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Motorola Droid Ultra review: Superthin phone flattened by its Verizon rivals

Boasting all the whiz-bang new Android features of the Moto X, the new Droid Ultra is also superthin and sports a big, colorful screen.

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

The Droid Ultra's $199.99 price and even its very existence baffles me. Standing smack dab in between the affordable $99.99 Droid Mini and pricey $299.99 Droid Maxx, the only reason to choose the Ultra is either because you value trimness above all else, or don't care to spend $100 more for the Maxx's massive battery and 32GB of storage. The Ultra's limited 16GB of internal memory also makes it less enticing than other superphones such as the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4.


Motorola Droid Ultra

The Good

The superthin <b>Motorola Droid Ultra</b> has a lovely, large screen and takes pleasing pictures. The phone also has long battery life and offers slick tricks such as advanced voice commands and screen-based notifications.

The Bad

The Motorola Droid Ultra’s chassis feels slippery, collects prints and smudges easily, and isn’t comfortable to hold. The phone has just 16GB of internal storage and no SD card slot.

The Bottom Line

Unless you want the thinnest smartphone on the block, the more powerful HTC One and Droid Maxx are better buys.

The sleek and speedy Droid Ultra (pictures)

See all photos

Up until the Droid Ultra landed on my desk, my most recent mobile companion was the compact Moto X. And since I've become accustomed to its petite build, when I first picked up the Ultra I was immediately struck by its large, wide frame.

Measuring 2.8 inches wide by 5.4 inches tall, the phone seemed positively gargantuan. By comparison the Moto X is a narrower 2.6 inches wide and a shorter 5.1 inches tall.

Motorola Droid Ultra
The Droid Ultra is certainly a handful. Sarah Tew/CNET

That said, while the curved edges of the X begin at a very thin 0.22 inch, at its thickest point the pint-size phone swells to 0.4 inch thick. That's a lot fatter than the Droid Ultra's flat chassis, which is a uniform 0.28 inch in thickness. At 4.8 ounces, the Droid Ultra is also relatively light considering its size.

Motorola Droid Ultra
The Ultra is under a third of an inch thick. Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course being superthin doesn't automatically make a phone ergonomically superior. As I've learned from handling the smoothly tapered backs of the HTC One and Moto X, what matters most is how a handset fits in the palm.

Both devices may be thicker and heavier (4.6 and 5 ounces, respectively) but are a joy to hold. That's because they possess a solid feel and natural shape that's extremely comfortable to grip. Just imagine a river rock honed by millennia of flowing water and you get the idea.

Compared with these gadgets, the Droid Ultra is another story altogether. It is so trim is almost feels two-dimensional, and comes close to being too wide to hold in one hand. Like the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Ultra does sport smooth, rounded edges and corners, a tactic other wafer-thin devices would do well to adopt. Case in point: the Sony Xperia Z, which has a classy all-glass chassis but also painfully sharp corners and straight right angles.

Like Sony's latest flagship, the Droid Ultra's glossy surfaces make it a fingerprint magnet. Just a few minutes were enough for me to cover the Ultra's screen and back panel in slimy streaks and prints.

Another design detractor is that the phone feels downright slippery, almost like a bar of wet soap -- not exactly a quality I seek in a smartphone. Motorola does claim that the Ultra uses Kevlar unibody construction for greater strength so hopefully it'll survive If you drop the device by accident.

Motorola Droid Ultra
Glossy surfaces act as a print magnet. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Droid Ultra doesn't have many physical buttons, just a power key and volume rocker on the device's right edge. There are three capacitive buttons below the screen to control basic Android functions. Above the display is the earpiece and 2MP camera for vanity shots and self portraits.

Around back you'll find the Droid Ultra's main 10-megapixel camera lens and LED flash. Ringing this imaging array is a sizable rectangular speaker grille. It belts out a surprising amount of volume, even more than the HTC One with its vaunted BoomSound -- quite a feat for a handset so thin.

Motorola Droid Ultra
Capacitive buttons sit under the screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

Undoubtedly the Droid Ultra's star attraction is its big, bright 5-inch HD OLED screen. With a 720p resolution (1,280x720 pixels) it may not boast the same amount of pixels as its competition, namely the HTC One (4.7-inch, 1080p LCD) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (5-inch, 1080p OLED). Even so, the Ultra's high-contrast display produces vibrant colors that pop and deep, dark black levels.

I honestly didn't notice any absent detail in photos, Web sites, or text-heavy documents. I also enjoyed viewing my typical choices for mobile entertainment on the device, a copious amount of Netflix movies sprinkled with the odd HD YouTube trailer. By the way, that new "Riddick" flick looks mighty tempting.

Movie trailers are fun to watch on the Ultra's big screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

Core components
In terms of internal electronics, Motorola has made a very unconventional move with its 2013 smartphone lineup. Instead of engaging in the brutal processor arms race like practically every other handset maker, the company decided to sidestep the issue completely. All the new Droids, including the Droid Ultra, are powered by a homegrown processing solution Motorola calls the X8 Mobile Computing System.

The same silicon engine pushing the new Motorola flagship along (the Moto X) at its heart, the X8 is a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU. It doesn't have the raw horsepower of the true quad-core processors ticking inside the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 (Snapdragon 600).

What the X8 lacks in brawn, it makes up for by being efficient. The main dual-core application CPU is backed by muscular quad-core Adreno graphics, plus two additional "cores": a natural language processor and one for contextual computing.

Aiding this hardware is a healthy 2GB allotment of RAM. Internal memory, though, is the Droid Ultra's weakness. As with the Moto X and Galaxy S4, the Ultra comes with just 16GB of storage space. There's no SD card slot for upping your storage options, either, which is huge bummer. Keep in mind that the Ultra's big brother, the Droid Maxx, features a full 32GB of internal storage.

Software and interface
Motorola took a similarly light-handed approach with the Droid Ultra's software as it did with the Moto X. Running the same Android operating system (version 4.2.2), the Ultra's OS is essentially stock Jelly Bean. That's understandable given Motorola's recent acquisition by Google, the technology wizards behind Android.

You slide a padlock icon outside of a virtual ring on the phone's screen to unlock the device. With that accomplished you're greeted to the central home screen plus four other panels to populate with app shortcuts and widgets as you see fit.

The Circles widget finds new life in the Ultra. Sarah Tew/CNET

Motorola managed to hold on to the Circles settings widget, placed at the center of the main home screen, a leftover from the company's previous Droid Razr handsets. Aside from offering quick access to time, weather, and system settings, the tool flaunts a few new tricks.

For instance, 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 while Wireless Display will duplicate the Ultra's screen to compatible HDTVs and monitors.

Besides the cornucopia of staple Google apps and services preloaded, you can dive into the large selection of titles available online in the Google Play store. Also, this is a Verizon-branded Droid device, so the carrier just couldn't resist clogging the phone with essentially useless bloatware. The unremovable hit list includes NFL Mobile, VZ Navigator, Verizon Mobile Security, and Verizon Tones to list a few.

Active display and touchless control
Another really handy feature that is also taken from the Moto X playbook is Active Display. Instead of relying on a notification light, the Droid Ultra's screen will pulse gently 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 upwards to the top of the screen wakes up the phone and opens the linked application.

Thanks to its multicore X8 computing platform, the Droid Ultra can also perform the same voice control tricks as the Moto X. Dubbed Touchless Control by Motorola, speaking the words "OK, Google Now" causes the phone to perk up and await your vocal commands.

Saying things like "where am I?" or "remind me to pick up milk today" will tell the Ultra to jump into action. I found it to be useful when feeling particularly lazy but like Apple's Siri, a bit of a gimmick.

I know some smartphone aficionados will doubt the power of Motorola's X8 platform. I can confirm that they won't have much to fear. The Droid Ultra felt nimble, lively, and extremely responsive in my time with it. Applications opened promptly, and settings menu and home screen navigation were buttery smooth.

Benchmark tests echoed my pleasant performance experience with the Droid Ultra, notching a satisfyingly high Quadrant score of 9,056. Sure, that's not quite as impressive as the numbers turned in by the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4, but I'm still confident that the Ultra's speed should prove fast enough to tackle your mobile computing needs.

Performance: Motorola Droid Ultra
Average LTE download speeds (Verizon) 8.8 Mbps
Average LTE upload speed (Verizon) 4.7 Mbps
App download (CNET) 3.72MB in 15.2 seconds
CNET mobile site load 8.4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 14.9 seconds
Boot time 22.9 seconds
Camera boot time 1.5 seconds

Motorola handset cameras have had a particularly painful history of disappointing me. The previous few generations of Droid Razrs snapped photos slowly and lacked many important shooting modes found on Samsung and HTC devices.

Equipped with a completely revamped camera app and 10MP sensor, the Droid Ultra has made great strides in the right direction. Indoor shots of my studio still life were crisp, had accurate colors, and were well exposed.

Motorola Droid Ultra
Indoors images were clear and detailed. Brian Bennett/CNET

Outdoors in the bright summer sun, the hues of flowers and other foliage were vibrant and details were sharp. Of course I did notice that the phone's autofocus wasn't as jackrabbit quick as say the HTC One's or the Galaxy S4's. Shot-to-shot time on those gadgets is practically instant, whereas the Ultra took about half a second.

Motorola Droid Ultra
Flowers had lots of color in bright sun. Brian Bennett/CNET

Helping to make up for this though is Motorola's Quick Capture feature which fires up the camera app, even when asleep, when you twist the phone twice in your wrist. I have to say it's one of the most valuable abilities I've seen on a smartphone in a while -- likely because I'm often juggling multiple objects (from sippy cups, toys, to other gadgets and coffee mugs).

Motorola Droid Ultra
You can capture kids if you're fast enough. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the Moto X, the Ultra's camera app is very simple to operate. Settings are kept to a minimum, so there's no way to select image or video size (the Ultra always snaps the largest available). 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 to from right to left launches the gallery.

Call quality
I tested the Motorola Droid Ultra on Verizon's CDMA network in New York. Unfortunately callers complained that my voice sounded flat and compressed and could easily tell I spoke to them from a cellular connection.

In my ears people I spoke to sounded loud and cleard. Of course they often communicated with me from a landline, which tends to be of much higher fidelity.

The Ultra's speakerphone packed plenty of volume, thanks to the device's oversize speaker. Callers also said that audio quality was very close to what they heard when I chatted through the standard mouthpiece.

Motorola Droid Ultra call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
Connecting to Verizon's 4G LTE network in New York, the data speeds I observed with the Droid Ultra were all over the map. While the average download throughput I clocked was a solid 8.8 Mbps, in less congested Queens, N.Y., I saw peaks of 17.5 Mbps. In the heart of Manhattan I experience lows of just 1Mbps.

Likewise, upload speeds ranged widely from 7.5Mbps to 1.6Mbps. Upload throughput, however, came in at an average of 4.7Mbps.

Battery life
To achieve its extremely thin profile, the Droid Ultra uses a smaller capacity 2,130mAh battery, compared with its beefier sibling, the Droid Maxx (3,500 mAh). Even so, Motorola makes the bold claim that the Ultra's power source will supply 28 hours of mixed usage.

In my experience the Droid Ultra does in fact have staying power. The phone easily made it through a full 12 hour work day with juice to spare. The Ultra also managed to run the CNET Labs Video Battery Drain benchmark for a long 10 hours and 47 minutes before calling it quits. By comparison, the HTC One lasted for 9 hours and 37 minutes on the same test while the Galaxy S4 persevered for 10 hours and 30 minutes.

After taking a deep dive into all of the Motorola Droid Ultra's features and abilities, I was left wondering why someone wouldn't choose the Droid Maxx over this device. Honestly I can't think of a valid reason, other than perhaps if you have a particular fetish for extremely thin smartphones. Of course, the more likely scenario is that Verizon subscribers will be drawn to the Ultra's svelte profile and large, eye-popping screen, but will be sorely tempted to by its heftier sibling, the Droid Maxx.

I won't know for sure whether the new Maxx will be worth the hype until I really put it through its paces. That said, on paper its huge-capacity battery and 32GB of internal storage seem to justify shelling out the extra $100. That's why for now I strongly recommend going with either the HTC One, which also has 32GB of storage (not 16GB like the Ultra) or the Samsung Galaxy S4, which offers 16GB but also has a microSD slot.


Motorola Droid Ultra

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8