First Look review: Motorola Droid Bionic is super, but battery life may be a concern

The Motorola Droid Bionic, which landed on store shelves September 8 for a whopping $300 with a two-year contract, is Verizon’s most powerful Android smart phone to date. Having used a press sample of the phone for a day, I find that it’s easily one of the fastest phones I’ve ever used, and it’s a superb multitasker.

But the Bionic’s hefty battery drained very quickly in my informal trials, even compared with other phones that run on fast 4G networks, which draw more power from phones than do 3G networks. Our engineers are now conducting a battery of lab tests on a Droid Bionic we bought at retail to get more definitive data on its battery life.

Key features of the phone include a dual-core 1GHz TI OMAP processor, 1GB of RAM, a giant 4.3-inch qHD Gorilla Glass display, an 8-megapixel camera with 1080P video recording, and 32GB of memory (16GB on board and 16GB on a preinstalled microSD card). The phone runs on Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread), which gives the phone top-notch document-editing tools and makes it easier to insert teleconference information within Google Calendar meetings (conference bridging).

The details:

It’s rocket fast. Applications launched almost instantly, and Web-based content populated browser and app screens loaded almost as quickly—within a fraction of a second. The Bionic seemed even a tad faster than its AT&T cousin, the Motorola Atrix.

The battery drained fast. In my trials, the Bionic’s hefty 1,735 mAh min battery seemed to drain quickly, with its gauge moving from full to almost empty in just a few hours, even when the phone was idle. And during a video chat (see below), I was concerned to see the phone’s battery gauge drop from full to 40 percent after 12 minutes of conversation.

It’s a bit of a handful. The Bionic is large but comfortable to hold, measuring 2.63 inches wide by 0.5 inches tall. The specs say it’s just 0.43 inches thick, but that’s only in the middle: The phone is actually 0.53 inches at the top end housing the camera and also flares out to 0.48 inches at the bottom.

Decent, bullet-proof display. The Bionic’s Gorilla Glass screen is super tough. Using considerable force, I pecked it repeatedly with keys, coins, and even a small ball peen hammer, but I couldn’t make a scratch. Text and photos appeared quite sharp on the 540 x 960 display (256 pixels per inch), though not as sharp as on the displays of the iPhone and Galaxy-class Samsung models. Readability in sunlight was also decent.

Clean interface. The Bionic’s desktop is relatively clean, with a contacts widget on top of the home page and another carousel-like widget that pulls photos posted on Facebook and other social networks. One point of frustration: I couldn’t get the e-mail app to show me more than one account on the same page. This may be a glitch with my review sample, so stay tuned.

Video chat, even on the Verizon network. Like most 4G phones, the Droid Bionic has a front-facing camera, but it’s one of the first phones that allows you to use the Google’s Video Chat app to make video calls to Google Video Chat users on PCs and Macs. And unlike iPhone’s Facetime, Google Video Chat on the Bionic works on 3G and 4G networks rather than just via Wi-Fi.

Video Chat quality was decent, with few hiccups, when I held the phone vertically, even when the phone’s 4G signal gauge showed only one or two bars. But when I tilted the phone sideways to switch to widescreen mode, the screen froze. I was still able to carry on a voice-only conversation with my friend without interruptions.

A cool streaming app. Verizon is notorious for cluttering its phones with apps few people need or want. But I was intrigued by one app called ZumoCast, a free service that allows you to download or stream multimedia, Office documents, and other files from your PC or laptop over the Verizon network. In short, your computer becomes a content server for the phone.

I found that ZumoCast worked well enough in allowing me to use my iTunes playlists, which sounded fine. But video-streaming from my computer was more problematic: ZumoCast wouldn’t allow me to stream copy-protected videos from my computer. The videos I ripped myself streamed quickly but appeared severely compressed, much like a low-grade YouTube video. Also, the service stops working when your computer goes into sleep mode, and leaving your computer on all day may be hard on the computer as well as on your electric bill.

Multitasking on the Lapdock. I also used the Bionic with its optional $300 Lapdock accessory. This dock, which we first reviewed with the Motorola Atrix, transforms the Bionic into a thin laptop.

The accessory proved to be a great showcase for the phone’s ample processing power and Verizon’s high-speed network. Snapping the Bionic into the rear, flip-out port of this semi-dumb laptop terminal gave me a humongous 11.6-inch display, a full-size keyboard, and a track pad. I was able to stream music and view Web pages while editing documents with reasonable speed.

Besides giving you the larger-scale hardware at your fingertips, the Lapdock improves the mobile computing experience through its own Internet-connected “webtop” applications, which include a full version of the Firefox Web browser and Facebook. Most other times, you’re accessing mail and other apps directly from the Bionic. But as with the Atrix’s identical Lapdock, I found the Shift, Enter, and Arrow keys on the keyboard’s lower-left side too scrunched together, which made typing occasionally awkward.

Bottom line: With its large display, powerful processor, ultra-fast data connection, and intriguing accessories, the Droid Bionic may just be one of the best smart phones on the market. But those exceptional qualities may potentially be hampered by gluttonous power consumption. Check back with us soon for the results of those and other tests of this highly promising phone.


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