HTC Droid DNA Review

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If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.

-W.C. Fields

Like all corporations, Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC has seen its share of ups and downs; this year, it’s mostly faced the latter. The company’s financials continue to tumble as it struggles to recover from a rough 2011, when it pushed out a bevy of mediocre smartphones instead of honing its focus on one flagship line. HTC executed something of a reboot earlier this year, pushing out the One X to generally favorable reviews, but then found itself almost immediately steamrolled by Samsung with that company’s much-better-publicized Galaxy S III launch.

Fortunately, HTC still isn’t through “try, trying again,” and certainly isn’t ready to throw in the towel. While we were briefly worried that the company would rely on the incremental One X+ to carry it through 2012, rumors and murmurs soon arose to provide hope for something more spectacular. Those rumors blossomed into reality at a NYC press event last week, where HTC and Verizon jointly announced their latest and greatest: their “ultimate” Android offering, the Droid DNA. It combines the highest-resolution display ever to hit American shores -the largest HTC has ever built into a smartphone- with a powerful processor and LTE connectivity, along with some of the same innovations that helped propel HTC’s Windows Phone 8X into the spotlight.

The combination of class-leading display, impressive spec sheet, and well-crafted hardware sounds promising, but will it do well enough for HTC to steal some limelight from its entrenched rivals? More importantly, is it a device you should consider carrying? Read on for our full review.

Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

Specs

Like a party guest with a bundt cake, the Droid DNA comes bearing a gift we weren’t sure we wanted: a 1080p screen. That’s a first for the United States, and second globally only to the DNA’s Japanese sibling, the Butterfly J. It’s a 5-inch, SLCD-3 panel that dominates the front of the device, offering viewing angles up to 80 degrees off-center and an absurdly high pixel density of 440 ppi. For the moment, it’s the world’s highest-resolution smartphone display.

Click for full size.

As we mentioned in an earlier comparison video, it didn’t take us long at all to rethink our position and start appreciating those added pixels. The DNA’s panel is, bar-none, the best smartphone display we’ve ever laid eyes on. Text is absurdly sharp, rounded corners are truly round, and what few skeuomorphic elements exist in the UI -the wood grain on the HTC calculator widget, for example- are rendered with photographic precision. The SLCD-3 technology doesn’t render blacks as deeply as an AMOLED panel would, but they’re very dark on the DNA, not the washed-out gray we’ve come to expect from ordinary LCDs. The optical lamination we loved on the One X is back, contributing to the ridiculously high viewing angles we mentioned above. Even looking at the phone nearly edge-on, text is still legible, and brightness is almost unaffected. It’s like the UI is a piece of paper glued to the glass, rather than a projection.

Driving the more than 2 million pixels making up that beautiful display is a pretty respectable load of guts: the DNA’s Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro runs at 1.5GHz, and it’s backed up by 2GB of RAM and a GPU that HTC says delivers graphic performance two and a half times better than any other processor on the market. There’s less to boast about on the storage side of the equation, though: the DNA’s on-board memory is confined to 16GB, with no provision for expansion. Those looking to carry a library of high-definition movies to enjoy on that 1080p display will have to settle for streaming content instead of local storage.

Fortunately, streaming should be speedy over the DNA’s radio hardware, which offers support for Verizon Wireless’ LTE bands as well as the usual WiFi a/b/g/n, and those with an affinity for extra bass in their ear canals will appreciate the Beats audio suite with its accompanying amplifiers– one for headphones, one for speakerphone. For international travelers, quadband GSM and UMTS is aboard, and there’s Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC support here as well.

The focus on camera quality that HTC started with the One X continues in the Droid DNA. The company tells us the optics are the same – a 1080p-capable 8MP, f/2.0 shooter with 28mm lens – but the image tuning has been improved through more refined software. The more interesting story, for once, is around front: HTC has brought the improved front-facing camera over from the Windows Phone 8X, with a 2.1MP sensor and support for 1080p video recording, as well as an 88-degree “ultra-wide-angle” lens.

None of that would work, of course, without the requisite juice. Powering all this is a 2,020-mAh lithium-polymer battery that, like the unit’s memory, is non-removable. While HTC bundles an unusually long USB cable with the DNA, it also lets users choose a more futuristic option for replenishment: the phone supports Qi-based wireless charging.

Index

Hardware

Encapsulating and protecting all those components is an oversized chassis that looks and feels much more petite in the hand than it appears in photos. Many early discussions surrounding the Droid DNA focused on its large display, and some conversations -even some featured on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast– cavalierly tossed around the term “phablet.”

To be very clear: despite its 5-inch display, the Droid DNA is not in any sense a phablet. Through a combination of bezel slimming and cunning hardware design, the massive screen has been shoehorned into a casing that feels even more hand-friendly than the HTC One X. This new Droid is decidedly a smartphone, with nary a hint of the tablet form factor anywhere in its -forgive us- DNA.

That’s not to say it’s small; at 141mm tall, the device is quite a handful, and will thwart most attempts to use it entirely one-handed. Fortunately, though, it’s also somewhat narrow at 70.5mm wide. This combines with a crescent body shape that reminds us of the Lumia 920’s “Nokia smile,” with the device tapering from 9.7mm thick in its center to less than 4mm thick at the sides. That makes it exceedingly palm-friendly and a real joy to hold.

At 142g, the DNA is the perfect weight for its size and shape. The effect of that minor heft is subtly enhanced by the back cover’s soft-touch coating, which lends the device a suggestion of durability quite in line with its rugged “Droid” branding. Maybe that same thinking is what led HTC to include a protective cover for the USB port, an awkward and unnecessary addition that makes the case for wireless charging even stronger.

Red accents are everywhere, gleaming from the rim of the camera lens, coating the stippled rails running the length of the sides, and shining through the moire pattern etched into the volume rocker and power/standby button. The latter is one of the device’s pain points: the button’s position dead-center of the top edge conspires with the beveled casing design to make pressing it a very awkward experience. The side-mounted lock button favored by Windows Phone and other Android manufacturers would have made much more sense on this device.

We’re big fans of notification LEDs on our phones, and HTC seldom lets us down in that department. On the Droid DNA, the company has given us a bonus: in addition to the usual tiny flasher up above the display, there’s a larger LED hidden adjacent to the camera on the back. This means folks who routinely place their phone face-down on a table needn’t worry about missing notifications.

Not that the Droid DNA should be spending too much time on its face: the Gorilla Glass 2 covering its front side is almost as beautiful as the display it protects, curving gently down into the sides of the phone at the edges. In the right light, those edges appear smooth enough to give the glass almost a liquid quality along its sides, the phone looking like an empty tray filled up to the brim with water or oil. Like so much of the Droid DNA’s design, it’s brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed. This is HTC at its absolute best.

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UI

The Droid DNA runs Sense 4+ atop Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. Until recently, we largely preferred the venerable HTC Sense to competing manufacturer UI layers, but Samsung has made up some serious ground this year with its TouchWiz Nature UX. That’s largely because Samsung was able to build in some excellent usability enhancements without slowing Android down, something HTC wasn’t able to accomplish with the One X. To be sure, Sense version 4.0 was definitely lighter and sleeker than its overengineered predecessors, but it still bogged the OS down.

That’s not the case with Sense 4+ on the Droid DNA. While it’s still possible to force the device to lag by quickly swiping through pages of widgets or loading a demanding webpage, day-to-day operation is as smooth as we’ve seen on an HTC device. It doesn’t quite reach the instant responsiveness of Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX or naked Android Jelly Bean, but it will serve most users well. In exchange, users receive many of the familiar advantages of Sense, such as the unique lock-screen “activation ring,” horizontally-scrolling card-based multitasking, and more clock widgets than you can count.

But on this build of Sense, we found ourselves missing many of the handy features other OEMs bring to the Android experience. The quick function toggles in the notification shade that manufacturers like Samsung, LG, and even Huawei have brought to their devices are nowhere to be seen (unless you could the absurd WiFi “notification” that Verizon forces on its phones, present in all its overbearing ugliness here). A long-press on the standby key presents only shutdown/restart/airplane mode options — logical, but we miss the quick toggles to silent or vibrate from other skins. Silencing a Sense phone means pressing and holding the volume-down button or wasting home screen real estate on a toggle widget. And speaking of real estate: HTC’s special button arrangement has once again created the need for a massive menu button dominating the bottom of most apps. Little shortcomings like these won’t bother most users, but those coming from other Android phones might chafe at the reduction in functionality. 

The HTC keyboard has been improved in this iteration of Sense, and on the stretched screen of the DNA, typing -especially in landscape- is a real pleasure. Keys are big and well-spaced, and responsiveness is quite good. Its auto-correct isn’t the best, not delivering apostrophe-carrying alternatives for words like “well,” “ill,” and “its,” and it does lag a bit as you speed up. There are many customization and calibration options to tweak the typing experience, but real speed demons will probably want to download a version of the stock Jelly Bean keyboard.

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Camera

HTC really likes talking about its superior camera experience. The company touted the “amazing camera” on the One X, and it still employs that superlative when describing the shooter on the DNA. While we loved HTC’s software optimizations on the One X’s shooting experience, we weren’t overly impressed with that device’s camera, and we’re sorry to say that seems to be the case here as well.

In adequate light, particularly outdoors, the camera performs well, delivering sharp photos with rich color. It’s a little more susceptible to lens flare and other artifacts than some other cameras we’ve used, though, even with the sun quite a ways outside the frame. And the minute you replace that good outdoor illumination with more moderate indoor lighting, performance starts tanking quickly. Edges get fuzzy even in full-size view, and appear downright jagged when zoomed in. Color fades behind a gray pallor. Brightly-lit portions of the photo frequently appear blown-out.

Once again, it’s in the software that HTC shines with the DNA’s camera. We’ve still never seen a more intuitive and time-saving solution to the problem of multiple camera modes than HTC’s: displaying both the still-camera and camcorder buttons on the viewfinder screen at all times is a stroke of genius that we wish more manufacturers would try to emulate. There’s new Gallery organization options here that group photos into “event” folders, which some will find useful. Also, the camera launches very quickly, does well with auto-focus, and features the now-standard suite of enhancements that HTC helped pioneer: HDR, burst shot, panorama, group portrait, and slow-motion video.

Speaking of video: performance is visually quite good, with solid (if slightly overblown) colors, average white balance auto-correct speed, and good auto-focus speed with excellent macro performance. Image stabilization is software-based, enabled out of the box, and nothing to write home about; sound is in stereo but it’s quite thin and tinny. In all, video from the Droid DNA is a mixed bag.

On the bright side, the front-facing camera impresses with its new countdown timer that lets you get your hand out of the frame before the shot is taken. It also delivers the wide-angle results it promises, and its higher-than-normal resolution results in stills and video much better than competing front-facing shooters.

Though there’s still no software to correct for stupid faces.

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Performance

The Droid DNA’s Krait-based Qualcomm S4 Pro backed up by 2GB of RAM is a powerhouse, and the device behaves as such. We briefly thought that driving almost twice the amount of pixels would make the Droid DNA a fair bit less responsive than the similarly-specced Optimus G, but a comparison video showed performance to be quite similar from a day-to-day standpoint.

As we mentioned before, we were constantly surprised by the DNA’s nimble responsiveness in daily use, even when hopping between multiple simultaneous tasks or browsing relatively heavy websites like Pocketnow’s. Video streaming over Netflix and YouTube was predictably stunning, and the device had no trouble keeping up. The DNA also did quite well against its nearest competition in our usual battery of benchmarks.

Click for full size.

The Beats audio performance, as usual, will please some and disappoint others. It’s nice that the feature can always be toggled on and off from the notification tray, as we found it to be helpful in some instances (on a noisy train) and detrimental in others (pretty much anywhere else). Beats does perform as advertised, the dedicated 2.55v headphone amplifier really blowing out the bass and kicking up the volume. Whether that’s something you enjoy will depend on your taste in music; in our case, well … we’re glad there’s an off switch.

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Battery Life

The Droid DNA’s two biggest opposing specs, in our view, are the 1080p display and the 2,020 mAh battery. That power rating would be respectable on a more conventional phone, but on a device with such a power-hungry screen -by HTC’s own admission, “50% brighter than the Galaxy S III”- it seems a little anemic, especially considering its non-removable nature.

How severe that handicap is will depend on the individual user. Here more than ever, screen-on time determines longevity. Once during our review period, the Droid DNA stayed powered-on through a full day, all through the following night, and still had enough juice to carry us through the entirety of the next morning. That was with light use, though– a lot of text messaging and IMing, a few emails, and a few quick photos. Most of that time was spent in standby.

With heavier use, battery life diminishes accordingly. Our DNA’s most taxing day came when shooting the video footage and screenshots for this review. We took the phone off the charger at 9:30am. After a solid day spent alternating between WiFi and LTE, with long periods of screen-on time, speed tests, video playback, browsing, shooting video, several voice calls, and general UI navigation, with constant syncing of three social-networking and two email accounts, we got our first battery warning -indicating a 14% charge remaining- at 6:47pm. That’s not bad, but it’s also not terrific – especially since you can’t carry a spare cell around with you everywhere you go.

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Call Quality/Network Performance

We tested the Droid DNA on Verizon Wireless’ 4G and 3G networks in and around the Greater Boston area. As we’ve come to expect from Verizon’s LTE network, speeds were good, averaging 11,402 kbps down and 4,761 kbps up during our test period. Consistency, though, wasn’t the name of the game: our speeds varied wildly over LTE, ranging from an extreme low of just over 2,100 kbps (down) to a peak of just over 25,000 kbps (down).

Call quality is quite good, with callers coming through loud and clear over the earpiece and the speakerphone. We’re not sure if the dedicated Beats amplifier kicks in for voice calls taken in the open, but the speakerphone definitely delivers a clear, full rendition of the other party’s voice. In more conventional, up-to-the-ear use, the DNA’s stretched chassis makes talking on the phone quite comfortable, and the noise-canceling mic arrangement seems to do a good job of keeping sound from our end clear. Callers couldn’t hear much wind or road noise on our sidewalk-walk-and-talk test, but we were once told we sounded a little on the tinny side.

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Pros

+ Best-ever smartphone display
+ Solid hardware design
+ Best-in-class front-facing camera
+ Responsive performance

Cons

 16GB storage with no expandability
 Nonremovable battery with average endurance
 Mediocre camera

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Pricing and Availability

The Droid DNA goes on sale November 21 for $199.99 on a two-year Verizon contract, with pre-orders open now at the company’s website. Verizon Wireless VP and Chief Marketing Officer Tami Erwin was bullish on the device’s future at its NYC unveiling, saying, “We think it’s poised to be a real blockbuster for the holiday, and certainly into 2012.”

For international customers, HTC will apparently also release a global version of the handset called the HTC Deluxe, though pricing and a release timetable are still unknown at this point.

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Conclusion

The Droid DNA looks to take Verizon’s storied Android brand back to its roots with a spec-laden, aggressively designed smartphone packing a headline-worthy feature set. In some respects, like the beautiful hardware, blazing processor, and best-in-class display, that’s just what HTC has accomplished. In others, like the lackluster camera optics, non-expandable memory, and non-removable battery, it feels a bit like a step back.

As with all smartphones, then, the story of the Droid DNA is one of compromise; whether it appeals to you will depend on where your priorities lie. If you need excellent camera performance, all-day longevity, and a ton of on-board storage, this isn’t the phone for you. But if you’re the type who’d consider shifting some storage to the cloud, who only relies on a smartphone for casual photos, and who doesn’t mind pinching milliamp-hours here and there, the Droid DNA is definitely worth a look.

Careful, though: once you lay eyes on that display, everything else starts to pale by comparison. And once you hold it in your hand, everything else feels just a little chintzier than it did before. If we can expect more in this vein from “the new HTC,” there’s a lot to be excited about in 2013, and we’ll look forward to the company’s relentless efforts to “try, try again.” While the Droid DNA may fall a bit short of the company’s claim that it’s the ultimate smartphone, there’s an awful lot to like here for the right kind of customer.

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Scored For Me

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!