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printed April 23, 2014
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Review: Motorola Droid Ultra for Verizon Wireless

Form Performance Basics Moto Apps Extras Wrap-up Comments  1  

The Droid Ultra carries over many of the same custom-developed applications that Motorola created for the Moto X. The big ones are Active Display and Touchless Control.

Active Display

Active Display brings the clock and notifications to the screen (when it is locked and off) without turning on the whole display. Instead, it only shows the clock and notifications in white on a black screen. You don't have to push any buttons to check the time or see if you have any new emails. If the Ultra is sitting on a desk, it will automatically light up the Active Display when a new email or message arrives. It will then pulse on and off with that notification until dismissed. Active Display will turn on when you nudge the Ultra, when you turn it over, when you pull it out of your pocket or bag, when you shake it, and pretty much any time you move the phone. At any moment you might want to see the time and notifications, the Ultra shows you.

More than two dozen apps are able to provide Active Display notifications, and you can interact with the notifications. That's what makes them so useful.

Take Gmail, for example. The Gmail icon will be displayed in a little circle under the clock on the Active Display. Press-and-hold the icon, and the notification expands to show the sender details and subject line from the emails. (If there's just one email, it will reveal the first line of the message, as well.) At this moment, you can do one of several things: swipe sideways to dismiss the notification, swipe up to open Gmail and go to the message, or swipe down to unlock the phone. The same behaviors apply for a missed call, Google+ interaction, or a text message, and so on.

There are limitations. The biggest is that you can only interact with the most recent notification. So if you get a text message and then three emails, you can't peek at the text message, you can only peek at the three emails.

After using Active DIsplay first on the Moto X and then the Droid Ultra, I've grown to really like it.

 

Active Display

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Touchless Control

Touchless Control is Google Now on steroids. Google Now has been available on Android devices for the better part of a year and is a really useful tool for performing searches with your voice. (It’s a bit like Apple’s Siri.) One of its big limitations is that you have to wake the device up before you can use it. Touchless Control solves this issue. Touchless Control is always listening, and, thanks to the hardware running it, you don't have to worry about it killing your battery.

Touchless Control must first be trained to recognize the owner's voice. In a quiet environment, you speak "OK Google Now" three times. This catchphrase is then what you use to wake the Ultra and launch Google Now. According to Google, the phone should only respond to the owner's voice, but there are cases in which people with similar-sounding voices can open Google Now with the catchphrase. (And no, the catchphrase cannot be customized.) The idea is to let people interact with their phones without requiring that they actually pick them up.

With the Ultra sitting on my desk, I can say, "OK Google Now, call Mom's cell phone," and that's what the Ultra will do. I don't have to touch anything else. The device provides visual feedback on the screen telling you what it is doing, and will speak that feedback, too, if you want it to. Making phone calls is the only task Touchless Control can perform if you've locked the Ultra with a code, though. If you say, "OK Google Now, who won the Yankee's game last night?" you'll have to unlock the Ultra before it will give you the search result. That limitation aside, there's a lot that Touchless Control can do.

I was able to make phone calls, open Gmail, use Google Play Music, get directions, search for anything, interact with the calendar, and so on. Google Now responds well to natural language requests and its voice-transcription capability is second to none. It's much, much faster than Siri on the iPhone, and better able to handle requests that arrive in the form of long sentences. It's still not perfect, though. All too often Touchless Control performed a Google Search when I really wanted it to open or use an app.

 

Touchless Control

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Moto Assist

Moto Assist is a tool meant to help save you some trouble when using the Ultra. It monitors the Ultra for three scenarios -- driving, meeting, and sleeping -- and controls the Ultra's behaviors accordingly.

First, driving: The Ultra will automatically sense when the device is moving fast enough to be in a car. I tried to use Touchless Control to make a call when driving and Moto Assist popped up first and asked if the device should be put into Car Mode. It can also do things such as read incoming text messages aloud, speak the names of people who call, and automatically send quick replies, such as,"I'm driving and will get back to you soon."

The meeting and sleeping functions are essentially the same and are meant to help prevent interruptions. The meeting function turns on automatically in tune with your calendar. During meetings, for example, the Ultra can be set to silence, allow favorites to ring the phone, or to ring when the same number calls multiple times. It can also send auto-replies.

The sleeping mode is simply set to come on and go off at certain predetermined hours at night. It is a bit less feature-rich and only silences the device between set hours. Like Apple’s Do Not Disturb, it will ring if a predetermined favorite calls, or when the same number calls multiple times.

 

Assist

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Migrate

Lastly, there’s the Migrate app. This is meant to help you transfer all your content from one device to another. It works with media, call and text history, as well as contacts that may not be synced with Google. The tool makes use of a QR code scanner to pair the two devices and then uses Google's servers to migrate the data between the phones behind the scenes. It makes it pretty easy to send your data to a new device.

 

Migrate

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

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