Perhaps the best thing about the Droid Mini is the fact that it provides virtually the same level of performance as its fellow new Droids despite costing $100 or $200 less. As with the Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx and Moto X, the Droid Mini runs on Motorola’s new X8 Mobile Computing System. Put together, the X8 includes a Snapdragon S4 Pro chip–which in turn includes a 1.7GHz dual-core Krait processor and a 400MHz quad-core Adreno 320 GPU–a processor dedicated to natural language, and a processor dedicated to contextual computing situations.
Motorola’s been beating the “specs aren’t everything” drum for months now, and devices like the Droid Mini go a long way to proving them right. Now, it’s not mind-meltingly fast like the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4, but the Droid Mini can handle just about anything you want to throw at it. It’s a nice gaming machine in particular, as everything from Riptide GP2 to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP to Grand Theft Auto III ran with no lag, good sound and sharp colors thanks to that quad-core GPU and a healthy 2GB of RAM.
Web browsing, video playback and menu browsing were just as smooth, with only the most minor of hiccups coming when trying to do something like downloading a large app update while scrolling through a graphics-heavy site. Save for whatever part of Android that causes literally every one of its phones to have at least some slowdown when scrolling web pages, the Droid Mini runs like a dream. You can comfortably say that it’s packing $200 specs in a $100 package, and it seems to suggest that phone hardware is still outpacing its accompanying software.
Beyond the purely “smart” features of this smartphone, special attention deserves to go to the Droid Mini’s speakers, which are commendably loud even when outside or in a crowded room. It’s no BoomSound, and it can’t reproduce bass very well on its own, but it would only mildly distort songs at the highest of volumes. It’s superior to the majority of its competition.
Similar sentiments apply to the device’s call quality. Voices were easily audible through both the earpiece and the speakerphone, although Motorola’s noise cancellation tech, while highly effective, did have the side effect of fuzzing up callers just a tad more than we’d like. It’s not outstanding for traditional phone calls, and the earpiece could be a tad louder, but the Droid Mini will do the job well enough.
Like past Droids, the Droid Mini is a Verizon exclusive, so it has the benefit of working on one of the more reliable and far-reaching networks in the country. Strangely, we can’t remember a time where we got a full five bars of service during our Boston-based testing of the device, but Verizon’s 4G LTE speeds were still plenty fast for our everyday needs. Again, nothing special, but nothing to get worked up over either.
The Droid Mini effectively runs the same software as the Moto X and larger Droids, which means that it’s privy to one of the few Android skins that actually improves upon Google’s mobile OS. Motorola’s one of the few OEMs that realizes that Android is a platform to build on top of, not over, and as such it’s fitted its newest phones with a near-stock version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean (soon to be Android 4.3) whose only modifications are genuinely inventive and user-friendly. Motorola is “a Google company” now, so that makes such a decision easier, but it’s still nice to see a new Android device that doesn’t come with any forced hand-waving gimmicks or aimless home screen widgets.
One thing this particular Android device does come with, though, is bloatware. Lots and lots of bloatware. Verizon takes plenty of opportunity to pre-load the Droid Mini with its array of needless apps, with usual suspects like NFL Mobile, Verizon Tones, VZ Navigator, VZ Security and others all taking up precious storage space. Together they help cut the Droid Mini’s onboard storage to 11.03 out of a possible 11.88GB, which isn’t all that much to begin with but still hurts. And since Motorola is a Google company now, it hasn’t fitted Droid Mini with a microSD slot to upgrade that space. You’ll have to turn to the cloud for more room.
But back to Motorola’s relationship with Google for a second. Many have wondered what Google’s plan for Motorola would be since it dropped billions on the once mobile giant in 2011, but here the connection may be at its most direct. With the new Droids and Moto X, Motorola’s crafted a flat-out showcase for Google Now, which in turn is a showcase for all of Google’s platforms in general. Google’s been pumping more functionality into its personal software assistant for the past several months, but now it’s using its own professional phone maker to make Google Now the centerpiece for a range of new Android devices.
This is primarily done through the Droid Mini’s “touchless control” suite, which lets you activate and navigate much of the device with voice commands. Shortly after booting up the Droid Mini, you’ll be prompted to train the phone so that it’ll only recognize your voice. After that painless process, you’ll be able to activate the phone with the phrase “Okay Google Now,” effectively granting you a hands-free shortcut to the rest of Google’s ever-expanding and impressively multifunctional assistant.
From there, you can tell Google Now to do all the things that it can normally do on other Android devices. If you want to call or text one of your contacts, just say so. If you want to set an alarm for tomorrow morning, just tell the phone what time you want to get up. If you want to know what song is currently playing in the background, just ask it. Same goes for when you want to know the latest flight times, make a personal note, post to Google+, schedule an event in your Google Calendar, open an app, get directions to another location, and the like. Google Now is only getting deeper, and being able to access it without picking up your phone is at once an undeniably cool glimpse of the future and a simplified way of getting things done.
For the most part, all of this works. That’s great. But that doesn’t mean it always works smoothly. Voices other than my own were sometimes (albeit infrequently) able to activate the Droid Mini by saying “Okay Google Now,” despite Motorola’s claims to the contrary. In a noisy setting or from far enough away, the phone had a difficult time recognizing commands. And even in a quiet place, it usually took three or four tries for the magic phrase to register.
Rest assured, you’re going to look goofy using voiceless control in public, and besides calls and texts, most of the functionality won’t work without an internet connection anyways. And if you want to use a more traditional lock screen, all of this becomes inaccessible by default. These are all minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, though, and Motorola deserves to be commended for implementing such a clever and useful system. It isn’t just a gimmick.
Neither is Motorola’s new “Active Notifications” tech, which puts the Droid Mini into a low-power mode whenever you sleep the device and flashes whatever calls, texts, emails or messages you’ve missed. It pops up on its own every 25 seconds or so. When it does, you can press the screen to get a look at your latest Twitter mentions, Gmails and the like without having turning the device back on.
So if you got a couple of texts while your Droid Mini was in your pocket, for instance, you can more quickly see who sent them. If they look worthy of a reply, you can swipe to their icon and launch right into your messaging app from the active notifications screen. Admittedly, checking notifications was never all that tedious in the first place, but Motorola’s system streamlines it even further, letting you avoid constantly turning your phone on and off all day. Again, it makes your phone do more of the work for you, which is appreciated.
The other major software addition is a three-pronged app dubbed Motorola Assist. It lets you put the Droid Mini into a trio of separate modes: one for driving, one for meetings, and one for sleeping. Driving is the most impressive of the bunch. It utilizes the X8’s contextual computing processor to automatically recognize when you’re moving at driving speed, and then puts the phone into a safer, more travel friendly state. It’ll then let you fire up songs and make calls with voice commands, and it’ll also read text messages out loud to you and give you the option to send an automated quick reply back. All of this just works, and it goes a long way towards making your phone more of a useful companion on the road, rather than a death trap.
Assist’s meeting and sleep mode are less inventive but similarly effective. The meeting state pulls in data from your Google Calendar and, when you have a meeting scheduled, automatically silences your phone and auto-replies to any texts sent your way. Sleeping mode is effectively the “do not disturb” mode found on iPhones, as it lets you silence your phone during a set period of time. Together, everything in Assist is simple and intuitive enough to make things easier for those who’re willing to get the most out of the device.
But even the smaller software additions here are still useful. Our personal favorite might be Motorola Connect, an Chrome browser extension that lets you view, send and receive your phone’s texts right on your PC. It essentially turns texting into an IM client, ridding you of the need to alternate between devices to communicate with others and making texting faster in the process. Motorola Migrate, meanwhile, lets you quickly move your call and text history, media and contacts from your past Android device to the Droid Mini. Moto Care lets you remotely lock or wipe the data from the phone if you lose it. And Droid Zap is a neat trick that lets you send your phone’s photos out into the ether for fellow Droid users to see.
All of this adds up to make the Droid Mini feel like a very modern device. Yes, that robotic Droid aesthetic feels pretty dated these days, but it’s deceptive here–the Droid Mini is loaded with forward-thinking software choices that we could easily see becoming standards in future Android releases. Touchless control, active notifications and Motorola Assist all flesh out Android rather than hindering it, and although you’ll need an internet connection to make the most of them, they all combine to make the Droid Mini a more convenient phone.
That theme of convenience has carried over to the Droid Mini’s camera UI, which has been entirely streamlined to remove the amount of options in your face and make photo shooting as quick as possible. Pressing anywhere on the screen snaps a photo, while holding the display down starts a burst fire mode. Swiping to the right brings up a basic radial menu with options for HDR, flash, slow-mo, panorama mode and the like, and swiping the right brings you into the gallery. Swiping up and down zooms in and out.
And, well, that’s about it. The lack of options does hurt in some places–crucially, you can’t change the photo or video resolution from 1080p, which means you’re going to have to manage some hefty file sizes–but on the whole this style removes the bloat and lets you just snap photos as quickly as possible. This idea is only compounded by Motorola’s new gesture command for launching the camera, as twisting your wrist twice will automatically get you situated. It looks goofy, yes, but it worked almost flawlessly in practice. As with most of Motorola’s software innovations here, we found ourselves hoping that more Android OEMs would implement this bootup gesture into future devices.
But the interface’s simplicity is only going to be worth it if the camera itself takes acceptable photos, and it’s here where the results are mixed. In short, the Droid Mini’s shooter is generally good, but too inconsistent for our liking. Photo quality typically depends on your setting and lighting–it’s never going to rival the Lumias of the world, but if you’re taking a photo of a lighter colored subject against a darker background, you’re usually going to get some vibrant colors and sharp textures. If you’re trying to shoot darker colored subjects, though, you’re probably going to come away unimpressed.
You’ll need the Droid Mini’s flash in low light settings, and although that makes a fair amount of details visible, its shots will still come across as too fuzzy. HDR photos, however, often look very sharp, displaying a better range of colors and fine detail. Video recording from both cameras is, again, good in well-lit areas but lacking when the lights go down.
It’s just strange to see some photos come out wildly colorful and not oversaturated, while others right next to them look drab and bland, but we have a feeling that most people won’t be looking to a $100 mini device for its camera anyway. You’re getting a good-but-not-great camera for the price, which is fine, but you’re also getting a streamlined UI that anyone can pick up and use, which is great. The latter is what’s appealing.
Although we generally approve of the Droid Mini’s TFT LCD display, Motorola’s decision not to go OLED does have an effect on the device’s battery life. Motorola rates the device’s 2000mAh, non-removable battery at 28 hours of usage or 14 days of standby time, but that’s a far cry from reality. With average usage at 50% brightness, you’re looking at about 7 to 8 hours of juice here, which means that you’ll need to carry a charger with you if you’re hoping to get through a full day’s work. There is a “battery saver” option available, but that’s naturally going to limit the Droid Mini’s capabilities. Considering the battery improvements Motorola has made with the larger Droids, the life here was a disappointment.