The Droid Ultra has the new Motorola X8 system on a chip, which consists of a 1.7GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU and 400MHz quad-core Adreno 320GPU, along with 2GB of RAM. It has two distinct cores, with one for natural language processing and the other for contextual computing, which enables the Touchless Control and Active Notifications features without killing the battery (more on that in a bit). What matters most is that it keeps things humming along nicely, and users will have no complaints about performance. In fact, in testing and general use, Brighthand found the Droid Ultra to operate near flawlessly, with few, if any, crashes, and very little lag and delay.
The Droid Ultra ships with Android 4.2.2, and it’s about as close to stock Android as one will find on any device not named Nexus. Being a Verizon device, it is loaded with the typical junk applications and widgets (NFL Mobile, VZ Navigator, Viewdini, IMDb, and too many others), which unfortunately cannot be deleted, and being a Droid, the Ultra UI features the unsightly black and red color theme along with the aggressive and sharp robotic aesthetic. Fortunately, those garish widgets and themes can be changed or disabled.
The Droid Ultra does have a few features to distinguish it from the Android pack, that for the moment are Motorola-specific. There are Active Notifications that slowly pulse on the display while the Ultra is sleeping, enabling quick access to email and other messages. It’s pleasant and useful enough, doesn’t distract too much, and Brighthand found it has little to no impact on the battery based on our daily use.
There is also Touchless Control, and it’s the coolest new Motorola feature, and the one Motorola and Verizon tout in ads. Basically, it’s the same Google Now found on just about every recent Android smartphone, but voice activated. Following a quick setup, the Ultra ?learns? the user’s voice, and then the user, and only that user, can launch Google Now by speaking the phrase ?Ok Google Now.? From here, users can open apps, make calls, send texts, set alarms, check the calendar, and even ask general questions, including math problems.
Did you know that Tom Cruise is 5 foot 7? Google Now does.
It’s definitely cool, in a ?check out what my phone can do? sort of way. But it’s still too imperfect to be useful. In ideal settings, with little to no background noise and the Ultra in the wide open, the feature worked almost all of the time in recognizing the proper voice, as intended. However, the Ultra started batting about .500 in the presence of a moderate amount of background noise, or if the Ultra was obstructed in some way, say, at the bottom of a backpack.
This reviewer had no trouble keeping the Droid Ultra faithful, however. After setting it up, no one else in the office could activate the Ultra with his or her voice in casual testing.
Finally, the new Droids, but not the Moto X, ship with Droid Zap. With it, users can simply swipe up on any photo or video with two fingers to zap it up, and any other handset with Droid Zap installed and within 300 feet or so can pull it down with a two-finger swipe downward. Only Droids can Zap content up, but any Android phone with the Droid Zap app can pull it down. It works well, but there are dozens of ways to share photos and content across Android devices, and this is just one more. That it requires an app download for the majority of users makes it pretty irrelevant.
The Droid Ultra is a world phone, meaning that in addition to the typical Verizon LTE and CDMA/EVDO, it also supports GSM and HSPA+ bands. Users should have no trouble taking it overseas and SIM swapping.
It also sports dual-band 802.11 b/g/n, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE + EDR, Wi-Fi Direct, GPS (standalone, assisted, and simultaneous, eCompass, GLONASS, and Miracast. This is mostly standard on a flagship phone, and the only thing missing is wireless charging.
The Droid Ultra has a 2130mAh lithium ion battery, which Verizon claims is good for 28 hours of usage or 13 days of standby time. We have no complaints, and managed about a day with typical use, including snapping some pics, web browsing over LTE, texting, GPS navigation, and the everyday activities commonly associated with smartphones. While we never hit the magical 28-hour mark, the Droid Ultra performed well enough that battery life should not be a concern for most users. For those that need a bit more juice, the Droid Maxx is essentially the same smartphone, but with a 3500mAh battery, good for 48 hours of use, at least according to Verizon.
Compared with other Android smartphones, Motorola really scaled back the camera operation for the Droid Ultra, which has a 10-megapixel rear shooter and 2-megapixel front camera. It can also shoot 1080p video at 60 frames per second. The on-screen options are limited to front- or rear-facing camera selection, or video mode. Everything else is swipe based. A swipe to the right reveals more camera options, including:
- HRD: Auto, on, off
- Flash: Auto, on, off
- Tap focus: On, off
- Slow-motion video: On, off
- Panorama: On, off
- Geo-tagging: On, off
- Shutter tone: On, off
- Quick capture: On, off (more on this below)
Filters and setting can be tweaked from the gallery, after the photo has been taken, which can be accessed with a quick swipe to the left.
A swipe up operates the digital zoom up to 4x, while a swipe down zooms out.
There is no shutter button on the camera, so users simply tap anywhere to take a pic, which will also direct the focus should tap focus be enabled. Tap and hold for multiple pics, about one per second.
It all works well, and is refreshing, given the feature creep that affects most modern smartphone cameras. But the best part about the Droid Ultra camera isn’t even a picture feature, but rather the quick access to the camera app.
From anywhere on the phone, even while it’s sleeping, two simple wrist shakes is all it takes to launch the camera. This is extremely effective for quick access, and undeniably useful. In testing, it worked just about every time, and quickly became the default method for accessing the camera. Other manufacturers need to steal this feature.
Motorola boasts that the Ultra takes great low-light photos thanks to the RGBC sensor, and the resulting pics were modestly impressive. The Ultra seemed to pick up the available light well enough, but the images had way too much noise (check out the sampel below). Overall, the Ultra pics paled compared to the recent iPhones and Lumia 928 output. In natural light and outdoors however, the Ultra produced far better pics, with great colors and detail, and just the right amount of sharpness. Indoors, the photos often appeared washed out, and too often came out blurry. The Droid Ultra camera also seemed a bit slow when snapping photos, or at least slower than some of the other flagship devices Brighthand recently tested.
Overall, the Droid Ultra has a passable camera. Operation is superb, but the photos too often fail to meet the high standard set by competing devices.