Like Optimus Prime or Al Gore, the Droid Bionic is a robot in disguise.
Sure, the Bionic looks like it’s just a massive, industrial-styled phone, just like our favorite Transformer looked like nothing other than a badass eighteen-wheeler.
But the Droid Bionic can also change into a laptop, a desktop workstation, and other things which are decidedly un-phone-like.
We’ve been waiting to see a finished version of this phone since Motorola first showed off the Bionic in January. Though it was supposed to launch months ago on Verizon’s 4G LTE network, Moto sent the phone back to the drawing board for improvements (ostensibly to better stack up against HTC’s 4G LTE offering, the Thunderbolt). The phone came back as a connectivity beast with lots of optional peripheral attachments, turning the Bionic into a successor of sorts to the Atrix, Motorola’s most recent dual-core, peripheral-enhanced handheld.
Moto’s premise is simple: Our phones are increasingly becoming more powerful, useful and versatile in our everyday lives. Why not allow them to adapt — or transform, if you will — to what we need them to be in different situations?
The “Lapdock,” for instance, is literally a laptop shell driven by the Bionic. After plugging the phone into the station on the back hinge, the Bionic launches Motorola’s “webtop” interface, which is essentially a desktop-lite environment powered by the phone’s hardware.
There’s a catch to all of this connectivity, however: You’ll have to pony up a lot of dough. The Lapdock accessory will run you $300, while the HD station — which gives you access to the same interface but lets you use your own keyboard, mouse and display — costs a C-note. Add a car charger, HDMI mini-display adaptor and navigation dock to that, and you’re closing in on $1000. That’s a hell of a lot of money to spend on tricking out your phone, even if it’s no longer just a phone once you plug these things in.
Of course, you don’t have to buy an accessory to get a good experience out of a Bionic. But it somewhat misses the point if you don’t. The draw of the device is in its shape-shifting capacity, a re-imagination of what a smartphone should be able to do. Otherwise, you’d probably be better off going with a similarly spec’d phone for a lower starting price — and those are definitely out there.
Conceptually, ultra-connectivity is brilliant. With the Atrix and the Bionic, Motorola is trying to hard to differentiate from the existing glut of Android smartphones on the market.
Execution, however, leaves much to be desired. Casual browsing on the Lapdock was wonky, stutter-filled and nothing like cruising the web on my tried-and-true laptop. The keys on the board were chintzy and small, most likely a casualty of keeping the cost of the peripheral below $300 (unlike the launch price of the Atrix’s lapdock, which was a hefty $500). Desktop simulation on an HDTV through a webtop dock was a little less jerky, but still subpar.
It takes some beef to run all the peripherals, and the handset itself is no slouch. Under the hood, this bad boy is packing more power than a Plymouth. It’s running on a dual-core 1GHz chip backed by a gigabyte of RAM, 16GB of internal storage plus a microSD card slot. It ships with a 16GB card, but it can accept a card up to 32GB. Swiping through menu screens was snappier than most of the other phone I’ve tried this year — it’s definitely one of the most responsive phones you can buy. My gaming experience on resource-heavy apps like Nova 2 HD was excellent.
Given all the brawn, the Bionic requires a lot of juice to keep it running — and it certainly shows. After starting my day with a fully-charged phone, my battery was dead before the end of the workday. That’s after moderate-to-heavy use. I made a few phone calls, used my data connection liberally, and pumped the screen brightness up to full blast (the display, by the way, isn’t the sharpest I’ve seen). This is how we all use our phones, so I expected better battery performance.
The real battery suck comes from the LTE radio. Leave your 4G turned on all day and you’ll be dead before nightfall. Use your high-speed connectivity judiciously, however, and you may make it to midnight or beyond, even under normal use conditions. It’s sad that we have to ration our own bandwidth use, but alas, that’s the name of the game with today’s devices.
Thankfully, using Verizon’s 4G network at full tilt is worth the energy drain. Our average download speeds clocked in around 10 Mbps in the San Francisco Bay Area on average, with upload speeds ranging from 4 to 6 Mbps.
In short, the handset itself is speedy, powerful and — battery life aside — has all the stuff you want in a high-end smartphone. But so do four or five other Android options currently on the market. Unfortunately, the extra products that were supposed to tip the scales in the Bionic’s favor end up falling far short of their potential.
WIRED Power, speed and connectivity options are damn near unrivaled in the mobile space. Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread is current, and well-skinned. HDMI, expandable microSD, DLNA, oh my!
TIRED Unless you’re a baller, dropping this much coin on the Bionic and its accessories might leave you eating ramen noodles for a month. Battery life suuuuuucks. Peripherals don’t live up to their potential.
Photos by Jim Merithew/Wired