Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

For Motorola, it's the bionic vs. the bargain

The Droid Bionic continues Motorola's practice of charging a premium price for dual-core devices. The question is whether beefy specs can justify a phone's beefy price.

Ross Rubin
Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, where he analyzes the adoption of consumer technology, and also publishes commentary at his blog, Techspressive.com. Previously, Ross was executive director and principal analyst at The NPD Group and vice president and chief research fellow at Jupiter Research.
Ross Rubin
3 min read

As anyone who has seen the kitsch 1970s show "The Six Million Dollar Man" knows, bionics don't come cheap. Such is the case for the Droid Bionic, the new flagship superphone from Motorola and its first handset released since Google announced its intent to acquire the handset maker.

The first dual-core LTE handset on the Verizon network will start out at $300 on contract, a $100 premium over other leading-edge devices. And Motorola has plenty to sell you after that to make your handset at home anywhere. The suite of accessories includes a $300 Lapdock, a $100 HD Station dock, and a $40 Vehicle Navigation Dock.

The Droid Bionic continues Motorola's practice of charging a premium price for dual-core devices. Josh Miller/CNET

The Droid Bionic continues Motorola's practice of charging a premium price for dual-core devices that the company established with the Xoom tablet (do note that for a limited time, Verizon customers who purchase the Droid Bionic and the Lapdock together with a $50 5GB data plan or higher will get a $100 mail-in rebate). The question is whether its beefy specs can justify its beefy price. According to NPD's Mobile Phone Track, only 9 percent of the smartphones sold in the first half of 2011 were priced above $299.

The Droid Bionic is also the latest in Verizon's Droid line, which is the carrier sub-brand that has played host to a number of Motorola devices.

In late 2009, Motorola launched the original Droid that served as a springboard for Android's rise to the top of the smartphone OS heap. That Droid had a screen coming in at a bit under 4 inches, a 5-megapixel camera, and HD video capture--specs strikingly similar to another recent introduction: the AT&T Impulse 4G.

And while the Impulse's hardware certainly lags behind that of its bionic better, AT&T is offering it at $30--a price that's a tenth of the Droid Bionic's. Much as Motorola keeps testing the waters with pricey hardware, AT&T is driving down the entry-level price of smartphones. The Impulse launch follows the success AT&T had earlier this year with its 4.3-inch screen HTC Inspire at $100--the same price, incidentally, to which AT&T dropped the Motorola Atrix (the Droid Bionic's close cousin) after its slow start, despite favorable reviews.

The Impulse is significant not only because of its low subsidized introductory price from a top-tier carrier, but because it raises the bar for entry-level Android handsets from those carriers. Previously, most entry-level Android handsets were characterized by screens under 3.5 inches and even those were offered at $100 at Verizon and other carriers throughout 2010.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, there's a question about how quickly premium Android handsets will be commoditized. The $30 Impulse (along with some prepaid Android smartphones) make good on Google's promise to democratize the smartphone and build its ad and app customer base; however, at least part of Google's motivation to buy Motorola seems to lie in its desire to keep the heat on Apple at the high end.

With Impulse, hardware similar to the hardware that laid the foundation for the "Droid Does" campaign can now be had for less than the price of a family meal at a casual restaurant. The gap between the bleeding edge and the bargain bin now stands at a little less than the standard cellular two-year contract.