Droid Ultra by Motorola (Verizon Wireless) review

The Droid Ultra works fine, but it's the weakest entrant in the recent litter of Motorola phones. More appealing options abound.
Photo of Droid Ultra by Motorola (Verizon Wireless)
599.99

The Motorola Droid Ultra ($199.99 with contract) has little reason to exist. While it’s completely functional, it’s the weak sibling in a litter of new Motorola phones, outclassed by competitors on all sides. We’re giving it a surprisingly high rating for a phone we wouldn’t recommend given the current smartphone landscape, but there you have it: Just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s your best bet when you consider the competition, like Motorola’s own excellent Moto X, which is the same price.

Physical Features and Call Quality
The Droid Ultra’s hallmark is its thinness, at 5.4 by 2.8 by .28 inches (HWD) and 4.83 ounces. For all intents and purposes, it feels about the same size as the Samsung Galaxy S4. That makes it a little too wide for my hand, but it’ll fit fine in bigger paws. It’s made from a hideously slick, black material which slides around in your hands and attracts fingerprints. Motorola says it’s Kevlar, but it feels like polycarbonate. The battery is sealed in, and there’s no memory card slot.

Most of the front panel is occupied up by a 5-inch, 720p, typically oversaturated AMOLED screen; at 293 ppi, it’s lower-density than other similar-size competitors. The shiny back sports Motorola, Droid, and Verizon logos. There’s a stark contrast in materials between this and the Moto X, which uses a less slippery, more matte polycarbonate back that’s much more pleasant to hold.

The Droid Ultra’s larger body allows better RF reception than the smaller Droid Mini, but I found that the Moto X was even better at hanging on to Verizon 4G LTE signals. The earpiece and speakerphone are surprisingly loud for such a slim phone, going to a relatively high volume without distortion. Transmissions through the mic, on the other hand, aren’t perfect. I found that Motorola’s noise cancellation added a noticeably robotic edge to my voice, although it canceled surrounding noise.

The Droid Ultra paired just fine with my Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset . You can trigger Google’s voice command system using the action button on your headset, although you can’t just say “OK Google Now” into the headset to launch voice dialing, as you can with the phone itself.

The Droid Ultra supports Verizon’s CDMA network, the AT&T HSPA+ network (oddly enough), foreign HSPA+ networks on the 900 and 2100MHz (but not 1800MHz) bands at speeds up to HSPA+ 42, and Verizon’s LTE network on 700MHz only—for now. A firmware update will bring support for Verizon’s AWS LTE spectrum, which will improve LTE speeds where it’s implemented. 

The Ultra can hit Wi-Fi networks on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, including the new 802.11ac variety. All the usual other radios are here, too: Bluetooth 4.0 (which works very well for voice dialing and media playback), GPS, NFC and such. Verizon blocks Google Wallet.

I got 12 hours, 28 minutes of talk time with the Droid Ultra, a fine result but one that fell short of the Moto X, which clocked in at more than 14 hours. The difference is in the battery: The slender Ultra has a 2130mAh battery, while the Moto X has a larger 2300mAh cell.

Performance and Apps
The Droid Ultra, Droid Mini, Droid Maxx, and Moto X are all based on the same chipset, Motorola’s X8. That’s basically a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro dual-core Krait 300 processor running at 1.7GHz with an Adreno 320 GPU. On benchmarks, it holds its own with Snapdragon 600-based competitors.

All of these handsets effectively show the same performance, which is very good. The phone feels fast and responsive, with smooth scrolling and few delays. Like the Moto X, the Ultra is running Android 4.2.2; Motorola says an Android 4.3 update is coming.

The best way to think of the Droid Ultra’s software is that it’s the Moto X, with a bunch of useless Verizon preloads tacked on. Take a look at our Moto X review for a rundown of the thoughtful, useful things Motorola has added to Android: the twist-to-launch camera, the “touchless” Google Now voice controls, and Motorola Assist, for example.

Verizon had nothing useful to add here, but added things anyway. Droid Zap is yet another proprietary sharing protocol. Droid Command Center is a battery status widget. Then there’s the undeletable niche-market content, like NFL Mobile and Ingress.

I’m also officially tired of Verizon’s Eye of Sauron Droid graphics and sound set. It’s grim and off-putting, in an era when HTC, Samsung and even Motorola (with the Moto X) are paying more attention to the human factor in phone UI design. It’s time to retire the killer robots.

Multimedia Storage and Playback
The Droid Ultra comes with 11.03GB of available storage, down from the Moto X’s 11.88GB because of the additional Verizon preloaded apps. There’s no memory card slot. I prefer more free memory on a flagship smartphone: The Droid Maxx delivers with an additional 16GB for another $100, making it a better choice. 

Music and video playback do well on the big, almost bezel-free screen with the surprisingly powerful back-ported speaker. It’s no HTC One Boomsound speaker, but it’s higher quality than the Samsung Galaxy S4′s.

The Droid Ultra handled all of our music playback formats, but just like the Moto X, it struggled with WMV and Xvid video files; the WMV support topped out at VGA resolution, and one of my Xvid files lost lip sync when I scanned through it. Like on the Moto X, there’s an equalizer buried in Settings so you can adjust bass to your taste.

The 10-megapixel camera uses Motorola’s new, very simple camera interface with few options. There’s HDR, slow-motion video and a flash option, but not much else. Most annoyingly, you can’t cut down on the photo or video resolution to save space. But I really like Motorola’s Quick Launch camera trick, which lets you wiggle the phone to launch the camera in about 2.7 seconds; after that, the shutter is instantaneous.

The Droid Ultra has the same camera module as the Moto X, but I had trouble coaxing consistently good pictures out of the camera. This feels like something a firmware update would handle. Some HDR images had a very dim foreground, showing a bug in the HDR algorithm, and images taken with bright light looked a little soft, and a little washed out. The 2-megapixel front camera got very soft in low light.

Both the front and rear cameras took 1080p videos at 30 frames per second indoors and out; as the lights went down, the color noise level went up.

The Droid Ultra, like the rest of Motorola’s recent phones, has no wired way to connect to a TV. Instead, you need to use a wireless Miracast adapter like the Netgear Push2TV ($59.99).

Conclusions
There is no reason to buy the Motorola Droid Ultra. Period. The Moto X offers all of this phone’s advantages in a more pleasant form factor, without the Eye of Sauron graphics and with a little more available storage space.

Want a 5-inch screen for your aging eyes? Go for the even more powerful, Editor’s Choice Samsung Galaxy S4, with its 1080p screen and higher-quality camera, or the Droid Maxx, with its larger battery.

The Droid Ultra could even hurt consumers: Because this is a Verizon-branded phone, Verizon will market the heck out of the Ultra rather than the superior Moto X. The carrier should know when enough is enough and let this one go.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, CDMA, UMTS, LTE
Screen Resolution 1280-by-720 pixels
NFC Yes
Dimensions 5.41 by 2.8 by .28" (HWD) inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 1080P
Battery Life (As Tested) 12 hours 28 minutes
Available Integrated Storage 11.03 GB
Processor Speed 1.73 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon
GPS Yes
Service Provider Verizon Wireless
Total Integrated Storage 16 GB
High-Speed Data EDGE, EVDO Rev A, LTE, HSPA+ 42
Weight 4.94 oz
Screen Type Super AMOLED HD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.2.2
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 10MP back/2MP front
Screen Pixels Per Inch 294 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700, 700
microSD Slot No
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4.0 LE+EDR

Verdict
The Droid Ultra works fine, but it's the weakest entrant in the recent litter of Motorola phones. More appealing options abound.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc