Hands-On With the Droid Bionic, Verizon’s 4G Screamer

The Droid Bionic is here, and to some, it couldn’t have come soon enough. It’s rare to see such a feverish level of anticipation for a non-Apple smartphone, but everyone’s been buzzing about Motorola’s latest 4G LTE handset — so far the only dual-core phone available for Verizon’s 4G network.

The Droid Bionic will go on sale Thursday morning at Verizon stores and through Verizon’s website for $300 with a 2-year contract, $590 without a contract. we received a phone two days early, and these are our initial impressions after spending only a few hours with it. A full review will follow next week.

First, this is not the same Droid Bionic we saw at CES way back in January when the phone was announced. most of the specs are the same, but the physical case has been redesigned. most notably, the phone is slimmer, the corners are slightly sharper and the chin is not as prominent — all pluses in my book. it does retain the same slightly rubberized back of the CES version to give it more grippiness. it has a bit of a hump on the back, on the top half where the camera is.

The guts are entirely the same: a 1-GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage plus a microSD card slot that ships with a standard 16-GB card (you can swap in cards as big as 32 GB). There’s an 8-megapixel camera on the back, a VGA camera on the front,

The touchscreen measures 4.3 inches, and houses a qHD (960 × 540) display panel under a layer of Gorilla Glass. Unlike the recent Droid 3, there’s no physical keyboard.

For connectivity, you get HDMI and USB. The headphone jack is at the top, as is the power/wake button — I’ve seen some grumbling on the blogs about the placement of the power/wake button, but I quite like it where it is. There’s also a volume rocker. The phone does not have a dedicated camera-shutter button.

I’d expect nothing less than awesome performance, as we’re currently closing the book on phones with less than a dual-core chip and a gig of RAM, but the Bionic really stunned me with how snappy it is.

It’s running Android 2.3.4 with the recently redesigned MotoBlur on top — Motorola’s skin for Android that aggregates your favorite contacts and social networking feeds across a few home-screen widgets.

But who cares about widgets — how fast is it?

I can tell you, it is very fast. The user interface is extremely smooth and responsive. I’d expect nothing less than awesome performance, as we’re currently closing the book on phones with less than a dual-core chip and a gig of RAM, but the Bionic really stunned me with how snappy it is.

And the 4G speeds here in San Francisco only heighten the experience. YouTube videos load in just a few seconds, even for HD clips. Websites load extremely fast — even Wired.com! — and the JavaScript-heavy pages I tried, like mobile Gmail and Facebook’s mobile site, were as smooth and responsive as native apps.

The screen is bright, and it has an antiglare coating that makes it pop outdoors. But I’m a little disappointed the screen is not sharper. It’s tough to see any rough edges when watching videos or when sweeping through the main UI, but when reading web pages or looking at photos with subtle gradients, the lack of precision is a drag. I held it up against the iPhone 4’s display and saw a noticeable difference.

The camera is fast, which is a nice change from the terribly sluggish camera on the iPhone and even on other current dual-core Android phones. Also, the video camera can capture 1080p HD movies, and the front-facing camera can be used to video-chat over Google Talk with any other capable phone, tablet or laptop.

The Droid Bionic can be used as a 4G hot spot, serving up to five other devices, but we didn’t test that yet. something else we haven’t been able to test yet is battery life — Motorola claims 650 minutes of talk time and more than 200 hours of standby from the 1735-mAh battery, but we’ll see what a few days of heavy use does to it.

There are three microphones on board for noise cancellation, but the call quality isn’t totally fantastic. I could hear the other party loud and clear, but the people I called said they heard a lot of hissing in the background. But hey, at least the calls went through immediately and didn’t drop.

There are a few apps preloaded, but not many. You get ZumoCast (the “access your PC or Mac desktop from anywhere” app we also saw preloaded on the Droid 3), and Netflix is only a download away.

There’s also the Motorola “webtop” experience — a sort of dumbed-down desktop that we first saw on the Motorola Atrix earlier this year. You can hook up your phone to a big screen and use a keyboard and mouse to access mobile apps and a real-ish version of Firefox.

Just like on the Atrix, the “superphone” webtop mode is accessed through various accessories. and in the accessories department, the Droid Bionic rolls with an entourage deeper than Diddy’s:

  • A $300 “lapdock,” a laptop dock just like the one for the Atrix, though the two are not interchangeable.
  • A $100 charging dock with USB and HDMI ports for connecting a display and input devices.
  • A $30 adapter for connecting the phone to an HMDI display to get to the webtop mode.
  • A $50 battery-charger dock that can charge your battery outside the phone.
  • A $40 car nav dock that mounts on your dashboard switches the Droid into a minimalist “auto mode,” bringing maps, music and Bluetooth menus to the fore.

That’s enough plastic to fill Haleakala. The company gave us all of the accessories, so we can tell you whether or not any of them (and webtop) are worth the extra cash once we test all of them. it wasn’t the case with the Atrix.

Look for a full review next week.

Photos by Jim Merithew/Wired

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