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.

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A quick note about buttons

The Ultra has three capacitive buttons on its face instead of the virtual on-screen alternatives Google recommends in its current Android design guidelines (and which Motorola uses on the Moto X). The downside to this setup is that the buttons don't rotate and disappear contextually, as they do when they're virtual; in certain apps, an intrusive black bar will appear at the bottom of the screen to hold a legacy Menu icon (which would appear inline alongside virtual buttons if they were present).

Moto has provided a workaround for the latter issue -- an option in the system settings let you hide the icon and have a long-press of the capacitive app-switching key pull up its options instead -- but it's a messy and convoluted solution that's anything but elegant or user-friendly.

You can still access Google's excellent Google Now personal assistant utility by swiping up from the phone's Home button, by the way, but given the capacitive nature of the Home button on this device, you have to press and then hold the button for a second before swiping up in order for the action to work.

Under the hood

Lucky for the Droid Ultra, looks aren't everything -- and when it comes to performance, this phone packs a powerful punch.

Like the Moto X, the Droid Ultra utilizes Motorola's new X8 Mobile Computing System. That includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro 1.7GHz dual-core processor along with a quad-core Adrena GPU and two additional processors for natural language and contextual computing tasks.

While the term "dual-core" may translate to "dated" in the minds of spec heads, Moto's multipronged processor configuration makes for a very different sort of setup than what we're used to. Motorola says it made the chip choices in order to accommodate the phone's Touchless Control functionality (more on that in a moment) while maximizing its performance and battery life.

Based on the time I've spent using the phone in the real world, I'd say those choices paid off. With 2GB of RAM, the Droid Ultra is as speedy as any top-of-the-line device -- even speedier than some -- with near-instant app loading, smooth Web browsing and snappy multitasking. This phone keeps up admirably with anything you throw its way.

And battery life? Moto's slowly been building a reputation for being a leader in this domain and the Droid Ultra doesn't disappoint.

The phone has a non-removable 2130mAh battery that's listed for up to 28 hours of mixed usage (slightly higher than the 24 hours listed for the Moto X). I'm not sure what sort of "mixed usage" will get you that full 28 hour estimate, but I can tell you that with moderate to heavy real-world use -- a few hours of scattered 4G Web browsing and social media activity, an hour of 4G HD video streaming, 15 to 30 minutes of voice calls, and occasional camera use -- I consistently managed to end my days with a solid 30% or more of the battery remaining.

Motorola's Droid Ultra includes 16GB of storage space, which leaves you with about 10GB of usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone does not have an SD card slot for external storage expansion.

Connectivity

The Droid Ultra uses Verizon's 4G network, which means you'll get LTE-level speeds so long as they're available in your city. Data quality will obviously vary from place to place, but the phone's mobile data speeds were in line what I've come to expect from Verizon in my area.

Voice calls also sounded superb during my time with the device; I was able to hear people loud and clear, and those on the other end of the line reported being able to hear me with zero distortion -- even when I called from loud areas with lots of background noise.

The Ultra provides support for near-field communication (NFC), which allows you to perform contact-free payments and data exchanges. Notably missing, however, is support for Google's own Google Wallet mobile payment system; Verizon has long blocked (or "not blocked but not allowed users to install," if you want to play corporate word games) from its Android devices, and the Droid Ultra is no exception.

The Droid Ultra lacks support for wireless charging, though its sibling, the Droid Maxx, does offer such functionality.

Cameras

Motorola's current phones all use a new 10-megapixel "Clear Pixel" sensor that's supposed to improve image quality by capturing "clear" pixels in addition to the standard red, green and blue variety. The sensor is also designed to capture more light in less time, resulting in faster photo-snapping and better low-light results.

Droid Ultra
The Droid Ultra camera is decent -- very good at times -- but not consistently great.

In practice, I found the Droid Ultra camera to be decent -- very good at times -- but not consistently great. While some shots came out clear and vivid, others had visible noise and quality loss. For casual photo-snapping and sharing, the Droid Ultra should be more than fine, but camera aficionados may be frustrated with the device's inconsistent imaging performance.

I will say, though, that the Droid Ultra's camera is delightfully easy to use: Motorola has replaced the stock Android Camera app with its own simplified setup. The entire screen is essentially a viewfinder; you tap anywhere on the screen to snap a photo and hold your finger down to take rapid-fire "burst"-style shots (something that is also available in the Moto X).

Swiping your finger to the left brings up a semicircle of basic options, including the ability to enable HDR mode, adjust flash settings, and activate Android's panoramic photo mode (but not the platform's 360-degree Photo Sphere feature -- it's oddly M.I.A. on this phone). You can enable a tap-to-focus mode, too, which causes the camera to focus on any spot you touch and then capture an image immediately thereafter; since the app's minimalist approach lacks a focus command by default, this option can be useful if you want a little more control.

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