Droid Turbo review: A sturdy phone with serious stamina

It may not be the most elegant-looking device, but Motorola's new smartphone is brimming with power.

droid turbo

I'll never forget my first Droid device.

It was nearly five years ago. Verizon and Motorola came out with a series of tantalizing ads showing a mysterious new phone that was loud, in your face and industrial. It wasn't pretty -- it was powerful. It was everything the then-dominant iPhone wasn't -- and, like lots of people, I was immediately intrigued.

The original Motorola Droid marked a major turning point for Android, as the platform went from a back-of-the-store footnote to a serious contender in the smartphone race. It helped make Android a household name; for years, "Droid" was to "Android" as "Kleenex" is to "tissue."

The Droid moniker may have lost some of its cachet over time, but Verizon's kept a firm grip on the brand's identity -- and with the new Motorola-made Droid Turbo, on sale now for $200 (32GB) to $250 (64GB) on contract, or $600/$650 off-contract, the carrier is helping us to remember what it represents.

Durable and utilitarian design

Let's get one thing out of the way: The Droid Turbo's style isn't going to be for everyone. The phone is basically a beefed-up and ruggedized version of Motorola's 2014 Moto X -- but while the Moto X is sleek and sophisticated, the Droid Turbo is unapologetically utilitarian. In fact, as I noted in my initial impressions, it's like a Moto X on steroids.

The version of the phone I've been using has what Motorola calls a "ballistic nylon" backing. It's black and has a rough woven texture to it, kind of like what you'd feel on a nice backpack or piece of luggage.

droid turbo nylon JR Raphael

The nylon backing of the new Droid Turbo is like that of a high-end backpack.

The Turbo is also available in a red or black "metalized glass fiber" configuration that's smoother and has a glossy finish. Both materials are reinforced with Kevlar, and both make the phone feel solid and sturdy but also meaningfully thicker, heavier and less ergonomically pleasing than the Moto X.

Hardware that's impressive -- and excessive

The "Moto X on steroids" simile goes beyond the Turbo's outer surface. The phone's display, for instance, is the same 5.2-in. size as the Moto X -- but instead of using 1080p resolution, the Turbo bumps things up to Quad HD with a staggering 565 pixels per inch.

To be sure, the AMOLED screen looks incredible: Text is crisp, images are stunningly detailed and the colors are rich and true to life. The screen is easy to see even from wide angles or in glary outdoor conditions. But looking at the Turbo next to the Moto X, it's tough to detect any noticeable difference in quality; impressive as it may sound on paper, Quad HD resolution just doesn't add much to the experience when it comes to a screen of this size.

The same can be said about the Turbo's horsepower: The phone is snappy as can be, with nary a stutter or lag anywhere in the system -- but it doesn't feel any speedier than the Moto X, despite the fact that it boasts a more powerful processor and an extra gig of RAM. Even in a closely studied side-by-side comparison, I could find no discernible difference in how the two phones perform.

I point these things out merely as a reminder that, at a certain level, specs -- effective as they are for marketing -- only mean so much in real-world terms. The Droid Turbo has an excellent screen and impeccable performance, which is ultimately what matters, but the superlative-laden hype surrounding its hardware is best taken with a grain of salt.

Standout stamina

The one area where the Droid Turbo's steroid regiment is significant is in the realm of stamina: The Turbo packs a giant 3,900mAh battery that's listed for up to 48 hours of use per charge.

Battery life is obviously going to vary depending on how you use your phone, but based on my experience, I'd say two days should be entirely possible for a lot of people. With moderate to heavy use -- as much as three to four hours of screen-on time -- I've consistently made it from morning to night with 40% to 50% of the device's charge still remaining. At the very least, you should never have to worry about running out of power within a single day, even if you have abnormally heavy usage habits.

The Turbo also comes with Motorola's aptly named Turbo Charger, a power adapter that boosts battery life by as much as eight hours with just 15 minutes of charge time. The phone supports wireless charging, too, so you can easily top it off with any Qi-compatible pad.

Sound, photos and storage

The Droid Turbo has a single speaker on the top end of its face. The sound is reasonably good but a noticeable step behind the Moto X's in both volume and quality: Music is not as loud or full-sounding as what the X delivers, and audio gets ever-so-slightly distorted when the volume's turned up all the way.

The device's camera, meanwhile, is roughly on par with that of Moto X -- which is to say that it's capable of capturing some decent-looking photos but is not entirely consistent. The Turbo has a higher megapixel count -- 21MP compared to the Moto X's 13MP -- but all that means is that images taken on the Turbo are larger, which isn't particularly important. I've actually found the Turbo's photos to be a bit less sharp and vivid than the Moto X's on the whole, though it does do better than the X in low-light conditions.

Call quality on the Turbo has been perfectly fine for me, as have data speeds with Verizon's LTE network. It's worth noting, however, that you can't currently use mobile data while on a voice call with this device; that capability will apparently become available sometime later this year when Verizon enables support for its new voice-over-LTE feature.

The Droid Turbo gives you either 32GB or 64GB of internal space, depending on which model you select. There is no micro-SD card slot for external storage expansion.

Superb software, with a couple of caveats

The Turbo may be a Droid, but it is also a Motorola phone -- and by and large, it sticks to Motorola's excellent "stock-plus" approach to software. As such, you get a near-stock Google Android user interface along with a handful of legitimately useful feature-oriented additions.

droid turbo software JR Raphael

The Droid Turbo's main user interface (left) and the various add-on Moto features (right).

There's not a heck of a lot different here from what you'll find on the Moto X, so I'll refer you to the software section of my Moto X review for a more detailed analysis. In short, the UI is clean and intuitive, without the heavy bloat other Android device-makers tend to bake into the operating system. And you get all the same handy tricks offered on the Moto X, like Motorola's magnificent always-listening voice control (with the ability to set your own customizable wake-up phrase) and the "pulsing" display that periodically flashes pending notifications. You can even wave your hand over the screen while it's off to see the current time and notifications.

Verizon has introduced a handful of tweaks, most of which range from "completely inconsequential" to "mildly annoying but easy enough to ignore." A few icons in the system have been altered, for instance, and there's some Verizon Cloud silliness integrated into the software here and there. The standard share of Verizon-added bloatware is on board, too, as is a rather pointless sharing app called Droid Zap that you'll probably never use. Oh, and there's a custom clock and weather widget that's actually pretty nice.

The most significant deviation from the norm is with the Turbo's system buttons: Instead of using virtual on-screen buttons, as has been the standard for Android since 2011, the Turbo uses capacitive keys for the Back, Home and Recent Apps functions.

That setup makes the screen seem slightly bigger, as the buttons don't take up space on the display, but it also comes with some noteworthy downsides: First, since they're static physical keys, the Turbo's buttons don't rotate with the screen and change or disappear based on context, as their virtual counterparts do. They also need to be illuminated in order to be visible in dark conditions -- and if a room is dim but not completely dark, they sometimes don't light up and are consequently difficult to see.

Beyond that, the buttons' placement makes the touch-oriented area of the phone extra tall, which creates an awkwardly long reach for your thumb during one-handed use. And the setup will soon look dated, since the upcoming Android 5.0 Lollipop upgrade shifts to a new visual appearance for the buttons -- one that'll automatically appear on other devices, where the buttons are virtual and thus able to be changed.

Speaking of future OS releases, one benefit of Motorola's approach to software is that it paves the way for speedy OS upgrades. The Turbo ships with the current Android 4.4.4 OS and a promise of an upgrade to Android 5.0 once that release becomes available. If Motorola's past efforts are any indication, the Turbo should see the software in a reasonably timely fashion, without the waiting and uncertainty that frequently accompany other manufacturers' phones.

Bottom line

With its excellent display, top-notch performance and outstanding battery life, the Droid Turbo is a real powerhouse with few limitations. And Motorola's smart approach to software provides a great overall user experience you won't find on many other devices.

The Turbo's brawn, however, comes at a cost: The phone's strong yet utilitarian form makes it far less sleek and pleasant to hold than its more refined (and less expensive) Moto X sibling. And its capacitive buttons are less than ideal, especially with the Android Lollipop release right around the corner.

Technology is full of tradeoffs, and only you can decide what factors matter most to you. If you want a durable device and need exceptionally strong stamina -- and are okay with the asterisks that accompany those traits -- the Droid Turbo is a terrific option with plenty of positives. It's a standout player in Verizon's lineup and a phone I'd happily recommend.

[Moto X vs. Droid Turbo: Which one's right for you?]

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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