Motorola Droid Ultra review: Superthin phone flattened by its Verizon rivals

Motorola managed to hold on to the Circles settings widget, placed at the center of the main home screen, a leftover from the company's previous Droid Razr handsets. Aside from offering quick access to time, weather, and system settings, the tool flaunts a few new tricks.

For instance, swiping the largest clock circle uncovers fresh functions such as Droid Zap and Wireless Display. Droid Zap lets you share images and video with other Android phone users nearby while Wireless Display will duplicate the Ultra's screen to compatible HDTVs and monitors.

Besides the cornucopia of staple Google apps and services preloaded, you can dive into the large selection of titles available online in the Google Play store. Also, this is a Verizon-branded Droid device, so the carrier just couldn't resist clogging the phone with essentially useless bloatware. The unremovable hit list includes NFL Mobile, VZ Navigator, Verizon Mobile Security, and Verizon Tones to list a few.

Active display and touchless control
Another really handy feature that is also taken from the Moto X playbook is Active Display. Instead of relying on a notification light, the Droid Ultra's screen will pulse gently with alerts for incoming e-mail, text messages, and calls. Touching and holding your finger on the associated icon in the center of the screen causes the device to display additional information. Pulling the icon upwards to the top of the screen wakes up the phone and opens the linked application.

Thanks to its multicore X8 computing platform, the Droid Ultra can also perform the same voice control tricks as the Moto X. Dubbed Touchless Control by Motorola, speaking the words "OK, Google Now" causes the phone to perk up and await your vocal commands.

Saying things like "where am I?" or "remind me to pick up milk today" will tell the Ultra to jump into action. I found it to be useful when feeling particularly lazy but like Apple's Siri, a bit of a gimmick.

Performance
I know some smartphone aficionados will doubt the power of Motorola's X8 platform. I can confirm that they won't have much to fear. The Droid Ultra felt nimble, lively, and extremely responsive in my time with it. Applications opened promptly, and settings menu and home screen navigation were buttery smooth.

Benchmark tests echoed my pleasant performance experience with the Droid Ultra, notching a satisfyingly high Quadrant score of 9,056. Sure, that's not quite as impressive as the numbers turned in by the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, but I'm still confident that the Ultra's speed should prove fast enough to tackle your mobile computing needs.

Performance: Motorola Droid Ultra
Average LTE download speeds (Verizon) 8.8 Mbps
Average LTE upload speed (Verizon) 4.7 Mbps
App download (CNET) 3.72MB in 15.2 seconds
CNET mobile site load 8.4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 14.9 seconds
Boot time 22.9 seconds
Camera boot time 1.5 seconds

Camera
Motorola handset cameras have had a particularly painful history of disappointing me. The previous few generations of Droid Razrs snapped photos slowly and lacked many important shooting modes found on Samsung and HTC devices.

Equipped with a completely revamped camera app and 10MP sensor, the Droid Ultra has made great strides in the right direction. Indoor shots of my studio still life were crisp, had accurate colors, and were well exposed.

Motorola Droid Ultra
Indoors images were clear and detailed. Brian Bennett/CNET

Outdoors in the bright summer sun, the hues of flowers and other foliage were vibrant and details were sharp. Of course I did notice that the phone's autofocus wasn't as jackrabbit quick as say the HTC One's or the Galaxy S4's. Shot-to-shot time on those gadgets is practically instant, whereas the Ultra took about half a second.

Motorola Droid Ultra
Flowers had lots of color in bright sun. Brian Bennett/CNET

Helping to make up for this though is Motorola's Quick Capture feature which fires up the camera app, even when asleep, when you twist the phone twice in your wrist. I have to say it's one of the most valuable abilities I've seen on a smartphone in a while -- likely because I'm often juggling multiple objects (from sippy cups, toys, to other gadgets and coffee mugs).

Motorola Droid Ultra
You can capture kids if you're fast enough. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the Moto X, the Ultra's camera app is very simple to operate. Settings are kept to a minimum, so there's no way to select image or video size (the Ultra always snaps the largest available). Swiping from left to right opens a virtual wheel with various settings such as HDR and Panorama modes. Dragging your finger up and down zooms in and out, while sliding to from right to left launches the gallery.

Call quality
I tested the Motorola Droid Ultra on Verizon's CDMA network in New York. Unfortunately callers complained that my voice sounded flat and compressed and could easily tell I spoke to them from a cellular connection.

In my ears people I spoke to sounded loud and cleard. Of course they often communicated with me from a landline, which tends to be of much higher fidelity.

The Ultra's speakerphone packed plenty of volume, thanks to the device's oversize speaker. Callers also said that audio quality was very close to what they heard when I chatted through the standard mouthpiece.

Motorola Droid Ultra call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
Connecting to Verizon's 4G LTE network in New York, the data speeds I observed with the Droid Ultra were all over the map. While the average download throughput I clocked was a solid 8.8 Mbps, in less congested Queens, N.Y., I saw peaks of 17.5 Mbps. In the heart of Manhattan I experience lows of just 1Mbps.

Likewise, upload speeds ranged widely from 7.5Mbps to 1.6Mbps. Upload throughput, however, came in at an average of 4.7Mbps.

Battery life
To achieve its extremely thin profile, the Droid Ultra uses a smaller capacity 2,130mAh battery, compared with its beefier sibling, the Droid Maxx (3,500 mAh). Even so, Motorola makes the bold claim that the Ultra's power source will supply 28 hours of mixed usage.

In my experience the Droid Ultra does in fact have staying power. The phone easily made it through a full 12 hour work day with juice to spare. The Ultra also managed to run the CNET Labs Video Battery Drain benchmark for a long 10 hours and 47 minutes before calling it quits. By comparison, the HTC One lasted for 9 hours and 37 minutes on the same test while the Galaxy S4 persevered for 10 hours and 30 minutes.

Conclusion
After taking a deep dive into all of the Motorola Droid Ultra's features and abilities, I was left wondering why someone wouldn't choose the Droid Maxx over this device. Honestly I can't think of a valid reason, other than perhaps if you have a particular fetish for extremely thin smartphones. Of course, the more likely scenario is that Verizon subscribers will be drawn to the Ultra's svelte profile and large, eye-popping screen, but will be sorely tempted to by its heftier sibling, the Droid Maxx .

I won't know for sure whether the new Maxx will be worth the hype until I really put it through its paces. That said, on paper its huge-capacity battery and 32GB of internal storage seem to justify shelling out the extra $100. That's why for now I strongly recommend going with either the HTC One , which also has 32GB of storage (not 16GB like the Ultra) or the Samsung Galaxy S4 , which offers 16GB but also has a microSD slot.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Service Provider Verizon Wireless
  • Weight 4.83 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
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