Superphone Spectacular: The Samsung Galaxy Note II and HTC 8x and Droid DNA Page 3

HTC Droid DNA (Verizon)

The Droid DNA is HTC's current Android flagship; thin, light, and, well…macho in its design sensibilities. If your idea of good phone design has to do with high-end cars and the Michael Bay–style Droid splash screen appeals to you; you're going to want to take a look at this thing.

And it's pretty easy on the eyes. The hot feature on the DNA is the 5-inch, 1080p screen (the only full-HD phone display currently on the market), which is about the brightest in the biz and certainly one of the best looking, with a pixel density of 440 ppi, besting just about everything on the market (compare, for example, the New iPad's 264 ppi and the iPhone 5's 326 ppi. Does pixel density that high matter? That's unclear, but this is one stunning screen. It's quite readable outdoors and seems to offer a standing invitation for you to fill it up with full HD content. It's really a thing of beauty. That screen comes at the cost of battery life; this isn't a phone that's likely to make it through a full workday (I got somewhere well south of six hours with a mix of music playback, video watching, and the usual Web/email/text activities).

But, as is the with the device's Windows Phone sibling, the 8x, there's only 16 GB of storage onboard, with no provision for adding a microSD card; nor does the device support USB Host mode, so no wired external storage possibilities exist (you could, of course, carry a Kingston Wi-Drive around with you). I understand manufacturers are striving to provide thinner form factors and carriers are supporting streaming, but this seems a shame given that the DNA's screen is the rare small screen you might actually enjoy watching films or playing games on - but both games and movie files pose serious storage issues. 

Sure, if you're always connected via Wi-Fi or LTE you can stream your movies via Netflix and your music via MOG or Spotify (though those mobile data charges can add app), but there are plenty of places this isn't a possibility, and some of those are just where a high-powered, great-looking phone would come in most handy - major city public transit and airplane cabins, to name just a couple. At home it'll make a great looking second screen device, for sure, but the small amount of storage seems an oversight for the power users the DNA is aimed at.

There's a little flap covering the USB port at the DNA's base, which is perhaps a nice shield against contamination, but I found it annoying in practice -- it seems likely to break, and looks out of place given the DNA's otherwise clean and minimal lines. The DNA supports inductive charging, so perhaps HTC isn't expecting the USB connection to be used all that often, but an inductive charger an extra device you'll have to shell out for, since there's no inductive charger in the box. And for those who like to bring their own tunes or videos along, the USB port could well get a lot of use for file transfer given the limited storage on the device.

On the audio front, the DNA shares with the 8x a relatively high-powered onboard headphone amplifier; the handset can, like it's Windows sibling, drive whatever headphone you're likely to use with it, and can in a pinch provide a not-so-bad experience with audiophile full-size 'cans. Again, as with the 8x, Beats Audio provides a good deal of the volume boost, so it's worth auditioning the DNA before you buy with the headphones you think you might use, to see if you enjoy the EQ profile.

Bottom Line

I was pleasantly surprised by all of these devices - and, strangely enough, I was most pleased with the Galaxy Note II, which I was prepared to ignore simply for its gargantuan proportions. Despite its marginal pocketability, it came closest, I felt, to the notion of a pocketable do-everything device for both everyday tasks and entertainment. For power users, the Note II (or its slightly more svelte sibling, the Galaxy SIII) are the handsets of the moment.

As for the very capable - and frankly more beautiful and user-friendly - 8x and Droid DNA, I'm not sure I like the way these particular devices have embraced the trend towards relatively anemic storage (16 GB just isn't quite enough for something that aims to be an all-around entertainment device).

However, I suspect that for most people HTC's Sense (on Android) and Windows 8 user interfaces will be more appealing to more users than Samsung's sometimes baffling TouchWiz front end (though that interface has come a long, long way) for JellyBean. HTC's simply got a cleaner approach with fewer options and convolutions.

 

Overall, I don't love the trend away from letting Mac users access phones as mass storage devices and requiring them instead to use proprietary sync apps to move music and movie files over to their handsets. Sure, everybody's doing it, so it's not really possible to call out any manufacturer as a particular offender, and I suppose it isn't anything to lose sleep over. Unless you have a work machine you can't install your own software on that you'd still like to use for managing files on your phone. Maybe that scenario is unlikely, but it is something to consider. Things are much easier for Windows users, who get desktop access to connected Android and WP phones by default.

Looking ahead, 2013 should be a very interesting year for handsets as the technologies in these phones (ultra-high-res screens, improved audio hardware) take hold. In the meantime, however, serious media enthusiasts may not be all that interested in any of these devices (aside from the Note II and its stablemate, the Galaxy SIII), their considerations - expandable storage, high-rez decoding, etc - still keeping them away from the superphones entirely, and toward dedicated music players for mobile audio, and tablets for mobile video and gaming.

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