Oh, how the mighty have fallen. For a phone that single-handedly resuscitated the business prospects of its parent company, gave a much-needed boost to Google's fledgling Android and finally added a compelling product to Verizon's lineup, the Droid can't get no respect. Initially billed as the anti-iPhone, the OG flagship embodied an aggressively tech for tech's sake design ethos, with its masculine, hard-edged build, geeky OS and Lucasfilm licensed moniker.

That was all once upon a time. Now, two years later and sucked of its disruptive significance, the only legacy remaining for the red-eyed Droid franchise is its brand equity and QWERTY slider appeal. Aside from BlackBerry addicts, most consumers appear none too chuffed to see those slide-out keypads become the stuff of mobile lore, and instead prefer those increasingly ubiquitous slabs (namely, of the 4.3-inch-and-up persuasion). So, where did it all go wrong? Why is the Droid 4, now imbued with LTE, getting the B-list treatment? Does a $200 price tag and a host of minor spec bumps (a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU, 1.3 megapixel front-facer and beefier 1,785mAh battery) merit another spin around the two-year contract pole? Head on past the break to see whether this former trailblazer can still do what its namesake robot supposedly does.

Motorola Droid 4 review

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Motorola

Motorola Droid 4

Pros

  • Top-notch QWERTY keyboard
  • Responsive 4-inch qHD display
  • Healthy battery life
  • Fast LTE speeds

Cons

  • Non-removable 1,785mAh battery
  • Clumsy backplate
Summary

As the latest addition to Verizon's red-eyed family, the Droid 4 improves upon its predecessors' keyboards, offering physical QWERTY fans one of the most refined experiences on the market.


Hardware


Remember the lip? Long live the lip because it's sadly been erased. That signature design quirk, which stuck out as evidence of the keypad tucked below, has been replaced by an uninterrupted face, and those odd corners Moto ushered in with the Droid RAZR. Love it or hate it, that fresh (albeit jarring) build is sweeping the manufacturer's device portfolio, so it's best you make peace with it now. And so, with the launch of the Droid 4, it's clear the company's making a clean break from the traditions of the past. This device lacks any of the cutting-edge specs and "thin is in" appeal used to lure consumers in droves. Seemingly constructed with the enterprise user in mind, the phone manages to be both shockingly large and surprisingly comfortable to hold. Need a bit of convincing? At 127 x 67.3 x 12.7mm (5.0 x 2.65 x 0.5 inches), the unit's about 1 - 2mm thicker than its predecessor, in addition to being taller and wider. It's also managed to pack on some additional heft, weighing nearly 0.5 ounces heavier as compared to the Droid 3.
So, about that full body lift. Gone are the rubberized backing and polished metal frame that made the Droid 3 so familiar to users. In their place, a texturized, all-plastic encasement. Moto's PR team claims the "Droid 4 is pretty," but we beg to differ. While we won't outright denounce its construction as appalling, it is easily dismissed; a case of form fitting function. It's not necessarily a minus, as this device feels reassuringly solid and weighty in hand, mitigating any concerns that it might accidentally slip from your grasp. Also conspicuously absent in this refresh is that hitherto mandatory "with Google" branding, though unfortunately Verizon's logos (4G LTE, as well) are still present. We're not exactly the betting type, but we'd wager that omission of Mountain View inside has a little something to do with a certain pending merger. As for what lies beneath, well, we regret to inform you that access to those internals requires a "key." Yes, rather than simply allow users to slide off the phone's backplate, a special (and easily lost) plastic piece is needed that, when combined with physical force, reveals a non-removable 1,785mAh battery, microSIM and an empty microSD slot. We should point out that with considerable manual effort, you will have success in prying it free sans included tool.

Considering this dual-core handset's being quietly targeted at the business set, the phone cuts a rather staid figure, with its grooved posterior broken up only by an 8-megapixel / 1080p camera up top, and a sliver of a speaker on the lower left. Moving around to the front face, the 1.3 megapixel camera is positioned to the right of the smallish ear piece, itself sitting just above Motorola's logo. Fans of unblemished frames won't find a neat collection of ports and buttons here. On the Droid 4, it seems, if there's empty space, it must be occupied. And so, each side plays host to a specific function, with the mic below the screen, micro-USB and HDMI sockets on the left and a volume rocker on the upper right, in addition to the 3.5mm headphone jack and flimsy power button on its head. There's no dedicated camera key to be found, but that's probably for the best, given the power button's tendency to get stuck in its slot.

Usually when companies lock certain specs in place, it's a testament to not fixing what isn't broken. On the other hand, when that hardware detail happens to be a 4-inch, 960 x 540 PenTile LCD display, we're tempted to call it laziness. If you're possessed of a keen eye and meticulous attention to detail, then the poor contrast and low pixel density offered by the Droid 4's screen should prove to be a major turn-off. Out in broad daylight, even with brightness set to the maximum, we found ourselves continually shielding the phone so as to render its contents readable. This became particularly bothersome where photo-taking is concerned, as we were never quite able to tell what was being framed by the camera's viewfinder. Tilt slightly away from the phone and immediately you'll notice an apparent wash out, although viewing angles didn't take as drastic a hit.

Keyboard

Of course, the shining and defining star of the Droid 4 is its QWERTY slider. It's here that we truly see an investment in improved user experience on Motorola's end. The slide-out pad is, quite simply, one of the best available on the market. Fans of the OG Droid's terribly flat and difficult-to-master setup have been treated to marginally better layouts with each successive iteration. But this newest entry takes the formula employed by last year's model and makes it much more intuitive. The same raised, slightly curved, well-spaced plastic buttons permeate the keyboard across five rows, with the uppermost reserved solely for numbers. While directional keys are present, shortcuts for Android navigation are absent. But we're guessing most users will naturally reach above to manipulate the capacitive buttons, anyway. A soft backlight, triggered by an ambient sensor, surrounds the base of each individual key, which should make texting or emailing in the dark a non-issue for power users.

Functioning much the way it always has, the slider mechanism is, as before, stiff and missing that comforting snap to lock. That said, it does give off the impression of durability, so we'll err on the side of Moto's design choice here. Once opened, the phone instantly resorts to landscape mode and a mere button press triggers Google's search app, listing whatever contacts or apps that match your entered text. Swype does come pre-installed, so if you happen to tire of physical buttons, you can always opt for that alternative touch option. Given the intrinsic QWERTY nature of the Droid line, however, we don't anticipate you'll make much use of that software.

Software

To call it MotoBlur would be a slap in the face to this less offensive Android UX. Though it's far from the stock Ice Cream Sandwich pastures we're confident the company will adopt post-Google merger (and hopefully port to this handset), it's still a software overlay, however benign. Moto's own PR team makes nary a mention of what was previously referred to as its Application Platform -- a fancier term for skin -- which does its best here to be as inobtrusive as possible, delivering a consistent experience that should be recognizable to fans of the company's latest phones. As you may have guessed, this 2012 device runs Gingerbread (version 2.3.6, to be exact), so if you're holding your breath for that planned ICS update, prepare to turn blue by summer's start.

You're still given access to the same five homescreens, but, sadly, there's no ability to reduce or add to that real estate as needed, although you can customize the dock. Even the app drawer's remained unchanged, displaying the entirety of the phone's app collection or sorting it by user preference. As you might expect, the Droid 4 ships with pre-installed bloat a plenty -- Verizon's contributions alone amount to 13 -- with the spread of third-party software ranging from the useful (Twitter, Netflix, Amazon Kindle) to unnecessary (Let's Golf 2, Slacker, Slingbox). Not one to be left out, Motorola's also crammed its own dedicated applications onto the device's 8GB of storage, the most helpful of which is Smart Actions, an intelligent system that learns users' habits and adjusts settings to optimize battery life. Enterprise customers will be happy to note that the Droid 4 comes loaded with Citrix Receiver for Android, a feature accessible only in webtop mode via an optional 10- or 14-inch lapdock.

Performance and battery life

Aided by its dual-core 1.2GHz processor and generous 1GB of RAM, the Droid 4 zips along without faltering. While transitions between screens, as well as in and out of apps can take a tick too long to complete for our liking, we're sure that has more to do with the UX's own animations than any real performance hiccup. Indeed, the 4-inch screen is incredibly responsive, evincing a careful balance of touch recognition that's neither overly sensitive nor stubborn. Call us creatures of habit, but we noticed our own tendency to unconsciously rely on the phone's superb touch controls, rather than its fine-tuned keypad. Could that be a sign of these mobile times? Well, yes and no. Not all smartphone screens are made equal and the Droid 4 just happens to benefit from this particular performance tweak.

When it comes to benchmark testing, our dear Droid 4 wasn't able to overtake its flashier RAZR-thin cousin, but did eke out a few victories nonetheless. Leaving the higher-clocked Galaxy S II's near-pervasive dominance out of this, Moto's bulky slider scored a tie, toppling its svelte stablemate in Linpack single-thread with a score of 52 and NenaMark 1 and 2 topping out at 53.3 fps and 27.9 fps. Results for Quadrant and SunSpider make it appear as if the Droid 4 is marginally less able, but the RAZR wins by an awfully miniscule margin.

Droid 4 Droid RAZR Galaxy S II (unlocked)
Quadrant 2,755 2,798 3,200
Linpack (single-thread) 52 50 55
Linpack (multi-thread) 81.8 95.6 81
Nenamark1 53.3 50.3 59.8
Nenamark2 27.9 27.5 49.1
Neocore 58.2 59.9 59.8
SunSpider 0.9.1 2,158 2,140 3,369

As much as we would've liked to see the Droid RAZR Maxx's profile-fattening 3,300mAh battery built-in to the Droid 4, we're perfectly at ease with the 1,785mAh provided. Notorious though LTE may be for chipping away at charges, the allotted amount of non-removable juice should serve to get you through a day, at most, with moderate to light usage. Call upon the powers of Big Red's 4G network too consistently and you're sure to see that longevity take a severe dip. For a more concrete indication of this phone's battery performance, we played a single video in a continuous loop with brightness set to 50 percent, Twitter syncing at 15 minute intervals and one push email account active. Much to our delight, the Droid 4 lasted seven hours and 15 minutes, a considerable leap over the Droid RAZR's unworkable five-hour threshold.

Verizon's LTE network is no longer the sparsely-visited spectrum it was back in the days of the Thunderbolt and, as such, is subject to heavier traffic demands in New York City. So, it's understandable that previously accessible speeds hovering around the high 20s and 30s aren't as prevalent. Still, Big Red's 4G is reasonably fast, reaching max speeds of 21Mbps up and 12Mbps and averaging 12Mbps to 19Mbps down and 8Mbps to 9Mbps down in our time testing the handset.

Camera

Of the Droid 4's dual cameras, only its front-facer has received a spec bump from VGA to a 720p-capable 1.3 megapixels. Where its rear shooter is concerned, that module retains its 8-megapixel ancestry, offering up a bevy of scene modes (portrait, landscape, etc.) and shooting options (panorama, multi and timer), in addition to effects filters. The camera performs admirably well when faced with optimal lighting conditions (read: bright sunlight), snapping photos with exceptional detail, depth of field and contrast. Attempt to take similar shots under fluorescent lights indoors or even in dim environments and a noticeable loss of quality will be evident in still shots. Users can hone in on an intended object simply by tapping on screen, however, we noticed the sensor would occasionally continue to readjust without cease. This became increasingly problematic when attempting to take macro shots, with the focus consistently skewing to the noise in the background.


Video captured in full 1080p HD was above average, though nowhere near as pristine as you'd hope, appearing slightly grainy in playback with a noticeable jitter and lacking the ability to continually autofocus on the moving scenery. Considering we were standing in the midst of a busy downtown New York City intersection, recorded audio came across crisply and clearly, with overall image reflecting the same vibrancy of color and depth as noted above.

Motorola Droid 4 sample shots

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Wrap-up

Tailored less for trend-seeking consumers and more for power users (or prosumers), Moto's QWERTY flagship hits a handful of high marks, offering up one of the best physical keyboards on the market, access to Verizon's 4G LTE speeds, a responsive touchscreen and suitable battery life to accompany the demands of on-the-go productivity -- all for $200 on a two-year contract. Clearly, this is not the OG Droid of old -- just take a glance at that redesigned shell -- that led many first-timers into Android's fold, but it doesn't appear Moto wants it to be anymore. In fact, there's no longer a need for the vanilla Droid line to push Andy Rubin's baby forward. That heavy lifting has now been relegated to Google's suite of Nexus devices.

As it stands, the Droid 4 marries two concentrated markets: consumers clamoring for physical keyboards and the enterprise set. It may seem like only yesterday that IT departments across the globe depended solely upon RIM's server encryption and hardware for mobile enterprise solutions and portrait QWERTYs were all the rage. But the business times, they have undoubtedly changed, upending the tidy tea table established by BlackBerry for the newly pasteurized innards of Apple's iPhone and Google's vast array of Android handsets. Sparked by this "bring your own device" revolution, companies likes Motorola have adapted their strategies, repurposing existing product lines for more pragmatic, niche demos. Which is precisely how the formerly hallowed Droid brand came to this unassuming stage in its natural product evolution. Whether or not your own personal mobile savvy has outgrown it remains to be seen.

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