Motorola Droid Maxx review:
Editors’ note: Our early Motorola Droid Maxx test model used unstable prerelease software. This review was updated based on our latest experience with a rock-solid production-level Droid Maxx device.
Sitting at the top of Motorola’s new Droid lineup, the $299.99 Droid Maxx is more than just a capable device — it’s also the best smartphone Verizon has ever sold. It boasts the biggest battery available in a handset, and a full 32GB of internal storage, not to mention Google’s impressive list of futuristic Android extras. The Maxx’s build quality is also light-years superior to the thinner Motorola Droid Ultra.
That said, the Maxx’s sky-high sticker price might give you second thoughts, especially compared with its very compelling rivals the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. That said, no other smartphone comes close to combining the same level of longevity, performance, design, and slick features on Big Red or perhaps anywhere else.
Aesthetically speaking, the differences between the Motorola Droid Maxx and its svelter sibling, the Droid Ultra, are huge, though you won’t notice them at first. At 5.4 inches tall by 2.8 inches wide, the Maxx is just as tall and as wide as the Ultra, but also a bit thicker (0.34 inch versus 0.22 inch).
Still, you don’t notice the change in girth when the phones are side by side on a table. It’s only when you pick them up that you’ll notice that the Maxx packs some serious, heavy hardware. Tipping the scales at almost 6 ounces (5.9 to be exact), the Droid Maxx has more heft and feels way more substantial than the Ultra (4.8 ounces). In fact, the Maxx is about an ounce heavier than the all-metal HTC One (5.04 ounces) and heavier still than the svelte Samsung Galaxy S4 (4.6 ounces).
Moto gets big points for giving the Maxx a back surface coated in Kevlar fiber — similar to the previous generation of Droid handsets. I dug that treatment then and I dig it now. Smooth to the touch and possessing a soft matte finish, it repels smudges and streaks while simultaneously protecting against scratches. I certainly prefer it to the Ultra’s glossy and slippery back, which accumulates greasy fingerprints.
The only physical buttons on the Maxx are located on the phone’s right edge, a power key and a thin volume bar. Both are contoured and cross-hatched for easy manipulation by feel alone.
Above the screen is a 2-megapixel front camera and below it sit three capacitive buttons for basic Android control. Around back are the Droid Maxx’s 10-megapixel main camera and LED flash. There’s a big speaker here, too, which pumps out a huge amount of volume. Just as I found out on the Droid Ultra, this speaker serves up bigger audio than the HTC One and its hyped BoomSound technology.
The Droid Maxx boasts the same exact big, bright 5-inch HD OLED screen as the Droid Ultra. Its 720p resolution (1,280×720 pixels) doesn’t pack the same pixel density as the HTC One (4.7-inch, 1080p LCD) or Samsung Galaxy S4 (5-inch, 1080p OLED), its primary competition. That said, the Maxx’s high-contrast display has lusciously saturated colors and impressively dark black levels.
Detail in photos, Web sites, or documents with lots of text wasn’t any less sharp to my eyes on the Maxx than the same content viewed on phones with full 1080p screens. For instance, the Maxx’s 720p display didn’t negatively affect my serious mobile Netflix-streaming habit. The same goes for losing myself in a random HD YouTube movie trailer. Yes, I’m still strangely drawn to that “Riddick” flick since I checked it out on the Droid Ultra.
For internal electronics, Motorola has made a very unconventional move with its 2013 smartphone lineup. Instead of engaging in the brutal processor arms race like practically every other handset maker, the company decided to sidestep the issue completely. All the new Droids, including the Droid Maxx, are powered by a proprietary processing solution Motorola calls the X8 Mobile Computing System.
You’ll find the same collection of cores and specialized processors in the new Motorola flagship, the Moto X. To be blunt, the X8 is a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU and doesn’t have the raw horsepower of true quad-core processors, which drive the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 (Snapdragon 600).
As it turns out, however, this is less of a factor than you might think. Designed to be efficient rather than blazingly fast, the X8’s main dual-core application CPU is backed by muscular quad-core Adreno graphics, plus two additional “cores”: a natural language processor and one for contextual computing.
Helping this hardware is a healthy 2GB allotment of RAM. Also, unlike the Droid Ultra, which has only 16GB of internal memory, the Droid Maxx comes with 32GB to play with. That said, there’s no SD card slot for increasing storage.
Software and interface
Thankfully, Motorola didn’t mess with the Droid Maxx’s software that much, a similar tactic to what it did with the Moto X and Droid Ultra. Running the same Android operating system (version 4.2.2) as both devices, the Maxx’s OS is practically stock Jelly Bean. I have a feeling the fact that Google now owns Motorola has something to do with this.
You unlock the Maxx by sliding a padlock icon outside of a virtual ring on the phone’s screen. After that, you’re greeted by the central home screen plus four other panels to populate with app shortcuts and widgets as you see fit.
If you’re familiar with Motorola smartphones of the last few generations, you’ll recognize the Circles settings widget. Sitting at the center of the main home screen, it’s left over from the company’s previous Droid Razr and Atrix handsets. Personally, I’m glad this tool is here, since besides being a quick way to check the time, it also displays weather, and is a shortcut for system settings.
The widget flaunts a few new tricks, too. For instance, swiping the largest clock circle uncovers fresh functions such as Droid Zap and Wireless Display. Droid Zap lets you share images and video with other Android phone users nearby; Wireless Display will duplicate the Ultra’s screen to compatible HDTVs and monitors.
As an Android device, the Maxx comes preloaded with all the major Google apps and services. Of course you can delve into the vast Google Play online store for more to download. Unfortunately, because this is a Verizon-branded Droid device, the carrier couldn’t resist filling the Max with unremovable bloatware. Highlights include NFL Mobile, VZ Navigator, Verizon Mobile Security, and Verizon Tones, to list a few.
Active display and touchless control
Another fruit of Motorola and Google’s union is Active Display, a useful feature that all the new Droid phones have. Also integrated into the Moto X, Active Display serves in place of a separate physical notification light. Essentially, the Droid Maxx’s screen will flash softly with alerts for incoming e-mail, text messages, and calls. Touching and holding your finger on the associated icon in the center of the screen causes the device to display additional information. Pulling the icon upward to the top of the screen wakes up the phone and opens the linked application.
The Droid Maxx also makes use of the X8 computing platform, like the Droid Ultra and Moto X, to perform nifty voice control tricks. Motorola calls the capability Touchless Control, and as its name implies, speaking a magic phrase will cause the Maxx to drop what it’s doing and await your vocal commands. Specifically, saying “OK, Google Now” and following up with phrases like, “Where am I?” or, “Remind me to pick up milk today” will tell the Maxx to leap into action.
Motorola’s X8 platform may not have the sheer horsepower to stand up to full-blown quad-core processors toe-to-toe. It does have plenty of oomph, though, and I observed that on the Droid Maxx firsthand. The phone was very responsive, opening applications without hesitation. Navigating through settings menus and home screen was also silky-smooth.
Lab tests backed up the experience I had with the Droid Maxx, and the phone garnered a respectable Quadrant score of 8,804. Oddly enough this showing wasn’t quite as high as the Droid Ultra achieved on the same test (9,056). And that’s nowhere near as impressive as the numbers turned in by the HTC One (12,194) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (11,381).
|Performance: Motorola Droid Maxx|
|Average LTE download speeds (Verizon)||10.5Mbps|
|Average LTE upload speed (Verizon)||6Mbps|
|App download (CNET)||3.72MB in 14 seconds|
|CNET mobile site load||5.8 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||12.1 seconds|
|Boot time||15 seconds|
|Camera boot time||1.6 seconds|
I tested the Droid Maxx on Verizon’s CDMA network both in New York City and Harpswell, Maine. Unlike my experience with the Droid Ultra, I found the Maxx delivered very clean call quality. In fact, callers I spoke to couldn’t tell that I was chatting on a cellular connection. On my end, voices sounded rich, warm, and loud through the Maxx’s earpiece.
Motorola Droid Maxx call quality sample
Additionally, thanks to the phone’s large rear speaker, the Maxx’s speakerphone can reach a high maximum volume. People I rang reported that there wasn’t much difference in quality between speakerphone and standard calls except that my voice sounded slightly more distant over the speakerphone.
To say that I’ve been let down by Motorola smartphone cameras in the past would be an understatement. Indeed, I found that not only did previous generations of Droid Razrs take photos much too slowly, but they lacked key shooting modes found on Samsung and HTC devices.
Fortunately, Motorola, and its Google master, went against history on the Moto X and its new Droid handsets by revamping the imaging system and camera app. As a result, the Droid Maxx’s 10-megapixel sensor is capable of capturing pleasing photos both inside and in the great outdoors. Indoor shots of my studio still life were crisp, had accurate colors, and were exposed well.
Outdoors in daylight, verdant hues of trees and other foliage were lifelike and details were clear. I found the same true of blue skies, white clouds, and ocean waves. Like the Droid Ultra, though, the Maxx didn’t have autofocus as lightning-fast as the HTC One’s or the Galaxy S4’s. Shot-to-shot time using those gadgets is practically instant, whereas the Droid Maxx took about half a second.
Helping to speed up shooting is Motorola’s Quick Capture feature. It fires up the camera app, even when asleep, when you twist the phone twice in your wrist. Honestly it’s one of the most valuable capabilities I’ve seen on a smartphone in a while — likely because I’m often juggling multiple objects (from sippy cups and toys to other gadgets and coffee mugs).
As with the Moto X and Droid Ultra, the Maxx’s bare-bones camera app is astonishingly simple to operate. Settings are as basic as possible, so there’s no way to select image or video size (the Maxx defaults to the largest available). Swiping from left to right opens a virtual wheel with various settings such as HDR and Panorama modes. Dragging your finger up and down zooms in and out, while sliding from right to left launches the gallery.
The Motorola Droid Maxx can access Verizon’s 4G LTE network for fast data access. My tests in New York were similar to those I ran on the Droid Ultra, with results varying widely by my location. Average overall download speed came in at a respectable 10.5Mbps, while out in quiet sections of Queens, N.Y., the phone sucked down information as swiftly as 17.8Mbps. Upload speeds spanned anywhere from 0.6Mbps to 14.7Mbps; average upload throughput, however, came in at 6Mbps.
Toting a state-of-the-art high-capacity 3,500mAh battery, the Motorola Droid Maxx’s main selling point is its promised longevity. And my initial tests with the handset vouch for the Maxx’s considerable staying power.
The phone was able to push through the CNET Labs Video Playback battery drain benchmark for 15 hours and 50 minutes. While far from the 48 hours of “mixed” use Motorola claims the Maxx is capable of, in this showing it was well ahead of the Droid Razr Maxx HD (14 hours, 53 minutes) and substantially longer than both the HTC One (9 hours, 37 minutes) and Samsung Galaxy S4 (10 hours, 30 minutes: average).
With such a remarkable battery, however, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the Maxx demonstrated some quirky behavior regarding its mobile power source. For instance, my early test model refused to charge when the device was powered down, even though the phone said it was receiving a steady flow of electrons.
Additionally, it wouldn’t charge properly unless I first changed the USB computer connection mode to Camera and then unplugged and reconnected the USB cable. A recent Maxx replacement unit though exhibited no such problems, and in fact worked flawlessly. Motorola explained that some of the preproduction Maxx units used wonky software but shipping models shouldn’t be affected.
Indeed, this latest device consistently demonstrated the same ludicrously long run time, well over 14.5 hours playing HD video. It also charged swiftly, reaching full power from zero charge in under an hour. Another nice extra is the Droid Maxx’s (and all the new Droids for that matter) support for wireless charging via the Qi standard.
When you lay it all out on paper, the Motorola Droid Maxx should crush many smartphone challengers into dust. It flaunts the biggest, baddest battery available on a cellular handset, which results in fabulously long run time. The Maxx’s screen, while not as pixel-dense as its rivals, is big and vibrant. The phone’s speaker gets mighty loud, too, and the device even makes crystal-clear calls.
After spending quality time with the Droid Maxx, especially a Maxx running solid retail software, I can say that the phone lives up to its sizable ambition. I can’t argue that the Maxx’s $299.99 price is anything but luxurious. That said, for all the Droid Maxx can do and for how good it looks getting it done, it earns my seal of approval and our CNET Editors’ Choice Award. Of course if the Maxx is too rich for your blood, there’s always the more affordable $199.99 HTC One and $199.99 Samsung Galaxy S4, two larger-than-life Android handsets that are still excellent buys.