Mercy. From its soft-touch back panel to its Lamborghini-inspired red accents, the Droid DNA is a knockout. The slightly rounded back fit nicely in our hand, aided by the fact that the bezel on either side of the display is less than a quarter-inch, which let HTC fit a 5-inch Gorilla Glass display into such a small package.
The front of the phone is an elegant, high-gloss affair. At the top, a chrome Verizon insignia holds court below the thin red speaker. A trio of capacitive touch buttons (Back, Home, and Recent Apps) sits just below the display. The sides of the DNA have thin strips of red metal with a microgrille pattern that would not look out of place on an Italian sports car.
A large red volume rocker sits on the phone's right with a smaller red power button housed on top of the device. We love the spun metal design on the buttons, but they lie almost flush with the side of the phone, making them hard to press. We also don't understand why HTC centered the power button up top, making it difficult to reach.
The headphone jack sits to the left of the power button. Down below, you'll find a microUSB port hidden by a port cover. Why, HTC, why? Not only does this flap just get in the way when you're trying to charge the phone, it's not easy to put back in place. We were tempted to just rip off this vestigial door.
Don't call it a phablet. Measuring 5.5 x 2.7 x 0.38 inches and weighing 5 ounces, the DNA is narrower than the Samsung Galaxy S III, but not as thin or light (5.4 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches, 4.7 ounces). This HTC is certainly easier to use with one hand than the freakishly large Galaxy Note II (5.9 x 3.2 x 0.37 inches), which also weighs more than an ounce more (6.4 ounces). To be fair, though, the Note has a bigger 5.5-inch screen.
The Droid DNA has the enviable distinction of being the first smartphone with a full HD display in the U.S. The 5-inch 1920 x 1080 super LCD 3 display is stunning. On sites such as Joystiq.com and Jezebel.com, we saw the same thing: sharp black text against gleaming white backgrounds. The strong contrast made reading that much easier.
The real fun began when we cranked up the high-definition "Skyfall" trailer. We were immediately drawn into Daniel Craig's electric blue eyes. Colors were nice and deep, in particular the paper dragons in the boat scene as well as the blood red in the British flags draped over the row of coffins. Details such as the haggard stubble and wrinkles on Bond's face were almost painfully sharp. Generous viewing angles allowed us to watch the trailer without experiencing any color inversion.
By comparison, the Galaxy Note II's 5.5-inch 1280 x 720 display had more vivid color, but made the "Skyfall" trailer look oversaturated. Skin tones looked more natural on the DNA and details were more precise. For example, in the museum scene with Q, we could easily make out the pattern on the green wallpaper on the DNA. The same details looked cloudy on the Note II.
The DNA is also pretty bright. We measured 311 lux, beating the 299 Android phone category average. That's also brighter than the S III and Note II, which measured 213 and 211 respectively. Motorola's Droid Razr HD Maxx was by far the brightest, at 467 lux.
Instead of relying on a lone speaker to do all the heavy lifting, HTC added an amplifier. Located to the far left of the rear-facing camera, the amp helps to enhance those deep lows normally lost on regular phone speakers -- or so HTC claims. When we played Outkast's "B.O.B.," the raucous track sounded tinny and distant, almost like an old-school radio. We clearly heard the bass, but it did nothing to help the track.
HTC also added a headphone amp to work in concert with its Beats Audio technology. Using a pair of Sol Republic Tracks headphones, our ears were treated to rich piano chords, tight percussion and soulful throaty vocals from Alicia Keys. The added bass boost will be appreciated on some tracks, but we were happy we had the option to disable Beats Audio in the Settings menu.
HTC allows users to switch the layout from QWERTY to QWERTZ or AZERTY. There's also the Phone option, which places three letters on a single key.
We liked the large charcoal gray keys on the Sense keyboard. The keys are generously spaced for the hunt-and-peck typist, but also feature trace typing similar to Swype. We're also fans of the direction keys that can be used in portrait and landscape modes.
Software and User Interface
With its new Sense 4+ software paired with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), HTC is hoping to strike a balance between convenience and an appealing visual presentation.
Similar to earlier versions of Sense, the DNA has four shortcuts (Phone, Mail, Messages and Camera) displayed on the lock screen. Unlike Samsung and LG, HTC's Sense still doesn't allow users to swap out the default shortcuts. The familiar analog clock and large silver lock ring are present as well.
Scrolling through the seven customizable home screens reveals the Weather Clock widget on the main home screen. Widgets for Contacts and Amazon.com are on subsequent screens. Shortcuts for Phone, Mail, Apps, Messaging and Camera sit in a gray rectangular dock along the bottom.
We were able to swap out these shortcuts by long pressing and dragging, with the exception of the Apps icon.
The Recent Apps button displays open apps in a carousel. This makes it easy to see all your activity, but requires more scrolling than the stock ICS method of stacking the thumbnails. Instead of giving us a fourth capacitive button, a software Menu button sits in the top right corner of most apps.
What's new in Sense 4+? There's a revamped Gallery app that integrates Facebook, Picasa, Dropbox, Flickr and other sources. There's also a new countdown timer for when you're using the front-facing camera. Most of the other enhancements are minor tweaks, such as more themes and the ability to password-protect your text messaging inbox.
What Jelly Bean gives you are handy features like Google Now, which you activate by long pressing the home button. From there, you can perform voice searches and get quick answers on everything from the weather to sports scores. Even better, Google Now remembers your searches and presents information cards in anticipation of your needs. For instance, Google Now can show you how long it will take to get to your next meeting based on current traffic conditions.
Our other favorite Jelly Bean feature is voice typing, which is not only faster than iOS, but works offline. Unfortunately, HTC forces you to long press the period key to activate this function, which is ironic because it's supposed to save you time.
There are some things that users will appreciate about Sense in general, especially first-time smartphone owners. For example, instead of using cryptic icons, HTC clearly labels buttons like "Share" in the Gallery app and "Forward" in the Mail app. HTC fans will appreciate the iconic Weather Clock widget on the first home page, and if it's too big, you can choose a smaller size. However, we're not a fan of how oversized the text is on the Apps menu; it kind of screams "My First Smartphone." Samsung's TouchWiz interface is more modern and elegant.
There's some other things that TouchWiz gives you on the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II that we wish were here. You won't find easy-access shortcuts to the wireless radios in the notification drawer on the DNA as you do on Samsung's devices. Motorola gives you something similar just by swiping left from the main home screen. On this HTC, you need to go into the Settings menu or set up some widgets as we did.
Features and Gestures
Swiping upward on the Droid DNA sends content (videos, images and music) to compatible devices, and can also be used to mirror displays in Media Link HD. You can also silence the phone when you get a call by flipping it upside down.
The Droid DNA has a NFC chip that enables users to transfer notes, screenshots, video and pictures by tapping the device against another NFC-enabled device.
However, HTC's gestures and features pale in comparison to the cache of options that Samsung boasts. The Note II and S III will keep the screen on if it detects a user's eyes, let you tap the phone to get to the top of a list, and bring the phone up to your face to directly dial a displayed contact. There's also Pop-up Play for picture-in-picture action on your phone.
HTC's Notes app allows users to jot down a quick note, record audio or snap a photo. We were also able to attach our note to a specific date in the Calendar or sync it to Evernote.
Bookworms can curl up with a good e-book via Audible while music buffs can enjoy their favorite tunes on Slacker Radio. There's also Tunein Radio for local and world radio fans. Gamers can take "Reign of Amira" for a demo ride, a Qualcomm-produced hack-and-slash title with slick graphics and frenetic gameplay.
Verizon carrierware includes My Verizon Mobile, Verizon Tunes, VZ Navigator, NFL Mobile and Viewdini. Serve, American Express' digital payment service, enables users to send money to friends over Facebook.
Third-party apps include YouTube, Slacker Radio, IMDb, Amazon Kindle and Facebook.
The HTC Droid DNA stiff-armed its way through our real-world and benchmark tests like Adrian Peterson cuts through a defensive line. Everything from flipping through home screens and opening apps felt nimble on this device. We played through a few levels of "Reign of Amira" with six open Web browser tabs and four apps running the background without a hiccup.
During the Benchmark CPU test, the Droid DNA's 1.5-GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 CPU and 2GB of RAM scored a blistering 4,752, shattering the 2,973 Android category average. The Droid Razr Maxx HD, which has the same CPU, came close at 4,685. The Samsung Galaxy Note II (1.6-GHz Exynos CPU) and Samsung Galaxy S III (1.5-GHz dual core CPU) notched 4,246 and 4,214 respectively. The Google Nexus 4 (1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro) delivered a score of 3,326.
When we tested graphics performance, the DNA notched 7,337 on An3DBench, enough to top the 7,118 average. The Note II, Nexus 4 and Razr Maxx scored 7,742, 7,318 and 7,220 respectively. The S III brought up the rear with 6,994.
On Quadrant, which measures CPU, I/O and graphics prowess, the DNA thrashed the competition with a score of 7,011. That's more than twice the 3,219 average. The Note II and Nexus 4 gave us 6,036 and 4,670 while the S III and Droid Razr Maxx scored 4,614 and 2,567.
The HTC Droid DNA comes with 16GB of internal memory, of which 11.3 is available. The phone lacks a microSD card slot, unlike the Galaxy S III.
Web Browsing and 4G LTE
The DNA taps into Verizon's 4G LTE network, which is now available in more than 400 markets. In our testing, this Droid offered pretty good performance, better than the Samsung Galaxy S III, but behind the Droid RAZR Maxx.
On the Speedtest.net app, we tested all three phones in the same suburban New Jersey location at the same time. The Droid DNA averaged 5.2 Mbps downloads and 4.2 Mbps uploads. That's faster than the S III (4.2 Mbps down, 3.5 Mbps up), but behind the Droid RAZR Maxx HD (6.7/6.9 Mbps).
We saw similar results when browsing the Web. The DNA took 5 seconds to load the lead story on CNN, versus 4 seconds for the Droid RAZR Maxx and 6 versus 5 seconds for the ESPN mobile homepage. The DNA was slightly ahead of the S III when loading the same sites, such as Laptopmag.com (10 versus 13 seconds) but was neck and neck loading a NYTimes.com story (8 seconds).
We pitted the Droid DNA's 8-megapixel camera against the Note II for a shootout in our neighborhood farmer's market. The Note II's 8-MP camera consistently delivered better color while the DNA had superior detail. A bin full of cranberries looked ashy on the DNA, but we could clearly see all the unique blemishes on the fruit. The Note II's shot featured numerous shades of deep rich reds.
Similar to the HTC Windows Phone 8X, the DNA has a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera (capable of 1080p video) with an 88-degree wide-angle lens on the front, which is optimized for taking group shots. Pictures looked grainy, but colors were generally accurate. We fit three people into a group shot and had room for at least one more person.
Thanks to HTC's ImageSense chip technology, the DNA can capture still images while shooting video in 1080p. The camera can also snap clear shots in low-light settings without using the flash.
Since the phone lacks a dedicated camera button, HTC created Sightseeing mode as a workaround. When activated, Sightseeing mode bypasses the lock screen when the power button is pressed. However, you must have the camera app open before you turn the screen off, making this less than useful.
Continuous shoot mode was an instant favorite. Holding down the camera button fired off four shots at the blink of an eye, which really came in handy for action shots such as when our dog Xerxes ran towards us.
Other goodies include multiple scene modes, ISO and White balance adjustments, face detection and auto smile capture.
HTC added a few useful tweaks to the Photo Gallery. Images are now categorized by date and location. A Google Maps tab is also included in the Gallery so users can see pinpoint where each photo was taken.
We shot vibrant 1080p footage of New York City traffic on a sunny day. The yellow cabs really popped and the sensitive mic picked up the cars whooshing by as well as pedestrians' conversations.
We tried out the slow-motion video recording feature on a subway platform. It was amusing to see people racing up the stairs to catch the train reduced to a snail's pace. However, the images were a lot blurrier.
Test calls made to landlines and cell phones in New York, New Jersey and California were clear as a bell on both ends. However, we noticed a slight echo when we switched over to speakerphone.
Battery life and Wireless Charging
The Droid DNA packs a 2,020 mAh battery that's not removable, but we saw pretty good endurance given this phone's huge display. During the Toshiba pa3285u-3bas laptop battery Test (continuous Web surfing over 4G LTE on 40 percent brightness), the DNA lasted 6 hours and 29 minutes. That's a half-hour longer than the 6:01 category average.
However, there are smartphones that offer longer endurance. The Samsung Galaxy S III's 2,100 mAH battery lasted a longer 6:55, but it also has a dimmer display. The endurance champs are the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD's time of 8:25 or the Galaxy Note II's 9:27. Those phones have much higher capacity batteries of 3,330 mAh and 3,100 mAh.
In addition to charging via the traditional microUSB port, the DNA features Qi wireless charging technology. The phone began charging within a couple of seconds after being placed on the Nokia Lumia 920's charging pad.
The $199 HTC Droid DNA makes a convincing case for being the flagship Android device. The 5-inch 1080p display delivers crisp details with accurate color and the quad-core processor provides excellent performance. Plus, the overall design is damned sexy, even with that annoying microUSB flap. Best of all, despite its supersized proportions, we could still use the device comfortably with one hand. Other pluses include a fast and sharp camera and a wide-view camera you'll want to use more often.
In this price range, the Galaxy S III offers more robust sharing features and gestures in a thinner and lighter design. There's just more innovation packed inside Samsung's device. Plus, the S III offers both microSD card expansion and a removable battery. However, the DNA has a brighter and higher-res screen and offers better 4G performance and a faster quad-core CPU. It really comes down to what you value most.
If you're willing to spend more, the $299 Galaxy Note II and Droid RAZR Maxx HD both offer considerably longer battery life (over 8 hours versus 6.5 for the DNA). The Maxx HD has a smaller but brighter display, while the Note II compensates for its sheer girth when pen input and the ability to run two apps on the same screen at once (coming to the Verizon version soon).
While HTC's Sense software doesn't really wow, overall the Droid DNA's ground-breaking display and swift performance make it a top pick.