The original Motorola Droid was a truly phenomenal smartphone hit. It pushed the envelope by offering Android to the masses, complete with a rock-solid Verizon network connection and decent if not stellar physical keyboard. Since then, though, the venerable Droid QWERTY line has lost its luster and hit a serious low point with the Droid 3. That phone lacked 4G to complement its dual-core processing, a serious disappointment to Android keyboard fans. Motorola hopes to makes amends with its latest mobile gadget, the Droid 4, which possesses the long-yearned-for combination of Android, dual-core CPU, high-quality keyboard, and finally Verizon 4G LTE. Read on to find out if it's a winning recipe.
Inspired by its current 2012 lineup that includes the Droid Razr and Razr Maxx, Motorola clearly uses the same design aesthetic to craft the Droid 4. The phone sports an identical black obelisk motif, complete with slightly rounded corners and beveled edges. The result is rather elegant but definitely not daring. It's a look sure to fit in equally in the workplace or enjoying a bit of nightlife. There's no getting around, however, the large size of the Motorola Droid 4. This massive handset measures 5 inches tall by 2.65 inches wide with a full thickness of half an inch. Weighing 6.31 ounces, the Droid 4 is also on the heavy side. Compared with the wafer-thin trend modern smartphones are taking, this phone stands out.
The trade-off for all that extra heft is just what makes it appeal to a very vocal set of Android users: a superb keyboard. Sliding the phone open reveals a gloriously engineered typing surface. While the keys are tightly packed together, they have a deep downward push and a deliciously rubberized surface. Consisting of five rows, not merely four like on lesser devices, it has a dedicated number row on top. I also really dig the way the backlighting traces the outline of the Droid 4's squat rectangular keys. The space bar goes on for what feels like miles and is easy to hit without looking down. The Droid 4's directional pad is also a welcome addition and something you don't see often.
There are some things about the keyboard that don't exactly thrill me. First, there is no special key for ".com" or an emoticon button. Those are just minor quibbles, especially since there are keys for often-used punctuation marks such as comma, period, backslash, and equal sign for all you math nerds out there (just kidding; computation is cool). The majority of keys serve as secondary symbols, too. One detractor is that to activate secondary functions, you need to hit the Shift key twice. This would be fine except that the button isn't marked yellow like all the secondary symbols are. At least a light on the left indicates when secondary functions are engaged.
For typing without the physical keyboard, the Droid 4 offers a stock Gingerbread virtual keyboard plus the Swype text input solution. Both are great to have on hand, especially the latter, which allows for quick messages using just a finger to connect letters into words.
I remember a time, just a year ago, in fact, when the Droid 4's 4-inch qHD (940x540-pixel resolution) screen was considered the pinnacle of display perfection. Those days are long gone. After recently spending time with the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx's Super AMOLED display (4.3 inches, 940x540 pixels), I found myself craving its higher contrast and wider viewing angles. Still, the two devices boast the same resolution, and I admit that watching the HQ trailer for the next "Spider-Man" flick on the Droid 4 was very engaging with web-slinging action shown in crisp detail.
One really odd design choice is the Droid 4's battery compartment. The phone's battery is not removable, like the Droid Razr's, but you can access it by using a special key. The key is basically a pin, which at one end fits into what looks like a reset button. Pressing down and pulling the battery cover simultaneously releases its lock. It's inconvenient to say the least, but Motorola says a standard safety clip will also do the trick. When I asked why you'd want to remove battery cover at all, a company rep said it's to support swapping for special backs that enable wireless charging.
Perhaps the biggest letdown with the Droid 4 is that it runs Gingerbread 2.3.5, not Google's freshest flavor of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich. Motorola does its best to modernize the phone's interface with its own UI on top of Android. It's not a bad attempt, with five home screens, a helicopter view of all at once, and some support for social media. A Favorites contacts widget pulls in photos from Twitter but not Facebook, for example, which is irksome. It would also be nice if I could use the My Gallery widget to grab friends' photos on Facebook and save them to the Droid 4's local storage. I mean, even Windows Phone devices can do this. HTC's handsets with the company's Sense UI have had similar abilities for years while linking Facebook profile images to Google and Twitter contacts.
Four capacitive buttons for traditional Android functions sit below the phone's screen. These are Menu, Home, Back, and Search. On the whole, though, there's not much different here, and old hands at using Gingerbread will find nothing surprising.
Beyond the Droid 4's sweet keyboard, the smartphone has other standout features, such as access to the Android Market, which now contains more than 300,000 apps for download. There's the usual array of Motorola, Google, and Verizon software, and I found a few preinstalled titles worth mentioning. First is the Slingbox app, which lets you stream live content from home cable boxes directly to the phone and even lets you change the channel. It's a solution that's been available for years, but this is the first time I've seen it on a phone out of the box. You do have to buy optional Slingbox hardware and connect it in your home for this to happen. Netflix is onboard, too, though it's a free download. Motoactv software is here as well; it's an app that enables Motorola phones to connect to the company's line of fitness gadgets.
You also can use a Mobile Hotspot app to share the Droid 4's 4G LTE connection with Wi-Fi devices nearby. This requires an extra subscription. The feature may actually be worth signing up for if you're the type who needs a fast data connection in areas where Wi-Fi is scarce. Verizon charges $20 for the service.
Are you thinking of using the Droid 4 as a corporate communicator? Not to worry, Motorola says. The company has baked support for FIPS 140-2 level encryption into the Droid 4 to soothe IT department fears. It's designed to lock away e-mail, calendar, and contact information from prying eyes.
MotoCast, Webtop, and Smart Actions
Like Motorola's Droid Razr and Droid Razr Maxx handsets, the Droid 4 comes with the MotoCast app. It lets you share your documents and media files with personal computers. MotoCast also links with the Gallery app to access photos, while the Music app links to music files.
The Droid 4 also supports the company's Webtop app, which, when combined with accessories like the Lapdock 100 (10-inch screen), the Lapdock 500 Pro (14-inch screen), or an HD Station, transforms the handset into a pseudo mobile PC with Netbook-level functionality. To read more about the Webtop solution, check out our review of the Atrix's laptop dock.