Sunday, October 30, 2011

Motorola Droid Bionic Review

The Motorola Droid Bionic is the fourth handset in Verizon's 4G LTE lineup.  The phone has a 1Ghz dual core TI OMAP processor with 1GB of RAM and runs Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread.  The screen is a 4.3" 540X960 pentile matrix display.  The phone comes with 16GB of onboard storage and is packaged with a 16GB microSD card.  After my disappointing experience with the Thunderbolt (Verizon's first 4G Lte device), I was really looking forward to testing this device to see if it was able to improve on the issues the Thunderbolt had.

Look & Feel
The Bionic looks very similar to some of Motorola's other higher end phones on Verizon such as the Droid X, the Droid X2 and the Droid 3.  The only difference with the Bionic is that it has a very smooth bezel around the sides of the phone and along the bottom below the capacitive buttons.  This makes the phone feel a bit more high-end and expensive compared to its older siblings.  It feels good in the hand, though it is slightly thicker and heavier than I would like.  Given this is an LTE phone however, this isn't too bad at all.  My main issue is with the battery cover.  It is extremely difficult to pry off and you will inevitably end up damaging the pry slot or your finger nail while trying to remove it.  A tight battery cover is a good thing in that it won't fall off when you drop the phone, but is extremely frustrating if you want to remove your SIM card or your SD card.  Ironically, as tight as the battery cover is, it creaks towards the bottom middle along the sides when you're holding the phone.  This gets pretty annoying.
Smooth bezel extends on the sides

Smooth bezel

Activation is the typical process for a 4G device and is painless if you're coming from another 4G device.  All you have to do is pop in your SIM card and in a few seconds to a minute, you're good to go.  I did have to reboot my phone once or twice before it activated fully, but I'm not sure what caused that..  See the review of my Thunderbolt for the activation process if coming from a 3G device.

Build quality
Thus far the only build quality issue I've experienced is the creaking battery cover which I described above, otherwise the phone seems to be made very well.


The version of Motoblur on he Bionic seems to be a slightly newer, more refined version than the one on the DroidX Gingerbread edition.  In general, I do not feel that Motoblur adds a whole lot to the experience of the device and most would argue that it slows the phone down.  I think that the contacts widget in Motoblur is done very well in this version.  It is the only widget that I find worth using as the other widgets such as the social networking ones, the clock, weather etc, do not look good and you can find much better ones in the Android market.  The battery and data manager is useful if you want to control at what times your phone turns data off and so on.  Most wouldn't want to turn data off except when you're sleeping, but you're phone's on the charger then anyway, so it's rather pointless.

4G LTE & Data Connectivity/Stability

As mentioned when reviewing the Thunderbolt, 4G LTE is very fast, cable modem fast.  However, one of the issues many experienced with the Thunderbolt was problems with handoffs and general stability of the data connection.  I was really hoping that this would be resolved with the Bionic seeing as this is now the fourth LTE device, but it has not been.  The phone seems to switch from 4G to 3G somewhat randomly, even in areas where I have strong  4G signal, such as my home and work place.  Also, handoffs between Gs often result in complete loss of data connectivity.  I'll look at my phone to check something during the day and I'll notice that I have no data.  I have to turn airplane mode on and off to get the phone to start doing data again.  This can be very annoying as it happens at least a few times a day.  It is worse if you start traveling between 4G and 3G areas.  This failure to hold on to a 4G signal and the failure to smoothly transition between Gs is in my opinion, the biggest flaw of this phone.  Rumor has it that Motrola & Verizon are aware of this issue and a fix is in the works for November 2011.  We'll see if that happens because the Thunderbolt still has those issues to date.

Like the Droid X2 and the Droid 3, this phone uses a pentile matrix display.  This is supposed to save power, but it comes at the expense of poor color matching and also everything is fuzzy, almost like you're looking at everything through a thin, sheer mesh.  This is definitely noticeable in pictures and when playing games such as Angry Birds.  I am disappointed by the quality of this screen, especially given that this is a $300 device.

The rear camera is an 8MP camera is not very impressive.  The shutter delay is too long and can cause you to miss precious moments.  Also, pictures are grainier than desired, colors aren't as good and low light performance is bad.  Definitely not the phone you want to be stuck with if you left your camera at home.  See the shots below that I took with the Bionic.
Soft focus, poor color reproduction, grain

Second attempt is also bad.

Battery Life
This was a major probem with the Thunderbolt and is unfortunately a huge issue with the Bionic as well.  With moderate use, most will probably not even make it to the end of the work day.  I find myself needing to charge my phone around 3pm.  Expect to get through dinner with low use on a single charge.    If you are in a 3G only area, the phone will get you through the day.  With anything more than low to moderate use, the phone battery will only last a couple of hours and you'll want to get the extended battery.  It seems that with 4G LTE devices thus far, we've had to accept a new standard of what is considered acceptable battery life, but I'm hopeful that that will change soon.  The bottom line is that you'll have to charge this phone twice a day at a minimum, so make sure you have a charger at the office and one in the car.

It is safe to say that as of the fall of 2011, the Droid Bionic is the fastest phone in Verizon's lineup.  No other phone, 3G or 4G is faster.  That's not to say that the Bionic is the fastest phone out there.  The phone is not as fast as say Samsung's Galaxy S2, but that phone is not available on Verizon.  So is this phone worth getting?  This is not a bad phone at all, but it is hard to justify the $299, 2yr contract price with something that has data connectivity issues as much as this, poor battery life and a lower quality screen.  My recommendation is to wait till November of 2011 as I think we will see LTE handsets that will be thinner, lighter, have higher resolution and higher quality displays and with better battery life.  This device is more of a stop gap until these new set of devices are hit the market.  However, if you can't wait till November, want a 4G phone and don't mind dealing with the issues I've discussed, then this is the phone to get.  I must warn you however, that when mid-November rolls around, you'll be upset with yourself for spending $300 on this phone.

Disclaimer: This device was provided to me by Verizon Wireless as I am a member of one of their focus groups.  The device is provided free of charge in exchange for honest feedback.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

HTC Thunderbolt Review

The HTC Thunderbolt is the first 4G smartphone on Verizon using their LTE technology.  It runs Android 2.2 and Sense 2.0 (HTC's skin over Android) and features a 1ghz SnapDragon processor and a 4.3" (480x800) display.
Thunderbolt with one of the Skins provied

Thunderbolt with another Skin provided

The box for the Thunderbolt was stylish and compact.  It was black on the outside and red inside which was reminiscent of the Droid Incredible.  Anyway inside the box you find the usual Verizon booklets, the most interesting of which was the 'Master Your Device' one.  You won't find anything else besides a micro-usb cable and a wall charger.

Look & Feel
The back of the Thunderbolt is a very smooth plastic.  It has a matte finish and will slide easily if there's movement on the surface.  The device has some heft to it and it's not small either with its 4.3" screen.  The weight of the device is not that bothersome for me coming from the DroidX, but for someone coming from a smaller phone such as the Droid Incredible, it's worth feeling in person before buying.  The device looks very smart and feels expensive.  I would definitely make the power button a little more prominent.  It blends into the top of the phone a little too well and is hard to find in a pinch.  The volume rockers on the right of the phone are a bit too long and also blend in too well.  On many occasions I've pushed them accidentally when just holding the phone to press the power button.  These issues are fairly minor though and definitely ones I can live with.

Activation is not as simple as sticking the battery in and dialing *228 as one would do a normal Verizon phone.  If you do that, you will prompted to put the sim card in as soon as the phone boots up.  If you put the sim card in and turn the phone on and then dial *228, you can fry your sim card.  Certainly this is not acceptable and detailed instructions need to be included on the correct procedure.  The correct procedure is:
  1. Make sure the SIM card and battery are out of the phone.
  2. Go to the Verizon My Account page, log in and click 'Activate a Device'.
  3. Enter the phone's IMEI number from the box or the back of the phone inside the battery compartment.
  4. You will be prompted for your SIM card number, enter it.
  5. You will then be taken to the page that provisions the phone for 4G and has you select the appropriate data plan.
  6. You the put the SIM card in, put the battery in, put the battery cover back on and turn the phone on.
  7. Once the phone starts up, you will be guided through setup, but you will not need to do any further activation process
It's an involved process that needs detailed instructions and I'm disappointed that these weren't included.

Build quality

Build quality seems very good. The only build quality issue I have is that the earpience speaker vibrates when volume is over 50%. Also beneath the search button on the bottom right, I can see under the screen inside the phone a little. Not sure if this is normal.  The earpiece buzzing is bothersome as it makes you feel like you're using a lower quality device, but it's something I can live with.  The rest of the phone is fantastic however.

Phone Software

The new Sense 2.0 is very nice, it's faster and the new skins/themes are really neat. The widgets also seem to be upgraded and have some animation which is a nice touch. Everything on the phone seems very fast, faster than the Droid X and Droid Incredible. No complaints about the software except that in the area of battery charging, but more on that later.


Really, really fast!!! Both on the phone itself and when connected to it through the wifi hotspot or usb cable, I'm very impressed with the speeds. Speeds do vary a bit based on signal strength and even the city you're in.  In Princeton, NJ I was getting around 20mbps down and 5mbps up.  In Hillsborough, NJ however it was around 10mbps down and 1-3mbps down.  There's a down side to being the first 4g smartphone however as it does seem to go from 4G to 3G and occasionally 1X for reasons that don't make sense to me, meaning you're in a 4G area with good coverage. When this happens, I lose complete connectivity between 4g and 3g. I sometimes have to cycle mobile data on/off to get things back to normal. Normal handoffs or switching seem to be a bit glitchy here as well because data connectivity between 4g and 3g drops during them. Not sure if it is the phone or Verizon's LTE network.  Obviously this can get annoying if you're in the middle of doing something that is using data and it also seems to affect the battery.

The device has a rear 8mp camera and front facing 1.3mp camera which mainly for video chatting.  See the sample shots below.  I'm no camera expert, but the rear camera is pretty good for stills unless you're in low light.  The front camera is not very good because it is primarily for video chatting through google talk (which I haven't tried yet).  You can click on each image below to see the full size.
Rear camera - good light

Rear Camear - low light + flash

Front Camera - low light

Front camera - good light

Battery Life

Not to be too dramatic, but HORRENDOUS!!! Whether LTE is killing the battery or whether it is the phone not being able to charge the battery fully doesn't matter. This phone's battery is not capable of powering it through a day of normal use. I am in a 4G area both at work and at home and I'm sure this is making it worse, but this is a 4G phone, it needs to be okay with that and not drain fast. This is the biggest downside of the phone for me. Not even being able to make it through the end of the work day is not acceptable. Unless you don't mind leaving your phone plugged in all day, this is an absolute deal breaker.  Sure you can get an extended battery, but it adds a lot of bulk to a phone that is already at the limit of what I'd tolerate in bulk.  When I went to North Jersey for the weekend, it was all 3G there with not even a hint of LTE and I noticed that my battery lasted longer.  As someone who firmly believes that a smartphone's battery should get you through the day with moderate use, I am deeply disappointed with the Thunderbolt.  On my first day with it, I barely made it past 3pm.  If you're familiar with the 'battery dance' that can be done on the Droid Incredible, you can do that here as well.  However it's a real pain and I do not do it or recommend it.


Overall this is a very nice phone.  It is running Android 2.2 (Froyo) which although isn't the latest version of Android for a smartphone, is very smooth and stable.  HTC's Sense on top of this is also very smooth and adds a lot of useful functionality and doesn't bog the phone down one bit (unlike the DroidX's Motoblur).  Even the modifications HTC has made to the web browser that provide additional settings such as disabling mobile viewing of sites, are a nice touch.  Verizon's 4G network is blazingly fast and rivals home broadband speeds.  Despite not being a dual core processor, I never felt like this phone needed to be faster.  In fact, it many ways I felt like this phone was much faster than the Droid Incredible which is running an older version of this processor with the same clock speed.  The deal breaker for me is the battery.  The battery is underpowered and with the phone's large 4.3" screen, 4g radio and handoff issues, is just not good enough.  It's hard to believe that this phone made it through Verizon's Quality Assurance department with this batter life.  While it's possible that future software updates may improve battery life, I have a bad feeling that the issue lies with the hardware itself.  I just cannot recommend a phone that can't even come close to lasting a day with normal usage.

Update (October 2011)
I eventually gave up on the Thunderbolt, but not because of the battery life.  The going back and forth between 4G and 3G and 2G mixed with no data connection in between, really drove me crazy.  It got to the point where I couldn't stream Pandora without getting extremely frustrated because of the loss of data connectivity.  Also, the bulk of the phone wore me out.  As fast as 4G LTE is, I went back to my trust old Droid X and enjoyed, its thiness, good battery life and network connection stability.

Disclaimer: This device was provided to me by Verizon Wireless as I am a member of one of their focus groups.  The device is provided free of charge in exchange for honest feedback.