Like the idea of touchless voice controls and a camera you can open with a flick of your wrist but find the new Moto X too cute and cuddly? The Droid Ultra for Verizon Wireless ($199) takes that smartphone's brains and puts them inside a thinner, stronger and more masculine frame. No, you can't choose from an array of colors, but you do get a larger 5-inch screen and a nifty feature for sharing media with other nearby Droid owners. Add in a booming speaker and you have a worthy competitor for the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. But is it better?
At just 0.28 inches thick, the 5-inch Droid Ultra is the world's thinnest 4G LTE smartphone, undercutting the 4.7-inch HTC One (0.37 inches), the 4.9-inch Samsung Galaxy S4 (0.31 inches) and the 4-inch Apple iPhone 5 (0.30 inches). The Ultra is also extremely lightweight, coming in at a scant 4.8 ounces. That's lighter than the 5.1-ounce One and slightly heavier than the 4.6-ounce S4. The iPhone 5 weighs just 4 ounces, but its display is an inch smaller.
Motorola didn't exactly reinvent the wheel with the Droid Ultra. The handset still retains many of the design elements found on last year's Droid Razr HD, right down to the angled corners and tapered lip. Unlike that handset, however, the Droid Ultra comes equipped with capacitive Back, Home and Recent Apps Android buttons below its display. The Razr HD used on-screen Android buttons.
For the Droid Ultra's chassis Motorola once again opted for Kevlar, helping to ensure the handset can withstand the various bumps and bruises of everyday life. Unfortunately, instead of the slick soft-touch found on the Razr HD, the Ultra's rear panel has a more slippery and plasticky feel. It's also a fingerprint magnet, which makes the phone look grimy after only a few seconds of use.
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The Droid Ultra we tested had a black back with a subtle weave pattern. We say go with the red color, as that looks much sleeker.
On the handset's right edge, you'll find its textured power button and volume rocker, which are easy to grip. In a clever move, Motorola chose to combine the Ultra's volume rocker and its SIM card slot. Simply pull on the rocker and out pops the SIM card. The downside to this design is that the SIM card can get hung up the volume rocker slot when it's being replaced.
Most smartphones in the Droid Ultra's $199 price range come equipped with full 1080p displays. Unfortunately, as with its Moto X phone, Motorola chose instead to outfit the Ultra with a 5-inch 1280 x 760 Super AMOLED display. Like the Moto X, though, the Droid Ultra's display uses a RGB subpixel structure, which means each pixel gets its own blue, green and red subpixels.
While its resolution trails the competition, the Droid Ultra's colors looked absolutely brilliant. Home screen icons appeared as though they were floating over a clear sheet of glass. Even the blue Google Navigation icon looked like a brilliant sapphire. Videos looked equally stunning.
Next to Samsung's Galaxy S4, the Droid Ultra was the clear winner when viewing the "Kick Ass 2" trailer. The titular character's green suit popped on the Ultra's display, while it looked a bit washed out on the S4's. Skin tones were also far more accurate on the Ultra than the Samsung. However, the display's relatively low resolution made cuts on a hero's face more difficult to see.
The Ultra also beats the competition when it comes to screen brightness, registering 483 lux on our light meter. That's brighter than the smartphone category average of 389 lux, as well as HTC One's 433 lux and the Galaxy S4's 446 lux. The Moto X came in a tick lower at 482 lux. Still, Apple's iPhone 5 retains its crown as the brightness king, with a rating of 535 lux.
The Droid Ultra's speaker is simply excellent. In fact, Motorola says the phone can optimize the sound based on what type of audio is playing. The Ultra's large rear-mounted speaker blasted crisp, balanced audio that put the likes of the Galaxy S4 to shame.
The sonorous sounds of TV On The Radio's "Will Do" flowed smoothly through the Ultra's speakers, while Kanye West's "Good Morning" rang out loudly. That said, the HTC One's front-mounted BoomSound speakers are still the best game in town, as they offered a deeper and more engrossing sound.
OS and Interface
The Droid Ultra offers an extremely stripped down version of Motorola's Android overlay. There are no slick lock-screen features or special notification drawer options. In fact, the biggest addition to the Android 4.2.2 OS is the Ultra's Droid Command Center, which is essentially a reborn version of the Motorola Circles Widget found on the Droid Razr HD.
Command Center provides three collapsible circles that display the time, weather and the Ultra's battery life percentage. Swiping the circles flips them over to reveal the Ultra's Droid Zap and Wi-Di content sharing features, weather options and settings menu.
The Ultra's nearly pure Android experience means you get only five home screens as opposed to the seven provided by Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. At the bottom of each screen are five omnipresent shortcuts for the Dialer, Contacts, App Drawer, Messages and Camera. Swiping down from the top of the screen with one finger brings up the standard notifications drawer.
Swiping down with two fingers allows you to gain quick access to various setting shortcuts, including Wi-Fi connectivity, Brightness, Airplane Mode and more. Tapping the Settings shortcut brings you to the Ultra system's settings menu.
As with the Moto X, we found Motorola's decision to provide two separate menus for notifications and quick settings to be a hassle. We much prefer Samsung's setup, which combines notifications and quick settings in a single dropdown menu.
Droid Zap on the Droid Ultra allows users to quickly transfer photos and videos with other nearby Android phones. (You can download the app via the Google Play store.) To share something via Zap, open the file on your screen and two-finger swipe up. The app will then locate anyone within 1,000 feet that has Droid Zap installed and allow them to download it to their device.
Downloading media requires a simple two-finger swipe down to search for items being zapped. You'll then get a notification saying that something has been found and the app will automatically download them. If you don't want to share with every nearby Zap user, you can require recipients to enter a randomized code to view shared content. It took about 4 seconds to send a photo of a sleeping dog to another Droid Zap user over a strong Wi-Fi connection. A 1080p trailer for "Thor: Dark World," though, took more than 6 minutes to download.
Motorola's new Google Now-powered Touchless Control feature is taking it to Apple's Siri in a big way. Available on all of Motorola's Droid handsets, as well as the Moto X, Touchless Control provides a quick way to interact with Google Now without ever having to reach for your phone.
The feature lets you perform a variety of actions ranging from sending text messages and checking the weather to opening apps and performing Web searches. To activate Touchless Control, you simply say, "Okay, Google Now," followed by your command. Motorola and Google have worked to ensure that your individual handset will only take commands from you. No one else we asked to try to fool the Ultra with their voice could get it to wake up.
Even in a relatively loud office, the Droid Ultra recognized us from several feet away. The app's voice recognition was impressively accurate, opening apps such as Facebook and looking up facts like the height of the Empire State Building in just a few seconds.
One of the Droid Ultra's halo features is i Active Display. Using the handset's contextual computing processor, the Ultra can wake up your device when you pick it up or take it out of your pocket, then automatically display the time and your most recent notification.
Active Display takes the place of those color LED indicator lights that sit at the top of most Android handsets. Motorola says the feature only lights up the necessary pixels in a dim white color to ensure it doesn't affect battery life. Similarly, Active Display will never turn on when you are on a call or the phone is in your pocket.
Notifications come in the form of icons for their respective apps. Get a new Google Hangouts message, and the Hangouts logo will appear on the screen. Get a text and the Messages icon will show up. Users can customize which apps can display notifications via the Active Notifications tab in the Settings menu. You can also choose to set the Active Display to sleep at certain hours or hide notifications when using PIN or password screen locks.
Like Motorola's Moto X, the Droid Ultra features a 1.7-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and quad-core Adreno 320 graphics chip. It's not the most cutting edge CPU on the block, but Motorola has done much to augment the silicon's performance using its X8 Mobile Computing System, which adds dedicated natural language and contextual computing processors to the mix.
During our time with the Ultra, it proved itself to be a speedster in real-world use. Games like "Temple Run 2" and "Super Monsters Ate My Condo!" ran buttery smooth. Apps opened instantly, and swiping through home screens was a breeze.
The Droid Ultra took 6 minutes and 30 seconds to transcode a 203 MB 1080p video to 480p using the VidTrim app. That's faster than the Moto X's score of 6:59. The Galaxy S4 completed the task in 7:27, while the HTC One took 7:34
We saw mixed numbers when running various synthetic benchmarks. On the Quadrant test, which measures a device's CPU, graphics and I/O performance, the Ultra scored 8,608. That's well above the smartphone category average of 5,557. The similarly equipped Moto X scored 8,946, but the 1.9-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600-powered Galaxy S4 notched 11,962. The HTC One, with its 1.7-GHz Snapdragon 600 chip, reached 12,426.
On the 3DMark Ice Storm graphics test, the Droid Ultra scored 11,500. That's far better than the category average of 8,547, as well as the Galaxy S4 (10,371) and HTC One (10,882). The Moto X barely beat the Ultra, with a score of 11,568.
Motorola doesn't have the best history when it comes to its smartphone cameras; the company's Droid Razr HD took last place in our 2013 Smartphone Camera Shootout. But Motorola is looking to change that with its new handsets.
That starts with a slick new camera app that offers a trimmed down interface and fun, easy-to-use features. The app launches with a quick two flicks of your wrist, which took only 1.5 seconds. You'll have to be careful, though, as the twisting motion could cause you to let the handset slip from your hands.
To access the camera settings menu simply swipe in from the left. The menu is set up as a wheel that you turn to change various settings. Unfortunately, you don't get much in the way of options, as Motorola only provides Flash, Geo-Tag, HDR, Panorama, Slow Motion Video and Tap to Focus. You can also choose to turn off the twist to launch function and shutter sound.
If you're looking for the myriad settings Samsung and HTC provide with their cameras, such as sequence shooting and GIF-like motion capture, you'll be sorely disappointed. At least you can burst fire on the Ultra by just pressing-and-holding on the screen.
Rather than having to tap a dedicated physical or on-screen camera button, you can simply press anywhere on the Ultra's display to snap a shot. Photos were fairly sharp and colorful, but hazy spots detracted from the overall image quality. A shot of a dachshund lying on a pillow in a dimly lit room offered the best illustration of this issue. Light from a nearby lamp appeared blown out and some details got washed out.
Outdoors, the camera performed much better, though haze was still an issue. A photo of a busy New York intersection offered bright colors, but the camera was unable to compensate for the bright sunlight in the top right corner of the shot, causing that section to look blown out.
A 1080p video shot of the same intersection showed the same level of haze when we turned toward the sun. However, we were impressed with how stable the video looked.
The Droid Ultra comes with a host of useful apps, including Motorola Connect and Motorola Assist. A Chrome extension that lets you send and receive text messages and see who's calling your Ultra from your desktop browser, Motorola Connect took just seconds to set up before we were sending out texts.
Motorola Assist is essentially a simplified version of Motorola's Smart Actions app, which automates certain tasks based on your calendar and other parameters. If, for example, you have a meeting set in your calendar app, Assist will automatically silence your Ultra when the meeting is set to take place.
If you're moving at a high rate of speed (such as when you're driving), Assist can be set to automatically put the Ultra into hands-free mode. Of course, these settings can be disabled if you'd rather have full control over your handset.
Beyond Motorola's slick new apps, the Ultra also includes the IMDb app; Google's "Ingress" game and Migrate, which lets users transfer text messages, call history, contacts and media from your previous device to the Ultra. Other apps include NFL Mobile, QuickOffice, Viewdini and Verizon's standard suite of apps, including VZ Navigator (avoid it) and VZ security.
The Droid Ultra is available exclusively through Verizon Wireless, with 4G LTE access available in more than 500 markets. Overall, data performance was great in New Jersey and terrible in New York City.
In Old Bridge, N.J., we recorded a blazing average download speed of 55 Mbps using Speedtest.net, with the highest speed coming in at a blistering 59.4 Mbps. Uploads were just as impressive, averaging 19.8 Mbps, with a high of 22.6 Mbps. Mobile websites for ESPN.com and NYTimes.com loaded in the blink of an eye, coming in at roughly 2 seconds. The image-heavy Laptopmag.com desktop site took a mere 5 seconds
At our office in Manhattan (20th Street and 5th Avenue), speeds were much, much slower. We wouldn't even characterize the performance as 4G. Downloads barely cracked the 1 Mbps mark and upload speeds were just as poor. Seriously, Verizon, you need to fix 4G LTE in NYC.
Motorola claims that the Droid Ultra's non-removable 2,130 mAh battery can last through as much as 28 hours of mixed use. The handset didn't perform nearly that well on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE with the display brightness set to 40 percent. The Ultra lasted a disappointing 5 hours and 45 minutes. While that's better than the 5:25 score turned in by the Verizon Galaxy S4, it's well short of the smartphone category average of 6:07. The Moto X for Verizon lasted 6:13, while the HTC One for AT&T offered a runtime of 6:45.
The Motorola Droid Ultra is a new breed of Droid because it focuses less on speeds and feeds and more on the user experience. For the most part, that's a good thing. Being able to voice control your phone without touching it doesn't just feel cutting edge, it saves you time. And instead of piling on features like the Galaxy S4, Motorola provides simpler but welcome innovations like Active Display for peeking at notifications. Some shoppers will surely take issue with the fact that the Ultra lacks a 1080p screen and quad-core processor. However, the display is exceedingly bright and colorful, and this phone's performance is fast in the real world.
On the other hand, the Ultra's below-average battery life doesn't impress. (Those concerned about endurance may want to splurge for the $299 Droid Maxx.) And while we like that you can fire up the camera with a gesture, the pictures just aren't as good as you'd expect from a 10-MP shooter. Overall, the Droid Ultra is a definite head-turner because of its thin profile --especially if you get it in red -- and it offers a good mix of features and performance for the money. But the latest Droid doesn't quite offer the camera quality and endurance to compensate for its mid-range specs.