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An app lover’s look at the Motorola Droid 4

by Marty Gabel

The fourth incarnation of the popular Droid line has finally arrived on Verizon. It’s available now for $199 with a new two-year contract, but prudent shoppers may find it for less at various online outlets.

The hardware

Like previous Droids before it, the new Droid 4 follows the same format with a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard. From the front, it bears a passing resemblance to the Droid RAZR, until you view it from the side of course. Despite being not that much slimmer than the original Droid released a few years ago and heftier than other modern devices, it feels solid and comfortable in the hand. Perhaps many will appreciate this in an era of pencil-thin smartphones which can sometimes feel a bit slippery.

The Droid 4 features a 4-inch qHD display with scratch-resistant glass. Personally, I think this is the sweet spot of screen sizes, neither too big nor too small. However, though the display is bright and certainly decent enough, it does pale a bit in comparison to some of the vibrant Super AMOLED technology becoming standard on some other manufacturers’ devices.

The keyboard slides out smoothly and feels solid. I’ve never really used a device with a full keyboard like this before, but can certainly appreciate why some people prefer them. Typing on it took a bit of getting used to, and I’m far more used to an onscreen one, but it gave good response and felt fine. With Swype pre-installed too, though, I must confess I kept the physical keyboard shut a lot of the time and used that instead. I guess it depends on what you’re used to. For QWERTY keyboard fans though, this is a good one. Most apps that require keyboard input work fine and recognize it when you slide it out. Yet with the pre-installed Let’s Golf demo game, for example, I expected to be able to type my name in using it, but that wasn’t possible. I presume some game makers out there must allow some of their titles to be played with the QWERTY keyboard, which may be of value.

I’ll briefly mention that voice-call quality was crystal clear, data speeds excellent on the 4G LTE network in Chicago and the in-built 8-megapixel camera took some decent pictures with pleasantly fast autofocus capabilities. The Droid 4 has 8GB of internal storage and the ability to add an SD card for more. With Windows Media sync capabilities too, you should have no problem when it comes to data space. The battery life was also strong for its class, as this Droid 4 uses a 1785mAh Li-ion cell. While this could be a handy phone for the road warrior, despite its power-sucking 4G LTE capabilities, the battery is not removable which seems an odd choice by Motorola.

The software

The Droid 4 runs Android version 2.3.6 (Gingerbread), so it should be pretty familiar to most people. Though Motorola has its own widgets and skin, it’s reasonably subtle and fairly close to pure Android, especially when compared to HTC’s Sense. It will be interesting to see how its future upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich affects Motorola’s look and feel. Widgets act as expected and are easily removed, and despite a few enhancements here and there, anyone familiar with Android should have no problem finding their way around.

Pre-installed apps

OK, here’s where things get interesting. This thing has a huge number of apps already installed. So many in fact that’s it’s almost overwhelming. I appreciate that both Motorola and Verizon have business reasons for pre-installing a bunch of apps, but the sheer number on the Droid 4 is absurd. While a few of them can be fully uninstalled, most can only be hidden. That’s something at least, but I’m beginning to wonder how confusing it must be for a new Android user when they open the app tray for the first time on their new Droid 4.

Say you’re a music fan. Without even venturing into the Android Market you’ll see MOG Music, Google Music, My Music (Motorola) and Slacker. Love video? Take your pick from Blockbuster, Netflix, Slingbox, Verizon Video, Videos (Google), VideoSurf and YouTube. It’s way, way too much. Previously, I’ve had issues that there are all these pre-installed apps I might not actually want. Now, I just feel that there’s so darn many that the simple fact that they’re there makes everything confusing and overwhelming, particularly for brand new Android users.

Motorola has a number of useful apps, however. The Smart Actions app lets you automate everyday tasks and optimize battery efficiency. You can create specific ‘rules,’ like automatically setting the phone to vibrate during work hours or dimming the display when the battery reaches a certain level.

There’s also the handy MotoCast app, which is aimed at business professionals. This lets you remotely stream documents, videos and music from a computer to your handset. This helps eliminate the need to store documents in two separate places, or not having access to them when working remotely.

Apps from the Market

As usual, I did some testing by downloading a bunch of my favorite apps and games. I found very few issues. The standard display size of the Motorola Droid 4 and its well-established Gingerbread OS meant it pretty much handled everything I threw at it.

Its speedy dual-core processor and fast 4G LTE connectivity in Chicago saw the Droid 4 take everything in its stride. For example, Reckless Getaway downloaded its oodles of extra data swiftly (though you’d probably want to use Wi-Fi normally) and played very well, while older apps like Facebook or Yahoo! Messenger worked properly without any hiccups.

Overall, the Droid 4 is a competent device that will certainly be a reliable companion for people who insist on having a full, slide-out keyboard. It’s fast and offers that reliable Motorola radio quality we’ve come to expect. Its battery life is decent and it’s a strong, well-made device which should handle a few knocks. While it may lack the glamor and display quality of some of its rivals, its bound to find favor with many Android users.