Though many smartphone users prefer typing on a real physical keyboard to tapping on a flat touchscreen, the more advanced 4G handsets don't have one. Last fall, Samsung released the first 4G LTE Slider in the Stratosphere, which had a fairly good keyboard but 2010-era specs such as a slow-moving single-core processor, a mere 800 x 480 screen and a standard-def camera. With the $199 Droid 4, Motorola and Verizon are finally offering keyboard lovers modern amenities such as a dual core CPU, a qHD screen, and an 8-MP camera. Add in a slew of useful apps and the Droid 4 is a truly compelling choice for users who need to do a lot of text entry.
At 0.5 inches thick and 6.31 ounces, the Droid 4's slide-out keyboard makes this handset a bit chunkier than pure slab phones such as the Droid RAZR Maxx (0.35 inches, 5.1 ounces) and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (0.37 inches thick, 5.2 ounces). The keyboard-equipped Samsung Stratosphere is a bit thicker, but lighter (0.6 inches, 5.8 ounces).
The Droid 4 sports a bland, but inoffensive aesthetic. The front of the device looks almost identical to the Droid RAZR Maxx with its glossy touchscreen, glossy black bezel, touch-sensitive navigation buttons, mildly curved rectangle shape, and gun-metal gray accents.
The back and sides are composed of a rather bland matte gray plastic with a grippable, textured surface on the back panel.
There's a lot to like about the Droid 4's slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The five-row pad provides a dedicated number row, a tab key for switching between fields in a form, and a backlight bright enough to roast a vampire.
The raised keys are packed a little too close together, but provided strong tactile feedback. We also appreciate the large Enter key that's easy to locate.
However, the keyboard is not without its flaws. An unnecessary Caps Lock key appears to the left of the Z key, making it too easy to lock on caps when you just mean to capitalize one letter. The question mark key requires that you to hit Shift and sits oddly next to the space bar, rather than the period key. Though the Stratosphere has more space between its keys, overall we prefer the Droid 4's keyboard because of its superior tactile feedback and dedicated tab key.
If you don't want to use the physical keyboard at all or just need to type in a few quick letters without sliding open the chassis, Motorola provides your choice of either the stock Android keyboard or popular third-party favorite Swype. The stock Android keyboard is the same as those you'll find on most Android 2.3.5 phones, with large gray letter keys and optional haptic feedback that vibrates when you press each key. Many users prefer Swype, because it allows you to create words by tracing a line between the letters, but we found its aggressive autocomplete feature highly inaccurate. Tracing "avram" resulted in the word in the autocomplete changing the word to "scream."
Display and Audio
Though the Droid 4's 4-inch display doesn't have the HD (1280 x 720) resolution of keyboard-less competitors such as the Galaxy Nexus and HTC Rezound, its qHD 960 x 540 screen provided sharp, vibrant images and incredible brightness. Whether we were staring at the bright orange, red and gray default wall paper, viewing friends' photos on Facebook or streaming videos, images really popped and text seemed crisp.
Averaging a blinding 505 lux on our lightmeter, the Droid 4's screen is far brighter than the Galaxy Nexus (340), RAZR Maxx (353), and Rezound (278). When we watched a trailer for "The Avengers" on YouTube, colors such as Captain America's blue costume seemed particularly vibrant. Though the image didn't wash out at 90 degrees to the left or right, the Super AMOLED-equipped Droid RAZR and Droid RAZR Maxx offer wider viewing angles.
The back speaker on the Droid 4 was extremely loud and fairly accurate. When we were watching movies or conducting a conversation via the speaker phone, sound was loud enough to fill a small room. While we wouldn't recommend using the Droid 4 as a boom box, music sounded good enough to dance to. Whether we were listening to a classic rock tune, an R&B melody or a pop hit, sound was clear, though not rich. However, percussion instruments sounded just a little tinny.
4G Data Performance
Riding on Verizon's industry-leading 4G LTE network, the Droid 4 produced an impressive average download and upload speeds of 13.2 and 11.1 MBps across three different times and locations, using Speedtest.net. In its best location, the phone provided a strong average download speed of 18.3 Mbps with an upload rate of 12.9 Mbps. However, when we tested the Samsung Stratosphere at the same time and place, we got an almost unbelievable download rate of 36.9 Mbps to go with an upload rate of 11.3 Mbps.
Those synthetic transfer rates translated into blazing fast Web surfing. Using loadtimer.org to measure page load times, we were able to load the desktop version of Laptopmag.com in an average of 7.7 seconds and the mobile versions of NYTimes.com, CNN.com and ESPN.com in just 2.5, 2.4 and 4.3 seconds, respectively.
For $30 more per month, you can use the Droid 4's hotspot feature to connect up to eight devices.
The LTE connection was so fast that we were even able to conduct a smooth video call using mobile Google Talk. Though most of our mobile video calls on other Android phones have been an exercise in frustration with frozen or pixelated images, with the Droid 4, we were able to call a friend using Gtalk on a PC and both send and receive smooth and freeze-free video, along with crystal-clear audio.
User Interface and OS
Like other recent Motorola Droid phones, the Droid 4 comes with Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread, though the company promises the device will eventually get an update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. If you've used another Motorola Android phone in the past year or so, visual elements such as icons and home screen widgets will look quite familiar.
The Droid 4 has five home screens, which come preloaded with a few useful widgets, including a favorite contacts widget that shows the faces of four contacts so you can tap on them to send a message or make a call without going through the phone menu. The My Gallery widget shows the latest pictures from your social feeds. You can also add a Social Status widget that displays your latest status and lets you post updates to Facebook quickly, a Social Networking widget that shows your friends' updates and an email app that displays your most recent messages.
At the bottom of each home screen sit four shortcut configurable shortcut icons that, by default, go to the phone, SMS, camera and apps menus. The navy blue status bar at the top of the screen has no special features; we wish it provided a pull-down quick settings menu like the bars on most Samsung and HTC phones. The apps menu itself is fairly typical with the icons arranged in alphabetical order. Long-pressing on an icon allows you to put its shortcut on one of the home screens or add it to a custom group.
With its 1.2-GHz dual-core processor (Motorola did not disclose the make and model) and 1GB of RAM, the Motorola Droid 4 has enough power to handle even the most demanding applications. Whether we were streaming a high-quality video from YouTube, navigating through our email inbox, or playing a game of "Madden 12" football, motion was smooth and graphics were sharp.
Better still, everything about the Droid 4 feels fast, from opening apps to shooting photos. Unlike slower phones such as the Samsung Stratosphere that frequently freeze up when switching apps, we never experienced significant system lag, even when we switched from Madden back to the home screen without quitting our game.
The Droid 4's smooth performance is also apparent from its strong benchmark scores. On Linpack, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall system performance, the Droid 4 returned a score of 51 on the single-threaded test, which is far stronger than the 18.3 smartphone average, the 17.3 provided by the 1-GHz single core Samsung Stratosphere, and the 39 offered by the HTC Rezound and its 1.5-GHz dual core Qualcomm processor. On the multi-threaded Linpack test, the Droid 4's score of 76 eclipsed the Rezound (70.6) and Galaxy Nexus (73.6), but fell just short of the Droid RAZR Maxx (79.6).
On An3DBench, a benchmark that measures graphics prowess, the Droid 4 scored a strong 7,635, well above the 6,266 smartphone average, the 7,108 scored by the Samsung Stratosphere, the HTC Rezound's 7,331, and the Droid RAZR Maxx's 7387 mark. The Galaxy Nexus returned an identical score of 7,635.
You can definitely use the Motorola Droid 4 as your primary phone. When we called a couple of different friends, both incoming and outgoing audio was clear and reliable. Talking on the speaker phone, our voice was readily audible to our call partners and their voices were loud and accurate. Motorola rates the phone for 12.5 hours of talk time.
The Droid 4's 1750 mAH battery allowed it to last a modest 5 hours and 27 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over 4G. That's much better than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (3:40) and moderately stronger than the HTC Rezound (5:02). However, the Droid RAZR Maxx beats its pants off with an incredible 8 hours and 35 minutes of endurance. Unfortunately, you can't remove the Droid 4's battery, even though you can pull off the back panel to change the SIM card. So there's no way to get additional juice, short of carrying an external charger.
The most innovative app on the Droid 4 is Smart Actions, an application that runs scheduled tasks or changes system settings based on conditions you set. As a user, you can create custom actions to do things such as turn off your ringer when you're in a meeting based on your calendar (but still let your wife through), turn down the brightness when your battery level drops below a certain percentage, or launch your music player as soon as you plug in your headphones. Each action is fully programmable with hundreds or even thousands of possibilities.
Apps and Motocast
In addition to Smart Actions, Motorola includes Motocast, a service that lets you stream or copy files from your PC as long as its connected to the Web. So, if you have a giant library of music on your laptop, you can play it on the phone wirelessly.
Motorola also includes MotoPrint, which allows you to send files to a shared printer over Wi-Fi. MOTOACTV allows you to tether the phone to your MOTOACTV watch so you can see calls, messages and calendar events on your wrist. My Music allows you to play tunes using Motocast, purchase music from Verizon, or tune in to Internet radio stations provided by Shoutcast.
The Motorola Messaging-app aggregates all your accounts--email, Facebook, Twitter and SMS--and creates a universal Inbox that shows all your updates together. The Social Networking app lets you view or post updates to a variety of services, including Facebook and Twitter.
Among the bundled third-party apps, QuickOffice allows you to not only edit, but create Word docs, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, and PDFs. Trial versions of "Madden NFL 12" and "Let's Golf 2" provide some amusement. My Files lets you browse your storage folders. GoToMeeting lets you attend virtual conferences.
The Droid 4's rear-facing 8-MP camera takes sharp, vibrant images in reasonable lighting conditions. Some shots of a city street taken in mid-afternoon were crisp, with the yellow of cabs and the orange of street signs looking particularly true-to-life. However, indoor shots taken in dim lighting, such as a photo of a desk, appeared a bit washed out.
The camera also shoots 720p video with great aplomb. A clip we filmed of cars rolling down the street was smooth and accurate.
The front-facing 1.3-MP camera also shoots decent pictures. When talking to a friend with Google Talk's video feature, our face was highly detailed with accurate flesh tones, as long as we were standing under a light source.
Like other recent Motorola Android phones, the Droid 4 can attach to a variety of special accessories. Chief among these is the Lapdock 100, a keyboard/screen clamshell device that attaches to the phone's microUSB and HDMI ports. The Lapdock essentially turns this phone into a 10-inch netbook that runs Motorola's webtop interface, a stripped-down environment that primarily runs Firefox and lets you access the phone's contacts, messages, music, gallery and file manager on the larger display.
Other accessories include the HD Station, a small dock with additional USB ports and the ability to run webtop on any external monitor or TV, and a VGA travel adapter for connecting to projectors and older-style monitors.
If you crave the tactile feel of a real physical keyboard on a 4G LTE phone, look no further. With its bright screen, speedy processor, blazing-fast LTE speeds and innovative software, the Droid 4 is currently the best slider money can buy. If the Droid 4's modest battery life and relatively hefty design give you pause, consider the sleeker and longer-lasting $299 Droid RAZR Maxx. And if you want a pure Android experience, the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon offers the best combination of performance, screen quality, and innovative software features via Ice Cream Sandwich. However, for those looking for the best typing experience in a powerful package, the Droid 4 is your best possible choice.