Weekend Tech Blog: Verizon's new Bionic phone and Seattle. Is this love?

Despite a few hiccups, the new 4G LTE Bionic gives Seattleites the very best in smartphone equipment, power, and performance.

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Verizon's Motorola Bionic: both a phone and tiny computer (seen with Bluetooth mouse and keyboard)

Despite a few hiccups, the new 4G LTE Bionic gives Seattleites the very best in smartphone equipment, power, and performance.

A few days ago, I borrowed a new Motorola Bionic Android phone for a test drive from Verizon's local PR office in Eastgate. Could the phone, coupled with Verizon’s 4G LTE super-fast phone service, really be all that good? And would it mean more to those of us in the greater Seattle area than elsewhere in the country?

Here’s my answer: I just bought one — all $299.99 worth (on a two-year plan). 

If you’re looking for purely a technical review, here’s a good one from Boy Genius Report and another from Engadget. And here are the complete tech specifications. But I think most of people just want to know how well it works. So how does it perform?

Putting together the Bionic’s software (Gingerbread 2.3.4), dual-core processor — as powerful as many home desktop computers — and Verizon’s 4G LTE data network is a killer combination especially here. Verizon’s fast data network covers virtually all of Puget Sound from Burlington to Chehalis, and east to Sammamish. Other phone companies have 4G networks in place but most observers believe that Verizon is currently the top dog in contiguous coverage and speed. We benefit here by being among the first communities in the nation to have it fully deployed.

Here’s an example. Driving on I-5 from my Mukilteo home to downtown Seattle, using an Android phone on the older, slower 3G network, was always an exercise in patience: the phone would choke, signals would drop, etc. You know the drill. With the Bionic phone late last week, taking the same route and adding on the extra miles to Boeing Field past downtown, I turned on the phone’s GPS, cranked up Radio Paradise, my favorite internet station — my phone plugs into my car stereo system — and eased on down the road at 62.5 mph, mellow as can be, with smooth and uninterrupted coverage. Then I got a call. I answered it hands-free, hung up, and found my GPS connection was still intact on the phone’s screen and Tina Turner was singing and shaking it for me on the radio, all without a hitch.

Regarding the network speed, you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure that out. A Teknoise article in June quoted Seattle blogger Matt Miller registering an average speed of 18.37 megabits per second. I sampled our 4G network service here in Mukilteo; my tests showed anywhere from 11- to 30-megabits per second depending on location. Suffice to say, it’s about as fast as you’ll ever need. It also slides effortlessly between 4G and 3G networks depending on your location.

It’s a big hunk of a phone, and that's one of the reasons I like it: 5 inches long, 2½ inches wide, about 3/8" thick.  Its big color screen brings you a step closer to a tablet but it still rests comfortably in your pocket. It only weighs about 6 ounces but it makes everything from book reading to movie-watching easy on the eyes.  

Verizon rates these phones with 11 hours of talk time, and 200 hours of standby time. Here’s my informal test.  On WiFi in my house, I watched a two-hour movie (“The Graduate”) on Netflix, then downloaded and installed approximately 60 apps in a row from the Android and Amazon markets to my new phone, then played a casual game (“Chuzzle”) for a half-hour. My phone radio stayed on as well.Total time elapsed for all those activities: four hours without a break — and I still had 30 percent battery time left. That’s good battery life, given all the hard-core activities it handled. 

For power users, Verizon Wireless also has a $49.95 extended battery (2880 mAh) that nearly doubles your battery capacity (1735 mAh) but changes the phone’s appearance, giving this slim phone the appearance of a humpback whale. If you want better battery use from your phone, learn to turn off those systems and apps on your phone that suck battery life. A free Android app called Super Tool Box, in the Android Market, is terrific for telling you what eating away at your battery.

The ability to do work on this phone, from word processing to spreadsheets, to pick up files from your home computer and send them back, even to video phone conferencing is all there. Here’s a neat trick I’ve done with my Bionic: I’ve paired a small foldable Bluetooth keyboard and a slim Bluetooth mouse with my Bionic. In a pinch, this lash-up plus some business apps on the phone gives me a complete functional computer in a package I can carry in my pocket or man-bag. Verizon would be happier if you bought some of the Bionic accessories that extend this phone’s usefulness including the $300 Lapdock accessory: essentially a “dumb” netbook that takes its power and programs directly from your Bionic. Every report I’ve read thus far says this device isn’t ready for prime time. The idea is good, but its day is yet to come.   

The Bionic is sold with several business apps including Citrix, which lets you see your home/office computer screen on your phone and transfer files between the two. It also has QuickOffice, a Microsoft Office-like program and ZumoDrive, which lets you stream music ad video directly from your computer to your phone both on WiFi and your cell network.

Warning: Many of these included apps like QuickOffice are “junior” or limited editions, or may charge monthy fees. They’ll work, but the goal is to get you to buy the full version.

So, you say, I sound like a Verizon cheer leader. What’s wrong with this phone? Two big negatives: Its camera and audio recordings. The specs tell you this phone has an 8-megapixel camera and can record high definition video (up to 1920 x 1080p). So why do the pictures look undernourished?Why does the camcorder video look flat and less than crisp? I would rate the picture quality as adequate, but not up to the rest of the Bionic’s qualities. 

I would also have expected audio recordings to deliver far more presence. Alas, this $300 phone deserves better from Motorola and Verizon. For those who may think this is perhaps an aberration on my particular phone, I tried these tests on two different Bionics with identical results.

Some other gripes: There’s no hardware button for the camera. And the camera lens is placed too close to the camera’s side, making it far too easy to leave a fingerprint smear when holding the camera in landscape mode.  

If either recorded audio or video is a primary need for your phone, this one isn’t it. I hope someone at Verizon or Motorola gets the message and delivers a software update that improves these services.

I've also found this phone won't allow some programs to operate from the SD card even though technically they can. That's an inefficient use of memory, but not a fatal error.

So why this phone and not an iPhone? Here’s a few thoughts. The Bionic — and the Android system itself — is more flexible and easier to customize than an iPhone.  There are multiple ways to sort and arrange your apps. It connects to TV sets and computers that have HDMI ports; Apple lacks HD support from its phones. If you’re purely an app fan, and want/need 300,000 apps on your phone, don’t trifle with the Bionic or any Android phone. Apple wins big on this one. But if you want virtually any pragmatic service from email and book readers to live TV and movies — including many apps found on the iPhone — the Bionic is an equal contender.

Bionic phones supports Adobe Flash; iPhones don’t. The Bionic can be customized for business use; the iPhone isn’t designed for that. Try hooking up a mouse to an iPhone, or porting its HD output — or a Word or PowerPoint file directly to a big HD TV screen.

There’s another iPhone issue: they only work on the slower 3G networks. With all the rumors being generated about the upcoming iPhone 5, allegedly due next month, I’ve seen nothing about a 4G version. Maybe Apple will surprise us. It certainly has before.

So, I have been thinking of various ways to answer a question about whether to buy the Bionic or not: a summary of benefits, a philosophical statement, a quick pithy quip. But there’s really only one way to say it right: “Well, I did.”


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