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Motorola Droid Mini review: Small, speedy, but not a bargain

Verizon and Motorola's newest Droid is thin, trim, and packs a few impressive specs.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
10 min read

If you're a Verizon customer looking for an affordable yet compact Android smartphone, the $99.99 Motorola Droid Mini sure sounds tempting. And on the whole it delivers just what you'd expect from a $99.99 phone. It has the same fast processor as the Droid Ultra and the Droid Maxx, battery life is long, and call quality is excellent. Of course, you'll notice that Motorola did cut corners, but the company had to do something to knock the Mini's price down under $100.

Motorola Droid Mini

Motorola Droid Mini

The Good

The compact <b>Motorola Droid Mini</b> offers a speedy processor, long battery life, and advanced Android features for an affordable price.

The Bad

The Droid Mini’s chassis feels cheap and attracts grease and fingerprints easily. The phone’s screen has inaccurate colors with low contrast.

The Bottom Line

If $100 is the most you can spend, the Motorola Droid Mini will fit the bill, but splurging on the handsome Moto X pays dividends later.

In my book, though, those corners, specifically the cheap build quality and the unimpressive display, don't add up to a bargain. Sure, the phone is small, but unless you absolutely can't pay more than $99 for a phone, I strongly advise resisting the Mini's low price. You're much better off saving up for the handsome $199.99 Motorola Moto X. The X is almost as small yet packs essentially the same slick Android features into a beautifully crafted chassis. It even boasts a bigger screen with superior image quality.

Motorola's tiny yet potent Droid Mini (pictures)

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Besides being very affordable, the main selling point for the Motorola Droid Mini is its extremely pocket-friendly size. Measuring 4.8 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide and a mere 0.35 inch thick, the Mini's moniker is certainly fitting. The device is tiny enough to slip hassle-free into tight jeans and is so small it disappears in large bags.

Motorola Droid Mini
The Mini is tiny enough to squeeze into tight places. Sarah Tew/CNET

As a matter of fact, the Droid Mini takes up less space than Motorola's own pint-size flagship, the Moto X (5.1 inches tall by 2.5 inches). That said, the Moto X sports a roomier 4.7-inch screen despite weighing the same 4.6 ounces. I also prefer the Moto X's design, which is leaps and bounds ahead of the Mini's in terms of both quality and comfort.

The Moto X uses a handsomely curved back with a premium soft-touch finish that fits my hand like a glove. By contrast, the Droid Mini's back side is relatively flat. That shape coupled with rounded corners and an extremely smooth surface give the Mini a cheap mass-produced feel that's far from ergonomic. Worse, the Mini's plastic texture is so glossy it's downright slippery causing me to fumble the phone a few times. Also distasteful is how the handset smudges with unsightly streaks and fingerprints within minutes of picking it up.

Motorola Droid Mini
The back side is smooth, glossy, and a fingerprint magnet. Sarah Tew/CNET

Above the display is a 2MP front-facing camera, while below sit three capacitive buttons for basic Android control.The only physical keys are on the right edge: a volume rocker and power button. They're both cross-hatched, contoured, and raised well above the phone's surface, making them a cinch to operate by feel. Interestingly, pulling the volume buttons out reveals that they double as the device's nano-SIM card tray.

Motorola Droid Mini
The volume buttons double as the phone's SIM card slot. Sarah Tew/CNET

The bottom lip of the Mini holds a Micro-USB port and up top is the Mini's 3.5 mm headphone jack. Around back is the phone's main 10MP camera with LED flash. Encircling the camera lens is a large speaker which like the Droid Ultra and Droid Maxx pumps out a remarkable amount of volume.

It's plain to see that another area where the Motorola Droid Mini cuts corners is in its mediocre LCD screen. Measuring 4.3 inches, the phone's display may be bigger than the iPhone's (4 inches) but is relatively small compared with most high-end Android phones, including the Droid Ultra and the Droid Maxx (5 inches, 720p).

Motorola Droid Mini
The Mini's screen lacks high contrast or accurate colors. Sarah Tew/CNET

Indeed, its more expensive Droid siblings have screens that are not only bigger, their AMOLED displays have much higher contrast, more lively colors, and deeper blacks. That makes a significant difference when viewing photos, movies, or other visual content.

I also noticed that the Mini's screen had uniformity issues with light distractingly bleeding along its edges, a problem that plagues budget LCDs. Colors, especially fleshtones, looked unnatural as well, with a reddish almost orange tinge.

The Droid Mini's screen even pales when viewed side-by-side with the compact Moto X. The X also boasts AMOLED technology and at a more sizable 4.7 inches across. As a result it delivers superior image quality similar to Motorola's step-up handsets.

Additionally, the Mini's display also has a lower 720p HD resolution (1,280x720 pixels) than competing Verizon devices, namely the Samsung Galaxy S4 (5-inch AMOLED, 1920x1080), and HTC One (4.7-inch LCD, 1,920x1,080), That said, the Droid Mini's screen does get pretty bright and has vibrant (if inaccurate) colors.

Core components
Inside the Droid Mini is the same exact hardware you'll find driving the Droid Ultra and Droid Maxx, the X8 Mobile Computing System. Constructed around a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU, on paper it lacks the sheer processing prowess of true quad-core chips, the likes of which propel the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 (Snapdragon 600).

Don't be disheartened though since the X8 is designed to be efficient rather than screamingly swift. As it happens the X8's main dual-core application CPU is backed by potent quad-core Adreno graphics, along with two additional "cores": a natural language processor and one for contextual computing.

Helping this hardware is a healthy 2GB allotment of RAM but like the Droid Ultra the Mini has only 16GB of internal storage. If you want more, consider splurging on the Droid Maxx, which boasts a roomy 32GB of storage. In keeping with all the new Droid handsets, however, there's no SD card slot on the Mini for increasing storage.

Software and interface
If you're a fan of stock Android, the Droid Mini's software probably won't irritate you all that much. Motorola took a similar hands-on approach as it did with its other Droids and the Moto X. The phone runs the same Android operating system (version 4.2.2) as those devices, an essentially vanilla version of Google's OS.

You unlock the Mini in typical Android fashion, by sliding a padlock icon outside of a virtual ring on the phone's screen. After this you'll immediately see the main home screen along with four additional panels to populate with app shortcuts and widgets.

Those who have used Motorola's smartphones from last year, namely the Droid Razr and Atrix handset lines will certainly recognize the Circles widget. It's smack dab in the middle of the central home screen, and I'm happy to see this tool, because in addition to providing a quick way to check the time, it also displays weather, and is a shortcut for system settings, too.

Motorola Droid Mini
Wireless Display technology can send screen content to compatible TVs and monitors. Sarah Tew/CNET

You'll find a few new tricks tucked inside this widget as well. 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; Wireless Display will duplicate the Ultra's screen to compatible HDTVs and monitors.

Thanks to its Android pedigree, right out of the box the Mini has all the major Google apps and services already installed. You can always peruse the large Google Play online store library for additional titles to download. Be advised, though, that as an officially Verizon-branded Droid phone, the wireless provider did its best to stuff the Mini with permanent bloatware. Forgettable and unremovable examples include NFL Mobile, VZ Navigator, VZ Security, and Verizon Tones.

Active display and touchless control
Another carryover from Motorola's and Google's new phones is Active Display. This useful feature has found a home on all the new Droids and is also integrated into the Moto X. Motorola envisions Active Display to serve in place of a separate physical notification light, though oddly enough the Droid Mini still has one. Essentially, the Mini's screen will pulse from time to time 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 upward to the top of the screen wakes up the phone and opens the linked application and alert.

Motorola Droid Mini
The Droid Mini listens for your spoken commands. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx, and Moto X, the Droid Mini takes full advantage of the X8 computing platform to flaunt impressive voice control abilities. Billed by Motorola as Touchless Control, speaking a specific phrase will cause the Mini to perk up from sleep or push other apps its handling aside then wait for your vocal command. Simply say the words "OK, Google Now" and follow up with directions like "Where am I?" or "Remind me to stop by the supermarket today," and the Mini will strive to do your bidding.

Pound for pound, the Droid Mini and its X8 platform can't outpunch heavyweight contenders with souped-up quad-core processors. Even so, the compact device felt as nimble as a roadster.

The phone zipped through menus and opened applications with promptness. I also observed no delays or hiccups when manipulating widgets. Throwing my typical battery of benchmark tests at the Droid Mini confirmed my anecdotal experience with the handset.

Motorola Droid Mini
Quadrant confirmed the Mini's X8 chip has some pep. Brian Bennett/CNET

The phone pushed through Quadrant, notching a solid 8,905 on the test. That's a hair higher than what the big, bad Droid Maxx managed (8,804), enough to trump the Moto X (8,519), yet not quite enough to catch the slim Droid Ultra. Of course all these results are in the same ballpark, understandable since all Motorola's 2013 handsets feature identical X8 processing. If it's brute number-crunching strength you seek, the Snapdragon 600-touting HTC One (12,194) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381) are more your speed.

Performance: Motorola Droid Mini
Average LTE download speeds (Verizon) 10.1 Mbps
Average LTE upload speed (Verizon) 5.6 Mbps
App download (CNET) 3.72MB in 7.8 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.2 seconds
CNET desktop site load 10.1 seconds
Boot time 22.3 seconds
Camera boot time 1.7 seconds

Call quality
I tested the Droid Mini on Verizon's CDMA network in New York City, and mirroring my experience with the Droid Maxx, the Mini demonstrated crystal clear call quality during my conversations. Callers I chatted with immediately commented on the cleanness of the line and had difficulty telling that I spoke from a cellular connection. They did detect, however, a slight flatness to audio when they paid closer attention. Through the Mini's earpiece, voices came through loud and clear as well.

Due to the phone's large rear speaker, the Mini's speakerphone also gets plenty loud. People I called said audio quality through the speakerphone was also clean, even if my voice sounded slightly more distant.

Motorola Droid Mini call quality sample Listen now:

Motorola smartphone cameras have traditionally not wowed me. As recently as last year's Droid Razrs snapped photos too sluggishly and also lacked important shooting modes its competition, specifically Samsung and HTC phones, offered.

Motorola Droid Mini
Indoor shots were clear and well exposed. Brian Bennett/CNET

My what what a difference a year makes, and having Google as your new parent company I'm sure doesn't hurt either. Motorola's fresh Flagship the Moto X and its new Droid handsets boast redesigned the imaging systems and camera apps. The Droid Mini is no exception and its 10-megapixel sensor nabbed great photos both inside and out in the wild. Indoor images of my studio still life exhibited crisp detail with accurate colors, and were properly exposed.

Motorola Droid Mini
Colors were vivid and details clear in sunlight. Brian Bennett/CNET

Outside in daylight, the greens of trees and leaves were vibrant, along with the colors of flowers, blue skies and white clouds. Details were clear too and thanks to the automatic HDR mode the same was true of scenes with tricky backlighting.

That said, the Mini's autofocus wasn't jackrabbit-quick as the HTC One's or the Galaxy S4's. Shot-to-shot time on those phones is essentially instant, while the Droid Mini had a delay of about half a second. Another minor annoyance is the Mini's (and that of the Maxx and the Ultra, for that matter) narrow field of view. It made including all the objects in my still-life in the camera's frame quite a challenge.

Motorola Droid Mini
The Mini's camera can capture images of moving kids. Brian Bennett/CNET

I do like Motorola's Quick Capture feature, which fires up the camera app, even when the Mini is asleep, when you twist the phone twice in your wrist. Since I'm the kind of guy who tends to juggle way too many items at once, I find it extremely helpful. Trust me, don't stand close or you'll find yourself functioning as my mobile coffee table.

Like the Moto X and Droid Ultra, the Mini's pared-down camera app is breathtakingly simple to use. Sure, the settings are as light as they can get; for instance there's no way to choose image or video size (the Mini picks the largest possible). 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 from right to left launches the gallery.

Data speeds
Like all of Verizon's new smartphones, the Motorola Droid Mini can link to the carrier's 4G LTE network for fast data access. Testing the handset in New York City, I clocked a swift average overall download speed of 10.1Mbps. Upload throughput was slower, at an average speed of 5.6Mbps.

Motorola Droid Mini
Data speeds on Verizon's 4G LTE was fast. Brian Bennett/CNET

Battery life
The Droid Mini certainly doesn't pack a massive high-capacity battery like its big brother, the Droid Maxx. Even so, the Mini's 2,000mAh power source had enough juice to run the CNET Labs video playback battery drain benchmark for almost a full 10 hours (9 hours and 59 minutes).

That said, the Moto X persevered for a slightly longer 10 hours and 9 minutes while the Droid Ultra hung on for 10 hours and 47 minutes. The tenacious Droid Maxx, though, played our HD video file for an astonishing 15 hours and 50 minutes before calling it quits.

I admit I was initially intrigued by the $99.99 Droid Mini when I first learned about Motorola's most compact handset. After all, it has the same speedy X8 mobile processor that you get on the Moto X ($199.99), Droid Ultra ($199.99), and Droid Maxx ($299.99), and it tackles the same nifty voice control tricks and notification skills of Motorola's more expensive models.

By all means, it will serve you well if price is your primary concern, but remember that you'll be making some serious design compromises to get that bargain price. The screen that produces low-contrast images in kooky colors is hard to swallow by itself, but the real deal breaker for me is the Mini's slippery, fingerprint-prone chassis. That's why I can't in good faith recommend the Droid Mini over the Moto X if you have a bit more room in your budget. For $100 extra it has the same impressive features packed into a device of comparable size and far higher build quality. The final cherry on top is the Moto X's larger AMOLED screen with superior imagery.

Motorola Droid Mini

Motorola Droid Mini

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8