You got something against large, high-resolution displays and the most powerful processor we've used thus far? What's wrong with you?!?!?!
The Verizon Droid DNA has too many pixels, they said. It'll run too slow. The battery's too small, they said. It'll never last. The screen's too big, they said. It'll be too unwieldy. There's not enough on-board storage, says everybody.
Poppycock. (OK, except for that last one.)
After keeping HTC on the sidelines for most of 2012, Verizon's ending the year with a powerhouse of an Android smartphone in the Droid DNA. All the usual boxes are checked here. Powerful processor. High-resolution display. (The highest we've tested, actually). Great camera. Verizon's fast LTE data.
So what has everybody so worried, and are their concerns really valid? Or is it just the usual "SMARTPHONE SKY IS FALLING!!!" jitters before anyone's actually used the device?
Let's rap, shall we? Read on for the full Android Central Verizon Droid DNA review.
It's almost difficult to chose the most important part of the Droid DNA hardware. Is it the internals? Is it the display? Is it the sleek design? From the front, it looks like your typical black slab. Big, black slab. We'll get back to that in a minute, because the back of the Droid DNA deserves some love.
HTC had a bit of a design epiphany in the latter half of 2012 that made its first public appearance with the Windows Phone-powered 8X. (That's it on the right.) Whereas traditional smartphone design has kept the battery on the posterior side of things -- even for phones in which the battery is sealed inside -- HTC changed things up and sandwiched it between the display and the circuit board. The result is a much sleeker smartphone, one that slopes down from 10mm at the apex to just about 4mm at the edge. The Droid DNA isn't the thinnest smartphone out there, but that slope might make you think it is. It's beautifully done, even if the 8X managers to taper off even more. It's also clad in that soft-touch coating that we've long been fans of, though it does lose a bit of its luster as oils from your fingers hit it. (Pro tip: Put it down while you're eating bacon. Just sayin'.)
As long as we're on the backside, things get interesting up around the camera as well. The lens housing has the usual HTC flare to it, with the usual Verizon-red accent. It's damn near flush with the body, though the red ring might play tricks on your eyes. To the left of the lens is a hidden rear notification light. We've only seen it blink green for notifications and glow reddish/orange while charging -- it'll be interesting to see what kind of hackery is done to it. The really cool part is how subtle the light is. If you're looking at it straight on, it's pretty bright. But chances are you're not hovering directly over the phone if it's sitting face-down on a table. And in that case, the light is visible, but much more muted when viewed at an angle.
But for Lloyd's sake, be careful putting that phone down face-first. Yes, it's got Gorilla Glass 2, but you'll still scratch it if you're not careful. Or probably even if you are careful. Consider yourselves warned.
The rear speaker is powered by a special 2.55v amplifier. And it's pretty darn loud. About as loud as the Nexus 4, but the sound quality is a little better as well. (When you're plugged in, you've got Beats Audio at your disposal, of course, for that extra kick.) Interesting, though, is that the speaker tends to vibrate the entire back of the phone if things are turned up all the way, particularly resonating toward the top of the phone.
The sides of the DNA are done up in a cool-looking speaker-grille sort of thing. That's just for looks, though. They're not speakers. The volume rocker is on the right-hand side.
Up top is the 3.5mm headphone jack, a noise-canceling microphone, and the SIM card tray. (There's a little opener thingy in the box, if you need one.) The power button is up top as well, which is normal for HTC phones. But it's been moved to the center. That was a deliberate change. The rationale was that because the phone is even taller than most of the tallest traditional smartphones, you'll be holding it a little different, and we've found that to be the case. So, the button's been moved so that your index finger doesn't have to reach as far for it. You get used to it quickly enough, though it doesn't change the fact that you'll be shifting your grip a bit -- this phone is tall at 141 mm -- that's more than 5 and a half inches.
There seems to have been some confusion over how to classify the Droid DNA. Folks hear "5-inch display" and think "Samsung Galaxy Note 2." And that's just not the case. The DNA is shorter and more narrow than the Note, and it's that difference in width that keeps it firmly planted in the traditional smartphone category, though it definitely is a tall phone. Maybe even a little too tall, as it's more noticeable in our pockets.
What's more, that mistaken comparison to the Galaxy Note 2 also leads to unrealistic expectations of battery life, we've found. But at 3,100 mAh, the Note 2's battery has 53 percent greater capacity. That's like expecting someone who's 4 feet tall to jump as high as someone who's 6 feet tall. It's just not going to happen. No, when comparing the DNA to other phones, you need to stick to the traditional smartphone side of things. Or at least something with a similarly sized battery. But more on that in a brief minute.
Down at the bottom of the phone we find our first real disappointment. This is where the microUSB port lives. And while the rest of the phone is immaculately designed, this port is covered by a rather annoying door. Maybe it's for dust protection and water resistance. (Can't blame anybody for wanting that.) Or a popular conspiracy theory is it's covered to urge you to use a wireless charging pad, for which you'll have to open your wallet even more. Or maybe it was just for design purposes. Whatever the reason, it's annoying, it's in the way, and we won't blame you one bit if you take a knife to it.
Under the hood
We're getting ever closer to talking about the display on the Droid DNA. But first, let's talk about what's powering it.
The latter months of 2012 have been all about Qualcomm processors, and that's what's powering the Droid DNA. It's running the APQ 8064/MDM 9615M combination -- those of us without EE degrees know it as the Snapdragon S4 Pro. It's a quad-core processor setup running at 1.5 GHz, and it's got 2 gigabytes of RAM to use at its leisure. As we've seen on other phones, it's a beast -- fast as hell with some good power management to boot.
Those of you coming from phones born in the early days of LTE will remember the battery suck of the HTC ThunderBolt. In fact, we've heard many of you say it's sworn you off HTC phones for good. And, frankly, we're not going to blame anyone for feeling burned by the 'Bolt. But just as HTC's design has grown in leaps and bounds from that generation, so, too, Qualcomm's end of things. We've been plenty impressed with the Snapdragon S4 Pro in other phones, and that carries over into the Droid DNA.
The Droid DNA can be charged wirelessly with a Qi-compatable charging pad
So, onto the big question: Battery life. This Qualcomm processor is, after all, pushing a 5-inch display at 1080x1920 resolution. (And, yes, we're going to tell you how great that display is in a minute.) That's a lot of pixels, and that means a lot of math for the processor to be doing.
I start "using" the phone the minute it's unplugged form the charger. Whether or not the display is turned on, the clock is running, and things are happening in the background. E-mails are delivered, Google Now does its spy thing, and lord knows what else is going on behind the scenes.
Two ways I look at my usage: At home/work, in the comfort and safety of a strong Wifi signal, and out and about, on Verizon's LTE network. For the former situation, I was getting somewhere around 15 to 18 hours of use before plugging in for the night. (Why wouldn't you charge your phone while you're sleeping?) Turn off the phone's Wifi and rely on LTE all day, and I've gotten 8 to 10 hours out of it. Sometimes a little more (especially if the kids don't grab it for a few quick games), sometimes a little less. A lot will depend on how hard you push the phone, and how good your network signal is.
Your. Mileage. Will. Vary.
By the way, don't freak out if you don't see display time listed in HTC's battery usage screen. It's not some conspiracy to keep you from knowing what the DNA's 1080p display is doing to your battery life -- it's simply not in Sense 4+. You'll find it's missing from the HTC One X+ as well.
See that big break in Wifi overnight? That's the infamous Wifi bug at work
But the simple answer is by no means do I consider the Droid DNA to have poor battery life. It's easily as good as what we've seen on the Samsung Galaxy S3 on Verizon, or maybe the HTC One X on AT&T (and that one's got a slightly smaller battery.) And that's good, because the 2020 mAh battery, as we mentioned above, is stuck inside the phone -- you'll need to find a charger when it runs down. If you just have to have a swappable battery and an external charger isn't an option, then you'll need to look elsewhere.
Another question is how the battery would hold out under the load off a movie. So I watched a few. First up: "The Hunger Games," as obtained from Google Play -- $4.99 to rent in HD. I watched it once, streaming, and a second time pinned to the phone. Both showings used about 40 percent of the battery over 2 hours, 15 minutes. That was at 720p, Jerry and I determined. And there's nothing wrong with that -- there's plenty of 720p content out there, you'll undoubtedly run into a lot of it. It looks great on the DNA.
Still, we needed a 1080p test. And for that, I went to my standard (and wonderfully crowd-sourced) testing video -- a live show by Nine Inch Nails, which I played in BS Player. Again, another 2 hours, 15 minutes -- and this time 50 percent of the battery used.
There's not a lot to say about data speeds -- everything works as advertised. I've had a good Verizon LTE connection for as long as I remember, and the Droid DNA performs as you'd expect. Ditto on Wifi, though it does appear that the infamous "HTC WIfi bug" -- where radios like to shut off when the phone's left dormant (ie overnight) still exists.
Fun fact: The Droid DNA is SIM-unlocked out of the box, meaning you can use it on AT&T, or any other GSM network.
One last note on the internals: Verizon has opted to go with only 16GB of on-board storage, and that was a mistake. Actually, you've only got 11GB of usable storage, once the operating system and apps and everything else is taken into account. More on that as we talk about the display and movies and apps below, but the bottom line is more storage is always better. And Verizon's given us what we'd consider to be the bare minimum for a retail phone, and certainly less than what we'd expect to find on a top-shelf Verizon phone.
So, we know how the 1080p display affects battery. Yes, it needs juice, but, no, it doesn't drain the thing in a matter of minutes. So how does it look?
When being dense is a good thing
The answer to that largely lies in this question: What are you used to? The jump from a 4.7-inch, 720p display (say on the HTC One X or the Galaxy S3 or the Nexus 4) to the 5-inch, 1080p display of the Droid DNA isn't as big a leap as you might imagine. The difference in display technology across manufacturers makes a bigger difference here than the change in resolution, I believe. That's not to say you can't necessarily tell the difference. It's not as apparent for me, but I've got old, tired eyes, and a predisposition to believe that 440 pixels per inch on a 5-inch device is just silly. (Silly awesome, but a bit much nonetheless.)
Here's how the Droid DNA display comparisons break down for me:
- About the same as the HTC One X (4.7-inch Super LCD2 at 720x1280, 312 pip). You can slightly tell the difference in resolution in some instances, but it's hardly a deal-breaker.
- Better, by far, than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (4.65-inch Super AMOLED at 720x1280, 315 ppi). A lot of that has to do with the color temperature, and the rest with the way the pixels are arranged.
- A bit better than the Samsung Galaxy S3 (4.8-inch Super AMOLED at 720x1280, 305 ppi). That should be the pixel arrangement as well as density.
- Noticeable difference compared to the Galaxy Note 2 (5.5-inch Super AMOLED at 720x1280, 267 ppi), which tries to distract you by its sheer size. But text is especially noticeable.
- Better (and brighter) than the Nexus 4 (4.7-inch IPS at 768x1280, 320 ppi), which probably has my second-favorite display of the past year.
For me, I think, the bigger differentiator is the Super LCD display. The higher pixel density is nice, I guess, but it's going to be up for debate for some time whether you can really tell the difference when the ppi gets above 320 or so anyway.
(By the way, anyone who tells you that "OMG my TV has that many pixels!!!" and neglects to mention that said television is some 900 percent larger and viewed much differently should have their head examined.)
How apps perform at 1080p
Here's the other side of that 1080p coin: You might be wonder whether your current apps will even scale up to 1080p (to say nothing of needing extra processing power for all those pixels flying around at once). The quick and easy answer is "Don't worry your pretty little head about it."
I've put my usual core of apps on the Droid DNA -- everything I use and play on a daily basis -- as well as some old favorites. And I've yet to find an app that doesn't look good at 1080p. Now that's not to say there might not be some rogue app out there that doesn't do things right. But everything I've used -- from Google's own apps to third-party games to keyboards -- looks just fine. That's all part of the plan, though.
(Update: Ah ha! Angry Birds Star Wars HD crashes and burns. As in there's a bad bug that won't even let you play. That's different than poor graphical performance though.)
As far as pushing all those pixels, again, I've not seen any overall sluggishness, only the occasional hiccup. For instance: In Plague Inc., the ships and planes stutter a little bit. Doesn't really affect gameplay, but it is noticeable. Is that a hardware thing? Is it a software thing? I dunno. You might possibly run into an app that completely freaks out at a 1080p display, but I've yet to really do so.
So is a 1080p display a big deal or not?
So here's where it gets a little interesting. On one hand, yes. The Droid DNA having a 1080p display is a big deal because it's simply what's next. You climb the mountain because it's there, and HTC's the first to the top of this summit. Others likely will follow in 2013.
The Droid DNA's screen is beautiful. There's no denying that. I never saw enough of a battery drain to say it's not worth having the extra pixels. That might change depending on your usage case, and what apps you're running. But I'm just not sure those extra pixels make that much of a difference in daily use, on a display that's only 5 inches. There's just not the same leap from 720p to 1080p as there is from 480p to 720p. That wouldn't keep me from buying the DNA though.
But here's another thought in regards to the anemic storage: Maybe there's some method to that madness. You're not going to be ripping Blu-ray discs and loading up them onto the DNA. (OK, yes, Verizon has seen to that by only offering 16 gigabytes of storage.) The Nine Inch Nails video I used was 9.35GB, and that took up the majority of free space on the phone. Transferring that much data can become a little bit of a headache as well. It's not something you're going to want to do on a daily basis, nor is it something you'd expect, say, your parents to do, ya know? Instead, Verizon's expecting you to stream, and stream often. And lord knows there are plenty of options for that these days. If you do sideload content and find that it's not playing back as smoothly as you'd expect, try another app before writing it off to the higher resolution.
In the end, 1080p on the Droid DNA will largely be what it's been in the home entertainment space -- a talking point. Sure, it's better tech. But on a phone that's, well, phone-sized? It's just not necessary, even it if is cool as hell. That said, expect Verizon and HTC to advertise the hell out of it. And they should.
So the Droid DNA is running Android 4.1.1 out of the box. (Don't start moaning about Android 4.2 yet -- that code was released the same day the Droid DNA was announced. But expect HTC to be looking at it, for sure.) On top of that is HTC's excellent custom user interface, the updated Sense 4+. (Also: See our original Sense 4 walkthrough.) If you've used an HTC phone in the past couple years, you'll be right at home.
You've got five home screens to make use of, and it's worth noting that neither Verizon nor HTC has overwhelmed the out-of-the-box experience with a lot of crap. There's the usual iconic HTC clock (which looks great but remains a little redundant), plus a handful of apps and a folder of things you'll probably want right away. To the left, a full-screen Amazon widget, for quickly getting movies, music and books. Remember how we said the Droid DNA is better suited for streaming than ripping and copying? And it makes sense, given that Verizon's now loading the "Amazon suite" onto anything not named Nexus.
Other apps of note: Amex Serve (prepaid wallet), Audible, IMDb, NFL Mobile, Reign of Amira (a Qualcomm game to showcase that beautiful display), Slacker Radio, TuneIn Radio, Verizon Tones, Viewdini, VZ Navigator and Zappos.
While that list isn't too heavy, do remember that you've only got 11 GB of storage available to you out of the box. And you won't be able to get rid of the, say, 100 MB or so that is Reign of Amira without rooting the phone first. That's no bueno, Verizon. You wan to skimp on storage? Fine. We get that. But put your preloaded funware on a partition where we can delete it easily.
Verizon's been smart about this Amazon suite thing. You've got the widget, the Amazon Mobile app, Kindle and Amazon MP3. And that's it. No Amazon Appstore (though you can load it if you want.) Google Play is still intact. (And even is on the default home screen, as it should be.) So it's really not that big a deal. Even when you log into that widget and you're presented with a few "Amazon apps" (most of which have already been loaded onto the DNA), the links take you to Google Play, not the Amazon Appstore. A pretty clear line has been drawn here. (And we're willing to bet Google drew it.)
Note that the apps you have in the dock on are still slaved to what you can have on the lock screen. HTC should really allow more customization there.
Verizon continues its annoying habit in regards to Wifi as well. If there's an available hotspot and you're not connected, you'll be asked if you want to connect with an annoying popup. And then reminded with a persistent notification. And if you launch an app that requires an Internet connection (which is, like, all of them), you might well get another pop-up. (At least that one can be turned off in the Wifi settings.) And then when you're connected to a Wifi hotspot you'll be reminded that you're connected to the Wifi hotspot with another persistent notification, never mind that you're the one who connected to the Wifi hotspot in the first place. It's annoying as hell.
HTC has had excellent cameras in it's phones over the past year or so, and that trend continues in the Droid DNA, thanks to the lens tech and its ImageSense processor.
The camera app remains much as it has in Sense 4, though a few icons have changed and a couple options have moved, forcing you a little deeper into the camera app settings than we'd like. You've still got HDR and panorama modes, of course, along with a number of other "scenes," and you apply filters after the fact, if that's your thing.
Of note is that HTC's camera lacks Google's cool new "Photo Sphere" mode, wherein you get a 360-degree panorama. Actually, every device other than the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 lacks Photo Sphere. We mention that not as a knock against the Droid DNA, but as mention of something we'd love to see incorporated in future versions of the software. Will that happen in time for the Droid DNA? Not gonna put money on it. But we'd love to see it.
As for the tech, the front-facing camera is 2.1 megapixels with an f/2.0 lens. It shoots at a relatively wide 88 degrees. The rear camera is 8 megapixels, f/2.0, with a 28mm lens. The sensor is backside illuminated, does video at 1080p, and the whole thing is controlled by HTC's ImageSense (or ImageChip, depending on who you're talking to)./
So, onto the important part -- samples!
Warning: These all open in full resolution on a new page.
The Droid DNA rear camera
The Droid DNA front camera
Other odds and ends
- No problems with Bluetooth or GPS. Both work as they should.
- HTC's keyboard remains one of my favorite default keyboards. It's not my daily driver, but neither does it make me want to throw the phone against a wall.
- Voice quality is on par with other Verizon devices. No complaints here.
- Kudos to HTC for the modal dialog you get before entering the developer options. Google's changed that functionality in Android 4.2, but this is a good thing for 99 percent of the population.
- NFC, mobile hotspot and HTC MediaLink are all on board, and they work fine.
- Remember how on the HTC One X you're able to choose whether to have the recent-apps button bring up the recently used apps, or to act as a menu button? There's no such option on the DNA.
- If you're a fan of taking and sharing screen shots, you'll be happy to have Jelly Bean on this phone, because you can share from the notification area. That's important, because HTC (for some ridiculous reason) still doesn't let you share 'em after snapping 'em without going to the gallery first.
- Let's talk hackability: Verizon locks down its phones. That's not new. But Verizon's also had a trend of unlockable "developer editions." Read that sentence again, slowly. And have a little patience. I'm also willing to bet the DNA gets sequenced (see what I did there?) in its current form.
There's been a tendency to look at the Verizon Droid DNA in some sort of new light. As if adding a 1080p-wide display will radically change the way the phone works, and the way you use the phone. I've found that to not be the case. It's still very much an Android phone, and very much an HTC Sense phone.
More pixels means crisper images -- but it's debatable whether you'll even notice. At 1080x1920, and 440 pixels per inch, the pixel density has far surpassed what's considered to be distinguishable by the human eye on a display that size, that close to your peepers. I'm inclined to agree. Upscale a 720p image to the Droid DNA's display, and it still looks great. A lot of that has to do with the Super LCD3 tech and not the resolution, I think.
There's also been much gnashing of teeth over how the 1080p display would affect performance and battery life. I've had no issues here, either. Battery life has been above average for me. If I were the sort who runs benchmarks, I would tell you that the Snapdragon S4 Pro performs at the top of the results chart. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Day-to-day performance has been as smooth as you'd expect.
The simple fact is this: Alongside the Samsung Galaxy S3, the HTC Droid DNA is the best Android phone you can get on Verizon. Display, power, camera, and it's running Jelly Bean out of the box. What more do you need?