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Droid Takes a Breather in the Hardware Arms Race


Droid Takes a Breather in the Hardware Arms Race

Photograph by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters via Landov

How do you know when the launch of a new device will focus on features and functions? When the company introducing the device doesn’t even provide a hardware specification sheet at the launch event.

That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday at Lincoln Center, where Verizon Wireless and Motorola (GOOG) launched a trio of new Droid smartphones: the $199 Droid Ultra, the $299 Droid Maxx, and the $99 Droid Mini. All prices are with contracts; add $400 if you want to buy the phone at full retail.

I knew something was up as soon as I walked into the room. During the live blog I said the venue looked like a wedding reception, complete with round tables and Verizon centerpieces. A rep from both companies sat at each table. And after a short introduction video and general remarks, the representatives put on minishows at each table, illustrating what the devices were capable of.

Instead of touting Verizon’s LTE network, for example, representatives showed us how the Droid Zap software beams photos to the cloud for 2 minutes and how other Droids in the vicinity can easily get those photos on their own phone. Motorola barely mentioned that all three devices have 720p displays (which actually look very good to my eye) but was happy to show wireless video streaming with Miracast technology. And I had to ask about the camera sensors—10 megapixels on all three handsets—but not how to take pictures: The camera software is slick to use, with a simple swipe-up feature to zoom.

In fact, it was difficult to get any hardware information out of the event. Every time a question was asked about specifications, the representatives had noticeable frowns on their faces, as if to say, “Forget what’s inside; let me show what this can do.” That’s not a bad thing, because these new Droids can do a lot. From the Touchless Control voice commands—similar to Google Glass—to the Active Notifications that appear on the display when the phone is in sleep mode, the “Droid Does” mantra is pervasive.

But Motorola did tout its x8 chip, which it described as a customized 8-core chip focused on performance. I did a little digging on a demo phone and found a specific reference to the Qualcomm MSM8960 Pro chip, which is more commonly known as the Snapdragon S4 Pro that made its debut last year. A Verizon representative told me the chip is tweaked to use lower power cores for natural language processing and other very specific tasks on the Droids.

Regardless of the chip, the phones felt snappy to me, both with new features and old functions. It doesn’t hurt that Motorola put 2 GB of RAM in all three devices, which run Android 4.2.2. I’ll need time with a review unit to see if the Droids are as good as they look, of course.

By and large, the trio of handsets are generally made with the same components and offer the same overall experience. The difference is you can choose among the superthin Droid Ultra, the Droid Maxx with a reported two-day battery, or the Droid Mini, which is smaller yet packs the same punch. It’s a smart, refreshing strategy by both Verizon and Motorola, as is the focus more on phone usage and less on phone hardware.

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