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Motorola Droid Turbo 2 review: Drop-defying: This phone's screen won't shatter on impact

While Verizon does include a small array of apps you can't uninstall (NFL Mobile, for instance) and a bunch of cutesy little games I'd rather do without, swiping through the operating system felt fast and fluid.

You can issue voice commands like "OK, Droid Turbo, remind me to feed the meter in an hour."

Josh Miller/CNET

What's more, the few features Motorola does add are genuinely useful. Like its Moto X predecessors , the Droid Turbo 2 will automatically turn on the camera if you give it a vigorous twist. You can shake the phone twice to turn on the flashlight, or wave your hand above the display to check the time and your incoming notifications. Record a set phrase like "OK, Droid Turbo" and you can issue voice commands. And all of these things work even if the phone's asleep. (My favorite use is in the car: "OK Droid Turbo, navigate home" to get turn-by-turn voice directions, no matter where you are.)

New for 2015 is "Discreet Moto Voice," which is pretty handy as well: Instead of speaking commands out loud, and having the phone reply out loud, you can simply raise the phone to your ear and talk at a normal volume. It felt weird the first few times I tried it...but perhaps a little less weird than talking to an inanimate object in public.

The 21-megapixel camera takes great pictures... in good light, anyhow.

Josh Miller/CNET

Cameras and video

  • 21-megapixel rear camera with f/2.0 aperture
  • 5-megapixel front camera with its own flash
  • 4K video at 30 frames per second, slow-mo video
  • Video stabilization

Motorola has had a troubled history with smartphone cameras. They just haven't been very good. Earlier this year, the Moto X Pure Edition introduced a new 21-megapixel camera, and...it was a bit better, but still not close to the best smartphone cameras on the market.

Well, the 21-megapixel camera in the new Droid Turbo 2 looks to be identical to the one in the Moto X Pure.

Does that mean you won't take wonderful pictures with it? Not at all! In good light, it's a pretty capable little shooter for everyday photos, and I got some shots I really liked -- even if it doesn't have nearly the dynamic range of my Galaxy S6, which can pull out far more detail from the bright and dark regions of a scene.

The automatic HDR mode brings out some of the bright blue sky and the shadows in this picture.

Sean Hollister/CNET

You can see quite a bit of detail in these tiny purple flowers, but I had a tough time getting the phone to take a stable, focused picture.

Sean Hollister/CNET

In very low light, pictures can get ugly fast.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Here's the same perspective from the camera you'll find on a Galaxy S6 or Galaxy Note 5. Far more detail, although it appears to be a little zoomed in.

Sean Hollister/CNET

In low light, though, or for night shots, the Droid Turbo 2's image quality falls apart quickly, with lots of digital noise and graininess. There's an automatic night mode that can make low-light images look OK at a distance, but you'll see splotchy, ugly images devoid of detail if you zoom in. I also had some trouble focusing and finding proper white balance in low light, compared with my Galaxy S6.

Don't expect a manual mode in Motorola's camera app, by the way. You can set focus and exposure, shoot a panorama or turn on the self-timer, but that's about it.

While the Droid Turbo 2's camera doesn't have optical image stabilization -- probably one of the reasons low-light images suffer to begin with -- it does have digital stabilization when you're recording video, even at 4K resolution. That's a definite plus, as it means you'll be able to get much more detail from that 4K video while moving than you might with other phones.

Hardware performance

  • 2.0GHz eight-core Snapdragon 810 processor
  • 32 or 64GB storage, expandable to 2TB via microSD slot
  • 3,760mAh embedded battery
  • Two forms of wireless charging: Qi and PMA
  • Wired fast charging: 25 percent in 15 minutes

I feel like I shouldn't need to tell you that the Droid Turbo 2 is a blazing-fast phone. It's right there in the name. But truly, it's one of the fastest phones I've used. The 2.0GHz Snapdragon 810 chip and 3GB of RAM just scream through tasks, whether I'm simply swiping through the operating system, loading up websites or playing intensive games like Riptide GP2 with the settings cranked up.

There's nothing particularly special about that performance, mind you. Plenty of phones have the same Snapdragon 810 chip, and they're similarly fast. Ditto the Apple chips you'll find in the new iPhones (they're maybe a smidge faster) and the Exynos chips you'll find in the latest Samsung Galaxies.

3DMark Score (Ice Storm Unlimited) performance charts

Apple iPhone 6S Plus
28,080
4,240
2,403
Motorola Droid Turbo 2
25,442
4,761
1,324
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
24,589
4,939
1,488
Google Nexus 6P
24,224
4,313
1,286

Legend:

3DMark Score (Ice Storm Unlimited)
Geekbench 3 Score (Multi-Core)
Geekbench 3 Score (Single-Core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

In fact, there's a downside to the Droid Turbo 2's speed: it heats up quickly. I'm not talking burning hot, but the left metal edge can definitely get unpleasantly warm after a bit. It's enough to feel through a jacket pocket. On the plus side, the heat seems to have a limit: it doesn't get much hotter when performing turn-by-turn GPS directions, or charging, than that "unpleasantly warm" level.

Battery life

Motorola and Verizon say the Droid Turbo 2 can last 48 hours on a charge. The truth: this phone has great battery life, but you won't be getting nearly two full days of actual use.

In fact, this isn't close to the best battery life we've seen from a phone. The Droid Turbo 2 lasted 13 hours, 32 minutes on our video rundown test. That's actually an hour less than last year's Droid Turbo , and an hour and a half shy of the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with its smaller 3,000mAh cell. (We've seen 16-hour showings from budget phones.)

But let's talk practically: the Droid Turbo 2's battery will not only make it to bedtime, it'll still have a significant charge the next morning. I saw the battery dip just 10 percent from midnight to 8 a.m. the following day. And when you wake up and realize that you forgot to charge your phone, you'll be able to plug into the included 25-watt TurboCharger power adapter while you take a shower. I saw 25 percent of the battery fill up in just 15 minutes, and 80 percent in less than an hour.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Turbo supports both PMA and Qi wireless charging standards, too, which basically means you can buy pretty much any wireless charging dock or pad on the market, and it's extremely easy to top up the battery at work or at your local Starbucks.

So even though I can watch the battery drain if I keep my eye on the meter, I don't feel the usual battery anxiety that typically comes with a powerful phone. I've used the Droid Turbo 2 to play games, watch shows, and set it up as a mobile hotspot for my laptop, without worrying one bit about whether I'll make it back to the charger.

Call quality and data speeds

  • Verizon Wireless
  • LTE Cat. 4, bands B2, B3, B4, B5, B7, B13
  • Dual-band 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi

I'd rate the Droid Turbo 2's call quality somewhat above average. Motorola equipped this device with five separate microphones, active noise cancelation and a nice loud earpiece, plus HD Voice support. I had no unusual trouble carrying on calls -- although I had all the usual trouble that comes with calling people over a traditional cellular telephone network. I prefer VoIP services like Google Hangouts and Skype, which offer much clearer, crisper calls.

Similarly, data speeds were all over the map. In downtown San Jose and at CNET's San Francisco offices, I saw download speeds as high as 20Mbps and upload speeds as high as 12Mbps using Ookla's Speedtest.net app, but also as low as 3Mbps and sub-1Mbps respectively. Technically, the Turbo 2 supports LTE Cat. 4, which ranges up to 150Mbps, but we're not seeing speeds anywhere near the limit.

If we're talking cellular radios, the real limitation here is shoddy support for the world's wide array of LTE bands. If you buy this phone on Verizon Wireless, don't expect to be able to take it internationally or to another carrier very easily. It's missing key bands for AT&T and T-Mobile, for instance. Since the nearly identical Moto X Force supports those missing bands, it's hard to see this as anything other than an intentional limitation meant to lock the Droid Turbo 2 to Verizon's network, and Verizon's alone.

The Moto X Pure Edition (left), which works on most any carrier, versus the Verizon-exclusive Droid Turbo 2 (right).

Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion

The greatest compliment I can pay the Droid Turbo 2 is that I honestly, genuinely, truly wish it wasn't a Verizon Wireless exclusive. There are plenty of people who drop their phones and watch them shatter on the pavement, people for whom the Turbo 2 would be a breath of fresh air.

Yes, there are a bunch of tradeoffs that come with that durability -- but surprisingly, not that many. So many powerful phones drain their batteries too quickly -- but not the Droid Turbo 2. So many phones with long battery life phones have subpar screens -- but not the Droid Turbo 2. So many phones, period, are bogged down with unwanted software for no particularly good reason. Not this one.

In nearly every way, the $624 Droid Turbo 2 minimizes the trade-offs you have to make to get a great phone. At this point, the biggest tradeoffs are really just the price -- it isn't cheap -- and the fact you'll have to stay with Verizon if you buy it.

That price and carrier limitation, though, are worth considering because the US smartphone market has changed over the last year. Two-year cellular contracts are going extinct, and there are fewer and fewer reasons to be locked to a single carrier. Smartphones like Motorola's own $399 Moto X Pure Edition and Google's $499 Nexus 6P have shown that a single device can easily support all four US carriers and let you hop to whichever's offering the best deals, while still providing enough performance for your apps, for hundreds of dollars less than a top-tier phone.

If you're going to spend more than that, there should be a very good reason.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 , which costs around $720 (depending on carrier) offers some of those reasons. If you like the Droid Turbo 2, I think you'd probably like Samsung's phone as well. It's got a notably better camera, a bigger, brighter screen, similar performance and slightly better battery life, plus a stylus for drawing. You can get it on any major US carrier, with some limited ability to swap around.

But if you're dead-set on a screen that won't crack, I think you'd probably be very happy with the new Droid Turbo.

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