12
Sep
0WB0Jl

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
  • HDMI-out

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.

The Good:

  • 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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Camera

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:

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2011-09-10_12-00-58_524 2011-09-10_11-56-48_655

Conclusion

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.

Special Thanks

androidsesmall

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.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://droidsamurai.blogspot.com PixelSlave

    Didn't the Nexus One use a PenTile display also?

    • David Ruddock

      Yes, but it was a different subpixel rendering scheme - RGBG - which provides an "illusion" of higher resolution while preserving color and clarity.

      Moto's phones use the RGBW scheme, which saves power and looks lame.

  • eleazar

    Thanks for the detailed review. You helped me make the decision to remain disciplined and wait for something better (hopefully the prime).

  • http://tantrajnaan.com Robert Dunn

    What is the technical name for Motorola's new UI? I have it on my Atrix, and while it isn't bad, I still covered it and the lock scree up with replacements. I just want to know what it's called.

    • Steven Schoen

      Motorola Applications Layer.

      • http://tantrajnaan.com Robert Dunn

        That is an exciting name for sure.

    • IceDree

      MAP UI which stands for
      Motorola Application Platform. UI

  • tdavis42

    Great review of why this phone is the most hyped and under delivering Android phone of 2011 that i can remember. I really hope Google turns Moto around and brings them back up to the level they should be at.

    • JayMonster

      Really? This is the most underdelivering? Have you seen the Charge? The Thunderbolt? Perhaps you think the Revolution met ANYBODY'S standards?

      How many people are rockin' an Incredible 2? Does anybody want to see yet another Evo? Even if it 3D?

      If you think this underdelivers, you are going to be waiting a long time for the next "game changer" that is going to live up to your standards.

      • David Ruddock

        I tend to agree. The BIONIC isn't perfect, and may not be the Android phone of the year, but it's still a great piece of hardware.

        I think it's easy to get caught up in the game of "well, SUPER AWESOME PHONE is coming out in just 3 months!" Of course something better is coming. But you have to make a decision eventually, and the BIONIC isn't a decision I think you'd find yourself unabashedly regretting 6 months from now. That's what matters.

        Better phones will come out, but if you're not going to buy any of them, why even care?

        Right here, right now, this is a good phone.

        • tdavis42

          I Was never hyped for this phone. In fact I just left Verizon because of the poor offerings in their Android department. This phoen should have launched 6 months ago when it would have been a real game changer as someone put it. I know about waiting for phones to be released and set certain requirements down for my next phone because most new "features" are just that features not game changers. Samsung has a dual-core 4g 10.1 tablet out and has for a while. moto with their Xoom(who came up with that) can't even get to their promises. Why people but things based upon a promise from a large company is beyond me and for a different conversation.

  • Tony

    I got this phone, and coming from a Droid Incredible, having used every ROM out there. This is better. This is the best phone on Verizon right now, hands down.

    I have a few problems though, this abysmal battery life you mention is way.. WAY off. Maybe not on LTE, but on standard 3G which is where most of the people using the device are going to be. There isn't LTE coverage for 80 miles in any given direction of where I live. So that 'copout' you mentioned is kind of meh. We know LTE is power hungry, doesn't matter what device you're referring to, VZW's 4G will drain battery, as does WiMAX. That being said. I had no issues getting 22 hours out of the device in CDMA only mode, with 20% left on the battery still. Using wifi on and off all day, youtube, played with DLNA on my PS3, just a number of things tinkering with the phone.

    The charging 'issues' aren't issues at all. My generic car charger that I bought at our local VZW reseller works perfectly, charging at a wide open AC level, as does the charger that it comes with out of the box. Both of which charge the device quite quickly might I add. It also seemed to stay charged on USB when I was using it as a second, mini-monitor on WiFi for supplying information while gaming on my laptop.

    The screen is only noticeable because I know I'm looking for it. It isn't however, unbearable as so many reviews have stated. The colors are a little washed, but they're not overblown and overexaggerated like on a Samsung AMOLED, like I have in my Incredible.

    I didn't experience any UI /lockscreen/menu lag at all. This thing is a power house, and it turned Motorola into a whole new light for me. Everything they've done since the original Moto-Droid has been pretty much, shit. This is different. This is the right combination of hardware, network, marketing, and usefulness combined into one device. I couldn't be a happier former HTC fanboy.

    • David Ruddock

      With CDMA-only mode, as I said in the review, battery life is probably substantially better. But Verizon's LTE already covers the majority of the population, and most major urban areas, and so most people who buy the phone will have 4G coverage - that's just a fact.

      You're in the minority compared to the average user, and that's fine, but we write the reviews for the majority, and with 4G mode on, the BIONIC's battery life kind of sucks. There's also the plain issue of finding the toggle - I guarantee 80% of people will have the phone its entire useful life without knowing a CDMA/LTE toggle exists.

      As for the occasional lag, it's there, and the lockscreen definitely has responsiveness issues. Maybe you got the turbocharged model.

      As for the charging, we remain unclear on just what the problem is, and it doesn't seem to affect everyone. One possibility is that my HTC chargers had too little amperage. It charges fine on the stock one, but it's still a bit slow to get to full.

  • JayMonster

    I never charge a Motorola device without a Motorola charger going back to my Motorola Q9m (before that they were proprietary anyway). When I tried it with the Q9m, I would get a message that it was not an authorized charger... which bugged me, but simple fact is even my original Droid would give me issues when I tried an alternate charger. One comes with the phone, so I really don't mind using the "right" one anyway.

    I know VZW say it now covers "most" of the US... at best that is 51% right now, and some of those are "fringe" users. Yes, you need to cover battery issues, but while OVERALL the battery life may be "subpar", compared with every other device in its class (and by class I mean 4G), it is "above average." But your area has a lot to do with your results, even if you are in a 4G area. The thing that I think is most disappointing about the battery life was the "hearing" (allegedly) how thrilled Motorola reps were about battery life, only to have it be pedestrian at best.

    I have had zero "lag" on the lock screen. After boot, after lots of usage, with several apps haven recently been opened. This one I find baffling/interesting that you are seeing this.

    The first thing I did on this phone (as I do on ALL Android devices) is replace the launcher. Though I played with it, I don't think that the "effects" are all that slow, certainly not any slower than the same "cube" effects as in ADW, there certainly is SOME lag in the launcher and especially with the widgets which are just too damn heavy still... no denying that. Motorola has some cute ideas but those widgets are just too damn slow. But since I like most automatically change the launcher... problem solved.

    I am a little surprised you liked the camera app. This was one of the things I thought was up for a fix in the first update. It just isn't very friendly or intuitive to use. The first thing I went looking for was a replacement camera app.

    While we don't agree on everything, I thought this was your best and most accurate review to date. Thanks for the effort put into it... it is obvious you spent more time actually testing it than most.

  • goodguy629

    I have the bionic. I previously had the original Droid. I find the build quality great. I think the battery is average, this IS a 4G phone.
    I think the screen is much nicer, than I anticipated after reading some reviews. I did find that the screen protector that they put on at the Verizon Store, accentuated the pixelization problem.
    I think the bloatware that you can't delete, sucks. There is alot of large apps included
    I was wondering what you thought of the Webtop app and the accessories. I bought the small adaptor. With a long micro hdmi cable, I find it a good way to surf the web, on my large lcd tv.

  • Justin

    Sacrificing clarity for qHD resolution is simply put STUID AS F#%* ! The whole point of a higher res screen is that it's supposed to be sharper and more clear. The only reason I can see for using these crappy pentile qHD screens is so they can say "comes with new super ultra qHD mega resolution" pure marketing and an attempt to make specs sound good. Some bass ackward idiocy if you ask me.

  • sam

    I actually have the bionic and I have no complaints at all. I'm actually very pleased with it

  • harpdoc

    You can turn off all animations from Settings. Makes the phone fly.

  • Kevin

    How is this a sexy phone? It ugly compared to thunderbolt. Feels too plastic like too!

  • lordloki

    Can you please comment and review the high pitched noise issue from the headphones? https://supportforums.motorola.com/thread/57436?start=0&tstart=0

  • http://Pingtargets.com chris

    I get 13-16 hours out of mine every day, from 7 in the morning the battery is still at 20% when its 10:30 at night. The camera sucks, terrible slightly fuzzy pics with no use for the high 8MP because of the insane amount of graininess, the video is amazing tho. i can take pictures out of the video that is better than the camera takes. im running a launcher app that keeps things from getting laggy with the abundance of widgets. overall im thrilled with the performance of the phone and battery, but still hate the camera.

  • Ken Jseph

    I went from the Droid X to the Bionic. Nice improvement, but compared to the Droid X, the camera isn't even close. The pictures are very poor on the Bionic and were excellent on the X. Hard to take pictures without the dedicated button, slow to focus, and crappy resulting photo.

    Camera is an epic fail.

  • Shankar M

    "I too went form the Droid X to the Bionic....big mistake...the 4G/3G service constantly shuts down. Verizon tells me its a known issue with the Bionic and will be fixed with the software update. Well after waiting over 2 months the new updated software is here and downloaded.....BUT I STILL LOOSE 4G/3G SERVICE CONSTANTLY. Verizon will now give satisfactory answer other than to replace my "NEW" phone with refurbished one.

  • TheOddOne

    This phone is a piece of shit. I do not recommend  it to anyone. wast of money and i wish i never bought it. Shitty Apps, shitty battery life, and it fucks up often. Overall terrible phone.

  • Chauntee

    I am currently on my 5th replacement Thunderbolt for a variety of different issues the last 2 have been internet issues. Now Verizon decides they're going to send me a Droid Bionic and after reading some of these comments I am kind of skeptical that I am just going to have the same problems. Is there a phone out there that doesn't have any issues?