HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE Review: Solid Little Phone, Awfully Big Name

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Does bigger always mean better? It depends on who you ask of course, but more than a few major smartphone manufacturers would probably say yes. Even the notorious hold-outs at Apple are rumored to be working on something a bit larger than their usual — in short, the race to be the biggest doesn’t show any signs of letting up.

In a market where big smartphones reign supreme though, Verizon and HTC seem to think that a smaller device can still captivate some jaded consumers. As a result they’ve put together the Droid Incredible 4G LTE, a poorly named device that manages to squeeze a surprising amount of power into a relatively small frame.

Features:

4.0-inch qHD Super LCD displayRuns Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 4.01.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor1GB of RAM8GB of onboard storage, accepts microSD cards as large as 32GBNFC8-megapixel rear camera, VGA front-facing cameraMSRP: $149 with a two-year contract, available as of July 5, 2012

Pros:

Great Super LCD displayPlenty of horsepower for daily tasksSolid build quality

Cons:

Screen may seem too small for someVerizon loaded it up with quite a bit of bloatwareIt’s not terribly handsome

The first thing I noticed about about the Droid Incredible 4G LTE is just how small it felt in my hands. After months of toting around a Galaxy Nexus, it was actually kind of shocking. The Incredible 4G is just a hair wider than the iPhone 4S, but its taller stature and slightly narrower screen make it seem leaner than it actually is. Even so, the device has a well-constructed feel to it — it has a comforting heft to it and a quick bit of bending yielded none of the tell-tale creaking sounds that plague lower-end handsets.

At its thickest point the new Incredible comes in at 11.7mm — a far cry from the slim waistlines of HTC’s One S or the iPhone 4S, but it never feels like too much of a handful. That’s mostly thanks to the device’s curved back — like in the HTC Rezound before it, that curve helps the device from feeling too chunky.

The name of the design game here is nearly the same as it has been for nearly every other HTC/Verizon device in recent memory — the Incredible 4G’s rear is swathed in a matte black soft-touch plastic (warning: it picks up smudges easily), and the signature red trim around the camera lens makes a return after being left out of the Droid Incredible 2. Probably the most notable aspect of the Incredible 4G’s back plate though is the grippy, ridged finish that covers most of it — yet another design cue from the Rezound.

Aesthetically speaking, it’s not all old news — while the back has a matte finish, the device’s face is lined with a glossy gray plastic that helps break up the monotony. Most of the real estate is taken up by the device’s 4-inch Super LCD display (more on that later, naturally), and sitting below that is HTC’s now-standard row of three Android navigation keys — back, home, and recent apps. The front-facing VGA camera sits just above the screen, and north of those are a handsome red speaker grill, sleep/wake button, and headphone jack. The microUSB port is located on the Incredible 4G’s bottom left side, just opposite microSIM and microSD slots (though you’ll have to pop off that back plate to get to them).

All things considered, the Incredible 4G is solidly built, but it pales in comparison to the One series when it comes to looks. It’s actually quite a shame — with the One series, HTC has proven that it can design phones that look as good as they are constructed, but little of what they’ve learned has made the transition to the new Incredible. And it’s not as though the devices weren’t in the works at the same time — a very early version of the Incredible 4G was spotted back in February, right around when the One series made its debut at MWC 2012 in Barcelona.

Unlike the last device I reviewed, I’m pleased to report that the Incredible 4G runs on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, though it’s obscured a bit by HTC’s Sense 4.0 UI. If you’ve read Jordan’s HTC One S review, you’ll already have gotten the gist of Sense 4.0, but I’ll add that the latest version of Sense is far more tolerable than the versions that came before it.

That may not sound like much of a compliment, but coming from a person who thinks that Ice Cream Sandwich (and Jelly Bean, natch) are best left untouched, that statement carries more weight than it seems.

While previous iterations of Sense (especially Sense 3.0) seemed intent on wowing users with unnecessary graphical and UI flourishes that ultimately had a deleterious effect on performance, Sense 4.0 looks and feels much lighter and less obtrusive. There are plenty of thoughtful touches to be found here — the almost webOS-esque multitasking interface, the ability to edit the app tabs at the bottom of the launcher, the custom widget panel that pops up when long-pressing the homescreen, etc.

In a way, Sense has matured over these past few years, making it one of the better custom UIs that consumers. That being said, there are still some quirks to look out for and the device’s menu button situation immediately comes to mind. Unlike stock ICS, which often sees the menu’s soft key placed in either an app’s top or bottom navigation bar, HTC often gives the menu button a bar of its own to inhabit. It’s thoughtful, in a way — easy access to settings is always appreciated — but it just takes up more room than it’s worth. The keyboard is also remarkably similar to the Sense keyboard of yore, which I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan of.

What’s less tolerable is what Verizon has done to the Incredible 4G — unsurprisingly, the carrier has opted to load up the device with plenty of bloatware to contend with. Some of the offending bits like game demos are easily removed, but as usual preloaded Verizon utilities like My Verizon Mobile and the Verizon app store can’t be uninstalled. Fortunately, Sense allows for individual apps to be disabled and hidden from sight so it’s simple enough to clean house even though you can never really get rid of them (short of flashing a custom ROM).

Verizon seems to have done a bit of fiddling in other parts of the UI too: one of the tabs in the app launcher quickly brings up all of Verizon’s pre-installed nonsense, and users can keep their eyes peeled for persistent (and mildly obnoxious) notifications about their Wi-Fi status.

Here’s the thing about the Incredible 4G’s camera — it sports an 8-megapixel rear sensor and the ImageSense camera UI like its cousins in the One series, but it doesn’t seem to have the discrete ImageChip that HTC is so proud of. That said, though, images were sharp and colors were vivid, there’s some distinct graininess when light levels dip.

HTC’s ImageSense UI makes up for things a bit by putting plenty of controls at the user’s fingertips without becoming overwhelming. Settings and scene modes are aligned vertically along the left side of the screen, while the shutter button, video toggle, and a full array of artsy filters can be accessed with one touch.

The Incredible 4G also shoots some impressive video, though there’s plenty of room for improvement. There’s plenty of wiggle to be seen even with the video stabilization option turned on, so users will have to be extra mindful so their recordings don’t turn into wobbling messes. On top of that, auto focus is awfully slow when recording video, so be prepared to tap-to-focus more often than not.

The end result is a very solid camera that could have been so much more. One last thing worth noting is that the Incredible 4G lacks a dedicated physical shutter button. Sure, the One X and the One S don’t have one either, but if Verizon and HTC were going to run with a completely different design, they could’ve improved things for the better a bit.

Let’s be real here: the screen is not going to work for everyone. It wasn’t that long ago that a 4-inch display would’ve gotten us phone geeks all hot and bothered, but those days have passed and the Incredible’s screen is left looking a little puny compared the flashy big guys on the market.

Say what you will about its size, but the Incredible 4G’s 4-inch Super LCD display is a very pleasant addition to the package. Colors were bright and well-reproduced, viewing angles were excellent, and visibility in sunlight was solid (though you’ll have to be mindful about cranking up the brightness).

Of course, some compromises had to be made. Unlike some of the 720p devices in roughly the same price range, the Incredible’s display runs at qHD resolution (960 x 540). It doesn’t squeeze as many pixels as some other device displays can — the Incredible 4G has a pixel density of 276 ppi, which bests the One S (256 ppi) but can’t touch the Galaxy S III’s 306 ppi. Still, that matters less on a smaller screen, and there was nary a jagged, pixellated edge to be found.

In the end, how much you or any other potential customer will like this phone depends a whole lot on your thoughts about screen size. That initial sense of screen-related claustrophobia subsided after a few days, but my heart ultimately still yearns for something bigger. If you’re thinking about picking one of these things up, do yourself a favor and play with it in person first.

Don’t let its looks fool you — the Incredible 4G may be small, but it packs some considerable power under the hood thanks to its 1.2GHz Snapdragon S4 chipset (the Adreno 220 GPU doesn’t hurt either). From a purely anecdotal standpoint, I didn’t see a single hiccup as I swiped though the Incredible 4G’s menus and scrolled through long lists of links on a handful of websites. Similarly, the Incredible handled my usual test suite of HD videos and games with aplomb — this little guy has plenty of oomph.

The Incredible 4G’s average Quadrant score was 4098 — understandably not quite as high as the HTC One S (4371) since it sports a more robust spec sheet, but it’s awfully close. Meanwhile, it put the Galaxy Nexus (2730) to shame, though that seems to be a recurring trend with the devices I’ve played with recently. In short, the new Incredible should have no trouble keeping up with your daily grind.

Network performance was equally solid, with the Incredible 4G hitting an average of 14.2 Mbps down and 5.3 Mbps up in my quiet little corner of New Jersey. It goes without saying that your results be vary from mine (unless you live down the road, in which case you should come over and say “hi”), but Verizon’s network continues to be the one to beat if you’re looking for strong, widespread LTE coverage. In typical HTC fashion, call quality was remarkable as well — clear, crisp, and always loud enough.

What does miff me about the Incredible 4G is that it’s ostensibly meant to be a music-friendly device, but it’s stuck with a rather wimpy speaker on its rear end. I realize I may be picking nits here, but I long for the day that I review a device with a top-notch integrated speaker so jamming out on the go isn’t so problematic.

I wasn’t expecting much out of the Incredible 4G when it came to its removable 1700 mAh battery. My iffy past experiences with the original Incredible subconsciously soured me for the Incredible 4G’s potential, but it ended up performing better than I hoped. While using the Incredible 4G as my daily driver, I was easily able to get through an entire day of taking calls, firing off emails/texts, and sneaking in the occasional YouTube video before my battery went critical.

If you’re the type who just likes to sit around and fiddle with your phone all day, your results will obviously be a little different. In our typical stress test — in which display brightness is set to 50% and the device is set to repeat a series of Google Image Searches — the Incredible 4G lasted five hours and 12 minutes.

That’s not too shabby at all, and it compares favorably to both the One S (4:51) and the Galaxy S III (5:15). When it came to our video stress test, the Incredible 4G put up similar results. With display brightness set to 50% and volume cranked all the way up, it managed to play just a hair over five hours of nonstop video before finally giving up the ghost.

I don’t need to tell you that these sorts of intensive test results shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but combined with my day-to-day experience with the device, anyone who takes the plunge probably won’t have much to worry about on this front.

I’ve come to really like the Droid Incredible 4G LTE, but it’s far from being a game-changer. That by itself isn’t a problem, but its lofty price tag doesn’t exactly help. At $149, the Droid Incredible 4G LTE is just a stone’s throw away from devices like the new Galaxy S III, which many have called the Android phone to beat.

It becomes difficult, then, to recommend something like the Incredible 4G when something exceptional can be had for nearly the same price, but bigger isn’t always better. If your mitts just can’t grapple with something like the Galaxy S III or Galaxy Nexus (or if you just prefer a phone that’s less conspicuous in your pocket), the Incredible 4G is an admirable choice in spite of its minor flaws.

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Motorola Atrix HD Review: Runs Like A Dream, But Doesn’t Look Like One

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Motorola made plenty of waves when it introduced the Droid RAZR for Verizon last year, and somehow I doubt AT&T was very pleased with that move. With that one launch, Motorola instantly made AT&T’s high-end line of Android-powered Atrix smartphones look chunky and downright un-sexy in comparison

Now with the Atrix HD AT&T has its own vaguely RAZR-esque device to push to the masses, but how does it stack up against its forebears? Or, better yet, how does it compare to the devices that occupy the top tiers of AT&T’s smartphone portfolio? As it turns out, the answer is “pretty damned well.”

Features:

4.5-inch 720p LCD display with ColorBoostAndroid 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with Motorola’s custom UI1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon MSM8960 processor1GB of RAM8GB of internal storage, expandable with microSD cards8MP rear camera, 1.3MP front-facing cameraRuns on AT&T’s LTE networkMSRP: $99 with two-year contract, available as of July 15

Pros:

Motorola didn’t screw with Ice Cream Sandwich too muchExcellent displaySurprisingly strong spec sheet

Cons:

Uninspired designThe camera is generally pretty lousyBattery life isn’t the greatest

I’m a sucker for a handsome phone, and to put it plainly, the Atrix HD isn’t much of a looker. It’s not ugly by any stretch (it’s far too inoffensive for that) but it seems like a considerable step backward from the progress Motorola made with devices like the Droid RAZR.

That said, the Droid RAZR’s influence is undeniable — if one of those svelte, angular devices suddenly got chubbier and softer around the edges, you would have an Atrix HD.

But let’s put those gripes aside for a moment, because there’s another one to dig into. The Atrix’s impressive 4.5-inch LCD display (ensconced in a protective layer of Corning Gorilla Glass) takes up most of the device’s face, but it seems a hair smaller than it actually is because it’s bounded by a pretty substantial bezel. In a way though, that bezel is something of a trademark of the Atrix family — the very first one had quite a bezel on it too, as did the Atrix 2.

A notification LED and the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera sit to the left and right of the Atrix’s earpiece respectively, while a Motorola logo squeezes between those components and the top of the display. Centered just below the display is an AT&T logo, which happens to look an awful lot like a capacitive button — after years of using iPhones, my thumb instinctively reached for it a few times before I managed to get it accustomed to its surroundings.

Nestled at the very top of the device are ports aplenty since Motorola opted to stick the headphone, microUSB and microHDMI ports up there. The microSIM and microSD card slots are nestled under a pull-out plastic tab along the Atrix’s bottom left edge. Meanwhile, the volume rocker and the infuriating sleep-wake button sit high on the device’s right edge; I say infuriating because pressing either too high or too low along the button’s ribbed edge won’t bring the Atrix to life.

Fortunately, the Atrix’s rear end is far less problematic — unless of course you’re not a fan of the patterned Kevlar that takes up a majority of the space. Save for a thin and chintzy-feeling layer of plastic that runs around the rear’s outer edges, the only other thing not covered in the scratch-resistant material is a gently sloping plateau containing the 8-megapixel camera pod, LED flash, and rear speaker.

While the Atrix HD looks downright plump in comparison to its Verizon cousin, that doesn’t mean it has the weight to go with it. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite — at 4.9 ounces (the same as the iPhone 4/4S) the Atrix feels almost disconcertingly light given its curvy physique. I know, it’s a tough job to strike a comfortable balance between size and weight, but the device’s overall feel doesn’t do much to inspire confidence.

After seeing Motorola clutter up its Android devices with its overbearing custom UIs for years, playing with the Atrix’s tweaked spin on Ice Cream Sandwich is like being able to breathe easy for the first time. It’s certainly not stock ICS, but Motorola has apparently decided to leave most of Google’s handiwork well enough alone — frankly, good on them.

Even more surprising is that what Motorola added to the mix is either generally unobtrusive or genuinely useful. Take for instance the small pair of arrows that now live next to certain apps like the phone dialer or the stock web browser. They’re there as a little visual hint, as swiping up or down on those icons allows users to jump into a quick view of information related to that app — for the dialer, a swipe brings up a list of favorite contacts, while a swipe on the browser icon displays the user’s bookmarks. Sure, they’re mostly things that users can set a widget for, but adding a subtle way to easily access and hide that kind of information is terribly thoughtful.

Also — and this may be a remarkably dorky admission — but Motorola’s default Circles widget is a mighty nice touch. The widget’s three circles display time, weather, and remaining battery life respectively, but as with those app icons, swiping up and down on individual circles lets users switch between different bits of pertinent data. Prefer a digital time readout over an analog one? Swipe away. Want to switch from a battery meter to a data usage tracker? You know what to do.

Motorola also transplanted SmartActions to Ice Cream Sandwich, which (if you haven’t yet heard) allows the device to execute certain user-defined actions when triggered by information like time or location. I’ve always fancied myself as more a “go with the flow” kind of guy, so I admittedly don’t rely on the automation feature much, but it’s simple enough to create an action for every stop or random event in your day.

Still, It should be known that there’s a peculiar sense of fun to be had in cobbling together new Actions, just because of the sheer flexibility afforded to the app’s users. Be on the lookout for SmartActions notifications though, as the app will keep suggesting new possibilities to you whether you like them or not until you pop into its settings and prevent it from doing so.

Perhaps the only truly clumsy part of Motorola’s UI is how users add new homescreen pages. You see, the Atrix HD has two of them set up out of the gate, and swiping to the right from the main page brings the options of adding a blank one or choosing from a series of homescreen templates to fire up. The problem here is that the transaction is noticeably jerky, especially considering that navigating through menus and apps is otherwise incredibly smooth. There are arguably cleaner ways to handle this process — a spin on HTC’s classic “hold down the home button” approach comes to mind — but it’s a minor gripe at best.

Add some redesigned icons, and you’ve got Motorola’s take on Ice Cream Sandwich in a nutshell. Apologies if I’m gushing a bit — I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I don’t like what manufacturers usually do to stock Android, so its little surprise that I’ve quickly grown to like Motorola’s “make minor, thoughtful improvements” approach.

As with every other smartphone AT&T has sunk its metaphorical teeth into, the Atrix HD comes with its fair share of bloatware. Most of those pesky apps can be uninstalled without issue (hallelujah!), and the rest can be disabled and hidden without too much effort. Sure, it’s not quite as good (or as satisfying) as removing them outright, but the little victories are better than none at all.

The Atrix HD has some great things going for it, but top-notch camera functionality just isn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong — the camera will do in a pinch when you absolutely have to snap a photo, but its performance is ultimately underwhelming.

The issues here are numerous. Autofocus was a bit on the screwy side, for one — when left in full auto mode, the camera easily homes in on nearby objects but struggles to produce a sharp image when trying to focus on something farther away. White balance too seemed off, which sometimes led to predominantly white shots taking on a blue cast. Low light performance was similarly disappointing, with a fair amount of grain visible once light dims below optimal levels.

In fairness, it’s not all bad — like with other Ice Cream Sandwich devices snapping shots is incredibly quick, and videos recorded in 1080p don’t come out half-bad all things considered. On the off chance you think that a good camera is the single most important feature a smartphone can have, you’d do well to steer clear of the Atrix HD. Otherwise, the weak-put-passable camera is a notable sore spot in an otherwise solid device.

While I’m more than happy to knock the bezel that runs around it, I can’t do the same for the Atrix HD’s 4.5-inch 720p display — it’s yet another pleasant surprise in a phone that seems designed to confound expectations.

As usual for TFT LCD panels, the Atrix HD’s display lacks the deep, sumptuous blacks seen in AMOLED displays, but white levels were consistently bright. On top of that, the display’s combination of size and resolution means everything is nice and crisp. To be more specific, the display features a pixel density of 326 ppi — handily beating powerhouses like the Galaxy S III (306 ppi) and matching handsets like the iPhone 4/4S.

Then there’s the color situation. Everything is nice and vivid (especially the tweaked app icons the Atrix is laden with), and colors remained bright as I bounced from viewing angle to viewing angle. Motorola also saw fit to throw in their new Colorboost functionality, which pumps up color saturation for more vivid images.

The Atrix is far from the first handset to try something like this — Sony’s Xperia ion tried the same thing with its Mobile Bravia engine but it pushed saturation to nearly lurid levels. Motorola’s Colorboost enhancements thankfully didn’t push things quite that far so users can expect and images visuals to pop instead of going outright nuclear. That said, not everyone may enjoy that additional visual flair and there’s no way to disable it, so it’s definitely worth taking a look at in person before taking the plunge.

Well now — the Atrix HD may not look like much of a contender, but there’s some real horsepower packed inside that unassuming frame.

Motorola wasn’t very forthcoming with processor details when the device first popped up on their website on one fateful July evening, but AT&T later confirmed that the Atrix HD runs on the same dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon MSM8960 chipset as seen in heavyweights like the HTC One X and the Galaxy S III.

That’s quite a catch for the budget-conscious handset, as it regularly puts up Quadrant scores just north of 5000 (the average of five trials was 5084) — not shabby at all, especially compared to the One X’s five trial average of 4995 and the U.S. Galaxy S III’s average of 5063.

That said, there was virtually no lag to be found while navigating between through menus and swiping through multiple pages of apps. Firing up and playing through some Grand Theft Auto III and Minecraft Pocket Edition was similarly smooth, as were my usual test videos (i.e. old episodes of Doctor Who). Suffice it to say, the Atrix should have no trouble keeping up with even the most demanding daily grinds.

As far as the Atrix HD’s network performance goes, I found little to complain about. It’s always sort of a crapshoot testing from my particular corner of New Jersey (especially because AT&T hasn’t yet seen fit to bring LTE online around here), but the Atrix HD managed to pull down an average of about 9.6 Mbps down and a strangely slow 859 Kbps up. Call quality too offered few disappointments — calls were generally very clear for people on both ends, though there tended to be a bit of audible buzz from time to time. Maximum call volume could have been a little higher though, but on the whole I had no trouble nearing people on the line, and vice versa.

I’m a bit of a stickler for nice speakers on smartphones, and the three-hole speaker embedded into the Atrix HD’s rear is decidedly above-average. It’s far from perfect (audio tended to be a tad on the echoey side) but it’s plenty loud enough or a little grooving on the go — something that plenty of other handsets have trouble with.

Though not as disappointing as the camera, the Atrix HD’s battery did skew toward the underwhelming side of things. Like its slim Verizon-bound cousin, the Atrix sports a sealed 1780 mAh battery underneath that Kevlar black plate. That battery gave Jordan some trouble when she reviewed the Droid RAZR way back when, but the situation isn’t quite as rough this time around.

The Atrix HD managed to plug along for 5 hours and 10 minutes of our usual stress test — an automated series of Google Image Searches with the display set to 50% brightness. Meanwhile the Atrix HD only lasted just under five hours in our video stress test, in which the device loops a 720p video at 50% screen brightness and with volume cranked all the way up.

When it came to getting me through a normal day of calling, web browsing, checking emails, and sending obnoxious text messages, the Atrix managed to hang in there for just under eleven hours of on-again-off-again use before finally going dark. As always, your experience is going to differ from mine — that ten hours was enough to see me through most days but if you’re the type to unplug your phone and start your day when the roosters crow, you’ll almost definitely have to reach for that charger before day’s end.

Really, the most frustrating thing about the battery is that Motorola could easily have gone for something bigger without sacrificing too much in size. With its 8.4mm waistline, the Atrix HD is just over half a millimeter thinner than the Droid RAZR Maxx. Some concessions probably had to be made for the updated hardware that went into the thing, but would it have killed Motorola to pop in a slightly more substantial battery?

Let’s touch briefly for a moment on what the Atrix HD isn’t. It’s not the kind of that phone will turn heads as you walk down the street. It’s not the most solid feeling device you’ll ever pick up. It’s not a terribly great camera, either.

It is, however, a hell of a phone for just $100. What the Atrix HD lacks in style (and it lacks a lot in style) it makes up for with plenty of substance — a mostly untouched flavor of Ice Cream Sandwich, a surprisingly strong spec sheet, and a great display make it a wallet-friendly dark horse that stacks up favorably to the carrier’s heavyweights. While an extra $100 will afford you a device that combines striking looks and some serious horsepower, the Atrix HD is an excellent choice for those who couldn’t care less about style.

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