Motorola Droid Bionic is great for Android, not for $300 (review)

Summary:Motorola's long-awaited Droid Bionic has finally debuted on the market, but is it everything we were waiting for and more? Here's a hands-on review.

Motorola rolled out its latest smartphone evolution under the Droid brand name to stores this week with Verizon Wireless. The Droid Bionic was first unveiled back in January at CES 2011, but consumers haven't had a chance to get their hands on a unit until now.

See also: Verizon and Motorola push pricing boundaries with Droid Bionic

However, a $299.99 price tag has us wondering just how valuable and worthy this Gingerbread-based smartphone really is. Here's a hands-on review of the device itself.

(There are some details about the specially-designed accessories for this device sprinkled throughout the review, but the primary focus here is on the Droid Bionic itself.)

INTERNAL HARDWARE

The Droid Bionic is a speed monster with an impressive dual-core 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. Also, with the speed of 4G, users can expect download speeds of up to 5 to 12Mbps and upload speeds of 2 to 5Mbps when connected to Verizon's LTE network.

Currently, there is only one integrated storage capacity option for the Droid Bionic and that's 16GB of flash memory. There is also 16GB pre-installed microSD card that is easy to access by flipping off the back of the phone. (In fact, that back cover comes off a little too easily). Users can maximize their storage space by upgrading to a 32GB card on their own.

Along with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, users can also connect to other devices via Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, USB 2.0,  DLNA and HDMI.

DISPLAY

Sporting a 4.3-inch qHD touchscreen, the Droid Bionic's screen is resilient with Corning Gorilla Glass and a dual-layer, anti-reflective coating.

You'll also notice in the photo below that the Droid Bionic is quite a large smartphone, measuring 2.63- x 5- x 0.43-inches, but it only weights 5.6 ounces. It is also the thinnest 4G LTE smartphone from Verizon -- which isn't hard to claim considering Verizon only offers a trio of other options: the LG Revolution, the HTC Thunderbolt and the Samsung Droid Charge.

For better reference, check out the side-by-side visual comparison of the Droid Bionic (left) to the Motorola Photon 4G (middle) and the iPhone 4 (right).

USER INTERFACE

The latest member of the Droid family runs on Android 2.3.4. As for Gingerbread, there isn't much of anything new here. However, considering we're so close to seeing Ice Cream Sandwich launch this fall, one might wonder what's the point of buying a Gingerbread phone at this point. Verizon reps asserted that they ensure operating system upgrades for up to 18 months after a device is released. Thus, Ice Cream Sandwich should be in the cards for this phone.

It has become the norm for most Android partners to integrate their own UI touches on top of the base OS. Thus, Motorola hasn't done much tweaking here, but it has pre-loaded some software of its own. One of the more notable examples is ZumoCast, which brings a cloud-of-sorts to the Droid Bionic as it is a portal that connects to a user's computer to access videos, music, pictures and documents remotely.

The Droid Bionic also supports Motorola's Webtop platform, which essentially turns the smartphone into a computer (at least on the netbook/Chromebook level) allowing for full-screen browsing and access to productivity applications when connected to an external monitor.

If you are willing to spring the extra cash for these accessories (see page 3), then they make the value of the Droid Bionic more substantial as a more productive set-up for a business environment. But then you have to figure out why you're agreeing to pay $299 for a phone and then another few hundred bucks to make the first purchase seem more reasonable.

CALLING

Considering at the heart of these handhelds, the fact that they're telephones seems to get overlooked too easily. However, maybe given the popularity of texting, email and using social media apps on smartphones, who needs calling anyway?

Nevertheless, this is a very important spot to consider. After making a few calls to recipients on landlines and cell phones, I would rate the call clarity as satisfactory. I thought it was on par with the iPhone 4, which I use on a regular basis myself so that's the best frame of reference I have. Even though many phones have better call clarity than the iPhone 4, another iPhone owner I called said he thought the audio on the iPhone sounded better.

However, compared to the Photon 4G, which I reviewed a little over a month ago, I found myself disappointed with this feature. The audio on both ends when using the Photon 4G was so crisp that I almost couldn't believe it, whereas on the Droid Bionic, I had to ask people to repeat themselves a few times. Additionally, one caller said my voice was clearer when calling from a landline instead. Another person even said I sounded "muffled." So there you have it.

CAMERAS

The cameras are actually some of the more special spots on the Droid Bionic, which comes with the now-standard set of two : a front-facing VGA camera intended for video chatting and conferencing as well as the 8-megapixel rear-facing, autofocus camera with an LED flash.

The VGA camera supports video calling over 4G, 3G and Wi-Fi. That 8MP camera is actually one of the special spots on the Droid Bionic as it is capable of full 1080p HD video capture.

Here are three sample, untouched photos I shot that you can use to judge for yourselves.

Indoors with bright, natural light (i.e. near a window):

Another indoor photo with artificial lighting:

Outdoors:

Overall, this camera can definitely replace a basic point-and-shoot if you just want a camera for on-the-go. However, it might not be the camera you want to use for snapping photos often indoors or when on faraway vacations.

BATTERY

This subject is sticky as neither Verizon nor Motorola seem to want to talk about it much. The reason for that would seem then that the battery life is deplorable, which is the case with most 4G-enabled devices at the moment.

When I asked Verizon reps about the battery life, the only specific time frames I was given were that the Droid Bionic’s removable 1,735 mAh battery battery can last up to 650 minutes of talk time and 200 hours on standby when on 4G mode.

However, when I asked about browsing, streaming and more, Verizon was reluctant to give any more specific numbers, citing that customers use their smartphones for a large variety of different purposes.

There are ways to conserve the Droid Bionic’s battery life. Users can opt to drop down to 3G connections when they want, and there are some options in the Settings menu. Additionally, Verizon and Motorola are selling an extra battery with a docking station that can charge both the extra battery and the Droid Bionic simultaneously for $49.99.

However, my guess estimate would be that the Droid Bionic can last four to six hours after a full charge when using it for a mixture of calling, browsing and using apps.

ACCESSORIES

After budgeting $300 (before the required monthly talk and data plans) for the Droid Bionic itself, then there are a bevy of accessories to think about. A few of them are quite familiar, such as the Lapdock for $299.97 on its own, the vehicle navigation dock for $39.99, and the HD station for $99.99. You might remember seeing the Lapdock associated with the Motorola Atrix 4G along with the vehicle navigation dock and the HD station for using Webtop on a separate display with the Motorola Photon 4G.

All of the functions with these accessories are relatively the same, although you wouldn't be able to use any of the Atrix and Photon accessories for the Droid Bionic as the latter is a different size and therefore wouldn't fit. The vehicle dock is particularly useful as the Droid Bionic utilizes both the built-in GPS and VZ Navigator app for maps and turn-by-turn directions, thus replacing the need for a GPS unit on your dashboard. (It also keeps your smartphone away from your hands while driving.)

There are also a few new products in the mix, including a standard charging dock that does exactly it says (charges the phone) for $39.99 as well as an ultra-portable adapter for the Webtop application that fits in the palm of your hand for $29.99. Basically, the adapter fits into the micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports and then connects the Droid Bionic to an external display for Webtop use. However, it just lacks the Bluetooth capabilities and other ports for plugging in peripherals like speakers and keyboards.

BOTTOM LINE

This is a great Android phone, but it does not have anything so significant that it deserves the $299.99 on-contract price tag.

As I wrote on last week, Motorola and Verizon have severely pushed the average pricing of a smartphone sky-high with this device. Just because it is 4G-capable does not warrant an extra $100 for a 16GB phone with a two-year contract. The Motorola Photon 4G, which was released with Sprint in July, is just as capable (if not more so) for the now-traditional $199.99 price.

As for being a business-friendly smartphone? That is debatable. Motorola boasts that it is business ready, which is true to some extent. The accessories -- most notably the Lapdock -- does lend the Droid Bionic well to enterprise matters, as does the fact that Citrix's GoToMeeting and Receiver apps are preloaded. The smartphone can also double as a 4G LTE mobile hotspot that shares the connection with up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Other useful features include the Motoprint Wi-Fi printing app and SD card encryption.

But for smartphone owners who travel internationally for work often, this might not be the phone for you as this is a CDMA device. Verizon reps specifically stated to me that this is not a world phone as they would prefer to focus on building for the 4G LTE U.S. network only with this device at this time.

Related:

Topics: Mobility

About

Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider, FastCompany.com, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for MainStreet.com, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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