HTC Droid DNA review: A superphone with flaws

HTC's new Android smartphone has some standout hardware elements, but the phone suffers from significant drawbacks.

HTC is marketing its new Droid DNA as the "most advanced smartphone yet" -- and on paper, the device certainly looks that way.

The Droid DNA, launching this Wednesday, November 21 on Verizon Wireless for $200 with a new two-year contract, has all the specs of a high-end superphone. The Android 4.1-based device has the looks, too, with a sleek and distinctive design and eye-catching 1080p display.

Appearances aren't everything, though, and while the Droid DNA has some impressive elements, it also has some troubling drawbacks.

I've spent the past several days using the Droid DNA in place of my own personal device to get a feel for how it fares in the real world. Here's a look at where the phone shines -- and where it falls short.

Body and display

HTC's Droid DNA falls into an interesting spot in the smartphone size spectrum: With a 5-in. display, the device is quite large for a normal phone, but significantly smaller than a plus-sized phone- tablet hybrid like Samsung's Galaxy Note II.

The Droid DNA measures 2.8 x 5.6 in. Compared to the Note II -- which, with its 5.5-in. screen, measures 3.2 x 5.9 in. -- the Droid DNA is practically a baby. But compared to a more typical phone like the Droid Razr Maxx HD, which measures 2.7 x 5.2 in., the DNA is decidedly big, especially when it comes to length.

The phone feels good in the hand, however, and is right on the upper limit of being comfortably pocketable. The device is pleasantly thin -- 0.38 in. officially, though thinner at the edges thanks to a tapered back design.

HTC Droid DNA

The Droid DNA's display is a gorgeous 1920 x 1080 Super LCD3 with 440 pixels per inch (ppi), making it the highest resolution screen on any smartphone today. The display looks fantastic, with crisp, sharp details and brilliant colors that delight the eye. Even in sunlight, the Gorilla Glass 2 screen remains perfectly viewable. When it comes to the smartphone display department, it's easy to give the Droid DNA top honors.

That said, we're reaching a point where more pixels aren't necessarily a game-changer -- and while the Droid DNA's display is undoubtedly outstanding, the difference between it and the 720p screens on phones like Google's Nexus 4 and HTC's One X is pretty subtle to the naked eye.

The Droid DNA has a polycarbonate material on its back that's soft to the touch and not at all cheap-feeling. The material's matte finish looks nice but does seem to pick up an awful lot of scuffs and visible smudges. The back of the phone is basically all black, save for a bright red ring around the camera lens.

That red highlighting carries throughout the phone's design: The sides of the device along with its power button and a thin grille covering its earpiece share the same bold coloring. The black and red contrast creates an eye-catching effect, for sure -- one that, depending on your personal taste, I suspect you'll absolutely love or passionately despise.

The Droid DNA's power button is oddly placed on the top of the phone, which makes it rather unnatural to reach during typical use. The volume rocker, meanwhile, sits on the phone's right edge. Both buttons are recessed so low into the phone that you can barely feel them with your finger; they almost blend into the device from a tactile perspective. I found this to be vexing during day-to-day use, as I'd actually have to move the phone around to look for the buttons instead of being able to find them by touch.

A 3.5mm headphone jack is on the phone's top, along with a micro-SIM card tray that's locked and accessible only with a small pin tool (included with the phone). The phone's bottom houses a standard micro-USB port that doubles as an HDMI out-port with the use of an MHL adapter.

The micro-USB port is curiously covered by a thin plastic flap that has to be pulled off and then clicked back into place with every use. In the grand scheme of things, that process is a fairly minor hassle, but given how often you access the phone's charging port, it gets old fast. The flap's flimsy feel also makes me worry about its durability; within just a few days of use, the material on my review unit became bent and slightly warped -- a detail that was noticeable when the flap was closed and in place.

With the Droid DNA, HTC has once again opted for placing capacitive buttons just below the display instead of opting for virtual on-screen buttons, the latter of which provide a far more fluid and user-friendly Android experience. Current versions of Android are designed to use the on-screen button model, after all, and while the software does still support hardware buttons, it's very much a matter of legacy support -- not an ideal usage situation or one that's native to the platform.

Interface issues aside, the buttons didn't consistently light up when I was using the device in dimly lit conditions, which made them impossible to see and thus press without just poking around blindly and hoping for good luck.

In a rare and interesting twist, the Droid DNA has two LED indicators that alert you to things like missed calls and new messages -- one on the phone's front, at the top-right of the earpiece grille, and one on its back, to the left of the camera lens.

Under the hood

HTC's Droid DNA has an engine that should be screamingly fast: a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. That's the same setup used in the Nexus 4 and the LG Optimus G, both of which are absurdly speedy devices.

That's why I've been very surprised with how inconsistently the Droid DNA performs. While tasks such as app loading are impressively fast, the phone suffers from a lot of jerky and glitch-filled performance in other areas. System animations frequently stutter, and scrolling on the Web is slower and less fluid than what I've come to expect from a high-end phone.

Beyond that, the system seems to struggle to keep up at times: When typing, for instance, the phone will often freeze up for a few seconds and ignore my input -- then quickly burst out the backlog of letters it's collected in a rush to catch up. I can't remember the last time I experienced anything like that on a computing device.

In general, getting around the system feels like more work on the Droid DNA than on other devices with comparable or even less horsepower. On-screen gestures aren't always responsive, which makes a simple task like trying to swipe away a tab in Chrome feel like a labored effort. And I experienced a shocking amount of hiccups and glitches, including weird flash-frames and blurred graphics when I tried to switch from one app to another. A few times, the phone briefly flashed random colors on the screen for no apparent reason.

(This, incidentally, is precisely why I prefer to rely on several days of real-world usage as opposed to benchmarks and lab tests in my evaluations. Numerical measurements are fine, but they really don't tell you anything meaningful about how a device performs in day-to-day life.)

The Droid DNA has a nonremovable 2020mAh battery. The device's stamina was okay but not great for me; with light to light-moderate usage, I could make it through a whole day on a single charge, but once I started toeing into moderate to moderate-heavy usage, I found myself hitting dangerously low battery levels before the day was up.

The battery levels dropped disturbingly fast, too, particularly once the phone started to get low on charge. Once I got below the 30% mark, the remaining level seemed to fall a full point every couple minutes, even with basic Web browsing or social media activity. That helped bring me down to single-digit territory in no time.

Looking in the Android battery usage tool, I expected the device's display to be the largest drainer of power. Strangely, though, HTC seems to have tweaked the software so that the display doesn't even show up in the list. Stranger yet, the largest power consumer was almost always the Camera app -- even on days when I didn't open it once.

The Droid DNA comes with a rather limited 16GB of internal storage; once you account for the operating system and various preinstalled files, that leaves you with about 11GB of actual usable space. There is no microSD card slot for external storage expansion.

One area where the Droid DNA does shine is in photography: The phone comes with an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that's aided by HTC's dedicated image chip -- named, fittingly enough, ImageChip. Images captured with the camera look fantastic, with true-to-life colors and vivid details.

The camera is capable of snapping rapid-fire paparazzi-style photos, too, thanks to HTC's machine-gun-like Continuous Shooting mode. The camera includes an LED flash and is also able to record 1080p HD video.

The Droid DNA's front-facing camera, meanwhile, is a 2.1mp shooter with an unusual 88-degree wide-angle lens. The lens allows you to capture a noticeably larger area than what you get with most front-facing smartphone cameras; if you tend to take a lot of group self-portraits or conduct video chats with other people by your side, that functionality could come in handy.

Connectivity, calling and audio

The Droid DNA utilizes Verizon's 4G LTE and CDMA networks. I clocked in between 8 and 19Mbps when I checked data speeds sporadically using Ookla's Speedtest.net app. For comparison, while testing the Nexus 4 on T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network earlier this month, I routinely achieved speeds of 18Mbps. Data speeds can vary based on location, of course, so your mileage may vary.

The Droid DNA ships with custom HTC software based on the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system.

Much to my surprise, I had issues with the Droid DNA's call quality -- an area where I rarely expect to see much variance from one phone to the next. Voices on the Droid DNA sounded noticeably less crisp, clear and full than what I'm used to hearing on smartphones these days; friends and family with whom I spoke had tinny and almost robotic qualities to their voices, and the audio sometimes became distorted on and off throughout a call. People on the other end of the line told me my voice sounded more fuzzy and distant than what they were used to hearing, too.

Speaking of audio, the Droid DNA features Beats Audio integration, which is supposed to enhance the quality of music played from the phone. I tested it by listening to the same song with Beats mode toggled on and off and then comparing that with the same song played from a non-Beats-enhanced device. I used the same studio-quality headphones in all three scenarios.

I found the enhancements provided by Beats to be pretty minimal -- more of a bass and volume boost than anything. I'd be surprised if many people could tell the difference between the Beats-enhanced audio from the Droid DNA and the standard audio from another phone in a blind test.

(I had problems with audio output on the first review device I received; regardless of what headphones or speakers I plugged into that phone, I heard nothing but silence or staticky clicking noises. That was likely just a fluke defect limited to that specific unit; HTC sent me a second review unit which did not suffer from those issues.)

The Beats enhancements, by the way, don't extend to the phone's own external speaker. Compared to the Nexus 4, music played through the Droid DNA was significantly less loud, full and clear-sounding, with both phones set at their maximum volumes.

The Droid DNA features support for near-field communication (NFC) and wireless charging via the Qi protocol.

The software

The Droid DNA ships with custom HTC software based on the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system. The setup is essentially the same as what's used on HTC's One line of phones. I covered it extensively when reviewing those devices, so rather than repeating myself here, I'll refer you to that coverage for detailed thoughts and observations.

In short, I'll just say this: HTC's user interface is less overwhelming than some manufacturers' takes on Android, but it still pales in comparison to the pure Android experience that Google creates. I found the to be interface cluttered and visually inconsistent, with countless changes made at the expense of user experience. The phone is also loaded down with bloatware from both HTC and Verizon -- nearly 20 programs that you can't easily uninstall.

At a Glance

Droid DNA

HTCPrice: $200 (with a a new two-year contract from Verizon Wireless)Pros: Outstanding 1080p display; high-quality build; fantastic cameras; LED indicators on front and back of phoneCons: Inconsistent, glitch-filled performance; substandard call quality; underwhelming battery life; limited internal storage; no option for external storage; cluttered and visually inconsistent UI; non-optimal button and port configuration

Remember, too, that devices with manufacturer-modified versions of Android tend to lag behind pure Google Android devices when it comes to OS upgrades -- a concept exemplified by the fact that the Droid DNA is shipping with a less-than-current version of Android and no current guarantee as to if or when an upgrade could occur.

After spending time with Google's pure Android 4.1 and 4.2 OS and the excellent user experience those platforms provide, it really makes you wonder why certain companies insist on trying to "fix" what isn't broken.

Bottom line

HTC's Droid DNA is a mixed bag. On the plus side, the phone has a distinctive and solid-feeling build, a superb 1080p display and a top-notch camera configuration.

It also, however, has inconsistent and at times poor performance along with substandard call quality, underwhelming battery life and limited storage with no option for expansion. Then there's the UI and the baffling decisions with button and port configuration.

All considered, it's difficult to recommend the Droid DNA as a good all-around choice for most smartphone users. HTC has released some fantastic phones this year, but despite having a handful of standout hardware elements, the Droid DNA is not among the company's best efforts.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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