After roughly nine months of almost complete radio silence, Google-owned Motorola suddenly sprang into action by announcing four devices in the space of eight days. The lineup of new smartphones included the much-hyped Moto X and a fresh crop of Droid-branded handsets for Verizon. Interestingly enough, this quadruplet shares many of the same specs; aside from exterior design, screen and battery size, there's very little to distinguish Motorola's latest offerings. The first out of the gate is the Droid Ultra, a 5-inch 720p model wrapped in Kevlar. All told, it's more of a mid-range phone, though its on-contract price of $200 would suggest otherwise.
The Droid Ultra is arguably the closest cousin to the Moto X, and because the two have basically the same specs and price, we've been scratching our heads trying to figure out why Motorola needed to make both. Still, we did our due diligence in giving the Ultra the full review treatment. How does it differentiate from Moto's flagship, and does it hold any sort of advantage? Is the device worth paying $200 and agreeing to a two-year contract? Read on as we answer these questions and more.
The Motorola Droid Ultra is a good phone, but it's a mid-range device that's priced too high and doesn't offer any benefits that you won't already find on the Moto X.
For all the commonalities between the Droid Ultra and Moto X (which we'll discuss at length in this review), its external design at least creates the illusion that they're completely different phones. While the X features slender curves, the Ultra reminds us of the 2-year-old Droid RAZR, with a hump for the camera module up top (don't worry, it's less pronounced this time). It also features the same tapered body, with a chassis that gets thinner toward the bottom of the phone, along with slightly tapered corners to match. Also similar: those straight edges and short, steep curves, which come together to ensure a natural fit in the hand. At the same time, it gives you a nice place to rest your fingers. With a 137.5 x 71.2mm frame, the Ultra stands 8mm taller and 6mm wider than the Moto X. And though it's 7.2mm thick at its thinnest point, it's only a little bit skinnier at its thickest point than its close cousin. The Ultra weighs 4.83 ounces, which is heavier than the X, but still lighter than previous-generation devices. Besides, its weight is still perfectly reasonable. In general, the X is technically easier to hold, but you won't feel like the Ultra is burdensome to carry around.
Just like the Droid RAZR series that came before it, the Ultra is built with a layer of woven DuPont Kevlar fiber that Motorola reps tell us is locked into place by a resin. This layer, which is the honeycomb pattern you see underneath the plastic casing, is meant to minimize thickness and add a small amount of additional durability (though we doubt firearms are powerless against it, so we'd discourage you from testing them out). Regardless, we're still tremendously disappointed by how much grime and grease the glossy back collects; it makes the phone look maddeningly dirty, and you'll want to invest in a nice microfiber cloth so you can wipe the device off on a regular basis. There also seems to be a small pocket of air between the plastic and the layer beneath, as the back of the phone has a little bit of give, especially closer to the top. Interestingly, the Droid Maxx also uses Kevlar, but opts for a soft-touch cover instead of plastic, which provides a cleaner look and better grip. Suffice to say, we would've much preferred to see Motorola do the same with the Ultra.
Just like Moto's three other new handsets, the Ultra features a 720p screen. This particular smartphone uses a 5-inch AMOLED panel, which means you'll see darker darks and more saturated colors, while theoretically saving battery life -- an important thing when you regularly use a service like Active Notifications. We could see the display from nearly any viewing angle, but we had a difficult time making it out in sunlight, even with the brightness bumped all the way up. In normal conditions, however, we were quite happy with how the display looked; despite it not being 1080p like many of its $200 competitors, the Ultra's resolution should be satisfactory for most buyers.
The Ultra offers capacitive navigation keys below the display, which is a contrast to the X's virtual keys; you get a lot more screen real estate as a result, but this may come as a disappointment to some who like to keep the hardware as minimal as possible. Above the screen, you'll find an earpiece, sensors and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. A flip of the phone reveals a rectangular camera setup, with the LED flash and lens joined by a hidden speaker grille; you'll also see a trio of logos on the back consisting of Verizon, Motorola and Droid brands from bottom to top, with Moto's version being backed by a textured plastic material. The top of the phone has nothing but a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the bottom has a micro-USB port that also can be used for USB OTG, which means you can connect flash drives, USB keyboards and even a mouse to your device.
We were especially impressed by one particular aspect of the phone's design. The volume rocker, found on the right side of the Ultra, doubles as a SIM card tray. This is a clever way to save space, and it doesn't make the phone feel any cheaper since the power button, which sits just above it, appears to be fashioned out of the same mold. (Admittedly, however, we wonder how well the removable rocker will hold up over time, so perhaps there's a reason other OEMs haven't attempted this feat before.) Motorola decided to transition from micro-SIM cards to nano-SIM -- just like Apple did with the iPhone 5 and LG will do with the G2 -- and we have a feeling other manufacturers will follow suit in the next year or so. In the meantime, this will make things especially difficult for anyone who has multiple devices and likes to swap their SIMs back and forth, but this will likely affect only a small minority of users (which includes us).
Since the Ultra is a Verizon LTE device, its radio supports bands 4 and 13 (700 / AWS) along with the usual CDMA / EVDO frequencies. Fortunately, it also features GSM tech for global roaming, such as quad-band HSPA+ (850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100) and quad-band GSM / EDGE. You'll also get Bluetooth 4.0 LE+EDR, NFC, Miracast compatibility, WiFi Direct, plenty of GPS / GLONASS support and 802.11a/ac/b/g/n. It doesn't offer wireless charging support, so you'd want to lean toward the Droid Maxx if it's part of your daily routine.
Whether you get the Droid Ultra or the Moto X, you'll be treated to basically the same user experience. Both devices ship with Android 4.2.2 out of the box, and even though it's not a completely vanilla version of the OS, the customizations are kept to a minimum compared to OEM skins like TouchWiz and Sense. There are a few extra widgets and services provided by Moto, but everything else is pretty close to what you'd find on a Nexus; hopefully this means it'll get the update to 4.3 sooner rather than later, but it first needs to clear Verizon's rigorous testing process, so we're not holding our breath that it'll be coming right away.
The Ultra, just like other Droid-branded devices, is filled to the brim with pre-loaded software, including a few Amazon apps, Audible, NFL Mobile, IMDb, Mobile Hotspot, My Verizon Mobile, Verizon Tones, Viewdini and some other VZW applications. Most of them can't be uninstalled, but at least you can disable them so they're not getting in the way.
All of the same Moto-branded services that were introduced on the Moto X are present on the Droid Ultra too. Active Notifications pulses new alerts to your screen when it's in standby mode, letting you bypass the lock screen entirely and go straight to that particular notification. Touchless Control is the phone's always-listening mode, so you just need to say, "OK Google Now," (after you train the phone, of course) and the voice assistant pops up. Assist can speak your texts out loud while you're driving, change settings when you're in a meeting or set up a Do Not Disturb mode at night. And Migrate can transfer your contacts, texts, media and call history from another Android device.
Droid Zap, however, is included with all three Verizon Droids, but isn't offered on the X. It's a photo-sharing feature that lets you "push" non-compressed images to anyone less than 1,000 feet away. When you're viewing a picture in the gallery, just swipe up with two fingers and the phone starts looking for potential recipients. Even if you don't have one of the latest Droids, however, not all is lost: you just need to download the free Droid Zap app in the Play Store and you'll be able to join the fun. But therein lies the problem: not everyone will have downloaded the app, and even fewer people will be interested enough to go through the hassle. Meanwhile, there are several other ways to share media with friends and family, so we simply don't see much reason to go through Droid Zap instead of the standard sharing menu.
UltraPixel. PureView. Time Shift. Eraser. The list goes on. It seems like every manufacturer is coming out with its own clever take on imaging to get a leg up over the competition, and Motorola is no exception. Its contribution to the craze is ClearPixel, which claims to collect more light and take faster, better pictures. What is Motorola's trick? Many of the cameras we use in smartphones today detect light with red, green and blue pixels. Since each of these pixels only sees one color, cameras typically miss a huge portion of visible light; Moto, on the other hand, throws in a panchromatic pixel capable of detecting the full spectrum. Thanks to this, along with the f/2.4 aperture and a 1.4μ pixel size, we should be able to get much better low-light shots. Because of this, however, the RGBC sensor (as Motorola calls it) takes a little more time to snap shots, which means it's not the best option for capturing moving objects in poor lighting conditions.
As the Droid trio and the X all have the same camera specs, we're confident that all four use the OmniVision OV10820 sensor as well. You'll have a 10.5-megapixel camera with autofocus at your disposal, but the user experience is designed with as much minimalism as one person can handle; just like on the X, you can swipe from the left to get settings and swipe from the right to bring up your gallery. ISO, white balance, exposure adjustments and scene modes are a thing of the past, it seems; you're allowed to tweak HDR, use panorama, add tap-to-focus, enable geo-tagging and change the flash, but that's about all you can do. For better or worse, you just have to take a step back and let Moto do all of the heavy lifting.
Quick capture is also offered on the Ultra, and it works just as well as it did on the X: you can twist your wrists twice in a row to activate the camera UI, which comes in handy when the phone is asleep. As for the camera's performance, our assessment hasn't changed since we published our Moto X review. HDR shots worked well when we needed to combine shadows and highlights in the same image; all other shots were hit and miss. We were able to get great color reproduction and an above-average amount of detail in most daytime shots, but there were quite a few instances when the entire image appeared washed out. Low-light images were also a mixed bag. True to the company's claims, the camera is indeed good at capturing errant light; unfortunately, noise and blurring frequently creep in since the camera occasionally approaches ISO 6500, and it captures color and white balance inconsistently. Also, the Ultra lacks image stabilization, which doesn't help either.
Our video footage was taken at a resolution of 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) and resulted in a bit rate of 17 Mbps and a frame rate of 30 fps. Movies actually appeared better than most smartphones at this resolution, with good color and smooth motion. We only had some concerns about the mics, which picked up a little more wind than we would have preferred.
Performance and battery life
Assuming Motorola and Verizon are targeting the average mid-range handset market, the Droid Ultra's X8 architecture should be more than sufficient. For those of you who haven't read our review of the Moto X, here's what you need to know about the X8. It's comprised of a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro, a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU clocked at 400MHz, a core for contextual computing and another for natural language processing. The latter two cores are meant to handle features like Touchless Control and Active Notifications without requiring a huge hit on battery life. Lastly, it also gets 2GB of RAM as part of the bundle.
Basically, then, this setup is ideal for anybody who isn't a power user and doesn't need the absolute best graphics processor available on a smartphone today. In using the phone over the course of a week, everything was immensely responsive and not once did we have to worry about the phone crashing or slowing down. We played games for several hours, and while it didn't have quite the level of detail that you'd find on an Adreno 330, we doubt most people will even notice or care about the subtle difference. Here are a few benchmarks that we use to compare the Ultra with the Moto X and Nexus 4, both of which have Snapdragon S4 Pro chips (though the latter uses a quad-core version):
3Dmark Ice Storm/Ice Storm Extreme
11,495 / 7,025
11,620 / 7,114
10,077 / 4,391
SunSpider 1.0 (ms)
GLBenchmark T-Rex 2.7 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Nexus 4 tests were run on 4.2.2 for consistency (3Dmark excepted, which was run on 4.3).
As a disclaimer, we decided to show most of the Nexus 4 test results as they appeared on Android 4.2.2 -- the same version of the OS running on Motorola's selections. (3DMark was the only exception, as we didn't have the chance to run it on 4.2.2.) Granted, some of the scores generated using 4.3 are a little better -- 660ms in SunSpider 1.0 and 15 in GLBench 2.7, for instance. Our Quadrant score, meanwhile, improved to 5,224. Overall, though, it's clear that Moto's X8 alternative benefited from a few solid optimizations. What's more, you're not going to see any noticeable difference in performance between the Ultra and the X.
Motorola's onto something when it comes to battery life. We raved about the Moto X, which lives up to its claim of 24-hour runtime (assuming mixed usage). We weren't able to replicate Moto's promise of 28-hour battery life for the Droid Ultra, but it still did a good job holding a charge. The Ultra still frequently made it through a full day of use, while a heavier workload yielded us around 13 hours of total life. (For those asking, our heavy workload consisted of taking pictures and videos, navigating from San Francisco to the South Bay, a few hours of using the phone as a mobile hotspot, surfing the web, frequent emailing and a good deal of social networking.) If this is what we have to look forward to from Motorola, we can't wait to try out the Droid Maxx's larger battery.
Speaking of navigating, the GPS had no problem following us around town. Calls on Verizon's network were clear, and the audio was incredibly loud both in the earpiece and on speakerphone; in fact, the same goes for media playback, regardless of whether we used the speakers or a pair of headphones. Touchless Control also recognized our commands in every environment, whether in a quiet house or on noisy streets.
Here's the thing: most of our review up to this point feels moot. We still have a hard time understanding why the Ultra needs to exist: it's offered at the same $200 on-contract price as the similarly specced Moto X, which will also be available on Verizon. We won't dispute that it has a larger screen size, and a different design that may indeed appeal to different people. However, the Ultra not only uses nearly identical specs and software as the X, but it also offers the same screen size as the Droid Maxx. The Maxx and the Droid Mini both make sense, because having different screen sizes, batteries and price points ($300 and $100, respectively) at least ensure a greater number of options.
The Ultra will only appeal to those people who are okay paying $200 for a mid-range device that has a slightly larger display than the Moto X, and don't have a problem with having less storage space and a smaller battery than on the Maxx (not to mention the lack of wireless charging). It just seems odd that Verizon would be willing to devote a good portion of its Droid marketing efforts to such a device that doesn't even seem necessary.
Of course, we're saying this with the assumption that paying $200 for a mid-range phone is an acceptable option for you, but we have a feeling that not many people would choose the Ultra over the Samsung Galaxy S 4, which is available for the same price. The GS4 sports a 5-inch (1080p) AMOLED, quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor, a much better camera, infrared, expandable external storage and the list goes on. Overall, the Ultra is a good phone and we like the Touchless Control and Active Notifications as much as the next person, but we have a hard time recommending the Ultra when it's the same price.
Oddly enough, our overall enjoyment of the two latest Motorola devices makes us very eager to try out the Droid Mini. With very few exceptions, it has the same features and similar specs, with a smaller display size and an appropriate $100 on-contract cost, which actually works for a mid-range smartphone. HTC and Samsung have attempted to make petite versions of their flagship devices, only to cut a lot of corners in the process; from what we can tell so far, the Droid Mini appears to be the closest to its older (and larger) brethren.
The Motorola Droid Ultra is a great mid-range phone with lots of compelling features that many potential buyers will find interesting. It does have its negatives, though -- this is essentially a Moto X riddled with Verizon branding, a glossy and fingerprint-prone finish and a nonsensical price. But therein lies the problem: we simply can't think of a reason why the Ultra should co-exist with the X at the exact same price. The only way we'd recommend it over the X is if you need a (slightly) larger screen or perhaps just prefer a slightly thinner and taller chassis, but even the Maxx offers those things and adds a much larger battery. Of the four handsets released by Motorola this month, this one is by far the most uninteresting and, more importantly, the least likely to tempt potential buyers. It's ironic, perhaps, that such a fate would befall a phone called the Ultra.
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.
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