Droid Bionic Review

The Motorola Droid Bionic is Verizon’s latest 4G LTE smartphone (must read: 4G networks). It is only the only LTE handset that has been designed as a true high-end device: in addition of having a very fast wireless network access, it also features a dual-core processor (SoC), 1GB of memory and a large 1735mAh battery.

Motorola aims for the “power user” who uses the phone at work and at home. To achieve this goal, the Email support must reach “Enterprise-Level” in terms of security and management. At the same time, the user can stream files, photos and videos from a home PC.

This sounds very nice but the competition among Android phones is brutal, so how does the Droid Bionic compare with others in the market, and can it live up to the hype? Let’s take a look.

Techical Highlights

Android 2.3.4
4G LTE network
4.3 qHD 540×960 Display (TFT LCD)
1735 mAh battery
OMAP4 Dual-Core 1GHZ processor
1GB of RAM
16GB of Internal Storage + optional microSD (16GB max)
8 Megapixel camera
2.63 x 5 x 0.43”, 158g (5.6oz) Droid Charge: 142g, HTC Thunderbolt: 164g

Context

We all use our smartphones differently, that’s why I should tell you what I do with them: I check my email (with Microsoft Exchange), and I reply very moderately because virtual keyboards are slow to type with. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and stocks (mainly on mobile sites), but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I use a couple of social networks, and I rarely play games on the go. In the evenings, I may use my phone as a TV remote from time to time. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.

External Design (Nice)

While the Motorola Bionic has conserved the overall silhouette of the Droid X family, but the Droid Bionic’s front benefits from the Photon 4G design. This means that it has smooth edges on the display’s glass and a metallic skeleton all around the screen. Other manufacturers like LG and Samsung are using a similar design on their high-end phones and I believe that this started with the LG Optimus 2X.

Droid Bionic Review

Rigidity: I noticed that the Motorola Bionic has a design that provides more rigidity to the frame, thanks to a metal frame that encapsulate more of the body. The Bionic has a slightly different construction, and I can bend the Bionic’s frame slightly if I twist the phone, but I think that it would actually be hard to break (I don’t want to try too hard).

Thickness: Just like other Motorola phones, the Motorola Droid Bionic is not really thin, but in the world of 4G LTE phones, being a bit thicker is the norm. The HTC Thunderbolt would be the biggest and heaviest with a weight of 164g. Interestingly, the Droid Charge is lighter (142g), but I somehow remember that it felt bulkier in my hand.

New Droid “design language”: Overall, I’m glad that Motorola has updated its phone design. I have criticized the Droid X2 for its lack of progress on that front, and it’s a relief to see that the changes induced by the Photon 4G seem to be spreading to other phones. Leave a comment at the end of the review to tell me what you think of the Droid Bionic design.

Droid Bionic Review

Ports: On the left side, you can see the USB and micro-HDMI ports. They can be used independently, or jointly with the Multimedia dock, or a special Motorola adapter. When used jointly, the Motorola Bionic can enter into Webtop mode which transforms the smartphone into a miniature Linux computer that can use a mouse and keyboard (wired or Bluetooth). We’ll get back to that later. Because the USB port is on the side, it gets in the way if you try using the phone while charging it at the same time – especially if you are left-handed.

Droid Bionic Review

The volume control is on the right side, and at the top, you can find a 3.5mm audio jack and the Power button. It would be nice to have a Power button that is less recessed and easier to “feel”, because we’re using this dozens of time a day.

Display (very good)

Droid Bionic Review

The Motorola Bionic uses a qHD display, which is great given that this is the highest resolution 4.3” Android phones can get (1280×800 is available for 5.3” phones – check the Samsung Note). The display is very good and looks like the one used in the Motorola Photon 4G.

This means that the Bionic’s display has the same qualities, but it also the same weaknesses than the Photon 4G screen. When I say “weaknesses”, I’m manily referring to the RGB pixel pattern that can create a “moire” effect. It is something that you may notice if you look at the display from a close distance (which I do sometime when using the phone). Here’s a shot from the Photon 4G that illustrates the subtle difference. The Droid Bionic’s display behaves in the same way:

Droid Bionic Review

Right: this is a magnified photo, but it shows the pattern that I'm seeing

If you put that aside, the Droid Bionic’s display is very good. The colors are much more accurate than AMOLED displays (if anyone cares) and only IPS LCD displays could pretend to be absolutely better. However, there are very few Android handsets with IPS displays out there (the iPhone 4 uses IPS technology).

Basic Functions

Call audio quality (normal): the sound quality during call is good, but not out of the ordinary. I tried calling a few landline numbers and the quality can vary from one to the other. However, the audio quality will mainly depend on your cellphone reception. When I tried to crank the sound up, the internal speaker did fine, but the external speaker exhibited signs of sound saturation.

Dialing/Contacts: dialing a number, or finding a contact is very easy. You can use the virtual numeric pad of course, or head into the contact list and scroll down or type a name. If you have a lot of contacts, creating a list of favorites may help quite a bit. My personal favorite on Android is the “direct dial” shortcut. Basically, you choose a contact and a number, and you create an icon on the home page. Upon pressing it, the call is directly placed. It’s the fastest way to call someone, and I use it all the time.

This Motorola phone also has a “Contact quick task” widgets that lets you select up to two actions (call, email, sms…) for any given contact.The idea is quite good, and i like it, but the actual widget takes too much surface on the home screen (4 icons worth). That’s because the widget features the photo of your contact. I believe that it could have been twice as small if it had used only the name.

Web browsing (excellent): Like all high-end Android smartphone, the Droid Bionic is very good at web rendering. However, it is unique in the sense that it is the only smartphone (in America) that combines a qHD display, a dual-core processor and a 4G LTE radio. Any of these factors contribute to a better browsing experience, but having all three makes the Droid Bionic the best smartphone for web browsing.

Adobe Flash support: again, the combination of a fast Internet connection and a dual-core processor help make Flash support more effective than on competing 4G LTE devices. Not only the flash files load faster, but they execute faster on the OMAP processor. In addition of viewing Flash sites from small businesses you can even play select casual games, although keep in mind that many expect mouse and keyboard support.

Motorola Software

MotoBlur is a Motorola web service that aggregates updates from a number of social networks on Motorola’s servers. This allows the Motorola phone to pull updates from all social networks at once, instead of pulling information from each of them separately. This may save battery life, and it also allows the phone to display social network updates in a consolidated way. [MotoBlur page]

Lock Screen: The lock screen appears as soon as you press the Power button and there is no “fade-in” animation of any kind. That’s great. Also, Motorola is not using its “fade to black” halo from the Photon 4G. It’s great because that lock screen design was not very readable in direct sunlight.

The next step is to add useful information like notifications, or direct app access like HTC does with HTC Sense.

Droid Bionic ReviewWebtop is Motorola’s desktop environment that turns on as soon as you connect this smartphone to a TV/monitor via HDMI. Yes, you read that right, this phone can turn into computer complete with a desktop version of Firefox (I talked about Webtop more extensively in my Motorola Atrix Review, but I basically think that it is a bit too slow for my taste). If you are using a Dock, you can even plug in a regular mouse and keyboard, which is critical to get any kind of serious work done. Google docs, webmail and other productivity sites should just work.

Obviously, this is still a smartphone, and things aren’t fast, but keep in mind that the device fits in your pockets. How you enjoy this depends on what you do. I find it OK to do emails and other text-based applications, but I would not leave my laptop home on a business trip. I love the idea, and Motorola has done a good job of pulling this off, but the concept needs more muscle to back it up.

Droid Bionic Review

Motorola Media Link: Out of the box, Android doesn’t really have much when it comes to synchronizing the files between your computer and your smartphone. Media Link is a utility (for Windows) that synchronizes media files and contacts from a computer to the phone. Music files can be synchronized from iTunes or Windows Media Player, while photos and video are simply synchronized from a directory. Contacts can come from Outlook or Windows Mail. [Media link homepage]

Critical Apps

It is interesting to see that despite the wide variety of apps available on the Android market, the ones that are considered to be “critical” by most users are good old text-based communication apps like SMS, email, chat etc… Let’s take a look at a few apps that most users think of as “must-have”.

Droid Bionic Review

Virtual keyboard: the stock Android keyboard cover the bases and is pretty solid. In general the most important thing on a such a keyboard is the response time, which means the lag time between a key press and a response from the phone. There is always a lag time, but the smaller it is and the more “natural” you will find it to be. That’s because when we have tactile interaction with real objects, they react right away (push something, it moves).

To make the keyboard faster, I often disable the word suggestions and other optional features in the settings. You will have to experiment, but keep that in mind. The contrast between the keys and the background could be a little higher too, but I can live with it.

Droid Bionic Review

Swype keyboard : Swype is a much better, keyboard option. It has fortunately been pre-loaded on this phone. If you’ve never heard about Swype, it looks and can work as a regular virtual keyboard, but its real power is revealed when you slide your finger from one letter to the next to form words. It’s very powerful because your finger doesn’t leave the surface of the screen, making the whole motion much more accurate than “tapping” on the screen. I generally find myself typing faster with swype, and even when I don’t use the sliding motion, the keyboard’s response time is noticeably better than the default virtual keyboard.

The weakness of Swype is that it relies a lot on a dictionary to get it right, so when I was trying to type “activesync”, it thought that I meant “quebec”… Swype is great for conversations, but eventually, you may have to fall back to “taps” for slang or technical keywords.

Droid Bionic Review

Email (excellent): Because this smartphone is partially designed for a “professional” audience, Motorola has made sure that the email experience is very good. I actually think that it is “excellent”. In the real world, many people use their phones to “curate” content. This may happen in the train, or when there is a minute of downtime, but the idea is that people classify or delete emails on their phones, and get back to a “clean” desktop.

Droid Bionic Review

Facebook (very good): there are two ways of using Facebook. First, you can simply download the app, and use it like you would with any other smartphone. It works reasonably well, and gets the job done easily. It may be sometime a bit annoying when you are waiting for the notifications or messages to update, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary there.

The second way of using it, is trough the MotoBlur Social Network widget. It pulls fresh content in the background so you won’t have to wait for the refresh, and the widget content is big enough to see what’s going on, but also big enough to “like” or “reply” directly. I’m usually not a big fan of widgets, but this is actually pretty cool as you won’t have to launch yet another app to reply. On top of this, the widget doesn’t seem to be slow, or slow down the phone in a noticeable way (unlike the FB app…). Now, I’m not sure what the impact on battery life is, but in theory the MotoBlur centralized approach to notification updates should be better than anything that pulls content from many networks to the phone.

Droid Bionic Review

Google Maps (awesome): As of late, I found the mapping experience to be much better on Android devices, and that certainly has to do with the fact that Google has been improving its mapping application on its own platform, while leaving other mobile OSes in the cold. It’s not a bad tactic to gain an edge, and the net result is that Android users have been getting steady improvements, while others have mostly stagnated.

First, Android users get free turn-by-turn navigation. This is a big deal as this feature can cost quite a bit of money on other platforms. Secondly, new features like “download map area” are introduced on a regular basis. This one is supposed to let you preload an area the size of a city, this is really cool. Here’s how to enable it:

1/ in Google Map, do Menu>More>Labs>enable pre-cache map area

2/ go to the map, select a place, expand the place’s options and choose “pre-chace map area”
In my case, Google Maps has pre-cached the whole city of San Francisco, and it is going to boost Google Map’s speed.

Skype (having issues with video): Skype often comes up as the preferred VOIP software (there are many others). The good news is that Skype is fully functional on the Droid Bionic, and that include video calls with both cameras (front/back) – however, I have been having intermittent issues with the cameras. Sometime during audio calls, the sound works, but the video is black.

In theory, to enable video calls, you have to go in the option menu and check the video calls box. Apparently, Skype is not capable of detecting that this feature works.

When it works, video calling is good over LTE, but I noticed that the colors seem to be in 16-bit (65k colors) instead of 24-bit (16M colors). It’s not the phone’s fault. I bet that it is a Skype optimization to save bandwidth. My Galaxy S2 shows the exact same color reduction. [Skype for Android]

Photo and Video Capture (Good+):

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ve uploaded some samples for you to look at. I’ve taking photos of the same places with various smartphones so that you can compare. Head to our flickr account.

Droid Bionic Review

A photo shot with the Droid Bionic shortly before sunset

In broad daylight, almost every camera will do well. That’s why I have gone on a short photo trip late in the day, when things start to get dark. Motorola has tweaked its camera to be able to operate in dim lighting, which is great. Early in the evening, the Droid Bionic shot decent pictures, although a bit grainy (you’ll have to look at the full size photo on Flickr). They can be shared without any issues on Facebook. After a resize to 640×480, the noise will be mostly gone.

Droid Bionic Review

Photo shot with the Droid Bionic at night, with street lighting only

The Bionic’s field of view is very narrow. I’m not sure why that is, and yes, I have made sure that the digital zoom was not in use… it’s just a bit bizarre.

That said, I have noticed that the focus doesn’t work very well. Most of my indoors photos are a bit blurry, and while I really like the idea of having a continuous auto-focus, I can’t say that it works well.

When the sky was already dark, I was still able to shoot photos that are very usable. The scooter shot for example is pretty challenging, even for a micro 4/3 camera, so I’m not complaining at all. Again, for sharing online it should do fine.

There’s also a Panorama mode that works much better than the one implemented on the Motorola Photon 4G. It should work well in brightly lit environments, but I get a blurry result every time I try to use it indoors. The Samsung Galaxy S2 does much better in the same situation, although it too get slightly blurry (but yet usable) images.

In terms of video recording, Motorola has also tuned the camera to work in dim lighting. The videos actually makes things appear much brighter than they were. It seems that the exposure time was a bit longer than usual, which explains the 16FPS of the movie shot in the darkest scene. A movie shot earlier was running at 25FPS (see sample above, also available on Flickr).

Overall, the Droid Bionic does not have the absolute best image quality, but Motorola made it good and functional enough to keep me satisfied. In the same circumstances, the Galaxy S2 had better color accuracy, but could not get a proper focus. However, the Galaxy S2 consistently shot better still photos than the Droid Bionic.

Entertainment / Play

Gaming (good): after running the usual Raging Thunder Lite 2, I can say that this is not the fastest 3D graphics that I have played with. Phones like the Photon 4G, or the Galaxy S2 will actually perform better (the GS2 has the advantage of rendering less pixels, thanks to its 800×480 display). That said, the game was definitely smooth enough to allow for decent gaming.

Video Playback (excellent): The Droid Bionic passed the video playback test without any problem. I have downloaded the 1080p mp4 “desktop pc” trailer of Gran Turismo and the Bionic was able to play it back without any hitch. Motorola also made sure that it can play it back to a big TV over HDMI.

Droid Bionic Review

This is the speaker

Speaker Quality (good): the speaker is plenty loud and in a room or an office, it should fulfill its function quite well. In general, it works well for movies and games, however, I have noticed that it was having a hard time with acute sounds. This is not out of the ordinary for those small speakers, but it’s worth noting.

Droid Bionic Review

Gallery: The gallery app is great and much better than the default Android gallery. By default, it shows you photo updates on your social networks because they tend to be more dynamic. However, your local photo gallery, online photos, and even home server (DLNA) are just one tap away.

When watching the social network photos, they are big enough so that you can tell what’s going and, and adding a comment is usually just a couple of taps away.

System Performance

The Motorola Droid Bionic is among the fastest smartphones tested so far. Although the Texas Instrument (TI) OMAP4 processor doesn’t get any hype in the media, it does a good job in the benchmark. It may not win all of them, but remember that benchmarks are just indicators, which means that they provide narrow views of the system performance.

When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.

On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?

Droid Bionic Review

Droid Bionic Review

Browsermark, Sunspider: BrowserMark and SunSpider are two tests that measure the speed of JavaScript, a key component for interactivity in websites. To be clear, this does not measure “how fast” pages are loading. Instead this look at how fast scripting code can execute. Javascript is used in modern websites for user interface or even complete applications/games.

The Droid Bionic wins this benchmark ahead a tight group of number of Tegra 2 powered Android phones. This is pretty impressive.

Droid Bionic Review

GUIMark 2 Flash graph test: This test measures the Adobe Flash performance. Flash is a widely used multimedia platform and you can find it virtually everywhere as advertisement, video or other forms of interactive web page module.To put things in context, there are plenty of phones that don’t support Flash at all, so the mere fact that it works is already a good thing. Again, the Bionic does very well, landing second only behind another Motorola phone, the Atrix.

Droid Bionic Review

The CPU Benchmark tries to measure the raw number crunching performance of this smartphone. It’s not really an indicator of how good the user experience is, but it shows how much data the device could process.

In terms of perceived performance, I think that the Motorola Droid Bionic does very well. I haven’t had the phone “freeze” or “slow down” because I had many apps open (although there is always a limit). Also, the user interface scrolling was always smooth, which is very important on a touch device.

Battery Life (very good)

Battery depletion (good): The first thing that I look at is the rate of depletion when I’m leaving the phone unused, but still in sync with Exchange and Facebook. The Droid Bionic does very well here and from 4pm on the previous day to 11am, the battery has lost 24% of its charge. This would put the Droid Bionic ahead of the HTC Thunderbolt and well ahead of the Droid Charge..I have opened the email to see if they were being downloaded, and yes – they are. Some handsets do get notifications, but don’t actually download the items until you open the Email app, which may be annoying as you have to wait a bit more to read new emails. This is not the case here.Depletion test setup: phone in sleep mode, sync over WiFi with Google account, Exchange Facebook.
Gaming 30mn: 9% (Raging Thunder 2 Lite)
YouTube 30mn (WiFi):  8%
The Droid Bionic has the best “sleep mode” battery consumption, which is probably the most important thing. What the gaming and YouTube tests show is that during actual use, the depletion pattern is not so different from other smartphones. I have yet to perform relevant LTE test, but I’m working on it. I suspect that the LTE radio will consume more power than a regular 3.5G one.

Conclusion: best 4G LTE smartphone today

Droid Bionic Review

The Motorola Droid Bionic is currently a unique combination of 4G LTE, dual-core processor and high-resolution display. When using it, it is obvious that it is the most powerful 4G LTE handset on the market now and the synthetic benchmark confirm the difference of performance between the Bionic and its competitors, namely the Thunderbolt and the Droid Charge.

Although we don’t have a definitive answer about its battery life yet, I expect it to be competitive or better than smartphones in this category. That said, I’m just about sure that the battery life won’t be as good as non-LTE phones. Because of that, I would prefer recommending it to users who don’t mind charging their the phone more often than usual.

It is true that there aren’t a whole lot of choices for those who want to switch to 4G LTE, but if you want to benefit from LTE’s network prowess, the Droid Bionic is the best choice.

Links

Don’t miss those reviews: Atrix 2 ReviewiPhone 4S ReviewSamsung Galaxy S2 ReviewHTC Wildfire S Review, Photon 4G ReviewHTC Sensation ReviewDroid Incredible 2 ReviewiPhone 4 ReviewSamsung Epic 4G ReviewSamsung Infuse 4G Review.

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