Motorola Droid Ultra $199

20th Aug 2013 | 22:38

Motorola Droid Ultra

How does the Droid Ultra stack up against its competition?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Great workhorse of a smartphone, but camera needs software improvements

Like:

Nice 5-inch screen; Very light and thin; Excellent battery life; Touchless Control works well; Snappy overall performance

Dislike:

Large for most pockets; Glossy finish attracts fingerprints; Camera performance is very poor

Introduction and design

With the Droid Ultra, Motorola continues its line of solid, workhorse smartphones for Verizon. The manufacturer refreshed the line with three new models: the Droid Maxx, Droid Ultra and Droid Mini.

The one we've got in our hands is the Droid Ultra, which is the thinnest of the bunch at 0.28 inches thick. Though it no longer bears the RAZR name, Motorola claims that it is the thinnest 4G LTE smartphone available today. Its 5-inch display and slim profile make it much bigger than the Mini, but its battery life isn't as good as the Maxx.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Motorola's Droid smartphones were never as eye-catching or popular as the Galaxy S3 or HTC One X last year, and they're likely not to reach the same status as the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One this year. However, we refer to them as workhorse smartphones because they do just that. They work without any real hiccups, build quality is good and battery life is generally decent on the Maxx and non-Maxx versions, too.

There are a few new features that sets the new Droids apart from its competitors, and they tend to work quite well, for the most part.

The first is touchless control, which was one of the biggest touted features of the Moto X. Touchless control allows you to perform a number of tasks just by talking to your phone, even if it's sitting idle on your desk. You simply say, "OK Google Now," and the Droid Ultra powers on and awaits your command.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Another new feature is Droid Zap, and it's a little like photo and video sharing on devices like the Galaxy S4. However, we were unable to test this feature because it takes two Droid devices to make it work, and we only received one review unit.

With Droid Zap, you'll also have to install an app, and get your friends to do the same, if you want it to work.

In addition to photo and video sharing, the Gallery app has also been updated to make flipping through, organizing and deleting photos a little easier, but we'll get into more detail with that later.

Motorola's new, unnamed skin is also a nice touch to the Droid Ultra. It's a huge departure from Blur and Motoblur, names that Motorola would rather not remember or ever hear again, and it's not very intrusive. The company has learned that less is more in this case, and the result is a UI that is a little more intuitive and easy to use.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Design

The Droid Ultra is an extremely thin, glossy 5-inch smartphone that doesn't really stand out much against its competitors. However, its slim profile and almost edge-to-edge display make it feel quite small in the hand. Then again, it depends on the size of your hands, too.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

But for a 5-inch device, it doesn't seem too unwieldy. It has just enough curves in all the right places, and textured power and volume buttons that stick out just far enough to make them easily accessible without causing any accidental inputs.

The face of the device features the 5-inch, 1280 x 720 resolution display. It's not as sharp as the screens you'd find on the HTC One or Droid DNA, but at normal viewing distances it's just fine. Below the display are the back, home and application switcher buttons. It would have been nice to have a menu button in place of the app switcher button, but that's part of what fragments Android a little. Menu buttons within apps can help manufacturers do away with dedicated menu buttons, but whether it's better is up for debate.

Just above the display is the earpiece, flanked by ambient light sensors and a 2MP front-facing camera for selfies and video calling.

At the bottom of the device is the micro-USB charging port, and around to the right are the power/sleep/wake buttons and the volume rocker. There is no dedicated camera button, which would be nice on a device this size, but it's not a deal-breaker.

When you flip the phone over to its backside, you'll find the 10MP RGCB camera with LED flash and a speaker. The back plate is emblazoned with the Droid, Motorola and Verizon logos, just in case anyone were to forget the make, model and carrier for the device.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The back also has a carbon fiber/kevlar pattern to it, but it's covered by a glossy plastic. The entire device feels like a giant slab of plastic due to its glossy finish, and it does attract fingerprints.

If you're the type who likes to keep a device pristine and clean, the Droid Ultra may drive you a little crazy. We found ourselves constantly wiping the device with a microfiber cloth or our t-shirts.

Lastly, there is the thinness of the device. At its thinnest point--it's not a perfectly flat device--the Droid Ultra measures 0.28 inches. This allows Motorola to make the claim that it's the thinnest 4G LTE device on the market, but the device does get a little thicker around the camera module.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The camera doesn't take away from the slim profile of the smartphone, and it's not as pronounced as the camera modules of the Droid RAZR devices, but it's worth mentioning for the sake of clarifying Motorola's claims.

Because of its thin build and Motorola's decision to go with a Kevlar body, the Droid Ultra is relatively light at 4.83 ounces. Aside from its size, you really won't notice it much in your pockets, and it certainly won't add much more weight to your bag or purse.

If you aren't used to smartphones going over the 4.3 or 4.5-inch mark, the Droid Ultra may feel a little large to you. But if you've been using devices that have been reaching for the phablet realm, you'll be surprised how small this Motorola phone feels for a 5-inch device. In terms of hardware design, it's really tough to fault the Ultra, aside from its glossy finish, if we were to be nitpicky.

Interface, performance and battery

Interface

If you've read our Moto X review, you'll find a few similarities here with the interface. To start, the Droid Ultra is running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean with a custom skin or user interface.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Let's start with the phone sitting on your desk - it's turned on, but it's asleep and doing virtually nothing. When the device senses movement, the time comes on along with any notifications you might have.

The phone invites you to press and hold on the notification, and then it tells you what you can do with that. You can either drag your finger downward and unlock your device, or you can drag it upward and get a preview of your notifications.

Once your phone is on, you'll be illuminated in a bright Verizon red color, along with a widget that tells you the date, time, local weather and battery percentage. Having all this information is useful, so we've left that widget alone despite its machine-like looks.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

If you flip the circles that comprise the widget, you'll see additional settings for that widget. And if you press the small minus button next to it, you can collapse it down to just the date and time circle.

You have five home screens that you can customize with app icons and widgets, all to your liking. Although it might be nice to have up to seven home screens, we usually find it unnecessary and end up using fewer than the five that are available.

Customizing the home screens is easy, and is just a matter of pressing and holding and dragging icons and widgets, or pressing on an empty space in the screen to bring up additional options.

The notification bar at the top, which is expanded by dragging it downward, gives you access to all your notifications and settings. When you click on the Settings icon, you'll immediately see a few shortcuts to your most used settings: Brightness, Settings, Wi-Fi, Cellular connection, Battery, Airplane mode, Bluetooth and Wireless Display.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Back to your home screen, there is a dock at the bottom that can hold up to four app icons, with your app list shortcut set right in the middle.

When you jump into your full list of apps, you flip through them going left or right, much like you would on a Nexus device (rather than up and down like on HTC Sense, for example).

The interface is pretty intuitive overall, and with a little tinkering you can find the fastest way around your smartphone in a way that works for you. Luckily, we didn't experience any lag or crashes during our testing period, so we can confidently say that you probably won't, either--at least until you start filling it to the brim with apps, music and media content.

Performance

In our time with the Droid Ultra, we didn't run into any system performance issues. Swiping between screens and going in and out of apps and settings was fast (i.e. it took a second or less for each action without lag or crashes).

There is one area, however, that gave us some performance trouble, but we believe it's because it's a new feature that still needs work: touchless control.

Touchless control works exactly like it does on the Moto X. The device's microphone is always on, and the feature can be activated by saying, "OK Google Now." But first, you have to go into Settings to set up the feature.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The instructions will guide you through the setup process, which involves saying "OK Google Now" three times so that the system can recall and recognize your voice. Once you're done, you can go through the types of commands that touchless control offers, like searching for items on the web or making phone calls.

One of the biggest benefits of touchless control is the ability to interface with your device when you're driving. You can have text messages sent or read aloud to you, and when you start driving it goes into drive mode, which offers navigation features if you need them.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

When touchless control works, it gives you a little sense of victory. You smile a little and think to yourself, "Yeah. That's right." But when it doesn't work, you'll often become frustrated and wonder why smartphones even exist and why you shouldn't just throw it out the window. OK, maybe we're exaggerating a little, but that's how frustrating it can be when your voice doesn't register, or it doesn't understand what you're saying.

Although it's going to take some work, touchless control has good potential. Just don't expect to use this as a way to interface with your phone all day long. It really only comes in handy when your hands are tied or when you're driving.

Specs

As far as specs go, the Droid Ultra isn't too far off from the Moto X. We're really curious where people flock to when the two share shelf space at Verizon retail stores. It has a 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 processor with what Motorola calls its X8 Computing system, 2GB RAM and 16GB on-board storage (no SD card support).

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Its 2,130mAh battery promises up to 28 hours of usage, which is surprising considering the Moto X's 2,200mAh battery only promises 24 hours of usage.

The 5-inch display has a resolution of 1280 x 720, so it's not the sharpest screen on the market 294ppi, but it's not bad at normal viewing distances, as we've mentioned before.

Battery life

We were generally pleased with battery performance during our testing period with the Droid Ultra. Motorola claims a 28-hour usage life span before the device needs a charge. It's optimistic, as far as our experience goes, but it certainly lasts an entire day.

We took the smartphone off the charger around 9 a.m. every day, and at around 10 or 11 p.m., shortly before we were hitting the hay, we were left with about 15-20%. That's not bad at all by today's standards, though if battery life is the biggest deal for you, the Droid Maxx might be your best bet.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

While sitting idle, battery drain wasn't bad at all, either. If left fully charged before going to bed, it'll drop to about 95-96% with all notifications turned on.

Call quality and connectivity

Call quality is pretty good on the Droid Ultra on Verizon's network. Verizon has a reputation for having a rock-solid network, and it worked really well in San Francisco and South San Francisco.

Calls sounded pretty natural and clear, and volume was more than adequate. Our friends told us they could hear us just fine. Speakerphone calls were good, but not spectacular, since the HTC One currently holds the title of having the best speakers for music or calls right now.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

In noisy environments, it can be quite a mixed bag. Any smartphone will be difficult to hear when there is loud ambient noise. Some are louder than others, but in the end they all sound muddled and you're always plugging in one ear to hear more clearly out of the other.

Contacts

You're going to get Android 4.2.2 contacts here. Like with other Android smartphones, you'll be able to pull in social networks like Facebook, and your friends' profile pictures can serve as their contact icons if you have them connected or merged with your existing Google contacts.

The thing with contacts these days is that most of us have centralized and linked address books--whether that's through Google contacts or Apple's address book, it's no longer an issue with smartphones.

If you have a Gmail account, it's likely that you have your contacts set up through Google, too. Once you sign into your account, your contacts are automatically populated on your Droid Ultra. Nothing else to see here.

Connectivity

The Droid Ultra has all the connectivity features you'd expect from a modern smartphone (except the iPhone): Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC and 3G/4G radios.

4G LTE speeds are solid in San Francisco and in South San Francisco where we tested the device. We'd average around 14Mbps download and 8Mbps upload, with download/upload speeds as low as 5Mbps/1Mbps and high as 13Mbps/12Mbps. However, we would occasionally reach peaks of 35Mbps down and 12Mbps up. It was wildly erratic at times.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

4G speeds aren't as fast as AT&T in the city, but your experience may vary depending on your location and conditions. In some areas, Verizon's 4G LTE blows AT&T out of the water. The bottom line, though, is that you'll rarely ever have any complaints or connectivity issues with the Droid Ultra.

Manufacturer and carrier apps

The Droid Ultra will come loaded with a few apps that you won't be able to delete from the device. Unless you buy Nexus or Google Play Edition devices, this is pretty standard these days.

On the Verizon side, you'll have Mobile Hotspot, My Verizon Mobile, NFL Mobile, Verizon Tones, Voicemail, VZ Navigator and VZ Security.

Apps that you'll find preloaded on most Android devices these days are on here, too, and they include Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Amazon MP3, Amazon Appstore, Audible, Play Books, Play Magazines, Play Movies & TV, Play Music and Play Store.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

It would be nice if you could delete the apps that you don't want to use, especially since the Droid Ultra has only 16GB storage, and 5GB are used up by the operating system.

One of the key apps is the touchless control, or hands-free use of Google Now. We already touched on this earlier, but it's worth mentioning again. When you fire up the phone, you'll get plenty of notifications that let you know about setting it up.

Setting up touchless control takes just a few moments as the screens guide you through how it works and what you can do with it. Then, you're taken to a recording screen where you say "OK Google Now" three times so that it learns and registers your voice. This keeps others from accessing your phone or giving it commands, and it helps single out your voice when you're in a moderately noisy environment.

If you're ever stuck wondering what you can do with touchless control, you can always ask the device for help--the prompt on the screen will tell you what to say--and you'll be guided through the things you can ask the phone to do when you're in hands-free mode.

Camera

Unfortunately, the 10MP RGCB shooter on the Motorola Droid Ultra is the same as you'd find on the Moto X. We say unfortunate, because the camera on the Moto X was its weakest feature.

On the Droid Ultra, you don't really get any tap-to-meter options. The camera will meter a scene for you, and its decision to preserve highlights at the cost of underexposing an entire scene is a curious one.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

If you have any bright highlights in your scene, the camera will expose for that the majority of the time. Even if the highlighted area makes up just a tiny corner in your background somewhere, the entire scene goes dark so that the highlight is correctly exposed.

The software's exposure system and lack of exposure control is incredibly frustrating. Your only real alternative is to download a third-party camera app from the app store--one that would give you exposure, focus and white balance control.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Aside from our gripes with the camera software and metering system, photos turned out to be OK. Pictures from the Droid Ultra don't look as rich or clean as photos that would come out of the Galaxy S4, iPhone 5 or Lumia 1020. The Ultra's images look very much like they were taken with a smartphone, with some oversharpening in some cases and washed out colors.

However, there are always third-party apps to the rescue. Apps like Snapseed and Vignette will help give your photos more color, contrast, richness and a little life. It's a little sad to see such a good phone tainted by its camera, which can be said of all the Motorola Droids to date. Maybe one day Motorola will get it right.

Sample photos

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Above you can see that the lighting is OK because it's directional window light, with no harsh highlights or shadows. The exposure turns out fine, but colors are dull and the image is flat.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The above image is taken indoors. The camera meters for the computer display to make sure it isn't blown out, but as a result everything else turns out to be a little dark.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The camera's ability to focus closely is nice, though it takes a while to focus. The camera was about 7cm away from the subject here.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The above scene was taken in broad daylight, but it looks a little underexposed. However, details are OK and the photo is good enough to share as a snapshot on the web.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

The photo above was taken in HDR. The Droid Ultra's camera shoots in auto HDR mode by default. Here, we enabled it on purpose because the camera kept metering for the spotlights on the skateboards and snowboards, so it was making them look like silhouettes. The results turned out OK, but the colors are off.

Video recording

Video, on the other hand, is a bit better. It will do 1080p video recording, and stabilization is relatively decent. Colors look good on video, and it does a surprisingly better job with metering and light than the still camera does. It's baffling.

At any rate, if you shoot a lot of video, you probably won't be disappointed with the Droid Ultra's video performance and the interface is easy. The only real downside is that there aren't any additional settings available to tweak exposure or anything else. You can do slow-motion video, but that's about it.

Usage and performance

Using the camera is easy. By default, you just tap the screen to shoot a photo. Don't go thinking you're going to be able to tap the screen to set focus and exposure--we've already said that doesn't work. When you tap on the screen, anywhere on the screen, you're simply shooting a photo unless you turn on the tap to focus feature.

If you want to bring out settings like access to the panorama feature, geo location option, HDR, tap-to-focus, slow-motion video and more. Options are very limited, and lacking, too. With other Android smartphones, you get advanced editing and exposure control features, along with filters and sometimes even live filters. For the Droid Ultra, you're going to have to rely on third-party apps, which might not be a big deal for some users.

Verdict

The Motorola Droid Ultra is a fine continuation of Motorola's Droid line (last year we had the variety of RAZR smartphones). Its body retains the same Kevlar materials used in the Droid RAZR line, so it has some strength despite being very thin. However, the glossy finish and red or black color options may be a turn off for some.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

One thing Motorola tends to do well as of late is to deliver a pleasant Android experience without bogging it down with heavy UI skins and customizations. Thanks to the Droid RAZR line and its newer devices, we've almost forgotten about how bad Motoblur and Blur were. Almost.

We liked

What we really like about the device is the 5-inch display and battery life. For its size, the Droid Ultra doesn't really feel like a brick or large chunk of hardware. Its slim profile and light weight help make it feel manageable in your hand. If you have smaller hands, there will be times when you'll need to use both hands for operation, but for the most part we didn't have any problems with one-handed operation.

Battery life is always a deal-breaker for us. If a smartphone can't get through the day without a charge or spare batteries, it doesn't really do anyone any good. Motorola promises 28 hours of usage on this smartphone, but it is on the optimistic side. We were getting closer to 14-16 hours of solid usage with all of our notifications turned on, and that's pretty great.

We disliked

The first item on our dislike section is the camera. Motorola really needs to do something about this, because cameras have been its weakness for as long as I can remember. The very first Droid ever was built for Verizon by Motorola, and its 5MP camera could only be described as completely awful. Motorola does a bit better now, but not good enough compared to its competitors.

Motorola Droid Ultra review

Cameras are obviously a big deal when you have companies like HTC, Samsung and Nokia showing off bigger pixels, better low light performance and crazy resolutions. Since we spend so much time shooting photos and videos and share our moments with friends and family, we want good quality cameras.

Verdict

The Droid Ultra is a solid Android smartphone that offers a pretty good user experience. It needs a little work here and there, especially with the camera, but there are no real deal-breakers with this smartphone.

Good battery life and a large display make this a winner for us. We also like the fact that it has hands-free Google Now, or what's called touchless control on the phone. It makes it really convenient to interact with the phone when you're driving, cooking or engaged in any other activity that requires use of both your hands.

We would really like to see higher resolution displays from Motorola. At 294 PPI, the Ultra doesn't have the worst display, but devices like the HTC One and DROID DNA are much more crisp and sharp.

If you're a Verizon customer looking for a new Android smartphone, the Droid Ultra isn't a bad choice. However, it's going to be hard to choose between this device and the Moto X when it finally becomes available for Verizon. With incredibly similar specs and a mild difference in display size, it's really going to come down to design preference. If you're on the fence, we suggest you wait until you make the decision to sign a two-year commitment.

Motorola Verizon Droid Ultra Droid Maxx Droid Mini smartphone
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