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Motorola Droid 4 hands-on: Awesome keyboard, blistering 4G LTE

The replacement original Motorola Droid owners have been waiting for has arrived, bearing the gifts of dual-core power, an excellent keyboard, and Verizon's blazing 4G LTE data.

Motorola Droid 4
Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're aching to get your hands on Motorola's new Droid 4, at least vicariously, you're in luck.

My official review sample has arrived and here's what I think so far.

At CES earlier this year, Motorola dropped a trio of new Verizon handsets offering welcome improvements over the company's existing device selection. They were the now legendary Droid Razr Maxx, Droid Razr Purple, and Droid 4. Out of that lineup, it was the Droid 4 that initially grabbed my attention.

Why, you ask? The simple answer is that it melds dual-core processing, a quality keyboard, Android, and Verizon LTE in one phone. That's the holy grail to some, at least for Android addicts who can't seem to live without a real physical QWERTY keyboard. Motorola seriously disappointed Droid fans with its Droid 3, which lacked the final puzzle piece, LTE data. Enter the Droid 4.

Now playing: Watch this: Motorola Droid 4 (Verizon)

It's clear to me that the Droid 4 takes its design cues from other devices in Motorola's current 2012 lineup. The phone sports the black obelisk motif, complete with slightly rounded corners and beveled edges, as do the Droid Razr Maxx and Droid Razr. It's a classy look sure to fit in equally at the office or out on the town. There's no getting around, however, the large size of the Motorola Droid 4. I mean its girth stares at you right in the face practically begging for trouble. This bruiser measures 5 inches tall by 2.65 inches wide with a full thickness of half an inch. Weighing 6.31 ounces, the Droid 4 is also hefty. Compared with the wafer-thin trend modern smartphones are taking, this handset stands out.

The trade-off for all that extra mass is just what makes it appeal to a very vocal set of Android users, a superb keyboard. Sliding the phone open reveals a gloriously engineered typing surface. While I admit keys are tightly packed together, travel is deep and buttons provide a deliciously rubberized tactile feel. Consisting of five rows, not merely four like on lesser devices, it has a dedicated number row on top. I also really dig the way the backlighting traces the outline of the Droid 4's squat rectangular keys. The spacebar goes on for what feels like miles and is easy to hit without looking down. The Droid 4's directional pad is nice as well and something you don't see often either.

To be clear, though, some things about the keyboard do bug me. First, there is no special key for ".com" or an emoticon button. Those are just minor quibbles, especially since there are keys for often-used punctuation marks such as comma, period, backslash, and equal sign for all you math nerds out there (just kiddin', computation is cool). The majority of keys serve as secondary symbols too. One detractor is that to activate secondary functions, you need to hit the Shift key twice. This would be fine except that the button isn't marked yellow like all the secondary symbols are. At least a light on the left indicates when secondary functions are engaged.

For typing without the physical keyboard, the Droid 4 offers a stock Gingerbread virtual keyboard plus the Swype text input solution. Both are great to have on hand, especially the latter which allows for quick messages using just a finger to connect letters into words.

I'm sure many out there won't mind the Droid 4's sharp 4-inch qHD (940x540-pixel resolution) screen. After just spending time with the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx's Super AMOLED display (4.3 inches, 940x540 pixels), I found myself craving its higher contrast and wider viewing angles. Still, the two devices boast the same resolution and I admit that watching the HQ trailer for the next "Spider-Man" flick on the Droid 4 was fun with web-slinging action shown in crisp detail.

User interface
The Droid 4 runs Gingerbread 2.3.5 but not Google's freshest flavor of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich. Motorola does its best to perk things up with its own UI on top of Android. It's not a bad attempt with five home screens, a helicopter view of all at once, and some support for social media. A Favorites contacts widget pulls in photos from Twitter but not Facebook, for example, which is annoying. It would also be nice if I could use the My Gallery widget to grab friends' photos on Facebook and save them to the Droid 4's local storage. Trust me, I'm not being creepy, I just want to have fast access to pictures of my kids that my wife has posted.

Four capacitive buttons for traditional Android functions, not the three for ICS, sit below the phone's screen. These are Menu, Home, Back, and Search. Overall though there's not much different here and old hands at using Gingerbread will find nothing surprising.

Features and performance
Despite the Droid 4's sweet keyboard, the smartphone has other standout features, such as access to the Android Market, which now contains over 300,000 apps for download. I did notice that besides the usual array of Motorola, Google, and Verizon software, a few tittles looked intriguing. First is the Slingbox app, which lets you stream live content from home cable boxes directly to the phone and even lets you change the channel. You do have to have optional Slingbox hardware installed in your home for this to happen. Netflix is onboard too, saving me the trouble to download it myself. Motoactv software is here as well, an app that enables Motorola phones to connect to the company's line of fitness gadgets.

You can also use a Mobile Hotspot app to share the Droid 4's 4G LTE connection with Wi-Fi devices nearby. This does require an extra subscription. The feature may actually be worth signing up for if you're the type who needs a fast data connection in areas where Wi-Fi is scarce. Doing some quick speed tests using Ookla's Speed Test app, I found downloads in and around the CNET New York office averaged an very fast 14.3Mbps. Once I saw a blistering download rate of 19.4Mbps. Likewise uploads were pushed through at a jaw-dropping 8.1Mbps--color me impressed.

Another area where the Droid 4 looks satisfying so far is its ability to capture quality images. The 8-megapixel camera snaps nice pictures with colors that are lifelike to my eyes, not oversaturated or muted. I also appreciate the clarity of both photos and smooth 1080p HD movies I've taken with the phone. The Droid 4's camera is nimble too, with no discernible lag between shots.

One area of the Droid 4's performance which I and I'm sure many other people will be watching carefully is battery life. Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx upped the ante with its 3,300mAh battery that offers ridiculous longevity. We'll just have to see where the Droid 4 comes in on our tests using a lower-capacity 1,785mAh power source.

In terms of computing power, both the Droid Razr Maxx and Droid 4 run 1.2GHz dual-core CPUs and 16GB of internal memory. Frankly, the way the two phones handle the same OS and Motorola interface seems identical. Our full review will delve further into the Droid 4's processing power.

Outlook for the Droid 4
Whether you will find the Motorola Droid 4 compelling really hinges on how much you crave a great QWERTY. Those with aging OG Droids, I know you're out there, will want to take this bad boy for a test drive. Even folks moving from outdated BlackBerrys will likely appreciate this phone's attributes. If you've got extra cash, $100 to be exact, and couldn't care less having about real keys to touch, then the Droid Razr Maxx should probably be your first stop in your local Verizon store. Of course definitely check back soon for our full review of the Motorola Droid 4 and ultimate decision.