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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Oh, and one more thing: Like on the Moto X, Motorola has integrated a motion gesture into the Droid Ultra that lets you quickly get to the camera by holding the phone and flipping your wrist down twice. It works when the phone is actively in use or when the screen is off; once you get used to the motion, it's a really handy way to access your camera fast.

The Droid Ultra's camera is capable of capturing 1080p video. A 2-megapixel front-facing camera also captures 1080p-quality video.

The software

Motorola's made a point recently of moving away from arbitrary modifications to the Android user interface and focusing instead on meaningful feature additions. The Droid Ultra follows this trend -- albeit with a handful of exceptions.

The Droid Ultra runs Android 4.2.2, a.k.a. Jelly Bean. The software sticks largely to Google's base UI design, but -- unlike the Moto X -- does contain a smattering of arbitrary visual changes, such as some altered system icons and added clutter in the system settings menus.

Still, unlike other manufacturers' heavy-handed alterations to the Android UI, the changes are relatively minor and inoffensive -- and the Droid Ultra's software remains easy to navigate and easy on the eyes. And interface aside, Motorola has added in some innovative and useful features that, true to the company's mission, actually add value to the device without venturing into gimmicky terrain.

Most of the features mirror those seen on the Moto X. Perhaps most interesting is Moto's Touchless Control, which allows you to wake your phone anytime by speaking the phrase "Okay, Google Now" and then issuing a voice command.

Touchless Control ties into Google's Android Voice Search system; you can use it to send emails or text messages, set reminders and calendar appointments, and even get updates on packages shipped to your address. The system supports dozens of natural-language search possibilities; being able to activate it simply by speaking -- even when the screen is off -- is both novel and practical, particularly when you're driving or otherwise occupied.

Speaking of driving, the Droid Ultra also features a program called Assist that can recognize when you're in a moving vehicle. It then automatically puts your phone in a hands-free mode where incoming texts are read aloud and incoming calls include an announcement of the caller's name. Assist can integrate with Google Calendar, also, to automatically silence your phone when you're in meetings and send preset texts to callers to let them know you're busy.

Then there's Active Display, a feature that causes the phone to briefly light up with the current time and any pending notifications when you pick it up (you can customize exactly what sorts of alerts are shown). The phone also occasionally flashes notification info on your screen while it's sitting face-up, kind of like a more intelligent LED notifier. I've found myself wishing all Android phones shipped with these features; once you get used to having them, you won't want to give them up.

The Droid Ultra does include a couple of features not found in the Moto X, but they're not terribly noteworthy. There's the "Droid Command Center," which is just a fancy name for an updated version of the circle widget introduced with last year's Droid Razr devices. And then there's Droid Zap, a system for wirelessly sharing files -- which sounds nice enough until you realize it works only with other users of these new Droid phones, thus making it extremely limited in practice.

(Update: It turns out Droid Zap can be used to send files to owners of any phone with Android 4.0 or higher -- but only if those users manually install the Zap app onto their devices. And even then, non-Droid devices can only receive files -- not send them -- through the system.)

Last but not least, the bloatware: The Droid Ultra comes with all the preloaded Verizon favorites you've grown to know and loathe -- VZ Navigator, VZ Security and about 10 other programs you probably won't want and can't easily uninstall. You can, at least, disable them and hide them from view.

Bottom line

Motorola's Droid Ultra is a strange phone to wrap your head around. It has a great deal in common with the Moto X but then veers from it in vexing ways.

To be sure, the phone has a lot of positive qualities -- mainly those that it shares with the Moto X. The Droid Ultra is a strong performer with a great display, intuitive interface and genuinely compelling features you won't find on competing devices.

But the phone also has an unattractive and uninspired design, along with capacitive buttons that create awkward usage scenarios. Comparatively speaking, those things take a serious toll on the user experience.

If you love the idea of a larger screen or need that extra dollop of battery life, Verizon's new Droid Ultra -- or perhaps the Maxx, with its even bigger battery and less chintzy casing -- is well worth considering. Otherwise, I'd suggest looking at the Moto X instead, which provides a similar setup in a far more compelling overall package.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, Droid Ultra deep-dive review: Bigger, but not necessarily better, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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