Let me just start by saying that I like the DROID Maxx and DROID Mini. Why conclude a review before I begin it? Because so many people have already concluded that they cannot like these phones. Motorola's new devices have proven incredibly polarizing among enthusiasts, especially to Google and Android diehards who held on till the bitter end to a fantasy (and that is what it was) that the company would come to the rescue of marginalized power users. Spoiler alert: it hasn't. What Motorola is trying to do is much cooler than SD cards, removable batteries, unlocked bootloaders, and other things I frankly could not care much less about in my smartphone.
The DROID Maxx and Mini are not perfect. Their competitors will do things they do not. They have better screens. Better cameras. Quicker processors. They run a newer version of Android. And if those things are terribly, dearly important to you, Motorola's newest phones may not be for you. And that's fine - I personally don't even know if I'd buy one. But I don't think, as a business strategy, Motorola particularly cares about dialing in their lineup for those who obsess over specifications. So, if you're here to point out that the X8 is based on a Snapdragon S4 dual-core or that Motorola is launching phones with Android 4.2 when 4.4 is already on the way, thank you - I know that! I've read the spec sheets. I've used the other phones.
Few, if any, of those other phones, however, change the way the majority of people (and that's the key here, most - not some) will experience using their smartphone on a daily basis. And that's what Motorola is really trying to do - it wants you to come to expect a level of useful, reliable, deeply integrated functionality that competing products do not (in some cases, cannot) provide. Motorola isn't experimenting so much as it's augmenting.
The DROID Maxx and Mini, if you're not aware, are based on the same platform as the Moto X. They have different displays, chassis designs, and battery capacities, but otherwise they're just Moto X incarnations. Why build them? Because DROID sells. Motorola isn't stupid - its now-exclusive partnership with Verizon has provided excellent returns in the past, and I think this generation will renew consumer confidence in the brand, and probably attract a fair number of new customers.
The Mini is what it sounds like - a small, cheaper version of its larger, pricier, Kevlar-ier robo-kin. It doesn't feel particularly premium, but you're not losing out on anything that actually matters in a big way - same inside-bits, same camera, same display resolution, and same software features.
The Maxx, frankly, is the one you should probably buy if you're at all interested in any of them. It feels very premium (and not slimy, like the Ultra), has what I'd call the "right" display size, more internal storage, and positively drool-worthy battery life. It's time to go deeper, though.
DROID Mini / Maxx: Shared Specifications
- Processor: Motorola X8 Mobile Computing System (based on Snapdragon S4 dual-core running at 1.7GHz)
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network compatibility: 3G CDMA (Verizon), LTE (Bands 4, 13), 3G HSPA+ (quad-band)
- Operating system: Android 4.2.2
- Memory: 2GB RAM
- Cameras: 10 MP rear, 2MP front
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / none
DROID Mini Only
- Price: $99 on contract
- Display: 4.3" LCD 1280x720 (342 DPI)
- Storage: 16GB
- Battery: 2000mAh, non-removable
- Thickness: 8.9mm
- Weight: 130g
DROID Maxx Only
- Price: $300 on contract
- Display: 5" AMOLED 1280x720 (294 DPI)
- Storage: 32GB
- Battery: 3500mAh, non-removable
- Thickness: 8.5mm
- Weight: 167g
- Maxx: Insane battery life - I managed 2 days of use pretty regularly.
- Mini: Very good specifications (storage, RAM, GPU, etc.) for a small, mid-range phone.
- Maxx: Extremely solid construction, and I love the soft-touch rubberized coating - this feels like a truly premium device.
- Both: Active notifications isn't the best thing since sliced bread, but it's probably up there with sliced cheese and / or deli meats.
- Both: Relatively stock-ish Android ensures very smooth, quick performance, and overall there's just a refreshing lack of feature creep on these phones.
The Not So Good
- Both: Neither has a great display, though I'd take the Maxx to task most over this, as its 5" AMOLED panel simply doesn't get bright enough and has very obvious white balance issues. 1080p also does make more sense on a 5" phone, if I'm honest - the difference in content side by side is there.
- Both: The cameras take OK photos in daylight, but they're a train wreck once the sun goes down. They also have difficulty focusing and exposing photos correctly, which makes them feel like something of an afterthought.
- Mini: Slimy, glossy plastic. This phone feels cheap.
- Both: The DROID aesthetic is a pretty take it or leave it affair. Not my cup of tea, personally.
Design and build quality
The Mini feels very similar in texture to the Ultra - slimy, glossy plastic. I don't really like this part of it. Nor do I really appreciate the way it looks - shiny and, most of the time, covered in finger smudges. It doesn't feel incredibly tightly-assembled, and while I've held worse phones, it really does feel cheap. It has enough play in the frame that you'll know this isn't Motorola on its best day, but it doesn't feel as phoned-in as, say, the Incredible LTE did. Most people buying this phone will probably wrap it in a case, though, so this may or may not be a concern to you.
The size is obviously the Mini's most attractive feature for prospective buyers, perhaps aside from price. Yep, it's smaller - a full 10mm narrower than the Maxx / Ultra, and 37g less hefty than the former. This is entirely a subjective matter, so I'm not going to drone on about the screen size debate. If you want a smaller phone, the Mini is smaller than most of your Android options, and I honestly think is probably the best "small" Android phone you could choose at the moment for two reasons: 2GB of RAM - almost unheard of at this device tier - and an identical SoC and basically identical software to three other phones that should guarantee it timely (by Verizon standards) and long-lived update support. As long as the Ultra / Maxx are getting updates, the Mini should be tagging along. At least, there's no good reason it can't.
Getting back on track here, the design of the Mini isn't anything particularly groundbreaking. It has capacitive navigation keys - in the order and layout Google intended - and some very nice and clicky power and volume buttons, something I greatly appreciate. The Mini is clearly not trying to turn heads on looks or game-changing materials. It's pretty utilitarian.
But let's not let Motorola get off too easy here - rubberized matte plastic looks pretty utilitarian, too. And doesn't attract fingerprints. Or look really tacky. I feel like the choice of texture wasn't one of cost so much as upsell opportunity - the Maxx and Moto X don't feel or look cheap at all. And at least the Ultra can fall back on its crazy thinness.
I think the Maxx is the least offensive DROID phone in a while. Its soft-touch weave backing is a bit "extreme" (if you know what I mean) for me, and I'm honestly surprised Verizon doesn't offer tribal tattoo / stamped steel pattern special editions, but it's toned down from last year's version substantially. It also feels very nice, and doesn't gather unsightly finger smudges.
The front of the phone lacks the in-your-face Motorola and Verizon logos of last year's model, the camera module blends in better, and there are far fewer hard edges and accents all around. Even the weave pattern is less bold, with a smaller grid size and reduced contrast. The result is sort of like taking the aftermarket spoiler and black rims off a Corvette - it's still a bit garish, but it seems like it's trying a little less hard to play the "look at me, look at me!" card.
The Maxx feels extremely well-built, and because of its large battery, has the density and heft that some people claim to prefer in a phone. Because everything has to be packed in there so tightly, the Maxx is also incredibly rigid out of engineering necessity. Why can't every OEM stuff a 3500mAh battery in a frame this size, again?
The story on the capacitive keys and power / volume buttons is the same as the Mini - laid out correctly, nice and clicky. As for the issue of size, the Maxx is a paltry 1.4mm wider than a Galaxy S4. If you can hold an S4 comfortably, you can hold a Maxx, assuming the extra 37g of weight aren't an issue.
DROID Mini / Maxx
Over. Saturated. That's the AMOLED on the Maxx in a nutshell. Both displays are pretty sharp - the Mini being sharper, the Maxx being a bit below 'retina' values - and the Maxx's has very good viewing angles. The Mini is very slightly inferior in this regard. Those are the good things. The list of bad things, though, is longer.
While it doesn't use PenTile, the Maxx does use a "supersized" blue subpixel rendering scheme (aka S Stripe) similar to the Galaxy Note 2, which has its own interesting drawbacks. Namely, the display just doesn't get very bright. The Maxx downright sucks in sunlight compared to the Galaxy S4's AMOLED or the HTC One's bright LCD. It's also really yellowed, whereas the Mini's LCD's white balance seems about right. So that's something of a letdown.
For an LCD, the colors on the Mini also look like Samsung's did on the Galaxy S II, probably the height of the super-saturated AMOLED displays, after which Samsung started toning them down a bit. In particular, reds are reminiscent of a poorly-tuned CRT television. The Maxx is definitely oversaturated, too, but not to the eye-searing extent that the Mini is.
Considering how far AMOLED has come on devices like the Galaxy S4 and Note 3, and the still-amazing S-LCD displays HTC uses, the Maxx and Mini lag behind considerably in this regard.
The battery life of the DROID Mini isn't fantastic, but it isn't bad. I think most light to moderate users will get through a day without having to take any drastic power-saving measures, which is good. I rarely had to reach for a charger before the day was over.
I'd like to address some comments recently about the way we approach battery life in reviews, in that there is really no good way to evaluate it. Every single person is going to have anecdotal evidence in this regard. And every "test" of battery life will fail to take into account real-world conditions that can dramatically alter the results of such evaluations.
My review process involves syncing two Gmail accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (really, all of my Google stuff), and a few more specific-purpose apps I use like RunKeeper or Pandora. I do not use Wi-Fi (which greatly reduces battery consumption as compared to mobile data), I generally keep the display brightness maxed, and I have GPS, data, sync, and NFC toggled on at all times. I cannot tell you what kind of battery life you will get on a given device. I can say that I didn't notice any anomalies in battery consumption on the DROID Mini, and that it charges quickly (probably owing to Qualcomm's QuickCharge tech).
I check my email a lot, I check Twitter a lot, I read news in the browser, and I listen to music for maybe an hour a day on my phone, typically while using RunKeeper, which locks the GPS on while tracking my movement. I average 1.25 to 2 hours of screen-on time a day, and am in a strong LTE coverage zone. My phones do not just sit at my desk connected to a Wi-Fi network with most things turned off and display brightness set to the minimum - I do not attempt to conserve my battery in any active way.
Does this sound very close to the way you use your phone? Probably not! And thus, it's pretty useless for me to speculate about how the phone will fare for someone who uses it more than I do, tries to conserve battery more actively, or is constantly using it for turn by turn navigation.
The best information I can give you is that I did not observe the DROID Mini to have significantly better or worse battery life than most of the phones I regularly use, like the HTC One or the Galaxy S4.
Now that I've gotten the procedural issues out of the way, let me say: holy crap. The Maxx easily gets through two days of what, for me, is normal usage. And by two days, I mean from 7AM one morning until 7PM the next night. It's not 48 hours, but it's two work days worth, and that's damn impressive.
Having owned a Note II previously, the Maxx gets substantially better battery life than that device ever did for me. The Note II typically ran out of juice by early afternoon of the second day.
On one particular occasion, in which I used Wi-Fi for the majority of the first day off the charger, I managed to rack up near as makes no difference 5 hours of screen-on time over the course of two days. That's just incredible. My Note II tended to die off around the 3 hour mark on mobile data alone, whereas the Maxx has typically quite easily made it to 4 hours.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
DROID Mini and Maxx
You get 16GB of internal storage and no SD card slot on the Mini. 32GB on the Maxx, and again, no SD slot. Wireless performance on both has been pretty good generally, though I find that like most Android phones, they have a hard time finding and staying connected to my 5GHz wireless network. Perhaps it's the router.
Mobile data performance on the Mini seems inferior to the Maxx in the speed testing I've done, as well as anecdotally. The Mini was more inconsistent in speed test results, and its rated upload speeds were around half those of the Maxx. Placed right next to one another, the Mini always had a slightly weaker 4G signal, and a substantially weaker 1x signal (typically 10dBm lower than the Maxx). Both phones, however, seem to be very good at holding a signal in general.
Bluetooth on both devices worked as expected, as did NFC.
Call quality was typical Motorola - outstanding. The earpiece speaker on the Mini sounds a bit more muddy and warm than the one on the Maxx, but both were extremely clear, loud, and free of major distortion. Compared to what you get from Samsung or HTC, it's not hard to believe Motorola's been in the cell phone business for four decades (yep, since 1973).
Audio and speaker
DROID Mini and Maxx
Headphone audio on both devices is excellent, which is to be expected - both use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4-derived chipset, which has long been known for its excellent audio hub.
The speaker on the Mini is quieter than the one on the Maxx (I think because the Mini's shell has a bit more room to reverberate sound, the Maxx is fully packed in there), and also sounds substantially worse. Cost-cutting has to happen somewhere. Both speakers, though, are quite loud. The Maxx's is actually very good - I easily prefer it to the Galaxy S4's external speaker, though it's still not in the HTC One's league, obviously.
DROID Mini and Maxx
Eh. In daylight, the Maxx and Mini's cameras (which are identical) take perfectly passable photos in terms of detail and clarity, though focusing is difficult (even with tap to focus enabled), and exposure often just isn't right (generally overexposed). See samples below.
The bottom 2 samples are HDR, which the camera actually seems decent at.
At night, they're terrible. Just really, really bad. I'm not sure what led Motorola to employ such intense softening in the image processing, but wow, there's really no redeeming these photos.
2003 called, it wants its camera phone back.
I also do not like the "tap anywhere to capture" behavior. It's easily turned off, but when I did use it, especially on macro shots, focus was almost always on the wrong part of the scene. Motorola's never been any good at cameras, and that really doesn't appear to have changed much with the Mini and Maxx.
Not night, but quite dark - notice the blurring / softening effect.
The wrist twist camera launch works, and after significant trial and error, I find it can be useful if you really get the motion down to a science. Or just flail your wrist wildly until the camera starts up (signaled by a long vibration). It's no dedicated shutter button (what a novel idea!), but it gets the job done for candid shots better than you'd expect.
Software (Mini and Maxx)
Performance and stability
Motorola's Snapdragon S4-derived dual-core SoC is definitely proof that you do not need a quad-core chip to make Android quick. Are Motorola's new phones as fast as an LG G2, or even a Galaxy S4? In terms of app launch times and other raw performance figures, probably not. Are they so much slower that it's going to be an issue, or even something you'll really notice? No. Both the Mini and Maxx are extremely responsive and smooth navigating through Android, and I expect Motorola's very light modifications to the OS play a big role here. I have no way to concretely confirm this, but Google apps like Gmail and Drive also seem to run more smoothly on Motorola's phones, even when compared to powerhouses like the Snapdragon 800-equipped LG G2. Perhaps there's a bit of optimization going on there. Even the famously laggy Google Maps app runs at least as quick on the Maxx as it does on the G2.
As far as stability and app compatibility, I've not had any major issues with the Maxx or Mini. There have been a few apps that have behaved a little... crashy on them, though. Pandora has given me a fair bit of trouble, as have one or two others I can't quite think of at the moment, though this is often the case when phones with a new chipset are released. Hopefully such issues will sort themselves out over time.
UI and features
It's stock-ish Android, which means I cannot say many words that have not already been said many times by many people in many different ways. So I'm not going to. If you like stock Android, great - these phones are very, very close to stock Android. The closest you will find outside of a GPE / Nexus device. So with that said, I'm only going to talk about Motorola's additions, which aren't all that extensive, but what additions there are generally are things you'll enjoy.
Active Notifications / Active Display
My favorite feature by far. Active notifications (and by close relation, active display) are dead simple, but it's the best thing I've seen added to Android in a long time.
Because all Motorola's new phones except the Mini use AMOLED display panels, a small band of the panel can be illuminated independent of the rest of the screen, meaning the action of lighting up that area consumes very little power. I'm not sure how much more power this feature consumes on the Mini, though, since it has a standard backlit LCD. Whenever you pick up (or just kind of jostle) the DROID Mini or Maxx, take them out of your pocket, or receive a notification, that little area (around 1" tall) on the screen will light up, showing the clock and the appropriate notification icon. This is the active display part, basically.
Tap and hold on the circle which the icon in inside, and suddenly you'll get a rich notification up at the top of the screen displaying all the information you would normally get in the notification bar. The rich notification at the top is typically the most recently received notification, while a list of your other notifications (with only basic information) sits at the bottom, along with an unlock icon that just unlocks the phone and goes to the homescreen. This is the notification part.
The best thing about this is when the screen chooses to light up; essentially, whenever you reach for your phone. No more fumbling for the power button - just pick up your phone and it's already on and showing you your notifications (it still comes on even when there are no notifications). That's really the beauty in what Motorola's done with this - it all requires no thinking from you. It just works. It integrates seamlessly into the way you already use your phone. I am absolutely in love with this feature.
You can choose which apps are allowed to send notifications for this feature, whether you still want full rich notifications when you use a PIN / pattern lock, and to sleep the feature during your off hours (which can be adjusted to your liking).
Motorola Assist sprung from the ashes of Smart Actions, and though it's somewhat limited, once again, Motorola has focused on making it something you don't have to think about: it just works, and it often works in a way that is helpful to normal people.
Assist has three states it detects: driving, meeting, and sleeping. If your phone detects you're driving (and this does work - it usually manages to figure it out in 1-2 minutes for me), it will read your text messages and the identity of callers aloud as they come in. You can also configure it to send a (sadly, non-editable) quick reply if you miss a call, which says "I'm driving and will get back to you soon." Handy if you're a mobile professional, though I doubt I'll use it myself. The driving mode also can be set to resume your previously-playing music, though that one's a bit more questionable if you ask me.
Meeting mode is simple - if there is an event on your calendar which you are marked 'busy' for, your phone will silence itself during that time, and be set up to send an automatic SMS for missed calls indicating you are in a meeting, similar to driving mode. The silent mode can be either true silent or vibrate only. You also have two exceptions you can enable, allowing certain notifications to make it through: if someone is in your favorite contacts, or if they call twice within a 5 minute period. That's certainly cool.
Finally, sleeping mode. It's basically similar to meeting - your phone will be silent during a specified time period (the default is 11PM to 6AM). You get the same choice of exceptions, too (favorite contact, 2 calls from same # within 5 minutes).
Can a lot of this stuff be accomplished with apps? Yes. Is there any other single solution out there that presents it as simply, cleanly, and so-easy-your-mom-could-do-it? I've yet to see one. Motorola even prompts you to set up Assist when you're first setting up the phone (along with active notifications), so that you know you can take advantage of these features. It's friendly, non-intimidating, and there's very little to get confused about. It is, again, an excellent implementation of a feature almost every person is going to want to use in some way.
One of the cooler features of Moto's new phones is their ability to launch Google Now at any time - even with the screen off - using the phrase "OK Google Now." This feature, which you will not find on non-Motorola phones, is provided courtesy of a special low-power processing core dedicated solely to the task of listening for that magic phrase.
It works very well in my experience, and when you set it up, you're required to say the phrase three times so that the phone is keyed only to your voice. I tried speaking the phrase in odd tones, in an attempt to trick the system, and while I did succeed a couple times, by and large it would not launch if I did not sound like me.
As far as speech recognition accuracy, it's Google Now. It's about the best such experience available out there. It's neat, I don't use it much, but I can definitely see the use for people who are in the car a lot, while you're eating, or to do a quick search while you're walking or otherwise engaged.
This is probably the least useful feature added on to the DROID phones, and surprise, it's one that specifically bears the DROID moniker. AKA, this is something Verizon wanted, most likely.
DROID Zap is yet another sharing tool, though it doesn't use NFC or Bluetooth, it's a bit more ambitious than that. Zap can share your locally stored photos and videos (that's it... which is kinda dumb) to any phone running Zap, which can actually be downloaded on a wide variety of devices. Just swipe up with 2 fingers while you have a photo or video open in the gallery, and Zap will then upload that photo or video to a remote server - the sharing isn't actually direct. Then, anyone within 1000' of your location who pulls down with two fingers on their phone (if it's not a DROID Mini / Maxx / Ultra, the gesture must take place inside the app) can try to download the image / video you zapped.
The location is based on GPS and Wi-Fi, and the receiving phone must be within 1000' of the location of the sender phone to get the image. You can also put a randomly generated PIN on your zap if you only want to share it with your friends. The advantage to zap is that it doesn't require NFC, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi direct in order to work - it's all over whatever network you're on.
I can see the usefulness - in concept. But in practice, if I want to send an image to someone, I'm going to ask for an email address, because telling them to download zap, sign in with their Google account, then do the gesture will take twice as long. Also, email lacks those pesky platform restrictions.
Moto Care provides a web portal for device support, but it's also a lost phone service. Just like Android Device Manager, Moto Care's lost device system allows you to locate, ring, lock, and wipe your phone. ADM will be getting more features in the future, though, so the Moto Care system is more of a backup than anything. It's nice to have, I suppose. Moto Care can be "disabled" in one of the settings menus, though that doesn't actually seem to turn off the lost phone service.
I will say one of the cool things about Moto Care and a number of other features that require a signup on your Motorola phone: they push you to just sign in with your Google account. I have yet to see one that doesn't allow you to use your Google account, or more accurately, outright encourage it. It's certainly makes using all these features very convenient.
Motorola Connect is a Chrome browser extension that displays the SMSs received on your Motorola phone, as well as a log of your recent calls. You can send text messages from the extension, but that's really the limit of its functionality. It's nice to have, but it's not anything life-changing. Also, I found actually finding the website to get the extension was a big pain in the rear.
I'm giving the homescreen widget Motorola ships its phones with a little section because I really like it. I know it's been around for awhile, but it's far and away my favorite homescreen widget ever. There's a clock, the weather, and your remaining battery percentage. Each of the little circles can be flipped over (just swipe them up or down). The big clock circle hides shortcuts to the DROID Zap and wireless display toggles, the weather widget allows you to add different cities, and the battery meter hides a shortcut to the settings menu.
The one thing I will say is that this widget seems to re-flow every time I'm in a different app for more than 30 seconds, and that really makes me go a bit OCD. Fix it.
The new camera app is all based on gestures and I cannot stand it. Ugh. Give me my persistent dials and buttons and toggles, please. There are buttons for switching front / rear camera and going into video mode. Otherwise, swipe from the left side of the screen (depending on orientation) and a settings dial comes out with hilariously few options. HDR mode, flash mode, tap to focus mode, slow motion video toggle, panorama mode, geotagging, shutter noise toggle, and shake-to-launch toggle. Those are the entirety of the camera settings, aside from swiping up or down on the viewfinder to adjust the digital zoom.
Being Verizon phones, you get the full Amazon suite of apps (not the worst bloat you could ask for), and a slew of Verizon's additions: Caller Name ID, Mobile Hotspot, My Verizon Mobile, NFL Mobile, Steup Wizard, Verizon Tones, Viewdini, Voicemail, VZ Navigator, and VZ Protect. Compared to the state of bloat 2 years ago, I think we've come a long way.
The DROID Mini and Maxx are both excellent phones, but if price is no object, I think even those wary of a "big" phone should go the Maxx route. More storage, much better build quality, and two days of battery life? How could you pass that up? The Maxx is an absolutely amazing phone in some ways, and I'd personally be very happy to call it my own.
Were it not for the lackluster display and camera, these phones could very well have tempted me to into going out and buying a Moto X (I personally have no plan to head back to Verizon). I really like the direction Motorola is going in regards to software and features, and I think they're really trying to tackle some tough issues in innovative ways. Active notifications is one of those ideas that seems so obvious in hindsight, but until I used it, I couldn't have really seen the genius in such a feature. Touchless control will no doubt be an equivalent revelation for others, as I admit I am less than keen on voice commands in general.
The Mini is a decent buy at $99 on contract, but I'd wait for that price to tumble a bit, personally. As for the Maxx, I would definitely wait for it to hit $200 on a 3rd party retailer's site.
But I think the point stands that these are the best DROID phones to date, and I think the Maxx is the best smartphone Motorola's ever released. Are these phones for everyone? Of course not. But I think that the people who do decide to buy them will be utterly pleased.