The DROID BIONIC has probably been the single most anticipated Android smartphone in the US. Since its unveiling at CES, subsequent total re-design, and sort-of-delayed release, it has been a long and winding road for Motorola's newest flagship handset. Verizon's massive marketing arm hasn't failed to promote this thing, either - walk into any Verizon store and you'll see employees garbed in BIONIC t-shirts, armed with BIONIC accessory display boxes and a tailor-made marketing spiel, ready to meet you with more LTE and dual-core madness than you can shake a stick at.
So, it's safe to say, this phone has spent extensive time in the hype machine. Does it live up to that hype? At $300 with a 2-year contractual shackle (though you can get it for about $180 at Amazon), it's not cheap. Then again, no Verizon LTE device has been released with a particularly low entry fee, so it's hard to fault the BIONIC when phones like the not-so-great DROID Charge started out with an equivalent price tag.
For me, the BIONIC is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best LTE phone to be released on Verizon to date. Not to mention, it's a pretty damn good phone overall. It's not perfect, (actually, it has some major flaws) but it beats the pants off the very mediocre DROID X2, which was released back in May. In fact, this phone is really what the DROID X2 should have been, namely: a lot better.
At A Glance
The BIONIC is packing the beefiest hardware of any Verizon phone to date, whether that'll still be true in a couple of months is anyone's guess, but for now it's definitely the spec king of the hill over at Big Red.
- 4.3" LCD qHD display (540x960) with PenTile sub-pixel rendering (more on why this is important later)
- TI OMAP 4430 1GHz dual-core processor
- 1GB RAM / 16GB onboard storage (4GB usable for apps, 8GB for media)
- Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread with Motorola UI overlay
- microSD card slot (16GB card included)
- 4G LTE connectivity
- 8MP rear camera with LED flash and 1080p video
- VGA front-facing camera
- 1735mAh battery
Now, here's a breakdown of the good / not so good on the BIONIC. Here you'll see major talking points about the phone that will be elaborated on in the full text of the review.
- Sleek, sexy, and solid - the BIONIC is a beautiful and well-built phone.
- It's fast. definitely faster than the DROID X2, that TI OMAP dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM make the difference.
- I honestly think Motorola's overlay isn't bad looking, but that's really a matter of taste.
- Excellent call quality and clarity, this is the best smartphone I've used for making phone calls.
- Verizon's 4G LTE is still, hands down, the best 4G network in the US - downloads and uploads are super speedy.
The Not So Good:
- Battery life is not good. It's not Thunderbolt bad, but I had trouble making it through a full day - even on 3G.
- The qHD Pentile display may be more battery-efficient, but it's not exactly pretty to look at. Definitely the worst-looking display tech we've seen - though it has improved substantially since the DROID X2.
- Motorola's overlay has really annoying animations and effects that are totally unnecessary and distracting, not to mention they detract from the phone's performance.
- Verizon bloat - this phone is a fatty when it comes to carrier-installed software, and 95% of it can't be removed.
In A Sentence: The DROID BIONIC is what the DROID X2 should have been - faster, better looking, and with 4G connectivity. And, well, just a better phone overall.
You Should Buy It If: You like Motorola, you're itching to use that Verizon upgrade you have, and you don't want to wait around for the newer handsets that will be coming this winter.
The full review will now commence, so, in words of Samuel L. Jackson: hold onto your butts.
Verizon 4G LTE Remains Awesome
Wow. Verizon's 4G network continues to amaze, with blazing fast download speeds (I never got below 10mbps in good signal conditions) and simply astounding upload speeds. I averaged about 4-6mbps on uploads. No other carrier's 4G network can lay claim to such upload speeds.
As I said in my DROID Charge review, Verizon's 4G also manages to provide very low latency, and all of my pings when I tested on 4G were sub-100ms, meaning the time between hitting the "Search" button and sweet, information age satisfaction is reduced even more.
But LTE is a double-edged sword, and battery life is one of the things that ends up suffering because of the radio's power-hungry appetite. But we'll get into that later.
qHD PenTile Display: Still Not There
Motorola really must have made a conscious compromise in equipping their latest handsets with qHD displays. On the one hand, they seem to provide better battery life, and obviously increased resolution. Unfortunately, a massive sacrifice comes in the form of color reproduction and pixelation.
If you read our DROID X2 review, you'll hear about (and see) the failings of Motorola's qHD display. And these complaints are justified, no doubt about it. However, it seems Motorola has stepped up its game with the BIONIC and remedied some of the new display tech's problems to some extent. Here's a super-sized (not a macro lens, sorry) picture of the display at full brightness:
On the X2, the color green was a bit problematic, and by problematic, we mean it looked terrible. On the BIONIC, this seems to have been fixed, at least enough that I don't notice a particular problem with brighter shades of green. The pixelation issue is still present, but again, its severity seems reduced. Motorola has had time to tweak the display on the BIONIC and it looks like they've learned from the mistakes they made on the ATRIX and the DX2.
Still, comparing the BIONIC's LCD to even the Nexus One's well over one year-old AMOLED display yields a no-contest victory to the otherwise-inferior Nexus. Colors aren't very vivid, pixelation (pixel gridlines, to be more specific) is visible, and viewing angle distortion is reminiscent of LCD phones like the Hero and OG DROID. Sorry, Motorola - qHD PenTile needs more time in the oven before it's ready to compete with the big boys.
Battery Life And Charging Issues
Oh, 4G LTE. How we love you so. What we don't love is the abysmal battery life you seem to impart on anything you touch. And the DROID BIONIC is no exception to the rule, unfortunately.
Like every other Verizon LTE handset, the BIONIC's battery life is pretty mediocre. I haven't managed to get more than a day of moderate use (it was usually dead by 5PM) - even with the battery manager set to the most juice-conservative option. With light use, I made it through a whole day. By "whole day," I mean until about 8 or 9PM. What I didn't try to do was set the phone to CDMA-only mode. Why? Because I think, for judging battery life, this is a massive copout to realistic use conditions.
I think if you set the BIONIC to 3G-only, with minimum brightness, and the most restrictive battery management setting, you could very likely get a full day out of it with moderate usage. But who is going to do this? No one in a 4G-coverage area, I'll tell you that much.
Overall, I'd rate the BIONIC's battery life as "below average" - not as bad as a Thunderbolt, but certainly thirsty. If any technology can make a case for the extra space non-removable batteries provide, it's Verizon's four-gee.
Unfortunately, my issues with the battery didn't stop there. It seems a number of people are having difficulties charging the BIONIC on a non-BIONIC charger. I tried it on 2 different A/C chargers, and I couldn't get the BIONIC to top 40%. Weird, right? The BIONIC's battery does take a slightly higher 3.8 volts compared to both of my chargers, which were 3.7, but the difference seems negligible. Perhaps the BIONIC's software won't allow it to charge beyond a certain point on what it sees as a "low-voltage" power source? Maybe, but we haven't seen a satisfactory answer to this question yet.
With the BIONIC's included charger, charging took quite a bit of time on the first attempt after running it down - I mean more than a couple hours. Unusual for a smartphone, and not reflective of the BIONIC's battery capacity. My third charge and beyond seemed to take less time, but I wasn't exactly using a stopwatch.
Build Quality And Design
OK, after the previous two sections, you probably think the griping will never end, right? Well, I'm glad to say that this section forward will contain a lot more positives than negatives, and that's why I still think the BIONIC is a good phone.
If I were to give Motorola's design philosophy a one word description, it'd probably be something like "neo-rugged." Motorola's handsets always seem to inspire confidence in the sturdiness of the device with a utilitarian, "built-in-CAD" sort of approach to body lines
The phone feels very solid in-hand, is easily held because of its rubberized back cover, and it looks good. The BIONIC looks like a proper evolution from the design of the DROID X. It's sleek, the buttons all look and press great, and the metal-lined rear camera of the same style and megapixel rating from the DROID X is still very cool.
The only un-sturdy portion of the BIONIC seems to be its battery cover, which is made of relatively flimsy and creaky rubberized plastic. The DROID X and X2 both had metallic rear covers which reduced the noise and flimsiness. Apparently in a bid to save weight and width, Motorola decided plastic was the best option. The complaint here is a minor one, and probably won't bother most people. I could certainly live with it.
On the whole, the BIONIC lives up to the standard we've come to expect from Motorola in terms of build quality, and that standard is a high one. Oh, and yes - the display features Corning's Gorilla Glass.
Software And Performance: Not-MOTOBLUR Is Actually.. Bearable
I don't like manufacturer UI overlays. They always end up detracting from performance in some way, and oftentimes make modifications which do more to frustrate, rather than enhance, the user experience. Even HTC's Sense UI, which is definitely the best of any of the overlays out there, has its drawbacks.
MOTOBLUR was undoubtedly the first Android UI overlay to draw real, consistent complaints from consumers. As a result (presumably), Motorola discontinued the MOTOBLUR name and began to revamp its UI overlay. The most recent result of that gradual change can be found in the DROID 3 and DROID BIONIC, both of which sport the newest versions of not-MOTOBLUR.
Generally speaking, Motorola's additions to the UI aren't all that bad. In fact, I actually like their menus, camera app, and battery management utility.
A number of the changes are improvements over the stock version of Android (in some ways). The Camera app looks much better and has a Panorama mode. The app drawer features folders and a quick link to the Market. The Weather app and widget are both well-designed. There's certainly some things here to like. But there's also a dark side.
Motorola's overlay does slow the phone down a bit. The first thing I did upon getting the phone up an running? Deleting the widgets that were on the homescreens by default. Performance increased, and very noticeably. Then, I tried a custom launcher - ADW EX to be precise. Upon using it, the difference was truly palpable. ADW moved roughly twice as fast as the default launcher, and was much more responsive.
However, even with the widgets, the BIONIC is the fastest Moto phone to date, hands down. Game performance, video playback, and other apps are all very snappy. The dual-core processor combined with the extra RAM (1GB) put the BIONIC on par with phones like the HTC Sensation and, with a custom launcher installed, the Galaxy S II. The animations between homescreens are pretty annoying to me, but that's a matter of taste I suppose. The point here is this: there's plenty of performance horsepower here, you just have to manage it right.
However, Motorola's browser also seems a bit sluggish at times compared to Samsung and HTC's iterations. But it's still probably faster than the stock Android browser. You can always use 3rd-party software like DolphinHD, too. The lockscreen is a bit slow and unresponsive at times, and I think this is a rather critical piece of the Android OS to get right. It seems that, sometimes, Motorola just doesn't understand how important the fluidity of the user experience is.
But Motorola has come a long way in this regard, and the UI lacks the inherent annoyance previous iterations were plagued with. It feels like a design decision more than a functional impairment when you're actually using the phone, if that makes sense.
To wrap up the software discussion: bloatware. There's a fair bit of it. 95% of it it totally useless, and the only app I found which could be removed was Let's Golf 2, which weighed in at a hefty 149MB of internal storage. Otherwise, you're stuck with the garbage Verizon throws on there. Relatedly, the BIONIC has been rooted. A bootloader unlock (and, thus, custom ROM support) is a work in progress.
Call Quality And Such
The DROID BIONIC has the best call quality and loudness of any smartphone I've used. Hearing the other person on the line is remarkably easy, something I can say about no other phone I've used. Probably because the BIONIC's front-facing speaker is incredibly loud, coupled with Verizon's famously reliable voice coverage.
I tested the BIONIC's rear camera with a number of photos, along with a video sample. I found the colors to be washed out, auto-focus to be rather annoyingly slow, and video quality to be so-so. But compared to every other phone out there? The BIONIC is still easily in the middle of the pack. Here are the photos, plus a video, unedited:
I know, there were a lot of criticisms in this review, and that's really for the benefit of all of you - so you know just what it is you're getting into should you choose to pick up a BIONIC. But I think there's a few positive notes really worth focusing on:
The BIONIC is fast, and it has plenty of RAM. Perfect Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade candidate, and with a custom launcher, this phone flies.
Battery life still beats the other LTE phones on Verizon, it seems.
It's a tough, sturdy, sexy phone. Probably Moto's best-looking handset to-date.
4G LTE. It's good.
This phone has the hardware to handle games and OS update for quite a while - you won't be left in the dust.
The BIONIC isn't perfect. But we didn't expect it to be. With Google's next Nexus phone on the way, a lot of people are biding their time to see if the much-awaited device will land on Verizon after it became apparent that the Galaxy S II would not. But the BIONIC doesn't disappoint. It's a good phone. And if you're the type to modify and customize your Android phone, the BIONIC will likely be a great canvas to experiment on. And even if you're not, the BIONIC works pretty damn well out of the box, which is really the benchmark that matters.
Is it as fast as a Galaxy S II? Not quite. But it also has a few things up on the S II: LTE, Motorola build quality, and a design that doesn't scream 'iPhone copycat.' Compared to almost any other Android smartphone, the BIONIC is a formidable opponent, and it's definitely the best DROID available on Verizon right now.
We'd like to give special thanks to Android Stack Exchange, who supplied the BIONIC for our (now over) giveaway, as well as this review unit. In the spirit of Stack Exchange's Q&A model, I've created a Question for the BIONIC's odd pickiness about wall chargers. Hopefully it'll get figured out.
If you've never heard of Android Stack Exchange, check them out. It's like Reddit + Wikipedia + an FAQ for Android users to ask and answer questions about all things Android. As a source of information, it's fantastic, and very well laid out.