March 5, 2012 | by Andrew Kameka
Android users and observers have both expressed some trepidation about the rapid pace of phone releases. It certainly doesn’t help that the same Android phone maker can release a device tomorrow and add an even better version of it just a short time later. Motorola, one of the biggest perpetrators of this trend, has done that on multiple occasions recently. In fact, the company has released four of its era-defining “Droid” phones in just over two years.
The Motorola Droid 4 takes on the Droid ‘Insert Number Here’ mantle just 6 months after its predecessor. The phone has many of same features, including a pair of cameras, customized Android 2.3 software, and – most important of all – a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. But with the short window between releases, is it really enough of an improvement?
The Droid 4 will not amaze anyone for its hardware capabilities. While the original Droid instantly outpaced all competitors on the market, the latest version merely keeps pace with the other devices on the market. The Droid 4 has radios to support Verizon’s 4G LTE network, a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage, and a 4-inch TF LCD screen with qHD resolution.
Like a retired athlete who puts on weight after the end of a legendary career, the Droid 4 is chubbier – half an inch thick, actually – and heavier than its ideal size. It’s as if a Droid RAZR knew it would be inducted into the hall of fame and decided to let itself go. The plastic frame is dense and wide, in part because of a 1785 mAh battery.
A slide-out QWERTY keyboard is to blame for the rest of the Droid 4′s increased girth. Following the grand tradition of Droid’s, the five-row keyboard is excellent. It has been a long time since I’ve used a landscape keyboard on a consistent basis, and Motorola didn’t disappoint. The backlit letters on the raise buttons feel comfortable tapping on quickly. The plastic keys are tightly spaced, with letters grouped together in the three middle rows and numbers and symbols reserved for the top and bottom rows. Users can easily get fast, accurate results with the keyboard set-up.
Five-row keyboard is responsive and spaced well enough to enable comfortable two-thumb typing. That’s comforting in an age where physical keyboards are few and fewer between.
Dual-core remains strong. The device was on par with the Droid RAZR in terms of loading apps, webpages, and responding in reasonable times.
A terrible, terrible, terrible screen. I gave the SAMOLED Droid RAZR sketchy marks, but the Droid 4 is far worse. The TFT LCD screen lacks clarity and is especially poor when transitioning between home screens.
Ho-hum camera. The Droid 4 camera software, like most Motorola phones, is frustrating and slow. The camera seems to do decent when recording video, but the photos taken aren’t the best and are dull. Here are a few samples.
Motorola’s hardware upgrades have been a constantly evolving process. If only we could say the same about the company’s software efforts. The Droid 4 unsurprisingly ships with a customized version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Motorola has not confirmed any plans to upgrade the phone to Android 4.0 yet, so it’s difficult to anticipate if and when that update will arrive. That’s truly a shame because as respectable as the Droid 4′s software may be, it is still running a year-old version of the operating system instead of the many improvements offered by Ice Cream Sandwich.
Despite the dated software, there are still some praiseworthy features, including the lock screen makes it easy to toggle ringer volume or go directly to a camera app. There’s also the stellar Smart Actions that can automate settings and save battery life, and the overall UI is not as obtrusive as previous incarnations of Motorola’s UI overlay. Motorola and Verizon have pre-installed 13 apps, 3 of which are actually useful. People often say that the Droid 4 looks like a Razr with a keyboard attached, and the similarities between the software back-up that idea.
The Droid 4 is available now for $200 on a two-year agreement. Even at $100 cheaper than other LTE phones, it’s still a tough sale. The phone has the misfortune of being introduced at the tail end of one smartphone era, and it’s not even a must-have, superior phone now. Add in the new features in phones announced last week, which further increases the quality gap, it’s hard to recommend the Droid 4.
The only people who should even consider a Droid 4 are die-hard lovers of physical QWERTY keyboards. That is the one and only feature in which someone can honestly say that the Droid 4 almost perfects. The Droid RAZR Maxx offers a similar software experience in a much better design and longer battery life. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus offers better software, and the HTC Rezound a better screen and media performance. But these are all touchscreen-only devices. If you can stomach tapping only on a screen, get one of those phones. Otherwise, embrace the Droid 4 in all its winner by default glory.