Hands-on: Motorola gives Verizon’s new Droids a much-needed makeover

Once the biggest name in cellphones, Motorola is now an also-ran, struggling to find traction behind the Samsung juggernaut, let alone HTC in the premium Android smartphone market. But if our short time with the latest Droids is any indicator, Motorola is at least trying to compete with the big boys.

Motorola’s Droid Ultra

Motorola showed off three new Droid models at press events in New York and San Francisco Tuesday, the latter of which were showcased in Verizon’s offices. The company debuted the super-thin Droid Ultra, the long-lasting Droid Maxx, and the relatively miniscule Mini. The family of devices indicate the company is attempting to attract a spectrum of consumers. They won’t be available until mid-August, but let’s jump right into our first impressions.

Thin, "sports-car like design"

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Left to right: Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD, Droid Mini, Droid Ultra

At first glance, the design of the three Motorola devices don't seem far off from their predecessors. All three phones feature the same Kevlar coating with zigzag pattern, along with the thick, rounded edges that were prominently featured on last generation's Razr HD line. However, the Droid Maxx is the only handset of the three that features the rough, grippy back of last year's model. The Mini and the Ultra, on the other hand, come wrapped in a shiny chassis that could best be described as a blend of polycarbonate, kevlar, glass, and a bit of metal.

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The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (left) next to the Droid Maxx (right).

Each phone features three physical navigation buttons, with the ability to engage Google Now by holding down the Home button for a few seconds and swiping up. Thankfully, the metal volume rocker and power button are still located on the right-hand side of the handset making it easier to use one-handed. Overall, all three devices feel much more modern than last year's clunky Razr Maxx HD.

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The Droid Ultra will be available in both Black and Red (pictured here).

The standout handset of the bunch, with its impressively thin body, is the Droid Ultra. Verizon is hyping up the fact that, at 7.1mm, it's the thinnest 4G LTE phone on the market. But while it is thinner than the more popular Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, which feature a 7.9 mm and 9.3 mm thickness respectively, it's the software features that will ultimately separate this powerhouse handset from the rest of the competition.

Slightly new hardware, even newer tricks

All three devices will feature 720p displays, with the Maxx and Ultra sporting energy efficient OLED displays and the Mini featuring what Motorola calls a qHD AMOLED that looks similar to last year's Droid displays. The phones also feature a Motorola X8 Mobile Computing System 1.7 GHz dual-core processor, as well as 2GB of RAM and the latest iteration of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.

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The processor is in the same family as the Snapdragon S4 Pro, though built specifically for Motorola. It follows the same blueprints as Qualcomm’s dual-core processor, but Motorola advertises it as an eight-core chip by combining all of the processor’s different elements—its two CPU cores, four GPU cores, and two more coprocessors that help enable extra capabilities like voice processing for a feature called Touchless Control (which we’ll touch upon shortly). It’s all a part of Motorola’s effort to make its new family of handsets sound more powerful than they actually are—at least compared to the other handsets available at Verizon.

And while the inclusion of a dual-core processor may seem a bit antiquated alongside phones like the aforementioned One and Galaxy S4, it's actually a boon for users who are especially concerned with battery life. These three phones each feature relatively long lasting battery packs, with the Maxx able to last up to 48 hours on a single charge.

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ActiveDisplay gives you updates at a glance.

To keep its thin body, Verizon had said that Motorola omitted wireless charging capabilities in the Ultra, though both the Mini and Maxx will still carry this feature. Also, the Maxx and the Ultra include a nifty feature called ActiveDisplay, which utilizes the OLED to display notifications for things like text messages, as well as the time.

As with most OEM-tied Android handsets, the Motorola Droid handsets will come with their own set of software goodies, though some of them seemed gimmicky at first. Motorola's SmartActions, which enabled users too set a specific sound criteria for varying situations, has been replaced by Assist, which enables users to set different actions and modes for meetings, driving, and sleeping.

Motorola’s adding a host of new photo features, including Quick Capture, which lets you engage the camera mode with two flicks of a wrist, and Burst Mode, which is supposed to take a series of photos at a time but actually does so slowly. By default, you can tap on the display to snap a photo, though this option can be disabled.

Android users who utilize applications like AirDroid might be interested to know that Motorola has packed its phones with a new feature called Motorola Connect, which essentially enables you to connect to your handset via a Chrome extension and control it wirelessly. The devices will also come with a feature called Touchless Control, which will enable you to do things like find your phone and ask for directions on Google Now with no-touch voice commands. Verizon demoed the feature by yelling out "Okay Google Now, call my Droid" to locate the phone within a room. Verizon said that the device will learn the pitch and tone of your voice so that it cannot be controlled by another user.

Feels good, but too familiar

While the phones felt good in the palm of the hand and were nice to look at—a stellar improvement over past generations of Motorola’s Android handsets—each phone felt like a variant of Samsung’s line of Galaxy phones, especially with that plastic-y chassis and the abundance of proprietary software features. Motorola is taking its cues from other manufacturers, and from the carriers, rather than setting its own bar and defining its brand, which is unfortunate considering it has Google’s backing throughout this whole ordeal. We won’t have a definitive opinion until we have the devices in our hands for a review, but for now we’re hoping that the upcoming Moto X Phone won’t contribute to consumer confusion.

The Droid Ultra and Droid Maxx will be the first of the new Motorola handsets to launch on August 20, followed by the Mini on August 29. Verizon said that it will continue to sell last year's handsets and offer software updates for those, as well, though it’s unclear if those updates will include some of the features mentioned here.

Updated at 6:07 p.m. PT with a video report.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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