Droid Ultra deep-dive review: Bigger, but not necessarily better

Motorola's latest smartphone makes a lot of promises -- but does the phone actually deliver? The answer is both yes and no.

There was a time when Verizon's Droid brand was practically synonymous with Android. While some of the sheen may have since shifted to other, ahem, Galaxies, the Droid name continues to be a place for VZ to launch big phones that no other carriers carry.

That's certainly the case with Verizon's latest Droid offering, the Motorola Droid Ultra, available now for $200 with a new two-year contract. The Droid Ultra is accompanied by two sibling smartphones: the Droid Maxx, $300 with a contract, which is essentially the same phone with a bigger battery and more storage; and the Droid Mini, $100 with a contract, which is a downsized version of the device.

Droid Ultra
Motorola Droid Ultra

What's odd, though, is that while these new Droid phones are exclusive to Verizon, they share an awful lot of characteristics with Motorola's own new flagship, the heavily hyped Moto X -- and they're launching at the same time. (The Moto X becomes available on AT&T later this week and is expected to reach the other major U.S. carriers, including Verizon, soon after.)

So do the new Droid devices do enough to command your buying dollar? I've spent the past several days using the Droid Ultra to find out.

Body and display

In terms of hardware design, the Droid Ultra doesn't exactly make a great first impression. The phone is big, blocky and angular -- a fitting theme with Verizon's Droid line, perhaps, but a visual and tactile letdown compared to the Moto X and other current phones.

(For a more detailed breakdown of the differences between the Droid Ultra and the Moto X, see my companion blog: Moto X vs. Motorola Droid Ultra: A real-world comparison)

While Motorola and Verizon are quick to point out that the Droid Ultra uses the same Kevlar material as last year's Droid Razr devices, the phone's casing feels plasticky through and through. And not in a good way: The soft, textured surface on last year's models has been replaced with a hard, glossy material that's slippery to the touch and a magnet for messy fingerprint smudges.

Worse yet, if I press gently on the top surface of the device, I can actually feel it move and hear it creak as it slides against the adjacent material. This may be the result of a limited defect, but either way, it doesn't inspire confidence in the product's build quality.

(The Droid Maxx, it's worth noting, uses a "soft touch" material as opposed to the glossy plastic-like casing employed on this device. I suspect that distinction will help create a better look and feel than what the Ultra offers.)

At 5.4 x 2.8 x 0.28 in. and 4.9 oz., the Droid Ultra is small enough to hold in one hand, though a touch too wide to be fully comfortable in that grip. The large dimensions do mean you get a roomy screen -- a 5-in. 720p Super AMOLED display. It's basically the same display as the Moto X's 4.7-in. screen, only bigger; as a result, it has 294 pixels per inch compared to the X's 316ppi density.

Don't get bogged down with those numbers, though: We're talking about a tiny difference -- one that's really not noticeable to the naked eye. The Droid Ultra's screen looks great, with bold colors, deep blacks and crisp detail. While devices like the HTC One boast 1080p displays, the difference in quality is difficult to detect; with this many pixels in the picture, you basically have to be studying the phones side by side to see any difference.

My only beefs with the Droid Ultra's display revolve around its flaky auto-brightness mode -- the screen tends to jump around frequently with overly aggressive fluctuations in dim conditions -- and its limited visibility in direct sunlight, which AMOLED screens are notorious for. To the phone's credit, its performance in sunlight is less bad than other AMOLED smartphones I've tested lately, but it still pales in comparison to the more sun-friendly LCD technology.

The Droid Ultra has a roughly textured power button and volume rocker on its right side. A standard headphone jack sits on the phone's top-right edge and a microUSB port lives on the center of its bottom edge. The phone lacks any HDMI-out capabilities but does offer wireless display support for TVs that are Miracast-enabled.

The phone has a large speaker surrounding the camera lens on its back that delivers surprisingly loud and clear sound by smartphone standards. Its quality deteriorates when you place the phone flat on a surface, with the music becoming muffled and distorted, but as long as the phone is propped up, it sounds quite good.

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