Android and Me

Review: Verizon Motorola DROID Ultra, DROID Mini

7 months ago 9

Usually when you walk into a Verizon store, you’re greeted with a vast array of options. There are at least a dozen Android smartphone options highlighted by a variety of different software features and specifications. With the introduction of Motorola’s new DROID lineup and the Moto s, all that has changed. While pricing of the phones ranges from $100 to $300, the basic software and hardware features are all the same.

So, which phone do you buy?

Since we’ve already reviewed the Motorola Moto X and the DROID MAXX, we thought we’d group the DROID Ultra and DROID Mini into a single review.

The Good

Software

Let’s start things off with the best features of the Motorola DROID Ultra and DROID Mini software. Motorola may be owned by Google, but that does not mean you’re going to get stock Android with these two devices. But that’s definitely not a bad thing. As far as UI goes, Motorola has not changed much on its Android 4.2. build. The changes are mostly below the surface, enhancing the functionality of the two phones with features that may eventually be rolled back into the core of Android.

The most talked about new software feature that Motorola has graced these two phones with is voice-activated touchless control. It essentially boils down to Google Now on steroids that can be activated by voice alone. No need to even pick up your phone. Simply train the phone to recognize your voice and then talk to your phone (even when the display is off) by saying “OK, Google Now.” Yes, you still feel stupid talking to your phone when you’re sitting in your cube at work, but it works like a charm when your phone is sitting out of reach and you don’t feel like getting up to set a reminded or ask about tomorrow’s weather conditions.

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Touchless voice controls are cool, but the novelty factor can wear off pretty quickly. Fortunately, Motorola’s software tweaking didn’t stop there. Active display is a new notification system on new Motorola phones that shows notifications on the screen as they come in when the device is not in use. The notifications even light up when the devices sense they have been moved, anticipating that you may want to check the latest email or text message that came in. While there are a few software features that drive the choice in hardware of a device, Active display would not be possible without being paired with an ALOMED display, which is capable of lighting up individual pixels, dramatically reducing the power drain on the device’s battery.

For a full breakdown of the software features found on these two phones, we suggest you check out Sean’s detailed review of the DROID MAXX.

Battery Life

Those who have been using Android phones since the G1 know that it’s never been easy to keep a charge for a full day. Over time, batteries have gotten larger and processors have become more efficient. Still, we always seem to struggle to find a phone that can last us a full day. Fortunately the Ultra (2,130 mAh) and Mini (2,000 mAh) do a fairly decent job of staying alive. Both phones managed to last me 12-14 hours on a typical word day, which includes managing three Gmail accounts, keeping up with hundreds of tweets, playing 30-45 minutes of games, snapping a dozen or so pictures and reading all the latest Android news on the web.

The Ultra does have a small advantage in battery capacity, but I found that the Droid Mini always seemed to last 45 minutes to an hour longer. Just keep in mind, if you’re looking for a phone that will last you more than a full day, the MAXX is most likely the DROID you are looking .

Design

Whenever you have the name “DROID” as a qualifier for a phone’s name, you definitely shouldn’t expect the device to be featured as the fashion accessory of the season. Since the very beginning, DROID phones have always been sharp, dark and monolithic. The Ultra and Mini don’t have much character, but that doesn’t mean they are not designed well. Motorola has done an incredible job keeping the two devices as small as possible. The bezels around the displays rival that of the RAZR M, and the physical power and volume buttons on the right edge of the phones are placed perfectly, giving you the sweet satisfaction of a subtle “click” every time they are pressed.

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Unfortunately, Motorola’s decision to coat the KEVLAR fiber reinforced shells of the Ultra and Mini with an ultra-gloss layer of plastic may keep some potential customers at bay. It’s nearly impossible to keep either of the phones looking clean; both are fingerprint magnets.

The Not-So-Good

Specifications

In Sean’s review of the Motorola DROID MAXX, he said it just right: “Isn’t the DROID line meant to be the embodiment of MOAR SPECS?” The truth is, the Ultra and Mini are decently spec’d, but they fail to live up to the expectation the brand has set for itself. Both the Ultra and Mini feature Motorola’s X8 Mobile Computing System, which comprises a 1.7 GHz dual–core application processor, 400 MHz quad–core GPU, natural language processor and contextual computing processor, 2GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage, 10MP camera, NFC, GSP and WiFi. The differences between the two phones are directly related to size. The Ultra features a 5.0-inch 720p display and a 2,130 mAh battery versus the Mini’s 4.3-inch display of the same resolution and 2,000 mAh battery.

If this were September of 2012, these two phones would be considered top-of-the-line. But it’s not 2012. Just to put things into perspective, last fall’s HTC Droid DNA featured superior specs than both of Motorola’s phones and can currently be purchased for $50 directly from Verizon.

Cameras

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Like the Motorola Moto X and DROID MAXX, the Ultra and Mini feature a custom 10 megapixel imaging sensor intended to capture better images in low light situations. If all you do is capture images in poorly lit restaurants, bars or back alleys, you will be thrilled with these two phones. No, the low-light performance is not perfect, but I’d rather be carrying the Ultra or Mini over the Samsung Galaxy S 4 if most of my waking hours were between 5pm and 5am. Unfortunately, there are very few people who fit that description. Most of us live in the light, a condition that Motorola’s camera sensors can’t seem to cope with very well.

We’re not saying that the Motorola DROID Ultra or the DROID Mini are incapable of taking good pictures, it’s just a bit harder than it should be in this day and age. In situations where I would typically snap one picture with the Samsung Galaxy Note II or HTC One and then instantly share the pic with friends and family, Motorola’s phones forced me to take more than one shot. The devices have issues with white balance and exposure levels and the tap-to-capture setting was quickly disabled, because they also suffered from an indecisive auto-focus lens.

Droid Ultra camera samples

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Droid Mini camera samples

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At the end of the day, no smartphone camera has yet proven that it can replace a standard $150 point-and-shoot camera (yes, I’ve used the Lumia 1020 – it still falls short). The DROID Mini and Ultra can get the job done, but the camera experience with the two devices could be better. A lot better.

Motorola Droid Ultra7.0 / 10

With three DROID phones and the Moto X all equipped with the same basic specifications and software features, which one do you buy? It’s hard to say which one is the clear winner, but we can say that the Ultra is at the bottom of the pack. At $199.99 with a new two-year contract, the Ultra is simply an ugly Motorola Moto X. We don’t understand why Verizon would commission Motorola to create the Droid Ultra when the Moto X fills the spot in their lineup so much better.

Price: $199.99 (with a 2-year contract) from Verizon; $149.99 (with a 2-year contract) from Amazon

Motorola Droid Mini7.5 / 10

In a world where bigger always seems to be better, we’re pleased to inform you that the Droid Mini is officially a rule breaker. While there are plenty of phones with 4.3-inch displays on the market, Motorola is the first OEM to produce a “flagship” device at that size in nearly two years. While the Ultra and the Mini may only differ in size, the price difference between the two is the most important feature to note. At $99.99 with a new two-year contract, the Mini is a bargain when compared to the Ultra. If you’re looking for a small phone on Verizon, the DROID Mini will not disappoint, but there are certainly better options if all you really want is a budget Android phone.

Price: $99.99 (with a 2-year contract) from Verizon; $49.99 (with 2-year contract) from Amazon