The latest and greatest from Verizon and HTC's ongoing DROID partnership marks something of a shift in strategy for the two companies. In the past, if you wanted an HTC "DROID," your options were basically limited to the Incredible brand, which has become decidedly, well, less incredible over time. And while the Incredible started out as a top-of-the-heap smartphone back in 2010, it too was quickly eclipsed by bigger, better phones. Verizon's approach to HTC from basically day one has been "the DROID phone that costs less than some other DROID phone we throw a lot more marketing money behind."
There's nothing so wrong about that, but it hasn't exactly helped HTC grow its reputation on America's largest wireless carrier. Missteps like the ThunderBolt and Rezound, HTC's only recent flagship devices on Big Red - one of which was the first LTE phone in the US - left a seriously bad taste in the mouths of a lot of consumers. But since then, we've seen the One series brand reboot shoot HTC back into critical relevance, with the One X having been (debatably) the most widely-praised Android phone of 2012 among tech outlets.
That brings us to the DROID DNA. The DNA is based on the J Butterfly, which is almost certainly based on a yet-to-be-revealed international phone known only by its codename, "Deluxe." On paper, this is arguably the most cutting-edge Android phone currently sold in the US. 1080p display. LTE. NFC. Wireless charging. A Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM. It's like someone grabbed one of those imaginary "concept" phone wish-lists and made it. So, did it work? Sort of!
DROID DNA: Specifications
Price: $199 on contract
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ9064
GPU: Adreno 320
Network Compatibility: Verizon CDMA and LTE, GSM HSPA+ 14.4 quad-band (unlocked SIM).
Operating System: Android 4.1.1 with Sense 4+
Display: 5" Super LCD3 1920x1080 (440DPI)
Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB storage
Cameras: 2.1MP ultra wide-angle front, 8MP rear
Battery: 2020mAh, non-removable, wireless charging
Ports / Expandable Storage: microUSB (MHL) / none
The fastest phone HTC's ever built, easily. Multitasking is handled with aplomb, and games (*when they run) are smooth as butter.
The display is very, very good. It's not the best one ever, but the 1080p resolution should provide some solid future-proofing when it becomes the norm next year.
Battery life is above average for a high-end LTE phone. The DNA easily lasted me a whole day.
NFC, MHL, wireless charging, GSM compatibility - the DNA has a lot of little extras going for it.
Like most modern HTC phones, it's well-built and very solid.
The Not So Good
Sense is really, really showing its age and general shortfalls. Even LG is getting better performance out of Android than HTC, and that's kind of sad. Meanwhile, Samsung is lapping everyone fifteen times over with new features. Sense 4+ doesn't feel like much of an upgrade.
I'm not a fan of the design. At all. The pictures do it too much justice. Also, it's not Note II-size, but it's definitely a bit of a reach in the hand.
The display is a marked step back from the S-LCD2 of the One X / X+ in terms of colors and brightness.
Right now, some games are broken because of the DNA's high resolution (at least I'm pretty sure that's the issue).
11GB of usable storage isn't exactly "high-end" in my book, but then again, it's probably sufficient for most people.
Design and build quality
Big and boring - but solid.
I do love the feel of HTC's polycarbonate phone chassis that have become the norm for its high-end handsets. That said, the DNA is not the unibody-style chassis found on the One X / X+, but a two-piece affair. The polycarbonate "grippy" coated frame extends about two-thirds of the way up from the back of the phone, where the black, glossy plastic matching the display bezel starts. The result? The phone experiences pops and creaks uncharacteristic of HTC's One X. Don't get me wrong, it feels very solid, it just doesn't feels as tight as the One X in terms of build fit and finish.
Design wise, I'm not going to mince words: the DNA isn't ugly, but it's a total mess in terms of communicating a consistent aesthetic. Let's count the number of textures, surface types, and shapes, shall we? First, the matte-rubberize back / part of the sides. The black glossy plastic that extends up to the bezel. The perforated red aluminum running up and down the sides of the phone (it doesn't even match up with the size of the display or any other apparent geometric landmark). The red aluminum volume rocker, a sharply-edged rectangle with a concentric circle pattern. The power button, a pill-shaped piece of red aluminum with the same concentric circle pattern. The SIM tray, a hard, uncoated matte black plastic. The speaker grille, untextured red aluminum in a cutoff triangle pattern with circular perforation. A discrete, slightly lighter piece of black glossy plastic above the speaker grille.
I hope I'm getting the point across here - this thing is the definition of "fussy." It's like they took the basic design points of the HTC 8X and said, "how can we differentiate this as being Android through slightly rounder corners and a hopeless amount of aluminum bedazzling?" I loved the look of the One X / X+, but the DNA is about as elegant as a carbon fiber Bugatti Veyron. Which, if that's your sort of... thing, more power to you, I guess.
In terms of size, the DNA is certainly big. It's far closer to a One X or Galaxy S III than a Note II, though. It's ever-so-slightly wider than a One X, and significantly taller. It's also thicker. That'll definitely make it a reach for one-handed operation for many people, especially since the power button is on the top-center of the phone. Because that makes sense.
I'm not a fan of the hardware buttons. The power button's action is too shallow, and I constantly second-guess my presses of it. The volume rocker is better, though it's a full quarter-inch shorter than the rocker on the One X, which makes it more difficult to discern volume up / down.
The DNA does have a bit of a hardware party trick in the form of dual notification LEDs. Yep, there are two - one on the front, and one on the back. Fancy, right? Unfortunately, they suffer from the same limitations of the One X notification light. First, they only blink green or red (amber). Second, they're basically invisible unless you're in a dark room or looking straight down at the phone, because the perforations letting the light through are too deep (eg, the light source is too far inside the phone). Regardless, the notification light on the back is pretty awesome, and I found myself thankful for it on a few occasions.
You can see the rear notification light flashing dimly.
Also, a cover for the microUSB port? Really? Really? If this was my phone, I'd want to slice that thing off ASAP. That's just lazy, HTC.
Diminishing returns and compromises.
OK, I want you take everything you've read in pretty much every other review of the DROID DNA about the 1080p S-LCD3 display and forget it. Done? Great, because I'm going to tell you something totally different from most of the reviews I've read personally. Here goes.
The display is really, really good. But by no means is it the best smartphone display on the market, nor is it even the second-best. Let's break it down.
The resolution. You might have heard that it's sharptacular, smootherific - retinal sex, if you will. It's.... none of those things. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some luddite suggesting that increasing display resolution beyond the point of the human eye's ability to discern pixels at anything but an inch away is pointless. Of course it's not - standardizing resolution across multiple form factors will do wonders for scalability and display mirroring and all that jazz. It's a good thing, as Martha would say. There is no real drawback to increasing it at this point - the GPU / CPU hardware out there can easily push a 1080p phone.
But it's not something your eyes are going to appreciate if you're already coming from a full-matrix 720p phone. If you're comparing it to, say, a qHD phone, or even a PenTile 720p display (Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S III, etc.), you'll be able to see the difference pretty quickly. But put this up against full-matrix 720p fare from the likes of Sony, LG, and HTC, and the sharpness is no longer anything special. Your eyes just can't see it, and the only content I've even heard offered up as potentially making use of these extra pixels are CJK characters (Chinese, Japanese, Korean). So, if you read a lot of manga, this could be the phone for you, I guess!
Otherwise, settle down everybody: they're just pixels that your eyes still can't see unless you're some freakish half-man, half-bird-of-prey hybrid. In fact, the pixels do far more bad than good right now, and I'll tell you why in the software section of the review.
Other aspects of the display are good, but certainly not groundbreaking. Colors are a noticeable step down from the beautiful S-LCD2 of the One X / X+ - blues are too hot, and reds too dull. In fact, I'm reminded a lot of LG's IPS display on the Optimus G / Nexus 4... which makes me wonder if LG makes this panel. Brightness is subpar. I've had a heck of a time using the DNA in direct sunlight, more so than I'm used to for a high-end phone. Finally, the display has a decided blue hue-shift, whereas the One X / X+ had a much more natural slight yellow shift that made whites appear vivid and almost print-like.
Let me put it this way: visually, the DNA's display is a step back from the One X's in two apparent ways (color, brightness), and a tangible step forward in only one (size) - and I'm not even sure that counts as a step forward. I'm not saying it's bad, but I am saying this really isn't the part of the phone to get excited about.
Much better than you'd expect.
If you want the fully skinny on the DNA's battery life, I suggest my post detailing it (link), which goes into what the images below really mean. If you want the tl;dr version, though, here it is: the DROID DNA has pretty good battery life. I easily made it through a day on my review unit every day, even when I did some gaming. I was thoroughly surprised.
My power configuration was as follows: no Wi-Fi, full sync (Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), auto brightness, GPS on, Bluetooth off. I was working the phone decently hard, too - I make my review devices my primary phone during the time I have them, and I've been asking more of the DNA than I typically do my own phone. Rest assured, that 2020mAh cell may sound anemic on paper, but in reality, the power-sipping S-LCD3 display ensures the phone lasts plenty long for moderate users.
And that brings us back to the display: S-LCD3 doesn't use nearly as much power as S-LCD2. Which is probably why it doesn't get as bright, and the colors aren't as good. At least that's my guess.
Storage / Wireless / Call Quality
Media junkies beware.
The DNA comes with 11GB of usable storage, and does not have a microSD slot. Easy there - breathe before storming down to the comments. I know, it can't possibly be enough. But for most people, it probably is. Would a 32GB model hurt? No, but I don't see that happening, and I'm pretty sure Verizon (and all carriers) is on a warpath to annihilate expandable storage. But so is Google, so deal with it. If the storage capacity is keeping you from buying this phone, I'm not even sure why you've read this far in the first place, honestly.
Wireless performance has been totally solid. Switching from 3G to LTE is smooth, and Wi-Fi speeds and reception were great. Verizon's LTE out in the suburbs where I live is still crazy fast, too. I was pulling 50Mbps down and 10Mbps up at times. Seriously - and my reception isn't even that great.
Call quality was strong. The earpiece speaker on the DNA is very loud, which I think we can all appreciate. Parties on the other end seemed to have no problems hearing me, either. Let's be real: until VoLTE (voice over LTE) starts happening, a phone call is basically going to sound like a phone call no matter what you're using.
Audio / Speaker
HTC has been talking up the discrete 2.55v headphone amplifier in the DNA as "unique" in the smartphone world. And I guess it is. Because unlike most phones, the DNA has separate amplifiers for the rear loudspeaker and the headphone jack. This does have benefits, though I'm not sure most people will notice them. First and foremost, headphone audio out of the DROID DNA is significantly louder than most smartphones on the market. Oftentimes I find myself cranking the volume on some tracks near the max on the phones I review in order to get the full aural "depth" of a song, and that's not exactly good for my ears. On the DNA, I was far more comfortable leaving it in the 50-70% range.
The quality of the audio is something that, again, most people won't probably notice. It's like most Snapdragon S4 phones - fantastic, with very little distortion. Otherwise, I plugged three sets of on-ear headphones into the DNA, and found that once again, volume was substantially better than I'm used to on a smartphone. This is the primary benefit of that discrete amplifier - on or over the ear headphones with big dynamic drivers simply aren't meant to be used with the tiny little headphone amp in most smartphones. The DNA, though, delivers a more full listening experience with a large set of cans. When it comes to earbuds, you'll just notice it's louder - not better. And as with all things audio, the quality of the thing you're putting on / in your ear is going to be far more important than something like the voltage of your headphone amp - the DNA isn't going to make your crappy Skullcandy buds sound any better.
The rear speaker was nothing exciting - it's not any louder, better-sounding, or otherwise easily differentiated from almost every other smartphone loudspeaker on the market. It sounds pretty crappy, and it gets decently loud. Not much else to say about that.
Excellent. And exactly the same as it was nine months ago.
Nearly every piece of hardware on the DNA is an improvement from the One X. Except the rear camera - it's exactly the same. Don't get me wrong, the One X had a great camera at the time it was released, and that camera is still great. It's just not as good as some of the other ones on the market now. The 13MP sensor on the Sprint Optimus G, the 8MP Galaxy S III / Note II camera, and even Sony's 13MP Exmor R sensor (various phones) have all begun to outstrip HTC's 8MP ImageSense camera for sheer quality.
I've come up with something of a bad joke to describe HTC's cameras: never go full crop. At 50% of that 8MP resolution, photos can be downright gorgeous. Get closer to 100%, and they become a mosaic mishmash that looks like it went through a very subtle Photoshop blur filter. The quality of the images is what it's been since the One X came out, and that's to say very good, but they still have all the shortcomings of that shooter, too.
However, I'd still say that HTC and Samsung have the easiest to use Android smartphone cameras on the market. HTC's rapid-fire mode is intuitive (just hold the shutter), pictures snap very quickly, auto-focus works brilliantly, and touch-to-focus makes it easy to sort of selectively tweak your exposure on the fly. And for most people, this is really what matters - as long as the picture is good, it's the UX of camera app that most people are going to love. Too often, I find myself fiddling with settings and adjustments on the smartphone cameras I review, and that has never been something I've needed to do with HTC's phones - the software is simply top-notch.
Very fast, but something is undeniably left on the table.
No, the DROID DNA doesn't have "UI lag." It doesn't stutter or choke. It's a very fast phone, one of the fastest on the market, to be sure.
But I've used faster phones - some with slower chips. The US Galaxy S III with the dual-core Snapdragon still feels smoother running through the UI than Sense does on the DNA. The Exynos-powered Note II extends that advantage even further, it's yet more responsive and quick, especially in multi-tasking scenarios. The Optimus G, packing the same S4 Pro processor, is decidedly smoother, too.
Again, don't take my words the wrong way here, I'm not saying the DNA is slow. It's not. Compared to the One X+, for example, it handles multi-tasking far better and is much smoother under R/W load. To provide a real-world example, restoring all my apps on the DNA (around 40, I think) took about 10 minutes, whereas on the One X+, the same task took nearly 30, and the phone became much slower while all that was going on. The DNA remained basically smooth.
Rest assured, the DROID DNA provides plenty of processing and GPU horsepower for gaming and all sorts of smartphone heavy lifting, but it's hard not to point the finger at Sense for the comparative smoothness shortfalls.
Take a look at the size of the power control widget's little icons in the screenshot below. Yeah, they aren't scaled properly - they're tiny! I haven't encountered many issues with the DNA's resolution, but that's not to say I haven't had any at all. I tried several games that failed to open, and that's a concern for a phone that's so media and graphics-oriented. Heck, Angry Birds Star Wars crashed whenever I tried to load a level - not cool. But several others I ran worked fine. Basically, it may be a little hit-and-miss getting your games to run on the DNA for the next month or two, but it's almost certainly not going to be a long-term issue.
Oh, and if you really want to get the full benefit of the DNA's high-res LCD, I suggest you go into the display settings and set the font to "small," which will scale down a lot of apps, allowing them to show more content on screen. Just look at these two screenshots comparing Twitter on "Medium" and "Small," respectively.
UI / UX
Sense 4+ is not the refresh HTC needed.
I have a nasty habit of falling in and out of love with HTC's Sense UI. Every day I go without opening the gallery app, for example, I feel far better about it. Every time I use the dialer, I get slightly ill. My problem isn't so much how Sense looks (even if the new holo blue accents are super uggo), but how little HTC has done to fix its absolutely glaring flaws.
While Samsung (and even LG) continue to evolve their UX and add features (some of decidedly questionable value), HTC seems content to rest on its laurels and let Sense age. Sense 4+, whose naming scheme I cannot begin to comprehend, should be called Sense 4.01 - because it's an absolutely tiny jump from the previous version. The biggest changes are those that came with Jelly Bean anyway, in the form of expandable notifications and Google Now.
Before I start tearing Sense apart piece by piece, I do want to lay out a major caveat to all these flaws: I still think Sense is most user-friendly custom UI on any Android phone, and that HTC has a better understanding than Samsung of how regular people (eg, not you and me) actually use their smartphones. And there's a lot to be said for that.
Homescreen / Lockscreen / Notification Bar / Recent Apps Menu
The homescreen UI is largely the same as it's been since Sense 4, and moving between screens is generally very smooth (though not TouchWiz / stock Android smooth). You get the same add app / widget / shortcut UI that was added in Sense 4, one HTC addition I genuinely like. Adding apps and widgets from the drawer may make for a "simpler" user experience, but having to open the drawer over and over to do so absolutely drives me nuts. HTC, unlike Samsung and LG, has also adopted the uninstall from the app drawer option found in stock Android, something I very much appreciate.
The app drawer itself is the same as ever, and you get a fourth "drawer" along the bottom for Verizon-branded apps (hooray), which is helpful for figuring out exactly what you need to go into settings and disable right away. This tab can be removed, too, so it's really not much to complain about. The app drawer also now has holo blue highlights that are totally out of place with the rest of Sense's bright green accents, and similar highlights appear throughout the OS.
The lockscreen is largely unchanged from Sense 4, showing your quick launch shortcuts and the HTC pull-up unlock circle. The lockscreen can be customized in the same ways, with widget-like "styles" that can be overlaid through HTC's personalization area in the settings menu - and there appear to be a few new such styles. Personally, I like the weather one, though it has a ridiculous animation before it actually pops up, so it's not all that useful for a really quick glance at conditions, since it's no faster than just unlocking the phone and looking at the homescreen widget.
The notification bar adds the rich notifications of Android 4.1, but still lacks the now-something-I-take-for-granted power control switches found in Samsung, LG, and Sony phones. I guess HTC's implementation is closer to stock, but that's one feature I think everyone agrees even Google is doing it wrong on. Verizon, in their infinite wisdom, have decided a persistent Wi-Fi notification is a good idea, because you're an idiot and don't know what Wi-Fi is or why you should turn it on.
The recent apps menu is still awful. I have no idea why HTC went with their own, quirky implementation when Android's works just fine. It's a pain in the ass to navigate, and it's ugly, to boot. Google Now is brought up by long-pressing the home button, and seems to work well enough.
HTC's Senseless Tweaks: The Legacy Menu Button & App Associations
Two of my least favorite parts of Sense have returned in the DROID DNA. First, the absolutely evil virtual 3-dot legacy menu button. And HTC doesn't include an option to disable it by remapping the recent apps capacitive key on the DNA, presumably because of the larger screen. Not acceptable. While the number of apps that require the legacy menu button is ever-decreasing, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon (Mobile, MP3, and Kindle) still use it, along with dozens of other highly popular apps. There was no reason to get rid of the option, HTC - especially after responding to a very vocal demand for it on the One X / S.
The second thing I really don't like about Sense is the app associations menu. This was put in place on American HTC phones in response to Apple's ITC import ban on the One X / EVO 4G LTE, and removed much of the native app picker functionality from Android. What's so odd about it is that some actions (opening a PDF, for example) still use the Android app picker to associate an app. Hopefully this little "feature" will be removed in a future OTA update now that Apple and HTC have settled their dispute.
Stock Apps: Gallery, Calendar, Dialer, Keyboard
HTC, I like you. Really. But if there are three stock apps I open up remotely often on a phone, they're the dialer, the calendar, and the gallery. And yes, third-party replacements are available (you can even just get plain old Google Calendar), but these are the sort of things I'm often too lazy to seek out alternatives to. And frankly, expecting them to be done in a way that is half-decent isn't exactly asking the world.
Green and neon blue, two great tastes that go great - no wait, I mean whatever the opposite of that is.
The dialer feels like something out of Sense 3.5. It's cramped, crowded, and a visual disaster. Too much small text, too many buttons, and the keypad is way too small. You can switch to a "full screen keypad," but then the predictive T9 and number matching stuff goes away, so you'll never want to use it. I do like that recent calls are shown in a list above the dialpad, but the use of real estate in this app is just so inefficient.
The stock calendar is probably the worst I've ever used. It displays almost no information, even on the DNA's high-density 1080p display. And "Week" view has to be added manually from the settings menu, for whatever reason. Not that it helps, because it still doesn't show you much of anything in detail. This app is in seriously bad shape.
I use the gallery app a lot on any smartphone, and I'll admit - I'm hard to please. I find Google's stock gallery app the best, because it's simple to navigate, and easy to share from. Sharing is the number-one thing I'm doing from the gallery, actually, and HTC makes it absurdly hard to do. You can't long-press to select multiple photos - you have to hit "share" first. You have to select "my phone" to actually get to your local albums upon opening the app, because HTC initially presents you with 5 photo sources you probably don't want. You can't share a screenshot from the preview image if you tap the notification (though the "share" option is on the expanded notification) - you have to open the galley app back up and share it from there. This all sounds minor, but when you're doing it several times a day, it eventually drives you nuts. The user flow is just all kinds of out of whack, and when the stock Android experience is so, so much better, it's hard to understand how HTC screwed it up so bad.
The keyboard, thankfully, allows me to end this sub-section on a high note - it's great. Aside from a few quirks with predictive text (It doesn't predict I'll if I type I-L-L, for example), accuracy is fantastic, and the DNA's large display means even the clumsiest of fingers will probably find their mark more often than not. It's responsive, quick, and generally a joy to use.
There's some Verizon bloat on here, aside from the Wi-Fi notification. I counted a solid dozen apps, all but one or two of which can simply be disabled in the app settings menu. They're a nuisance, I guess, but since the ability to remove them from sight was added in Android 4.0, I can't really complain about them.
Qualcomm actually put an in-house game on the DNA, too, which I didn't have an opportunity to test, but supposedly it's pretty neat - Reign of Amira is the name.
The Sum Of Parts
Listen, it's not that Sense is bad, it's that once you've experienced the alternatives (stock Android, TouchWiz), it's hard to look at it as anything but a little underwhelming. It's especially hard knowing that with Sense 4+, HTC had an opportunity to bring its UI overlay up to date with the competition, and really didn't do that. Maybe they're going to wow us with Sense 5. But right now, honestly, I might even prefer TouchWiz. Yeah.
Before I take my rant too far off the deep end, though, I'll say this - Sense is fantastic for people who want a simple, clean, intuitive UX. Not as clean as stock Android, but decidedly more friendly. If I were to pick an Android phone for my parents or less technically-inclined friends, an HTC would be at or near the top of my list, without a doubt. The best thing about Sense, in my opinion, is that compared to TouchWiz or any other custom UI overlay, I find myself doing far less tweaking and tinkering - HTC is very close to getting it "right" out of the box.
The DNA is a great phone, easily the best non-phablet - because it definitely isn't one - on Verizon. (I say that mostly because the Note II has its own, other merits - crazy battery life, stylus, extra-large screen.) This is the DROID daddy, and I'll say quite confidently that it's going to be the phone to have on Big Red for most eager Android fans this winter. Let me put it this way: I doubt most people will care about the less-than-stellar performance from HTC's hardware design group on this one.
But there are other drawbacks, most of them in the software. Sense is losing its luster, and the blame there lies squarely with HTC. You can't escape the feeling that the DNA is holding something back, that it could be more. Sometimes, it's hard to put your finger on why - it just doesn't feel right. But too often, it's very apparent. Case in point, traversing HTC's Gallery app is nothing short of a UX nightmare.
The DNA generally tries to overcome these flaws and silly notions of "practicality" like a 1960's muscle car... with more power. HTC and Verizon have been anything but shy about flaunting the specification sheet. That leaves a question, though; is power enough to keep you interested? And more importantly, can HTC and Verizon keep putting that power down to the road with timely software updates?
This leads me to my biggest problem with this phone: if I were to buy a DNA, the real point of anxiety wouldn't be focused on today, but six months from now. Will I get Sense 5 (or whatever it's called)? How long will I have to wait for it? Is HTC just going to fall further behind Samsung's growing arsenal of sometimes-useful software features and quick updates? And to speak of the here and now, the DNA already feels like it sometimes struggles to effectively use the hi-po tech packed inside of it, and that's 100% because of Sense. Call me crazy, but I don't see too many Android phones getting better as they age. I find my misgivings in this area difficult to shake.
But that's the rambling of someone that probably knows far more about Android and smartphones than is healthy. I can't stand feeling like I'm behind the curve. I don't think my personal doubts are going to ring true with the vast majority of people who buy this phone. And make no mistake, I still recommend it - the DROID DNA's drawbacks are of concern to a decidedly niche audience. If you're upgrading your phone every 6 months anyways, or simply want the best phone on Verizon right now, you can't go wrong choosing the DNA.
I still think the name is silly, though.