Motorola Droid 4 review

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The name may have branched off to cover various Android devices on Verizon, but the core of the Droid line will always be the keyboarded slider. Today, we will be taking a look at the fourth generation of the purebred slider Droids, coming straight from Motorola.

The new Droid 4 has been updated both aesthetically and in terms of specifications to go with the rest of Motorola's lineup, but the obvious differentiator here is the keyboard. Does the phone have too many compromises to be worth it, or is the Droid 4 truly high-end Android with a great keyboard attached? Read on below the break to find out.

Specifications

Probably the biggest change in the Droid 4 is actually the inclusion of Verizon's 4G LTE, as most of the specs match up fairly closely with the Droid 3. In fact, the Droid 4's 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 4-inch qHD 960 x 540 display, 8MP camera, and even the keyboard are reminiscent of the last Droid. However, it does have some distinguishing characteristics, like an added front facing camera and slightly faster processor. Still, in the specifications department, the Droid 4 is much more of an incremental upgrade over the Droid 3 than the LTE connectivity. Still, there are some changes, so lets get right into the first and most major.

Design

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Although the specifications are much the same, the industrial design of the Droid 4 has undergone a major overhaul to match the rest of Motorola's current lineup. As is the case with most of Motorola's devices, the 4 has a very industrial build quality to it, and it actually looks a lot like the RAZR MAXX, just a lot thicker. The traditional bottom chin from the three preceding Droids is gone, and the front of the 4 is one unbroken surface. The corners have also been rounded out slightly, giving the Droid 4 a better in hand feel than the more square Droids.

As you can see, the front of the device is fairly clean. At the top, you will find only the speaker, front camera, and Motorola brandings, while at the bottom the standard Android capacitive buttons are lined up above the Verizon symbol. It is also worth noting that the silver bezel around the display is very noticeable, which gives the device a little more personality than the traditional black slab.

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On the back of the smartphone, you will find the camera and speakerphone, as well as the fake battery cover. I call it fake because although the back does come of with an included tool, it does not give you access to the battery. All you can replace is the SIM and SD card, which won't do you much good when you're running out of juice. I don't think I've actually used a spare battery in a while though, and don't think most users will find the non replaceable battery a problem. One thing I wonder about is the decision to lock the back cover with the small key (don't worry about losing it, a paperclip will work just as well) when there's not much to hide underneath it.

The rubberized coating on the back has a good in hand feel, but isn't quite as nice as Samsung's Galaxy Nexus back or the DROID RAZR MAXX's kevlar. It is good, for sure, and will certainly prevent scratches, but it isn't quite the best material I've ever felt on the back of a smartphone. 

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The left side of the device houses the microUSB and HDMI ports, at the lower part of the phone almost near the bottom. This placement for the USB port is so that the device will fit in Motorola's multimedia dock, but I didn't really like it when just plugging the device in with a cable.

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Both the headphone jack and power button are found on the top of the device, and while the headphone jack is perfectly fine there I'm not so sure about the power button. On the RAZR MAXX, the Motorola moved the power button to the right side of the device much like Samsung does with their phones, making the button easy to reach one handed. With such a tall phone as this, reaching the centered button at the top is a bit more awkward than it should have to be. This is just a minor annoyance of course, but for something that is used so often, even a minor annoyance can become quite important.

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The volume rocker is found on the right side of the device, just where the power button should have been. It tends to sit right under your thumb (if you are right handed) and responds suitably well to presses. Sometimes the buttons seemed a little to small to be sure whether I was increasing or decreasing the volume, but in general the toggle works fine.

As I've mentioned before, Motorola's hardware is incredibly solid and sturdy. The Droid 4 is no exception, and it feels just as bulletproof, if not more so, than its direct predecessors. Unsurprisingly, though, the keyboard also adds a lot of bulk, and while the 4 is slightly thinner than the last generation, it is still quite a handful. Fortunately, the device is both light and not very wide in portrait mode, because otherwise it could be quite awkward to hold. As it stands, keyboard enthusiasts will be perfectly fine with the size, but for anyone else the sacrifice of portability and thinness might be too much.

Keyboard

Droid-4-keyboard

Obviously, the keyboard is the main feature of the Droid 4, and the one thing that sets it apart from the plethora of other black slabs on the market. As the flagship slider for Motorola and one of the few high-end sliders still on store shelves, it has a daunting job. Fortunately, the keyboard is one are in which the Droid 4 absolutely excels.

First off, the size and tactile response of the keys is just right. They give a satisfying click when pressed, and feel much better than the keys on pretty much all other sliders I've used. I also really like that arrow keys are included in the keyboard, as they are helpful for navigating both text and menus, and the dedicated number row at the top of the keyboard is quite useful as well. 

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Also, the key spacing was just enough to give a good feel of where each key was, and help you avoid incorrect key press. The backlighting is also quite smooth and even, but doesn't blind you in dark situations where you would need it. I did experience a slightly odd bug where the keyboard light would sometimes go out while the display was still on, but it was fixed by a quick key press. As such, it really wasn't a big deal, but is worth a mention just because it is a bit odd.

The one other thing I would have liked on the keyboard is the four Android navigation buttons, like those found on the Epic 4G's keyboard. Despite these small flaws, the Droid 4's keyboard still shines, and allows for incredibly comfortable fast typing like no display can.

Display

On of the symptoms of the Droid 4's thickness is that it has to have a smaller display to remain manageable. So, instead of the 4.3-inch display built into the DROID RAZR, the Droid 4 gets a smaller 4-inch panel. Its 960 x 540 resolution does match that of the RAZR, and the smaller screen should make images sharper. Oddly though, most things on the Droid 4 just didn't look as clear as on the RAZR or other displays. It may be that I have become used to Super AMOLED displays and their vibrant colors, but the Droid 4's display just seemed a little bit washed out to me. Images look fine, but they don't really pop, and black and white text looks good, but the pentile pixel arrangement is evident.

Not only that, I also noticed some odd motion blur when flipping through the app drawer, scrolling through homescreens, or scrolling on a webpage. I'ts not too noticeable, but there is a slight white blur and general fuzziness apparent while actually moving content. Everything comes back into focus when the scrolling stops, but once again there is an odd issue that just makes the user experience seem a little less polished. It could be a problem with either software or hardware, but unless a patch comes to fix it, it will probably be a slight distraction when using the smartphone.

Camera

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On paper, the 8MP camera with flash and 1080p video capture on the Droid 4 should take great pictures. In practice, this is not quit the case. The 4 takes pictures that are ever so slightly worse than those taken by the RAZR and other Motorola phones, but that pale in comparison to some of Samsung's offerings. 

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As you can see, though with enough light pictures still look fairly good, and are perfectly passable for a cell phone camera. The images look good and colors are mostly true, they just don't pop with the same intensity as with some other cellphone cameras. Again, the camera will be sufficient for most uses, just don't expect anything more than average smartphone camera quality.

Performance and Battery Life 

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Performance wise, the Droid 4 stacks up quite nicely against the RAZR MAXX in benchmarks. It pulls nearly the same Quadrant scores, and comes in above the Galaxy Nexus in the benchmark. Oddly, the 4 actually appears to lose a lot of points on processor speed, something I wouldn't have expected with its specifications. 

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In Linpack, the Droid 4 once again scores very close to the RAZR MAXX's 39 with a 34, quite a respectable score. Then again, these benchmarks don't always translate into real world performance, and unfortunately that is the case with the Droid 4. For some reason, performance just doesn't feel as snappy as the RAZR MAXX that I keep mentioning. With a few apps open, the Droid seems to bog down, and things get choppy. Normal tasks can be accomplished without incident and games also play well, but when it comes to multitasking while browsing and listening to music, things inexplicably seemed to slow down.

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On the plus side, LTE performance was just as good as we have come to expect from Verizon devices. Downloads in Atlanta peaked at about 32MB, but there was quite a bit of variation. Still, almost any time LTE coverage was available it felt blazingly fast, and makes using a mobile phone as an internet device just that much better.

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The non-replaceable battery in the Droid 4 should serve to hold you over for an entire work day, but you will be cutting it close by the time you get home. In my use, I found that I just get through a day of regular use with about 20% charge left. What this means is that while the Droid should have enough juice that you don't have to charge it in the middle of the day, add any extra strain and you will be quickly looking for an outlet. With my normal use pattern, this doesn't pose a problem, but when compared with the RAZR MAXX's massive battery, the much thicker Droid 4 just makes you think it should have a bit more juice.

Software

Droid-4-homescreen

Here's a quick quiz for you. Is the screenshot above from the Droid 4, or the Droid Bionic. It's a trick question, actually, as it could have come from either (other than the wallpaper, of course). Yes, even though the Bionic is much older than the 4, both devices run practically the same MotoBlur infused Android. The Droid 4 is on version 2.3.6 Gingerbread and is slated for an Ice Cream Sandwich update according to Verizon, but for now the old OS is a serious problem.

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In fact, once again I am going to direct you back to my review of the Droid Bionic, where I explore the Blurred OS in a bit more detail. Although the lockscreen is slightly different, and the settings menu has been changed slightly, overall the feel and function are still basically the same. I would really love to give the Ice Cream Sandwich build for the device a spin, but until it comes out I have to review the same old Gingerbread.

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There is something to be said for consistency, and that is certainly something that Motorola has done right. I can see that with this current setup, a non-technical user could easily jump between old and new Motorola devices and still feel right at home. This is all well and good, but an old version of the OS just isn't going to cut it for more technically minded users. I will admit that the debate between updates and consistency is a real dilemma for manufacturers, but at least the option for users to get an official beta of Ice Cream Sandwich would be vastly better than leaving everyone with Gingerbread until the update is ready.

Final Thoughts

The Droid 4 is the decidedly the best keyboard phone on Verizon, and almost certainly the best keyboard slider phone for sale in the US at this time. Doing what it's designed for, the Droid 4 excels with great tactile feedback, key spacing, and keyboard layout. Even the slider mechanism feels solid and reliable. 

Apart from that, however, the Droid 4 is merely an average smartphone, in the truest sense. Performance isn't bad, it's simply average. The camera isn't bad, it's just okay. Gingerbread with Blur isn't bad, but Ice Cream Sandwich would be better. The display is good for normal use, but also could be clearer and more vibrant. The battery gets through the day, but just barely.

If you need to have a keyboard and use Verizon's LTE, you can overlook all of thse flaws and the Droid 4 will be a great device for you . In fact, if asked to recommend just one slider phone in the current market, it would have to be the Droid 4. The problem is, if you don't have to have a keyboard then the Droid 4 really begins to fall short, even compared to Motorola's other offerings. Everything works fine, but all the little quirks add up to make the experience not worth it unless you are dedicated to the physical keyboard. If you are not, the RAZR MAXX will always be a better choice. Once again, if you need a keyboard then you can't really go wrong with the Droid 4, just don't expect the other aspects of the phone to be as stellar as the keyboard.

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Aaron Orquia

Aaron Orquia is an associate editor at Pocketables. He has been using Android and Linux since he bought his first computer years ago, and his interest in technology, software, and tweaking both to work just right has only grown stronger since then. His current gadgets include a OnePlus One, a Pebble smartwatch, and an Acer C720 Chromebook.

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