Motorola Droid Bionic

It would be cool if the Droid Bionic followed the same storyline as Steve Austin’s cybernetic TV show. Motorola, a company barely alive. A Google voiceover saying we have the technology, we can rebuild it. Then a better, stronger, faster Android phone exploding out to restore American pride and fight off foreign rivals.

As it happens, though, the Droid Bionic phone was already in production by the time Google announced its intention to buy Motorola’s mobile business. As long ago as January’s CES, Moto was talking up the Bionic as the first recruit to an Droid army of large-screen phones powered by dual-core processors and boasting blistering 4G speeds.

Not only is the Bionic a high def, high resolution Android handset in its own right, it comes with optional high tech extras such as a HD dock with USB and an 11.6-inch Lapdock to turn it into a netbook.

But the question in these post-modern, post-hardware times is whether simply being better, stronger and faster is enough. Do users really want more screen and more power (and, inevitably, less battery life)? Or will the smoothly integrated siren call of Apple iOS system prove irresistible? Is it time to go Bionic or should Android fans wait for Motorola’s first all-Google handset?

Better?

Size is not something that mobile devices usually aspire to, and the Bionic duly touts itself as the thinnest LTE handset in the world. The fact that it can claim that and still measure 11mm from front to back says more about the chunkiness of rival 4G phones than it does about Motorola’s design prowess.

Nevertheless, the Bionic still feels solid and well made. A slab of Gorilla Glass promises to soak up everyday bumps and scrapes, a raised shiny plastic surround gives a nice edge feel, and the soft touch back is warm and grippy. The phone bulges slightly at the top end to accommodate the camera optics.

Where bigger is usually better is in the display. The 4.3-inch qHD screen here can’t be faulted for size, brightness or colour, but don’t be fooled by the iPhone-alike 960x540 resolution. Motorola’s controversial (ie. rubbish) PenTile technology suffers from graininess and motion blur that wipes out any benefit from the extra pixels. Some people are more annoyed by it than others -it’s definitely one to try before you buy.

An excellent find on any modern phone is a mini HDMI port, here it nestles alongside the micro USB jack. Although the Bionic doesn’t come with a HDMI cable, mirroring software is built in. There’s a standard 3.5mm headphone socket on top, where you’ll also find a small power switch and volume rocker is to be found on the phone’s right side.

Stronger?

The dual-core processor in the Bionic is a 1GHz OMAP 4430 chip from Texas Instruments. In practice, there’s very little difference between this silicon and the more commonplace Nvidia Tegra 2. This Droid accelerates like the Bionic Man chasing a 1970s muscle car full of spies. Games in both 2D (Angry Birds Rio) and 3D (Eternity Warriors) are simply flawless, with never a hiccup or frozen screen. New levels load in a flash.

In fact, Android apps that you might be used to taking three or five seconds to load now spring to life almost before their animated transitions have faded away. Day to day apps like Navigation have never looked better, although Maps is a still little jerky when rotating and zooming satellite views.

A full 1GB of RAM keeps delays when swapping between apps to a minimum, and the Bionic comes with a healthy 32GB of storage, split evenly between internal memory and a removable microSD card.

Faster?

We’ve tried Verizon’s 4G LTE service before, we loved it then and we still love it now. Download speeds of over 10Mbps are not unusual, and the Bionic regularly bests a domestic cable Internet connection. Put simply, the Bionic makes most 3G mobiles look as if they’re running in slow motion.

The effect of near-instant Internet access is intoxicating -especially when it comes to installing hefty apps and games, or downloading huge email attachments. Web pages are a touch less impressive, as the Bionic still hesitates for a second when making a new connection, but there’s no doubt that this is the real Internet, including Flash, in the palm of your hand.

All this speed comes at a price. Verizon has scrapped its unlimited packages in favour of stepped pricing, and even its most generous package (10GB for $80) represents under two and a half hours of full speed downloads over the course of an entire month.

The other penalty is power. Leave 4G turned on and you won’t get a full day’s intense use out of the Bionic’s standard battery. Switching to 3G gives the handset a new lease of life although a more practical long term solution is to invest another $50 in the Bionic’s Extra Capacity powerpack.

Bionic vision

The Bionic sadly lacks Steve Austin’s 20x zoom and infrared-sensitive eyeballs. 8MP still photos are perfectly serviceable, with natural colouring and generally good levels of detail. However, Motorola’s camera app is a pain to use, sometimes suffering lags of up to three seconds, at other times snapping away without a hitch. Focusing is erratic and you can’t set focus or exposure by just tapping the screen, as you can on pretty much any decent touchscreen cameraphone out there.

Switching to camcorder mode takes two seconds. The Moto’s 1080p HD video is crisp and well-exposed, and the phone copes well with changing focus and light conditions. The gallery app is basic, but fast, letting you share images via messaging, email, social networks and online printing. The Bionic also plays back a decent alphabet of media files, from AAC through to H.263/4 and MPEG-4 to WMA (but not DivX).

Skin and apps

Take a last look at Motorola’s Android skin, no longer known as MotoBlur since their PenTile tech made the name all too accurate. Google is likely to strip back future handsets to something resembling vanilla Android, and the passing of Motorola’s UI won’t be overly mourned.

The Bionic gives you five home screens with the usual contact icons and social widgets. It all works speedily and smoothly enough, but falls far short of the stylish Sense UI from HTC. This Gingerbread (Android 2.3.4) install has the finger-friendly Swype keyboard pre-loaded, as well as a decent bunch of business apps including Citrix Receiver, GoToMeeting and QuickOffice. It’s easy to sort apps into personalised groups.

The headline app on board is ZumoCast, a competent ‘personal cloud’ app that lets you access PC files and media from the Bionic. Installing ZumoCast server software on your PC takes just a few minutes and you can then navigate your desktop hard drive via three tabs -Files, Music and Video.

The Bionic will happily open most Office files, and let you share them from the phone, it even plays nicely with iTunes, for now. One particularly smart feature is that if you click, say, the videos tab, the app filters its results to show only those folders with video content. Unlike a real cloud system, you have to leave your computer on all the time, of course, but it’s a fast, easy solution for anyone who already runs a media server at home.

Accessories

We didn’t get to try the Bionic with its much-touted laptop dock ($200). But seeing as it’s virtually identical to the one intended for the Atrix, we’ll suggest that you give it an equally wide berth. While the concept of being able to transform your mobile into a netbook is one we adore, this plasticky keyboard and screen combo is over-priced and under-powered. Forego the dubious pleasures of Firefox 4 and a grumpy trackpad, and invest instead in the $100 HD Dock, with three USB ports and a remote control. We also like the ultra-basic Standard Dock with just audio and charging or the Navigation Dock, both of which cost $40.

Verdict

Google is paying around $12.5 billion for Motorola – roughly the price of 2083 Bionic Men. It’s buying a company that has regained some, if not quite all, of its mobile mojo, cranking out macho, well-built Droid handsets with manic enthusiasm. The future for ‘Motoroogle’ looks pretty bright, especially if Google gives upcoming handsets a heads-up on Android features and software.

But that leaves the Droid Bionic in an awkward position. Although touted as the first in a new breed of dual-core 4G devices, in some ways it feels like the last in its generation, home to an uninspired skin, average display and ho-hum camera.

What will rescue the Bionic from being an unwanted stepchild is its sheer speed and power. With 4G cranked up, the browser blazing through Flash and a simple Bluetooth keyboard attached, this Droid will leave netbook users (and even some laptop workers) choking in its Bionic dust.