Friday, February 10, 2012

Motorola RAZR Review

With the flurry of smartphones released in the past three to four years it's hard to remember a time before Apps, Gigahertz and 4G. But if you think hard enough you will find a past littered with feature phones that didn't do much in terms of software so had to impress with hardware. That's where the Motorola RAZR fit in, with its ultra thin form factor it captured the eye of millions of people around the world being the last real iconic feature phone before the advent of smartphones. Motorola looks to continue on the RAZR heritage with the Android powered Motorola RAZR. We'll see how this RAZR reincarnation does in the ultra competitive smartphone market and whether it can live up to its legendary lineage.

Overall Construction
Motorola is well known for the solid construction of its phones. In our time testing the Motorola Atrix 4G and Motorola XT860 (aka DROID 3) we have firsthand experience of how solid high end Moto phones can be. This is certainly no different with the Motorola RAZR. With materials like stainless steel and Kevlar the RAZR has an incredibly solid feel for such a light and obviously thin package.

It's clear that with the name RAZR, this smartphone's claim to fame is its mind boggling thinness. It is without a doubt one of the most impressive feats of engineering we've seen in the smartphone world for a LONG time. One cannot appreciate how thin this device really is without holding it in person.

While looks are always subjective, we like the design of the Motorola RAZR. It simply exudes a high build quality both from a far and in one's hand. The all black slab front with the subtle yet tasteful chrome accents all come together in an almost stealth like fashion. While the back sports a nice textured back with exposed Kevlar weave which seems to be coated in a non-slip coating for a more reassuring grip.

At 7.1mm thick, the RAZR is easily the thinnest phone we've reviewed and most probably will hold the title for the foreseeable future. Given the inherent thinnest one would expect the phone to feel somewhat fragile but that is certainly not the case. When trying to twist or bend the phone there is little to no flex. The stainless steel inner construction is most probably the reason for its structural integrity. At 130g it fits into a nice middle ground of not too light to feel almost cheap but not too heavy as to feel like a brick.

In terms of ergonomics this is where the RAZR falls quite a bit short. While we already know that 4.3-inch, as well as larger phones, aren't for everyone, there certainly has been good ergonomic executions of the "Hummer" phones in the past. Think the likes of the HTC Sensation and HTC Amaze 4G. This sadly isn't the case for the Motorola RAZR as we suspect the inherent thinness of the phone probably lead to some design compromises that made the phone wider than it could have been. Personally speaking I have average sized hands, so I went to ask friends with larger hands to see what they thought and the sentiment was still there, it simply has too much bezel for a screen this size.

One thing that we did like seeing on the RAZR that we do miss on many other phones is the notification light. While we aren't surprised Motorola has included it on the RAZR given the other phones we've reviewed the lack of a notification light on other manufacturer's phone always makes seeing one a delight.

Motorola RAZR

Motorola was the first to put out a qHD resolution phone in the Motorola Atrix and also brought more attention to the PenTile matrix pixel arrangement of those screen. If you've read our previous reviews, you know that we aren't exactly the biggest fans of PenTile displays and that hasn't changed. But if you've read other reviews of the RAZR's screen you'll see a sea of negativity. While we don't see it matching the screen of a Samsung Galaxy S II or even a Galaxy Nexus, we feel it isn't as bad as other reviews have pegged it as.

The move from standard LCD screens to AMOLED screen was certainly expected for a device this thin. Given that AMOLED screens need no backlights it seems like the perfectly logical choice. The problem with that is that AMOLED screens of this resolution (qHD) or higher (720p) require PenTile as the manufacturing process hasn't reached the point where the traditional RGB can be used.

One might wonder, why many reviewers have been so hard on the PenTile display of the Motorola RAZR, yet have been so quick to praise the PenTile display on the Galaxy Nexus. The reason is very simple, it's all about pixel density. From face value qHD (960x540px) and 720p (1280x720px) don't seem that far apart, but quickly doing simply arithmetic shows that the Galaxy Nexus has almost 80% more pixels than the RAZR. Not to be forgotten is the fact that both devices sport similarly sized screens. The point is the Galaxy Nexus' display can overcome the drawbacks of the PenTile technology by sheer brute force pixel density whereas the RAZR cannot.

That being said, it is a quality display and really one of the best we've seen on a Motorola device (in Canada at least, since we understand the DROID X2 and Bionic have far superior screens but those aren't available in Canada). Viewing angles were solid, colors were bright and vibrant and contrast was excellent. As with all AMOLED phones black levels were outstanding and really, it's such a shame that the PenTile arrangement is so obvious and distracting it takes away from such a fantastic display. That being said most people would not be able to tell the difference at a glance.

One odd thing that we noted is that the screen is somewhat recessed or tapered at the edges of the Gorilla Glass making for an oddly placed valley on top of the bezel. We often found accumulation of dust and lint in that area especially if kept in a jean pocket. We aren't sure is the tapering is intentional as we would have preferred it to be flush with the chassis.

Like the build quality suggests, the RAZR is a solid device but sadly isn't exactly the case on the hardware buttons. We usually don't make a big deal about buttons if they are noticeable enough to press and distinguish without looking at the phone and feel solid.

One would expect that since the power button is placed on the side it would be a con like on the Galaxy phones by Samsung but this isn't the case with the RAZR, for one the body would not allow for ports to be on the bottom thus the HDMI and Micro-USB ports are found on the top. Secondly the phone is so tall it would be unwieldy to have to reach that far to power the phone on and off. Lastly the volume rockers finds itself below the power button rather than the opposite side avoiding all volume rocker miss pressed (the main reason why the side power button is usually a pet peeve).

Travel and feel was solid on the volume rocker but was slightly too recessed for our liking while the textured power button is very distinguishable yet felt flimsy. Again, we want to remind you that these aren't deal breaking cons but just unfortunate design missteps.

Battery Life
Much has been made about the fact that the Motorola RAZR is one of the first (and to our knowledge) only high end Android phone with a sealed battery. That being said, we know that there are true road warriors who like to carry extra batteries on hand or purchase extended batteries but we can't imagine that to be the norm, so forgive us if we aren't too pissed off that the battery is sealed.

With a 1780mAh battery, the RAZR doesn't go far off the beaten path as far as battery sizes are concerned but it certainly is impressive that they sit it in such a tiny space. In our, non-scientific daily tests the RAZR had generally decent performance. The phone certainly cried uncle during heavy days that included gaming and tethering but that is certainly a given with any smartphone these days.

One thing that does concern us is the fact that often when dealing with Android phones we've sometimes (by our own fault admittedly) gotten into ruts where a battery pull was needed to reboot the phone. Now I haven't manage to stumble across a situation like that on the RAZR but it's definitely something to keep in mind.

Internal Hardware
The RAZR sports just about the same hardware configuration as the Galaxy Nexus. TI certainly has gained a lot of traction with both Google and Motorola as they saw fit to use the same OMAP processor for the RAZR and Galaxy Nexus respectively.

- 1.2 GHz Dual Core TI OMAP 4430 Processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage expandable with microSD card slot upgradable to up to 32GB
- PowerVR SGX 540 Graphic processor
- 21.1Mbps HSPA+ capable chipset
- Wi-Fi b/g/n
- 8MP auto-focus camera with dual LED flash and 1080p HD video capabilities

On paper the RAZR certainly looks like a contender and performance wise it certainly delivered, when everything was working. While overall performance was snappy and generally responsive, some games simply would be unplayable on the RAZR. We aren't sure if the problems are limited to our specific review unit (which we believe to be the problem) or if the problems are more widespread. When games ran without problem frame rates were buttery smooth and we expect performance to only get better once the RAZR is upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich.

HSPA+ "4G" Capabilities
Unlike the US Verizon version, Rogers got the HSPA+ world version of the RAZR. That's not to say speeds were bad by any means as we were able to pull anywhere from 3 to 5 mbps from Rogers' HSPA+ network. This is slightly under the norm compared Rogers devices we've tested in the past and much slower than the LTE powered Raider. It's a shame that the LTE version of the RAZR is a Verizon exclusive.

As with all our speed tests, your mileage will vary on your specific area's coverage and signal strength.

Speaker and microphone
Motorola has always delivered in the sound department and the RAZR is certainly no exception. The earpiece was loud and clear while the microphone was clear to our testers. The external speaker which is usually an afterthought on may devices was loud and clear.

Motorola has never been a slouch when it comes to camera performance and this certainly is the case with the Motorola RAZR. With a 8MP, 1080p capable shooter in the back and a 1.3MP front facing camera, the RAZR is similarly specced to other good Android shooters.

The rear facing camera's performance was quite good as it took excellent indoor shots when in good lighting and decent night shots as the camera's single LED flash did not overpower subjects by flooding the scene with too much light. Pictures came out crisp and clear with good color reproduction. While video was fairly good and frames were decent, although we might recommend 720p over 1080p as video came out noticeable smoother. One thing we really enjoyed (which you will notice in the sample video below) is the sound profiles and more specifically the wind noise reduction. We found these features to work very well and really round out the HD recording very nicely.

Surprisingly enough the front facing camera is quite good (although less of a surprise given the quality of the front facing camera in most of the recent high end Android phones) providing more than adequate enough vanity shots and is capable of 720p recording which we especially appreciate for our lengthy monologues (not really). We aren't certain whether Video chat like Skype take advantage of the 720p quality but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Sample Pictures


Motorola Applications Platform /w Android 2.3
To be perfectly honest, we were never huge fans of MotoBlur. But in recent iterations of Motorola's Applications platform have had some nice changes to it that we appreciated. With Motorola's latest incarnation of their custom UI there are some things we are extremely impress by while other aspects seem a tad over the top and not in the good way.

First off, taking a look back at the announcement of the RAZR, it's really unfortunate that it ended up being completely overshadowed by the launch of the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0. That being said, it meant that the RAZR was behind the curve before even getting out of the gates. This is especially unfortunate given that huge strides made in improving user experience in Android with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Many Android enthusiasts will tell you that there is no experience like the stock Android experience, and while we tend to agree we know that custom manufacturer UIs are here to stay. Motorola's incarnation of Android is without a doubt a visual step away from stock Android 2.3. Changes can be found throughout the entire OS from homescreens, to menus, to the notification pane and launcher one would be hard pressed to find any part of the OS not changed by Motorola. Sadly, in some parts of the UI these 3D animations and over the top visuals has led to some slowdowns (like Sense 3.0 on HTC phones). We understand that this adds visual flair to the overall UI but we feel the cost of performance is too much.

We do however feel that there are some great additions to Android in the RAZR namely the Smart Actions baked right into the OS. Smart Actions is easily by far the best feature of the Motorola RAZR. Here's how it works: Smart Actions basically monitors almost all aspects of your phone and can detect a state change then trigger an assigned action. For example, when your battery falls below 20% it immediately engages a power saving settings tweaked to your liking. Another example is when it knows you're home, it can turn all your sound volumes to a chosen level. Smart Actions can even detect when you plug in a headset and can do something as absurd as send an SMS to a specific person letting them know you plugged in your headphones. These are just a few of the things Smart Actions can do and really your imagination is the limit.

Overall, in terms of software, the Motorola RAZR is a bit of a letdown, launching with an older version of Android and in the case of our particular review unit has been riddles with bugs in several places. Like with the Motorola Atrix when it got it's upgrade to Gingerbread we hope that when the Motorola RAZR gets an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich it will breathe new life into the RAZR.

One thing we feel like we must mention is that certain games would simply be made unplayable. We aren't sure is this problem is isolated to our review unit or if it's a problem with all RAZRs but the problems were odd an inconsistent. Some games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja would inexplicably lock up and become unresponsive while other more intensive games like Wind-Up Knight ran flawlessly.


When the first leaks came out of Motorola attempting to revive the iconic RAZR brand, it most probably pulled on the nostalgic strings of a lot of people. The unfortunate part is that in today's ultra competitive smartphone market it takes a lot more than nostalgia to make a product. The RAZR by all means is an astonishing feat of engineering which really pushed what we thought was possible with a smartphone. The problem is that the software sadly doesn't live up to the amazingness of the Hardware. If history is any indication the Ice Cream Sandwich update will probably make the RAZR into the phone that it should have been at launch.

In the end this phone is a beautiful and attractive device that probably would have benefitted from being held back a few months and launching with more mature software including Ice Cream Sandwich. For most people considering form over other factors, the RAZR is no doubt one of the top handsets but as far as an overall experience is concerned we can't help but point more hardcore Android enthusiasts to point their attention towards the Google Experience Galaxy Nexus.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 8.5/10
- Unbelievable feat of engineering by making the handset unimaginably thin. This unfortunately leads to some design and ergonomic compromises.

Screen: 8.5/10
- A great screen that is otherwise hampered by the PenTile Matrix pixel arrangements.

Buttons: 8/10
- Pretty average buttons, all of them with different pros and cons.

Internal Hardware: 8.5/10
- Does about as well as expected for a Dual-Core smartphone in synthetic benchmarks. Does well in gaming (when working properly). Decent HSPA+ speeds. Unfortunate that it isn't the LTE version.

Speaker and Microphone: 9/10
- As usual for Motorola, EXCELLENT Earpiece, loudspeaker and microphone.

Camera: 8.5/10
- Good overall shooter, still were good, video was pretty sharp. Sound recording profiles were excellent.

UI Changes: 7/10
- Motorola's skins are becoming a bit overbearing, like HTC with Sense we hope for a complete overhaul when ported to ICS Android 4.0.

Addition Enhancements: 10/10
- Smart actions is easily by far the best thing about the RAZR, we wished it was baked into ALL Android phones.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 6.5/10
- As usual Rogers' has included apps that can't be uninstalled.

Final Score: 8.3/10

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