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Droid Ultra deep-dive review: Bigger, but not necessarily better

JR Raphael | Aug. 21, 2013
Motorola's latest smartphone makes a lot of promises -- but does the phone actually deliver? The answer is both yes and no.

Don't get bogged down with those numbers, though: We're talking about a tiny difference — one that's really not noticeable to the naked eye. The Droid Ultra's screen looks great, with bold colors, deep blacks and crisp detail. While devices like the HTC One boast 1080p displays, the difference in quality is difficult to detect; with this many pixels in the picture, you basically have to be studying the phones side by side to see any difference.

My only beefs with the Droid Ultra's display revolve around its flaky auto-brightness mode — the screen tends to jump around frequently with overly aggressive fluctuations in dim conditions — and its limited visibility in direct sunlight, which AMOLED screens are notorious for. To the phone's credit, its performance in sunlight is less bad than other AMOLED smartphones I've tested lately, but it still pales in comparison to the more sun-friendly LCD technology.

The Droid Ultra has a roughly textured power button and volume rocker on its right side. A standard headphone jack sits on the phone's top-right edge and a microUSB port lives on the center of its bottom edge. The phone lacks any HDMI-out capabilities but does offer wireless display support for TVs that are Miracast-enabled.

The phone has a large speaker surrounding the camera lens on its back that delivers surprisingly loud and clear sound by smartphone standards. Its quality deteriorates when you place the phone flat on a surface, with the music becoming muffled and distorted, but as long as the phone is propped up, it sounds quite good.

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.

 

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