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Droid Bionic review

Can Motorola's biggest and baddest Android phone to date take on the competition?

The Droid Bionic has been something of a unicorn amongst fans of the Android platform. The device — announced at CES on January 5th of this year — has had an unnaturally long lead up to launch, punctuated by blips on the radar consisting mostly of rumors and leaked photos. The Bionic is a Verizon 4G LTE phone, powered by a dual-core CPU and equipped with the ability to transform into a Linux-based PC (utilizing Motorola’s Webtop platform). This beast of a phone is now most definitely real, and will be available to consumers tomorrow for the sticker-shock-inducing price of $299.99 on contract.

The device is certainly no slouch in the performance department, and Motorola has surrounded the Bionic with a slew of accessories ranging from the practical (such as a fairly standard charging dock) to the wildly questionable (the $299.99 laptop dock). So is Big Red’s most expensive handset worth the cost and the wait? Can it knock out other contenders in Verizon’s 4G lineup? And can you pull the trigger on this phone when challengers like Samsung’s Galaxy S II phones are just around the corner? I’ll make a brave attempt to answer such heady questions in my full review below — so hang tight and keep on reading.


Hardware

Hardware / design

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If you’ve seen Motorola’s Droid X or Droid X2, you’ll have a pretty good sense of what the Bionic looks and feels like. The phone sports a 4.3-inch qHD display — like the X2 — and has the same unusual, sloped build with which Motorola seems to be in serious "like" with. Like other 4G phones on Verizon’s network, the Bionic is somewhat thicker than its 3G counterparts, coming in at 0.43 inches versus the X2’s 0.39 inches. As big a device as it is, it doesn’t feel quite as chunky as entries like the Charge, and the build quality certainly seems more solid.

The front of the device is mostly that big screen (utilizing Corning’s well-loved and break-resistant Gorilla Glass), save for a camera and four capacitive, standard Android buttons (menu, home, back, and search). On the left side of the Bionic is a Micro HDMI port and Micro USB jack and on the right side you’ll find the volume rockers. Pretty standard stuff. Up top is the headphone jack and power / sleep button, while around back, an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash is nestled inside of a soft-touch back panel.

In comparison to many of the devices on the market right now, the Bionic stands out in both look and feel as well as solidness of construction. It just comes off like a nice, expensive device (fitting, given the price tag). While it is a bit heavier than many other Android phones on offer, it never feels bulky. The Droid Bionic confirms my belief that few in the game are making higher quality hardware than Motorola right now.

The Bionic stands out in both look and feel
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Display

Internals / display

Touch response was snappy and light
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As the latest flagship Droid, you would expect the Bionic to be heavily stacked inside as well as out — and you wouldn’t be wrong. Under the hood the device sports a dual-core, TI OMAP CPU clocked to 1GHz (instead of that Tegra 2 chip found in the X2 and the Photon), as well as 1GB of RAM and 16GB on-board storage. A 16GB microSD card is included, too. Along with Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, and an aGPS chip, the Bionic also has a slew of sensors (light, proximity, etc.). And of course it has an LTE radio for cell service alongside the standard CDMA 3G radios.

The display resolution is not dissimilar from other Motorola devices I’ve seen recently, though I felt the color balance and sharpness was notably improved on this handset. Touch response was snappy and light, though that’s probably more to do with the software or CPU speed than the screen technology. Still, zooming around apps like Google Maps seemed considerably smoother than pretty much any other Android phone I’ve used in recent memory.

One thing worth noting about the Bionic is its excellent sound quality. Motorola always seems to have an edge over the competition in this department, and this device is no different. The earpiece sounds fantastic, while speakerphone calls were crystal clear.

Cameras

Cameras

The rear camera takes quality shots, but can be tricky
Camera

In addition to the previously mentioned 8-megapixel camera on the back, the Bionic has a VGA front-facing shooter. What’s nice about that is this is the first phone to come preloaded with Google Talk video chat, which was great when I could get it to work (it still seems a bit buggy).

The rear camera is actually a very capable still shot-taker when you can get it to focus, but that can be a little tricky. As far as auto-focus lenses on phones go, this seems to be one of the slower models. Still, if you’re patient or have really great light, you should be able to pull off some reasonably handsome looking pics, though colors often looked washed out to a point of blandness.

On the video front, the Bionic is one of the few phones on the market that can shoot full 1080p video. In my testing, the results were certainly passable — and if you absolutely must have full HD video from your phone, the Bionic will seem like a very attractive choice. Just be sure you have some extra microSD cards handy when you’re out and about.

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Performance

Battery life / performance / data

The device is snappy, and LTE speeds are through the roof
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While I haven’t yet run our full suite of battery tests on the Bionic, it’s clear that the battery life of this phone succumbs to the drain of LTE service. In the time I used the device I found the Bionic’s stamina to be less than spectacular in comparison to most 3G phones, but nearly-passable when held up next to its 4G competitors. I nabbed around 11 hours with the device switching between Wi-Fi and 4G, doing a moderate amount of downloading and browsing with the occasional phone call. Even though the Bionic has a larger battery than every other LTE device on Verizon, I don’t see most people getting through a full day without a recharge or a spare battery, especially if you’re making lots of calls.

Performance on the device, on the other hand, felt incredibly snappy. Whatever Motorola is doing with the Bionic, it’s working. Game frame rates were high, moving in and out of applications was almost instantaneous, and webpages loaded and scrolled without hesitation. Compared with even recent devices like the Photon 4G on Sprint, the Bionic seems remarkably fast and responsive.

The device scored a respectable 58.7 FPS in Neocore testing, while the phone’s Quadrant score came in at a terrific 2338, beating out many competing handsets by a long shot. In browser testing, the Bionic pulled a 4203.9ms SunSpider ranking — not the highest score I’ve ever seen, but considerably faster than many other phones on the market.

As far as data was concerned, the Bionic performed about as well as other LTE devices I’ve tested in my neck of the woods. At just two or three bars of service in Brooklyn, I was able to pull down fairly consistent speeds of between 8Mbps and 10Mbps, and the upstream was robust at around 3Mbps (and nearly 4Mbps). That’s better than Verizon’s home broadband service in my area by a factor of 3.

Software

Software

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If you’ve ever seen a Motorola Android phone before — particularly the Droid variety — then you know you can expect some significant software tweaks. That’s certainly true for the Bionic, where you’ll find a mishmash of previous Moto customizations atop Android 2.3.4. While the company is no longer calling the graphical and navigational changes Motoblur, you’ll find yourself right at home if you’re coming off of any recent Motorola device to the Bionic.

Most notable of all the changes are the tweaks to the device’s home screen and application launcher. In the Bionic version, the homescreen looks similar to most Android layouts, but gains a persistent four-icon nav at the bottom of the screen. Three of those icons can be swapped out for your favorite apps, while the rightmost button takes you to the application launcher. In the launcher, you’ll find a familiar grid of icons, but instead of scrolling up and down through this list as stock Gingerbread does, you page left and right to find your programs (accompanied by a slick flipping animation, of course).

Most of the cosmetic changes are solid in the Bionic, particularly a new Honeycomb-like "target grid" you see when you move elements around your homescreen. One thing I didn’t care for, however, was the process by which you place new application icons onto your home pages. Somehow Motorola has made something simple into a completely inconvenient task.

To simply place an icon on your homescreen, you must open your application launcher and then long press on the app you want. This brings up a contextual menu asking if you’d like to place the icon on your homescreen or add it to a group. If you choose homescreen, it places the icon in the first available position on your page — meaning you have to long press again to move it into the location you want. Stock Gingerbread allows you to simply long press once on the icon and drag it into place. Motorola has made the process harder, and it’s difficult to tell why.

I use this as an example of lots of little ways Motorola seems to be complicating things in an attempt to make the process easier or simply to differentiate the Bionic software from other manufacturer’s offerings. The Gallery application is another great example of this — the company provides such an obtuse menu and plethora of options that it makes it difficult to simply look at your content.

Elsewhere in the OS, there are graphical inconsistencies that make the Bionic’s interface feel thrown together. The dialer has a weirdly cheap looking gradient blue background, the pop-up menus in some applications look different than elsewhere on the phone, and many of the widgets Motorola supplies seem to be from earlier versions of Blur.

If you can look beyond some of the visual mess here, however, you’ll find some excellently performing apps and nice additions to the standard suite of Android software. The software itself is generally very snappy on the Bionic, with notable standouts being the browser (which may be taking advantage of the TI CPU’s hardware acceleration). Browsing on the Bionic was a really excellent experience — fast and responsive, with little-to-no lag when scrolling even graphically intense pages. Motorola also hits some solid notes on design, like its lock screen, which is more useful and better looking than most Android offerings.

The camera software on the phone also bests Google’s native version by leaps and bounds, and though I don’t like the Gallery software for photo-finding or browsing, the native capability on the Bionic to edit and crop your photos is extremely nice.

Motorola has also included some legitimately useful new apps here too, such as ZumoCast, which allows you to tap into your PC’s (or Mac’s) file system through your phone. I was skeptical at first, but after installing the ZumoCast client and firing up the software on my device, I found the functionality quite welcome. Think DropBox with direct file / folder access instead of syncing specific content — like SSH’ing into your computer.

The company also provides some business-oriented additions, like GoToMeeting and its own solution for printing wirelessly called MOTOPRINT. Yes you have to yell it every time you talk about it.

The software is definitely not perfect on this phone, however. I had a few apps crash out on me or work incorrectly that run fine on my Nexus S, and at one point I had to pull the battery to reboot the phone. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened, and it gave me the impression that there are pieces of the Bionic that aren’t quite ready for primetime. You would think after this long wait the kinks would be worked out... but you’d be wrong.

There are graphical inconsistencies that make the Bionic’s interface feel thrown together
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Accessories

Accessories

The laptop dock in particular is offensive to me
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Motorola is offering a veritable buffet of hardware accessories for the Bionic. Since the device is Webtop capable, two of those accessories allow you to transform this phone into something more akin to a PC, just as you can with AT&T’s Atrix 4G. One of those devices is the expensive laptop dock, and the other is a small $29.99 dongle which allows you to connect your phone to any HDMI-compatible display to tap into the Webtop environment. Additionally, you can purchase a $49.99 charging dock, or a $99.99 HD charging dock, which does the same thing but lets you plug the phone into your TV. There’s also a car dock which will run you $39.99. Just in case you’re not getting it, the Bionic has lots of docking options.

Let me just say that any money spent on any of the Webtop devices is essentially money wasted. The quasi-PC interface which Motorola provides (based on Ubuntu and little more than the Firefox browser) is largely useless. The browser itself is sluggish and there are no other applications aside from a window into your phone on-screen. I looked at this setup when I wrote my Atrix 4G review for Engadget, and I don’t find the Bionic’s implementation to be any better. The laptop dock in particular is offensive to me, as it doesn’t even provide basic functionality like two-finger trackpad scrolling. You have to use the arrow keys to scroll! And in case you’re wondering, no, you can’t use your Atrix 4G laptop dock with the Bionic; Motorola has seen to it that the devices are completely incompatible.

Otherwise, the docking accessories work as advertised, though I’m not sure how many people are docking their phones to their TVs these days. In comparison to something like AirPlay, the concept of using a cable to get your content on a bigger screen seems archaic. Luckily Motorola provides DLNA support with the Bionic, so you can save yourself some hassle if you’ve got the right equipment at home.

Video review

Video review

The Droid Bionic is a fine phone — a solid entry to Verizon’s lineup of 4G handsets. Though I take issue with some of the software decisions here (and some of the bugginess), overall the device performs as well if not better than almost every Android phone on the market.

The Bionic is essentially as good and as bad as other recent Motorola entries, and shares much in common with the Droid X2, Droid 3, and Photon 4G (on Sprint). It’s a handsome device with a sturdy build, and has more than enough horsepower to keep you happy for the immediate future.

However, there are questions to be asked. For starters, can you put up with the battery life as it is now? Do you feel comfortable paying $300 for this phone when a handful of new devices are on the way in the Fall (not the least of which is likely the next flagship Android phone running Ice Cream Sandwich)? And does the “DROID” robot voice sound effect bother you in any way?

This is not the killer handset that I think a lot of people were expecting it to be — it’s a good phone on a great network that will keep you satisfied… for now. As usual with Android phones, there always seems to be something else just around the bend, and you’ve got to figure out if you’re going to take the next exit, or keep on trucking. Let’s just say that the Droid Bionic isn’t a bad place to pull off and grab a cup of coffee.

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