Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

IRL: Motorola Droid Mini

After a quiet first half of the year, Motorola finished off 2013 by releasing a staggering five devices. Three of them were sold under Verizon's exclusive Droid brand, and here's the crazy part: aside from differences in battery life and screen size, they were exactly alike. We reviewed the two higher-end models, known as the Ultra and the Maxx, but we now want to return our attention to the smallest of the three, the Droid Mini. This 4.3-inch device came out a few months ago, but it's aging quite well, having recently received an update to Android 4.4 KitKat. Also, it's now free on-contract, so it's definitely worth a closer look, especially compared to the Galaxy S4 mini which costs $50 with the usual two-year agreement.

The Mini is perhaps the most compelling of the three Droid devices in that it's smaller than its bigger siblings, but just as good. Indeed, what it lacks in battery size it makes up for in other specs: much like the Moto X and the other Droids, the Mini takes advantage of an X8 system-on-a-chip with a dual-core 1.7GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, a 720p TFT display (which promises a pixel density of 342 ppi), a 10-megapixel rear camera, 16GB of internal storage, wireless charging, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0+LE, dual-band WiFi with 802.11ac and -- as of December 19th -- KitKat, the latest version of Android.

Is it the device of everyone's dreams? Not really, but it does a fantastic job of delivering solid performance in a small and inexpensive package -- a difficult feat, it seems, now that phone makers are turning more of their attention to handsets with large screens. Just like the Ultra, the Mini sports a layer of woven DuPont Kevlar fiber locked into place by resin and covered by a plastic casing. At 121.3 x 61.3 x 8.9 mm (4.78 x 2.41 x 0.35 in), the Droid Mini is thinner, narrower and shorter than the HTC One mini, and nearly the same exact dimensions as the Galaxy S4 mini (albeit, Moto's version is a tad shorter). However, it's also heavier than those other two phones at 4.59 ounces (versus 4.3 and 3.77).

The Mini almost gets lost in my hands, but it's a perfect size for those of you who don't want anything larger than five inches. The plastic casing feels a bit cheap, with creaky spots and a slick finish that picks up fingerprints. Needless to say, I would've rather seen Motorola simply do away with it altogether, like it did on the Maxx. Still, that doesn't seem to make the phone any less durable.

Even though this is a Verizon-branded smartphone, Motorola outfitted the Mini with enough radio frequencies to be useful in other parts of the world. In addition to having Verizon-specific LTE, it offers quad-band HSPA+ (850/900/1900/2100), quad-band GSM/EDGE and the requisite CDMA/EVDO bands for use in North America. And because the phone's unlocked, you'll be able to stick in an AT&T nano-SIM and get HSPA+ data. I'd love to see more LTE support on the Mini, but that's the only major complaint I have here.

In general, the Mini offers an experience consistent with the Droid Ultra and Droid Maxx thanks to the large similarity in its specs and user interface. One area in which the Mini completely differs from its siblings, however, is the display. Whereas the Ultra and Maxx both feature AMOLED panels, the LED screen on the Mini is brighter and less color saturated. And thanks primarily to the fact that it uses the same pixel count in a smaller display, it's actually the sharpest-looking of the three Droids.

It's worth repeating that the Droid Mini is now running Android 4.4, the latest version of Google's mobile OS. This is a big deal, because Verizon devices using custom OEM user interfaces often don't get upgrades to the newest installment of Android, and if they do, it can take a while. But here we have the Droid Mini, whose update came through pretty quick. Along with the usual KitKat features, Verizon also threw in enhancements to the phone's image quality (better color and less noise), along with Fitbit support and a new version of Droid Zap, Moto's multimedia-sharing feature. And let's not forget Moto Assist, a contextual app that automates tasks based on things like your location, scenario, calendar appointment and even speed.

Fortunately, not only will your user experience be the same regardless of which Droid you buy, but the performance will be the same as well. The Mini features Motorola's X8 architecture, which consists of a dual-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB of RAM and two cores reserved for natural language processing and contextual computing. Active notifications and touchless control work just as well here as the Moto X and the other Droids, and I experienced very few hiccups and frame skips when gaming and multitasking.

SONY DSC

The Droid Mini's 2,000mAh battery is naturally smaller than on the other Droids. As such, don't expect it to last more than a day with moderate use. In our video rundown test, the Droid Mini made it through six hours and 45 minutes before needing a recharge, which was just short of the GS4 mini's results -- a bit of a shock, since the Droid's battery is technically a hair larger. I can't suggest that you put the phone through a lot of gaming, multitasking and other processor-intensive activities without keeping a car charger or external battery pack near you at some point during your day, but I'm confident you'll be OK in most scenarios (read: you should have enough juice to get you through the work day).

The Droid Mini may not grab as much attention as the Moto X or the Droid Maxx, but it's a compelling device for those of you who don't want to go with a big smartphone, or would simply rather not pay anything for the hardware. Its Verizon branding certainly limits its appeal, since it's officially only available on one carrier (even though it's unlocked to GSM SIMs), but if you're a Big Red customer or a frequent international traveler, it's not a bad deal for $350 at full retail or free with a two-year contract. The Galaxy S4 mini is also $350 off contract, but agreeing to two years of your life with Verizon will cost $50; for that money you're getting a worse display, smaller battery, slower GPU, less internal storage (although Samsung at least offers microSD compatibility) and slightly lower camera resolution. All told, this is a great phone if you want a smaller screen and solid specs but can't afford to pay a flagship price.