Motorola’s Droid Bionic proves a nice (but expensive) phone

September 7, 2011

Every few months a device comes along that seems like it’s going to be the Next Big Thing in smartphones. This September, Motorola’s Droid Bionic is stepping up to the plate to prove that it’s the iPhone killer, the Android slayer and whatever other grandiose term you can use to describe a mobile device that yells “Droid!” every time you get an e-mail.

The Bionic is a Verizon 4G LTE phone, powered by a dual-core processor and equipped with the ability to transform into a kinda-sorta PC (using a technology Motorola calls Webtop).

But can this $299.99 handset live up to the hype? Can it knock out other contenders in Verizon’s 4G lineup (a growing pool)? And can you pull the trigger on this phone when challengers like the next iPhone are just around the corner?

If you’ve seen earlier Motorola phones like the Droid X, you’ll have a pretty good sense of what the Bionic looks and feels like.

It has a big 4.3-inch display and the same unusually sloped build with which Motorola seems to be in serious “like.” Like other 4G phones on Verizon’s network, the Bionic is somewhat thicker than its standard 3G counterparts. But as big a device as it is, it doesn’t feel quite as chunky as entries such as the Samsung Droid Charge — and the build quality certainly seems more solid.

Compared with many of the devices on the market, the Bionic stands out in both look and feel, as well as solidness of construction. It just comes off as a nice, expensive phone — even comparing favorably when matched up with the iPhone 4. While it is a bit heavier than many other Android phones, it never feels bulky.

The Droid Bionic confirms my belief that few in the game are making higher quality hardware than Motorola right now. Maybe that’s why Google just bought the company?

Another thing worth noting about the Bionic is its excellent sound quality. Motorola always seems to have an edge over the competition in this department, and this device is no different. The earpiece sounds fantastic, while speakerphone calls were crystal clear.

The Bionic has an 8-megapixel camera on the back and a lower-resolution front-facing camera. It’s the first phone to come preloaded with Google Talk video chat, which allows you to take and make video calls using Google’s native instant messaging service. It’s a nice feature, although it was sometimes buggy in use.

On the video front, the Bionic is one of the few phones on the market that can shoot full 1080p video. In my testing, the results were certainly passable — and if you absolutely must have full HD video from your phone, the Bionic will seem a very attractive choice. Just be sure you have some extra memory cards handy when you’re out and about.

Most Verizon 4G devices take a major hit on battery life, and it’s clear that the juice on this phone succumbs to the drain of the carrier’s LTE service. In the time I used the device, I found the Bionic’s stamina to be less than spectacular in comparison with most average 3G phones, and nearly passable when held up next to its 4G competitors. I nabbed around 11 hours of use with the device doing a moderate amount of downloading and browsing, with the occasional phone call.

General performance on the device, on the other hand, felt incredibly speedy. Whatever Motorola is doing with the Bionic, it’s working. Games were fast, moving in and out of applications was almost instantaneous, and Web pages loaded and scrolled without hesitation.

In addition to that processor performance on the device, Verizon’s network speeds scream. Using the Bionic in an LTE zone is like having super-fast broadband on a mobile device. Even in the corner of Brooklyn where I live, the phone was able to download files faster than what Verizon offers to its standard wired Internet customers.

The Bionic uses the most recent version of Google’s mobile operating system, nicknamed Gingerbread, but adds its own customizations to the OS. There are lots of little ways in which Motorola seems to be changing the way Android works in an attempt to make the system easier to use or simply to differentiate its software from other manufacturers’ offerings.

Some of these tricks work, but most don’t.

Some of the cosmetic changes are great, though, particularly a fancy new grid you see when you move icons and widgets around your home screen.

Motorola has also included legitimately useful new apps on the phone, such as ZumoCast, which allows you to tap directly into your PC’s (or Mac’s) file system through your phone. It worked without a hitch.

The company also provides business-oriented additions, such as GoToMeeting, as well as its own solution for printing wirelessly called MotoPrint.

The software is definitely not perfect on this phone, however. I had a few apps crash on me or work incorrectly that run fine on other Android phones.

Motorola offers a unique accessory for the phone — a dock that looks and acts like a laptop. The company claims it can turn the Bionic into a full-fledged computer. At the steep price of $299.99, however, you get little for your money. The experience is certainly not worth the coin the company is asking and will leave most consumers disappointed.

Overall, the Droid Bionic is a fine phone — a solid entry to Verizon’s lineup of 4G handsets. It’s a handsome device with a sturdy build and has more than enough horsepower to keep you happy through the immediate future. But can it best the iPhone 4, or even offer a better experience than other 4G phones on Verizon’s network? In my experience, not really.

If you’re shopping for a new phone and looking for the next great thing, this is probably not the Droid you want.

Joshua Topolsky is founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget. He is the resident tech expert for NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

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