Jan, 16 2015

Video editing by Steve Albright

The Motorola Droid Bionic is Verizon’s first Android Phone to have both 4G LTE Connectivity and a dual core processor, immediately launching it into the elite smartphone realm. But with it’s delayed release – having first been announced in January and just launching in September – does it still carry enough bravado to warrant your hard earned dollar? Read  (and watch) on to find out.

Bionic Hardware Review

The Droid Bionic has an attractive and familiar look consistent with several other Motorola Droids (most notably the Droid X2) with a little lip below the 4.3-inch screen. While the Bionic is slightly thicker than the X2 it’s still only .43-inches thick, the thinnest 4G phone on Verizon to date, and it feels reasonably sized and weighted. It’s pretty impressive what Motorola is able to pack into the Bionic’s relatively small frame.

The 4.3-inch qHD display has 960 x 540 pixel resolution and is pretty darn good. Close inspection will reveal images and videos that seem to have a slight cross-hatched pattern underlayed which might irritate some, but overall I was impressed with the screen quality. The screen is made of Corning’s “Gorilla Glass”, an extra tough material that protects against scratches and broken screens. It’s not indestructible, but it makes an awesome difference.

Below the display you’ll find the typical Android buttons (Menu, Home, Back, Search) which are capacitive (touch sensitive) and very responsive. The left side features a MicroUSB port and a Micro-HDMI port, the right side has a volume rocker, and there is 3.5mm headset jack on the top of the phone along with a power/sleep button.

The Bionic has two cameras: an 8MP camera on the back and a VGA camera on the front for video chat and self-pics. Also on the front, on the other side of the earpiece, you’ll find an LED status notification light; this is a small feature but one I appreciate – it’s nice to have a visual indication that you have calls, messages, or e-mails awaiting you when your phone is otherwise “off”.

On the top/back, behind the power button, is a little slot to help pry open the battery cover. Call it nitpicking, but the battery cover along with the MicroSD Card and 4G SIM Card underneath were the most frustrating part of using the Bionic.

Don’t be shy: you really have to yank the battery cover to get it off (but if you break it don’t blame me!). Once it’s off you’ll find a 1735 mAh battery which you’ll need to remove to access the 4G SIM card. You can remove the MicroSD card without removing the battery, but neither are easy to finagle. Luckily we don’t usually need access to remove/replace these so the irritation will be rare.

The Motorola Droid Bionic has a solid set of features and an impressive spec list, but what makes this phone special is a certain Bionic trio:

  • 4G LTE Connectivity
  • 1GHz Dual-Core processor
  • 1GB RAM
These three hardware features together on one phone make the Bionic a powerful beast… let’s take a look at what this combination means for you.

The Bionic Trio (4G + Dual Core + 1GB RAM)

The Bionic is Verizon’s first phone to rock both 4G LTE connectivity and a dual-core processor- throw in 1GB of RAM and you’ve got an impressive combination of specs serving as your phone’s “engine” of sorts.

Let’s start off by looking at the Bionic’s 4G connectivity advantage which is an easier feat to illustrate. Check out the below video where we run three tests comparing the Droid Bionic’s 4G LTE speeds on Verizon with both 3G Verizon speeds using the Droid X and Home Wi-Fi (Comcast) using the Nexus One.

As you can see, the quality of Verizon’s network spoiled my fun in two of the three tests. I’m in Baltimore where Verizon has an excellent 3G and 4G signal, so loading Phandroid.com and loading YouTube videos was lightning fast for both scenarios (even when compared to Wi-Fi). But Speedtest.net is where you truly see the power of Verizon’s 4G LTE network.

The Droid Bionic absolutely CRUSHES not only 3G but also Comcast Home Wi-Fi running the Speedtest.net app. With Verizon 4G I consistently got download speeds of 20+ Mbps and upload speeds of 3.5+ Mbps. It might be hard to understand how that extra power comes into play when 3G loaded websites and YouTube HD just fine, but think about this: if the 4G network only had 1 or 2 bars would it still be faster than Verizon’s 3G at 4 bars? My bet is yes and that’s where I think you would really see the value of the 4G  network- even in areas with only average connectivity your 4G should zoom while your 3G might struggle.

While the 4G LTE Radio provides quick downloading and uploading of data/multimedia, the dual-core processor splits the on-device work across two processors thereby lightening the load. Add the powerful 1GB of RAM and the Bionic powerfully pumps where other devices might putter along.

While it’s harder to visualize the importance of processors and RAM, one popular measuring tool is Quadrant which looks at a number of indicators and metrics, boiling them down to a “Quadrant Score”:

As you can see above, the Droid Bionic well outperforms a number of top Android smartphones. I consistently scored between 2,200 and 2,500. Quadrant is a great way to ballpark the value of hardware specs but it’s only a relative comparison tool and not an exact science. There are other benchmarks out there but I offer this example simply to prove the Bionic is indeed a beast.

Bionic Software Review

The Droid Bionic ships with Android 2.3.4, the most recent version of Android (at publication of this review). With a new version of Android expected by year’s end, some might be tempted to wait: although Verizon has promised to support software upgrades for 1+ years, they usually come with a fair delay.

That being said, the Bionic runs the Android OS rather flawlessly. It’s quick, without lag, and an overall enjoyable experience. Credit the dual-core processor and 1GB RAM here. From apps and games to web-browsing and videos, the Bionic offers smooth sailing smartphone use.

MOTOBLUR, the manufacturer’s former custom OS overlay, has been replaced with a less intrusive option which offers some of the same features – like resizable widgets – without the bulk that previously dragged down performance. However, the Bionic does come preloaded with a large number of annoyingly undeleteable apps and games, some welcomed and others dead weight.

Bionic Multimedia Review

The Droid Bionic comes preloaded with a bunch of apps that occupy a chunk of its 16GB of internal memory. Among them: Amazon Kindle, Blockbuster, City ID, GoToMeeting, Let’s Golf 2, MOTOPRINT, NFL Mobile, Quickoffice, Slacker, Videosurf, and ZumoCast. It’s also packed with Google goodies like Maps, Navigation, and Places while Verizon pre-installs their entire VCast lineup.

It’s a mixed bag, but some of the apps I already regularly use (NFL Mobile, Slacker) and others I tried for the first time and enjoyed (ZumoCast, VideoSurf).

ZumoCast is pretty awesome: quick signup, quick install on your computer, and all of a sudden your phone can access any file on your computer from anywhere in the world. Of course your computer has to be online and running ZumoCast, but after setting this up once it’s like your own little free version of Dropbox. You can choose what folders and files to share with your phone and let me tell you- it’s worth downloading and trying out. While many people assume preinstalled apps are bloatware, ZumoCast is nothing but files-on-the-go goodness from Motorola. Great stuff.

VideoSurf is like Shazam for TV and Movies – pretty neat – but after thinking about it seems a lot less logical. Whereas you’re often listening to music with no way of identifying the artist/song, you usually have access to see the programming guide when watching TV or movies. Unless you’re watching YouTube or another online video source, but I found using VideoSurf on my desktop monitors with YouTube a lot less effective. Even so, cool idea.

Additional multimedia features include HDMI mirroring through the Micro-HDMI port, DLNA connectivity, and the ability to turn your device into a mobile hotspot if you pay for the associated plan. All of these features are well documented and work beautifully with the Droid Bionic, although I’ve always had headaches and troubles with DLNA across the board.

The enjoyability of the Bionic’s multimedia is due in large part to the hardware specs: the 4G LTE connectivity allow you to stream videos and load webpages with great speed and the processor and RAM give the device more than enough power to operate effortlessly. The nitpickers will point to the less-than-perfect display as a flaw when compared to other top phones, but the vast majority of folks will find it perfectly pleasurable for all types of multimedia viewing.

Bionic Camera Review

Of all the high-end features of the Bionic I was most disappointed with the camera. After seeing spectacular pictures captured with the phones like the Droid Charge, my bar for mobile picture taking has risen. The Bionic photo experience comes in under that bar. While it’s capable of taking great photos, there are a couple of problems and irritations that prevent it from being a top smartphone shooter. To summarize:

  • Auto-focus is hit or miss and takes a few seconds to stick
  • Pictures may mis-focus and appear blurry
  • Colors can seem dull and/or washed out

The rear 8MP camera comes with an LED flash and auto-focus. I took several pictures in different environments with various settings and just didn’t see consistent results. See the samples below and click to enlarge each picture:

This picture of a flower is taken with all automatic settings and although the real-life color was vibrant and robust, we see the flower washed out and leaves too contrasted in the picture. Definitely doesn’t capture what I intended.

I got much closer on that same flower and used the Macro settings. Although the clarity and focus was good, something simply wasn’t right with the color balance. Interestingly enough, , what I saw in the viewfinder and what I saw once the picture snapped were very different, making me wonder if an imposed software filter causes unintended alterations. Maybe a software update can fix the color issues.

Landscape photos were generally better in terms of color and focus.

One thing I noticed was a delay/lag in the auto-focus finding a target and often improperly focusing, leading to blur. It didn’t happen the majority of the time, but enough to find myself resnapping the same picture several times on occasion.

The above picture is taken in a pitch black room and the results are as you’d expect: seeable but blurry when large. Not bad for a completely dark room though.

The above picture was taken with the front-facing VGA camera. Let’s face it: you aren’t trying to work masterpieces when using this camera, you’re either trying to video chat or take a self-pic. For these purposes, the Bionic was perfectly servicebale. Since I don’t have a British accent, standing in front of a bookcase full of Encyclopedias is my main gimmick to appear intellectual. Unfortunately, I’m undermined by the beard.

I found the 1080p video recording on the Droid Bionic to be really good considering the lackluster still photo results. Here is a video of my brother and I trudging into the backyard where a usually dry ditch made way for a steady stream during a crazy weekend of rain:

One thing I did enjoy about the Droid Bionic Camera was the software. Whereas I’m usually left sifting through menu after menu to find various settings and options over here and there and drag-click-open-zoom what? Yeah… the Bionic makes it easy with a simple side drawer that comfortably explains/expands further.

Let’s clear something up: unless you’re some type of mobile photo guru, chances are the Droid Bionic camera will be perfectly fine for you. There are plenty of settings to help optimize you pictures and I did indeed snap some good photos. It isn’t one of the best mobile cameras on the market by a longshot, but it’ll do the trick for your casual everyday photos- just don’t expect to blow up your Bionic photo of the Egyptian Pyramids into a poster for your wall.

Battery Life & Call Quality

The battery life and call quality are essential elements of phone use but typically get a footnote in reviews because of their unexcitability. The same goes here. I found call quality to be better than average and battery life to be average.

One thing Droid Bionic users NEED to keep in mind is to turn off resource intensive features when they’re not being used: this means 4G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and other non-essentials. That alone will extend your battery life a good deal if you’re not already paying attention to these factors. I also imagine the Bionic will get more mileage out of the battery charge once more developers and Android in general better supports the dual-core architecture.

The bottom line is that the call quality is good, the speaker phone is reasonably loud, and the battery life falls in line with what any high-end Android Phone would yield. While I’d love to get more juice out of the Bionic, this is just an industry-wide issue that needs to be addressed. I’d suggest snagging a car charger and additional wall-charger so whether you’re at home, at work, or in-transit you can always stay plugged up. This and smart feature-use should solve a lot of your problems in the first place (with any phone).

Bionic Accessories

The Motorola Droid Bionic has a few accessories that are MUCH more interesting than car chargers and wall chargers. Try the Laptop Dock for example, which turns your Bionic into a fully usable laptop, promo image from Motorola below:

“Fully usable” is relative as you’re still limited to a somewhat netbookish environment but the nice thing is your phone does all the heavy lifting and already has your contacts, data, files, and information so no syncing is required. The Bionic actually powers the Lapdock which is more or less just a shell. Think Krang on TMNT. Or forget I just said that.

The Lapdock is kind of pricey at $300 but certainly a nice option. There’s also an HD Station for $100, Standard Dock for $40, Car Mount/Dock for $40, and Webtop adapter for $30. The latter of those is a nice bargain, allowing you to then connect your phone to an external display for using the Webtop experience that’s found on the Lapdock. It also lets you use the phone to scroll and type although bluetooth peripherals are welcome.

The Verdict

Friends and family constantly ask me, “What Verizon Android phone should I get?” and I’ve consistently told them, “Wait for a dual-core Android Phone with 4G LTE so that you’re phone is future proof.” Here it is.

The Motorola Droid Bionic is an excellent option, highlighted by the Bionic trio of 4G LTE, 1GHz dual-core processor, and 1GB RAM. A lot can happen in the 2-years until your contract is up, and these specs essentially “future proof” the Bionic, ensuring it’ll have the horsepower to run more resource intensive apps, games, and content as time goes on. It’s not the perfect device – the camera isn’t great and it’s missing a couple features like GSM/World radios and an NFC chip – but if these aren’t deal breakers then the Bionic is a top-shelf option and Verizon’s best.

Patient techies that crave the highest of high end phones may want to wait for the holidays when Verizon is likely to launch the rumored Droid Prime, but everyone else can confidently buy the Droid Bionic knowing it’s a great phone that should last them the duration of their contract… and considering the pace of today’s technology, that’s a mighty bold statement.

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