Hands on: Droid Charge is cool but costly

Verizon's latest 4G LTE Android phone has a great display and high-capacity battery, but is it worth the price?

I'm confused. What makes Samsung's Droid Charge (which is finally shipping after a 16-day delay) a Droid?

At first, you might think that a Droid is an Android phone that's sold by Verizon Wireless. But not all Verizon Android phones are Droids, and Droids are made variously by Motorola, HTC and now Samsung. You could hazard a guess that Verizon reserves the Droid handle for its top-of-the market phones, but that's wrong, too: For one thing, the top of the market changes roughly every month.

Samsung's Droid Charge
Samsung's Droid Charge

Compare the brand-new Droid Charge with the hardly-out-of-diapers, not-a-Droid HTC ThunderBolt. Both are Android 2.2 (Froyo) phones that feature Verizon's wicked fast 4G LTE data network. They are virtually the same size (the Charge is 0.3 in. longer). Both have a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and an 8-megapixel main camera with 720p video recording. Both have 1GHz processors -- the Samsung Hummingbird on the Charge, and the Qualcomm MSM8655 on the ThunderBolt.

Excellent display

Yet there are differences. The Charge has Samsung's superb (and less heavy) 4.3-in. Super AMOLED Plus screen, which gives it a comparatively light weight of 5 oz. (the ThunderBolt is a hefty 6.2 oz.) In fact, despite HTC's positioning as a video display device, it is the Charge that has an HDMI output, as well as the better screen -- it's sharper, faster, more vivid and more easily seen in bright sunlight.

The Charge also has a larger battery: 1600mAh compared to the ThunderBolt's 1400mAh. Combined with the AMOLED screen's lesser power requirement, this will likely translate into longer battery life. There's really no such thing as "typical" phone usage, but I got close to a full day's use out of it. If you run the data network a lot, or if you use the tethering feature, you won't.

The Charge runs counter to most current phone styles by using separate physical buttons across the bottom of the phone, rather than capacitive touch buttons. They aren't backlit, which is inconvenient. (On the other hand, the backlighting on most capacitive buttons is nothing to write home about, so it's not much of a loss.)

The power switch is on the right side of the phone, which I find easier to reach than switches along the top, where many phones now put it. The volume rocker is on the left edge; the headphone jack is at the top. There's no dedicated button for the camera or calendar.

One differentiator is the user interface laid over the Android 2.2 OS. I don't much care for Samsung's TouchWiz UI; I find it cluttered compared to HTC's Sense UI and Motorola's MotoBlur, both of which integrate phone functions, social networking, and dialing favorites in a more elegant manner. It's not that you can't do all those things in TouchWiz; it's that it's easier in the other UIs.

As a phone, the Charge works pretty well. One cool touch: If you have the contacts database alphabetize people by last name, the phone highlights the last names and dims the first names as you scroll, restoring the first names when you stop. It's a nice idea, well executed.

The Charge's camera is serviceable but not significantly better or worse than other phone cameras. No one buys a smartphone for the camera (despite the death of the Flip camcorder), and the Charge won't change that.

LTE performance

The Charge's data speeds are as breathtaking as those on other 4G LTE devices. Tests showed download speeds in the 10 to 14 Mbit/sec. range -- a variability that's completely normal given the unpredictability of network load and other conditions. By comparison, earlier tests with a ThunderBolt were in the 12 to 16 Mbit/sec. range. The Charge's 3G speeds are in the 200KB/sec. neighborhood.

One more nontrivial thing: The Charge sets a new and higher price point for Android phones. It costs $299 with a two-year contract and data plan, whereas the ThunderBolt costs $249, and most other smartphones cost around $200.

Verizon is promoting free tethering to 10 devices over a 4G network or five devices over 3G for an unspecified limited time, after which it will cost an undisclosed amount of money per month. This is a little open-ended for my taste; I like to know the price of getting hooked before I bite, not after.

Bottom line

Verizon now has two roughly equivalent phones at the top of its line. Is the Charge worth the extra $50 over its closest competitor? Could well be. The screen's better, the battery's bigger, the phone's about 20% lighter, and it's got an HDMI output. On the other hand, you may not like the UI.

I do like the Droid Charge. But I'm not sure I like it $50 more than its alternative.

And I still don't know what makes it a Droid.

Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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