The Motorola DROID Ultra is a strange beast, at once a preview of Motorola's Google-centric future and a connection to its recent independent past. While its specifications and software features are nearly identical to the ubiquitous Moto X, a unique design and Verizon exclusivity (along with the DROID Mini and DROID MAXX) means that it shares a market position with previous DROIDs... a position that's somewhat irrelevant these days.
So why would you choose a DROID Ultra over the Moto X? Well, there's the slightly larger screen, a svelte body, and Kevlar construction. Were the DROID Ultra the only other phone available, that might be enough. But with a $200 on-contract price, the phone also compares poorly to the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, also available on Verizon and with better specifications all round. A disappointing battery life means that anyone tempted by the Ultra's design will probably be better served by the DROID MAXX, even with its larger body and higher price tag.
In short, the DROID Ultra seems superfluous at best. Unless you really need "the thinnest 4G LTE smartphone," there are better devices for the money.
Motorola DROID Ultra: Specifications
- Processor: 1.7Ghz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro (Motorola X8 SoC)
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network compatibility: CDMA, global GSM, LTE 800/1900MHz
- Operating system: Android 4.2.2
- Display: 5"1280x720 AMOLED
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB storage (11GB usable)
- Cameras: 10MP rear / 2MP front
- Battery: 2130mAh, non-removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB
- Thickness: 7.18mm (at the thinnest point)
- Weight: 140g (4.9oz)
- Tough, stiff body that feels incredibly durable
- Nearly stock Android 4.2.2 - Motorola's additions are great, and everything else can be disabled
- Solid screen and loud rear speaker
- Reception and call quality are excellent
- Marginal battery life - about one day maximum with moderate usage
- Camera is only OK, not great
- Body has ergonomic issues and attracts fingerprints
- Too expensive compared to to other brands and too similar to other Motorola hardware
Design and Build Quality
The DROID Ultra refines last year's DROID RAZR HD with a more rounded design, wrapping the entire frame in Kevlar and coating it in a high-gloss finish. The front is dominated by the 5-inch Super AMOLED screen, which is now minus a logo of any kind. The Kevlar body creates a small "chin" beneath the screen before curving around to the back, where you'll find a panel that combines the camera, flash, and rear speaker. One of the odd changes to the design of the new DROIDs is the re-addition of capacitive navigation keys below the screen. The original DROID RAZR used them, but last year's RAZRs went with Nexus-style soft keys, as does the Moto X. They're a strange addition to an already-large phone, but at least Moto uses the standard Android layout (I'm looking at you, Samsung and HTC).
The DROID Ultra's power and volume buttons hang out on the right edge of the device. They use a tapered design combined with grooves on the buttons themselves, which makes them easy to both distinguish and press even when you're not looking. Motorola has also created an interesting combination of the Volume keys and SIM tray: slide your fingernail along the bottom edge of these combined buttons and pull away from the phone to remove the piece and access the new Nano-SIM. (This smaller SIM card is also seen on the iPhone 5.) It's an elegant combination of function that keeps the DROID Ultra's lines clean, and it also means that you don't need a special tool to swap out a SIM card. Very cool.
The phone is covered in an extremely glossy finish over the Kevlar weave. It's pretty fetching... right up until you actually touch it. There's just no way to use the DROID Ultra without getting unsightly fingerprints all over the back. The hot rod red version might alleviate this, but even so, I would have preferred the matte finish seen on previous RAZRs and the DROID MAXX. On the other hand, Motorola seems to have finally gotten over its fascination with the side-mounted charging port, because the standard MicroUSB port now hangs out on the bottom edge of the phone, as God intended. The only other external port is the headphone jack on the top-left.
I have pretty average-sized hands for a man, and a five-inch screen is just about as large as I can use with one hand. But oddly, the incredibly skinny build of the DROID Ultra works against it here. The body is 7.18mm along most of the device, but subtly curves out towards a full centimeter around the camera module to almost a full centimeter. This means that while using it with one hand, my fingertips and the lower part of my thumb are the only parts of my hand gripping it, creating a slippery feel and a much less secure grip than phones with more heft. I tried out both a Moto X and a DROID MAXX in retail stores, and both felt considerably better and more secure in my hand.
But there's one area where the DROID Ultra stands alone, and that's rigidity. The combination of a completely Kevlar body and a Gorilla Glass screen means that there is no flex in the phone - none. This thing feels like you could use it as a baseball bat, though that would probably strain the terms of the warranty somewhat. I'm inclined to believe Motorola's claims that the DROID Ultra can take a beating, though I must point out that the phone isn't actually rated to any MilSpec or Ingress Protection standard.
Screen And Audio
The DROID Ultra's 5-inch screen is exactly what you've come to expect from an AMOLED panel: bright, clear, and somewhat oversaturated. I did notice a bit of a red tint to some of the darker Android interface screens, which seems a bit odd, since previous Motorola AMOLED phones that I've used have tended towards a blue or green tint.
The screen uses a resolution of 1280x720, the same as the DROID RAZR HD with a .3-inch increase in overall size. There are some who say that a 720p screen on a flagship phone isn't acceptable for 2013, but honestly, it doesn't bother me at all. I've used the Galaxy S4 screen with its 1080p panel at a nearly identical size, and it didn't change my user experience. It's true, you can see pixels if you're really looking, but I just don't see the advantage of 1080p screens until you get into the "phablet" range of devices. If a super-high resolution screen is a sticking point for you, you've probably already disregarded the new DROIDs. If not, you'll be more than satisfied.
Audio is surprisingly good as well. There's nothing quite so frustrating as a weak, tinny speaker on a smartphone, and the DROID Ultra's is anything but. While playing music or using the speaker phone I could hear the audio from across the room, and when playing music to put myself to sleep I actually had to turn it down. The Ultra's speaker is as loud as any I've heard from a smartphone, though admittedly it's not as clear as the much-touted front-facing speakers on the HTC One. But it's more than fine for extended sessions in the car or around the house. Audio streamed over Bluetooth or played on headphones was without distortion, but lacked a little bass.
The slightly slanted angle of the DROID Ultra works in its favor when playing audio: it tilts the phone up so that it's still audible on a flat surface. On the downside, it's very easy to cover up the speaker when using it, especially with games. Though the grille on the rear side is relatively large, the actual size of the speaker grille is only about 1x1.5cm, and it's almost impossible to distinguish its position by touch alone.
Performance And Storage
Motorola has been promoting its fancy X8 system-on-a-chip since the announcement of the new DROIDs. It's a bit of a misnomer: true, there are eight cores on the board, but not on the processor itself. The system is a custom-modified part from Qualcomm based on the Snapdragon S4 Pro: a dual-core Krait processor running at 1.7Ghz, a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU, and two extra cores, a natural language processor and a "contextual computing processor." These last two enable some of the exclusive software features we'll explore in detail below, but for now, let's focus on pure performance.
Unfortunately, the X8 just isn't in the same league as the latest and greatest from Qualcomm, Samsung, and NVIDIA. In terms of pure benchmarks, the DROID Ultra gets about 60% of the Quadrant score of Snapdragon 600 phones like the Galaxy S4 and One X, and less than half of the score of new Snapdragon 800 or Tegra 4 models. Other benchmarks roughly match this figure.
But benchmarks aren't really indicators of everyday performance unless you're in the habit of counting dropped frames on your launcher of choice. Motorola didn't skimp on the RAM for the DROID Ultra, which is a good thing, because 2GB is fast becoming a standard for new phones. While using the DROID Ultra for everyday tasks, including some processor and memory-intensive stuff like gaming and streaming video, I never felt the need to close programs via the recents menu. Considering that even stock Android phones are becoming memory hogs these days, that's high praise. A few rounds of Crazy Taxi and Riptide GP2 showed that the X8 has some pretty good gaming chops as well, no doubt helped by the lower 720p resolution. The Ultra won't beat out the SHIELD, but you shouldn't find anything in the Play Store that you won't be able to play in the next year or two.
The DROID Ultra comes with 16GB of storage, which seems to be the frustrating standard. That said, Motorola's software load is relatively light, and you've got a bit more than 11GB of space available for apps and music. What's more frustrating is that the MicroSD card slot seen on both the DROID RAZR and DROID RAZR HD is gone (probably a casualty to parent company Google's apparent grudge against external storage).
If you're going to take away the expandable storage, Moto, you need to spring for at least a 32GB flash module, especially on a device that's supposed to be premium. Gamers and HD content fans will probably want to look to the DROID MAXX or HTC One, both of which have 32GB.
Battery Life And Reception
The DROID Ultra's non-removable battery is 2130mAh, about 40% smaller than the capacious DROID MAXX, just a bit smaller than the Moto X, and strangely, a full 400mAh smaller than last year's DROID RAZR HD. It's also considerably smaller than the Galaxy S4 (2600mAh). Motorola probably thinned the battery to help differentiate the Ultra from the MAXX with that undeniably svelte body, depending upon the X8 architecture to provide a little relief. It's a real shame, since the last two DROID generations were relatively long-lived, even without the MAXX variants - that's one of the reasons why I used them as my personal phones.
Unfortunately, the DROID Ultra's battery life just isn't enough to keep up with power users. I could stretch the phone to just over a day with minimal usage, and about 16 hours with what Motorola would probably like to think of as "normal usage." But if you're constantly texting or browsing the web, the DROID Ultra will almost certainly be needing a top up before you hit the hay in the evening. Throw in a couple of Netflix episodes, an extended gaming session, or Google Maps Navigation, and the phone is going to be begging for some juice long before the sun goes down.
The other reason that I chose Motorola phones for my daily drivers on Verizon was their excellent reception on both 3G (CDMA) and LTE. I'm happy to say that Moto's legacy of top-tier radios is intact on the DROID Ultra. I live in a relatively low-signal area, and even here, data and voice were even more solid than on my DROID RAZR M. I was even able to pull down an LTE signal in places where other phones (especially those from Samsung) have struggled even to bring in a single bar. Call quality was quite clear, and data speeds were high and consistent.
Motorola insists that the 10MP "Clear Pixel" camera is the equal of its contemporaries in more high-end phones (in terms of specs, not price), especially when it comes to low-light conditions. While the camera is indeed better than previous Moto versions, it just isn't the equal of the standard-setting shooter on the Galaxy S4, and not quite as good as the HTC One. (I'm sorry to keep bringing these phones up, but with the DROIDs Mini, Ultra, MAXX, and the Moto X, Motorola is insisting that a phone with lower specifications can be just as good as a more powerful model.)
Photos were generally clear and crisp, or at least, more so than previous Motorola phones. The ClearPixel camera can get pretty good results when at medium light - the photos seemed to be a little brighter than their real-world subjects, in fact. This indicates at least some post-processing. But once you get beyond a medium light setting, the camera will insist upon firing its flash, which will wash out even the most carefully constructed scene. If you manually disable the flash, you'll see the same exaggerated darks and distorted deep colors that you'd expect from any mobile camera.
On the other hand, the Motorola camera is very fast. Hold down your finger for a shot and it will fire continuously, with about a half-second in between shots. Even while I was intentionally panning the phone for a panorama, the resulting photos were surprisingly sharp. Clearly this module is built for speed, which makes sense, considering the highly-promoted activation gesture. The HDR function (above right) seems like more of a gimmick than anything else, as it only brightened up photos a bit.
The 2MP front-facing camera is surprisingly sharp, at least if you don't move around too much, and video recording is smooth and has good adjustments for light and dark scenes. As you'd expect, the 10MP camera is better than the older generation of 8MP ones, not quite as good as the newer crop of 13MP cameras. Moving on.
Thanks to Daddy Googlebucks, Motorola now uses the closest thing to stock Android that you'll find outside a Nexus or Google Play Edition phone. For Android purists, the DROID Ultra and its stablemates are a very welcome sight: near-stock phones that look and act just like they expect them to. The new DROIDs aren't quite as clean as the Moto X thanks to a ton of Verizon pack-in apps (which, thankfully, can be disabled), and they use some interesting additions that we'll explore below. The new DROIDs and Moto X are also the closest thing to a "pure" Google phone that Verizon has had since the Galaxy Nexus.
Android And Interface
The Droid Ultra is pretty close to stock 4.2.2. You've got the familiar Holo interface with the standard suite of Google and Play Store apps, a stock launcher and app drawer, the usual. The Settings menu has even been switched to the default theme, which was one of the last gripes I had with my DROID RAZR M. In addition to the new options for Active Notifications, Touchless Control, and Droid Zap, there are Motorola-specific options for privacy, anonymous statistics, and a find-my-phone feature.
Speaking of the M, the unique Circle widget is back, this time even more useful. Three stacked circles will show you the time, weather, and battery percentage, and you can flip them over for Miracast options, more cities, and a quick Settings button. It's a handsome little widget that also includes a link to the stock Android clock app, and the circles can be condensed to a single radial clock if that takes your fancy. Unfortunately this widget can only be used on the stock launcher (sorry, Nova and Apex fans), which doesn't include the quick settings screen from the last generation. The Circle widget is now exclusive to the DROID line.
The camera interface has been changed as well. A quick swipe to the left will take you to the gallery, while a swipe to the right will open up the photo options. It's a quick and attractive way to get to your settings without sacrificing the whole-screen viewfinder. If Android 4.4's camera looks something like this, you won't find me complaining. There are a few extra steps in setup and some lingering Moto touches here and there, but mostly, it's Android all the way.
A few parting notes on software: the phone includes a quick-launching camera gesture, which can be activated even when the phone is off. Flick your wrist in a circular motion twice to open the camera almost instantly, whether the phone is on or off. It's very nice if you need a photo now, and the implementation is faster than any shortcut or widget. And lastly, the bootloader is locked, just like all Verizon phones. There's no root and no custom ROMs for the new DROIDs at the time of writing, and it's possible that there never will be.
Of course the DROID Ultra is still a Verizon phone, so you can expect a ton of pack-in apps. Here's everything I found: the Amazon suite (Amazon Appstore, shopping, Audible, IMDB, and Amazon MP3), Verizon's ludicrous bloatware (Caller Name ID, My Verizon Mobile, NFL Mobile, Verizon Tones, visual voicemail, the obsolete-as-ever VZ Navigator, and VZ security), QuickOffice, Viewdini, and Motorola Assist. The latter lets you customize a few behaviors for late-night alerts, calendar alerts, and a driving mode, which might actually be useful.
Thankfully, pretty much everything that you don't want (including stock Google apps) can be disabled. I can never thank Google enough for adding this non-root disable function, because it cleaned up about half of the apps in my tray. One thing that I kept was Ingress, because all of the 2013 DROIDs come with a guaranteed invite to the Ingress game. It's a nice perk if you haven't gotten in already, I suppose. What's even nicer is six months of Google Play Music All Access, a $60 value (and a pretty good Spotify substitute) for free.
Droid Zap is an interesting feature. From the gallery, drag up with two fingers and the phone will access your location and share the photo or video with anyone in the immediate vicinity using either another 2013 DROID or the receiver application. It's basically a reworked version of Bump. In my tests the service was quite fast (since it relies on a server-sync rather than a point-to-point transfer) and the idea is interesting, but requiring that participants use either a brand-new phone or an app from the Play Store makes this nigh useless. If you're ever likely to be in a position to use it, it would be faster to email the photo or video than to use Zap.
Motorola Migrate at least has some functions that can't be duplicated elsewhere. If you're coming from another phone (which probably doesn't use the new Nano-SIM) you can set Migrate to upload your SIM card contacts, call history, SMS logs, media, and volume settings. You can even connect the phones via a QR code. This is extremely useful... if you don't already use Google to manage your contacts. I suppose the call and text history might be nice, but resetting that information for a new phone has never really bothered me, and I haven't stored contacts on a SIM since I was on Windows Mobile 6. As far as media goes, it's probably faster to use a PC and a USB cable.
Here's where things start to get interesting. Touchless Control (once enabled in the Settings menu) can activate a series of commands on the DROID Ultra at any point, whether the phone is on or off. Just speak the Glass-style command phrase, "OK Google Now," and your phone will start listening. You can perform pretty much anything that can be done with Google Now, plus a few extra goodies like activating an alarm if you've lost your device in a filthy dorm room.
The voice detection is impressive: under quiet and medium noise conditions, the Ultra will hear you calling its name from across the room, and almost always gets the command right. (There's a short setup that will make sure it responds to only one user.) If your query doesn't line up to a phone-specific command like "call David Ruddock" or "wake me up in ninety minutes," it will do a general query and answer with text-to speech if it can. There's nothing quite so satisfying as asking your phone from across the room, "OK Google Now, what's the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?" and having it answer you out loud.
The touchless aspect is pretty cool, too - it brings the "let me Google that for you" phenomenon to new and nerdier heights. For example, I commanded "OK Google Now, Green Bay Packers schedule" and after the search, it responded with the next opponent, location, and time spoken aloud. There's some really fun stuff here.
There are a few drawbacks. For one, it becomes almost useless when you have a PIN or pattern lock. Sure, you can still issue commands, but before you can finish a search or do any kind of phone operation, you'll have to unlock your screen. That kind of defeats the "touchless" part of Touchless Control. I used the DROID Ultra with just a basic swipe lock for this very reason... something that isn't really safe and which I cannot recommend. Also, you can't set a custom voice command. I wanted nothing more than to activate Touchless Control by shouting "Computer" in a British accent and live out my Next Generation fantasies. No dice.
Predictably, Touchless Control tends to be a bit spotty in loud environments, especially when the source of the noise is nearby. Searching for player stats during a football game on your living room TV works fine, but searching for the same information in a noisy bar didn't work for me. Most annoyingly, Touchless Control would often fail when I was playing music through the phone speaker. Touchless Control also failed periodically when I was in my truck due to road noise or air conditioning - a real handicap considering the possible safety bonuses of never having to touch your phone's screen.
As an always-on front-end for Google Now, Touchless Control is undeniably cool, and most of the time it works well. But for maximum utility you need to keep your phone relatively open (again, not recommended), and noisy environments will break it more often than not. That's assuming that you can get over the mild social anxiety of talking to your device. Touchless Control is made possible by the natural language processing chip on the X8 SoC, and is also available on the DROID Mini, DROID MAXX, and Moto X.
The other unique addition to the new DROIDs and Moto X is Active Notifications. This is perhaps the best reason to choose one of the new Motorola phones over similarly-priced competition. After a brief setup, the DROID Ultra will flash a monochromatic notification on the screen itself instead of using a notification light. Any app on the phone can display notifications in this manner, and the user can enable or disable individual apps via the Settings menu. The Active Notification feature relies on the X8's contextual processor and the properties of AMOLED screens (black pixels, which make up the vast majority of the notification screen, don't draw power) to keep the hit to the battery low.
When you get an active notification you can tap and hold to see an expanded view, sort of like a super-sized notification in the pull-down menu on Jelly Bean. You can then swipe up to go straight to the relevant application, or swipe down to unlock your phone in the normal way. (Either option will insist upon a pattern or PIN unlock if you've set one up, which is fine, since you're already touching the screen.) The notifications flash about once every ten seconds, but the contextual core will also show them automatically if it detects that you just picked your phone up from your pocket or a flat surface.
Active Notifications are ingenious. Not only do they replace the somewhat crude notification light with something more detailed and useful, they function as a sort of secondary power button thanks to the contextual motion activation. Pick up your DROID Ultra from a pocket or table and it's ready to go, showing you the latest call or email, and letting you decide if you want to engage with it before you unlock your phone. Its' the same time-saving principle as lockscreen widgets in Android 4.2 brought to the next step. And of course, it's great to be able to hear your phone chirp on your desk or nightstand, tap it once, and see if you care enough to fully turn on the screen.
But like Touchless Control, Active Notifications could have used a little more time in the development oven. There's no way to select between multiple notifications - the last one takes priority, and it's either open the phone to the relevant app or unlock it in the normal way. There's no middle ground. Active Notifications also don't play nice with multiple email accounts: if you've got new mail, it will only show the last two from your primary account, something that I've always used multiple widgets to get around. There's no way to control music playback without unlocking the phone... unless you want to be boring and press the power button.
But all in all, Active Notifications are fantastic. Use them for a few days and you'll wonder how you ever got along without them. Depending upon your needs and your desire for cutting-edge hardware, you may find that they sell the DROID Ultra (or at least Motorola's 2013 line) all by themselves.
Market And Value
The DROID Ultra isn't exactly a mid-range phone, but it's not really a high-end phone, either. Motorola would like you to believe that you don't need the latest bleeding-edge hardware to enjoy Android, and they're right - get a decent processor, lots of RAM, and a good sturdy chassis, and you're well on your way to a worthwhile device. By this metric, the DROID Ultra is fine.
Unfortunately, it's also being sold at the same Verizon contractual price point as the 16GB Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, not to mention the upcoming LG G2. All these phones have 1080p screens, faster processors, better cameras (arguable in the case of the One), and more well-defined market niches. It's all well and good to say that you don't need the most powerful hardware to have a good experience - I've said the same thing many times - but you've got to follow that up with a price that reflects upon the undeniably lower specifications. Come on, Motorola: don't tell us how great your phone isn't and then expect us to pay as much as phones that are better, at least when you look at the spec sheet.
Confounding the value proposition for the DROID Ultra are its Motorola brothers, the DROID Mini and DROID MAXX. At $100, the Mini is well worth considering if you want a smaller phone (4.3") with the same hardware. It's got the same SoC, RAM, camera, screen resolution, storage, and practically identical software. As a happy DROID RAZR M owner, I'm fairly certain that the Mini would be a fine choice for anyone who wants a good combination of small size, small price, and decent power and software.
Then there's the MAXX. It's $300 on-contract, with three major distinctions from the Ultra. One, it's slightly thicker at 8.4mm, and uses a soft-touch finish that's both more comfortable and less of a fingerprint magnet than the high-gloss finish on the Ultra. This makes it both easier to hold and more ergonomically sound, removing the grip issues I mentioned above. Two, it's got 32GB of storage instead of 16, a much-welcome addition for fans of onboard media and big gaming apps. And three, it uses a massive 3500mAh battery, 60% bigger than the Ultra and rated for two days of battery life with normal usage. Even if this is somewhat optimistic on Motorola's part, I'm sure that many more MAXXs will be sold on longevity than Ultras on thinness.
So the $200 DROID Ultra is between a rock and a hard place: cheaper and more capable phones from Motorola squeezing it on the top and bottom, and technically superior hardware (even if it's paired to more frustrating software) at its own price point. Then you've got the Moto X, a phone that's nearly identical to the Ultra but with a thicker body, slightly smaller screen, slightly larger battery, and the (upcoming) ability to be customized on Moto Maker. The DROID Ultra is a tough sell, even if you love its software features, because the Moto X has them too. (Well, not Droid Zap or Moto Migrate, but I doubt anyone will shed tears over those.)
Others have said that the DROID Ultra is a phone that doesn't need to exist. I'd prefer to think of it as a sturdier, skinnier, and (if you ask me) prettier take on the Moto X, with a larger screen and capacitive navigation buttons for those that want them. But to be honest, even these are unlikely to sway too many buyers, since those who want a smaller screen are already looking at the DROID Mini and plenty will consider an upgrade to the DROID MAXX well worth the expense.
The DROID Ultra is an okay phone. The nearly-stock software is fantastic, and shows hints of greatness in Touchless Control and Active Notifications. It's also both the most sturdy and the thinnest phone I've ever used, which certainly appeals to many potential buyers. Motorola's typically excellent radio technology is on display, and while the camera, screen, and silicon aren't the best in the world, they get the job done.
Unfortunately one of the RAZR line's biggest strengths, battery life, is noticeably poorer in the Ultra. Combine that with the capacitive navigation buttons and ergonomic issues of a glossy, hard-to-grip case, and I can't help but think that Motorola is taking two steps forward and one step back in terms of design. Both of these issues are alleviated in the otherwise identical DROID MAXX.
The final nail in the coffin for the Ultra is the competition. With better-equipped phones that cost the same, and the nearly identical Moto X offering the upcoming promise of chic customization, the DROID Ultra is left with very little in the way of differentiation. If you're intrigued by the software features of the Moto X but want a slightly larger screen with the same resolution and capacitive navigation buttons, the DROID Ultra might be the perfect phone for you.. Everyone else, which I suspect includes the vast majority of new and returning Verizon customers, should look elsewhere.