Motorola Droid X review: bigger, badder, better

Summary:Does the Motorola Droid X have what it takes to topple the iPhone? Is it worth your hard-earned cash? Will it please business users? Read our comprehensive review to find out.

The Motorola Droid X is the fourth "Droid" branded phone on Verizon Wireless, and Motorola's eleventh (!) Google Android-based smartphone.

The device has big shoes to fill: with an esteemed lineage that includes the original Motorola Droid (then the "best Android smartphone to date") and the HTC Droid Incredible (again, then the "best Android smartphone to date"), the Droid X carries a moniker that has, in just two years' time, come to indicate the best and most powerful of smartphones.

There are three smartphone gunslingers in the mobile industry: Apple, HTC and Motorola. (Sorry, Palm.) With the Droid X, Motorola reasserts itself at the top of the mobile food chain. (More on this later.) Though the U.S.-only phone's carrier, Verizon Wireless, has done a lot of trash talking about the Apple iPhone and its exclusive carrier, AT&T, the Droid X is perhaps most notable for leapfrogging, once again, inter-conference rival HTC.

Is the Droid X extreme enough to pass an "Incredible" phone? Read on to find out.

External Hardware

The Droid X manages to retain in equal doses the original Droid's style cues, the Droid line's black-on-black essence and pave some new ground in a number of ways.

[Image Gallery: Motorola Droid X hands on]

From the first glance you'll notice that the phone is nearly all screen. The plastic bezel around the 4.3-inch WVGA (854 by 480 pixels) display has nearly disappeared, so recessed that it's just a hair short of edge-to-edge glass on each side. At top, a thin speaker anchors a small panel with a green status light behind it; at bottom, an even thinner -- perhaps three millimeters -- strip accounts for a standard Android set of hard buttons: menu, home, back and search. Beneath that, a heel that's just over a quarter of an inch wide, punctuated by a lone pinhole for the microphone. There's no "chin" to this device like with the original Droid, and everything is flush with very narrow gaps in between panels.

The top side of the device sports a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack to the side, another microphone pinhole (for ambient noise) and a centered power/lock button that, using the device with one hand, is a bit far to reach your finger to, owing to the device's five-inch length. (It's just over 2.5 inches wide.)

The left side of the device sports a mini USB slot and a miniature HDMI port along the bottom corner. There's a spot on the bottom left corner for a lanyard. The right side of the device has a narrow, silvery volume rocker (up and down are demarcated by a gap) and, on the bottom, a camera trigger button in anodized red. That's right -- the Armani gold of the original Droid is gone for good. The bottom edge is blank.

The back of the device retains the panel styling of the original Droid, but does away with the original's gold mesh grille for a clean, matte-on-matte look, punctuated only by a brushed metal Motorola logo and smaller screenprinted Verizon and Google logos. At the top is a window for the device's 8.0 megapixel dual-LED flash 720p HD video-enabled camera, which has a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second.

The biggest thing to note here: the device is exceedingly thin, and slips into a jeans pocket effortlessly. That's because there's no slide-out QWERTY keyboard like the original Droid. The only thing holding the device back from uniform 3/8-inch thinness is the camera, which requires more depth. As such, there's a hump at the top of the device that's a hair over a half-inch thick. The Verizon folks liked to say that the hump "helped it rest in your hand." I'll just say it's not thick enough to be obtrusive (or to prevent it from slipping further into my back jeans pocket.)

If you didn't like the original Droid because it felt too brick-like, you'll appreciate the svelte profile of the Droid X.

Internal Hardware

On to the meaty bits. The Droid X sports Texas Instruments' latest iteration of its OMAP processor, running at 1.0 GHz, as well as 512 megabytes of RAM.

It carries support for Bluetooth, DNLA (the first such Android phone to do so), Wi-Fi, accelerometer, light sensor, GPS and 3G mobile hotspot tethering (up to five devices), which will cost an extra $20 per month.

As mentioned before, the device has three microphones to ensure quality audio. It comes out of the box with 8 gigabytes of on-board memory and a 16GB microSD card; it supports up to 32GB.

Battery

Verizon officials were keen on highlighting the strength of the device's removable 1570mAh battery. (In comparison, the rival HTC Evo on Sprint has a 1500mAh battery.) In testing, I found the battery to hold up well, and in a real-time simulation of daily use -- a couple of calls here and there, some Google Maps searching, lots of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter checking and moderate web browsing -- I was at half battery.

In fact, the Droid X offers the power user lots of granular controls for battery life. It offers three profiles -- "Performance Mode," "Battery Saver Mode" and a middle-of-the-road "Smart Mode" -- as well as a Battery Use menu to dive into the details.

(For example, as I write this sentence nearing midnight on the East Coast, I was 5 hours, 8 minutes and 50 seconds since I was last unplugged -- which happened to be at full charge -- using Smart Mode.)

Further, it will tell you what's using your battery -- for me, 85 percent display, 9 percent cell standby, 6 percent voice calls and 2 percent phone idle -- as well as allow you to set more detailed controls, such as specifying start and end times for certain power modes, with the option of a "data timeout."

(Update, 2:00am ET: I've been unplugged for 7 hours, 15 minutes and 34 seconds and have an "orange" [but not red] battery meter after light, intermittent usage. Display energy usage is at 84 percent of device total, and has been on for 2 hours, 4 minutes and 22 seconds.)

Display

There are indeed a few things to say about the Droid X's enormous 4.3-inch display. For one, the screen space is a breath of fresh air. Browsing, menu shopping, reading text -- everything's easier with more real estate, and once you see a full-bleed website (like ZDNet.com!) on this thing, it's real hard to go back.

Moreover, the screen's not as big as it seems, because it's mostly bigger in length, not width. That said, it's a touch wide for my hands. (Perhaps I'm just used to using my skinnier phone.) In that regard, the display is clearly not for everybody -- but it's for more people than you'd think.

Naturally, colors were vivid, edges were crisp and it was bright enough to handle daylight pretty well. If you're wondering if the Droid X display is any better than the "retina display" on the Apple iPhone 4, your guess is as good as mine -- I haven't tried one yet. Either way, it looks pretty good, especially playing video.

About that video, by the way -- the Droid X can play back 720p high-def video. The folks at Verizon have struck up deals with Blockbuster (for movie rentals) and the NFL (for live game streaming) to leverage that capability, and from what I've seen thus far, it's a nice way to make that cross-country flight in coach a little easier.

Camera

The Droid X's dual-LED flash camera takes brilliant photos. (Above, an example.) Impossibly, it's even got a nice field of depth, and takes better low-light photos than some point-and-shoots I've used. And at 8.0 megapixels, you can blow your handiwork up to poster size, if that's your thing.

One neat distinguishing feature -- a panoramic mode that allows you to "stitch" together photos into one mega-wide photo. (Good luck figuring out how to frame it.)

At your disposal are picture modes (single shot, panorama, multi-shot and self-portrait, despite no front-facing camera like the iPhone 4), flash adjustment, effects, face detection, ISO equivalent sensitivity, exposure and quality controls.

The video, while high quality, had a more difficult time in low light situations (it has a "light" setting that keeps the flash on, but it's a bit harsh), and was a bit sluggish to adjust on-the-fly to changes in light (such as moving toward and away from a lamp, for example). Controls are similar to the camera.

Calls

From the Droid X end, callers sounded clear and loud, on both normal and speaker modes. From another caller's perspective, a Droid X user's voice was crisp using normal mode but a little choppy (beginnings and ends) when the Droid X user was using speaker.

Verizon Wireless' network was not an issue for me in Manhattan -- for voice or 3G, for that matter -- but it rarely is here.

DLNA

The Droid X is the first phone to feature this technology, which allows for the interoperability and connectivity with other devices. It's mostly used in home theater, and, combined with its HDMI port, allows for you to output video to your DNLA-ready TV or Blu-ray player. I wasn't able to give this feature a try, but I've used DLNA before, and it's a good thing to support when your device can handle high-definition video playback.

Software: Motoblur

The Droid X comes with Android 2.1, which will be upgraded automatically, over-the-air to version 2.2 Froyo in "late summer." That version will also come with Adobe Flash Player 10.1, allowing the use of Flash-enabled content on the device.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Droid X is that it comes with Motoblur, but you might not notice it. Unlike previous Motoblur-enabled phones -- the Cliq, the Backflip, the Devour -- the Droid X's version is recessed, fading into the background and much more tightly integrated with the stock Android install. So while users have the ability to use Motoblur as it was intended -- widgets, card-style social media menus, centralized accounts, Swype input, one-touch media sharing, specialized media interfaces, various security measures I've detailed in previous posts -- you don't have to, and upon first boot, you're not forced to. (In fact, it doesn't even prompt you to create a Motoblur account at all.)

That's both good and bad. The bad? With Motoblur comes an extended development cycle, since Motorola developers must update their software to support the latest build of the Google Android platform. The good? That turnaround window seems to be shortening, as Motorola has promised a Motoblurred (if I may) version 2.2 Froyo in one to two months' time.

Software: Google Android 2.1 (or 2.2!)

So how's Google Android looking these days? Pretty darn good -- it's beyond its childhood stage and pushing adolescence. Even with Android 2.1, the Droid X is a highly capable smartphone -- perhaps the most capable Android device to date -- that can handle your personal e-mail, corporate Microsoft Exchange e-mail, streaming music, FM radio, video, social updates, news, sports scores, financial market data, GPS turn-by-turn directions and damn near anything you can throw at it.

My fellow tech reviewers (and consumers!) love to pit the Droid models against the iPhone in a tit-for-tat specifications arms race. While that may have been fair at the onset, the new iPhone 4 has demonstrated that it's less about specs and more about solving problems.

The Droid X solves my problems, but it doesn't always do it smoothly. It's lightning quick between menus, but sometimes -- and it's hard to reproduce faithfully -- it's sluggish to my touch. Sometimes menus don't pop up right away. Sometimes apps take less-than-lightning-quick -- say, traffic light-quick -- to load and display. Sometimes the home screen widgets on the device's seven (seven!) screens load slowly, or incorrectly, or with artifacts, particularly when they're large objects. (Exhibit A: my work calendar, seen in the above photo, occasionally was late to arrive at the scene.)

It would be easy to blame Motoblur for this, as many have with previous devices. But this time, I think it's Android, or the processor, or both.

Compounding this is minor usability gaps with regard to the Android interface. For example, when you move between home screens, the "call/menu/contacts" virtual menu at the bottom of the screen turns into an indicator to tell you which of the phone's seven screens you're on. When you're finished moving around, it recedes -- but so delayed that I end up tapping the screen to force the switch.

Same goes for the unlock screen, which drags ever-so-slightly before it "wakes up." And other combinations of interface animation and brief processing.

Don't get me wrong: the Droid X is a delight to use. But at times, the hypothetical finish feels a little rougher than it should, and it's lacking a certain refinement -- in how it switches between screens, in how it responds to the touch -- that one sees in an iPhone or even iPod.

The bottom line

The Droid X is poised to convince another batch of Verizon Wireless customers to upgrade from their feature phones. It's also, finally, prepared to please many a business consumer who wanted to switch away from a BlackBerry but didn't because of a lack of tethering. (Security, well, it's still not BES.)

The Droid X represents another leap for the Android platform and for Verizon's Droid brand, but it's not a quantum one. The pressure for innovation in the mobile market has produced, quickly, astounding handsets that quickly surpass one another. The Droid X is no exception. It's the thinnest, fastest, most eye-popping Android phone I've ever used. If you're on the fence about buying a smartphone, this one won't fail to please.

But there's still room for polish. In many ways, the latest Android phones represent the best of the PC laptop market: they don't offer the curated premium experience of an Apple device, but they don't have to, matching it with powerful hardware, an increasing number of quality apps and an unbending will to continue innovating at every turn.

Android or Apple? At this point, it's merely a matter of preference, and if you're willing to place your hard-earned cash on the $199.99 (with $100 rebate and two-year service agreement) Droid X, I'm confident you won't be disappointed.

Wondering what Motorola, Google and Verizon executives had to say about the Droid X? Read our liveblog from the launch event.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Smartphones

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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