HTC Droid DNA review: A superphone with flaws

HTC's new Android smartphone has some standout hardware elements, but the phone suffers from significant drawbacks.

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The Droid DNA has a nonremovable 2020mAh battery. The device's stamina was okay but not great for me; with light to light-moderate usage, I could make it through a whole day on a single charge, but once I started toeing into moderate to moderate-heavy usage, I found myself hitting dangerously low battery levels before the day was up.

The battery levels dropped disturbingly fast, too, particularly once the phone started to get low on charge. Once I got below the 30% mark, the remaining level seemed to fall a full point every couple minutes, even with basic Web browsing or social media activity. That helped bring me down to single-digit territory in no time.

Looking in the Android battery usage tool, I expected the device's display to be the largest drainer of power. Strangely, though, HTC seems to have tweaked the software so that the display doesn't even show up in the list. Stranger yet, the largest power consumer was almost always the Camera app -- even on days when I didn't open it once.

The Droid DNA comes with a rather limited 16GB of internal storage; once you account for the operating system and various preinstalled files, that leaves you with about 11GB of actual usable space. There is no microSD card slot for external storage expansion.

One area where the Droid DNA does shine is in photography: The phone comes with an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that's aided by HTC's dedicated image chip -- named, fittingly enough, ImageChip. Images captured with the camera look fantastic, with true-to-life colors and vivid details.

The camera is capable of snapping rapid-fire paparazzi-style photos, too, thanks to HTC's machine-gun-like Continuous Shooting mode. The camera includes an LED flash and is also able to record 1080p HD video.

The Droid DNA's front-facing camera, meanwhile, is a 2.1mp shooter with an unusual 88-degree wide-angle lens. The lens allows you to capture a noticeably larger area than what you get with most front-facing smartphone cameras; if you tend to take a lot of group self-portraits or conduct video chats with other people by your side, that functionality could come in handy.

Connectivity, calling and audio

The Droid DNA utilizes Verizon's 4G LTE and CDMA networks. I clocked in between 8 and 19Mbps when I checked data speeds sporadically using Ookla's app. For comparison, while testing the Nexus 4 on T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network earlier this month, I routinely achieved speeds of 18Mbps. Data speeds can vary based on location, of course, so your mileage may vary.

The Droid DNA ships with custom HTC software based on the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system.

Much to my surprise, I had issues with the Droid DNA's call quality -- an area where I rarely expect to see much variance from one phone to the next. Voices on the Droid DNA sounded noticeably less crisp, clear and full than what I'm used to hearing on smartphones these days; friends and family with whom I spoke had tinny and almost robotic qualities to their voices, and the audio sometimes became distorted on and off throughout a call. People on the other end of the line told me my voice sounded more fuzzy and distant than what they were used to hearing, too.

Speaking of audio, the Droid DNA features Beats Audio integration, which is supposed to enhance the quality of music played from the phone. I tested it by listening to the same song with Beats mode toggled on and off and then comparing that with the same song played from a non-Beats-enhanced device. I used the same studio-quality headphones in all three scenarios.

I found the enhancements provided by Beats to be pretty minimal -- more of a bass and volume boost than anything. I'd be surprised if many people could tell the difference between the Beats-enhanced audio from the Droid DNA and the standard audio from another phone in a blind test.

(I had problems with audio output on the first review device I received; regardless of what headphones or speakers I plugged into that phone, I heard nothing but silence or staticky clicking noises. That was likely just a fluke defect limited to that specific unit; HTC sent me a second review unit which did not suffer from those issues.)

The Beats enhancements, by the way, don't extend to the phone's own external speaker. Compared to the Nexus 4, music played through the Droid DNA was significantly less loud, full and clear-sounding, with both phones set at their maximum volumes.

The Droid DNA features support for near-field communication (NFC) and wireless charging via the Qi protocol.

The software

The Droid DNA ships with custom HTC software based on the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system. The setup is essentially the same as what's used on HTC's One line of phones. I covered it extensively when reviewing those devices, so rather than repeating myself here, I'll refer you to that coverage for detailed thoughts and observations.

In short, I'll just say this: HTC's user interface is less overwhelming than some manufacturers' takes on Android, but it still pales in comparison to the pure Android experience that Google creates. I found the interface to be cluttered and visually inconsistent, with countless changes made at the expense of user experience. The phone is also loaded down with bloatware from both HTC and Verizon -- nearly 20 programs that you can't easily uninstall.

Remember, too, that devices with manufacturer-modified versions of Android tend to lag behind pure Google Android devices when it comes to OS upgrades -- a concept exemplified by the fact that the Droid DNA is shipping with a less-than-current version of Android and no current guarantee as to if or when an upgrade could occur.

After spending time with Google's pure Android 4.1 and 4.2 OS and the excellent user experience those platforms provide, it really makes you wonder why certain companies insist on trying to "fix" what isn't broken.

Bottom line

HTC's Droid DNA is a mixed bag. On the plus side, the phone has a distinctive and solid-feeling build, a superb 1080p display and a top-notch camera configuration.

It also, however, has inconsistent and at times poor performance along with substandard call quality, underwhelming battery life and limited storage with no option for expansion. Then there's the UI and the baffling decisions with button and port configuration.

All considered, it's difficult to recommend the Droid DNA as a good all-around choice for most smartphone users. HTC has released some fantastic phones this year, but despite having a handful of standout hardware elements, the Droid DNA is not among the company's best efforts.

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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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