Editors' note: Our early Motorola Droid Maxx test model used unstable prerelease software. This review was updated based on our latest experience with a rock-solid production-level Droid Maxx device.
Sitting at the top of Motorola's new Droid lineup, the $299.99 Droid Maxx is more than just a capable device -- it's also the best smartphone Verizon has ever sold. It boasts the biggest battery available in a handset, and a full 32GB of internal storage, not to mention Google's impressive list of futuristic Android extras. The Maxx's build quality is also light-years superior to the thinner Motorola Droid Ultra.
That said, the Maxx's sky-high sticker price might give you second thoughts, especially compared with its very compelling rivals the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. That said, no other smartphone comes close to combining the same level of longevity, performance, design, and slick features on Big Red or perhaps anywhere else.
Aesthetically speaking, the differences between the Motorola Droid Maxx and its svelter sibling, the Droid Ultra, are huge, though you won't notice them at first. At 5.4 inches tall by 2.8 inches wide, the Maxx is just as tall and as wide as the Ultra, but also a bit thicker (0.34 inch versus 0.22 inch).
Still, you don't notice the change in girth when the phones are side by side on a table. It's only when you pick them up that you'll notice that the Maxx packs some serious, heavy hardware. Tipping the scales at almost 6 ounces (5.9 to be exact), the Droid Maxx has more heft and feels way more substantial than the Ultra (4.8 ounces). In fact, the Maxx is about an ounce heavier than the all-metal HTC One (5.04 ounces) and heavier still than the svelte Samsung Galaxy S4 (4.6 ounces).
Moto gets big points for giving the Maxx a back surface coated in Kevlar fiber -- similar to the previous generation of Droid handsets. I dug that treatment then and I dig it now. Smooth to the touch and possessing a soft matte finish, it repels smudges and streaks while simultaneously protecting against scratches. I certainly prefer it to the Ultra's glossy and slippery back, which accumulates greasy fingerprints.
The only physical buttons on the Maxx are located on the phone's right edge, a power key and a thin volume bar. Both are contoured and cross-hatched for easy manipulation by feel alone.
Above the screen is a 2-megapixel front camera and below it sit three capacitive buttons for basic Android control. Around back are the Droid Maxx's 10-megapixel main camera and LED flash. There's a big speaker here, too, which pumps out a huge amount of volume. Just as I found out on the Droid Ultra, this speaker serves up bigger audio than the HTC One and its hyped BoomSound technology.
The Droid Maxx boasts the same exact big, bright 5-inch HD OLED screen as the Droid Ultra. Its 720p resolution (1,280x720 pixels) doesn't pack the same pixel density as the HTC One (4.7-inch, 1080p LCD) or Samsung Galaxy S4 (5-inch, 1080p OLED), its primary competition. That said, the Maxx's high-contrast display has lusciously saturated colors and impressively dark black levels.
Detail in photos, Web sites, or documents with lots of text wasn't any less sharp to my eyes on the Maxx than the same content viewed on phones with full 1080p screens. For instance, the Maxx's 720p display didn't negatively affect my serious mobile Netflix-streaming habit. The same goes for losing myself in a random HD YouTube movie trailer. Yes, I'm still strangely drawn to that "Riddick" flick since I checked it out on the Droid Ultra.
For internal electronics, Motorola has made a very unconventional move with its 2013 smartphone lineup. Instead of engaging in the brutal processor arms race like practically every other handset maker, the company decided to sidestep the issue completely. All the new Droids, including the Droid Maxx, are powered by a proprietary processing solution Motorola calls the X8 Mobile Computing System.
You'll find the same collection of cores and specialized processors in the new Motorola flagship, the Moto X. To be blunt, the X8 is a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU and doesn't have the raw horsepower of true quad-core processors, which drive the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 (Snapdragon 600).
As it turns out, however, this is less of a factor than you might think. Designed to be efficient rather than blazingly fast, the X8's main dual-core application CPU is backed by muscular quad-core Adreno graphics, plus two additional "cores": a natural language processor and one for contextual computing.
Helping this hardware is a healthy 2GB allotment of RAM. Also, unlike the Droid Ultra, which has only 16GB of internal memory, the Droid Maxx comes with 32GB to play with. That said, there's no SD card slot for increasing storage.
Software and interface
Thankfully, Motorola didn't mess with the Droid Maxx's software that much, a similar tactic to what it did with the Moto X and Droid Ultra. Running the same Android operating system (version 4.2.2) as both devices, the Maxx's OS is practically stock Jelly Bean. I have a feeling the fact that Google now owns Motorola has something to do with this.
You unlock the Maxx by sliding a padlock icon outside of a virtual ring on the phone's screen. After that, you're greeted by the central home screen plus four other panels to populate with app shortcuts and widgets as you see fit.
If you're familiar with Motorola smartphones of the last few generations, you'll recognize the Circles settings widget. Sitting at the center of the main home screen, it's left over from the company's previous Droid Razr and Atrix handsets. Personally, I'm glad this tool is here, since besides being a quick way to check the time, it also displays weather, and is a shortcut for system settings.
The widget flaunts a few new tricks, too. For instance, swiping the largest clock circle uncovers fresh functions such as Droid Zap and Wireless Display. Droid Zap lets you share images and video with other Android phone users nearby; Wireless Display will duplicate the Ultra's screen to compatible HDTVs and monitors.
As an Android device, the Maxx comes preloaded with all the major Google apps and services. Of course you can delve into the vast Google Play online store for more to download. Unfortunately, because this is a Verizon-branded Droid device, the carrier couldn't resist filling the Max with unremovable bloatware. Highlights include NFL Mobile, VZ Navigator, Verizon Mobile Security, and Verizon Tones, to list a few.
Active display and touchless control
Another fruit of Motorola and Google's union is Active Display, a useful feature that all the new Droid phones have. Also integrated into the Moto X, Active Display serves in place of a separate physical notification light. Essentially, the Droid Maxx's screen will flash softly with alerts for incoming e-mail, text messages, and calls. Touching and holding your finger on the associated icon in the center of the screen causes the device to display additional information. Pulling the icon upward to the top of the screen wakes up the phone and opens the linked application.
The Droid Maxx also makes use of the X8 computing platform, like the Droid Ultra and Moto X, to perform nifty voice control tricks. Motorola calls the capability Touchless Control, and as its name implies, speaking a magic phrase will cause the Maxx to drop what it's doing and await your vocal commands. Specifically, saying "OK, Google Now" and following up with phrases like, "Where am I?" or, "Remind me to pick up milk today" will tell the Maxx to leap into action.
Motorola's X8 platform may not have the sheer horsepower to stand up to full-blown quad-core processors toe-to-toe. It does have plenty of oomph, though, and I observed that on the Droid Maxx firsthand. The phone was very responsive, opening applications without hesitation. Navigating through settings menus and home screen was also silky-smooth.