Review by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday December 12, 2012.
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At first glance, the HTC DROID DNA might appear to be just another HTC smartphone with a large screen and capacitive back, home, and search buttons. A closer look reveals that it is anything but typical. The DROID DNA is the first smartphone to be released with a 1080p HD display. The 5-inch screen has an unrivaled 440 ppi, making pixels indistinguishable to the human eye. No matter how much someone zooms, squints, or magnifies text or photos, the resolution is so jam-packed with pixels that something must be of low quality to not appear beautiful.
Prior to receiving a DROID DNA, the idea of a 1080p smartphone seemed ludicrous. "What difference could a few extra ppi make?" I asked myself. It turns out that this display is not amazing because it has such a high resolution of 1920 x 1080 - though that most certainly makes a significant impact - but because of the overall package. The Super LCD 3 is still viewable in bright sunlight and the colors still look incredible. Black is as black as one would expect and red is as red should be without any washed-out colors, so the screen has the benefits of Super AMOLED or LCD displays without the major weaknesses of either format. The pixel-packing is great, but that's just part of the overall greatness. To cut straight to the point, there is no smartphone with a screen as impressive as the DROID DNA.
The breathtaking display quality of the DROID DNA may explain why the phone's design is understated when compared to previous collaborations between HTC and Verizon. The elevated rear seen on the DROID Incredible series has been cast aside in favor of a Spartan build that is much easier to hold and look at. The screen is the star of this show, so there's no sense in doing much with the supporting cast other than make sure they make the main attraction shine. The 5-inch screen does not appear gargantuan because HTC made a phone that is about as tall as the Galaxy Note II, but much slimmer. The device is surprisingly light at 142g (5oz), and curves in the back to keep a slim build of 141mm x 70.5mm x 9.73mm (5.55in x 2.78in x 0.38in). The rear material is a magnet for smudging and moisture buildup, but the polycarbonate material has a flush feel that is more pleasing than the typical smartphone.
HTC made some atypical design choices with the button and port placement. The back, home, and multitasking glass buttons are near the bottom of the screen. At the top sits a 3.5mm headphone jack, SIM slot, and the power button. The thin power button's position in the middle leads to awkward stretching to reach it with a pointing finger. External speakers run the length of both sides of the phone, and the volume up and down buttons are almost seamlessly integrated into the right side, which allows for booming audio or speakerphone conversations.
The phone's hardware would be almost perfect were it not for the frustrating hood placed over the microUSB charging port. The rubber cover is included because the DROID DNA is waterproof, but it is so annoying and difficult to secure when charging is complete that I'd rather take my chances with liquid possibly seeping into the port. The DROID DNA supporting wireless charging removes the need to bother with cables unless connecting to a computer, but the charging pad is sold separately and the hood is liable to ripped out by frustrated users.
The DROID DNA may have Android 4.1 Jelly Bean as its building blocks, but HTC has performed an Extreme Makeover to make the software unrecognizable. The DNA features the Sense 4 user interface that fits HTC's vision for what it can do with Android, including its familiar cartoonish icons and bevels. Some of the changes are welcome departures, including the lock screen that can jump to a specific app dragging it into a ring. There's also a fantastic phonebook app, links to media accessories, and plenty of widgets to customize the home screen.
The best change that HTC has made has been the diminishing impact that Sense UI has had on performance. The software is not as big a resource hog as it has been on previous devices, which goes a long way in making movements through the software happen quickly. A 1.5 GHz dual-core processor certainly aids performance. The Snapdragon S4 Pro performs as admirably in the DROID DNA as it does in almost every other phone released today, scoring high marks that put it in elite company.
Though the DROID DNA managed to match or outpace my Samsung Galaxy Nexus LTE with download speeds as high as 28 Mbps, the phone had more latency and was consistently behind in upload speeds (17 Mbps for the Galaxy Nexus, 12 Mbps for the DROID DNA). That still makes it a very good showcase for the power of Verizon's 4G LTE network. Call quality is more impressive thanks dual microphones with noise cancellation that makes conversations possible even in noisy surroundings. Conversations were always clear whether using standard calls, speaker phone, or Bluetooth 4.0.
HTC's messaging software has a reputation of being very good, and the DROID DNA does nothing to damage that rep. The Messages app provides a unified place to send SMS or MMS messages and utilize visual voicemail. The Messages app has a simple design consistent with Sense UI, but it can be personalized with different background images or conversation color schemes. The Email app has similar customization options for selecting which tabs appear in the bottom navigation bar. Filters, search, multiple accounts, and two very nice home screen widgets make sending messages on the phone even more impressive. Unless you dislike Sense UI, there's really nothing to complain about in this department.
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.