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HTC Droid DNA review

HTC is back on Verizon Wireless in force, but does the Droid DNA have what it takes to stand out?

HTC Droid DNA hero (2040px)

Big phones are getting bigger. This trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down in the least, and the new HTC Droid DNA for Verizon Wireless is the latest member of the giant smartphone clan. Priced at $199.99, the DNA has more than just size on its side — it’s also the first smartphone with a crazy high-res 1080p display to be available in the US.

But a HDTV-equivalent display alone does not a great smartphone make, and the Droid DNA attempts to be the best on other fronts with a cutting edge quad-core processor, 8-megapixel camera with wide aperture lens, and the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean software. The first truly high-end HTC device to be offered by Verizon Wireless since the ill-fated Rezound, the DNA has to contend with the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, Motorola’s Droid RAZR HD and RAZR Maxx HD, Apple’s iPhone 5, and the latest volley from Microsoft with its new Windows Phone 8 devices. Does the Droid DNA have what it takes to stand out from the pack, or will it and its fancy new display be lost in the sea of black slab smartphones on Verizon’s shelves? Read on to find out.


Video Review

Video Review

Hardware

Hardware and design

Verizon's black and red motif strikes again

Continuing the trend of slab-style, all-touchscreen smartphones, the HTC Droid DNA is little more than a giant touchscreen laid on top of a thin frame housing its internal components and cameras. Decked out in Verizon's signature red and black color motif, the DNA is not an unattractive device by any means, but it doesn’t exactly wow you with its design. The phone is solidly assembled, though it lacks the unibody construction of HTC’s One X / One X+, and it’s all plastic instead of mostly metal like the EVO 4G LTE. The lack of metal certainly aids in the DNA’s light weight — at 5 ounces (142g), it’s significantly lighter than you might expect a device with a 5-inch display to be (for comparison, last year’s Rezound was a stout 165g — and it has a notably smaller, 4.3-inch screen).

The tapered back helps mask the DNA's massive size

While the front of the DNA is dominated by Gorilla Glass 2, the rear of the phone is comprised entirely of a soft-touch material. The soft-touch finish feels nice and helps you keep a grip on the phone, but it also attracts a good amount fingerprints, dust, and pocket lint, so it’s not the easiest to keep clean. The back is also home to the 8-megapixel camera lens and LED flash and external speaker.

My favorite feature of the DNA is the notification light located on the back of the phone, which might be one of the most novel things I’ve seen on a smartphone in a long time. The multicolor LED is located just to the left of the camera module, and is virtually indistinguishable from the surface of the phone when it’s not blinking. There is also a small notification light tucked in the speaker grille on the front of the DNA, so whether you have the phone placed face down or face up, you can see if you have notifications waiting. I’m a big fan of notification lights on smartphones, so the fact that the DNA has two where many other phones have none puts a smile on my face.

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Fiddly port cover is fiddly

The back of the phone also features a gently tapered design that helps mask the large size of the device. Though the DNA is listed as 0.38 inches thick, the tapered design brings it to a rather thin 0.16 inches at its sides. The sides' perforated red panels (HTC calls it a "micro-grill pattern) that are meant to evoke a sports car. The volume rocker is inset in the panel on the right side of the phone, and while its placement feels less natural to me than if it were on the left, it works well and I didn’t have any trouble using it.

As mentioned, the Droid DNA is a large phone — at 5.55 inches tall and 2.78 inches wide, it’s definitely at the bigger end of the smartphone spectrum. But it’s not much larger than the already big One X or EVO 4G LTE. One-handed use with the DNA can still be a chore, despite the tapered rear design and minimal borders around the display. As is the case with all of these massive smartphones, I frequently missed tap targets in apps when I tried to reach them with my thumb. That’s certainly not a unique trait of the DNA, and if you are interested in this particular device, you are probably well aware of the ergonomic limitations that come with such a massive display.

But not all is rosy with the Droid DNA’s design. Power / sleep / unlock buttons have always been hit or miss on HTC’s smartphones — the Windows Phone 8X’s power button is nearly unusable, and I’m not a fan of the placement of the button on the One X — but the location of the Droid DNA’s is a new low. Or a new high, if you will, since it’s located in the middle of the top edge of the phone, which might be the most awkward place it could be on a phone of this size. There is no easy way to press the button without shifting the phone in your hand and assuming a ridiculous claw grip with your index finger on top of the device. Somebody really needs to tell HTC’s designers that power buttons work best on the side when phones have 4.3-inch or larger displays. Motorola, Samsung, and LG have all figured this out, so it’s time that HTC got on board.

My complaints with the DNA’s design don’t end with the power button either. Instead of just leaving the bottom-located Micro USB port open and accessible, HTC decided to put an infernal protective flap over the jack, making it far more difficult to access whenever you need to charge your phone. The silly little flap is fiddly to remove and fiddly to put back in place when you remove the USB cable, and its frustrating every time you use it. This idea wasn’t good on the Palm Pre back in 2009, and it’s not good on the DNA in 2012. Fortunately, the Droid DNA supports wireless charging with Qi-compatible accessories, so you don’t need to use the Micro USB port if you own a compatible charging pad. Don’t expect to find one in the box with the DNA, however.

Display

Display

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The real star of the DNA's show is its 5-inch Super LCD 3 display. The DNA is the first phone in the US to feature a 1080 x 1920 pixel HD display, and it’s quite stunning. There’s something to be said when a smartphone has the same number of pixels as the vast majority of HDTVs available on the market today, and the DNA’s 440ppi pixel density means that you can’t see individual pixels no matter how hard you try. Color reproduction and viewing angles are easily best in class, and the DNA has no problems outdoors in bright sunlight. Like the One X’s SLCD 2 display, the air gap between the glass and the LCD on the DNA is so small that it almost looks like images are floating on the screen. Multiple people in the Verge office asked if the device was a dummy unit and not a real phone thanks to the display’s impressive visuals.

We’ve long praised HTC’s own One X as having the best display on any smartphone, but the DNA’s new SLCD 3 panel bests it without much effort. I don’t think there are enough superlatives to describe how good this screen is — it’s really something you just have to see in person to appreciate fully.

There aren't enough superlatives to say how good this screen is
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Cameras

Cameras

Wide angles and speedy performance, but not the best in low light
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HTC has equipped the Droid DNA with two cameras — the 8-megapixel rear unit mentioned earlier and a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera borrowed from the Windows Phone 8X. The front-facing unit can record 720p HD video and has an exceptionally wide 88 degree field of view, so you can fit the whole family in the frame when you are video chatting with Grandma.

The rear camera features HTC’s ImageSense processing chip and software, which offers the ability to shoot 1080p video and capture stills at the same time without any interruption of the video capture. HTC’s camera interface is the best in class for Android manufacturers, and it’s been enhanced on the DNA with a larger shutter key and easier access to the front-facing camera and zoom control.

For low-light photos, the DNA has a f/2.0 lens to let in a lot of light, but it doesn’t have a fancy optical stabilization system as found on the Nokia Lumia 920. Pictures taken in low light are good, but they aren’t quite as good as those offered by the iPhone 5 or the Lumia 920. For everyday photos in decent lighting, the DNA takes respectable shots that most people should be fine with.

Software

Software

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The Droid DNA features Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean with the latest version of HTC’s Sense 4+ interface. Sense 4+ is very similar to Sense 4, and should look quite familiar to anyone that has seen HTC’s phones released this year. HTC customizes Android with its own lock screen, home screens, app drawers, and multitasking system, and it covers the majority of the interface with its own theming. Whether you like HTC’s treatment of Android generally comes down to personal taste, but for the most part, Sense tends to bury Android’s functions under layers of unnecessary UI elements, and it can be slower and more cumbersome to use as a result. For example, Google Now is buried under a long press of the home key, which is much less intuitive to access than the swipe up gesture used in stock Android 4.1. Additionally, Sense’s handling of the legacy menu button still found in many apps is less than elegant, and the DNA doesn’t have the ability to change the function of its dedicated multitasking key like the One X.

In addition to the changes Sense 4+ brings to Android 4.1, the DNA is stuffed to the gills with pre-loaded apps from both Amazon and Verizon itself. Verizon has been putting Amazon apps on its Android smartphones since the release of the Motorola Droid RAZR M, but the DNA takes it to another level with a new single-sign-on widget that gives you access to all of your Amazon content and services in one place. This is great for those that rely on Amazon’s services for everything from books to music to shopping, but it’s a bit annoying that it’s built into the phone and not provided as an option for those that don’t want it. The Droid DNA may be a glimpse into the future of what a real Amazon phone might be like, but it’s at this point, the Amazon features feel more bolted on than truly integrated into the system.

Other crapware apps preloaded on the DNA are Verizon’s NFL Mobile, Viewdini, Verizon Tones, VZ Navigator, Visual Voicemail, Slacker Radio, and Amex Serve apps. While it is possible to disable most of these apps, it’s not possible to remove them from the phone’s memory, which at 16GB (about 11.5GB are available to the user) is already on the smaller side of things.

One thing to note about the DNA’s software is that it is entirely phone-based. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Note II, which offers some tablet experience and the S Pen for more functionality, the DNA offers more or less the same software experience as any other HTC smartphone from 2012, despite its larger display. The DNA is very much a smartphone, and isn’t really a replacement for a small tablet by any means.

Performance

Performance

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HTC has outfitted the Droid DNA with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz and paired with 2GB of RAM. That’s the same setup that we saw in the LG Nexus 4 and Optimus G, and the S4 Pro is one of the fastest smartphone chips ever released. The DNA scored well over 8,000 on the Quadrant Standard benchmark, and a staggering 71fps in the GLBenchmark offscreen 1080p test. But in everyday use, it becomes apparent that the higher resolution display taxes the processor a bit more than a 720p screen might. While most operations are very fast, and there aren’t many stutters in the interface, there are instances where scrolling is not as smooth or responsive as it should be. This is especially noticeable in the Chrome browser, but it can also be seen in numerous other apps as well. The DNA just doesn’t feel as fast as the Nexus 4 in pretty much everything — despite its very high benchmark scores.

Data performance on Verizon’s 4G LTE network was, as usual, very good, with speed tests easily hitting 20Mbps down and 17Mbps up on numerous occasions. Call quality was not as impressive however, as the earpiece did not get loud enough to carry on a conversation while walking down a busy city street.

Like many other HTC smartphones, the Droid DNA comes with the company’s Beats Audio processing software and hardware enhancements. HTC claims that the DNA’s 2.55v dedicated headphone amp provides better sound with less distortion and noise that offered by other smartphones. In my tests, audio played back from the DNA through a quality set of headphones was good, but it wasn’t remarkably better than the sound that my iPhone 5 produces. Likewise, the external speaker wasn’t exceptionally loud or better than other smartphones on the market.

The DNA has a 2,020mAh battery that cannot be swapped or replaced when it runs empty. The Nexus 4 was able to impress us with its efficiency, mostly thanks to the S4 Pro chip, but with the DNA, it’s apparent that the faster LTE connectivity and much higher resolution display have a detrimental effect on battery life. The DNA lasted a meager four hours and 25 minutes in the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with the screen at 65 percent brightness. In daily use, it frequently tapped out long before the day was over. It’s certainly a phone that requires a trip to the battery charger at least once, possibly even twice, during the day to make it to the evening. Unfortunately, you have to deal with that frustrating plastic flap that covers the Micro USB port every time you need to charge up, which will be more often than you would probably prefer.

Benchmarks are incredible, but performance hiccups slow the DNA down
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Wrap-Up

The Droid DNA offers a great screen but carries some fatal flaws

The HTC Droid DNA does a good job of impressing you on the surface. The 1080p screen is to die for, the svelte design minimizes the phone’s large footprint, and it sports one of the fastest processors you can get in a smartphone today. It’s also the best smartphone HTC has had on Verizon in a long time. But once you get beyond those initial impressions, the cracks begin to show.

The DNA offers a lot for the $199 asking price, but the miserable battery life and occasional performance hiccups are reason to pause before hitting that purchase button. A great display alone unfortunately cannot make up for the DNA’s other problems. Verizon users looking for a new Android smartphone have a number of other options at their disposal, including Samsung’s still relevant Galaxy S III and Motorola’s pair of Droid RAZR HDs. But if you must be the guy with the highest resolution display on the block, the Droid DNA is the one to get.

GOOD STUFF

  • Screen is best in class
  • Thin and light design
  • Comes with Android 4.1 out of the box

BAD STUFF

  • Battery life is terrible
  • Occasional performance hiccups
  • Sense 4+ buries much of what is good in Android 4.1

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 7
  • Display 10
  • Camera(s) 8
  • Reception / call quality 7
  • Performance 7
  • Software 6
  • Battery life 4
  • Ecosystem 8
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