my test call--though the person I was talking to reported being able to hear me loud and clear. Call quality was even on my end, and the ear piece level by default was loud enough that I could easily hear whoever I was speaking to at the time.

Using the FCC-approved Ookla Speed Test app, I managed to get 11.29 Mbps down and 12.63 Mbps up while on LTE. These speeds are similar to what we've seen on other Verizon LTE phones, though your speeds may vary depending on where you live.

We are still awaiting the results of our official PCWorld labs battery test, but I managed to get a full day's worth of use out of the Droid 4 while doing everyday activities such as checking my email, browsing the web, and playing a level or two on Dead Space.

Software

Running Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) as well as Motorola's custom overlay, the Droid 4 will be familiar to anyone that has used a Motorola Android phone in the last three months. This version of Motorola's user interface is the same one that ships on the Droid RAZR and Droid RAZR MAXX. As such, you'll gain access to useful software such as MotoCast and Smart Actions. MotoCast works with a desktop client of the same name, and gives you access to the media on your computer while on the go. Smart Actions, originally introduced with the first Droid RAZR, will let your program your phone to automate certain tasks. These can include things like silencing your phone when you get to work or turning off GPS while at home. Smart Actions is definitely one of my favorite features in current Motorola devices.

The Droid 4 has its fair share of bloatware. Apps like Let's Golf 2 and Slacker come pre-installed and cannot be removed from the phone without rooting the device first. Thankfully you can hide individual apps so that they don't show up in your app drawer, but it's still annoying to those of us who don't want them on our phones in the first place.

Entertainment

With its 4-inch display and dual-core processor, the Droid 4 is great for playing games and HD movies. Games, as I mentioned earlier, will run smoothly with little to no dips in frame-rate. The 720p video file I played on the Droid 4 worked fine, but didn't look all that great on the problematic PenTile screen. The Droid 4's LTE connectivity makes it great for streaming music and video, but make sure to keep an eye on your data usage so you don't go over your allotted limit. The built-in speakers on the Droid 4 can be a bit tinny, so I would recommend using your own headphones whenever possible. The Droid 4 does not ship with a MicroSD card, but does contain 8GB of onboard storage you can use for apps, music, and movies.

Camera

Sad to say, the camera on the Droid 4 does not impress. Images captured outdoors, while well lit, had over saturated colors and weren't particularly sharp. Pictures taken indoors had a slight graininess to them and made skin tones appear grey and sickly. The front-facing camera was slightly better, though you are better off using it for video-calling with apps like Skype or Tango. The Droid 4 captures videos in 720p by default, though you can adjust it in the settings to record in 1080p as well. The Droid 4 did an admirable job at picking up audio, but recording in 720p didn't produce the best quality videos we've seen from a mobile device. Videos were slightly fuzzy and indoor shots again had a greyish tint to them. Recording in 1080p solved some of these problems, but produced a serious jelly-like effect whenever the phone was moved. The Droid 4 will be well suited for outdoor videos and photos, but you won't want to use it to commemorate any important moments.

Bottom Line

The Droid 4 has one of the best keyboards I've ever used on a mobile phone. It has excellent performance in games, and call quality is even and clear. Sadly, the Droid 4's blurry display may keep some people away. Why Motorola decided to go back to using PenTile displays is beyond me, but hopefully this is the last time we encounter one on their higher-end products. If you recently purchased a Droid 3 in July, then the Droid 4 will feel like an incremental upgrade. The inclusion of LTE is nice, but the inability to remove the battery and the poor camera mean that you aren't missing much. If you're a Verizon customer that cannot stand typing on a touchscreen, then the Droid 4 will be your smartphone of choice. For everyone else, a Droid RAZR MAXX provides a similar experience but with much better battery life, a better display, and a slimmer profile.

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