HTC Droid DNA Review: HTC’s comeback kid or just another big phone?

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HTC introduced the Droid DNA, a flagship Android handset that recently hit Verizon Wireless with an eye-popping 5-inch, 1080P display.  No slouch on the inside, the Droid DNA also includes a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4, 2GB of RAM and 4G LTE connectivity. After last years disappointing HTC Rezound, is HTC ready to make a comeback with the Droid DNA or it is just another big phone with flashy specs and no substance? Read on to find out.

The Good
  • High-res display is perfect for movies, smooth text
  • Curved glass screen is smooth and responsive
  • Excellent build quality, not plasticky like other Android phones
The Bad
  • Battery life is mediocre
  • Only 11GB of usable storage, with no microSD expansion
  • Some odd design decisions like a hidden LED notification and difficult microUSB cover

Hardware

The Droid DNA is at the top of its class when it comes to hardware specs. The DNA ships with a 5-inch, 1080p Super LCD 3 screen that has an impressive 441 pixels per inch. It beats the 326 ppi Retina display of the iPhone 5 and the 306 ppi of the Galaxy S III.  On paper, it is the best display offered on any US smartphone.

The Droid DNA uses the same quad-core, 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor and Adreno 320 GPU that LG uses in its Optimus G and Nexus 4 phones. The DNA ships with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage (11 GB user available). There is no microSD slot, so you can't expand beyond the 11GB, which could be a problem for media-hungry users that need the extra space.

On the back of the handset is an 8-megapixel camera with an f2.0 lens, autofocus, stabilization and an LED flash. You can't see it, but the back also houses an LED that's used for notifications. It's an unusual location for an LED, but it works to alert you when you have the phone facedown on a table. HTC also squeezed in a speaker at the bottom of the rear cover.

On the front is a 2.1-megapixel webcam capable of capturing 1080p video at 30fps and a speaker used for listening to phone calls. Instead of physical buttons, HTC placed three touch-sensitive buttons just underneath the display.  Connectivity options include 4G LTE, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP and NFC. The DNA also features Qi wireless charging technology, but you need to purchase a charging pad for the system to work.

Design

The Droid DNA is a lightweight phone that is longer than it is wide. It's not as chunky as the Samsung Galaxy Note II and feels a lot like the Galaxy S III. The thin profile makes the handset easy to hold, even though its display measures a hefty 5-inches. The front of the handset is adorned with a curved glass display that is smooth to the touch and the back features a grippy, black matte battery cover. Buttons on the front are touch-sensitive and include home, back and multitasking. This multitasking button launches HTC's custom multitasking UI from anywhere in the OS.

Even though the phone has a nice fit and finish, HTC did make a few odd design decisions that detract from the overall experience. First, it includes a front and back LED notifications. The back LED is great when the phone is placed facedown on the table, as long as you don't enclose the handset in a case. Once you slap a case on the phone, the back LED is hidden. HTC did include a front LED, but it is small and located under the front speaker grille. The notification flash is barely noticeable during the day and only slightly better at night. This is a big detractor for folks who like to set different color LEDs for different alerts.

Also, HTC placed the power button at the top of the phone and installed it so that it is flush with the case. This makes it hard to reach  when you are cradling the phone in your hands. I prefer to have the button on the side, so I can hold the phone and toggle the screen on and off without having to re-adjust my fingers. The volume button on the side is also flush with the case and difficult to find with your fingers when you are not looking at the phone. It is also a solid slab and doesn't include any markings to indicate volume up or down. You are forced to feel around for the right spot that'll adjust the volume.

My biggest design gripe, however, is the flap that covers the microUSB port. The flap is difficult to pry open, difficult to push back in and is not very flexible. This means you have to fight with it every time you need to charge or sync your phone. Since you have to charge this monster of a phone every day, you may find yourself ripping off the cover out of frustration. Speaking of charging, I should also note that HTC decided to go with a non-replaceable battery on the Droid DNA. Android users who are accustomed to swapping out batteries may not agree with this decision, while former iPhone owners will feel right at home.

Build Quality

The Droid DNA has an excellent build quality. It is lightweight, but solid. The back cover has a nice, light rubbery coating and the phone is not plasticky like the Samsung Galaxy S III or the Galaxy Note II. The buttons are solid in their slots and don't wiggle. The best part of the phone is is the curved front glass which is a dream to use.  The subtle tapering of the screen allows your finger to slide easily across the display, giving the phone a smooth feel that you don't get on a handset with a flat, glass screen. The screen was resistant to scratching, but I tend to be careful with my phones. If you baby it, you will likely avoid deep scratches. If you're unsure, then drop $20 on an InvisibleShield and give yourself some piece of mind. I did not drop the phone during testing, so I can not comment on the impact resistance of the front glass panel.

Software

The Droid DNA ships with Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean overlayed with HTC's Sense 4. It's the same UI we have seen on other HTC phones, with a handful of customizations from Verizon Wireless. Sense leaves its mark throughout Android with its own lock screen, custom home screen, distinct app drawer, and a totally revamped multitasking system that has a dedicated button on the front of the handset. Accessing the widgets is also different in Sense -- instead of opening the settings like you do on recent versions of Android, you add widgets by long-pressing on the home screen.

The most prominent change on the Droid DNA is the tight integration of Amazon into the handset. Unlike other Android handsets, the Droid DNA includes a single sign-in option for Amazon that lets you add your Amazon account credentials into the settings and use them across multiple apps like Amazon Mobile. The phone comes with Amazon Mobile, Kindle, Amazon MP3, IMDb, Audible and Zappos apps pre-installed on the handset. End users can only uninstall updates and can not remove these apps from the phone.

Besides the Amazon software, the Droid DNA includes Verizon's ringtone app, Voice Mail,  My Verizon Mobile, and VZ Navigator. And if that wasn't enough, the handset also has Slacker Radio, Reign of Amira, and NFL Mobile. Unless you install a custom ROM like CyanogenMod, you are stuck with this bloatware on your phone.

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Camera

The Droid DNA pushes the envelope for camera phone technology in the Android platform. The handset features an 8-megapixel shooter with autofocus, LED flash, and the ability to take simultaneous photos and videos. It's not DSLR quality yet, but it does rival most of  your $200 point-and-shoot cameras.

Outdoor photos were sharp and color reproduction was good, with just a hint of over saturation. Indoors, the sensor did a good job handling low-light with a barely perceptible amount of grain and noise in the photos. The LED helps to compensate when light inside is not adequate, but like most smartphone flashes, you tend to get some overexposure, especially on close subjects.

Video recording is supported at 1080P and the quality was impressive. Autofocus was good on moving subjects and exposure adjustment was prompt when moving from a shady to sunny areas. The only stuttering was when I panned too quickly, but this is a common limitation seen in other smartphones and low-end point-and-shoot cameras. Mobile photographers will appreciate the camera software, which is filled with options for both manual and automatic settings.

Call Quality And Battery Life

Like most new phones, voice calls to landlines and mobile phones was crisp and clear. Callers couldn't tell that I was on a mobile phone and the phone did a good job minimizing background noise. Call volume was good when using the phone and the speakerphone was loud enough for use in a car or quiet room. Connectivity was top notch with LTE downloads in the 13Mbps/7Mbps range and 3G speeds of 1.3Mbps/950Mbps. Data connections were solid and I only experienced a few lags in the connection which were hardly noticeable.

Battery life was good on the Droid DNA, but not great. The handset lasted 5 hours and 28 minutes when I played a looping video at 50% brightness. In real life, the phone lasted a work day under moderate usage, but a mid-afternoon power charge was needed when I used the phone heavily. I found that the more I used the screen, the faster the handset drained. When I added in other services like Bluetooth and GPS when driving, I accelerated the battery drain even further.  The DNA has a 2,020mAh battery that cannot be swapped or replaced. Plan on plugging in the handset when driving long distances or carrying around an external battery pack if you are going to be away from a power source for more than a day.

Conclusion

The $199 Droid DNA revealed itself to be worthy of its title as HTC's flagship Android phone.  The 5-inch, 1080P display is gorgeous and performance from the quad-core processor is rock solid. The camera is top-notch and the wide-view feature may be attractive to photographyy enthusiasts.  I found only a few things wrong with the phone, and those were primarily design decisions like putting in a small LED and a flush power button on the top of the phone. These quirks are often bothersome for the first few days of using a phone and then you get used to them.

The closest competitors to the Droid DNA are the Samsung Galaxy Note II and the Galaxy S III. Both handsets offer robust sharing features and extras like the S-Pen in the Note II and advanced gestures in the S III that let you really customize your phone. The pair also offer removable batteries and microSD expansion. It comes down to personal preference when deciding between the trio -- the DNA has a beautiful high-resolution screen and a quad-core processor, while the Note II and S III offer more tweaks and customizations for the user. It is a toss up between the three phones and I recommend checking out the trio in a Verizon store before buying one on a two-year contract.

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  • Anonymous

    Bloatware is not a problem anymore… doesn’t Android 4.0 and up have an option to disable apps?

  • Anonymous

    Bloatware is not a problem anymore… doesn’t Android 4.0 and up have an option to disable apps?

    • Richard Polson

      It does, they still take up space though. Verizon really needs to get its shit together and make them uninstallable…or useful…either one would be nice honestly.

  • http://twitter.com/markreif Mark Reifenberg

    “disappointing HTC Rezound”????” Get real. My S–Offed, Mugen powered – custom Rom’d – 32gb sd card added on – ReZound – left me with no regrets after placing it alongside the DNA with the thought of moving on. No thanks – I’ll wait on the DNA Pro……

  • Simon

    Disappointing HTC Rezound? Are you kidding me? This phone is amazing. I’ve had it for over a year now and I love everything about it. You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Hate when people who have no clue about android phones make reviews like that…

  • http://www.facebook.com/Lucidmike78 Michael Ma

    If you were planning on playing GTA Vice City on the DNA, you might as well go refund your device now. Runs at like 15-20fps on medium settings with shadows turned off. What did you expect from a 1080p screen? The Galaxy Note 2 however, runs the game at 60fps with all the bells and whistles enabled and set on maximum. If stuff like this doesn’t matter to you, HTC Droid DNA is a really nice device.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dusty.rhodes.94 Dusty Rhodes

    after my rezound im ready to switch to an i phone, HTC needs to get it together

    • Anonymous

      Are you kidding?! Lol! Trading a rezound for an iPhone?! I’ve had the rezound since it first came out and comparing it to my brother’s iPhone 5 shows just how good my phone still is. The rezound is well over a year old and still easily beats the latest iPhone….if you do a side by side comparison of the rezound’s features and functions you can see that the rezound was

      • Jim p.

        I agree I have had rezound since it came out and I love it. If I had to buy a phone today there would only be two phones I would consider ahead of it. The DNA and Galaxy iii. I will always give HTC a first look when buying a phone.

  • Josh Zalasky

    “Easy to hold, excellent build quality, gorgeous screen… but we don’t like the buttons or power flap.”
    Design: 8/10 (?)

    “Best-in-class hardware and rock-solid performance. Top-notch camera.”
    Performance: 8/10 (??)

    “Here’s a sentence describing what sense is, and one random fact about it. There’s some bloatware on it, like every other phone that doesn’t come straight from Google.”
    Software: 7/10 (?????)

    “The $199 Droid DNA revealed itself to be worthy of its title as HTC’s flagship Android phone. The 5-inch, 1080P display is gorgeous and performance from the quad-core processor is rock solid. The camera is top-notch and the wide-view feature may be attractive to photographyy enthusiasts. I found only a few things wrong with the phone, and those were primarily design decisions like putting in a small LED and a flush power button on the top of the phone. These quirks are often bothersome for the first few days of using a phone and then you get used to them.”

    Overall: 8/10

    What exactly does a device have to do to score a 9 or 10?

  • Anonymous

    Everybody is repeating what any other reviewer wrote. It’s like you all read the spec-page on HTC’s website and just repeat it here.
    Also the camera sucks. The images are of the typical cellphone quality. I don’t expect everyone to put Nokia 808 Pureview optics in their phones but at least similar high quality compact optics like the Nokia N8 should be feasible. You don’t tell me that anno 2012 miniature optics and camera-modules haven’t improved beyond that 2010 camera phone.

  • Uriah Romero

    I got myself the Droid DNA a few weeks ago, and all of the features that
    you mentioned are brilliant. The best thing about it is the screen, which is
    best seen in person. Shows on the 1080p display look amazing! I use the DISH
    Remote Access app on my phone to stream live TV through the Sling Adapter
    that’s connected to my receiver, and I can’t begin to say how clear the shows
    look on the display. The app really comes in handy when I can’t see my shows at
    home. One of my DISH coworkers also has a Droid DNA and we both agree that it’s
    the best phone to watch TV on.

  • http://twitter.com/Feyden Ty Neargarder

    Going to have to agree with the people saying WTF is the problem with the Rezound? Replaced the Continuum with the Rezound, been running near perfect for a year. Has the same problems any smartphone has, occasional lock up, odd software issues from time to time, but they are rare… Very rare. To this day the only phone I think beats it is the GS3, its a great phone.

    But, my battery life lasts me all day, plenty fast, plays flash like a boss, and Beats audio enhancement is pretty sweet! I would gladly give the new DNA a chance.

    Loved my Eris, Love my Rezound, hated every other phone. HTC is batting 100% in my book.

  • Richard Polson

    I really enjoy my DNA.
    Couple points though:
    1) I disagree about the back being ‘grippy’, I found it to be a slick and made me worry about dropping it by accident. I tend to baby my phones anyways so I got the simple plastic wrap-around cover. The back LED does work though it, but its not a very bright LED in the first place.

    2) The bottom MicroUSB flap is a royal pain, but if you get a charging station (to wirelessly charge your phone) It no longer matters really. I imagine that’s why the put the flap on there in the first place, but honestly the wireless charging feature is pretty convenient. And yes, it DOES work through the plastic case mentioned above.

    3) The volume rockers aren’t that bad, all it takes is 30 minutes of using the phone and you’ll memorize where it is. Also do you really need markings to tell you that up is louder and down is quieter?

    Points of agreement:
    1) Battery Life is good for the common consumer, but if you’re a power-user you may find yourself needing a mid-afternoon charge like the author said.

    2) Screen is bloody beautiful, Sound is good, Beats audio is really nice to have.

    All in all good article.

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