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Droid Razr Maxx ICS update hands-on

Motorola's Droid Razr Maxx is even sweeter with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Motorola Droid Razr Maxx
Android 4.0 ICS on the Droid Razr Maxx makes a good thing better.
Brian Bennett/CNET

It took a while, but Motorola has finally bestowed the gift of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich upon its legendary Droid Razr Maxx. Sure it may not be Jelly Bean, but this fresh infusion of software breathes new life into an already superb smartphone.

For those in the know, when it was launched early this year, the Maxx made a huge splash by demonstrating marathon-like battery life -- we're talking in excess of 20 hours playing HD video continuously on our anecdotal drain tests. The handset's slim, sexy, yet durable design also impressed me when I first reviewed the device.

I also loved its 4.3-inch Super AMOLED screen that's both sharp and high-contrast, making everything from movies to pictures look stunning. The phone's one painful drawback, though, was its lack of ICS. Well that has changed, giving the Droid Razr Maxx modern software to match its killer physical design and performance. Here are the highlights.

New lock screen
Instead of the boring old lock screen, the ICS Razr Maxx now lets you jump directly to camera, phone, or text messaging functions. Just drag the key icon up, down, or left to do so. Of course swiping right will wake up the handset and open the screen you were last viewing.

A new lock screen enables quick jumps to phone, camera, and text functions. Brian Bennett/CNET

Ice Cream Sandwich brings support for folders to Android smartphones running the OS, and the updated Droid Razr Maxx is no exception. Now you can reduce clutter on any of your home screens (five in all) by dragging app shortcuts on top of each other. For instance I created a handy "Social" folder containing Facebook, Foursquare, Google+, and Twitter.

You can perform the same feat with the apps listed in the quick launch tray, which runs along the bottom of every home screen. Another neat ICS trick is the ability to customize this tray by swapping your own favorite apps in and out at will.

Combine apps to create and add folders on home screens to save space. Brian Bennett/CNET

I had hoped that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich would add plenty of slick camera features found on other advanced ICS phones, but unfortunately this isn't the case. While you can snap photos during video recording, the updated Razr Maxx can't capture multiple images on the fly simply by holding down the shutter button. This a very useful skill that competing phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC Once X, and HTC One S boast.

That said, there is a burst mode in the ICS Motorola Razr Maxx's camera settings, but you must enable it manually. Also, this function is either on or off, so the flexibility of shooting just one or multiple pictures isn't possible.

Speak to type
One of the slick abilities that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich has in its tool kit is Voice to Text. As long as the Droid Razr Maxx has a data connection, you can dictate texts, e-mails, or any field where the virtual keyboard is present. It's a really nifty tool, especially if you just want to fire off a quick note when walking down the street.

Use your voice to dictate texts and e-mails. Brian Bennett/CNET

The function worked well, too, and I instructed my Droid Razr Maxx test unit to draft rambling text messages (my favorite kind) to people, all transcribed correctly. A few times I had to wait a bit before my spoken words filled the screen, especially when the phone's cellular connection was weak. The new version of the OS (4.1 Jelly Bean) enables offline support for this feature.

I know that the Ice Cream Sandwich update didn't magically beef up the Droid Razr Maxx's components, processor, etc. Still, the phone definitely feels faster and more lively. Perhaps it's just the slicker animations in the menus or the new app tray. Whatever the reason, the handset is more responsive than ever and I look for any excuse to fly through its menus and home screens.

Another reason for my lack of self control is the Droid Razr Maxx's unreal battery life. I know deep down that I can mess around with this phone all day long and not have worry about losing power. I haven't yet run any additional battery tests since the update, but my informal use mirrors the same marathon longevity I enjoyed pre-ICS.

No NFC for you
Sorry, folks, but updated software can't fix the Droid Razr Maxx's lack of NFC (near-field technology). I doubt many people out there have really embraced NFC in everyday life, but it's one of the more futuristic features baked into Android 4.0. Called Android Beam, the parlor trick of bumping phones together to transfer pictures, video, and Web links is forever out of the Maxx's reach. So, too, is fast pairing with Bluetooth accessories, something even Motorola products have begun to do.

I can't say enough how much of an improvement Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich makes to the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx. I know some Android addicts out there, including me occasionally, will yearn for Jelly Bean's fancy new skills. Even so, the Maxx now represents the unlikely union of modern Android software, fast Verizon 4G LTE, legendarily long battery life, all in a premium design. Sure it's not perfect, especially its unimpressive camera, but thanks to ICS, this excellent smartphone just got even better.