Continuing our look at two of Verizon’s most recent QWERTY releases, I’m taking a look at the Droid 3. Quietly launched in July of 2011, with a vastly improved keyboard, a refined and redesigned chassis, dual core processor and a larger qHD display, it’s clearly a leap forward for the Droid QWERTY series. As the LTE equipped Droid 4 release date rapidly approaches and the short lived Droid 3 reaches “End Of Life” status, does it make sense to spring for a (admittedly cheap) 3G phone in a 4G world?
The Droid 3 continues Motorola’s understated design philosophy. Save for the earpiece and “M” logo, there’s little brightwork on the device, with the “dark chrome” surrounding the keyboard and slider adding visual punch. Below the earpiece, various sensors, the VGA front facing camera, and the Motorola logo, lies a 4 inch display with qHD (960×540) resolution which leaves plenty of room for widgets and homescreen shortcuts. Viewing angles are pretty good and brightness wasn’t an issue even in sunlight. I walked away impressed, even though the colors weren’t as saturated as the SuperAMOLED panel on the Stratosphere. While the display is PenTile, the banding and color issues that many associate with the display technology weren’t terribly noticeable. That said, it is detectable while watching video….and in that area the screen is disappointing. Gracing the bottom bezel are the typical set of Android buttons, arranged in Motorola fashion. (Menu, Home, Back, Search) The layout of the Droid 1 buttons (Back, Home, Menu, Search) was preferred due to the location of the back button when the slider was deployed.
The sides of the Droid 3 are typical of smartphones of 2011. There’s a headphone jack that seems to be far sturdier than the jack employed on the Droid 1 and 2 along with a power button on top. This time, the power button is in the center of the device, is wider, and far more “clicky” than before.
On the left spine there’s a micro USB port next to a micro HDMI port. While this was first seen on the Motorola Atrix, the Droid 3 doesn’t come with WebTop mode, instead using both ports for multimedia dock, car dock and bedside dock accessories. The close proximity of the two ports quickly proved to be troublesome when plugging in the charger in low light situations. Often the MicroUSB cord would be shoved into the HDMI port.
Moving to the right there’s only the volume control. Sadly there’s no camera button on the Droid 3. Being that this is a larger phone than the Droid 1 and 2, and without LTE guts taking up space, this omission is inexcusable. The bottom retains the typical Droid “Chin”, a Verizon logo, and one of two microphones.
The back is where the Droid 3 differs the most from it’s predicessors physically. Instead of a metal sliding cover (that was prone to falling off) there’s a one piece plastic cover that wraps around 95% of the device. Covered in soft-touch rubberized paint, the cover is fairly difficult to remove…a good and bad thing perhaps, but one thing’s for sure, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Occupying a cutout on the upper left (when looking from the rear) of the phone is the 8 Megapixel auto focus camera. Capable of 1080p video recording, it’s augmented by a LED flash. At the bottom of the device is the speakerphone and a 2nd microphone, likely used for noise cancellation.
While Droid physical QWERTY keyboards have always been lackluster, the Droid 3 finally provides a truly usable and even enjoyable keyboard. The keyboard takes up the entire width of the phone, much like the Droid 2, but this time each key has space around it. The fact that the keys are no longer crowded together on a membrane makes a huge difference. Coming from the Stratosphere, the Droid 3’s perfectly spaced keys were definetly preferred, as the Stratosphere’s were just a bit too widely spaced. The keys themselves are also much larger than before, even if overall key travel is about the same as the first two devices. A dedicated row of numbers has pretty much become expected on a landscape QWERTY smartphone and the Droid 3 doesn’t disappoint, even going as far as to highlight that row with a unique shape and silver key caps. All keys are backlit in blue-green in the dark, with symbols glowing yellow. Finally the spacebar passed my tests, being responsive when tapped from pretty much any direction. That’s something that speedy text and IM’ers will appreciate, especially as the phone ages.
Fit and Finish is typical Motorola: Excellent with no play in the slider (complete with metal surround) whatsoever and a weighty, solid, feel in the hand. Buttons all have a precise tactile “click” when pressed and never feel mushy. Top notch hardware quality per usual.
Let’s get this out the way right now. One of the downsides of this phone has to be the software, at least the way it’s implemented. It’s a shame because, in all, Motorola’s enhancements dubbed MAP (Motorola Applications Platform) aren’t terribly bad.
A lot of the time, things are decent, but “Please wait…” messages while attempting to load the app drawer and home screen appeared far more often than one would expect for a “high-end” device. Sometimes switching between homescreens and panning through the app drawer is stuttery. At one point, the Homescreen process was using 47MB of RAM according to Motorola’s task manager. Even worse, audio stutters occur as the phone moves between screens, performs various background processing (the “data/power saver” setting was a notable offender during the evening hours) or renders transition animations. This makes the listening experience very annoying and it’s unacceptable behavior for a phone billed as “high-end.” An attempt to switch to a third party launcher (Go Launcher EX) was made, but the phone still felt stuttery, likely due to both MAP ‘s homescreen and widgets running alongside GO Launcher instead of elegantly shutting down. There’s also the matter of missing features that one would expect on a modern Android handset not running stock software: Where’s a way to take a quick screenshot? Why is the only way to see a overview of your homescreens mapped to a double-tap of the Home key, instead of also being activated through a pinch gesture? These are little things, sure, but they add up as time goes on.
All’s not bad in MAP land though. When things are working well, the screen animations are very well done, a favorite of mine being the screen rotate transition. The ability to resize the various Motorola widgets, making it easy to get each of the 5 homescreens “just right,” is greatly appreciated and one often wonders why this wasn’t baked into Android from the very beginning. Motorola’s widgets also tend to be very deep from a functionality standpoint. The “Quick Contacts” widget, for example, is a visual treat…smoothly animating when pulled down to reveal more choices. Also appreciated is the ability to individually clear notifications from the Notification Shade: It’s something that still shockingly isn’t done across the board as far as manufacturer UI’s go. Finally, the three customizable shortcut buttons are much appreciated for quick access.
Social networking is also present and accounted for, although support for more accounts like MotoBlur has would have been nice. Two widgets supporting Twitter and Facebook are at your disposal: One to update your status and another to see updates from others. Tapping the latter brings you into a slickly done and flickable card view of your news feed, with the ability to like and comment posts right from that screen. You can also set your status and dive into the full Social Networking app where, oddly, there’s no way to like comments but overall leaves me wanting for nothing. A Universal Inbox allows you to message your social networking friends and send text messages from the same window. It’s also baked into Moto’s custom Gallery app, where you’ll gain access to your friends public albums and latest pictures.
Motorola’s also touched the rest of the UI with a theme and replaced several apps with custom apps, including the Clock and Calendar. These changes are largely inoffensive and are actually pleasing to the eye. The Motorola Multi-Touch Keyboard remains the benchmark for Android OEM software keyboards as well. It’s a pleasure to use and nicely styled.
Overall, while Motorola seems to try and differentiate their experience from the competition and stock Android, there appears to be a lack of quality control and testing. In some cases it feels like they didn’t test the device under a full user workload, with apps running and widgets and shortcuts on the homescreens. I’ve even experienced a bug in the app drawer where hitting the search key on the phone results in a force close. Even worse, as suggested in an interview done by The Verge, perhaps there is even a lack of passion for actually bettering the user experience, instead of just differentiating for differences sake or serving the carriers. HTC and Samsung routinely talk about wanting to better the user experience, and in my own opinion it shows in the level of polish that their software enhancements contain.
Surprisingly, the Droid 3 seems to have a few less apps than the Stratosphere I reviewed earlier. These include:
Motorola also included various unique apps beyond the stock ones they customized (Music, Gallery, EMail, etc.) including Voice Command By Nuance, Motorola Task Manager, MotoPrint, Help Center, and Files. Carrier ID isn’t present on this device, and that’s par for the course with Verizon handsets.
The Droid 3 is equipped with two cameras, somewhat odd for a 3G device. The rear facing camera has a 8 megapixel sensor capable of shooting 1080p video. It manages to produce fairly decent photos, and the “blue tinge” that people suffered when the device first came out seems to be fixed. Curiously, the phone is set to take 6 megapixel photos out of the box so the photo preview will fit the viewfinder. Immediately this was switched to 8 megapixels and the thoughts on camera quality and performance are based on that setting. The lack of a dedicated camera button + laggy software, makes it frustrating to take a non blurry photo and the “steady shot” mode tends to result in grainy shots. In the age of near instant shutter response, the Droid 3 feels somewhat behind the times. Video recording in 1080p proved to be pretty smooth, while likely not going to wow pro filmmakers, it’ll do the job for many people in most cases with solid results.
The front facing camera produced solid images and pretty good video for Skyping over Wi-Fi. It’s pretty usable for self portrait purposes and suspicions run high that it’ll be what it’s used for most often. Like nearly every handset with two cameras, it’s easy to switch between them in the software.
Speaking of software, the Droid 3’s camera UI is a mixed bag. If you prefer phone camera UI’s to resemble a stand alone digicam, you’ll be dissappointed, but overall Motorola’s managed to create a UI that’s reasonably attractive, yet minimal. There’s the traditional scene modes that come with most handsets, along with a few advanced settings. However, there’s missing functionality such as a timer that would make taking steady shots much easier, and there’s a general feeling of buggyness throughout the camera app that you can’t shake. Several instances where the UI would hang are experienced. The menu for choosing various options didn’t scroll far enough to read the last option’s description in full sometimes, and the shutter animation was stuttery. Again, one gets the unshakable feeling that Motorola was making tweaks just to be different without actually testing those differences to see if they’re better than the norm. Even the stock camera UI on Android 2.3 is reasonably attractive yet lag free, and other device maker’s UI’s have proven to be lag free in what’s arguably a critical part of the smartphone experience. The Gallery also suffers from a similar lag that’s intermittent making it even more frustrating. At least in landscape mode you can flip through your images in a very “Cover Flow” esque way.
Overall, the Droid 3’s performance is decent, as expected for a dual-core device. No checkerboarding was experienced in the browser unlike the Stratosphere, and page load times are speedy: both on Wi-Fi and EVDO Rev A. Flash video plays smoothly, and it’s easy to multitask effectively with 512 MB of RAM. As far as benchmarks go, the phone ran Quadrant fairly well and garnered a score of 2208. The biggest hangup is the random lag that the MAP enhancements seem to cause: A dual core device should fly on properly optimized software but the Droid 3 doesn’t, especially when one switches to a alternate UI like Go or Launcher Pro. The software is what’s holding this phone’s day to day performance back, it deserves better software and suspicion runs high that “semi-custom” ROM’s unlock it’s true potential.
Data speeds are typical EVDO Rev A.: Solid. While no AT&T 3G or Verizon LTE, the performance has always been good and the Droid 3’s no exception. The experience has been speedy enough for me to not miss LTE data, and the advantage of better battery life on 3G only sweetens that pot.
The phone has been stable as far as random reboots go, until I switched back to the MAP launcher to finish the review oddly enough. Also, the “Sleep” function that’s a part of MAP has worked inconsistently. At first it was so slow to resume that the thought of the phone being broken ran across my mind, resulting in me hitting the power button multiple times in frustration. Now, it doesn’t seem to work at all, usually triggering a random reboot. This might just a configuration issue with my handset and a wipe would solve it just fine but still, this is inexcusable behavior.
Battery life is impressive, especially returning from a 4G handset. Usually I’m able to get through a day and a quarter of moderate use, although that drops when you really start hammering the phone. Expect, if you’re like most folks, to make it through a workday and if you need more time, there’s a optional extended battery. That’s something you likely won’t be able to say about the Droid 4, which won’t have a user replacable battery.
At the end of this saga the Droid 3 is a bit disappointing. No, it’s not for it’s lack of 4G or encrypted bootloader, but it’s because Motorola has managed to effectively ruin a handset entirely through software. Per usual the hardware is world class: Solid, high-quality, with a precision feel. Call quality is great with clear voices and such. It’s the lack of attention to detail on the software front where the device completely falls on it’s face. The fact that it’s seemingly random is even more offensive as someone may be able to live with a slow phone if it’s consistent and grow used to it, but to have it occur out of the blue is irritating at best, especially when you know the phone is faster, you’ve seen it. Perhaps even more insulting is that this isn’t some midrange device…it’s arguably one of Motorola and Verizon’s flagship phones. The series it was spawned from pretty much saved Motorola and certainly helped Verizon in it’s offensive against the original iPhone. It’s a shame too because some of the ideas contained within the poorly implemented software are brilliant, but they’ll never really be appreciated due to what they’re “surrrounded” by.
This brings us back to our goal of this review from the beginning. The answer has to be no to both questions…with some exceptions. Lets face it if you need a QWERTY handset, your options are admittedly limited. The Droid 4 is not out yet but will hopefully use a more polished version of MAP. A non removable battery is a big downside for some. The Galaxy S Stratosphere is a low priced alternative and offers decent performance to match a solid keyboard, but it seems like device stability can be hit or miss + Samsung has been vague about Android 4.0 upgrade plans for the Galaxy S line. The HTC Merge is available at select Verizon Authorized Retailers, but expect to get zero support…both from Verizon and from the Android community.
In the end, if you can afford the 199.99 estimated price point and can stand a non user replacable battery, the Droid 4 is likely your best choice. It’ll be more powerful than the Stratosphere, has much more future-proof hardware, and unlike the Droid 3, it’ll likely get more updates than the planned upgrade to Android 4.0.
Let’s just hope the software this time around manages to let that good Motorola hardware shine.