Sep 12 AT 8:46 AM Sean Riley 25 Comments

Review: Verizon DROID MAXX

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The Moto X is unquestionably the flagship device for Motorola this fall. The device is launching on virtually every carrier and is benefiting from hundreds of millions in advertising. However, the Verizon DROID line that kept Motorola in the game for the last several years lives on and is now the exclusive domain of Motorola. The MAXX is the flagship of the new DROID family, and silly naming conventions aside, this line of battery-first devices has been fairly well received by consumers that are sick of having to worry about just making it through the day with their smartphone.

Most of us were surprised by the high degree of shared DNA between the Moto X and the new DROID line; after all, the Moto X is all about experience over specs. And isn’t the DROID line meant to be the embodiment of MOAR SPECS? And if the MAXX and the X are fundamentally the same, what should swing you in one direction or the other? Read on to find out.

1. Hardware


5-inch screen at 1280 x 720
10MP Clear Pixel rear camera
2MP front facing camera
Motorola X8 Processor
2GB DDR RAM
32GB ROM
3500mAh battery
802.11 b/g/n WiFi
Bluetooth 4.0
NFC
Android 4.2.2

2. Design

It doesn’t get much more subjective than design, but I doubt that you’ll find many arguing that the DROID MAXX is a beautiful device. The DROID line has pretty much always been the quintessential black slab with Motorola contributing the somewhat unique touch of a Kevlar fiber back in recent years. So it should come as no surprise that the DROID MAXX continues on in lockstep with that tradition.

One trend for Motorola’s last few DROIDs has been to get away from the hard edges and shift to rounded corners and subtle tapering at the bottom of the phone, which all makes for a much more pleasant device to hold. Fiven the 3500mAh battery the DROID MAXX isn’t terribly thin (8.5mm), but I actually consider that to be a bonus; I don’t personally need my phone to double as a knife. The soft-touch material used on the back and sides of the MAXX is the icing on the cake for the feel of this phone, and at least for me, trumps the metal or plastic used by others.

The volume rocker and power button are found on the right side of the device, which is my preferred placement. I really dislike having to regrip or perform a finger gymnastics floor routine to reach a power button on top of a phone.

It is clearly a function over form design, but I think that has its place in the market alongside the more visually stunning devices like the HTC One or even the MAXX’s more colorful cousin, the Moto X. As I said in the first impressions post, it is one of those devices that fits well in your hand. After a couple weeks with it I still feel the same way. I wouldn’t stand in the way of Motorola making it a more visually interesting device, but not if it comes at the expense of this feel.

3. Build Quality


The MAXX line has always seemed very well constructed to me, and the DROID MAXX is no exception. Perhaps it’s the Kevlar fiber back or simply the weight of the device that gives you the impression that it will hold up to the beating our phones can often take, jostling around with keys or during a tragic run-in with gravity.

Obviously only months with a device will reveal how it is going to hold up to daily abuse, but I’d be surprised if anything short of a fall to concrete would leave the DROID MAXX looking much the worse for wear.

My lone complaint with the build quality of the DROID MAXX is with the volume rocker and power button. They just feel plastic and cheap to me, which is in direct contrast to the rest of the phone. I think the ribbed texture used on them actually contributes to this feeling. Had Motorola gone with smooth buttons, it would be less noticeable. Hardly a deal breaker, but it is an odd misstep.

4. Display


1080p is the new normal for flagship phones, so Motorola’s decision to roll out its entire line with 720p screens this fall hasn’t been terribly well received. The DROID MAXX and Ultra in particular feature 5-inch screens, which exacerbate the problem.

With that said I didn’t find this to be a big problem in real-world usage. If you obsess over pixels or have vision bordering on superhuman, then go into a store and take a look for yourself before buying the MAXX to see if it bothers you.

The other complaint that some have lodged against Motorola is the use of AMOLED screens, which are necessary to pull off the “Active Display” feature that we will touch on in the Software section. AMOLED is known for being overly saturated versus LCD, as found in most other phones. Again this isn’t something that bothered me personally. Unless I’m looking at it next to an LCD phone, I’m not really aware of the discrepancy. I think the trade off is worth it for Active Display, regardless.

5. Software


As I covered in the opening, the DROID MAXX shares much of the software found in the Moto X. Also like the Moto X, the MAXX launched with Android 4.2.2 with the promise that 4.3 is coming. In light of recent events, it’ll probably arrive just after 4.4 becomes available.

The DROID MAXX comes with the same features that we discussed in the Moto X review: Active Display, Touchless Control, Migrate and Assist.

Active Display
Active Display is, in essence, using the screen as your notification light. You select on an app by app basis what notifications you would like to see when the screen is turned off. When you receive a notification the screen will intermittently flash a circle with the relevant icon inside. If you touch the icon it will show a preview of whatever the notification is at the top of the screen, and if you swipe up to it, you’ll be taken directly to that app. If you swipe down the phone will simply unlock to the home screen.

This is the kind of information that I’ve become accustomed to receiving on my wrist with the Pebble, so I was very interested to see whether this was similarly useful on a phone. After a couple weeks with the MAXX, this is probably my favorite feature. I’m aware that not everyone is interested in smartwatches, but this is as close to that experience as you will get with a phone. The ability to know exactly what kind of notification you’ve received and then to be able to quickly and simply preview it without waking the phone is extremely valuable in my opinion, and I hope to see this concept spread.

Touchless Control
Voice actions have been available with Android for just over 3 years now, but in the last year they have become vastly more intuitive and useful, thanks to Google Now. Touchless Control makes accessing these functions effortless. Just say, “Okay, Google Now,” and off you go with whatever question or task you have for it.

The utility of any voice feature is tied to how often you find yourself in a reasonably private environment. If you have your own office or are frequently in the car, you’ll benefit the most from these features. I was impressed by how well the Touchless Control worked for me even in noisy environments; however, if there are too many other people around I can’t shake feeling like a lunatic talking to my phone. This mirrors my experience with Glass where I will instantly fall back to the touch interface if I’m in a crowded environment.

While this feature isn’t a fit for everyone, it is well implemented. If your situation allows for it, you will find yourself using it quite frequently.

Migrate
This is a simple feature that just brings over your text messages, call history, SIM contacts, media and volume/brightness settings from your old device. You pair the phones up by downloading the Migrate app from the Play Store and either scanning a QR code on the MAXX with your old device or pairing them up with NFC if available. The transfer then occurs over WiFi. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this by any means, and as David pointed out in the Moto X review, it would be nice if it transferred everything rather than just this subset. But it did work quickly and seamlessly for me. While it’s something you are only likely to use twice, it’s convenient to have.

Assist
Just as with Migrate this is functionality that’s been done with apps before, but having it integrated into the OS will certainly guarantee that more people actually use it. There are three situations that Assist tries to help you with: driving, meetings and sleeping. When you select either of these in Assist, you are given a series of options regarding what you would like the app to do.

In the car you can have it read your text messages and/or caller ID info to you. The device can also auto reply to text messages with a canned response (that unfortunately you can’t edit).

For meetings you can choose to have the phone automatically switch to completely silenced or to vibrate only. It does allow you to make exceptions for callers that are in your “Favorites” or in the event that someone tries to call you twice in the span of five minutes. As with the car mode, you can have it auto reply to text messages if you are in a meeting. Again it is a canned message that you can’t edit.

Finally the MAXX can protect your sleepy time by automatically switching to silence during your pre-determined hours of rest. Again exceptions can be made for a “Favorite” calling you or someone calling twice in five minutes.

Verizon Bloat
Droid Zapp is meant to let you share media with others that have downloaded the app, and I mention it only to say don’t use it. In repeated efforts the connection was flakey, and it took considerably longer than almost any other way you can think of to share media between two phones. The Droid Command Center widget gives you time, weather and battery life among other things and isn’t too bad, actually, if you don’t have another widget along these lines that you already prefer. Beyond that there’s the usual selection of non-removable apps that you may or may not want, but this is life as a Verizon Android user, so you’ve probably already come to terms with it.

Droid-Maxx-Assist-driving Droid-Maxx-Assist-Meeting-Autoreply Droid-Maxx-Assist-Meeting Droid-Maxx-Assist-Sleeping Droid-Maxx-Assist Droid-Maxx-Migrate Droid-Maxx-Touchless-Controls-1

6. Performance


Much like the display, this is an area that Motorola has caught flack for. The X8 chipset is functionally a modified Qualcomm Snapdragon S4Pro 1.7GHz Dual Core w/400 MHz quad-core Areno 320 GPU, which is two updates removed from the Snapdragon 800 we are seeing in almost all of the new flagship phones this fall.

In benchmarks as well as real world usage I found the MAXX compared favorably with the HTC One, which uses the Snapdragon 600. Scrolling and app switching were smooth, and it was able to run current high-end games without a problem. I have little doubt that Motorola will be able to keep the OS running smoothly on this phone through a standard two-year life cycle, but if you rely on your phone for your gaming needs it may fall short in a year or so when we are looking at Tegra 5 from NVIDIA and Qualcomm’s next gen processor.

7. Call Quality and Audio


Motorola continues to produce phones with the best call quality in my experience. I consistently saw superior signal strength with the DROID MAXX as compared to my Galaxy Note II and HTC One. I had consistently clear audio on my end and never had an issue being understood by those I was calling, although in windy or noisy environments the noise cancellation does lead to some distortion. But, the tradeoff is that you are still intelligible.

I found the speakerphone and speakers on the MAXX to be adequate, if not impressive. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that I’m currently also testing the HTC One for review; the front-facing speakers on that phone are just unmatched. As compared to my Galaxy Note II, the MAXX performs slightly better, in my opinion, both in terms of overall volume and sound quality.

8. Camera


Much was made by Motorola of the ClearPixel technology present in the company’s new phones. The pitch is that it collects more light and allows for you to take pictures faster. I definitely have not found the camera to be faster than others, and while it may be the case that it captures photos in lower light better than other cameras, that feature is overshadowed by the overall poor quality of the photo processing.

You can take a look at the gallery below for a good sampling of what the DROID MAXX is capable of. It can produce really nice images, but it certainly isn’t effortless to do so.

I did like the camera interface, thought. It snaps a photo if you touch anywhere on the screen and features only two buttons to either take a video or to switch to the front-facing camera. Swiping left displays a circular menu with all of the options for the camera, such as HDR, flash, tap to focus, slow-motion video, panorama, location-tagging, shutter sound and “Quick Capture.”

There’s also the feature that allows you to bring the camera app up by just twisting your wrist twice, which might be nice if it worked consistently. But in my experience, it often required 2-3 attempts to get it to work. I eventually gave up on it.

I agree with David that the problems with the photos from the Moto X and the DROID MAXX appear to be related to the photo processing and not the actual hardware, which means potentially it could be fixed. However I also think the results mirror what I have seen from Motorola smartphone cameras for the last two years, and I’m not convinced the company has the people needed to get it fixed.

9. Battery Life

The MAXX line is first and foremost meant to be a battery life monster. The original RAZR MAXX boasted 24 hours of battery life, last year’s RAZR MAXX HD 32 hours and finally the DROID MAXX is meant to bring you a full 48 hours on a single charge.

With a 3,500 mAh battery, a relatively underpowered CPU and a 720p AMOLED screen, that 48 hour claim seemed plausible. After a couple weeks using the MAXX, I’m inclined to believe that an average user would certainly be able to hit that 48 hour mark. I did not ever manage it, though, and for power users like most of you, I would anticipate something between 32 and 38 hours assuming you aren’t doing anything specifically intensive for extended periods over LTE like streaming video.

In my testing streaming video over WiFi killed the battery in 11 hours and 8 minutes. Streaming that same video over LTE finished it off in 6 hours and 42 minutes.

So while I had hoped for a bit more out of the MAXX battery, it still stands alone as the only device that I would be able to easily carry into a second day on a regular basis without having to worry about charging. For some users that’s worth a great deal.

10. Extras


We used to expect a number of freebies with our smartphones. At the very least a set of earbuds (even if they were usually terrible). Increasingly we’ve been opening our phones to see only the phone and the charger. While there aren’t any physical extras with the DROID MAXX, you do get 6 months free of Play Music All Access, which is a $60 value. If you haven’t given All Access a shot, this is a nice extended free trial for you. I’ve got my own headphones I’m happy with, so this was preferable for me anyway.

This isn’t really an extra, but the charger that comes with the DROID MAXX has two USB ports, which will save you from having to bring a second charger for your tablet or whatever else you might charge by USB. The cost has to be negligible, and it’s a nice acknowledgement that we all have at least a couple devices we need to charge at this point.

Verizon DROID MAXX8 / 10

Beyond that huge battery the DROID MAXX, like the Moto X, is not a specs powerhouse. But again like the Moto X, it offers a very solid user experience in terms of both the physical device as well as the software touches by Motorola. Also similar to the Moto X, the DROID MAXX feels a bit pricey at $299 (or $249 on Amazon). Although, the 32GB storage capacity and battery should assuage some of those feelings.

If you love being on the bleeding edge, this isn’t the phone for you. You should be looking at either the Galaxy Note 3 or the LG G2, both of which Verizon will carry soon enough.

If you value your smartphone camera above all else, then the HTC One is probably your best Android option on Verizon today.

The big question of whether to go with the Moto X or the DROID MAXX has to come down to both the size of the devices as well as the battery life. While I find the DROID MAXX a very comfortable device to use one-handed, I feel similarly about the Note II. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not normal. The Moto X has been universally praised for having nailed the best feel of any Android device, and I’m inclined to agree that for most people that is going to be true. Obviously if battery life is your hot button issue, the MAXX wins easily with 1.5-2x that of the Moto X.

Sean has been with Android and Me for over 4 years and covering mobile for the last 5. He occasionally muses about gadgets and tech outside of the Android universe at Techgasms.

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