Motorola Droid 4 $199.99
23rd Feb 2012 | 05:46
The best physical QWERTY phone in the world?
Overview, design, and feel
The keyboard wars are still raging. The argument against physical keyboards often comes down to size - but to some, no price is to great for a keyboard.
And make no mistake, the Droid 4 is a brick of a phone, thanks to its signature slider. But with the Droid 4, Motorola seems to have reached a good compromise. It's bulky yes, but it's also stylish.
At 2.65 by five inches, the Droid 4 is a bit bulkier than the Droid 3, although it's actually thinner this time around, at half an inch thick. Motorola's Droid 4 also managed to gain about half an ounce since the previous generation, tipping the scales at 6.3 ounces.
The jutting chin at the bottom is now gone, but the Droid 4 sports the now-familiar Motorola design cues reminiscent of blocky Soviet-era industrial design, and the beveled and slightly rounded edges of the Droid 4's Lucasfilm-licensed Star Wars namesakes (which are basically the same thing).
The 4-inch screen sits slightly recessed into graphite-colored plastic casing. Thankfully, the back is covered in a hard rubber material, with a slight texture that provides just enough grip.
Without it, the Droid 4 would be taking dives to the ground much more frequently than it did, especially when sliding out the keyboard.
Front and back cameras, standard touch sensitive nav buttons, volume controls and mini USB and HDMI ports round out the Droid 4's design.
The Motorola Droid 4 sports a 4-inch, qHD 960 by 540 pixel capacitive touch screen, the same as the Droid 3 that preceded it. Indoors, the screen was fine. But when we took the Droid 4 outside into the light of day, things got dicey.
Even with the Brightness cranked all the way up, the screen was hard to read in direct sunlight. It's a problem common to all backlit devices, but that's little comfort when we're squinting at the screen trying to figure out exactly who is calling (or more likely, Tweeting, Facebooking or texting.)
The display is just fine, but there's the rub: it's just fine. At four inches, the screen is large, and at qHD 960x540 resolution, it's ¼ the size of a full 1080p HD frame.
The 16:9 aspect ratio makes the Droid 4 a natural for watching movies, and the device offers a wide enough viewing angle that you can easily share videos with a friend—perfect for sharing a quick hit of YouTube, although we'd recommend against trying to hold this thing up through an entire showing of the "Final Cut" version of Blade Runner.
That said, we wish the screen had a little more pop to it. Colors are accurate, but "accurate" and "engaging" are most definitely not the same thing. Animated menus and wallpapers look great, but video content came across as a little bit dull.
And personal tastes aside, things just seemed a bit fuzzy, with text and images not displaying the sharpness we've come to expect from other handsets. Again, it's not a deal-breaker, but ultimately we wanted the screen on the Droid 4 to be more than just OK.
At $199 with a two-year Verizon contract, the Droid 4 is a compelling buy, especially if you're addicted to a physical keyboard. While that's the standout feature, the 4G LTE radio also makes the Droid 4 something of a speed demon.
Powered by a 1.2GHz dual-core processor backed by 1 GB of LP DDR2 RAM, the Motorola Droid 4 is plenty responsive. Even with complicated animations, the OS runs smoothly, and we didn't experience any hiccups. But if you're looking to dig into an Ice Cream Sandwich, keep on looking.
Motorola's Droid 4 runs a customized, skinned version of Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread. Motorola helpfully (or perhaps mockingly) assures potential customers via its website that the Droid 4 is "Ice Cream Sandwich upgradeable," but clearly they forget that no one likes waiting for ice cream. We want it now!
In its current Gingerbread-based incarnation, the Droid 4 runs a custom Motorola overlay. There are five home screens worth of real estate, for shortcuts and widgets, and Verizon pre-loads the device with tons of third-party bloatware (or useful apps, depending on how you feel about each of the additions).
The usual suspects are there, including the VCast App Store and VZW Navigator, as well as MOG music streaming, Amazon's Kindle app, Slacker, Blockbuster, Slingbox, Netflix, NFL Mobile, and many others.
As it is, the Droid 4 feels a bit packed even fresh out of the box. We could deal with a little less "extra," but we're fond of the smooth user interface.
Contacts & Calling
It's a funny thing. People are still very concerned with call quality, but it seems like for most smartphone users, making phone calls is one of the least used features on their phone. Aside from your grandma, you're probably far more likely to communicate textually, via Facebook, Twitter, or SMS messaging.
Still, for those times when only an old-school voice call will do, the Droid 4 does exactly what it's supposed to. We placed calls throughout San Francisco with no problems, and callers reported that they could hear me loud and clear.
Even in downtown San Francisco, where cell networks are notoriously spotty and overworked, we had no trouble placing or receiving clear calls on Verizon's network.
Contacts features on the Droid 4 will be familiar to anyone who has flipped through Android's virtual Rolodex before.
Contact information is consolidated across all your various accounts, so that information stored in Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and any of your other signed-in accounts gets mashed up into one gargantuan contact command center.
It's handy, but if you're active on social media networks, it can lead to huge contact lists.
Search worked phenomenally, and Android offers plenty of options for combining duplicates, and hiding or displaying particular contacts.
We also especially liked the stylish dial pad, which retrieved applicable contacts as we were dialing them.
Messaging on the Droid 4 is standard Android fare. Texting is straightforward, and once you add various social networks, you can also send native messages from Twitter, Facebook and other services directly from a friend's card in Contacts.
When viewing a text, tapping on the Menu button brings up a 3x2 grid of additional commands, including a call button, inserting photos and videos, smileys, the delete button, and more. In short, it's pretty much the same messaging experience as on other Android handsets.
Keys to our heart
The Droid 4's standout feature is undoubtedly the excellent slide out keyboard. Sporting a full five rows of keys with a dedicated number row, it's nothing short of a pleasure to type on.
Despite our familiarity with virtual keys, we were surprised to find just how nice this keyboard is to use.
Each key has a raised, slightly convex top, allowing a certain amount of familiarity for touch typists. The sliding mechanism itself feels solid and sturdy, like the rest of the phone itself. It lacks a solid click when the keyboard is fully extended, but that's a small complaint, compared to the solid action of the keyboard.
Individual keys on the Droid 4 have a fair amount of travel, and a satisfying tactile click when pressed. Speaking of clicks, one potential drawback is the audible physical click each key makes when you press it.
It's not terribly loud for everyday situations, but in quiet environments like business meetings, movies, or Algebra 2 classes, your key clicks will be audible, and possibly quite annoying to people around you.
Given the quality of the keyboard overall, the noise isn't a deal-breaker, but it's something to keep in mind if you're the type of person who frequently ends up trying to stealthily type under the table.
More to love
Aside from the size and layout, the Droid 4's keyboard also incorporates other niceties. The layout has been tweaked since the last generation, and symbol keys now share space with the numbers, similar to standard keyboards.
Navigation keys to the right of the Space bar are laid out the in traditional inverted-T, and the keys are edge-lit, reminiscent of Apple's excellent lighted laptop keyboards.
On the surface, the lighted keys seem like a small feature, but once you use it, you'll never want to go back to an unlighted keyboard.
If the hard keys just aren't your thing, the on-screen keyboard offers haptic feedback, and you can easily switch to the surprisingly good Swype virtual keyboard—but if you're considering this phone, you're probably already committed to hard keys anyway. Still, they're nice touches.
Besides the keyboard, the other big news with the Droid 4 is the 4G LTE radio. And Motorola certainly didn't disappoint with this upgrade.
If you're looking for speed, this is indeed the Droid you are looking for. If you're fortunate enough to live in one of the metro areas covered by Verizon's 4G LTE network get ready to be amazed.
We tested 4G speeds using the Speedtest.net app, and were consistently surprised by the blazing results. We routinely got upload speeds in the 4-6Mbps range.
Download speeds varied widely with location and time of day, swinging from a low of 1.16 Mbps all the way up to a jaw-dropping 21.01 Mbps.
Apart from those extremes, results typically hovered in the mid-teens. For comparison, we also tested Verizon's 3G network, which posted much lower 2 Mbps down & .77 Mbps upload speeds.
Sharing that speedy connection with a laptop or other devices is simple and reliable, via the Mobile Hotspot app.
With little more than a few taps, we were up and running, sharing our LTE connection via Wi-Fi with multiple devices including Mac and PC laptops as well as other portable devices.
Predictably, performance degrades a bit with each device you pile on, but it's easy to limit the number of devices, or manually remove them.
Mobile hotspot service certainly isn't new, but the Droid 4 combined with Verizon's 4G LTE network makes it a very attractive option, even for heavier users who need more than occasional Wi-Fi access.
Just be careful not to run afoul of your data cap, which could be a very costly mistake at about $10 per GB in overage fees from Verizon.
The Droid 4 sports an 8MP camera, and in a upgrade from it's predecessor the Droid 3, the front camera has been upgraded from 640x480 VGA resolution to 1.3 megapixels capable of shooting 720p video.
In addition to those 8 megapixel stills, the main camera can shoot full 1080p HD video, and the LED flash added an often-needed boost of light, especially when shooting in sub-optimal conditions.
Like most phone cameras, the Droid 4's images turn out best when you play to the cameras' strengths. Outdoors in bright light, images are clean and contrasty (in a good way).
Full auto usually gives the best results, but if you want to push your photography a bit, the Droid 4 offers a variety of scene modes and shooting options.
The Effects panel includes 8 color and tint options from Black and White, Solarize, and settings to give your give your shots red, green, or blue tints.
Seven scene modes help you capture everything from landscapes to low-light situations. Four different shooting modes offer single and multiple shots, as well as panoramas and timed photos.
Ouside, the Droid 4's snaps were good. But introduce some variation in lighting, or try to shoot indoors in lower light, and the photos got predictably blurry and noisy. Autofocus could also be a bit wonky, particularly when trying to capture busy scenes.
You can tap to focus, of course, but we preferred to keep both hands on this bulky phone to prevent its untimely death, and the shifty autofocus left us with more than a few blurry shots that fall into the "almost got it" category.
Video quality is good, but there is still evident grain. Jitters are also problematic, owing largely to the phone's size and weight.
Holding it aloft for more than a few seconds at a time invariably results in wobbly video - be prepared to brace yourself, or invest in a tripod if you plan on taking much video on the Droid 4.
In camera settings, you can turn on video stabilization, although you'll end up with even grainier footage if you do that. There are also the same Effect as the still camera offers, although they look even more out of place when applied to video.
But the Droid 4 is ace at sharing, offering to upload to Picasa, Photobucket, Flickr or Youtube with a couple of taps.
You can also email videos, or send them as MMS messages, although we would have liked some better controls to manage file sizes.
Playing with media on the Droid 4 is a snap, and if you've already got tunes uploaded to Google Music, pushing them down to the Droid 4 is as simple as possible.
A single tap in Settings gets your music flowing to your device, and you can also download tracks from the music store, or sync from your existing music library on a Mac or PC. Library navigation is pretty intuitive for anyone who's used a handheld electronic device in the last decade or so.
And your new Droid 4 comes stocked with options for more music playing. Motorola tacks on apps for streaming music from MOG and Slacker, and Slingbox owners can pull down video content from their home devices via the pre-installed Slingbox app.
All that said, the audio experience on the Droid 4 leaves a bit to be desired. Even with a good pair of headphones jacked in, the audio quality felt a bit thin.
Still, the phone's beefy form factor is echoed in how loud this phone can go. Using with headphones, the volume easily surpasses comfortable listening levels, and the onboard speaker is loud and clear enough to use for impromptu listening sessions with a couple of friends.
Video content is available in several different flavors on the Droid 4. There are apps for Youtube and Netflix, and you can of course load your own video to the phone.
Verizon also includes their trainwreck of a video app Verizon Video, which mostly contains clips of popular current shows (although we were happy to see a robust selection of MacGuyver episodes on offer). But Verizon Video requires too much hoop-jumping to be useful.
You've got to sign in with your Verizon account first, but even then certain videos are only available via LTE. If you're on a Wi-Fi network, a dialog pops up warning that you can't stream certain content via Wi-Fi, but no option to turn it off.
So you're left to burrow into your phone's settings to make the switch, and then manually go back to Verizon Video.
It's a lot of work just to watch a 90-second clip of Modern Family, and we can only imagine the arbitrary Wi-Fi limitations are some sort of misguided attempt to thwart piracy or jack up your data data usage, or both.
Battery Life and Connectivity
Unfortunately for power users, Motorola chose to make Droid 4's non-removable. Sure, there's the removable back plate, but that's only really there to let you get at the SIM card when you really need to.
Motorola includes an unnecessary plastic key for popping off the back of the phone. I suppose it's useful to some, but it's likely to get lost and/or thrown in the garbage within 5 minutes of opening the box, and it doesn't really do anything a paperclip can't do.
Once you pop the Droid 4 open, you're confronted with a sticker that reads "WARNING: BATTERY IS NOT REMOVABLE. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO REMOVE."
And it's a shame, too. Motorola added a slightly larger battery to the Droid 4, 1785 mAh, compared to 1540 mAh last time around in the Droid 3. But that added juice still left me charging the phone at least once a day with only moderate use.
Using the LTE network—and lets face it, you're not buying a Droid 4 to NOT use LTE— chews through your battery at a good clip, and activating the Mobile Hotspot feature drains battery life so quickly you can almost watch the battery gauge depleting.
Increasing usage even slightly put me in that dreaded situation where you're left calculating how long until you get home to AC power, and rationing your phone use to make sure you can survive until the end of the day.
And as we mentioned earlier, using features like the wi-fi hotspot and power-hungry apps can easily chew through your battery in only a couple of hours.
Luckily, the micro-USB charging cable is easy to slip in a pocket, and we'd advise taking it with you.
Maps and Apps
The Droid 4 comes with Google Maps baked-in, of course, and there's also heavy emphasis on Google's Lattitude location sharing service.
You can use voice recognition to search for places on the map, and use either Google Maps or VZW Navigator to find your way.
Both apps work well enough, although Google Maps seemed more reliable when it came to finding businesses in San Francisco.
Besides the other apps we've already mentioned, the Droid 4 also ships with a plethora of extra apps: VCast Apps seems a bit pointless when you've got access to the Android Market.
Smart Actions, on the other hand, can be quite useful, especially for new Android users. It suggests rules to help use your phone more effectively.
After being kept awake all night by Twitter notifications, we were pleased to see Smart Actions offer to automatically silence the phone at night.
Rules can also be manually added, or tweaked to match your preferences. And if you need a break, Madden NFL 12(!) and Let's Golf 2 can engage you in a little mindless thumb-twiddling.
Motorola's Droid 4 is probably at the top of your list if you're a keyboard fan. It's big and bulky, but in a sturdy sort of way, and the five-row keyboard is top-notch.
Verizon's 4G LTE network is the other star of the show, offering blazing speeds that put 3G phones to shame. It's hard not to be floored by download speeds above 20Mbps
The Droid 4 is still stuck on Gingerbread, and there's no word on when the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich is coming.
And while we found the four-inch qHD screen was plenty big and the qHD resolution was favorable, it's hard to see in sunlight, and not as sharp as we'd like.
The non-removable battery is a major flaw, and even with moderate use you'll need to top-off to make it through an entire workday.
Having 20+ Mbps downloads is still mind-boggling, even after all this time. And with the Droid 4's awesome edge-lit keyboard, it's easy to navigate the internet, whether it's dark or light.
The Droid 4 also has an impressive build quality, and includes a water-resistant coating, and we kept thinking we were getting a lot of phone for $199.
If physical keyboards are your thing, and you're in the market for an LTE handset, the Droid 4 is aimed squarely at you.
Put simply, the keyboard rocks, and it's enough to make a diehard virtual keyboard user question his beliefs. Add in the blazing-fast speeds of Verizon's 4G LTE network, and you have a winner.
But the Droid 4 isn't without its drawbacks. It's stuck on the ever-staling Gingerbread for now, with no clear indication of when the jump to Ice Cream Sandwich will come.
Both the screen and the camera feel a bit dull, and the non-removable battery is a misstep on Motorola's part, especially since heavy usage quickly tax the phone's power reserves.
But, if you can look past its weaknesses, you'll have an incredible phone at an incredible price.