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Motorola Droid Ultra and Droid Maxx review


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Before there was "Nexus," there was Droid. Verizon, Motorola, HTC, and others teamed up to turn the Lucasfilm-licensed term into a synonym for everything great about Android. It deserved the moniker, too: from the original, keyboarded Droid to the Droid X and Droid Incredible, the name meant something.

Now four years after its first "Droid DOES" ad, the Droid lineup — now exclusive to Motorola and Verizon — isn't competing with the iPhone anymore. That's what the Moto X is for: it's a comfortable, powerful, genuinely useful phone with mass appeal and the full backing of both Google and Motorola. Droids are now niche products, souped-up robot phones for the aspiring Elon Musk.

They’ve changed, too. The $199 Droid Ultra and $299 Droid Maxx don’t have physical keyboards or removable batteries, but one is the thinnest Android phone you can buy in the US, and one has the biggest battery. That's where Droids have come: trading overall appeal for superlative specs.

The Droid brand exists to offer bleeding-edge power, and give Verizon an option for its most hardcore subscribers. But in 2013 there are plenty of phones with plenty of power, and Motorola itself has taught us that power isn’t everything anyway. Can the new Droids kick things up yet another notch, or has the Droid brand turned from futuristic robot powerhouse to impotent Roomba?

The Droid Ultra is among the worst smartphone hardware I’ve EVER seen

Toy robots

It takes two seconds to decide between the Moto X and the Droid Ultra: just pick them up. The Moto X is gently curved and comfortable in your hand despite its relative heft. It’s solid and dense, premium beyond its plasticky materials. It’s neither the slimmest nor the sexiest device I’ve ever used, but it’s solid, rugged, and attractive.

The Droid Ultra is none of those things. It’s just a slab of greasy, boxy, glossy black plastic. Motorola says it’s Kevlar, but it doesn’t feel like it — and given the chunk I took out of the edges the one time I dropped it, doesn’t act like it either. At 7.18 mm it’s imperceptibly thicker than the original Droid RAZR, and the phone does feel smaller than any 5-inch device I’ve ever used save perhaps the Galaxy S4; since there’s almost no bezel around the display it feels even smaller still. But it’s still big, as any 5-inch phone must be, and the slight extra attenuation doesn’t mask that the Ultra just feels cheap and bland. It’s not a cool, futuristic robot worthy of the Droid brand. It’s just a plastic toy.

What’s worse, Motorola’s not even done with its softer, better Kevlar: the Maxx has the same gray-and-gray jagged diagonal lines on a soft-touch back that adorned last year’s Droid lineup. The Maxx still isn’t the prettiest phone out there, and it’s far from the smallest: it has an ugly Kevlar chin below the display, strange sanded-off corners on the back, and at 8.5 mm thick it feels a little chunky next to the Ultra. I’ll happily take chunky and high-quality over skinny and unsightly, though, and it’s not like the difference is significant; both devices are too big to use in one hand and plenty comfortable in two.

Neither phone is anywhere near as classy, or as comfortable, as the Moto X. When you factor in the X’s many customization options, it’s really no contest.

Both Droids have 5-inch AMOLED screens that are slightly larger but still basically the same as the Moto X. They offer colors just as over-saturated and vibrant as on Motorola’s other devices, but just as Josh found with the Moto X this is far from the worst screen out there. And with a little help from an app like Lux, it’s a totally usable one. Its 1280 x 720 resolution pales in comparison next to the 1080p screens on the Galaxy S4 or the HTC One, and it doesn’t make sense here: aren’t Droids supposed to be Motorola’s high-end, made-for-power-users phones? There are plenty of reasons for the Ultra to have an AMOLED display, but I’d much rather it be like the GS4’s — Samsung made a big, high-res AMOLED display and still offers good battery life, and so should Motorola.

It’s the Moto X with only the subtlest of software tweaks

The wrist-twisting Quick Capture gesture (which I’ve finally mastered), the all-too-simple camera app, the bizarrely inconsistent picture quality from the 10-megapixel sensor — everything about the Moto X’s camera exists in the Droids as well. I’ve taken great pictures with them, especially in low light; I’ve taken a near-equal number of inexplicably terrible pictures. The camera does a particularly bad job with high dynamic range — put a light subject in front of a dark background, and it’s basically hopeless.

There’s one nifty new software feature called Droid Zap, which lets you swipe up with two fingers on any photo to share it on your local network. Anyone near you can swipe down on their Droid (or any other Android phone using a receiver app) to grab it. Zap is terribly named, but works well — you know, as long as you have a Droid Ultra or Maxx. Which you probably don’t.

From a hardware standpoint, the Droid Ultra and Maxx are just like the Moto X, only much worse. Bigger screens without being higher-res, or even that much larger; bland, uninspired design; and in the Ultra’s case, a phone I like holding and using less than almost any smartphone I’ve tested (including the Galaxy S4).

So why do these phones even exist, other than as a marketing-driven vestige of the Droid brand?

Droid + Google + Verizon

In July, Motorola tipped its hand for the Moto X a week early, announcing the new lineup of Droids at a Verizon event in New York City. That was the first time we saw the Active Notifications, Touchless Control, and Moto Assist features that soon came to the Moto X as well.

The more I use them, the more I like them, especially Active Notifications. It lights up the phone with the time and your notifications without you ever having to turn on the phone — everything else just feels slow now.

I’m finding it hard to live without Active Notifications and Voice Control

It’s taken me some time to get into a rhythm with Touchless Controls. The first time I used “Okay Google Now” to set my alarm, I was across the room and didn’t notice it asking me which app I wanted to use — it never set, and I overslept the next morning. I’m getting the hang of it now, and Google Now frequently tells me when my next appointment is, calls anyone I need, and answers my trivia questions from across the room.

The Droid Ultra also uses voice control for a clever “ring my Droid” feature, which makes the phone buzz until you find it — many a couch cushion tried to steal my phone, and I reclaimed it every time with this high-tech game of Marco Polo.

Motorola really needs to continue to expand the Touchless Control feature set — it spent all the time and resources to develop a separate, always-listening chip that knows when you’re speaking to the phone, and I want to be able to do more with it. Why can’t I turn Bluetooth on and off with a voice command, or have my text messages read aloud whenever I want? When I can say “okay Google Now, what was that ding about?” I’ll be smitten for real.

The one time the phone does read your text messages aloud is when it thinks you’re driving, and the Moto Assist kicks in. It’ll also tell you aloud who’s calling; another mode mutes your phone when there’s a meeting on your calendar, to help you avoid being that guy. Moto Assist is a great tool on the X, and it works just the same here.

In fact, the Android 4.2.2 experience is nigh-identical across the board, save for Verizon’s plentiful and messy fingerprints. There’s no question you’re using a Droid from the moment you turn it on, as the screen seems to explode into a supernova only to contract into the robot-eye Droid logo. (The “DROOOOOID” sound when it boots is another dead giveaway.) The available wallpapers are dark and sci-fi, as opposed to earthy and all-American as they are on the X. If none of that tipped you off, the dozen-plus bloatware apps like IMDb, My Verizon Mobile, Verizon Tones, VZ Security, and the hilariously useless Caller Name ID certainly will. Motorola may be “a Google company,” but this sure ain’t a Google phone.

The Droid lineup is supposed to represent next-level power and next-level capability. Droid DOES, after all. But the Ultra and Maxx offer virtually identical specifications to the Moto X, a phone Motorola says neither has nor needs great specs. The two Droids have the same X8 system-on-a-chip — it’s a Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with additional cores that enable the Touchless Control and Active Notifications. It’s plenty powerful, and both Droids are responsive and smooth, but it’s not exactly next-level. These Droids are just powerful phones in a sea of other powerful phones.

Nothing Earth-shattering about the Droids’ performance, or their battery life

I spent three months last year talking myself into, then out of, buying a Droid RAZR Maxx. There’s a laundry list of things I don’t like about the phone, but its battery life is incredible, and that really does change the experience of owning a smartphone. The new Droid Maxx was supposed to take the longevity even further, but it doesn’t: I was able to get a day and a half out of the phone’s battery, but I’d have to charge the second afternoon unless I really babied the phone. (That’s great, but last year’s Maxx made it two days without trying very hard.) It lasted 8 hours, 32 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, more than four hours less than last year’s model. The Droid Ultra, on the other hand, just continues its march toward obsolescence with its battery — at 4 hours, 17 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, it’s well below nearly every other high-end smartphone.

The Droid Maxx is only slightly bigger than the Ultra, and offers nearly twice the battery life — reason the infinity why I don’t think anyone should buy the Droid Ultra. But the Maxx itself doesn’t exactly blow the doors off in the battery department; it doesn’t even last as long as last year’s RAZR HD or RAZR Maxx HD. Why spend $100 extra for that?

No one should ever buy this phone

The HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5 made me believe that the days of phone manufacturers kow-towing to the whims of carriers were over. Those devices represent the beliefs of their makers, and are offered to users with only a few Verizon-induced blemishes. The Droid Ultra, on the other hand, appears to have been designed by a committee so large it was bled of every one of its assets. What’s left is as bland as it is ugly, without a single noteworthy flourish or feature. It’s the Moto X minus its design team, the Droid Maxx minus its battery engineers. In all my time with it, I’ve found nothing about it that makes it worth your $199.

The Droid Maxx almost avoids the same fate, if only because Motorola changed fewer things about the device from last year’s model. It’s a better, slightly more premium-feeling device, but that doesn’t make it worth $299 on a two-year contract. Neither does its battery life, which doesn’t live up to last year’s model, and qualifies as something closer to “very good” than “epic.”

Building a spectacularly thin phone could have been a winning formula for Motorola; so could building one with genuinely worry-free battery life. Motorola did neither, and in trying sacrificed nearly everything else that could have made these phones great. When the X offers every one of the Droid’s other features, I’m without a single reason to recommend either the Droid Ultra or the Droid Maxx. Not when Verizon offers the iPhone 5, the HTC One, the Samsung Galaxy S4, and virtually every other major smartphone on the market as well.

The Moto X is clearly Motorola’s future, and it’s said as much; the Droid lineup seems like nothing more than fulfillment of a contract to Verizon. They’re all on shelves, but Motorola would rather you buy the Moto X, and believe me – I’m happy to oblige.

Is above-average battery life worth all the Maxx's tradeoffs?