HTC, who released the very-well liked HTC One X as their highest-end (“hero”) handset earlier this year, have now released the Droid DNA to be their standard-bearer through the holiday season. Yep, that’s right: this is the phone that you’re going to be blitzed with advertisements about for the next few months. And on paper, the Droid DNA is certainly worthy–it’s got a quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor, and most importantly, a never-before seen (on a smartphone) 1080p display.
However, that pixel-dense screen clocks in at five whole inches, which is the point where a lot of people start calling the device a phablet, instead of a phone. At the Droid DNA launch event, HTC’s execs were careful to draw the distinction that the Droid DNA isn’t a tablet, but a phone. Still, the the fact remains: 5” is probably larger than any phone’s screen you’ve ever used before. Our very one Eliane Fiolet went into the ramifications when discussing Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, which features a 5.5” screen:
Some people would argue that this is not a phone anymore, since it is too large to carry in the pocket and also that you may look ridiculous with this gigantic phone on your cheek when you place a phone call. However, I usually get tremendous feedback regarding the form factor from men who wear jackets (with a large internal pocket) and women who carry purses. I personally love the device (version 1 and 2) and, to challenge the size argument, Hubert did carry it regularly in his jeans’ front pockets and he was fine.
If you’re looking for the short answer here, I crammed the Droid DNA into a pair of skinny jeans and took it all around New York. Sure, it’s big, but it’s fine in your (back) pocket. If you’re looking for the skinny on how it performs in day-to-day use, you’ll have to read the review:
Display size: 5”
Display resolution: 1920×1080 (1080p)
Display type: LCD 3
Display PPI: 441
Main chip: Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro (quad-core running at 1.5GHz)
Internal storage: 16GB or TK
microSD slot: Nope.
Battery capacity: 2020mAh
Back camera: 8MP f/2.0 28mm
Front camera: 2.1MP f/2.0 that can record in 1080p
Dimensions: 141 x 70.5 x 9.73 (mm)
Weight: 5.01 ounces
I use my smartphone as my pocket computer. I text, game, look up directions, and kill time reading stuff on the subway with my phone. I check sports scores and NY Times headlines frequently. Sometimes I even write articles for Ubergizmo (don’t tell my editor!) What I don’t do, and probably never will do, is watch video on my phone. I’ve got other screens for that.
Overall, the build quality is solid and attractive. And it’s surprisingly pocketable for such a huge phone. Its ergonomics is tricky, but not substantially different from phones like the Samsung Galaxy S3. 5” is starting to push the upper edge for a phone, though.
There are two issues I have with the design: first, the wake button is small and inconveniently placed at the top of the phone in the center, which is usually a pretty logical location for it. However, considering the screen size of this phone, I much prefer the Galaxy S3′s side-bound lock switch. With the Droid DNA’s placement, it’s very awkward. Second, there’s a cover for the microUSB port which is not only unnecessary but feckless and annoying. Supposedly it’s to conform with Japanese splash resistance standards, but for users in the United States, it will be a constant and consistant daily annoyance. You’re going to plug in the phone every evening with modern smartphone batteries, why make that process more fiddly with a cheap piece of plastic?
HTC’s cantilevered, soft-touch back has been advertised to give the impression of a much smaller phone. For the most part, it works. It feels a lot like a Galaxy S3, only a little taller. And in addition, when you put it face-up on a table it doesn’t look as chunky as it would if it was a regular rectangle. But like a fat guy wearing baggy clothes, it doesn’t hide the fact that the Droid DNA isn’t the thinnest or lightest phone you can buy. But that’s not why you’re looking at the Droid DNA. You’re interested because of the specifications, we bet.
Display (very good, brightness OK, colors off)
The display is great. I hold my phone up to my face, so I often see pixels even on screens labeled “retina” or “hiDPI,” and it’s clear the Droid DNA does have a remarkably detailed screen. I’ts using Super LCD 3 technology, which is an updated version of the LCD 2 screen we liked so much on the HTC One X.
The screen’s assets are most clearly displayed when running a graphically intense program, such like Dead Trigger or a benchmark. More importantly for my preferred use cases, the pixel density also shines when rearing books or text: up close–much closer than the commonly cited 16 inches–text is extremely smooth. In fact, the 5” 1080p display is the best LCD I’ve seen at replicating the printed page.
On the other hand, the color is off. To my eye, it’s a little blue. It’s not surprising considering the Droid DNA’s Super LCD 3 doesn’t use IPS technology. It’s most perceptible when looking at photos of people (which you never do on a phone… not). White pages look bluish.
The viewing angles are wide, which is often a sign of a good display panel, but it’s not the most useful feature in a phone screen.
HTC Sense (Non-Android software)
Sense remains a thick skin over Android, replacing things like its stock keyboard. There’s been plenty of words spilled over Sense UI before, and the situation is still the same: there’s a lot of useful stuff here, but some (most?) users would prefer a more stock Android. For instance, the updated gallery program is great: it’s well organized, and it’s convienent to have folders for photos, videos, Facebook photos and screenshots. It seems to stay one step ahead of the user when it anticipates how he wants to share images through Facebook or email. On the other hand, the Sense virtual keyboard is miserable and I swapped it out after 10 minutes for a paid option.
Sense’s 3D transitions reminded me of Linux-type eye candy like Compiz. The major potential downside of adding graphically-intese flourishes to an operaterating system is that they’ll slow it down, but the Droid DNA thankfully handled all the rotating cubes with a plomb. However, all of these other UI tweaks come with actual downside: the Droid DNA is shipping with Android 4.1, and will most likely get Android 4.2 later than many other high-end smartphones.
The HTC Sync manager software looks nice, and it even works on OS X, but it’s the kind of software that is totally worthless if it’s half-assed. It doesn’t offer option for downloading photos and videos from your phone, and its tools for deciding what music makes it on to your Droid DNA are not that much better than manual drag-and-dropping. I suspect the majority of people who buy this phone won’t use this program.
Verizon also puts a lot of crap on the phone. I won’t go into it in depth, but here’s one egregious example: an American Express app. I don’t use AmEx, and the majority of people who buy a Droid DNA won’t, either. Keep that crap off our phones, Verizon!
I don’t watch videos on my phone often. But if I were to, I’d probably want to on the Droid DNA because it handles a full HD file. The Qualcomm S4 Pro is perfectly capable of handling an 1080p MP4 video–I watched an episode of Parks and Recreation on the phone and really enjoyed it.
However, where the Droid DNA really shines is as a gaming device. It’s a shame, considering that most high-end games end up on iOS before they make their way over to Android. The 1080p screen looks really great, and although it’s a issue of millimeters, the extra screen space makes the phone feel great compared with older Android handsets when held in landscape orientation like a controller. I played Dead Trigger at full settings and resolution, and it not only looked great but there was no signs of lag or anything that would take away from the gaming experience. However, some games like Tiny Troopers and Angry Birds Star Wars simply didn’t boot up–although this might be a symptom of the newness of the Droid DNA and the fact that we tested a pre-release handset.
Loudspeaker (Beats Audio)
The speaker is excellent. During the episode of Parks and Recreation, voices were clear and loud. It’s not the greatest for music–anything that requires strong bass suffers–but you probably have speakers to take care of that.
Camera / Imaging
I suspect it’s the same imaging sensor and construction we saw on the HTC One X, so for a complete rundown with comparison shots, check that out. The Droid DNA is packing an 8 megapixel sensor with a f/2.0 lens. Although the HTC One X didn’t deliver “exceptional image quality, HTC One X’s camera an “amazing imaging experience,” mainly because of the included Sense software. The included Sense software is well designed, intuitive and fast. Sending multiple images was much easier than it is on iOS, and the camera app boot was not noticeable.
This is a short 1080p movie taken with the Droid DNA’s camera featuring a lot of fast movement. Sure, the Droid DNA not going to give Orson Welles or Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematography a run for their money, but if your video goes viral, at least it will look good.
The Droid DNA is runnning the Quad-core 1.5 Ghz SnapDragon S4 Pro SoC that we’ve seen on other handsets like the LG Optimus G.
Perceived Performance: During testing with the pre-production unit, we were pleased with the perceived performance: the OS user interface is very fluid, all applications we tested are fast and thanks to 4G LTE browsing the web or downloading files and app was super fast. This is as fast as Android 4.1 phones get. There’s little lag or stutter during daily use, the phone cranks out graphically intense games with ease, and it boots up quickly too. This is the smartphone state of the art.
Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance.
Antutu provides a system-wide test that measures CPU, Memory, graphics etc… However, it often comes down to sheer CPU power, and with its quad-core setup, the Droid DNA has no difficulty besting all the dual-core smartphones that we previously tested.
Again, it should be noted that multi-core mainly helps you when applications are written for take advantage of many cores. Not all apps can be written in such a way, and this mainly depends on what tasks they need to perform. Some are inherently multi-core friendly, some aren’t
GL Benchmark 2.5, Egypt HD off screen measures the graphics performance of the chip by running a game-like polygon environment. To ensure that all devices run under the same conditions, we use the “off-screen” options which renders in 1080p HD. With a score of 29.5 frames per second (FPS), the HTC Droid DNA drops ahead of the iPhone 5, which is pretty impressive, given that the iPhone 5 has an extremely fast graphics co-processor. With such performance, gaming should not be a problem when it comes to graphics speed. Note that both the Optimus G and the Nexus 4 also use the Snapdragon S4 Pro. However, both phones demonstrated very uneven benchmark results going from 21FPS to 31FPS, so we averaged the results out. The Droid DNA was between 29FPS and 30FPs.
GeekBench 2 is a synthetic benchmark that is largely focused on floating point operations that are used in scientific computations, and polygonal 3D games. It doesn’t really scale with additional (4) cores. Interestingly floating point instructions are usually not the ones to be the most executed for an average user.
We tested Geekbench 2 on the Droid DNA 11 times and received scores as low as 1100 and as high as 2111, which would be more similar to the Nexus 4 and LG Optimus G with the same Qualcomm processor. The chart above displays an average of the benches. We’re not sure why the results very so much, but we’ve seen this with other handsets using the Qualcomm S4 Pro. Although it might affect some synthetic benches, it didn’t seem to make a difference in day-to-day usage.
Battery Life (Mediocre)
So–superpowerful phone with a great big screen with a lot of pixels. What’s the catch? Battery life?
Unfortunately, yes. The battery isn’t the greatest and it’s only rated it’s at 2020mAh, other smartphones include much larger batteries, and they don’t have 1080p screens to power. The good part is the phone doesn’t draw that much power while idle: in an overnight battery depletion test with WiFi and LTE on, the battery percentage dropped only 12% overnight.
Daily Usage–I started the day at 81%, and at the end of the day my battery was at 31%. That’s with light usage–I looked up directions once, texted a few times, and read an eBook on the subway. I didn’t do any browsing or gaming. My greatest fear is that I start a Friday with a full battery, use my phone during the day, go out on the town directly after work, and have a dead phone before midnight. I think that’s well within the realm of possibilty for the Droid DNA.
The battery life isn’t a deal breaker by any standard, as it’s firmly in line with other high-end Android smartphones. But those looking for maximum battery life are much better served by the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx.
This is unquestionably the highest-specc’ed phone on the market. But if you’re a Verizon customer with an upgrade, is this the phone you should get? Well, if you’re reading this review, I’m assuming that you’re down with big phones. That’s a prerequisite. But even if you like big phones, Verizon is offering basically every major phone this holiday season: you can get the iPhone 5, the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Note II, the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD, and the Droid DNA’s Windows 8 cousin, the 8X. That’s a murder’s row of high-end handsets.
We’re going to skip the iPhone and 8X in this comparison, because they run different operating systems, and that’s the most important consideration when buying a phone and one we’ve gone into in the past. But you’re still given four legitimate Android contenders: the Droid DNA, two Samsung handsets, and Motorola’s offerings.
The Droid DNA unquestionably has the best guts: it starts with the screen and ends with the quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro. However, the Samsung Galaxy S3 has by far the biggest ecosystem–if you’re looking for accessories like cases and camera lenses, that’s probably the phone for you. On the other hand, if you simply want reliable battery life, there’s only one option for you: Motorola’s Droid RAZR Maxx line. But if you simply want the best handset, with the most recent components, you can’t go wrong with the Droid DNA. It doesn’t have any major flaws, and it’s got something that nothing else has: a full HD screen.