The Motorola Droid Bionic is a hell of a phone —
but can it possibly live up to the months and months of hype?
Finally, Verizon combines LTE data with a dual-core processor in a familiar and stylish form factor. It's fast, well-built with a large screen.
What took this phone so long to get to market? It's found itself in a precarious place, with a new version of Android imminent, along with new hardware. Then there's the Pentile display and continued LTE battery suck, plus a suspect camera.
This should have been Verizon's Droid X2. Or maybe it was supposed to be the Droid X3. Regardless, it's the best LTE device available today.
Inside this review
The background: Eight months of hype
Hype is a dangerous thing for a smartphone. On one hand, a certain level of excitement does wonders, turning the launch of a device into a near-celebratory event. Verizon's set the bar high in marketing its DROID line, nearly single-handedly putting Android on the map with the original Motorola Droid nearly two years ago. Fast forward some 500 days or so later, and that brings us to the Motorola Droid Bionic.
To say this phone has had an interesting road to launch would also be the biggest understatement of the year. First and foremost, what you hold in your hand today looks a far cry different than what was announced at CES in January, some eight months earlier, and which you see here at right.
For whatever reason, that original Droid Bionic hardware was unceremoniously scrapped, launch plans presumably put on hold, and so the waiting -- and the hyping -- began.
So you have to be careful when talking about the Droid Bionic now. In fact, you can't even say we've been waiting on this phone since CES. It's a completely different phone, and one that stayed under cover for much of its development process.
Motorola's obviously brought a top-shelf device to the table here. But will it -- and can it -- possibly live up to the hype generated over the past 200 or so days and nights while we waited and waited? Let's find out.
So here's your official video walkthrough of the Droid Bionic. If it looks a little familiar, well, it should. Take a Droid 3, make it a little faster and remove the keyboard, toss in LTE data, and here you have it. Largely the same experience.
Like we said, there's really no reason to compare the Droid Bionic with what we saw at CES. It's gone. Dead. Never happened.
Done up in the same glossy gray color scheme, the Droid Bionic sports a 4.3-inch display, covered in Gorilla Glass. It shares a few design cues with Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G in that the glass curves down at the edges, and the capacitive buttons beneath the display are done with the same large stenciling. We're seeing a very slight gap between the display and the body of the phone. (Look at the top edge in the image below.) It's more visible at certain angles and could be limited to our review unit.
The display is of qHD resolution -- that is to say 540 pixels wide by 960 deep. That's as high as you can get on an Android smartphone right now, and it helps make images and text look crisp and clear. But it's mitigated somewhat by what's called a "Pentile Matrix" screen. Never mind what it really means. To you, it means you're going to see faint crosshatching on the screen where there actually is none. It can make whites look a little less white, or it could just generally mess with your eyesight. The general consensus is that the Pentile crosshatching isn't quite as noticeable on the Droid Bionic as it is on other devices, but we can definitely still see it.
If you never noticed this sort of thing before we just mentioned, you have our apologies.
Above the display is the front-facing camera (which shoots up to 480x640 resolution), earpiece and Motorola's logo. The ambient light sensor is up there, too, but is nicely hidden. There's also (blessedly) a hidden notifications light.
On the chin you have the Verizon logo and microphone pinhole. The Droid Bionic's definitely a looker from the front, but the pinhole mic at the bottom does break up the otherwise clean lines somewhat.
The sides of the DB are pretty uneventful. You've got the microUSB and microHDMI ports on the left, and volume rocker on the right. There's no physical camera button.
Up top is the 3.5mm headphone jack on one side, and the power button on the other. Because of the phone's size, you might find the power button tough to reach if you hold the phone in your left hand.
The back of the phone is taken up entirely by battery cover. It's all logo'd up with Verizon, 4G LTE and "with Google" logos, plus the Motorola bat wings. You'll find the 8MP rear camera back here as well. It's stylishly done a glossy chrome finish and has a faux speaker grille just above it. The real speaker is nicely displayed in a lower corner. And like nearly all Motorola speakers, it's plenty loud.
Also worth noting on the back is another pinhole mic. This one's for noise-cancellation. And Moto's done a solid by putting a removable plastic stick on top of it, pointing out that there's a microphone there, and you shouldn't cover it up. (Occasionally you'll find some lower-quality cases and accessories that somehow manage to ignore the secondary mic, covering it and thus degrading performance.) That's a nice attention to detail for the consumers.
Opening the battery cover is easy enough thanks to a little notch at the top. Once it's removed, you have access to the 1735 mAh battery -- that's just about the largest-capacity stock battery you'll find these days, without going to a third-party retailer.
You can remove the included 16GB microSD card without first removing the battery, which is nice. There's also a SIM card for the 4G LTE radio, and it actually has an interesting design to it as well, sliding into the phone sideways. Also note the gold pins for the optional inductive (wireless) charging back.
Physically, the Droid Bionic has been called "Verizon's Photon," or basically just a thicker Droid X2. And neither one of those statements is really inaccurate.
What's under the hood
This is where the Droid Bionic really sets itself apart. We've had 4G LTE devices on Verizon for some time now. We've had dual-core processors. Now we have both on one phone. The DB sports a dual-core TI OMAP processor running at 1 GHz. If you're new to dual-core devices, you might be surprised in that for the most part you won't really notice a difference. That's not to say the Droid Bionic likely isn't faster and smoother than any phone you're upgrading from -- unless you're using something released in the past 8 months or so, it almost certainly is. Instead, the dual-core processor is meant to shine in ways that might not be readily apparent. Theoretically, you should see better battery life. (More on that in a bit.) More graphic-intensive applications should run smoother. And multicore processors allow the phone to output video via the HDMI port or DLNA more easily.
Also of import is that the Droid Bionic has a full 1GB of RAM, of which about 900MB or so is accessible during normal smartphone use. That extra RAM (which is what phones and computers use to actually run apps) really is there to help out with the Webtop applications, but we're more than happy to make daily use of that memory.
Storage-wise, there's about 3.5 gigabytes for installing applications, and another 8GB of user-accessible internal storage for pictures, music or whatever. That's to go along with the 16GB microSD card, of course. So the DB is not lacking in that department one bit, even if you don't get to use all 16GB of the advertised internal memory.
As for data speeds, your results will vary, of course, depending on where you live. But it eats up LTE data just like we'd expect it to, and doing so at speeds relatively comparable (as you can see in the pics above, they were kind of all over the place) to our other resident LTE device, the HTC ThunderBolt. That also means it's eating up battery -- 4G phones do that, of course.
And battery life really is our big wild card with the Droid Bionic. On one hand, the phone's got a dual-core processor, which generally (but not necessarily universally) will give you more life out of a single charge because the phone's not working as hard. On the other hand, the Droid Bionic has a 1735 mAh battery, so you're going to get more life out of it than you would out of another LTE device using a smaller battery.
As for our testing? It's business as usual. Verizon's LTE data is fast, and it chews through a battery -- especially if it starts switching between 3G and 4G. We also saw the same strange overnight (an unplugged) battery drain we've seen with Verizon's other LTE devices.
The phone also did get pretty warm -- hot, even -- on a number of occasions when it was chugging through data. That's never a comforting feeling.
It's worth noting that you can turn off the LTE data by going into the Mobile Network settings and choosing "CDMA only." We'd still like to see an on/off widget though. Most people won't ever find this, or take the time to use it even if they do.
We could do benchmark tests all day, but benchmark tests always come with the caveat that they don't really show the full extent of a phone's capabilities. And none of them actually tests one phone's hardware against another because of the way applications interact with the hardware via a virtual machine.
No, for us the real story of the Droid Bionic is this:
- It's damn fast when flipping through Motorola's custom user interface.
- We're still seeing the occasional slight lag in that user interface, though. We're pretty sure that's a software thing and not a hardware thing.
- So it's got a slightly bigger battery. Great. But LTE data is still power-hungry. That hasn't changed, even with the dual-core processor. And that makes sense.
If you're not in a position where you can keep your phone plugged in, you're probably going to want a spare battery or an extended battery. That's just the way it is.
The Droid Bionic is running Android 2.3.4, commonly referred to as "Gingerbread." On top of that is Motorola's custom user interface and framework. Once known as "Motoblur," the latest version of the UI has shed that moniker (unless you hear it lovingly referred to as "Philblur"). The whole thing still has sort of a cold, metallic feel to it.
Motorola's done a nice job of not overloading the five home screens, instead opting to only pre-load icons and widgets on three. You get the Google search widget, Verizon's data usage widget and some help and account icons, the very cool favorite contacts widget (drag it down to see more), voicemail, e-mail, browser and the Android Market, a photo gallery widget, and icons to Google Talk, VZ Navigator, ZumoCast and Youtube.
Motorola's also got its custom launcher on board, with three static icons at the bottom of the screen that can be swapped out for different applications. By default, they go to the phone dialer, text messages, camera and the app drawer. (And we're still not crazy about the design of those icons -- the text messaging icon looks like it should go to e-mail, and the camera icon looks like a washing machine.)
Opening the app drawer, you can find more little tweaks from Motorola. Hit the "All apps" button in the top left, and you can group and sort the apps on your phone. By default, there's "All apps," "Recent apps," "Downloaded" apps and "Verizon Wireless." At the top right is a quick link to the Android Market.
Hit the menu button while in the app drawer, and you have options to sort your apps alphabetically, by frequent use or by recent use, you can search the Android Market for new apps, go to the "Manage apps" settings or get to the device settings. If you press and hold on an app in the app drawer, you'll have options to uninstall (if possible) and add to home.
You've got plenty of apps pre-loaded -- most of them the usual Verizon standbys -- including Amazon Kindle, Blockbuster movies, Citrix, City ID, Go to Meeting, Let's Golf 2, NFL Mobile, Quickoffice, Slacker, all the VCAST apps, VideoSurf, VZ Navigator and ZumoCast.
Really, the bottom line on the software is this: You've seen it before. It's the latest version of Blur, and it's plenty fast, thanks to the hardware thrown its way.
You've got two keyboards from which to choose, or you can install your own. By default, the Droid Bionic sports Motorola's multitouch keyboard. The multitouch part means you can hold the shift key and type a capital letter. Swype is the very popular keyboard in which you can swipe your finger from one letter to the next, without lifting your finger from the glass. (Or you can just type normally.)
The Droid Bionic has an 8-megapixel rear camera, but it doesn't actually shoot at 8MP by default. Instead, it uses a slightly lower 6MP resolution, with the images measuring 3264x1840 pixels. It does that so the pictures you take more properly fit the Droid Bionic's display and is something Motorola's been doing for some time now. You can easily switch to the full 8MP in the settings. And Motorola still has a great camera user interface, with easy-to-use buttons and settings.
The camera's done in, however, but a laggy focus. Press the shutter, and the camera will start to focus ... and focus ... and focus. Eventually it snaps the shot, and if you're lucky it'll be in focus. Or maybe it won't be.
Images below open in full resolution in a new window
The Droid Bionic shoots video at 720p by default, which is more than capable. But you can easily crank it up to 1080p in the settings. The front-facing camera is, well, it's a front-facing camera.
Other odds and ends
A few other tidbits:
- Phone calls: Crisp and clear, for the most part. If there were any issues, we're fairly sure they were network- and not hardware-related.
- Speakerphone: Mentioned this earlier, but it's worth repeating. It's nice and loud. Motorola continues to lead the way.
- Web browser: Between the dual-core processor and extra RAM, scrolling across a full webpage is a breeze. That's not to say that there won't be any pages out there that might confound it, but all of our usual haunts loaded up just fine.
- Wifi hotspot: The Droid Bionic will serve a Wifi signal to as many as five other devices while on LTE. We wouldn't recommend leaving it on your lap while doing so.
- Webtop accessories: Like other recent Motorola phones, the Droid Bionic has a bunch of "Webtop" accessories that turn the phone into a true mini-computer, running a full version of Firefox from the device. They're a fun idea, but we still can't recommend them over a real laptop or netbook. And Moto's really overloaded on the accessories (as if that's a bad thing, we suppose). A dock. An HD dock (for Webtop use with a monitor). A Webtop adapter (for if you don't want to use a dock). That's a lot of options for a gimmick.
We asked at the beginning of this review if the Droid Bionic had any chance of living up to all the hype of the past eight months or so since the first version was announced at CES. Any answer to that is pretty subjective.
The simple fact is this: The Droid Bionic should have been the Droid X2, which is only a few months old now. And it might very well have been scheduled to be, but plans changed. Or perhaps it was destined to be the Droid X3. Or maybe none of the above.
What you have is this: A powerful Android smartphone with Verizon's LTE data and Motorola's custom user interface. There's nothing necessarily magical about any of those things (though we've certainly been a fan of dual-core processors and LTE data), and even combined in one phone, it's not like you're getting an all-new experience. It makes call, it surfs the web, it handles e-mail, it has apps. It plays video. It takes pictures. And for the most part, it does these things well, thanks to the dual-core processor and extra RAM.
But the Droid Bionic is an LTE-capable device. And while that means great data speeds, it means poor battery life, and an occasionally hot device. And the Pentile display isn't for everyone.
There are trade-offs. There are caveats. And there's the fact that, yes, the Droid Bionic was overhyped. But there's also this fact: The Droid Bionic without question is currently the best LTE-enabled smartphone in Verizon's stable. How long will it remain on top? We'll just have to see.
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