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

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MSRP: $599.99

The Good The compact Motorola Droid Mini 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.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

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.

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.

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.

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