ost after post, comparison after comparison I bear witness to readers touting the specs of one device over the other and for that reason it should be the resounding winner if the two were to fight in a duel to the death. It’s a misnomer and one that, to put it mildly, is aggravating to watch transpire. In fact, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to smartphones, but can be seen in cars, airplanes, boats, computers – really anything that has some type of horsepower. So I implore you, drop the aforementioned requirement, and consider this smartphone: the Motorola Droid Ultra.
Exclusive to Verizon Wireless, at least here in the US, it’s available on contract for $200. It’s flanked by the smaller Droid Mini and the more energized Droid Maxx. For the most part all three phones have the same specs. The Mini a smaller screen, the Maxx a larger battery. So why the Droid Ultra? It’s a good question, especially considering that the Maxx has the same size screen, an equally thin waistline, and all the while a battery that goes and goes and goes. But the real answer probably lies in positioning. At $100 more, the Droid Maxx might seem like a deal and one that surely has fatter margins. The Mini on the other hand might appeal to those of an older generation that aren’t obsessed with screen size and nor do they want a hunk of plastic jammed in their pocket.
Too long have people touted the 1080p display. But stop. It’s hardly one worth championing, especially on a device that’s screen measures 5-inches or less. James already said this in his Droid Maxx review and I can’t agree with him more. And Apple, as James pointed out, stopped dropping more pixels into the iPhone’s screen because not only can consumers not tell the difference between 720 and 1080 on handset, but it’s a waste of money from a manufacturing standpoint. That all said, the Droid Ultra’s screen is respectably bright and serves up enough color for even the most bubbly of folks. In direct sunlight a blue hue and the flare explosion makes it challenging to view, but this is indicative of AMOLED screens.
Design and Durability
The design of the Droid Ultra, as stated in my first impression, is fairly unremarkable. It’s a black slab that gets slightly fatter as it draws to the top of the phone, where the camera is centered and the headphone sits close to the right corner. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S4 it’s less at home in my hand, and a quick glance reveals a plastic frame that sits in another plastic frame. Because of this, the Droid Ultra lacks significant refinement and all together doesn’t present as well as other phones such as the HTC One or the Sammy’s GS4.
Holding to tradition, of Nexus devices, even thought the Droid Ultra isn’t officially one, there are a set of touchscreen buttons at the bottom of the display that are organized in similar Nexus style. From left to right they’re “back”, “home”, and “app/task”. It’s a layout that I’m accustom to, and while not necessarily better than another Android handsets, it’s my prefer layout.
I haven’t been able to pry the volume rocker switch off, but word is that the SIM for the phone, for international travel of course, sits behind it. Response isn’t impacted, at least in my experience, and the textured finish gives it added grip which actually reduces finger slips. The power/lock button is slightly more recessed and helps reduce, but not complete negate the confusion between the two as they’re adjacent to one and other on the top right corner of the device’s edge.
In terms of durability it’s a bit hard for me to say as I haven’t dropped the device and nor am I willing to in the name of fragility or lack there of. That said, the Droid Ultra is also crafted from Kevlar, though unlike it’s bigger brother, the Droid Maxx, it’s covered in a gloss finish. And that gloss has a tendency to show fingerprints. For some the shine will be a bonus, for others a caveat. Fortunately, a quick rub against the lapel area of a shirt and the prints disappear.
The Droid Ultra, and all of its sibling have been afforded Motorola’s own X8 chip. It’s an SoC setup and packs in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4Pro family processor (1.7GHz Dual-Core Krait CPU, Quad-Core Adreno 320 GPU), a natural language processor and a contextual computing processor. That’s a total of 8 processors and while it’s not positioned as “latest-gen” like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 or 800 processors, it shows no signs of wincing even under the most demanding of every day use cases.
A quick test using Rightware’s Basemark X free Android app shows the following:
Droid Ultra results:
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Google Edition:
In real world use there is no perceivable difference between the S4 and the Droid Ultra. Apps open just as quick, multitasking is as seamless, and you’ll be none the wiser that the computer center of this handset isn’t the latest gen processor.
That said, Motorola’s new line of phones, the Moto X included, ships with an always listening feature. I’ve addressed this in my first impressions of both the Droid Ultra and Moto X. In use, you simple say “Ok Google Now”, or “Ok Google” if you’re feeling lazy.
First, you’ll need to train the device to your voice by following the on screen instructions. It’s so simple even a monkey, even a stupid monkey could do this. When trained, the Droid Ultra can be activated simply by voice. However, if you’ve got a PIN or Pattern set, you’ll need to unlock the device to complete the requested task.
In an attempt to enter directions purely by voice, and with the phone in sleep mode, I was able to speak the complete address, where upon Android dialed in the directions. Of course, I had to manually activate the phone’s GPS feature, which is currently a caveat of Google Now – you can’t open apps or activate phone features – but that issue aside it dialed in the directions perfection. That isn’t to say the feature is completely flawless, anything but. You’ll need to spend some time learning the correct way to say certain commands, but compared to Apple’s Siri it’s far more forgiving and usable.
Also new to the Droid Ultra is the Active Notification system. It replaces the tired LED light by periodically displaying a low powered screen notification that includes the time of day. Arguably this takes more power than an LED, but since the time is illuminated it should negate the need to power on the screen as one tends to do and thus ultimately save on battery life. It’s hard to say if I could take full advantage of this feature since this wasn’t my full time device, by applaud Google/Motorola applying the concept. The Droid Ultra can also detect when it has been moved (i.e. picked up), which also activates the new Notification system. However, move it too many times and it won’t continue to display, which is both smart (saves battery in the case of false positives) and annoying (if you want to truly see the time you’ll have to power on the screen).
It’s effectively a Nexus edition phone with some additional Motorola features that are far from bloatware. The OS is crisp, clean and boasts the same layout as found in the Nexus 4. Gone is Motorola’s much lamented Moto Blur, though there are a few Motorola/Verizon apps, such as find my phone, that ship with the handset.
As for the Android OS, this phone ships with 4.2.2. No word on a 4.3, but the iteration is a small one, and nothing will be missed, though you can expect the Droid Ultra to get an update soon enough, though that is speculative on my behalf. The camera’s interface is slightly different than that of other Android handset: swiping from the left edge of the screen inwards displays a set of options; sliding your finger up and down activates the digital zoom. Also, the Droid Ultra’s camera can be activated in less than 2-seconds by picking up the handset and flipping your wrist twice. Although from the outside looking in this feature may seem gimmicky, trust me when I say it’s not. A few occasions presented itself when it came in handy and since there really is no learning curve you can perform the action out of the box.
In active, every day use the Motorola Droid Ultra didn’t blow me out of the water. For the sake of benchmarking I ran a 480 video at full brightness and garnered 6 hours from the battery. In mixed use it’s easy to go a day, and with no use, purely on standby, the Droid Ultra will last for more than 3 days easily, which is well above any other phone I’ve used. And yes, this is with 4G enabled, but again, no calls made, websites visited, etc.
At 10mp the Droid Ultra is an acceptable camera. And not because it’s got a decent pixel count, but because it actually can snap photos with relatively good quality. I still believe the iPhone 5 or 5s is one of the best shooters, if not the Nokia Lumia 1020. But the Droid Ultra’s camera, while not above and beyond the rest of the market, produces acceptable results.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any on hand, and thought a suitable comparison is the always referenced Galaxy S4. As you can see in the picture of the tomatoes it blew out the color, but keep in mind red is a tough color for any camera of any caliber. Compared to the S4, it tends to struggle to find a balance between brights and darks, but again, it performs admirably.
Save for a rather lackluster design, the Droid Ultra is an all together strong performer in all categories. Unlike the Galaxy S4, which really turned out to be evolutionary, the Droid Ultra from Motorola is in fact revolutionary thanks to it’s always listening feature and active notifications.
Unfortunately, our phones have largely become our cameras. And because of that any misgiving, as slight as it might be, can be an overshadowing caveat that is akin to “all it takes is one bad apple”. But that isn’t to say the Motorola Droid Ultra’s camera is bad. It just doesn’t shine as brightly as the phone’s other feature, such as the nimble and clean OS or the scary accurate voice to text (so to speak) service now being billed as Google Now.
So you’re probably wondering if you should get the Droid Ultra or another phone? Isn’t that the usual debate. Well, for starters, the Droid Ultra’s siblings are all very similar. Deciding between the three comes down to cost, size, and battery power. If that isn’t the issue, and you’re looking at the Galaxy S4 or the iPhone 5s, consider that being able to “talk to your phone”, and doing so effectively, is a much more compelling feature than a fingerprint lock or a device that pauses movies automatically.