There was a time when Verizon's Droid brand was practically synonymous with Android. While some of the sheen may have since shifted to other, ahem, Galaxies, the Droid name continues to be a place for VZ to launch big phones that no other carriers carry.
That's certainly the case with Verizon's latest Droid offering, the Motorola Droid Ultra, available now for $200 with a new two-year contract. The Droid Ultra is accompanied by two sibling smartphones: the Droid Maxx, $300 with a contract, which is essentially the same phone with a bigger battery and more storage; and the Droid Mini, $100 with a contract, which is a downsized version of the device.
Motorola Droid Ultra
What's odd, though, is that while these new Droid phones are exclusive to Verizon, they share an awful lot of characteristics with Motorola's own new flagship, the heavily hyped Moto X -- and they're launching at the same time. (The Moto X becomes available on AT&T later this week and is expected to reach the other major U.S. carriers, including Verizon, soon after.)
So do the new Droid devices do enough to command your buying dollar? I've spent the past several days using the Droid Ultra to find out.
Body and display
In terms of hardware design, the Droid Ultra doesn't exactly make a great first impression. The phone is big, blocky and angular -- a fitting theme with Verizon's Droid line, perhaps, but a visual and tactile letdown compared to the Moto X and other current phones.
(For a more detailed breakdown of the differences between the Droid Ultra and the Moto X, see my companion blog: Moto X vs. Motorola Droid Ultra: A real-world comparison)
While Motorola and Verizon are quick to point out that the Droid Ultra uses the same Kevlar material as last year's Droid Razr devices, the phone's casing feels plasticky through and through. And not in a good way: The soft, textured surface on last year's models has been replaced with a hard, glossy material that's slippery to the touch and a magnet for messy fingerprint smudges.
Worse yet, if I press gently on the top surface of the device, I can actually feel it move and hear it creak as it slides against the adjacent material. This may be the result of a limited defect, but either way, it doesn't inspire confidence in the product's build quality.
(The Droid Maxx, it's worth noting, uses a "soft touch" material as opposed to the glossy plastic-like casing employed on this device. I suspect that distinction will help create a better look and feel than what the Ultra offers.)
At 5.4 x 2.8 x 0.28 in. and 4.9 oz., the Droid Ultra is small enough to hold in one hand, though a touch too wide to be fully comfortable in that grip. The large dimensions do mean you get a roomy screen -- a 5-in. 720p Super AMOLED display. It's basically the same display as the Moto X's 4.7-in. screen, only bigger; as a result, it has 294 pixels per inch compared to the X's 316ppi density.
Don't get bogged down with those numbers, though: We're talking about a tiny difference -- one that's really not noticeable to the naked eye. The Droid Ultra's screen looks great, with bold colors, deep blacks and crisp detail. While devices like the HTC One boast 1080p displays, the difference in quality is difficult to detect; with this many pixels in the picture, you basically have to be studying the phones side by side to see any difference.
My only beefs with the Droid Ultra's display revolve around its flaky auto-brightness mode -- the screen tends to jump around frequently with overly aggressive fluctuations in dim conditions -- and its limited visibility in direct sunlight, which AMOLED screens are notorious for. To the phone's credit, its performance in sunlight is less bad than other AMOLED smartphones I've tested lately, but it still pales in comparison to the more sun-friendly LCD technology.
The Droid Ultra has a roughly textured power button and volume rocker on its right side. A standard headphone jack sits on the phone's top-right edge and a microUSB port lives on the center of its bottom edge. The phone lacks any HDMI-out capabilities but does offer wireless display support for TVs that are Miracast-enabled.
The phone has a large speaker surrounding the camera lens on its back that delivers surprisingly loud and clear sound by smartphone standards. Its quality deteriorates when you place the phone flat on a surface, with the music becoming muffled and distorted, but as long as the phone is propped up, it sounds quite good.
A quick note about buttons
The Ultra has three capacitive buttons on its face instead of the virtual on-screen alternatives Google recommends in its current Android design guidelines (and which Motorola uses on the Moto X). The downside to this setup is that the buttons don't rotate and disappear contextually, as they do when they're virtual; in certain apps, an intrusive black bar will appear at the bottom of the screen to hold a legacy Menu icon (which would appear inline alongside virtual buttons if they were present).
Moto has provided a workaround for the latter issue -- an option in the system settings let you hide the icon and have a long-press of the capacitive app-switching key pull up its options instead -- but it's a messy and convoluted solution that's anything but elegant or user-friendly.
You can still access Google's excellent Google Now personal assistant utility by swiping up from the phone's Home button, by the way, but given the capacitive nature of the Home button on this device, you have to press and then hold the button for a second before swiping up in order for the action to work.
Under the hood
Lucky for the Droid Ultra, looks aren't everything -- and when it comes to performance, this phone packs a powerful punch.
Like the Moto X, the Droid Ultra utilizes Motorola's new X8 Mobile Computing System. That includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro 1.7GHz dual-core processor along with a quad-core Adrena GPU and two additional processors for natural language and contextual computing tasks.
While the term "dual-core" may translate to "dated" in the minds of spec heads, Moto's multipronged processor configuration makes for a very different sort of setup than what we're used to. Motorola says it made the chip choices in order to accommodate the phone's Touchless Control functionality (more on that in a moment) while maximizing its performance and battery life.
Based on the time I've spent using the phone in the real world, I'd say those choices paid off. With 2GB of RAM, the Droid Ultra is as speedy as any top-of-the-line device -- even speedier than some -- with near-instant app loading, smooth Web browsing and snappy multitasking. This phone keeps up admirably with anything you throw its way.
And battery life? Moto's slowly been building a reputation for being a leader in this domain and the Droid Ultra doesn't disappoint.
The phone has a non-removable 2130mAh battery that's listed for up to 28 hours of mixed usage (slightly higher than the 24 hours listed for the Moto X). I'm not sure what sort of "mixed usage" will get you that full 28 hour estimate, but I can tell you that with moderate to heavy real-world use -- a few hours of scattered 4G Web browsing and social media activity, an hour of 4G HD video streaming, 15 to 30 minutes of voice calls, and occasional camera use -- I consistently managed to end my days with a solid 30% or more of the battery remaining.
Motorola's Droid Ultra includes 16GB of storage space, which leaves you with about 10GB of usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone does not have an SD card slot for external storage expansion.
The Droid Ultra uses Verizon's 4G network, which means you'll get LTE-level speeds so long as they're available in your city. Data quality will obviously vary from place to place, but the phone's mobile data speeds were in line what I've come to expect from Verizon in my area.
Voice calls also sounded superb during my time with the device; I was able to hear people loud and clear, and those on the other end of the line reported being able to hear me with zero distortion -- even when I called from loud areas with lots of background noise.
The Ultra provides support for near-field communication (NFC), which allows you to perform contact-free payments and data exchanges. Notably missing, however, is support for Google's own Google Wallet mobile payment system; Verizon has long blocked (or "not blocked but not allowed users to install," if you want to play corporate word games) from its Android devices, and the Droid Ultra is no exception.
The Droid Ultra lacks support for wireless charging, though its sibling, the Droid Maxx, does offer such functionality.
Motorola's current phones all use a new 10-megapixel "Clear Pixel" sensor that's supposed to improve image quality by capturing "clear" pixels in addition to the standard red, green and blue variety. The sensor is also designed to capture more light in less time, resulting in faster photo-snapping and better low-light results.
The Droid Ultra camera is decent -- very good at times -- but not consistently great.
In practice, I found the Droid Ultra camera to be decent -- very good at times -- but not consistently great. While some shots came out clear and vivid, others had visible noise and quality loss. For casual photo-snapping and sharing, the Droid Ultra should be more than fine, but camera aficionados may be frustrated with the device's inconsistent imaging performance.
I will say, though, that the Droid Ultra's camera is delightfully easy to use: Motorola has replaced the stock Android Camera app with its own simplified setup. The entire screen is essentially a viewfinder; you tap anywhere on the screen to snap a photo and hold your finger down to take rapid-fire "burst"-style shots (something that is also available in the Moto X).
Swiping your finger to the left brings up a semicircle of basic options, including the ability to enable HDR mode, adjust flash settings, and activate Android's panoramic photo mode (but not the platform's 360-degree Photo Sphere feature -- it's oddly M.I.A. on this phone). You can enable a tap-to-focus mode, too, which causes the camera to focus on any spot you touch and then capture an image immediately thereafter; since the app's minimalist approach lacks a focus command by default, this option can be useful if you want a little more control.
Oh, and one more thing: Like on the Moto X, Motorola has integrated a motion gesture into the Droid Ultra that lets you quickly get to the camera by holding the phone and flipping your wrist down twice. It works when the phone is actively in use or when the screen is off; once you get used to the motion, it's a really handy way to access your camera fast.
The Droid Ultra's camera is capable of capturing 1080p video. A 2-megapixel front-facing camera also captures 1080p-quality video.
Motorola's made a point recently of moving away from arbitrary modifications to the Android user interface and focusing instead on meaningful feature additions. The Droid Ultra follows this trend -- albeit with a handful of exceptions.
The Droid Ultra runs Android 4.2.2, a.k.a. Jelly Bean. The software sticks largely to Google's base UI design, but -- unlike the Moto X -- does contain a smattering of arbitrary visual changes, such as some altered system icons and added clutter in the system settings menus.
Still, unlike other manufacturers' heavy-handed alterations to the Android UI, the changes are relatively minor and inoffensive -- and the Droid Ultra's software remains easy to navigate and easy on the eyes. And interface aside, Motorola has added in some innovative and useful features that, true to the company's mission, actually add value to the device without venturing into gimmicky terrain.
Most of the features mirror those seen on the Moto X. Perhaps most interesting is Moto's Touchless Control, which allows you to wake your phone anytime by speaking the phrase "Okay, Google Now" and then issuing a voice command.
Touchless Control ties into Google's Android Voice Search system; you can use it to send emails or text messages, set reminders and calendar appointments, and even get updates on packages shipped to your address. The system supports dozens of natural-language search possibilities; being able to activate it simply by speaking -- even when the screen is off -- is both novel and practical, particularly when you're driving or otherwise occupied.
Speaking of driving, the Droid Ultra also features a program called Assist that can recognize when you're in a moving vehicle. It then automatically puts your phone in a hands-free mode where incoming texts are read aloud and incoming calls include an announcement of the caller's name. Assist can integrate with Google Calendar, also, to automatically silence your phone when you're in meetings and send preset texts to callers to let them know you're busy.
Then there's Active Display, a feature that causes the phone to briefly light up with the current time and any pending notifications when you pick it up (you can customize exactly what sorts of alerts are shown). The phone also occasionally flashes notification info on your screen while it's sitting face-up, kind of like a more intelligent LED notifier. I've found myself wishing all Android phones shipped with these features; once you get used to having them, you won't want to give them up.
At a Glance
MotorolaPrice: $200 (with a two-year contract from Verizon Wireless)Pros: Great screen; excellent performance; long battery life; intuitive user interface; innovative software features like Touchless Control and Active DisplayCons: Unattractive and uninspired design; capacitive keys detract from user experience; limited onboard storage; lots of bloatware; no HDMI out capability
The Droid Ultra does include a couple of features not found in the Moto X, but they're not terribly noteworthy. There's the "Droid Command Center," which is just a fancy name for an updated version of the circle widget introduced with last year's Droid Razr devices. And then there's Droid Zap, a system for wirelessly sharing files -- which sounds nice enough until you realize it works only with other users of these new Droid phones, thus making it extremely limited in practice.
Last but not least, the bloatware: The Droid Ultra comes with all the preloaded Verizon favorites you've grown to know and loathe -- VZ Navigator, VZ Security and about 10 other programs you probably won't want and can't easily uninstall. You can, at least, disable them and hide them from view.
Motorola's Droid Ultra is a strange phone to wrap your head around. It has a great deal in common with the Moto X but then veers from it in vexing ways.
To be sure, the phone has a lot of positive qualities -- mainly those that it shares with the Moto X. The Droid Ultra is a strong performer with a great display, intuitive interface and genuinely compelling features you won't find on competing devices.
But the phone also has an unattractive and uninspired design, along with capacitive buttons that create awkward usage scenarios. Comparatively speaking, those things take a serious toll on the user experience.
If you love the idea of a larger screen or need that extra dollop of battery life, Verizon's new Droid Ultra -- or perhaps the Maxx, with its even bigger battery and less chintzy casing -- is well worth considering. Otherwise, I'd suggest looking at the Moto X instead, which provides a similar setup in a far more compelling overall package.
This article, Droid Ultra deep-dive review: Bigger, but not necessarily better, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.