Droid Bionic $299.99

3rd Feb 2012 | 00:00

Droid Bionic

It's a dual-core, 4G LTE speedster – but where's the wow factor?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

A very capable phone that feels a little utilitarian when compared to other phones in the Motorola line.

Like:

4G LTE speed shines; Zippy dual-core processor; Vibrant display; Nice UI tweaks and widgets; Stellar 8MP camera,

Dislike:

Mediocre battery life; No Ice Cream Sandwich; Back cover creaks a bit; Display PPI underwhelms; Can be quite warm to touch

Overview, design and feel

The Droid Bionic was Motorola's first dual-core (at 1GHz) handset to use Verizon's 4G LTE network, though it's since been joined by the Droid Razr and will soon be joined by its newer, much longer-lasting sibling, the Droid Razr Maxx.

Similar in stature to the earlier Droid X models, the Droid Bionic features a relatively slim profile with a small bulge on the backside for the 8MP auto-focus camera with 1080p HD video recording.

However, instead of physical buttons below the display, the Droid Bionic features permanent touch buttons that respond only when the screen is on.

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At 4.3-inch, the Gorilla Glass-shielded qHD display – which comes in at a resolution of 960x540 – is just barely larger than those of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S2, and it's a bright and attractive screen that's accentuated by the little light flourishes seen on Motorola's widgets as you flip through the home screens.

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The Droid Bionic runs Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread), and while Motorola has promised an eventual update to 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), a timeline has yet to be announced.

Though the device has a little heft to it at 159g (5.6 oz), its form factor feels good in the hand, thanks to a lightly textured plastic back panel and the upwards slant that gives it a bit of a grip to hold onto.

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Unfortunately, the back panel is a pain to yank off; a small slat for fingertips is found right behind the physical power button, but we ended up using a credit card to pry it off after feeling like we might snap the thing in half any other way.

Because the back panel utilizes a seemingly cheaper and more flexible piece of plastic than elsewhere on the device, the overall build quality on the Droid Bionic is slightly less impressive than desired.

The light creaking sound heard when squeezing the bottom half of the phone is oddly off-putting considering how slick and refined the phone's face seems.

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Prying open the back shield reveals the 1735 mAh battery, which blocks access to the SIM card. However, you won't need to remove the battery to access and remove the MicroSD card – the Droid Bionic comes with a 16GB card in addition to 16GB of on-board storage.

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In addition to the aforementioned features, you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, a volume rocker on the upper right side of the phone, a speaker grate on the lower back, and mini-USB and Micro HD ports in tandem on the lower left side.

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The Micro HD port can be used to mirror content from the phone to an external HD display in 1080p.

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Additionally, the phone features a front-facing camera to the left of the Motorola logo above the display, while a small light on the upper right blinks when a notification is available.

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The Droid Bionic originally launched at a price of $299.99 with a two-year contract from Verizon, or $589.99 for the standalone device.

While the contract-free price remains intact, the phone is now sold for $149.99 with an agreement, and we've recently seen it as low as $29.99 with the two-year contract.

Interface

The Droid Bionic comes equipped with Android Gingerbread, running 2.3.4 when fully updated. It's a shame that this speedy dual-core phone – complete with 4G LTE connectivity – lacks the latest and greatest version of the OS, but Motorola has yet to specify a launch date for Ice Cream Sandwich.

As such, you'll have to deal with the next-best Android handset option for now, or consider something like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus instead.

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Luckily, the Droid Bionic puts its dual-core muscle to good use in this skinned take on Gingerbread, with speedy movement through the home screens, smooth animations at most turns, and quick loading of apps throughout.

We hit a couple snags with scrolling on the web browser and the Twitter app, though, where the screen simply didn't scroll with the kind of fluidity we'd expect considering the rest of the UI experience.

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Just five home screens are available on the phone, which is a bit of a drag considering the numerous widgets you'll want to fill the pages with.

Left and right swipes take you through the home screens, or you can tap the home touch button below the display to see every home screen at once.

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Between the calendar, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and favorite contacts – along with a selection of our most-used apps – we quickly ran out of screen real estate for everything we wanted handy on the fly.

Luckily, you can customize the footprint of some widgets via scalers on the corners, but many lack usefulness without sizeable space.

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A dock at the bottom of each home screen includes access to calls/contacts, messaging, the camera, and a full list of apps, though you can swap in different apps by holding down on any app already found in the dock.

The touch buttons at the base of the screen let you view options, return to the home screen, flip back one screen, and access Google search respectively.

Plus, the phone ships with a handful of vibrant backdrops that span all five home screens and sharply demonstrate the bright display.

Contacts and calling

Contacts

The contacts system on the Droid Bionic isn't terribly different from what's been seen on other Android phones on the market, with the ability to search for and join together accounts.

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It's important to note the latter point as synchronising things like your Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook accounts may flood your contacts list with hundreds of names and numbers, and you'll likely end up with multiple listings for the same person.

It takes a few steps to correct this annoyance: find one of the contacts, press the options button below the display and choose Edit, then press the options button again to select Join.

From there, it'll immediately suggest the best matches (and typically does a good job of that), otherwise you can search for the right name and merge the contacts.

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From the outset, the Droid Bionic features an optional widget on the center home screen wherein you can choose four top contacts for easy access.

This can be moved, deleted, and added as desired, and tapping on any image will bring up icons for all listed contact options, including phone, e-mail, and social networking services.

Calling

It's hard to find issue with the call quality on the Droid Bionic over Verizon's 4G LTE network. We experienced no dropped calls or interference, even when all the bars weren't available to us.

Calls sounded as clear as expected, and the speakerphone function worked admirably as well. It seemed a pleasant experience on the other side of the call, as well, as one pal remarked that he forgot we were on a speaker.

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The Droid Bionic also features a smart dialing function within the simple Dialer, and will automatically suggest the best contacts as you tap in numbers.

Additionally, you can use voice dialing to call up contacts, or assign them to speed dial by tapping and holding any number on the dialer.

Messaging

The Droid Bionic accommodates SMS and MMS messaging, web e-mail, and business e-mail via Exchange, along with Facebook and Twitter messaging services.

And you can access all of these messaging types via the Universal Inbox.

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The Universal Inbox isn't the most organized way to stay on top of e-mails and notes from social networking services, even if it's the simplest.

Even then, the Universal Inbox requires a couple taps to access, as you'll need to look up Messaging on the apps listing before finding it in there.

There's no way to add this particular Inbox to a home screen, and curiously the Universal Inbox widget only showed a handful of recent messages from one social networking service, instead of all of our activated messaging services.

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We thought it easier just to stay on top of messages through individual apps and notifications, but some may find the feature useful.

On the upside, it does give you offline access to social networking messages, and the ability to respond to such notes without entering the Facebook or Twitter apps.

The Droid Bionic comes with two virtual keyboards installed: the typical multi-touch one that'll look pretty familiar to Android users, and a Swype option.

Many ways to message

The haptic feedback on the traditional keyboard is nice, offering a light and satisfying buzz with each key hit.

Typing in portrait orientation generated a fair number of errors and slowly typed messages, though, with the keys very close together and the space above the keyboard only suggesting words, not substituting corrections as needed.

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Swapping to landscape orientation helps a fair bit, thanks to the larger keys, but we'd actually suggest using the Swype keyboard instead.

You can still peck out individual letters, but typing words is a breeze with Swype as you'll simply slide your finger across the board to construct each word.

It does a surprisingly precise job of guessing the intended words – enough to recommend using it regularly.

Internet

Verizon's 4G LTE network shines on the Droid Bionic, and we were regularly able to clock over 20Mbps download (max of 26Mbps, low of 17.7Mbps), with an upload rate that often hovered around 11Mbps (max of 13.4Mbps, low of 5Mbps).

That's quite a leap over 3G speeds, and it's noticeable in the way the pages load in the browser, and how well apps like Netflix and others stream content.

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Thankfully, there's a My Verizon Data widget available that fills just 1/16 of a home screen and quickly informs you as to your monthly data usage thus far, as you're bound to want to consume all media in reach with that kind of speed.

The stock web browser is a pretty capable bit of software, able to load up full pages attractively on the large screen, with a double-tap used to zoom in and reflow the text.

It's a bit frustrating that the text doesn't zoom within the frame it originally existed, though, so you'll often have to scroll to see nearby images when zoomed in on text, even sometimes on mobile versions of sites.

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Tapping the options button below the display brings up the ability to summon new windows and access existing ones, as well as see bookmarks and go forward a page.

It's not as ideal as tabbed browsing or an on-screen button to swap between windows, but it's fairly convenient enough, and hardly worth hating.

Luckily, unlike the Motorola Droid Razr, the only locked-down bookmarks are ones for Google and Verizon-specific services.

Additional bookmarks can be added by entering the Bookmarks screen on the current page and clicking Add, otherwise you can click the options button and select More to find an Add Bookmark listing.

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Flash works well within the browser as well, and though the videos can be pixelated, they load quickly and have little effect on the rest of the browsing experience, whether zoomed in or viewing a full page.

Camera

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The Droid Bionic picks up a little bulk to accommodate its camera lens, but it's worth the heft, as this 8 megapixel takes very good photos in most conditions.

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From the start, the camera app defaults to 6 megapixel widescreen photos to fit the display, but it can be easily changed from the Settings option in the blue pull-down box seen on the screen.

You'll still snag solidly crisp photos with the widescreen setting, though the standard 8 megapixel option will give you the best shots, albeit in a format that doesn't fill the Bionic screen.

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The phone lacks a physical shutter button, however, as the volume rocker is used to zoom in and out, along with a digital slider that accomplishes the same task.

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Instead, you'll tap the virtual shutter button on the screen to shoot, with options to switch between the front and back cameras and swap to video recording on either side of it.

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Auto-focus can take a couple seconds to latch onto what you're trying to shoot, but typically does so skillfully, and the average user is unlikely to rely on other scene options very regularly.

The Droid Bionic does include Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night Portrait, Sunset, Macro, and Steady Shot settings as needed, though the Auto setting adapted well enough to our myriad shooting needs to leave the other options in the menus.

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You can also easily access several effects from within the standard camera screen, as well, such as Black and White, Negative, Sepia, Solarize, and either Red, Green, or Blue Tints to images.

Both the Black and White and Sepia options offer worthwhile on-the-fly alternatives for your photographic memories, while the Negative and Solarize options effectively distort the images for more extreme shots. The color-based tints are less useful in everyday shooting, but are likewise available in a snap if needed.

Panorama and Multi-Shot burst settings are also available from the same pull-down settings menu, along with brightness and flash control options.

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The Droid Bionic's camera also performed better than expected in low light conditions, capturing minimal motion blur without flash enabled.

Graininess persists in low light photos without the use of flash, but that's common, and the camera seemed to capture less motion blur with the flash turned off in such situations rather than on.

Video

Shooting video on the Droid Bionic is a breeze, and with video quality of up to 1080p, you can expect to capture some pretty stellar footage along the way.

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The video camera auto-focuses prior to shooting (or during the first split-second of recording), though you'll need to tap the screen while filming to manually change the focus as you move and change subjects.

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The Droid Bionic supports several video settings, with 720p and 1080p HD on the top end, along with 720x480 (DVD), 640x480 (VGA), 352-288 (CIF), and 320x240 (QVGA) for more easily sent clips.

Additionally, you can pick between Normal and Video Message modes, the latter of which shoots very low-quality clips that can be texted to friends.

All of the same still photo effects are present on the video side, letting you capture black and white or sepia footage (among other options) on the fly, plus you can choose from five microphone settings: Everyday, Outdoors, Concert, Narrative, and Subject, the last of which is best for interviews.

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Low light video is typically grainy and unremarkable, but you can engage the bright light located next to the lens, which can help illuminate subjects directly in front of you. It's accessed via the same pull down menu as the other options.

Media

The included music app is so blandly designed that it seems out of place on such a slick phone. Really, the only nice aesthetic touch is a zoomed in and lightly rotated version of the album cover displayed behind a track listing.

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Luckily, that has no bearing on the actual sound quality, which is excellent over headphones.

Our only functional issue with using the Droid Bionic as a dedicated audio player is that the volume rocker on the side is very sensitive and still active even when the screen is off.

There were a couple times where we reached into a pocket and accidentally sent the volume dramatically up or down without intent.

Speak up

The small speaker on the back of the Droid Bionic also performs admirably with music, offering a loud and generally clear feed when the phone isn't lying on its back.

It similarly works well for movies, and can be played loud enough to entertain a small handful of friends from a short distance without muddling the sound.

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The Droid Bionic supports MP4, WMV, H.263, and H.264 video formats, and when watching high-quality versions of movie trailers, we were impressed by the sharpness of the bright, colorful display.

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But with an Android Marketplace download rental of WALL-E, we couldn't help but be distracted by the video tiling.

YouTube videos streamed solidly, though, and what they occasionally lacked in crispness they made up for very quick loading and little lag.

Background buddies

Motorola's handy Gallery widget snags recent image uploads from friends on Facebook and puts them in a window on your home screen. It's an attractive way to keep on top of friends' antics, and the images load quickly; plus, it's great to see a different imagoe on the home screen every time you enter and exit the Gallery app.

That said, it doesn't update the images as frequently as your friends add them to Facebook, and sometimes doesn't seem to update at all.

Entering the gallery app also lets you access your own photos and videos, which can be uploaded to various social networking and photo-sharing services, or sent via e-mail or MMS.

Battery life and connectivity

Battery life

The Droid Bionic ships with a 1735 mAh Lithium Ion battery, which is just slightly smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S2 and Motorola Droid Razr.

According to Motorola's specs, it offers 10 hours and 40 minutes of talk time, along with just over eight days of standby life.

Depending on how you use it, however, the battery may drain very quickly and leave you struggling to make it through the afternoon, let alone through the entire day.

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With light usage through the day, it's not uncommon to expect the Droid Bionic to hold up until the evening, albeit often on its last legs, though you can ease the drain on the battery by turning off the 4G LTE and sticking with 3G.

Additionally, the phone includes a handy Maximum battery saver setting, which dims the display and stops syncing data after 15 minutes of inactivity.

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But what good is a 4G LTE phone if you're not going to use the network? Sadly, heavy use can knock the handset out of commission within a handful of hours, and that doesn't even include streaming video or lengthy phone calls.

Connectivity

During a lengthy wait at a doctor's office – during which the display was at just 50% brightness – we spent a couple of straight hours just reading e-mails, catching up on RSS feeds, and refreshing our Twitter and Facebook feeds, only to find the phone repeatedly warning us to find a charger.

We didn't even get to 3pm on the phone in that instance.

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The Droid Bionic also feels disconcertingly warm to the touch at times, especially following several minutes of consistent 4G LTE use, or while using the phone when connected to a charger.

If you're a heavy user and unwilling to compromise on connection quality or display brightness, be prepared to charge the phone during the day, or pick up a spare battery.

Tethering is easily accessed from the Mobile Hotspot icon found on one of the home screens, and within a few taps, we were using the blazing 4G LTE network to power our laptops and other nearby devices.

Pages loaded about as quickly through the hotspot as via the cable Internet connection we were using via Wi-Fi, though again, Hotspot usage is sure to drain your data plan, not to mention your battery life. And you'll need to shell out a little more each month to even enable the feature.

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The Droid Bionic supports Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth, GPS, and 3G or CDMA 800/1900 frequencies when not using 4G LTE.

Getting media on the Droid Bionic is as simple as removing the MicroSD card or otherwise connecting the phone via the included mini-USB cable and dragging and dropping files to the card from there.

A DLNA client is included on the phone for streaming media from a computer over Wi-Fi, along with Motorola's ZumoCast suite, which lets you use the ZumoCast server on PC or Mac and similarly stream music, videos, and other media to the Bionic.

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Like the Motorola Atrix 2, the Droid Bionic supports a wide array of expansive accessories, all of which are gleefully advertised in the instruction booklet.

These include a Lapdock ($299.99), which essentially uses the Bionic as the brains of a laptop, an HD Station ($99.99) dock that makes it easy to use the built-in Webtop application when connected to an HD monitor (and a power source), as well as a simple adapter for using the Webtop app on an external display.

Maps and apps

The Droid Bionic includes the expected array of Google location apps, from Google Maps to Latitude and GPS-led Navigation.

With the free Navigation app, you can speak your destination or type it in and be led there with automatic turn-by-turn directions, plus Motorola sells a vehicle navigation mount for regular users.

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Alternately, the Bionic comes with Verizon Navigator, a free turn-by-turn navigation app that similarly serves up maps and spoken directions, but also lists things like nearby gas stations and the best prices, along with events and concerts within range.

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The Droid Bionic relies on the standard Android Marketplace for app downloads, and comes pre-installed with Verizon-specific media marketplaces named V CAST Music, V CAST Tones, and V Cast Videos.

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A handful of other apps are already found on the phone upon purchase, including Amazon's Kindle app, the Blockbuster streaming movies app, GoToMeeting for remote meetings via phone, a trial version of Gameloft's Let's Golf 2, and the full QuickOffice suite, which lets you view and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF files on your phone.

Hands on gallery

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Official gallery

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Verdict

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Motorola's Droid Bionic is a very capable and responsive handset running on Verizon's excellent 4G LTE service, offering users a speedy experience throughout. While that can also result in a quickly depleting battery during heavy use, the benefits largely outweigh the negatives here, thanks to a large, bright screen, slick media playback, and a stellar 8MP camera with 1080p video recording.

We liked:

The Droid Bionic feels good in the hand, with a curved top end on the back and a lightly tactile back cover that makes it easy to grip. The front of the phone is very sleek and attractive.

Zipping through home screens and menus is a breeze on this dual-core phone, and we rarely experienced any noticeable lag, aside from occasional scrolling woes.

Even more impressive is its performance on Verizon's 4G LTE network, where we routinely notched download speeds in excess of 20 Mbps and an upload number around 11 Mbps.

The 4.3-inch screen is very bright and colorful, and does a good job of displaying crisp video clips and high-performance games. But the Droid Bionic is also very capable of creating content, with its sharp 8MP camera and ability to shoot 1080p video footage.

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We disliked:

Though the Droid Bionic will last into the evening with light-to-moderate use, heavy dependence on the 4G LTE connection – whether it's for video streaming, web browsing, or checking social networks – will very quickly sap the battery.

Images look bright and crisp on the display, but we still prefer the displays of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and HTC Rezound. It's sharper than a lot of smartphone screens out there, but every once in a while the pixels can distract from time to time.

The back cover is a bit flexible and feels cheap, and it creates a creaking sound on the lower half when you grip the phone. Considering the full price tag and the premium feel of the front side, that's a bit disheartening.

Motorola says it'll release Ice Cream Sandwich for Droid Bionic, but with no confirmed release date in sight, it's hard not to be envious of other devices while this one still rocks Gingerbread.

Verdict:

The Droid Bionic is a very capable and versatile Android smartphone that does well in most respects. But compared to slightly newer phones released since its September debut that offer more exciting features – like Ice Cream Sandwich on Galaxy Nexus or the slim build of the Droid Razr – Motorola's handset feels a little utilitarian by contrast.

However, the Droid Bionic can now be had on contract for $150 or much less, giving you a very powerful and speedy phone for less than many of its current competitors. That alone makes it a worthwhile option for buyers who don't need the pop of a sleek body or the latest OS immediately.

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