The original DROID blew everyone away. It saved Motorola from almost certain bankruptcy, breathed new life into Verizon's smartphone catalog, and made Android a desirable mobile operating system rather than a cheap alternative to iOS. In short, it ushered in a new age of Android devices.

A lot had changed by the time its successor, the DROID 2, launched. The latest Android handsets had larger displays, better designs, and (perhaps most importantly) less buggy custom UIs. While the D2 wasn't a bad phone, it didn't stand a chance - frankly, Motorola had brought a knife to a gunfight.

And now, in July of 2011, yet another sea of change has hit the Android realm. Dual-core CPUs are fast becoming table stakes; all four national carriers lay claim to some sort of "4G" network; and the iPad, though still far more ubiquitous than any Honeycomb tablet, now has some serious Android competition. In the midst of all of this comes the DROID 3, the latest iteration in Motorola and Verizon's QWERTY-filled DROID saga. But is it any good, or is it just a dual-core "filler" to tide customers over until the launch of the DROID Bionic? I've been evaluating the device for just about a week now, and now it's time to put rubber to road and find out just how awesome (or awful) it really is.

At a Glance

The DROID 3 may not have 4G capabilities, but that doesn't mean the rest of its spec sheet is lackluster:

  • 4-inch qHD (960x540) Pentile display
  • Five-row physical QWERTY keyboard
  • Global radio (GSM and CDMA)
  • WiFi 802.11b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP4430 processor
  • PowerVR SGX540 GPU
  • 512MB RAM / 16GB ROM
  • NO included SD card
  • 1540mAh battery
  • 8MP rear camera w/ 1080p video / VGA front-facing camera
  • Android 2.3 with MOTOBLUR (OK, "Motorola Applications layer")
  • microUSB port
  • microHDMI port
  • Dimensions: 4.90" x 2.50" x 0.50"
  • Weight: 169g (6oz)

The Good

  • The spacious, extremely comfortable-to-type-on five-row physical QWERTY keyboard - the speed nay, the velocity at which I can type on this thing is stupendous. And I'm usually pretty content with virtual keyboards.
  • Motorola's virtual QWERTY keyboard is also excellent. Perfect for those times when you're just too lazy to slide out the physical keyboard.
  • The classic, almost robotic DROID styling lives on. It makes me feel like I'm holding a mysterious object from the future.
  • General performance is excellent, with a few notable exceptions.
  • The recent apps menu in MOTOBLUR is far more useful than the one in stock Android - it displays a full page of apps rather than just six. As insignificant as this may seem, I found myself reaching for the 9th or 10th app quite often - and that just wouldn't have been possible on stock Android or on virtually any other custom UI.
  • Global radio - very convenient for frequent travelers.

The Bad

  • MOTOBLUR - OK, well technically the name for the custom UI on the DROID 3 is "Motorola Applications layer," but you didn't really expect us to say that each and every time we refer to it, did you? Anyway, in spite of a few enjoyable additions (see the last bullet on the good list), Motorola's custom UI still brings more bad than good - we're not big fans of the blue coloring throughout the OS, and Motorola needs to address quite a few bugs before we'd consider using the skin on a daily basis. Plus, it's still missing a "turn it off" option.
  • Crapware, crapware, and more crapware - Verizon has historically been one of the worst offenders where bloatware is concerned, and the DROID 3 is no exception.
  • Pentile display - they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that certainly holds true with Pentile. Some, such as our own Aaron Gingrich, can't stand the display technology, while others, including most of the commenters on our DROID X2 review, don't mind it at all. No matter which side you're on, however, you must admit that individual pixels are much more discernable on a Pentile screen than they are on a regular mobile display.
  • No camera button - I only mention this since both of the preceding DROIDs had one, so people upgrading from those devices will have to get used to pressing the on-screen camera icon.
  • No LTE - it'd be easy to blow off this complaint by saying something like, "Well Verizon doesn't have 4G service in my area anyway." But seeing as Big Red is conducting an incredibly aggressive expansion of its robust LTE network, the DROID 3's lack of a 4G radio is definitely something to keep in mind.
  • Verizon's data plans for new customers/lines are extremely pricey - service starts at $30/month for just 2GB of data.
  • Locked bootloader is locked.

In a sentence: The DROID 3 is an excellent choice for QWERTY lovers and frequent travelers, but its Pentile display and lack of an LTE radio keep us from recommending it to those who want or need a truly future-proof handset.

You should buy it if: You absolutely must have a physical keyboard, want a top-of-the-line Verizon smartphone and don't care about LTE, or simply can't wait for the DROID Bionic or Galaxy S II.

Hardware

Design, Build Quality, and Physical Keyboard

The DROID phones have become famous for their flat, robotic, and squared-off aesthetics. As should be expected, the D3 continues that trend - and we like it.

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What's more, the DROID 3 is the thinnest QWERTY smartphone on the market - in fact, it's just a smidgen thicker than my (admittedly quite chunky) EVO 3D.

That's not to say Motorola has made any sacrifices to keep the DROID 3 slim; quite the contrary - in fact, I wouldn't hesitate to say that its physical keyboard is the best I've used on any Android phone. Not only is it large enough to accommodate a fifth row for numbers (hence the "five-row QWERTY keyboard" marketing), but its keys are big and deep enough to make typing easy and comfortable. Simply put, all of its aspects amount to an unrivaled typing experience.

The mechanism which is used to slide up the DROID 3's screen and reveal its keyboard is, by all appearances, of the same manual variety that we saw on the DROID 2 and even on the OG DROID. That means that, unlike most physical keyboards, it isn't spring-loaded, jumping up at the first hint of a touch; instead, you'll have to push it up and slide it down with your own two thumbs. It's not hard at all, and I actually found it quite enjoyable to use, as it gives you quite a bit more control over the rate at which the keyboard is uncovered.

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If there's a single thing I dislike about the keyboard, it's the fact that it ends in a silver bar that protrudes from the bottom of the phone. Of course, we've been seeing similar design elements on DROID phones since the heady days of 2009, and while it's hardly a deal-breaker, it's definitely not something I'd choose to tack on to the phone if I were the head of Motorola's design department. Sure, it's where the microphone resides, but I'm fairly certain it could be relocated, thereby reducing the handset's footprint and improving its looks.

That said, most of the other aspects of the phone's design left me genuinely impressed. The front of the handset, for example, is clean and simple, with only the silver earpiece, the white Android buttons (menu, home, back, and search), and the Motorola logo to disturb the serene black glass.

I can't decide whether the DROID 3's backside is light black or dark blue, but whichever color it is, I like it. It fits in very nicely with the styling Verizon and Moto were going for, and the circular Motorola logo and silver camera pod punctuate it very well. The sides, which are home to most of the phone's ports and buttons (microUSB, volume rocker, headphone jack, etc.), are a similar story.

More good news: the phone feels great in the hand. At 169 grams, it's not exactly as light as a feather, but that only adds to its substantial, almost robotic ergonomics. So far, so good.

Display (Yes, Pentile)

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Can you count the pixels? Also, to quote the great David Ruddock, "Hey, you got green in my yellow! Hey, you got yellow in my green!"

If there's one thing that can ruin an otherwise excellent handset, it's a low-quality display. After all, the display is your portal to the on-screen content; without it, a phone would be nothing - regardless of how good or bad its other specs might be.

Therefore, the DROID 3's advertised qHD (960x540) resolution is, on paper, another score for the device. But there's a (humongous) caveat: that qHD resolution is achieved only through the use of Pentile.

What is Pentile? You can read all about it on Wikipedia, Anandtech, and a smorgasbord of other online sources - but in short, it's a type of subpixel layout that improves battery life and, in most cases, costs less than a standard display. Sound good? Here's the catch: Pentile makes grid lines and pixels more visible and has less-than-stellar color reproduction (it isn't easy to distinguish between bright yellows and greens, for instance). It's even worse when combined with a standard LCD screen, as AMOLED and other display technologies are better suited to disguise its shortcomings by providing better color reproduction and superior viewing angles.

And yet, I didn't find it all that bothersome. I feel it's safe to say that Pentile is more irritating to some people than it is to others, and while I was definitely able to pick up on it, it didn't annoy me nearly as much as it did my colleague Aaron Gingrich.

Really, the best advice I can give you here is to visit a Verizon retail store, play with the DROID 3 for a while, and see if text and pictures on it look crisp to your eyes. If so, Pentile probably isn't something to worry about - especially since the screen can be very bright and has no issues with contrast. If not, well, perhaps the DROID 3 isn't for you.      

Camera

We had high hopes for the DROID 3 here - after all, Motorola has a great history with camera phones, and with 1080p video recording, things certainly looked promising. And surprise: it delivered! Have a look at some stills, followed by a video sample:

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Software

Ah, MOTOBLUR (or Motorola Applications Layer, for those who prefer official branding). Long have we lamented your bugginess, your duplicate options, and even your ugly-as-dirt status bar. Well, it appears your creators have finally seen the light (or at least a glimmer of it), for the version of MOTOBLUR on the DROID 3 is a vast improvement over past versions of the skin.

For one thing, it outperforms almost any other Android overlay. This may, of course, be owed to the advanced dual-core CPU under the hood, but I'd like to think that Motorola has been hard at work optimizing MOTOBLUR for the best performance possible (or at least passable performance). Not once was I forced to wait for the phone to load the homescreen - a common issue with past versions of Motorola's skin. Nor did I experience any sort of lag when swiping between homescreens or moving an icon around. I did notice a very slight delay in waking the phone up after it had been asleep for some time, but for the most part, performance is nothing to worry about (besides, this is the software section; you'll read more about performance in the following section).

I will say, however, that Motorola hasn't quite nailed scrolling yet - browsing through lists wasn't nearly as smooth on the DROID 3 as it was on my EVO 3D. It wasn't unbearable, but I did encounter the occasional stutter.

As for MOTOBLUR's features, there are, sadly, only a few useful additions. My favorite by far was the improved "Recent Apps" menu that pops up when you long-press the home button. On stock Android or pretty much any other skin, the list contains a measly six apps and occupies only the center part of the screen. On the DROID 3, however, said list takes up the whole display, thereby making room for a full page of apps (16 in total). Better yet, if you would prefer to see all of the applications installed on your phone rather than just those you've opened recently, there is a button in the top left corner that lets you toggle between the modes (there are actually 4 of them: "All apps," "Recent," "Downloaded," and "Verizon Wireless").

I also enjoyed Motorola's widget/app icon management, which has remained unaltered since the launch of the original DROID X. In case you aren't familiar with it, it allows you to drag a widget or app icon onto another item on your homescreen, in the process "bumping" the latter item(s) to another space. This makes room for the app icon/widget you're moving. Trust me, it's a lot easier and more useful than it sounds.

The rest of Motorola's additions aren't as desirable - they're mostly visual enhancements like animations or changes to various icons' colors. Naturally, whether you like them or dislike them will be a matter of personal preference, though I'd be remiss not to note that the shade of blue chosen for the status bar seems a bit out of place and can occasionally get on one's (OK, my) nerves.

One potential downside to MOTOBLUR is its app drawer - rather than allow users to simply scroll through a vertical list, the skin forces them to swipe sideways, just as you might on iOS or Samsung's TouchWiz interface. Some people prefer this layout, but if you (like me) prefer a more classic app drawer, you can just install a custom launcher to remedy that issue.

Another downside to the DROID 3's software is of course the pre-installed crapware. This isn't MOTOBLUR's fault per se; it is most likely an outcome of Verizon's influence on the device. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that the DROID 3 comes with over 15 bloatware apps - and though some, like Citrix Receiver and GoToMeeting, could prove to be useful for business folk, the vast majority of them will be utterly useless to 99% of us. And yet none of them can be uninstalled. Ugh.

Performance, Call Quality, and Battery Life

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As stated earlier in the review, the DROID 3 is a racehorse. Apps fly open, games play very smoothly (though Angry Birds occasionally exhibited lagginess for some odd reason), and the phone as a whole is a pleasure to use. There is that aforementioned lockscreen bug, but I'm inclined to believe that's a software issue rather than a shortcoming of the hardware.

This excellent performance was, curiously, not reflected by the standard array of benchmarking apps: Quadrant and Linpack gave scores of 2272 and 52.154 MFOPS, respectively. It is important to note, however, that they do not take the processor's second core into account. But SmartBech 2011 and CF-Bench were designed to assess dual-core CPUs, and the DROID 3 didn't exactly perform exceptionally in those, either (1825 from SmartBench and 5378 from CF-Bench, thanks for asking).

Call quality and cell reception were outstanding, as we've come to expect from Verizon. However, data speeds were somewhat lacking in comparison to other carriers' 3G networks, even if said speeds were more consistent than those of the competition. And unfortunately, it doesn't look like they're going to get faster anytime soon, as the DROID 3 is not a member of Verizon's 4G LTE army. Nonetheless, Big Red will happily charge D3 users the same monthly service fee that it charges its 4G customers ($30 for 2GB of data, $50 for 5GB, $80 for 10GB, and $10/GB for overages). Definitely something to keep in mind, especially if you're on a budget.

One related topic is the phone's global radio, which means that you can use it while overseas. Coincidentally, I'll be vacationing in Europe shortly, and thanks to the kind souls at Verizon PR, I'll be able to take the DROID 3 with me to test out said global capabilities. I will update the review with the results once I return.

Update: Everything worked fine, though the speeds were less than desirable to say the least (to be fair, this was likely a result of the poor Vodafone coverage in my area).

Battery life is easily better than that of any non-Motorola device in recent memory. It still isn't quite ideal, but it is certainly acceptable - with moderate usage (a couple phone calls and text messages, some gaming here and there, a bit of web-browsing, and constant email-checking) the DROID 3 was able to make it through an entire day. Better yet, its battery still had some juice left - the icon in the status bar was orange. Not too shabby, though I feel that a phone like, say, the iPhone 4 could outlast it any day.

Conclusion

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Is the DROID 3 the same game-changer its grandfather was? Hardly - though it is the first Android phone to pack a TI OMAP4430 CPU, it isn't exactly the forerunner for a new class of Android devices. But at the end of the day, that doesn't really matter - on its own merits, the DROID 3 is an excellent handset and features one of the best physical keyboards we've ever seen. And you can't go wrong with Verizon's network, even if it might cost you a few extra Benjamins in the long run. So if you don't need LTE (or don't have coverage) and are dependent on physical QWERTYs, this is the DROID for you.