HTC Droid DNA: pros, cons, and in-betweens (hands-on review)

Summary:The HTC Droid DNA has been making waves recently, but is it really as good or bad as various reviewers have made it out to be? Here are my thoughts on an amazing phone that works for me, but may well fall short of the mark for others.

After spending a good, long week with the HTC Droid DNA, I've come to some solid conclusions about this phone that both validate and discredit much of what I've read from others who have reviewed it: everything from battery life, to storage capacity, to screen resolution, to location of buttons, and so on -- I address it all. So, without any further ado, here is my list of notable facets of the phone (see, in bold, the ones you're specifically interested in, or read them all), each accompanied by my thoughts:

[Related gallery: HTC Droid DNA: hands-on gallery ]

  • Battery life: This is the big one. All I've read from countless people is that the battery life in this phone is garbage. Well, depending on how you plan to use this phone, the battery will either be garbage, or it will last you 3-4 days, easy. On days where I gamed heavily on my device (a combination of Words with Friends, Scramble, Hanging with Friends, Espgaluda II, and various RPGs), I could count on getting no more than 4 hours of battery life. That's a terribly abysmal revelation for on-the-go gamers who want this phone -- even if you only use your phone like that every once in a while, depending on the situation.

    On days of usage that included Internet-browsing, YouTube video-watching (3-4 videos), music-listening, texting, and talking, the DNA lasted me all day, easy, and may well have lasted me partway into the next day. But to be safe, I would definitely charge my phone at the end of the day. Lastly, there were the extremely light days that involved talking, texting, and listening to music. Of those days, I didn't drain so much as a quarter of my battery! The DNA performs like a champ in these last two scenarios; it's only if you plan to have the screen on for extended periods of time that the battery life will drain quickly, as that seems to be the biggest power-sapper of all (the tremendously high-resolution screen).

    And if you're wondering, these points are worth noting about the battery because you cannot replace it, so it's not like you're going to be able to go out and buy a battery that's double the capacity and say, "TAKE THAT, PHONE!" One cool thing worth noting is that they made this battery capable of being charged wirelessly. My personal recommendation is to pick up a Qi wireless battery charger, which I did. I keep it on my nightstand, which allows me to keep my wall charger at my desk, where I keep my phone hooked up most of the time. If you're a heavy phone user, you will definitely want to make provisions to have charging in place wherever you are -- especially in your car, if you're the traveling type.

  • See it
    Charging/data port: The port on the bottom of the phone is the same port HTC has been using on their phones forever now, so that's convenient. There's a door that covers the port and it's very fickle to remove -- especially if you keep your nails short. I haven't quite gotten to the point where I just tear that little door off yet, but I've been thinking about it. I've never had any issues with those ports being exposed previously (like dirt getting in them in whatever), but perhaps it's a different story with it being located directly on the bottom of the phone, instead of on the side. I'm ultimately being nitpicky with this point, though; it's not really that big of a deal. Just a minor inconvenience.
  • Storage: Right off the bat, I think companies like HTC and Verizon should be held accountable for advertising this phone as having 16GB of internal memory. Why? Because you only end up with 11GB to use, thanks to how much space is being used by the phone's OS and whatever else Verizon has thrown on it. 5GB may not seem like a whole lot, but for an avid smartphone user today, it's a LOT to take away from 16GB. And because they've provided no external storage capabilities with this phone, 11GB is what you get to work with, forever.

    Having said that, I would wager that 11GB is enough for the average phone user. I'm saying that completely blindly, though. As for me, I can make it work. ~7GB is how much space gets used for my music, and the rest will be for games, pictures, videos, etc. I'll just have to be diligent about staying on top of offloading pictures, uninstalling games I don't play, etc. That's not a terrible task for me, though, because I don't really install that much on my phone these days. Your mileage may vary.

  • See it
    Screen resolution:  The screen resolution is undoubtedly the highlight of this phone. It is beautiful, indeed, and I feel this should be a standard for all phone screens from here forward; however, there's a certain "wow" effect that I missed out on, primarily due to my Retina-display-equipped iPad. I've gotten so used to seeing text and graphics on a Retina display that the DNA's screen just seemed like, "oh, it's cool to have this on a phone now." Yes, the DNA's resolution is far greater than Apple's iPhone Retina display, but it seems as though there's a definite threshold of what the human eye is capable of noticing -- at least, for my eyes.

    Having said that, if you've never seen a Retina display and you're not already using one of the more recent smartphones with high-resolution displays, then the DNA's display will most likely be nothing short of breathtaking to you. Text is ultra-clear on the brightly-lit screen and the 5" display is a pleasure to do just about everything on. (I say "just about everything" because there are some games/apps that don't use the screen real estate properly, but that's no fault of the phone's.)

  • Other screen features: Perhaps my two of my favorite features of the screen is how clear it looks in broad daylight, and how it looks while wearing polarized glasses. I've seen people in the past make note of how cell phone screens look fair enough in sunlight, but this is the first screen I've ever personally seen that was discernibly visible in outdoor conditions: no having to bend over like a gymnast to cast a shadow over the screen so you can see it, etc. Also, there's no need to lift up those polarized glasses anymore, because the screen will be equally as visible through them, albeit with an ever-so-slightly blur-inducing iridescent effect. I know these aren't necessarily "features," but they were pleasant surprises to me.
  • See it
    Cameras (front and rear): Both cameras on this phone are HD-capable, but if you really want to get great pictures out of them, you're going to have to do some tweaking. Well-lit, indoor environments seem to be the most optimal for the cameras, but they really favor glare and washed-out colors. Again, you can tweak the cameras to make for better photos, but just be aware that you may find yourself taking more of the same photo in attempts to get it "just right" than simply once-and-done snapping.

    The front camera (2.1 MP) is of lower quality than the rear camera (8 MP), but it's primarily meant to be used by video messaging apps, like Skype. In that case, and for quick face shots, the front-facing camera is great. Back to the rear-facing camera, I've found that auto-focus has major issues. I'll have to tap my object of focus on the screen 4-5 times before it finally focuses in on it properly, and it's not as if there's some other greatly-contrasting object in the frame for it to be drawn to. Overall, I'm pretty dissatisfied with the out-of-the-box camera functionality on this phone, despite the hardware being plenty capable, per its technical specs.

  • Speakers (ear and rear): I have one extremely notable thing to say about the speaker that you hold up to your ear: connected calls don't sound like they're connected when the person on the other end is silent. I'm not sure if there's a way to tweak this or not, but connected calls seem to block silence and ambient noise... and it drives me absolutely crazy! I keep feeling like I have to ask if the other party is still on the line. It's annoying much in the same way that getting stuck behind a driver who keeps tapping on their brakes is (if you've never experienced this, then consider yourself lucky). Also, there seems to be a preferred spot to hold the phone up to your ear. If you don't have it just right, you can tell you're not getting maximum aural pleasure.

    As for the rear speaker, it's about as you'd expect a cell phone speaker to be: tinny-sounding. When I bought this phone, I was under the impression that Beats Audio was going to be used to enhance the bass on this speaker as well, but that's not the case, as I'll delve into in a later focus on Beats Audio. So, overall, there's nothing remarkable or terrible to note about the rear speaker: it's a cell phone speaker, ladies and gentlemen!

  • See it
    Volume and power buttons: The first thing I did when I unboxed this phone was check the volume and power buttons. There were resounding opinions that the buttons were too flush with the body, hence a bit of a pain to use. Well, I'm happy to report that I haven't found this to be an issue. The volume button on the side juts out just far enough that you can feel it with your finger. This sounds like it's more involved than it actually is, but to change the volume, all you have to do is slide your thumb from around the proximity of the top or bottom of that button, accordingly, and you'll feel the jutting-out of the up/down such that you can press it. It's really a complete non-issue to me, but this simply a matter of opinion.

    As for the power button, the top of the phone angles ever-so-slightly down, towards the front. I'm not sure if it's purely aesthetic or if it plays a role in the ease of pressing the power button, but I find the latter to be the case for me, intentional or not. It looks like it's not going to be easy to find, feel, or press, but looks are deceiving in this case. I find no issue with pressing the power button, whatsoever.

  • See it
    Beats Audio: Unfortunately, I'm not sure what to compare Beats Audio to, because my previous cell phone -- an HTC Thunderbolt -- sounded as good through headphones as the Beats-Audio-integrated Droid DNA does. Then again, I use good headphones. As an audiophile, all I can say is that the Droid DNA sounds great with headphones, but may require tweaking on open speakers, as it seems Beats Audio is bass-heavy. Either way, Beats Audio doesn't enable itself until you've attached headphones or speakers to the jack. In other words, don't expect the in-built Beats Audio to make your cell phone speaker sound like anything other than the cell phone speaker it is.
  • Android Jelly Bean likes/dislikes (so far): Coming from Android 2.x on an HTC Thunderbolt, Android 4.2 is near-dreamy -- but not without a couple of hiccups, as I fully expect from the OS these days. For starters, the default music app sorts my music folders in a really weird way. I put music on my phone and renamed the folders accordingly. Unfortunately, none of that renaming seemed to happen on the device, so sorting through my songs is a headache in some cases. I'll work around that, though. Next up, the feature where the phone automatically kicks into speaker mode when you flip it over seems defunct. It has yet to work correctly, so I've disabled it.

    As of now, those are the only two dislikes that really stick out in my mind, per my typical usage of a phone. I'm sure there will be more to come, but for the most part, Jelly Bean has been an absolute joy to use -- especially things like being able to assign apps to various home screens via one screen. I know features like that will be old hat for some of you, but coming from Android 2.x, it's all the more enjoyable. Also, the most annoying problems with Android 2.x that I had have been resolved -- such as the time it takes for an email inbox to refresh and 4G connectivity/responsiveness. The latter may have something to do with the hardware, but either way, Jelly Bean is significantly snappier.

  • Dimensions and weight: This phone is light -- very light. Granted, this opinion of mine is formed through being an HTC Thunderbolt user for almost 2 years with a double-capacity battery installed. It was like carrying a brick in my pocket, but I've never been bugged by weight. The difference is quite notable, though. As for its dimensions, there are the technical specs, and then there's how it feels to hold and use. I'm 5'11" and this phone feels great in my hands. Nothing is arduous for me to reach, press, touch, etc. But I also rarely use a phone with one hand unless I'm talking on it, so if you primarily use a phone with one hand, then you may want to look elsewhere for informed opinions of that specific usage scenario.
  • Wish list: I really, really miss the kickstand from my HTC Thunderbolt. When I first bought the Thunderbolt, I remember thinking the kickstand was just a gimmick. Man, how wrong I was! I found myself using that kickstand every time I set my phone down on a flat surface. Also, the option for external storage would be a much-welcomed re-addition to this phone model (yes, re-addition, because this phone has external storage in its Japanese and international counterparts: the J Butterfly and Deluxe/DLX, respectively). Lastly, the ability to replace the battery would be fantastic. Oh, and did I mention a kickstand?

Conclusion

If I had to give this phone a rating out of 10, based on its feature set (or lack thereof) alone, I'd say it's a 6.5. But that's the Droid DNA on Verizon: the phone that gives you only 11GB of usable storage (even though Verizon falsely advertises 16GB), limited battery options, disappointing out-of-the-box camera performance, seemingly pointless Beats Audio integration, and more nitpicky things, like the finicky port door.

Now, to give it a rating out of 10 based on the way I, personally, use a cell phone, I give it a solid 9. So, as you can see, your enjoyment with this phone will have everything to do with your personal cell phone needs. Most power users are probably going to want to wait it out, unless they can make appropriate provisions for battery life and deal with a measly 11GB of internal storage. But if you're not a gamer or glued to your cell phone screen constantly through the day, this just might be the device you've been waiting for -- especially if you're using a cell phone that's almost 2 years old, like I was.

Any other Droid DNA owners out there? Feel free to share your personal opinions of the device so as to help others who may be looking to make a purchasing decision!

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Topics: HTC, Google, Verizon

About

Stephen is a freelance writer and blogger based in Charlotte, NC. His contributions to ZDNet cover topics related to security, gaming, Microsoft, Apple, and other topics of interest with a tech/SMB skew.

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