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HTC Droid DNA ups the stakes in the smart-phone specs war

HTC Droid DNA ups the stakes in the smart-phone specs war

The HTC Droid DNA boasts the highest screen resolution and one of the fastest processors (a quad-core 1.5 GHz Snapdragon) of any phone we’ve tested. The DNA is impressive indeed—though not noticeably superior in performance to some better phones with slightly lesser specs.

Here’s a rundown of its specs and my preliminary impressions from using a press sample of the phone. The HTC Droid DNA will be available on Verizon on November 23 for $200 with a two-year contract; the carrier says the DNA is its new flagship smart phone.

Display. The Droid DNA is the first phone with a true high-def-resolution 1920×1080 display, offering 440 ppi (pixels per square inch). Technically, that makes it the first phone capable of providing a home for every pixel of a 1080p video image. No other phone, not even the iPhone 5, the reigning pixel-density champ (at 326 ppi), can make that claim.

But to my eyes, those advantages seemed less evident in the world of palm-size screens. While the DNA’s display was definitely sharp, as one would expect, it did not look appreciably sharper or more vivid than the displays on other high-ranking phones, including the iPhone 5, and the new Droid Razr HD and LG Optimus G, which will soon post in our smart phone Ratings.

Responsiveness. For the most part, the screen reacted to touch more or less immediately. Occasionally, on-screen menus didn’t react to my touch, especially those along the bottom of the screen. This is most likely a kink in the press sample, which may not have been loaded with the final firmware.

The body. The phone, which measures 141×70.5×9.73 mm and weighs about 5 ounces, was about as thin and light as its Motorola Droid Razr cousins—which is to say, it’s very svelte and low in weight, given its size. The DNA’s smooth, rounded back was comfortable to hold. The surface has a rubbery feel, making it easy to maintain a firm grip. The sleek body is mostly black, with spotted metallic-red stripes along the sides to evoke Ferrari styling, at least according to HTC.

The sleekness does have a price: The flush-mounted, almost indented, top-mounted Power button and side-mounted Volume rocker were almost impossible to control. I really had to push down on them to get them to react. Also, the DNA’s USB port has a flimsy vinyl cover that’s hard to pry off and even harder to fit back on. I see little use for it, since HTC did not claim the phone was waterproof or water-resistant.

Interface. Surprisingly for a marquee phone, the DNA doesn’t boast any unique tricks, such as the phenomenal wireless sharing of the Samsung Galaxy line or the cool memo and video options on LG’s Optimus lines.

The HTC’s Sense 4 interface does have a host of convenient controls for customizing the phone’s look and feel, along with a slew of gesture controls for handling phone calls. To access the Google Now feature, though, you have to firm-press the Home key. Also annoying was the giant Amazon.com widget that hogged up one of the phone’s screens.

Cameras. The DNA has a main 8-megapixel camera with an f/2.0 28mm wide-angle lens, and a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera with an ultra-wide lens for capturing up to four people in a single frame. I can’t comment yet on image quality, which our engineers are currently evaluating, but the controls are excellent.

You can readily toggle between video and still cameras on the fly, as well as snap stills while shooting videos. All the controls for adjusting image quality and modes are at your fingertips, and a nifty blue button allows you to select special effects on the fly.

A new Gallery feature lets you group photos by location and time. I found it to be convenient when I shot photos at different locations during the day, but I wondered whether the feature might eventually clutter the gallery as the months roll by and the camera roll grows.

Sound. Like its Windows 8 cousin, the HTC 8X, the DNA supports BeatsAudio technology and has a built-in 2.55V headset amp, which is claims to enhance music quality, particularly when paired with Beats-branded headphones ($100 to $300). The app appears to boost bass, which makes percussion-dependent music sound better. Music played through the DNA’s stereo speakers sounded a tad louder than with other smart phones, though just as tinny.

Battery. The battery on my press sample barely lasted a day, despite being fairly capacious. But this might also be a consequence of the sample’s less-than-final software. Our test experts are evaluating battery life at the moment.

Bottom line. Based on my preliminary look at the DNA, it further confirms the high standard of smart phones this fall. Yet it also offers evidence that the laws of diminishing returns are kicking in for smart-phone speeds and feeds—especially when you’re dealing with screens that fit into the palm of your hand and response times that already feel instantaneous on most new phones.

We’ll have more on Verizon’s new flagship phone as it makes its way though our labs. In the meantime, check out our cell phone Ratings to see how well some of the other new smart phones stack up against each other.

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