Motorola Droid 3

Few companies get a second bite at the mobile cherry. Motorola took its initially awesome RAZR phone and flogged it until it wasn’t just a dead horse but little more than neatly canned dog food. With the company’s handset business on the brink of failure, Motorola then bet everything on the Droid - a testosterone-packed Android handset that was everything the iPhone wasn’t. It paid off. Motorola now has a stable of Droid handsets in a variety of sizes, shapes and configurations that share a common clunkiness, geekiness, feature overload and the best ringtone in the Android universe.

The Droid 3 is the ultimate expression of Droid DNA. Motorola has crammed every feature it possibly can into this dual-core Gingerbread device, from an 8 megapixels camera to a five-row slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Like previous Droid devices, the Droid 3 is debuting on Verizon in America network - although without being able to take advantage of the network’s stunning 4G LTE speeds. Does the powerful Droid 3 take Motorola to another level? Or is the company making the same mistakes again, putting all of its mobile eggs into one Droid-shaped basket?

Slide stats

Motorola is right when it says the Droid 3 “makes a big Android smartphone statement”. The operative word here is big. Weighing 50g more than an iPhone and measuring nearly 5-inches top to toe, the Droid 3 lands on a pub table like Optimus Prime on atmospheric re-entry. Motorola notes that the Droid 3 is the thinnest full QWERTY smartphone ever but that’s not saying much: you still have a pocket-stretching 13mm of girth to contend with.

Build quality is excellent, as it must be for any slider (they are inherently un-skinnable). The front face is a slab of ultra-tough Gorilla Glass encased in a band of rounded metal. The body has high-traction rubberised back and sides, let down slightly by a shiny plastic front. QWERTY keys are also rubberised, with good separation and a firm, distinct action. The full row of over-sized number keys is an excellent addition and typing is generally fast and efficient. Having said that, with the ever-excellent Swype pre-installed, you might question the need for real keypad at all.

The slide movement itself is solid, with just enough resistance not to happen by accident. The touchscreen unlock lines up in the same direction, allowing you to fire up the Droid 3 in one smooth motion. In the closed position, there’s a small lip left that doesn’t quite line up with the screen - the first sign of Droid’s middle-aged spread?

The power button and standard 3.5mm headphone jack are on top of the phone. The sides are home to Micro-USB and HDMI ports (neither with a cover), as well as slightly undersized volume controls. In standby mode, a front-mounted green LED blinks handily when you have new notifications.

Screen and skin

It seems as if Android screen inflation has finally, thankfully, ground to a halt. The Droid 3’s 4-inch 960 x 540 display is plenty large enough for games and video, without feeling like a stretch to hold. Touch sensitivity is good and it’s fairly easy to clean off fingerprints and smears.

The Droid 3 uses the same controversial PenTile screen that was blamed for pixelly text and wonky colours on the Droid X2. Things don’t seem to be as bad here, with colour reproduction (especially those tricky greens) looking mostly fine. At full brightness, plain black text on a white background is crisp and clear, but scrolling is painfully juddery. Luckily, games and films remain watchable but it’s still a significant drawback.

The Motoblur skin is very industrial chic, all bold designs, fancy transitions and gruff announcements. On the Droid 3, you get five home screens with an easy way of adding and moving icons, widgets and shortcuts. Four docked icons, which you can swap in and out, hover on the screen next to the four Android keys, and the notification bar is pretty standard. Motoblur also comes with a decent (if sluggish) image gallery and editor, and a bare bones wireless printing app.

Regardless of the phone’s orientation, the home screens stay in landscape mode when the keyboard is slid out and in portrait mode when closed. This can be disconcerting if, say, you’re happily working or gaming in landscape and want to flip into the home screen to check a widget.

The biggest drawback to any manufacturer’s skin, however, is that it can delay the roll out of Android OS updates. Without rooting the Droid 3, there’s no way of returning to the stock Android interface.

Performance

With a 1GHZ Texas Instruments dual-core chip under the hood, the Droid 3 is admirably swift, playing games like NOVA HD and rendering HD videos smoothly. Despite only a modest 512MB of RAM to feed it, multi-tasking did not seem to suffer - although this might be a concern with future firmware.

Where things do slow down are in the gallery - especially when manipulating high megapixel images - and in the camera. Motorola should have left imaging well alone but instead managed to make a camera app that is both underpowered and overcomplicated, and looks a bit rubbish to boot. The shaky, laggy digital zoom is particularly obnoxious to use. Shutter lag is about a second.

When you can finally get your finger on the tiny still/video icon, flipping into movie mode (up to 1080p) takes about 3 seconds. Exposure is spot on and the Droid 3 is pretty good about keeping videos in focus.

Photos have just what you would expect from capturing 8 megapixels through such a tiny lens: gargantuan noise reduction that robs images of any fine detail. Still, pictures are colourful and good-looking, and don’t suffer too badly from distortion. Movies are a similar story - well exposed, good colours and just enough detail to look fine on a flatscreen. Overall, well above average results.

You can save media to either the 16GB of internal memory or a microSD card, whose slot is hidden under the back cover (luckily not under the battery itself).

Sound decisions

The Droid 3 has a hefty pair of lungs, belting out tunes with plenty of volume and good dynamic range. It sounds fine for a minute or two but high notes break down into a tinny clatter and bass notes are sloppy, making for tiring long-term listening. It’s good for talk radio, though. Things are much better though decent headphones, even if still not quite up to the iPhone’s exemplary standards. For voice calls, the Droid 3’s microphone is not terribly sensitive so make sure to speak up (that goes for voice search, too). Incoming calls sound fine, and the front VGA webcam is less blurry than average.

Surfing over Wi-Fi and 3G is speedy without blowing your socks off, and that motion blur rears its ugly head again when zooming or scrolling. It’s difficult to criticise the Droid 3 for lacking LTE when 4G service is still so hard to come by, but that will certainly affect its prospects on the Verizon network. To make up for it, the Droid 3 works over a healthy variety of global networks, including CDMA, HSDPA, GSM and EDGE. Flash is pre-loaded and works with its usual rate of success on Android - about 90% of the time, we’d guess. Google Maps and Navigation keep getting better and the Droid’s GPS and compass work well.

Where the Droid 3 does stand out from the crowd, in a good way, is battery life. You should get well over a full day of real-life usage from one charge, even with some surfing and snapping in the mix. The lower half of the phone gets warm during use but nothing like some handsets we’ve tested (yes, we’re looking at you HTC Thunderbolt).

Verdict

The Droid 3 is a perfectly respectable handset. It’s fast, solid and well made, with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard that’s one of the very best out there, and a good (if slow) camera. The 4-inch screen is large and colourful but do sample it alongside the Nexus S, say, before committing yourself to emailing and surfing on it for a full 2-year contract.

The bulky design also smacks of complacency. Where HTC and Samsung are trying to broaden Android’s appeal, the macho Droid 3 is aimed directly at its core constituency of IT professionals and iPhone haters. The risk is that many of those will be happy to wait for the Droid Bionic, unveiled at CES and due to arrive imminently with a larger 4.3-inch screen and that all-important 4G LTE link.

It’s far too early yet to write off the Droid range, and the Droid 3 would certainly make a safe choice for anyone who absolutely demands a physical keyboard. But Motorola should take care. One good idea and reliable build quality will only get you so far - today’s handsets need to be genuine all-rounders. Unless keyboards are your thing, this probably isn’t the Droid you’re looking for.