New Android Phones, from the Potent to the Pennywise

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Courtesy Motorola

Motorola's two new Android phones— the Triumph (L) and the Bionic (R)

Something for everybody. That's the business strategy behind Google's Android mobile operating system, and in many ways it's a marvelous thing. You can get an Android handset on the carrier of your choice, from a variety of manufacturers. You can pick one with or without a physical keyboard. Big spenders can spring for a phone with the latest technologies; bargain hunters who are willing to commit to a contract can get a less cutting-edge handset for free. It's a radically different situation than with Apple's iPhone 4, which is just one phone — albeit a pretty spectacular one — and which is available only on AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

In the case of Motorola's new Droid Bionic, what an Android phone is offering is not so much something as everything. The latest model in Verizon Wireless's Droid line, the Bionic is probably the most potent smartphone on the market in terms of raw horsepower and bountiful features. (If history is any example, it'll soon be trumped by an even more souped-up model, which will itself have only a short reign at the top.)

As always, it's dangerous to pay too much attention to specs: The iPhone 4 provides a much smoother, slicker experience than any Android phone, and its App Store handily beats Google's Android Market for both quantity and quality. But the Bionic's potent parts do make a difference. While its 4.3" display is not unnaturally spacious by current standards, it packs more pixels — 540 by 960 — than most phones with screens that big. Inside, the phone has a 1-GHz dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, which keeps Android responsive even if you're running lots of apps at once. Its rear camera can do respectable-looking 8-megapixel still photos and 1080p video, and there's a front camera for video chat in Google Talk and other apps.

The Bionic's standout feature is its support for Verizon's 4G LTE network, currently available in 117 markets and easily the nation's speediest. When I ran Ookla's Speedtest.net benchmark in the San Francisco suburbs, the phone typically downloaded data at around 10-Mbps, roughly ten times as quickly as my everyday handset, an iPhone 4 on AT&T's 3G network.

You might see different results in your neighborhood, but there's no doubt about it: The Bionic is one fast phone. Web pages that take seconds to load on most phones snap into view, and it's one of the few mobile devices I've seen that does a decent job of streaming Flash video. Motorola also bundles an app called ZumoCast that lets you stream video, music, and other files stored on your home PC across the LTE network and onto the phone. And unlike Verizon's older 3G network, LTE lets you talk on the phone while using the Internet at the same time.

At the moment, however, the still-new LTE technology both giveth and taketh away. I haven't had the Bionic long enough to perform a methodical test, but when I used it with its default settings, I could practically see the battery meter draining as I used it, especially when I indulged in power-hungry activities such as watching videos. I'd worry about getting through the day without plugging it in at some point. (It may be an ominous sign that Motorola offers a little plug-in station that lets you power the phone while simultaneously charging a spare battery.)

The Bionic does let you tweak settings to squeeze more time out of a charge; there's even a clever option that goes into a power-conserving mode at night when you're less likely to notice if your e-mail doesn't show up immediately. But for most people, the most logical way to deal with the piggish behavior of the Bionic and other current 4G phones is to wait until hardware makers have refined the technology. (A half a decade ago, the earliest 3G phones were power-hungry, too — but later models got much, much more efficient.)

More than most manufacturers, Motorola likes to outfit its smartphones with a generous range of optional accessories. There's a charging dock that lets it act like an alarm clock/photo frame, and a car dock that's useful if you use Google Maps' turn-by-turn directions as your navigation system. And then there are three different add-ons that let you use Motorola's Webtop, a feature which lets the phone masquerade as a PC by allowing you to connect it to a full-sized display, a keyboard and a mouse. You can run both oversized versions of the Android apps on the phone and the desktop version of Mozilla's Firefox browser. (The Webtop uses Firefox 4.0.1, even though the current version of the browser is 6.0.2.)

The Webtop is the software that empowers Motorola's lapdock, a unique gadget that looks like a sleek rival to Apple's MacBook Air. It's not a full-fledged laptop, though — it's really just a "dumb" shell for the Bionic, which sits in a rumble seat on the back and provides the lapdock with its brains and Internet connection. When the lapdock premiered last February with Motorola and AT&T's Atrix, AT&T originally charged a daunting $499.99 for it; the Bionic's version is a more plausible $299.99, with a $100 rebate if you sign up for a 4G data plan that costs at least $50 a month.

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