HTC Droid DNA review [video]

December 23, 2012
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Earlier this year the HTC J Butterfly made a flash as one of the first in a crop of 1080p phones. When we later heard that it was coming to the U.S. via Verizon as the HTC Droid DNA, we were understandably excited.

While we were there when Verizon and HTC officially announced the Droid DNA at an event in New York City, we weren’t able to get our hands on one until very recently. Is the HTC Droid DNA one of the best phones on the market, or is a mediocre phone hiding behind a high resolution screen? To find out, read on.

In a hurry? Jump straight to the conclusion, or check out our video review.

Specs

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset with 1.5 GHz quad-core Krait processor
  • 5-inch 1080p display with 441ppi pixel density
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 16 GB internal storage
  • 2,020 mAh battery
  • 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with 1080p video
  • 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera with 1080p video
  • NFC

First Impressions

I first saw the HTC Droid DNA when we covered the official announcement of the phone back in November. Until I had seen the phone in person, I wasn’t convinced that the higher resolution and pixel density would matter. After all, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2’s screen looked great, and that was “only” 720p as well as a half-inch larger. I was wrong.

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As soon as I saw the Droid DNA in action, I was impressed not only by the display, but by how fast it was and how great music played on the phone sounded through a pair of good quality headphones. I knew immediately that I wanted to get some serious hands-on time with the DNA.

Build Quality

For a phone built out of plastic, the HTC Droid DNA feels very solidly built. While its fairly light, it isn’t so light that it feels like it’s going to fly out of your hands. While other large phones made of plastic flex and squeak under pressure, I haven’t noticed any of that in my time with the DNA.

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Both HTC and Verizon have made a point of insisting that the Droid DNA is a phone, not a phablet, and they’re right. The DNA is narrower and shorter than the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. It’s not by a lot, but it really makes the difference. This could be a plus or a minus, depending on what you use your device for, but you certainly won’t feel as silly talking on the DNA as you would on some other, phablet-sized devices.

Screen

As you might expect, the display on the HTC Droid DNA is simply one of the very best I’ve ever seen. Obviously the 1080p resolution and 441 ppi pixel density help here, but it’s also bright without looking washed out. Colors are rich, and black levels are very good.

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Now understand that you won’t always see the benefit of the 1080p display. A 720p video is going to look the same on a 720p device as it would on the Droid DNA. Where the higher pixel density really excels is in rendering of anything computer generated like text and icons. Obviously, 1080p sources are going to look gorgeous on the Droid DNA and the screen does a great job of displaying high resolution photos.

Performance

As the specs might have hinted at, the HTC Droid DNA is a beast when it comes to performance. While I’ve been using it, there hasn’t been one single situation where I’ve found it lagging. Apps open very quickly, scrolling through the home screens and apps menu is quick and painless, and the few games I’ve tried have all run very smoothly.

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The results of benchmark apps can often be dubious, so I don’t put much stock in them, but I did try a few just to see where the Droid DNA landed. As I expected, the DNA either beat or kept pace with all of the top phones currently on the market. I wouldn’t base a purchase on benchmarks alone, but the performance displayed here is definitely impressive.

Software

The HTC Droid DNA runs Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean. So far there has been little word of an upgrade to Android 4.2, but it’s fairly easy to assume that we’ll see an update sometime in early 2013. If the Droid DNA was running stock Android, we’d probably see it sooner, but like most manufacturers, Android is skinned on the Droid DNA.

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The skin in question is HTC Sense 4+. While previous versions of Sense have understandably had their share of detractors, Sense 4+ has been met with relatively positive reviews. Many users understandably would prefer stock Android, but personally I find HTC Sense 4+ to be one of the more usable overlays I’ve seen.

When it comes to app the usual suite of Google apps is preinstalled, as well as the same Verizon apps found on nearly every phone sold by the carrier, and a handful of Amazon apps. Slacker Radio, Facebook, and demo of the game Reign of Amira are among the other apps that come preinstalled. Given the phone’s limited internal storage, users certainly would have been happier to see some of these left out, as they can not be removed.

Camera

This is usually the part in a review where I mention that smartphone cameras are generally the same, and that this device is no different, but with the HTC Droid DNA, this isn’t the case. I’ve found that the DNA’s camera actually does a great job, capturing crisp photos with vivid yet natural colors.

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The 1080p video capture, available for both the front and rear cameras, is very well done as well. Motion is smooth with a solid framerate, and while the rear-facing camera’s video stabilization won’t help you out if you’re running down the street, it does a good job of covering up the shakiness that comes from capturing video with such a light device.

Battery

The weakest aspect of the HTC Droid DNA is, without a doubt, the battery. With only 2,020 mAh powering a 1080p display, let alone all the other components, you’re simply not going to get as much battery life with the DNA as you will with a lot of other phones. It is worth noting, however, that while its still on the low side, the Droid DNA’s battery life is better than we initially feared it would be.

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To make matters worse, though, not only is the battery low in capacity, but it’s non-removable. This obviously means you can’t replace the battery with a higher capacity unit, but it also means that the battery-pull method of resetting your phone can’t be done. This isn’t usually necessary, but it can be handy if an app locks up and tries to take the rest of the OS with it.

Video Review


Conclusion

Before we wrap up, there are two things that haven’t yet been addressed; one good, and one bad. We’ll start with the bad: unlike its very close cousin the HTC J Butterfly, the Droid DNA doesn’t have a microSD slot, which means you’re stuck with the 11 GB of usable internal memory. Why HTC and Verizon left out the microSD slot is a mystery, but its likely that Verizon may want users to opt for cloud-based solutions and therefore require a heftier data plan.

Now for the good: unlike most phones on the market, the HTC Droid DNA features two internal amplifiers. One drives the device’s speakers, while the other only drives the headphone jack. This may not sound like much, but for audiophiles, this is a very cool inclusion.

In the end, while it may have a small battery and lack an option to expand its storage, there is whole lot of good about the HTC Droid DNA that is enough to outweigh the bad. If you are considering either the Droid DNA or possibly a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, we actually pitted the two devices against each other back in November, so hopefully this can help you make your decision.

What do you think about the HTC Droid DNA? Let us know in the comments below.

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