HTC Droid DNA review

Guanine, adenine, thymine, cytosine... Android? The Droid DNA -- the latest addition to Verizon's Droid series -- may not contain any actual nucleotides (that we know of), but that doesn't make this HTC-made superphone any less of a powerhouse. On the contrary, we've been eyeballing this handset with eager anticipation ever since it first launched in Japan as the J Butterfly; much like its counterpart from the Land of the Rising Sun, the DNA boasts a jaw-dropping 5-inch, 1080p display. But while that may be the headliner-worthy feature, you certainly can't go wrong with a quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM taking charge behind the scenes, along with an ImageSense camera and other top-notch specs.

In certain respects, the Droid DNA is a sneak preview of what's to come in 2013: a wave of high-performance "superphones" that take advantage of this improved resolution, and offer a long list of other top-notch features. Indeed, that's a future we could all definitely live with, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves; we've got a phone to review, after all. Is the display as tantalizing as it sounds? Will its size be a selling point or a major distraction? Should you waltz into a Verizon store on Black Friday and demand they take your hard-earned $200? Follow us after the break as we focus on the here and now.

HTC Droid DNA overview

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Hardware

HTC may not be the king of the hill in device sales or financials, but 2012 has convinced us that it's firmly planted as the champion in smartphone design. The company's had a knack for thinking outside the rectangular box and coming up with cleverly built handsets -- the Sensation series and Touch Diamond come to mind -- but it seems to have cranked the focus up another notch this year. The One series was beautifully crafted and each model therein acted as a brilliant indication of HTC's renewed dedication; without skipping a beat, it was later followed up with the colorful and visually stunning Windows Phone 8X, which has been readily endorsed by Microsoft. This brief bit of background was added to emphasize one important thing: HTC isn't slacking off with the Droid DNA. Everything about the phone -- straight down to the Ferrari-inspired edges -- screams luxury and ensures a comfortable experience. We're just as drawn to its beauty as we were when we first beheld the One X with our own eyes. It's an incredibly sleek and solidly built device that won't leave us worried about durability, since it consists of aluminum on the sides and a soft-touch polycarbonate on the back that is quite similar to the material used on the 8X. (Unfortunately, it's also a fingerprint magnet.) Gorilla Glass 2 graces the display with the promise of preventing that beautiful screen from getting scuffed.

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Currently, the DNA only comes in one color option: black with red accents. These two colors have been HTC's bread and butter for many years, so it comes as no huge shocker that this would be the default choice for, well, Big Red. It also correlates with the Beats Audio color scheme, so it's a perfect combination for every party involved. The red isn't overbearing and complements the black quite well, accentuating the power button, earpiece, camera and edges (as we mentioned earlier, the grille-like edge design was apparently inspired by Ferrari, and we fully support that decision). The same folks who were concerned about the Galaxy Note II's behemoth size will also have identical reservations for the 5-inch DNA at first, but this particular device isn't looking to compete in the same genre. HTC went out of its way to emphasize that the DNA is "a smartphone, not a phablet," and we can definitely attest to that statement. Holding it up to your ear when making a call likely won't inspire the same feelings of awkwardness as the Note II might do, and it's much easier to use for one-handed tasks without needing special keyboards or dialpads. In fact, the DNA's form factor reminds us of what you'll find on the One X and Samsung Galaxy S III: at 70.5mm (2.78 inches) wide, it's only 0.6mm wider than the One X and is actually 0.1mm narrower than the GS3. Boasting a height of 141mm (5.55 inches), it's also taller than either phone. At its thickest point, the DNA measures at 9.73mm (0.38 inch), which is a bit thicker than the 8.9mm One X and 8.6mm GS3, but the back gently slopes to meet the 4mm-thick tapered edges. We were expecting the phone to require some sort of adjustment period at first, but we found the DNA to be a completely natural fit in the palm of our hand -- and it feels great.

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The DNA's back is another indicator of HTC's recent change in design strategy. If you recall, the Windows Phone 8X offers a gently sloping curve (think of a "smiley face" when looking at the phone edge-on) without the phone becoming too thick, thanks to the pyramid-like fashion in which the designers stacked the internal components; HTC confirmed to us that this same methodology was used for the Droid DNA as well. And as we've come to expect on top-end devices made by HTC, the back is entirely unibody, so that 2,020mAh battery can't be swapped out. Near the top, you'll find the 8MP ImageSense autofocus camera flanked by an LED flash to the right and an LED notification light to the left. The rear notification light is rather uncommon to smartphones -- we can't recall having seen a device adorned with two such indicators -- but anyone who tends to put their phone face-down will actually find a great deal of use out of this addition. Near the bottom are the Verizon LTE and Beats Audio logos, though fortunately they don't take up much real estate. On the front, you'll notice HTC's standard three-button setup below the screen (back, home and recent apps), with the front-facing camera, proximity sensor and earpiece above. An LED notification light hides underneath the speaker grille. The Gorilla Glass covers nearly the entire front, but there's a U-shaped cutout at the top for the earpiece; this particular section of the phone seems ill-designed, as the earpiece -- and the small section above it -- appears completely out of place and disrupts the cohesiveness of the design.

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There's a fine line when it comes to continuity, however: in an effort to make the phone look sleek, HTC made the volume rocker (found on the right edge) almost completely flush with the body of the phone, making it a bit difficult to press. The power button, unfortunately placed on the top center, is designed precisely the same way. The two buttons are made of anodized aluminum and their flush placement helps them blend in better, making the edges much more aesthetically pleasing, so you'll just need to decide if that makes it worth the small cost in usability. Rounding out the top of the DNA, the power button is flanked by a micro-SIM tray on the right and 3.5mm headphone jack on the left. We noticed another small quirk soon after unboxing the phone: the micro-USB / MHL port on the bottom is covered by a plastic flap that takes more effort to snap closed than it should. According to HTC, this was done to keep the phone splash-resistant, in exactly the same manner as the J Butterfly. As we've seen on the majority of Japanese phones in the past, carriers in that country have particularly high standards when it comes to protecting devices from water, so HTC and Verizon chose to adopt those standards for the DNA. If you purchase the phone, it's important to keep in mind that it's compatible with Qi, so it may be worth investing in a certified wireless charging pad rather than fumbling with that flap on a regular basis. (We used an Energizer pad and Nokia Fatboy pillow to charge the DNA, and both worked like a charm.)

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While we're on the subject of wireless, we should note that the Droid DNA also features dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n, NFC and compatibility with HTC's Media Link HD for wireless HDMI mirroring. If you don't mind going the wired route, a MHL adapter will easily work here in its place. Sadly, USB OTG isn't officially supported.

Last but not least, internal storage is limited to 16GB with no option for expandable memory, a poor decision on HTC's part. Sure, the idea of shunning the microSD slot is nothing new, and HTC has done this plenty of times before -- the One X+ is guilty of the same thing -- but we have a feeling that this particular choice was made by Verizon, since the J Butterfly (the DNA's Japanese counterpart) does allow for expandable storage. In other words, Verizon would have had to go out of its way to make sure the slot wasn't included.

HTC Droid DNA
Pricing $200 with contract
Dimensions 5.55 x 2.78 x 0.38 inches (141 x 70.5 x 9.73mm)
Weight 4.86 oz. (138g)
Screen size 5.0 inches
Screen resolution 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (440ppi)
Screen type Super LCD3
Battery 2,020mAh
Internal storage 16GB
External storage No microSD slot
Rear camera 8MP, f/2.0, 28mm wide-angle lens, AF, BSI, ImageChip
Front-facing cam 2.1MP, f/2.0, wide-angle lens, BSI
Video capture 1080p rear / 1080p front
NFC Yes
Radios LTE, CDMA, quad-band GSM / EDGE, quad-band UMTS / HSPA+
Bluetooth version 4.0 with aptX
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064
CPU 1.5GHz quad-core
GPU Adreno 320
RAM 2GB
MHL Yes; support for HTC Media Link HD also included
WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n dual-band
Operating system Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, Sense 4+ UI

Display

DNP HTC Droid DNA review

And here it is: the crown jewel of the DNA. The feature that makes it stand out above the rest of the quad-core crowd: that 5-inch, 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) display. More specifically, this IPS panel -- also known as the Super LCD3 -- is an evolution of the SLCD2 you can find on the One X. If you recall, we declared that device's display to be the best we'd ever laid eyes on; the DNA, however, easily steals that title away. Granted, it's an iterative bump in resolution: the Super LCD2 panel on the One X had packed more pixels than the naked eye could discern, so pushing the density by over 100ppi merely makes the DNA screen sharper and clearer. How good is it? Images appear to just float above the screen. The font rendering is crisper than anything we've ever seen, and 1080p movies look simply stunning. Colors seem to appear more natural (without being overly saturated), the darks are darker and whites are not as harsh to our eyes as they were on the One X. Viewing angles are just as stellar, and you will love to use this phone in direct sunlight because even at 50 percent brightness you can see everything without straining your eyes -- something that we can only say about a select few devices. We give the Super LCD3 display all the praise in the world, because it's the current undisputed champion in the mobile industry. It can't be argued that the 1080p screen is the most beautiful we've laid eyes on to date, but don't go giving your current 720p display the heave-ho just for that single reason. It's an iterative improvement to be sure, and it's love at first sight, but it's a bit more nuanced than any previous bump in resolution. To put it more succinctly: it's difficult to go back to a qHD screen after using 720p for an extended period of time, but we don't have the same reservations going back to the One X+ display after using the DNA.

Software

HTC Droid DNA review

As expected, the Droid DNA plays host to a fresh installation of HTC's Sense 4+ user interface, which runs atop Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. Regardless of what you may love about the display, you may not harbor the same feelings toward the manufacturer's custom skin. With the exception of carrier-mandated tweaks, the UI here is essentially the same as the one we reviewed on the One X+ a couple weeks ago, so head over to our review to get the full rundown on the odds and ends. We mentioned special provisioning from the carrier, which comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the US smartphone scene. Verizon has stuck with precedent and thoroughly decimated the DNA with obnoxious amounts of pre-loaded apps. Fortunately, nearly all of them can be disabled and each one can be hidden from view, thanks to some functionality in the Sense app menu. We can live with those options, especially since there seems to be very little impact on performance (more on that later), but there is one change to the firmware that simply shouldn't have happened: the recent apps / multitasking button cannot be changed or toggled to allow for the menu key. This is a feature that you can find on the One X and X+, so it gives us cause to believe this is something Verizon chose to leave out of the final product. Doing so essentially forces the menu button to take up an abnormally large amount of screen space on third-party apps.

HTC Droid DNA screenshots

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The keyboard is also slightly different -- and just a little better. The larger screen allows for slightly bigger keys and the symbol / number toggle is on the left side instead of the right, but we were disappointed in the slow response we experienced with the Swype-like "trace" functionality on the stock HTC keyboard. Any time we finished a word, we found ourselves waiting a second or two for the phone's guess to show up on the screen.

Camera

HTC Droid DNA review

Let's begin our discussion of the DNA camera by stating that we set our expectations to the same level as the One X and X+, since it sports a very similar camera module. Inside that red-rimmed contraption on the back is an 8MP camera with f/2.0 aperture, 3.63mm focal length (28mm equiv.) wide-angle lens, BSI sensor, AF and HTC's special ImageChip. Flip over the phone and you'll come face-to-face with a 2.1MP front-facing camera with BSI sensor and 88-degree ultra-wide-angle lens.

The usual litany of adjustable settings is here. ISO can be manually set to a max of 800, but we noticed that rating jump up to over 1400 when we took low-light shots on auto or low-light mode. You can also adjust white balance manually, which unfortunately you will want to do more often on the DNA since the auto white balance is a little too warm. You can also choose to use HDR, macro mode or low-light mode and you can also adjust exposure / contrast settings. Since the DNA doesn't offer the ability to lock exposure, adjustments will be needed more often than not. When using the front-facing camera, you can tap the viewfinder to start a three-second timer to get that perfect Facebook profile shot.

HTC Droid DNA camera samples

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Samsung Galaxy S III camera samples

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iPhone 5 camera samples

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HTC One X (global) camera samples

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Performance-wise, the camera is very snappy, taking shots even faster than the One X and X+. The images are also a little sharper and more detailed, though as we mentioned earlier, we were disappointed that the auto white balance feature is on the warm side. (This is more likely a software concern that could be resolved in a future update.) But when the white balance is adjusted correctly, we enjoyed natural colors and overall good quality shots. Low-light images are fair, but not quite as good as we'd like to see from HTC; at the very least, the LED flash is sufficiently bright.

In other words, you're not going to be buying this phone for its imaging prowess, but it's not going to break the deal, either. It's not leaps and bounds better than the X or X+, but it's certainly in the same league.

The front-facing camera, on the other hand, is definitely improved over the One series. The wide-angle lens makes a huge difference, especially in video chat, which is exactly where it counts -- it's much easier to bring multiple people within view, which is handy for groups of friends and family. The images, which have received a bump in resolution to 2.1MP (1,920 x 1,088) are also more detailed than anything we've seen on an HTC Android device to this point.

We didn't see any huge improvement in the DNA's video recording performance on the rear camera, as it performs roughly the same as the One X and X+. It still records in MPEG-4 format at a bit rate of 10 Mbps and frame rate of 30 fps. It also features slow-motion capability, which can be quite useful when filming something with a lot of action, but you also take a hit on resolution as a consequence. The front-facing camera is great for video, as we were able to record at up to 1080p. We were quite surprised at how smooth and fluid the resulting footage came out; we didn't experience much choppiness when it came to filming moving objects.

Performance and battery life

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It's the end of 2012 and quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro is the name of the game for top-end flagship products like the Droid DNA. Specifically, you can expect to enjoy a 1.5GHz APQ8064 paired with an MDM9615m modem, Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB RAM. This thing is as powerful as they come right now, and power users won't be disappointed with its performance. It trucks along swiftly; the speed of the processor, complemented by the efficiency of Jelly Bean, make for a killer combination that certainly kept us happy the entire time we used the phone. To be fair, there are a few more demands on the processor thanks to the higher-res display, but the hiccups this factor caused are the exception rather than the rule. As always, we ran our standard suite of benchmark tests in the hopes of quantifying the performance of the Droid DNA over some of the other quad-core powerhouses we've used recently. Here's what we found:

HTC Droid DNA Samsung Galaxy Note II (N7100) LG Optimus G (Korean model) HTC One X+ (global)
Quadrant Advanced 8,028 6,819 7,628 7,457
Vellamo 2.0 HTML5 1,752 1,831 1,710 1,897
AnTuTu 14,474 13,539 11,284 13,591
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,150 1,283 1,283 1,107
GLBenchmark 2.5 1080p Egypt Offscreen (fps) 31 17 31 12
CF-Bench 18,386 15,267 14,398 14,558
Battery life (rundown test) 6:38 10:45 8:43 7:32
SunSpider: lower scores are better

As you can see, the DNA can certainly hold its own against some of the current titans, and even fares better than the ICS-running LG Optimus G, which takes advantage of the same chipset (once the Optimus G gets upgraded to Jelly Bean, we may see the two phones become more evenly matched). Fortunately, our real-world experience matches the benchmark scores, so getting the DNA for its level of performance is definitely a no-brainer.

That is, unless you're an avid gamer. Sad to say, our gaming experience was a mixed bag -- some of our favorite titles worked flawlessly and games like Riptide and Reign of Amira looked amazing with the Adreno 320 pushing the graphics behind the scenes, as well as the high-res screen. But it's that fantastic display that will be the thorn in early adopters' sides for a little while, we're afraid; it seems that some games don't play well with the higher resolution. To offer an example or two, Angry Birds Star Wars crashed every time we tried starting a level, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted displayed a black screen instead of a racetrack -- even though all of the controls, car positions and damage notifications showed up without a problem (shown below).

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How does the 2,020mAh battery hold up to a screen that's constantly pushing more pixels? Our standard rundown, which involves running a video on an endless loop, resulted in the phone holding out for six hours and 38 minutes, which isn't quite as good a showing as we saw from the One X+ and Optimus G on the same test. In terms of real-life usage, the DNA got us through a full day on moderate use, but it's quite apparent that the screen will drain the battery much faster, so frequent users will need to keep that in mind before heading off on the daily commute. There's a good chance you'll make it through a regular eight-hour workday if you're constantly using your phone, but you'll be cutting it pretty close. If you haven't already done so, it may be worth investing in a Qi pad for the office.

In addition to the usual Verizon-specific LTE and CDMA / EVDO radios, the Droid DNA also features global quad-band (850/900/1900/2100) HSPA+ 14.4 Mbps and quad-band (850/900/1800/1900) GSM / EDGE. This isn't anything new, as Big Red has been giving most of its smartphone lineup the ability to access global GSM for international roaming, but the difference this time is that the DNA's GSM and HSPA+ radios are unlocked (just like Verizon's iPhone 5). You read that right: we stuck our AT&T micro-SIM card in, plugged in the proper APN settings and voila! We had full data and phone access. You can do the same with T-Mobile, although you're pretty much restricted to EDGE (unless you just happen to be in one of the few cities that offers 3G in the 1900MHz range so far). Granted, this wouldn't be the most cost-effective solution for AT&T customers who are in search for the best phone -- the Nexus 4 fits the bill much better, and it provides you with faster HSPA+ service -- but the main point of emphasis here is that you have options. Buy it at full retail price and proceed to do whatever you want with it, or at least include it as a selling point to potential eBay buyers when it comes time to swap it out for a newer model in two years.

The same Beats Audio you've come to either love or hate is featured on the DNA, and as we saw with the One X+, you don't need a special set of headphones to use the feature -- we used a pair of Klipsch Image S4As, nor do you need to stick with stock music apps. Fortunately, it also has seen a significant boost in power, thanks to the 2.55V amp HTC has installed. With Beats turned on, the DNA cranks out more than enough bass for our liking, but the sound is still quite loud with the feature off, if you're not into that kind of thing. For those who cannot stand Beats but still want to take advantage of the DNA's audio capabilities, we'd like to see other EQ options offered stock, but all you need to do is download a third-party music player and set it up however you like.

As for the external speaker, it's still sufficiently loud and we can comfortably handle conference calls or listen to music in the background while doing other tasks. We've definitely heard louder, but at least all of our calls on Verizon's network were crisp, clean and static-free, which makes a significant difference on the speakerphone. Dropped calls were never an issue for us. Our LTE speed tests ranged from 25 Mbps up to as high as 40 Mbps, all when enjoying five full bars of coverage.

Pricing and comparison

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With such an impressive list of features and components (and a reasonable $200 on contract and $600 at full retail), you might assume that HTC's prized jewel would be the runaway hit of the holiday season -- but it won't be that easy. After all, it's going to be contending for a top spot in its pricing tier against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S III and Motorola Droid RAZR HD; the RAZR Maxx HD (and the Samsung Galaxy Note II, which comes out at the end of the month) can be purchased for an extra hundred bucks. You can't argue that the Droid DNA certainly holds a unique place -- at least for now -- as the one and only smartphone in the US market that offers a 1080p display, so aficionados interested in the absolute best panel have no choice but to go with Verizon's darling. With that said, we wouldn't be surprised to see a wave of similarly specced smartphones show up at CES and MWC early next year, so it's quite possible that loyal customers on other carriers will have a few options to choose from pretty soon. If you can't wait past the holiday season, however, the DNA is our new favorite device on Verizon -- and unless you need to take advantage of a pen, this is a better (and cheaper) alternative to the Note II.

Wrap-up

DNP HTC Droid DNA review

At present time, it's pretty tough to convince us that you can do much better than the Droid DNA on Verizon's lineup. For $200, you're getting the absolute best display on the market, a great camera, Android's Jelly Bean OS and the best quad-core processor you can get. Sure, you can't go wrong with many of the other powerhouses we mentioned earlier, but HTC isn't letting a few rough quarterly earnings reports get in the way of making a high-quality product with top-end components and a gorgeous design. It's easy to tell that HTC put a lot of TLC into the DNA, and it pays off -- let's just say that you don't need a geneticist to lecture you on why this kind of thing matters.

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HTC

HTC Droid DNA

Pros

  • Gorgeous display
  • Strong performance
  • Durable build quality and elegant design
  • Unlocked HSPA+ / GSM radios

Cons

  • Short battery life
  • HTC removed the microSD slot
Conclusion

With its display, reasonable price and top-of-the-line components, the Droid DNA is our top choice on Verizon's lineup this holiday season.

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