Motorola Droid Ultra

For a phone with so many great parts about it, why do we question its existence?

"Droid". The word that Verizon has spent millions of dollars marketing, built a highly-successful line of phones on and confused general consumers across the country about what an Android phone actually is with. But with the release of the latest lineup of Droid devices from Motorola, "Droid" doesn't mean what it used to. Sure Verizon has managed to sprinkle in its own bits of crazy lightning bolt and robot eye branding and commercialization, but the general theme of Droid devices in late 2013 is a much nicer, consumer-friendly experience.

But on a carrier that offers this exact same device with a substantially larger battery and double the storage for just a $100 more and the Moto X with a more appealing design and ergonomics for the same price, why would someone consider buying the Droid Ultra? We're not entirely sure that that question can be answered, but we've come to a few conclusions about the device nonetheless. Read on for our full review of the middle price point entry for the 2013 Droid lineup, the Motorola Droid Ultra.

Inside this review: Hardware | Software | Camera | Bottom line

The hardware

Motorola is making a big deal about the fact that its new Droid phones (as well as the Moto X) will do everything you expect without toting the highest-end specs available today. The Droid Ultra has a modest 5-inch 720p AMOLED display, a specialized "X8 Mobile Computing System" with just a dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of non-expandable storage and a 10MP camera with a new "Clear Pixel" technology.

Reading through the specs list nothing is going to jump out and grab you — but rather than just ticking individual boxes on a spec sheet, Moto thinks that it has put together a complete package that will more than adequately serve users.

Build quality and materials

Motorola Droid Ultra

Trying to make sense of the Droid Ultra's design is an exercise in frustration. There are so many aspects that we enjoy, tampered with a few poor decisions that leave us confused. Right off the top, we have to say that the Droid Ultra is built extremely well. The seams are tight, there aren't any unnecessary gaps and the entire handset gives you a feeling that it is built solidly — give the Ultra a twist in your hands and you'll feel nary a creak.

The Droid Ultra is built extremely well, but is still too wide and thin to comfortably hold.

Size-wise, the Droid Ultra is pushing the boundaries of what we're comfortable using one-handed. While its screen is surrounded by small bezels, it is still a 5-inch device with capacitive buttons at the bottom adding even more height. It is both taller and wider than a Galaxy S4, and substantially bigger than the Nexus 4. At just 7.18mm thick it's nice to look at, but ultimately falls into the camp of the previous two Droid RAZR lines by being too wide and thin, making it awkward to hold at times — perhaps the thicker Droid MAXX will remedy this some.

Motorola Droid Ultra Motorola Droid Ultra

The front of the Ultra is dominated by a big slab of glass that nicely rolls off the edge to the sides, broken by a small lip at the bottom and a speaker grille at the top. Somewhat confusingly you'll find three capacitive navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen (at least they're the right ones), breaking away from its predecessors in the Droid RAZR line and its nearly identical twin the Moto X who all have on-screen buttons.

While it is manufactured well, our issues begin with the material choices Motorola has made. Keeping in line with the recent "Droid" aesthetic we're looking at a primarily kevlar construction, which is coated (or laminated if you prefer) with an intense level of super-glossy plastic. We like that it covers up the cross-hatch pattern of the kevlar for a very subtle bit of style, but when it comes to usability it is far too slippery to trust in your hand most of the time.

Motorola Droid Ultra Motorola Droid Ultra

The entire device is an absolute fingerprint repository.

The only breaks in the glossy exterior of the Droid Ultra are the camera and speaker pod at the top of the back, an engraved "M" logo in the middle, as well as the volume keys and power button positioned on the right side together. Motorola has pulled a nifty trick and made the volume rocker double as a nano-SIM card slot — you wouldn't know unless you look in the manual, and it means one less cutout on the side of the phone.

This high-gloss plastic wraps the entire back, sides and "chin" of the Ultra in one big piece, which of course gives it great rigidity but also means 98 percent of this device is an absolute fingerprint repository. No matter how many times you wipe the Ultra on your shirt or jeans (or with an industrial car buffer), you will never get all of the fingerprints and oils off of it. Not only does it make the phone feel bad, it makes it look even worse.

Motorola Droid Ultra Motorola Droid Ultra

If you buy the Droid Ultra, get ready to preemptively tell your friends "No, my hands aren't that gross, this phone is just really glossy." It really is a shame that the phone is so ridiculously slimy considering that it is pretty much built like a tank otherwise. If it had a little more texture to hold onto, it would negate much of our complaints with the build.

As a complete package, the shortfalls of an ultra-glossy device and capacitive buttons aren't enough to turn us away from considering the device completely, but it certainly doesn't help with either short-term impressions or long-term usability. Motorola seems to have gotten the ergonomics right on the Moto X, but has pushed the Droid Ultra just a tad too tall, too wide and too thin, hurting usability in the process.

Display

Motorola Droid Ultra

Motorola has chosen to put "only" a 5-inch 720p (that's 293 ppi) AMOLED display in the Droid Ultra, and while everyone is busy yelling about how it's a failure because it isn't 1080p - like the HTC One for example, the resolution is the one aspect that we don't have any issue with.

Like most AMOLED displays, the Droid Ultra's is too highly saturated with unrealistic colors and has trouble reproducing accurate whites and greys. While AMOLED vs. LCD is generally settled on personal preference, we think Motorola has gone too far pumping up the contrast here. There is also a particularly ugly issue of using the Ultra at the lowest brightness levels, which produce blacks and greys with a purple hue.

Too highly saturated, with unrealistic colors and trouble reproducing accurate whites and greys.

The display's other characteristics are just fine though, with good viewing angles that distort only slightly when off-axis, especially at higher brightness levels. Outdoor visibility is just average, even when keeping the display at 100 percent brightness.

In day-to-day use at regular brightness levels, we think the Droid Ultra's display will be higher quality than your average user is expecting. You'll have even fewer issues with it if you're a fan of AMOLED displays in general and enjoy the punchy, bright colors. When it comes to actually using the device, the 720p resolution is a non-issue for us in the end. We could notice some softness around text and sharp lines, but it was something we had to look for rather than what we noticed off-handedly.

Radios and sensors

Although it is seemingly the only device on Verizon that doesn't have the branding to prove it, the Droid Ultra is of course a 4G LTE device. We experienced no particular issues with either LTE or Wifi data in our testing, aside from the general slowdowns due to network congestion on the mobile data side. The Droid Ultra is also GSM global roaming capable, with an HSPA+ 42mbps radio and a variety of useful bands. For those who make them, calls were crisp and clear as you expect on Verizon with a Motorola device.

Bluetooth, NFC and the bevy of sensors inside the Ultra worked just fine as well, which is important considering how reliant the newest Motorola phones are on them for its latest features.

Battery life

Droid Ultra battery life

Not only is that specially-crafted X8 Mobile Computing System supposed to offer solid performance, it is also expected to help with battery life by breaking out separate cores to manage different tasks — and being paired with just a 720p display and 2130mAh battery we are completely content with the longevity of the Droid Ultra. The "always listening" and Active Display functions don't seem to have any noticeable impact on the battery, and we easily made it through a full day of usage with charge to spare.

Seriously heavy use hardly makes the battery drop — and it sips power otherwise.

It was interesting to us that even during heavy use, such as running mobile hotspot while listening to podcasts and keeping up with email, the battery didn't dip down dramatically. We easily made it through a heavier than usual day of use with some Wifi time but primarily mobile data, taking lots of pictures, streaming music and using the hotspot function, and still came home with 25 percent battery left after 11 hours.

Usage varies of course, and going through a simpler day with more Wifi time and no hotspotting, we easily would hit that 10 hour mark without dipping down into the 40 percent range. The Droid Ultra seems to do a great job of not using up power when it is "idle", and the Active Display means you're turning on the screen less often to check your notifications, which again helps on battery life.

Those looking for that over-the-top amount of battery life will want to pony up the extra $100 for the Droid MAXX, but if you're not a power user and absolutely have to save the $100 you won't have any issues making it through your normal workday or weekend out of the house with battery left to spare.

Motorola software design, post Google

Active Display

Motorola has taken on a new philosophy with its software design in the latest Droid devices that has far less to do with robots killing things and more to do with actually helping you use your phone. Just as we've seen shown off countless times on the Moto X, the Droid Ultra has a generally "Stock" build of Android 4.2.2 with a few subtle tweaks to make the operating system more user-friendly.

This Droid has far less to do with robots killing things, and more to do with helping you.

Our very own Phil Nickinson has spilled countless words on the new software improvements on the Moto X — primarily Touchless Control, Active Display, Trusted Bluetooth devices and Motorola Assist — which directly apply to the Droid Ultra as well. We are going to refer to his excellent review for the nitty-gritty on the new features, which you can find right here:

Read: Moto X review | Inside the Moto X Active Display

Aside from a few Verizon-specific changes to the firmware, we're looking at a nearly identical implementation of software across the Droid line as is found on the Moto X. That's a great point of brand unification for Motorola, and we're extremely happy with the software as a whole. Read on below where we cover those few Verizon changes and our general feelings about using the software on a daily basis.

Verizon-specific tweaks

Disabled appsIn the end the device is still a "Droid", so the Verizon branding of the boot animation, wallpapers and default sounds are unavoidable out of the box, but these are just cosmetic changes that can be switched to whatever you see fit. Being a Verizon device you're also going to deal with a little bit of bloatware — from VZ Navigator to an entire lineup of Amazon apps — totaling about 15 apps to our count. Only a couple of them are useful, but luckily all of them can be disabled if you see fit.

Throughout the system you'll see a few small tweaks, such as a "Backup Assistant Plus" account in the settings, a few icon tweaks and things like Mobile Hotspot and Tethering being disabled without the proper account provisioning, naturally.

Droid Zap

One of the new Motorola software features that isn't available on the Moto X is Droid Zap, which is very similar to services like Bump and Samsung Link. Once enabled in the settings, you can swipe up on the screen with two fingers when viewing pictures or video and "Zap" them to other devices. The content is uploaded to a server and re-downloaded on receiving devices, rather than being peer-to-peer. The sender also has the choice of adding a randomized passcode to the file as well, keeping things private.

For transferring media between two devices let's stick to Android Beam, no app required.

But here's the catch, the only way to receive a Zap is to either have one of the three new Droids, or install the Droid Zap app from the Play Store. If you do have a new Droid, you can simply swipe down with two fingers on your display and receive the pictures or video so long as you're within 1000 feet of the sender.  If you're on a non-Droid device, you'll have to launch the Droid Zap app and swipe down within the app. It isn't the most elegant solution, and the Droid Zap app doesn't enable you to send, only receive.

We see Droid Zap being useful once these phones get more exposure and there's actually a good chance that some of your friends and family will either have the phones or the app installed, but for transferring media from one device to another, let's just stick to Android Beam over NFC — the Droid Ultra handles that just fine, no app required.

Daily life with the Droid Ultra

Motorola Droid Ultra

People have complained about the Droid Ultra not being powerful enough, and we have to shoot down that notion right now.

Since Phil has covered the specifics of how the new software features of these devices work, we wanted to dive into what it is like to use the Droid Ultra as a primary device for the last several days. It probably won't come as any surprise, but coming from using a Nexus 4 we felt right at home on the Ultra. The similarities between the software experience on a Nexus and on these new Motorola devices goes far beyond simple familiarity — you're getting a Stock experience here.

Once we took 10 minutes to disable all of the unnecessary apps, switch the wallpaper and select our ringtones (most of the stock ones are available) it felt like we were using a slightly larger, glossier Nexus 4. We didn't need to install a new launcher, download any crazy apps or tweak anything to get the look and feel we wanted. In both performance and usability of the software, everything performed extremely well on the Ultra. We never found a stutter, crash, lag or inconsistency across all of our usual suite of apps and usage patterns. Much noise has been made about the Ultra not being powerful enough, and we have to shoot down that idea right now.

We just want Active Display on every one of our phones going forward.

Of all the software additions that Motorola has made, we found Active Display (aka Active Notifications) to be the biggest innovation that we came to rely on quickly. The phone makes itself known when there are notifications waiting, and doesn't do anything when there aren't. A series of icons subtly pulsing on screen is immensely more useful than a standard notification LED, and placing a finger on the notification gives you that extra bit of information to decide if you need to turn the screen on or not. One of the most useful parts about Active Display is the time and lock button popping up when taking the phone out of your pocket or off of a table — we would regularly go half a day without touching the power button on the Droid Ultra.

Active Display is one of those features that's so simple but drastically more useful than any lock screen or standby screen that any other manufacturer is doing. We want this feature on our Nexus 4, and all other phones for that matter, going forward.

Touchless Control, Motorola Assist and Trusted Bluetooth Devices

We don't find ourselves using Google Now's voice control on any regular basis on our own devices aside from setting reminders, but it has to be said that the addition of the "hot word" detection brings that barrier to accessing Google Now very low. We actually primarily used Touchless Control to ask the phone what the weather was before going out of the house, and to set alarms at night while our phone was on the nightstand charging — useful, but not life changing.

Motorola Droid ultraMotorola Assist will be useful for people who have a calendar full of meetings and a 45 minute commute to work, but thankfully we have neither of those things to deal with on a daily basis. The "sleeping" mode with set quiet hours and exceptions for favorite contacts is nice as well, but has been available in other manufacturer's devices and via third-party apps for longer than we can remember.

Trusted Bluetooth Devices is another great one for someone who uses a Bluetooth headset, car stereo or even a smartwatch, but alas we don't bother with these gadgets regularly either. The only Bluetooth device regularly in range of our Droid Ultra is a MacBook Air, which is easy enough to pair up but does not count as a "Trusted Device" unless there is an active connection for either file sharing or internet tethering ongoing. Maybe the addition of Motorola's new "Skip" and "Beacon" accessories will make this feature more useful for someone that doesn't use Bluetooth all that often.

'Clear Pixel' camera and a new interface

Droid Ultra camera

The Droid line of devices on Verizon has never been much about imaging quality. Come to think of it, Motorola has rarely put much focus on its cameras on non-Droid devices either. Well that's starting to change if Motorola's marketing speak is to be believed, with emphasis being put on its new camera interface, a new "Clear Pixel" sensor technology and a fancy new way to launch into the camera interface called "Quick Capture".

Read: The Moto X 'Quick Capture' camera

Clear Pixel, as Motorola describes it, is a system that adds in a fourth "clear" pixel to the standard RGB pixel arrangement to make a so-called RGBC sensor, which supposedly lets in more light and therefore creates more impressive pictures. By the raw numbers though we're looking at a 10MP camera that takes 4320x2432 (that's 16:9, sadly) stills, nothing fancy to write home about.

It's a basic interface, but one that just works the way you want and expect it to.

On the software side, Motorola is sticking near to what Nexus users have been looking at for the past few iterations of Android — an extremely simple interface with a limited set of features for capturing photos. Motorola has changed things slightly, removing the shutter key to use the entire viewfinder as such and using a slide-in gesture from the left edge of the screen to manage your settings. Those settings include HDR, flash, tap-to-focus, slow motion video, panorama, geo-tagging, shutter sound and Quick Capture.

The entire interface works just fine, and once you get used to using tap-to-focus to also capture your image you'll get into a groove of how you're supposed to use it for the best images. Considering that most users rarely touch the advanced features of most smart phone cameras nowadays and just want to be able to take above-average snapshots quickly, we don't think this stripped-down interface will upset many people.

Pictures

After taking countless pictures in a variety of conditions during the review, we found the Droid Ultra is capable of taking some excellent photos, while at the same time keeping the average quality of snapshots high as well. While some shots tend to be a tad washed out in certain conditions without the use of HDR, we can't say this isn't also the case with most smart phone cameras today.

Clicking images open full resolution versions in a new window

Droid Ultra Camera Sample 1 Droid Ultra Camera Sample 2

Droid Ultra Camera Sample 3 Droid Ultra Camera Sample 4

Droid Ultra Camera Sample 5 Droid Ultra Camera Sample 6

Droid Ultra Camera Sample 7 Droid Ultra Camera Sample 8

Droid Ultra Camera Sample 9 Droid Ultra Camera Sample 10

Droid Ultra Panorama Sample

Some low light shots

Droid Ultra Low Light Sample 1 Droid Ultra Low Light Sample 4

Droid Ultra Low Light Sample 3 Droid Ultra Low Light Sample 2

You can see even more sample images from the Droid Ultra on my Google+ page

Indoor shots can be over processed, soft and washed out.

One sore point for the Ultra seems to be close-up indoor shots, where it tends to have trouble with auto focus and will produce soft or over-processed images. The same can be the case when you attempt low-light pictures without HDR — the images are clearly over processed to attempt to smooth out issues, but don't end up giving a great result. The Ultra has the advantage of having 10MP of resolution to work with though, which in itself cuts down on grain in low light and we have to say we rarely saw any grain in our shots except for full-on nighttime pictures.

The Ultra's biggest downfall in low-light shooting is the lack of a dedicated "night" mode or manual controls, which in the hands of a patient and experienced photographer can make a world of difference with getting the right shot in the middle of the night. Camera interfaces from Sony, HTC and Samsung all offer better options in this respect, but are less intuitive and more confusing to normal users as a result — a tradeoff has to be made somewhere.

With HDR, tap-to-focus and a steady hand, we took some of the best pictures out of any recent phone we've used.

In the daylight, both indoors and outdoors, we took some of the best pictures out of any recent phone we've had our hands on — they have good dynamic range, accurate colors and are neither under nor over processed. Keeping the camera in auto HDR mode, using tap-to-focus (we found this to be important) and having a steady hand produced shots that frankly surprised us with their quality. We found in most cases that the Ultra did a good job in auto HDR mode of choosing when to use or not use HDR, and the difference in capture time was almost unnoticeable.

This camera isn't on the level of a Galaxy S4 Zoom or Nokia Lumia 1020, and it isn't a knight in shining armor that is going to replace your DSLR, but we have no issue in saying that it is capable of capturing the same quality of images of any leading phone out there today — and is off the chart better than what Motorola and Verizon have offered in the past in imaging performance.

Video

The Droid Ultra captures 1080p video from either the front or rear camera, and while the quality from the rear camera is far superior both are plenty acceptable. The sensor seems to do a good job metering light to keep the picture from getting washed out, and the audio quality is good, if a bit loud for the rear-facing camera, as far as phone mics go.

Motorola has also included a cool slow motion video mode that is fun to mess around with for certain types of shots. You can see samples of all three kinds of video — rear, slow motion and front — in the playlist above.

A Droid in a confusing place

Motorola Droid Ultra

Verizon and Motorola have teamed up to make what is possibly one of the best Droid devices yet, and they have done it without a lot of what Droid phones have traditionally been saddled with. It's refreshing to see Motorola bring over its user-friendly design from the Moto X to the Droid Ultra, and we hope it sets a precedent for Droid devices going forward.

After an exhaustive review, and with all of the great parts of the Droid Ultra in mind, we're still completely confused as to why this phone exists aside from filling a middle price point in Verizon's 2013 Droid lineup. As we alluded to at the beginning of this review, you can get so much more in the Droid MAXX for just $100 extra up-front, or side-step to a better design and smaller screen in the Moto X for the same price.

If you're in the market for a new device on Verizon, and the high points of the Droid Ultra discussed here appeal to you, go to the Verizon store and buy a Droid MAXX or a Moto X. If you don't mind capacitive buttons or a slippery design, the MAXX is your choice. Otherwise, go with the Moto X — you won't lose a single feature going to either device, and both offer a better value. As much as it pains us to recommend against this particular phone that has so many great qualities, you'll be better off with one of the other two choices.