HTC Droid DNA review: Stellar screen, bad battery life
At a Glance
When I first got my hands on the HTC Droid DNA ($200 on Verizon as of 11/16/2012), I thought it would be just a bigger version of the company's other Android offering, the HTC One X. After using the phone, however, I've come to realize that the Droid DNA is not only bigger than its AT&T cousin, but also better in nearly every way: The Droid DNA has a magnificently high-resolution display, a powerful quad-core processor, and a camera that's capable of taking very good looking photos. Unfortunately, the phone's lack of expandable storage and removable battery end up hurting it in the long run. But even with these shortcomings, this is still a noteworthy phone.
The first thing you'll notice when you turn on the Droid DNA is its breathtaking 5-inch 1920 by 1080 Super LCD 3 display. While it isn't as bright or colorful as the screen on the One X, the Super LCD 3 display on the Droid DNA boasts a pixel density of 440 pixels per inch, making it one of the sharpest screens on any smartphone or tablet out there. By comparison, the Retina display on the iPhone 5 has a pixel density of 326ppi, and there is a noticeable difference between the two displays: Text and images on the Droid DNA look sharper than they do on Apple's latest phone, but the iPhone 5 still displays colors more accurately than the Droid DNA. Skin tones and blacks, in particular, look better on the iPhone 5 than they do on the Droid DNA.
Who says big-screened phones have to be uncomfortable to hold? The Droid DNA has a sleek and streamlined design that makes the phone feel great in your hand. Measuring 5.55 by 2.78 by 0.38 inches and weighing in at 5 ounces, the Droid DNA is by no means petite, but its soft-touch back and gentle curves help the phone feel smaller than it really is. One downside to the Droid DNA's sleek design is that the power and volume buttons sit flush with the phone's chassis, making them difficult to find and press (the power button is located right in the center of the phone's top edge, which is a rather inconvenient spot). Also, the MicroUSB charging port that sits on the bottom of the phone is hidden behind a flimsy plastic flap, and it took all my effort not to take a pair of scissors and cut the damn thing off.
Unlike the Motorola Droid Razr M and Google Nexus 4, the Droid DNA uses hardware navigation buttons in lieu of the virtual ones first introduced in Android 3.0. While responsive, the use of hardware buttons means that the Menu command lives on a large bar that sits along the bottom of the screen and takes up valuable screen space that could have been better utilized.
Performance and specs
Powered by 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM, the Droid DNA is able to handle pretty much any app or game you throw its way. The phone shows no signs of lag when scrolling through image-heavy Websites using its bundled browser or jumping between multiple apps. I encountered a few hiccups, however: Some apps, like Angry Birds Star Wars , would crash shortly after I opened them, and the phone occasionally had trouble connecting to a data network—even in areas with good reception.
When it was able to connect, though, the Droid DNA managed download speeds of up to 18.8 megabits per second (mbps) and upload speeds ranging between 9 and 11mbps over Verizon's LTE network. These speeds are slightly faster than what we've seen on the last few Verizon handsets we reviewed, most of which averaged download speeds of about 14mpbs and upload speeds of about 8mbps. Call quality over Verizon's network here in San Francisco was clear with an even volume, but voices on the other end sounded slightly muffled.
Like so many other high-powered Android handsets, the battery life on the Droid DNA is disappointingly short: After just 10 minutes of playing the game Temple Run, the 2200mAh battery dropped by a whooping 7 percent in charge, faster than it did on the Galaxy Nexus or iPhone 5 running the same test. Based on my experience with the Droid DNA, you can expect around 5-6 hours of moderate use from the phone before its battery runs dry. If you barely use your smartphone, you might be able to make it all day on a single charge, but you should keep a spare charger handy if you're a heavier smartphone user. Much like the Nexus 4 and Nokia Lumia 920, the Droid DNA supports wireless charging—though we didn't have a Qi compatible charging mat handy to test out this feature.
The Droid DNA ships with Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, with HTC's custom Sense interface running on top, so you'll get Jelly Bean features such as Google Now (which you can access by holding down the Home button) and improved notifications.
I'm not a big fan of overlays in general, but I do like some of the Sense widgets and how HTC's overlay let you launch apps directly from the lock screen. However, Sense still looks and feels clunky compared to the "holo" interface that you find on "stock" Android 4.x devices that lack custom overlays. The overlay also makes performing certain task more tedious than they would be on standard, unadulterated Android. Want to change your wallpaper? On stock Android, you would just hold down on any empty spot on the home screen. With Sense, you have to go into Settings, Personalize, then select the Wallpaper option. The whole thing is just needlessly complicated.
The overlay may be the least of the Droid DNA's software problems, though: It comes with 11 pre-installed apps (not counting the handful of Verizon branded ones like VZ Navigator), and you can't remove any of them unless you perform a little bit of hacking. You can hide the apps from appearing in the app drawer, but it would have been better if they hadn't been put in in the first place—I really don't think anyone needs or wants to have the Zappos shopping app permanently bonded to their phone.
Like most other recent HTC smartphones, the Droid DNA comes with Beats Audio functionality built-in. The Beats Audio software is supposed to make for a better listening experience while using headphones, but I can't say my music sounded any better with it turned on. Audio played through the phone's rear speaker can get distorted at higher volumes, so you're better off using headphones when listening to your jams.
The phone's large, crisp display is excellent for playing games or watching movies—but there are a few caveats. Buttons on games (and apps in general) tend to be tiny on the phone's high-resolution screen, which can make them extremely difficult to press. 1080p video files play back with no problems, but the Droid DNA's relatively minuscule 16GB of internal storage (12GB usable) will prevent you from loading the phone up with HD videos and taking full advantage of the screen. The phone doesn't support expandable storage, which means that you're stuck sharing that paltry amount between the operating system, apps, photos, and anything else you decide to load onto the handset. You can also use streaming and cloud storage services like Google Music to save some space, but that would require you to constantly use your data connection, which kills the battery quickly.
The Droid DNA's 8-megapixel camera takes impressive-looking photos, but the colors do tend to look a bit over-saturated at times. The camera has a back-illuminated sensor, which helps it perform better in low-light environments, and the camera flash is balanced enough that it doesn't completely wash out whatever you're taking a picture of.
The videos I recorded on the phone came out looking great, and the Droid DNA did a very good job at picking up voices and other audio while recording. One of the nice things about HTC's custom camera app is how it lets you take photos while you record video—something we've started to see on other phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III. It works in a pinch, and it helps ensure that you never miss a photo-worthy moment.
The 2.1-megapixel camera on the front of the phone is better than most front-facing cameras, but you probably won't want to use it for much outside of the occasional self-portrait or Google Hangout. The custom HTC Gallery app has some interesting features, such as the ability to pull photos from your Picasa, Flickr, and Facebook accounts, and it includes basic editing functions.
Overall, I was quite impressed with the camera and camera software on the Droid DNA. While it's not as good as a standalone point-and-shoot camera, the Droid DNA will be more then adequate for your everyday photo and video needs.
The Droid DNA is an excellent Android smartphone that's held back by subpar battery life, a lack of expandable storage, and an overabundance of bloatware. But, even with these problems, the phone is still one of the best smartphones Verizon has to offer. If you crave raw power and bleeding-edge specs, then the Droid DNA is for you. However, if you're looking for something closer to stock Android on a phone you won't have to charge every day, then I recommend checking out the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD instead.
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