Blow-by-Blow Review of the Motorola DROID 3

July 20, 2011
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(This is a guest post from our friend over at NasKaras Photo. Packed with great hands-on photos and tons of detail, it’s definitely worth a read if you are thinking about getting the Motorola DROID 3. Check it out!

You’ve got your wallet fattened by a few extra thousand dollars, and you wonder whether you should plunk it down on a shiny new Motorola DROID 3, which is about to reach store shelves. Is it worth your hard-earned cheese? Read on to find out.

Before going to the nitty-gritty, let me put this evaluation in perspective by providing a context. I have a soft spot for Motorola phones chiefly because my first experience with my first Motorola phone–the rugged and functional Motorola StarTAC–caused me to develop a certain fondness for Motorola hardware. That special affection for Motorola drew me to go with the first and original DROID (also known as the OG DROID, which practically sparked the Android revolution in the U.S. about two years ago), and on to the DROID 2. And, right now, I’ve got the hots for the Motorola DROID 3.

All throughout this piece, I’ll be referring frequently to the previous DROIDs and will be comparing them to the DROID 3, not just to provide some historical background about how the DROID 3 morphed into what it is today but also to view the DROID 3 from the eyes of a young, 30-ish, OG-DROID-loving, DROID-2-loving person who was educated in architecture and is currently practicing professional photography.

Use the links below to jump to particular sections in this review, or just read the whole piece from start to finish:

Build and Design

The arrival of the DROID 3 marks a more radical departure from the original DROID and the DROID 2 in almost every way. Whereas the DROID 2 was more of a refresh of the earlier OG DROID, the DROID 3 brings together all the good things that we liked about the earlier DROIDs, plus a few welcome goodies.

What’s instantly apparent upon first glance is the size of this thing. It’s beefier in almost every way, except for the thickness which has been reduced by a couple millimeters. The DROID 3′s fit and finish are, in many ways, an evolution of the last model. Yet, in my hand, it feels a bit more like the original DROID than like the DROID 2.

The DROID 3’s bezel carried over the DROID 2′s gunmetal finish but with less gloss. The soft curves of the DROID 2 have been ditched in favor of a more orthogonal, iPhone-4-like bezel.

The slot for the earpiece speaker at the top of the screen is considerably shorter than the first two DROIDs. The shortness actually makes the phone appear even larger. It also has a raised aluminum mesh sitting almost flush with the glass and mitered edge along the inside cut–a small, but very noticeable elegance.

The arrangement of the navigation buttons (i.e., Menu, Home, Back, and Search) are exactly the same as in the DROID 2. Retaining this arrangement is great for people, like me, who are upgrading from a DROID 2 or another Motorola phone, but those who are taking the plunge from the original DROID may find the arrangement somewhat annoying at first.

The four navigation buttons in the DROID 3 are spaced closer together than they originally were in either DROID or DROID 2. The tighter distance among the buttons may be an ergonomic tweak on Moto’s part, but it also adds visual mass to the phone. Neither did I notice it while using the phone nor did it affect my navigating. I only started to see the difference when I placed all three phones side by side.

The DROID 3′s rear ditches the rubber-coated metal found on the older DROIDs. In its place is a light plastic battery cover that helps keep the weight down on the already burly device. The new 8-megapixel camera and its single-LED flash are in roughly the same position as in the DROID 2. What’s new are the “HD Video, 1080p” branding and the small slab of extra gunmetal finish next to the LED. The whole lens/flash/mirror array is raised about a millimeter higher than the battery cover, making the camera area technically thicker than the DROID 2′s overall girth, although the raised array is not enough to affect the phone’s posture when it is laid on a flat surface.

Below the battery cover is a significantly smaller speaker opening, concealing a speaker smaller than that of the DROID 2. I tested and compared notifications and ringtones with both phones side by side, and the DROID 2 was noticeably louder in any physical position.

The top of the phone changes configuration slightly from the DROID 2. The 3.5-mm headphone/headset jack is now on the right where the power button used to be on the two previous phones. The DROID 3’s power button now rests in the symmetrical center, just like in the DROID X and DROID X2. The repositioning can take some getting used to, but the improved tactile feel is great.

The DROID 3’s bottom retains the distinctive under-bite ”chin” from the original DROID, with a slightly softer bottom lip. The design reasoning behind the original’s protrusion was to make more room for the phone’s radio. It’s unclear if the DROID 3′s internals still retain the same layout, and based on the following observations I would very much doubt it, but it’s nice to see that the familiar quirkiness of the original that helped make it so popular is here to stay.

The DROID 2 also had a similar chin, but it was implied, with the curved metal from the bezel draping over the bottom “lip”. In a world where mobile electronics have become not just tools but also iconic fashion statements, the DROID 3’s “chin” has the potential of becoming one of the brand’s most identifiable design cues, much like BMW’s Hofmeister kink.

On the left side we still have the microUSB charging and sync slot, but the plug slides in upside down (or downside up, however you want to look at it), and it is positioned more towards the bottom of the phone. Next to it is the new compact HDMI slot for zooming movies to an HDTV.

On the right side, the familiar volume rocker buttons are in roughly the same place as before, but as with the bezel and the power button, they have a decidedly more OG DROID feel. This is a welcome change because the volume rocker is something that is operated by feel 95% of the time. The OG DROID’s volume buttons had stiff, clearly defined edges with tiny tabs that let the fingers know where each button begins. The DROID 2 had filleted nubs that were very hard to individually distinguish, and as a result, volume was often lowered when it was meant to be raised–or vice versa.

The dedicated Camera button has now disappeared from the DROID 3. I’m not quite sure why Motorola would make this move, especially since the DROID 3’s camera has been upgraded from the previous models. My guess is that the phone is attempting to outclass its older family members with more simplicity and minimalism. If the original DROID is Tim Burton’s Batman, then the DROID 2 is Joel Schumacher’s Batman, with its loud fashion statements and unnecessary excess. And of course, the DROID 3 would have to be Christopher Nolan’s Batman–bigger, badder, and back to its roots.

Screen and Display

Before buying the DROID 3, I was very skeptical about its new screen. It was well documented that the DROID 3 would have a larger 4-inch display of the Pentile variety, like the one found on the DROID X2. The new pixel configuration is said to have many benefits including added battery life, but many folks were unsatisfied by poor performance and were plagued by headaches while reading text. I’ve experienced no such maladies. The screen has exceeded my expectations.

The 4-inch mark has to be the sweet spot for a smartphone. While the OG DROID and DROID 2′s screens performed very well and produced exceptional colors, they did feel a bit cramped at times when reading web pages, even in the mobile version. The DROID 3′s display feels roomier and sharper, thanks to the slightly higher qHD resolution, all while preventing a DROID-X-sized bulge in one’s pants.

Fingering the DROID 3’s touchscreen feels absolutely amazing, perhaps because of the combination of newer hardware and Android 2.3 Gingerbread. I’ve never encountered a more responsive touchscreen.

Scrolling is more instantaneous and fluid, and friction seems to have been reduced, regardless of the amount of oil present between fingertips and glass. I’ve spent many consecutive hours reading small fonts on the phone and my eyes haven’t bothered me any more than they did on the earlier DROIDs. My only gripe is that because of the Pentile pixels, certain gradients in images seem to have more artifacts than before.

Also, when scrolling images, I noticed some brief red ghosting that occurs, but it’s probably because I’m a designer and photographer that my eyes quickly notice such subtleties. Overall, the screen is a performer, and unless you’re holding the glass right up to your eyes and looking for individual pixels, jaggies and artifacts are hard to come by.

Keyboard

The keyboard, as has always been in the DROID series, is the DROID 3’s pièce de résistance, its most remarkable feature. The OG DROID’s best-in-class QWERTY keyboard started a revolution, but the one on the DROID 3 is better than ever with an even more spacious key layout and a dedicated 5th row up top for numbers.

The DROID 2′s keyboard was a huge improvement over the OG DROID’s, with larger buttons on the DROID 2 and the absence of the infamous D-pad, but there was still that chore of having to press the ALT key for a number. Even with the ALT Lock key on the DROID 2, I would forget to disengage it at times, and instead of typing out text after a phone number, my typed text looked as if an angry cartoon character had cursed someone out. The DROID 3 feels my pain and lets me mash out alphanumeric combinations with ease. Passwords, email addresses, phone numbers are all effortless now.

The DROID 3’s keys feel somewhat flatter than the DROID 2′s slightly domed keys, much like the original DROID’s at launch. But, time and use tended to mold both the older phones’ keys into more concave shapes. I’m assuming the same will happen with the DROID 3′s keys as the materials feel nearly identical, albeit a tiny bit smoother than the DROID 2′s rubbery QWERTY.

Whereas the first two DROIDs had keyboards with continuous rubber skin, the keys on the DROID 3 are all separate now, floating on a piano-black matrix below, much like the keys on the Samsung Epic 4G. This might impact long-term wear on individual keys if something were to get caught beneath them, but I think it’s a minimal threat at best and it’s way too early to tell. Overall, the keyboard has been an absolute joy to use.

Software

The DROID 3 comes out of the box with Android 2.3 Gingerbread and the latest iteration of Motorola’s skin. For the purposes of this article, I will continue to refer to it as MOTOBLUR, even though it’s not officially called that anymore. Apparently, Motorola got a bunch of negative feedback from past devices, and they want to slowly disassociate the branding. But, let’s be real–if it smells like fish, tastes like fish, and it periodically annoys the living hell out of you, then it must be MOTOBLUR.

The good news is that the latest MOTOBLUR is the best MOTOBLUR yet, with almost no hiccups throughout the UI. Screens load quickly, transitions are fluid, and interactions are instant. The unlock screen is an elegant take on an old solution, as is the gimmicky (but admittedly cool and ultra slick) screen lock animation that mimics a CRT display.

MotoBLOAT

The new home screen configuration adds (only) 4 dockable shortcuts to the bottom of the screen, a la Launcher Pro. Also present are the myriad useless Motorola apps that accompany MOTOBLUR such as Social Networking, IM, City ID, etc.

If you’re set in your ways (like me) and you don’t want to bother with these pesky permanent apps, just install Launcher Pro and hide the ones you see unfit from the app drawer. It’s been praised as a home screen replacement app for its great features and attention to detail, but many folks are also using it to hide the most undesirable elements of manufacturers’ skins such as MOTOBLUR, TouchWiz, and Sense.

Laggy Photo and Video Scrolling

Problem solved, right? Not so fast. The MOTOBLUR bashing really begins with the photo gallery. Motorola has taken a stab at integrating photos from all your online accounts for easy access. Photos from your Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, etc can easily be seen in one place. It’s a nice concept, but it doesn’t work very well yet. Scrolling is cumbersome and laggy, because the photos are not pre-cached.

Although social networking is the rage these days, it doesn’t need to invade every aspect of our lives. The better way would have been for Motorola to provide an option to turn off such feature, but then such decisions are usually also swayed by marketing strategies. And, in this case, the MOTOBLUR on the DROID 3 seems to reek of an attempt to please the business user market and the often-young social networking fans–both at the same time.

The same choppy and laggy scrolling of photos applies, as well, to Camera Roll, My Library, Online, Friends, and DLNA Servers. Viewing pictures produces more lag, and attempting pinch-to-zoom gives the phone a heart attack. I preferred the lower-resolution viewing of Android’s stock Froyo gallery with the buttery-smooth zooming and transitions.

Generally Acceptable Software

Aside from the very beta-esque feel of the Gallery app, pretty much every other software aspect on the DROID 3 works as it should and will generally keep you happy, connected, and entertained with little or no headaches. The Gallery can undoubtedly be replaced with another app and then hidden altogether to ease your suffering.

4G LTE

Much to the horror of many folks, the DROID 3 is not shipping with any kind of 4G. Just the good old-fashioned, reliable EVDO 3G service we’ve come to expect from Verizon over the last few years. This might be a dealbreaker for many of you who need to have the fastest thingamajig out there at any given moment, but you’d likely need to go through the following checklist to determine if it’s really necessary:

  1. Do you travel a lot? If the answer is yes, then 4G may not be for you, as it isn’t even deployed everywhere. Sure, you’ll get to use it in big cities, but if you live in or frequent, say, West Bumbleville, Kansas, you may be out of luck. Stick with 3G.
  2. Do you use your phone as a mobile hotspot for data-hungry, Netflix-streaming devices such as laptops and iPads? By all means, hold out for another 4G phone, but be careful not to go over your usage limit or Verizon will sting you with extra charges.
  3. Do you want to have a pissing contest with the guys by the water-cooler over who’s got the biggest d*ck phone? (Also synonymous with: Do I want to point at iPhone 4 fanboys and giggle?) If the answer is yes, then the DROID 3 is not for you. Go, get yourself an HTC Thunderbolt or a Samsung DROID Charge. Or, wait for the DROID Bionic to finally show up.

Phone Calls

Last summer, the first DROID 2 I got in the mail was a complete dud in the telephony department. Callers couldn’t hear me and I could barely hear them. I got it replaced at a local Verizon store the next day and the problem was solved.

With the DROID 3 I received in the mail last week, callers can hear me just fine as before, but to me they all sound a little muffled. It could be that I have another defective earpiece speaker. First chance I get, I will compare it to a floor model and determine if the problem is widespread or an isolated case. For the time being, it’s not a huge deal.

Battery Life

The DROID 3’s battery life seems to be equal to or greater than the DROID 2’s when running all the same apps and background services. Though, the idle time seems to be noticeably better.

Camera and Photo Quality

The DROID 3’s camera is the number one reason for my upgrade from the DROID 2. As a photographer, I don’t always want to carry around a chunky DSLR with me. I want my phone to be able to take decent pictures and video on the go in a wide variety of situations. This capability became a reality in most high-end cell phones roughly 5-6 years ago.

The OG DROID and DROID 2 cameras were adequate, but the quality of the 5-megapixel camera was so-so at best, and, being a photographer, I was a bit disheartened, but I had to make a sacrifice for the added convenience of the phone that does it all. My LG Dare (way back in 2007) practically produced better shots with its 3.2-megapixel camera than the 5-megapixel camera of either OG DROID or DROID 2. But, how does the DROID 3’s camera stack up against its predecessors and in cell phone photography as a whole?

For starters, there is no dedicated camera button anymore. This means that locking focus and exposure by half-pressing is a thing of the past. There’s no stock Android camera app on this phone. Not that it was great to begin with, but it did the job modestly and linked rather painlessly to the stock gallery app which is much better than MOTOBLUR’s.

Now, if you’re intending to use Motorola’s built-in Camera app, even at 8 megapixels, your pictures will all look like donkey crap. There is no way of manually setting white balance and the eternal auto-WB makes everything look bluer. Autofocus runs constantly from the second the app is launched–and there’s no way to disable it either. Even when you think you’ve locked focus on a subject, the camera decides to keep searching for it, so by the time you press the tiny on-screen shutter button, you’ve got nothing but motoBLURRY photos.

The preloaded Camera app provides basic options for exposure, flash settings, and scene modes, but none of them stay put once you close and then relaunch the app.

On a positive note, there is a boatload of camera apps in the Android Market to replace the stock Motorola Camera app which obviously suffers from Parkinson’s. A good one is Camera Zoom FX, but one of my favorites is Vignette. It has all the manual features you’d expect from a robust camera app, and for only 4 bucks, it’s not super expensive. Besides these two, there are also other great camera apps for Android.

The front-facing camera works well, but at 640×480 resolution in both photo and video mode. It can only be accessed via the Motorola Camera app. Video calls over Tango and Fring worked well and were pretty smooth over 3G.

Here are some sample photos snapped with the Motorola Camera app:

And, here are some sample photos captured with Vignette (for comparison):

Video Quality

Unfortunately, there is no viable replacement for the stock Camcorder app that shares some of its code with the Camera app, but that’s okay because it’s a decent performer. 720p and 1080p videos are crisp and smooth, rendering colors correctly for the most part. White Balance is also controlled automatically in Camcorder mode, which isn’t as bad, although the camera did have some trouble in sunny outdoor scenes with high contrast, as can be seen in this “Washington Square Park” sample:

As with most consumer video, rolling shutter distortion is obvious with fast moving objects or quick panning, but no surprises there. (See the “Parrots” video below for an example.) The autofocus performed poorly in this video because of the varying depths of the cage bars, the moving birds themselves, and the background. Otherwise, the autofocus did pretty well in the most situations.

Sound quality was better than expected. Even in the loud salsa night club where the speakers were directly behind me, there was only minimal distortion in the lower frequency range. The microphone next to the speaker on the rear of the camera may be aided by the front microphone in noise cancellation. Take a look at this sample video and take note of the sound quality:

Also, as with most tiny cameras producing HD video these days, vibration becomes an issue with image quality. I like to think I have pretty stable hands, and yet, even some of my best attempts at capturing footage are plagued by camera shake. Of course there are ways of stabilizing, but they involve adding a little bulk to the camera. Unless you’re serious about your HD videography, you probably don’t own a stabilizer rig for your smartphone. On the other hand if you are serious about your HD videography, you should probably shoot with a big boy camera anyway.

Final Verdict

Despite a few disappointments that can be rectified with software intervention, the DROID 3 is a great all-around performer and an absolute worthy successor to its daddy (the DROID 2) and granddaddy (the OG DROID). Everything you’ve ever loved about MOTOBLUR has gotten a little better, while Android 2.3 sets a new standard for the DROID user experience.

The DROID 3 chews apps with ease and it’s got the documented benchmarks to prove it. Despite some criticism and speculation, the screen is truly amazing and its responsiveness is second to none.

And, while there’s no 4G on board, it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for most logical folks who don’t need it. If you’ve been a fan of the OG DROID and the DROID 2, and you’re on the fence about the DROID 3, you have my blessing. But, don’t you dare pay the full-retail price for this phone, or any phone for that matter–unless you’re a fool (or a former iPhone owner).

Editor’s Note: Android Authority is proud to host this very detailed, comprehensive, authoritative, and passionately written guest post from the owner of NasKaras Photo. We hope you learned about the Motorola DROID 3 as much as we did by reading this review.)

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