Thursday, June 7, 2012

Verizon 4G/LTE Motorola DROID 4

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful physical keyboard, 4G/LTE, good performance
Cons: Slightly below average display, misrepresented storage capacity and no SD card included

Motorola DROID 4

We had a pair of the original Motorola DROID phones for a couple of years, and when our 2 year contract with Verizon was up we decided to pick up new phones. There were a few decent options to choose from like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX or the HTC Rezound, but we really wanted to have a physical keyboard. We also really wanted the phones to support 4G/LTE even though it wasn't available here at the time (and still isn't available within an hour's drive in any direction).
That really left us with two options; either pick up the Samsung Stratosphere, or wait another month for the Motorola DROID 4 to be released. I did check out the Stratosphere, but it only had a slower single-core processor, about half the memory and ran an older version of Android. To the Stratosphere's credit though, it did have a Super AMOLED display which is much sharper and has much better contrast than the TFT LCD in the DROID 4. However, that one positive was not enough to outweigh everything else about the phone, so we waited another month and picked up the DROID 4 a month or so after it was released.
Verizon had the DROID 4 listed on their website for $149, but when we went up to the local brick and mortar store they were $199. They looked on Verizon's website and couldn't even find the $149 price at all, until I logged in and opened up the site on my original DROID and showed them. After a quick phone call they said they couldn't match the website's price, but they could cut it down to $169 and then give us a deal on any accessories we needed to help make up the difference. It ended up costing us a hair more, but not much, and we got our phones right away and didn't have to mess around any longer.
The first thing to mention was that the DROID 4 uses a micro SIM card now, where the original DROID did not, and this cost us an additional $3. The DROID 4 also did not come with an SD card for more storage, but I just had the guy at the store take the 16GB SD cards out of my original DROID phone and put it into the DROID 4. Taking the back cover off of the DROID 4 is a little bit annoying since you can't just slide the cover off like I could on the original DROID. Instead, the phone has a little hole in the top-right back of the phone and it comes with a little plastic "key" that you use to open it.
You press the key into the hole, and then you slide the cover down and pull it off. I was a little hesitant at first because it actually took quite a bit of pressure to open the back, and even then it didn't come off smoothly. It slid down a little bit and then kind of got stuck there hanging by the top right corner while I fought with it and wiggled it back and forth before it finally came off. Thankfully a paper clip works just as well, because that tiny little key is just a plastic tab with about a quarter inch tip protruding from the bottom. Small, easy to lose, and completely ridiculous.
Once the cover is off you'll notice that the battery is not replaceable. I knew this going in, but what a bummer it is! You can't carry an extra battery to swap out while traveling, you cant pull the battery if your phone locks up, and you can't buy an extended battery to get longer usage out of your phone. This, followed closely by the lack of a Super AMOLED display, would be the main downside to the phone.
You'll also notice a plastic decal stuck to the inside of the back cover with instructions on how to insert the micro SIM card to get started. This just involves lifting up a rubber grommet cover to access the card slots, and sliding the micro SIM card into place. You also need to lift this cover to access the micro SD card slot. Thankfully replacing the cover goes a lot more smoothly than removing it by just sitting the cover low on the back of the phone, making sure it's flush, and then pushing it up until it clicks into place.

Inside the box you'll find the phone itself, the little plastic key for the back cover and a charging USB cable and a wall plug to insert it into. You'll also find various little informational booklets: Important Consumer Information, Master Your Device, Consumer Information About Radio Frequency Emissions and Responsible Driving as well as Product Safety and Warranty Information. Note that the one year warranty only applies to the original purchaser and does not transfer with the phone if you sell it.
The Motorola DROID 4 is a whopping 5" tall, 2.65" wide and a half of an inch thick. It weighs about 6.3 ounces and is made entirely of black plastic. The corners of the phone have a bit of an odd curve to them, but overall the phone is pretty square and sleek looking. The little lip at the bottom of the previous DROID incarnations is noticeably missing from the DROID 4, and the whole phone seems to have a no-nonsense appearance to it. It's also very comfortable in your hands, being just big enough that the keyboard is easy to use and the screen is large enough to watch video or play games on.
The power button on the DROID 4 is on the top of the phone, but it's placed directly in the center instead of on the right-hand side like my original DROID. Slightly left of the power button we have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the bottom of the phone there is a microphone in the middle. The left side of the phone has a micro HDMI port at the very bottom, with the micro USB port directly above it for charging your phone or plugging it into a computer.
The volume rocker is in the regular place on the left side of the phone, but noticeably missing is a physical camera button. That's a little disappointing, because I used to pick my original DROID and push the physical camera button and then start taking pictures. With this phone however, I have to pick it up, hit the power button to turn the screen on, swipe to unlock my screen, and then finally click the camera shortcut that I have on my home screen. While it works just fine it's a bit more cumbersome, and if you see something you want to snap a picture of in a hurry you may very well lose the opportunity.
The back of the phone has a speaker at the bottom left and the camera flash in the top center. The actual camera lens is offset just to the left of the flash, and then that goofy little hole to unlock the back cover is up in the top right. On the front of the phone, you have a speaker in the center and directly to the right of it are the light sensor and proximity sensor. Finally in the top-right corner we have the front facing camera.
The physical keyboard slides out smoothly and is really, really nice. Not only does it have the standard qwerty layout that you would expect, but it also has a full row of number keys across the top and a full set of arrow keys in the bottom right corner. The buttons are rubberized and have a distinctive press to them; they even make a faint but welcomed click when you press them . Each key is a button itself instead of a sheet with the buttons cut out of it, and the tiny gap between each key makes you feel like you're typing on a keyboard -- unlike the original DROID which felt more like typing on the side of a cereal box. The back-lighting works brilliantly and lights up bright and clear, and it even turns itself on and off based on data from the light sensor on the front of the phone.
The virtual keyboard works well enough and it's easy to use, but I could never get used to the thing taking up half of my screen every time I had to type something; it's just so annoying and distracting to me. On top of that, the Swype keyboard is preinstalled on the phone and the two can be toggled between in the settings menu. I really like the Swype keyboard, but it's not nearly as accurate as I thought it would be. Sometimes it is spot on, and other times I Swype a word like "raptor" and it spits out "Taipei". Real nice when it works, but I find it a bit useless having to backspace through incorrect words when I have a physical keyboard that's as accurate as I am.
The phone also has a series of 4 capacitive buttons across the bottom underneath the screen, and these are shortcuts to the menu, home, back and search. They work well, though there isn't really any feedback when pressing them. Also noteworthy is the fact that even though the buttons are the same, they are slightly rearranged from they way they were laid out on the original DROID.
Under the Hood
The DROID 4 features a dual-core 1.2 GHz OMAP4430 processor from Texas Instruments, 1 GB of DDR2 RAM and a 1785 mAh non-user-replaceable lithium-ion polymer battery. It contains an 8 mega-pixel rear camera with auto-focus, digital zoom and an LED flash that is capable of recording video in 1080p. The front-facing camera is only 1.3 mega-pixel and has no flash, but can still record 720p video. It's perfectly acceptable for snapping pictures of yourself for forum avatars or video chatting, but for most anything else you're going to want to use the rear camera.
While the DROID 4 touts having 16GB of internal storage, the space is actually split into a few different partitions so you will really only have access to half of that. The other 8GB is split between 3GB of application storage and 5GB dedicated to the operating system and updates. You can further expand your storage by installing an SD or SDHC card up to 32GB in size. I've taken a number of pictures and have installed quite a few games and apps. Like I mentioned earlier, I opted to use the 16GB card out of my original DROID, but I've still got internal space left even without putting anything on it.
The 4" TFT (thin film transistor) display has an aspect ratio of 16:9 and resolution of 960×540 pixels (qHD). Since Motorola opted not to go with the Super AMOLED display that many competitors are using, the picture is not as sharp or as vibrant as I would have liked, but it's perfectly acceptable. There's a little fuzziness and blurring once in a while, and watching some types of video (sports, fast action movies) or playing fast-paced action games will reward you with a minor amount of ghosting, but overall it's not a bad experience.
Where the display becomes the most annoying is in the sunlight. I was sitting in the car at the doctor's office reading a book on my phone and the sun came out from behind some clouds to shine through the windshield onto my phone. I could hardly see it at all, despite adjusting the brightness settings all the way up. Shielding the screen with my sun visor helped a little, but I was still unable to see well enough to read at all. Walking around the parking lot didn't make things much better, and I was pretty much unable to do anything my phone that required seeing the screen until I went inside.
The touch screen is really responsive though, which is a huge plus for me. I play a lot of games on my phone, as well as browse the web on it when I'm not at home, and it's nice that it works smoothly and accurately. The pinch-to-zoom works great, and everything looks good in general aside from the aforementioned blur and fuzziness on occasion. The performance is great as well, and I haven't really experienced any latency switching between desktop screens or stuttering in any of the apps or games I've played. The housing doesn't collect fingerprints very well, the screen however is a fingerprint magnet. I recommend picking up one of those inexpensive film screen protectors to help with that.
The 1785 mAh lithium-ion polymer battery is also a bit of a concern since it is not user replaceable. Motorola claims 750 minutes of continuous talk time with up to 205 hours of standby time. While I don't actually talk on my phone a great deal, there's no way it would last 205 hours on standby. I left my fully charged phone in the car for two days and when I went back out to get it that night it was so dead it wouldn't even turn on. I can usually get 4 hours of use out of a full charge if I'm browsing the web and playing games the whole time though, like I often do while we're out running errands, sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office or taking a trip in the car.
Your best bet would be to plug it in whenever your not using it instead of just letting it charge overnight. Make sure you pick up a car charger for when you're driving, and plug it into the wall or into your computer to charge when you're not using it at home. Charging more often like this has left me with plenty of battery life whenever I do want to use the phone, but if that non-removable battery could have been replaced with an extended life version or swapped out for a spare battery it would have been much better.
Phone & Sound Quality
Where I'm living now we don't have the best of service. I average about 3 bars of service when I'm standing outside, and can get up to 5 on occasion, but sitting at my desk in the house I usually get 1 or 2 bars. Even so, phone calls sound crystal clear and I have yet to drop a call. The speaker phone isn't quite as good, occasionally sounding garbled and distorted. Lowering the volume when I have someone on speaker phone does help to lessen the problem, but it's not spectacular. Perfectly usable, but I often have to pay more careful attention to what the other person is saying.
Games and apps sound good though. The phone is loud enough that I can plug it into my television with a micro HDMI cable (purchased separately) and leave it sitting on the entertainment center, and I can use the phone for sound while the picture is on the television. I can still hear it fine 10 feet away on the sofa as long as I don't have the air conditioning running, the fan on high and people talking around me. I tried in the first place to run a cord from the phone's headphone jack into an adapter and plug it into the red and white RCA jacks, but when I tried that I didn't get any sound from the phone or the television.
At least the sound was loud enough to hear it from the phone anyway, but it would have been nice if I could have gotten it to come out of the television speakers like I intended. Watching Netflix on the phone this way was a bit of a let-down though, as no matter how I turned the phone the picture stayed vertical on the television and was letter-boxed on both sides with wide black bars. The Netflix stream was also really blurry and blocky on the 42" television, though it did smooth out a little bit after a while.
Though there is no 4G/LTE coverage near me yet, it's nice to have it supported by the phone for when it does make it to my area. In the mean time, the 3G coverage is pretty good and it's actually faster than the horrible cable service in the area. Using the free Ookla Speed Test app from the Google Play store my phone shows a 117ms ping time to the Lansing, Michigan server with a download speed of 1494 kbps and an upload speed of 635 kbps. Note that these are the averages taken from 3 runs of the speed test application.
Software and Apps
The Motorola DROID 4 runs Android version 2.3.6 (Gingerbread), with a based Linux kernel. There have been rumors about an Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) release getting pushed to the DROID 4 since about the time of it's release in February, but now that we're a week into June it's still not here yet. Not that Gingerbread is bad or that the update is necessary, but Ice Cream Sandwich could potential bring a whole slew of new features to the device like unlocking the handset with facial recognition, real time speech to text integration and better camera performance.
While the interface is not stock Android, it's not too much different with only the thin Android UX overlay instead of the intrusive MotoBlur software that Motorola has used on some of their other phones. Still, I replaced it immediately by installing the free LauncherPro application as an all-encompassing replacement homescreen and app launcher. I usually leave my contact list, Google Voice, web browser and the Google Play store as my shortcuts -- so having to remove one of those to have an application list pinned at the bottom too was disheartening. LauncherPro solved this problem as well by giving me a little square app drawer icon in between my four standard shortcut icons at the bottom of the phone screen.
There is a lot of bloatware installed on the phone by default, and some of it is even impossible to uninstall. I really, really hate that. If I wanted that garbage on my phone I would install it myself. Why should I be forced to have it sucking up valuable storage space constantly with no ability to get rid of it? Not only do you have the standard Amazon Kindle app, Netflix and Twitter apps, but you also have things like Slacker Radio, Madden NFL 12, Lets Golf 2, NFL Mobile and a slew of other random applications.
While I do use a couple of them like Netflix and Kindle, they would have been quick installs from the Google Play store if I wanted them. Being unable to uninstall things like MOG Music and Slacker Radio is ridiculous. I use Pandora, why do I want to leave that other stuff on my phone forever just because some clown over at Verizon or Motorola thinks I should.
Some other free apps that I like and use regularly include Fancy Widgets, TeslaLED, Pandora Internet Radio and Dropbox. Fancy Widgets especially is one that gets installed right away, as it includes a very sleek looking clock and weather application in a variety of sizes. It's similar to the clock from the HTC Sense interface or the Beautiful Widgets app. TeslaLED is nice as it turns your rear LED flash into a flashlight.
I also play a lot of random games on my phone. Many games and apps are so cheap that it's no problem to pick up a dozen of them here or there, so I sort of play the field with a variety of them. I play casual games such as Angry Birds, Cut the Rope or Draw Something to slightly more involved games like Inotia 3 or Zenonia 3 and everything in between. There's such a large variety of both free and paid games that you'll be hard pressed to not find a dozen that you like.