Motorola breaks the rules on a slim 4G Android phone. (November 13th, 2011)
Product Manufacturer: Motorola
Price: $300 (2 yrs, Verizon)
- Incredibly slim, memorable, and tough design.
- Good battery life for an LTE-equipped phone.
- Reasonably fast, including LTE on Verizon.
- Good call quality.
- Motorola UI generally helpful; quick keyboard.
- Smart Actions may clinch the phone for some.
- Camera is fairly fast; good sound in videos.
- Easy-access HDMI, micro SIM, and microSDHC slots.
- PenTile-based AMOLED screen is fuzzy and slightly garish.
- Bad still photo quality; somewhat blurry video.
- Doesn't compare as well to Galaxy Nexus, iPhone, or peers.
- Android 4.0 will take months to arrive.
- Battery is sealed in, and can drain quickly in heavy use.
The rule of thumb for 4G Android phones in 2011 has been that they must be tanks: bulky, rounded-off devices that show exactly what sacrifice you're making to get the faster speeds. Motorola with the reborn Droid RAZR (just RAZR elsewhere in the world) not only bucks that, but has what it claims is the world's thinnest smartphone. However, it's coming into especially fierce competition with the Galaxy Nexus, Rezound, and the iPhone 4S. We'll see in our Droid RAZR review if it's competitive enough to swim with the pack.
It's hard not to launch into a discussion of the Droid RAZR without discussing its ancestor. The 2004-era original RAZR V3 might seem relatively thick today at 0.54 inches. At the time, though, it was a minor revolution for people used to either bricks or awkwardly thick blobs, and it did so while having competent (though not groundbreaking) specs. It arguably defined phone culture for the following three years.
The new RAZR might be a bar-shaped smartphone, but it certainly ups the ante for slim design. At 0.28 inches thick across most of its body, it's nearly half as deep as its predecessor, and one of the few phones to feel thin day in, day out. That's about a tenth of an inch thinner than the iPhone 4S and, depending on where you live and what your options are, at least slightly thinner than the 0.33-inch Galaxy S II.
What's more distinguishing is just how little sacrifice Motorola has had to make to get that thin profile. The chassis uses a steel frame and a Kevlar back, and while we doubt the Kevlar would help it survive a bullet, it easily survived our pockets and was very solid. The screen is protected with Gorilla Glass, which should help against casual scratches. And that the phone manages to fit LTE-based 4G on the Verizon model almost appears to defy logic: at a time when most LTE phones have to add thickness just to last more than a few hours on battery, slimming down without shredding battery life is a testimony to some sincerely clever engineering.
That said, holding it in the hand makes it clear how Motorola got there. The Droid RAZR is wide -- very wide. Even though Motorola's phone starts at 4.3 inches, it's wider even than the 4.5-inch HTC Vivid, which we already thought was too big. In practice, it's more bearable than it sounds, but combined with the thinness, you end up changing how you hold the phone. You can cup it, but we more often found ourselves holding it like we would a very small tablet. That actually has some advantages for typing, as you end up bracing it with your fingers in a way you couldn't with a narrower, thicker device, but it also means the phone periodically feels less stable in the hands.
Another, more visually conspicuous 'cheat' is the camera hump on the back of the phone. To get the eight-megapixel camera and flash into the body without making it taller, the phone suddenly bulks up at the top by about 50 percent. As such, if you were counting on that 0.28 inches to slip the phone into very tight jeans, you'll be disappointed. It does show Motorola using a weakness to its advantage, though. Because of that bump, the phone rests on a flat surface at a slight angle and prevents accidental scuffs.
A tour around the edges of the phone is generally positive. The touch-sensitive Android controls below the screen occasionally produce accidental touches, but they're well-placed for when you want to quickly back out of an app. The wake button is placed well enough that you won't accidentally put your phone to sleep. We wish the volume controls were more distinct, but they're acceptable.
The thinness has somehow produced easier expansion. We liked having both a mini HDMI and micro USB connector at the top; the Galaxy S II makes you use an MHL adapter cable to get HDMI. Motorola even includes the mini-to-full HDMI cable in the box, and we found that it worked well with 1080p video. Moreover, it's much easier to get at cards that would normally require opening up the back. In part by using a micro SIM like Apple and Samsung do, all that's required to get at the SIM card and the microSDHC slot is to pop open a small door on the left side.
Motorola builds an adequate 16GB of storage inside, and on Verizon, you get a 16GB microSDHC card already installed beyond this. We do wish it was contiguous space like it is on the iPhone and a handful of Android phones.
There is, however, one major expansion option that isn't present that may sting for Android users: a removable battery. Taking a page from Apple's book, Motorola gets the Droid RAZR thin by sealing in the battery and eliminating the extra space needed for a battery door. That wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't that Verizon's model uses LTE and will drain the battery quickly under certain conditions. It's more excusable on the international RAZR, which is 3G only, but it could mean hunting down a micro USB-compatible external battery pack if you're on a long trip or need heavy data use, somewhat defeating the point of having a slim phone.
The qHD Super AMOLED display
Much like the Droid Bionic that came just weeks before it, the Droid RAZR has a 4.3-inch, quarter HD (540x960) screen that's suitably sharp for the size, although not as much as the 720x1280 HTC Rezound or (soon) AT&T's LG Nitro HD. In this situation, however, it's using Super AMOLED, a technology normally reserved for Samsung, to help get its record thinness instead of the Bionic's LCD. Apart from not needing the thickness of a backlight, AMOLED gives Motorola some inherent benefits, such as true blacks, ghost-free movement, and fairly vibrant colors.
In using Super AMOLED and not Super AMOLED Plus, however, Motorola has also taken a significant step back in terms of absolute image quality. It's using a PenTile RGBG (red, green, blue, green) pixel layout that shares the green pixels in an interleaved pattern. What that amounts to for the eye is a visible fuzziness to the picture that diminishes its real-world sharpness, not unlike an old cathode ray tube display. While we got used to it, we'd have been willing to trade some thickness for an upgrade. The Galaxy Nexus actually uses a similar PenTile array, but because it's a much higher 720x1280 resolution, the pattern isn't as visible and hides any flaws.
AMOLED gives it very good viewing angles, and it's fairly visible in most sunlight. Color uniformity at off-angles isn't its strong suit, though. Tilting the Droid RAZR slightly off-angle quickly produces a faint but noticeable greenish tint. And, as with most such screens, the colors might be vivid but are also slightly lurid from oversaturation. Some like that punched-up color, but we'd be willing to trade some contrast for accuracy.
The fairly wide ratio of the display, though, is again good for typing. Motorola has managed to create one of the few Android smartphones where it's possible to type fairly quickly and instinctively without perpetually hitting the wrong keys. Some of this is owed to software, as we'll touch on soon, but it's better than some of HTC's taller but narrower screens.
Android 2.3, Motorola's custom UI with Smart Actions, and Android 4.0 upgrading
Android 2.3 is now a year old, so it's been well-covered by this stage. On a base level, there are some elements of interface polish, front camera support, and useful tools to manage battery and apps, but the fundamental mechanics are the same. If you like the (relative) flexibility, cloud awareness, and elements such as the notification bar and widgets, you'll still like it here. A note, though, is that iOS 5 has caught up in some respects and still has a stronger web browser and media playback, so it's a good idea to try an iPhone unless you're wedded to Android or can't live without things like the free, built-in turn-by-turn navigation.
As with other Motorola phones from mid-2011 onwards, the interface has been given heavy customization in hopes of standing out. Motorola no longer calls it Blur like it used to; even so, it's often been nicknamed "Gingerblur" since it has only shown up on Android 2.3 devices. On a superficial level, it's a considerably simpler interface and skin than for earlier phones. Earlier devices had borderline intrusive visual elements and made users sign up for a special account if they wanted to tie in their social networking services. This is subtler and focused more on being useful than being arbitrarily different.
The overall interface is consistent and simple to understand; we liked that the lock screen now has quick shortcuts to the camera and toggling vibrate. Apps are put into an iPhone-style horizontal page-by-page scroll list that requires a bit of work if you have many apps, but is also relatively organized and allows for groups. Some of the widgets are particularly useful, such as the pop-up options for favorite contacts and the individual toggles for Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi. Social Location is potentially quite handy for melding services like Yelp or even Match.com by letting users hunt for every place or person of interest nearby.
Some of the common fallbacks of custom Android builds still show here, however. The most conspicuous is the social networking: as with virtually every OEM-made Android layer, the attempt to integrate Facebook, Twitter, and other services falls apart if you have any more than a few dozen friends on either network. The social widgets are also paradoxically split into one for just reading updates and another for updating; we're not sure why.
That's somewhat true of the music and image gallery apps as well. Both are generally straightforward, but they're focused too much on visuals, such as 3D carousels, over raw functionality. Each has its convenient Internet-aware sides, though, which might suit some. The music player has built-in access to podcasts, ShoutCast radio, and DLNA media sharing on the home network, while the gallery app can show just those photos that you or your friends have posted on an online service like Facebook or Flickr. But in terms of sheer depth, you might be better off with a third-party app, or an iPhone.
The keyboard goes a long way towards redeeming those weaknesses. In our experience, it's one of the best touchscreen keyboards outside of an iPhone. The keys are properly spaced and organized. Once turned on, the auto-correction is also very thoughtfully done. The keyboard generally corrects the right words with little intervention, and it gives a very easy way to manually override selections as well as remember words for later. Along with the comfort of the wider screen, the Droid RAZR encourages fast typing and can be faster than a hardware keyboard if you use auto-correct to your advantage.
One single feature might be worth it for some users: Smart Actions. In a sense, it's the smartphone equivalent of a macro command, or maybe scripting like Automator in Mac OS X. At its root, it lets you build actions that always happen under certain conditions, using a list of pre-defined options. For example, you can tell it to always turn the ringer off late at night, to turn off Wi-Fi when you plug your headphones in for a run, or to launch an app when you arrive at work.
At least some of the time, it's surprisingly powerful. More than anything, it's useful for speeding up those things that you know are your habits, or to make the most of your hardware. If you tend to come home from work and just want to plug back into power, or to use your phone with Google Maps Navigation and want the Car Dock app to launch in a fully optimized setting, you may have found your phone.
Lest you get too enthusiastic, though, there are some definite limitations that limit its usefulness. You can't, for example, tell it to perform any actions within an app. You can tell it to start a playlist, but you can't load TuneIn Radio (or Motorola's own music app) and have it start playing a given station, for example. You can still load multiple commands into one action and stack multiple actions, so it's still quite useful.
With all the relative positivity about Motorola's special work, though, we have to add a concern about the long-term relevance of the OS itself. Motorola may have unintentionally chosen the worst possible time to launch a high-end Android 2.3 device: the Droid RAZR was unveiled just hours before the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0, instantly making the OS out of date. The company has promised an update in early 2012, but that's a few months later. With a few features like the home screen camera access already on the new Nexus and improvements over Motorola's interface like simple folders, resizable widgets, and better media apps, it's hard to wait to get all the benefits Android 4.0 will bring, especially knowing that Motorola might also delay future updates by a few months just by having to adapt its own interface and wait for carriers to approve it.
Performance, MotoCast, apps, and the death of Flash
Like virtually every device Motorola is launching at the end of 2011, the Droid RAZR has a dual-core, 1.2GHz TI OMAP4430 processor. For day to day, subjective experiences, it's perfectly fast, with only a small hint of Android's characteristic lag in certain transitions. On Wi-Fi, where the bottleneck is usually the processor, web page render relatively quickly, although we'll note that Android 2.3 doesn't use a second core and is noticeably slower than an iPhone 4S. Pinching and zooming, though, is unusually choppy, even relative to most other Android phones. We suspect that's a lack of software optimization, though, since the HTC Vivid is a bit more responsive with a slower processor and the Galaxy S II is much more fluid.
In abstract performance terms, the TI chip shows just how little clock speed matters relative to graphics power and optimization. Although the RAZR runs at the same 1.2GHz at the Galaxy S II and Vivid, it slots neatly in between the two in terms of Quadrant Standard benchmarks: at 2,654, it's much higher than the 1,933 of HTC's device, but much lower than the 3,216 of Samsung's phone. Graphics performance is about on par with the others in Neocore, at 58 to 59 frames per second. Subjectively, we didn't have any problems with more visually demanding games like Dungeon Defenders or Wind-Up Knight.
Internet performance depends on who your provider is. Only Verizon has the LTE model, and there the speeds are about as fast as on the Vivid. In good conditions, it's not out of the question to get over 20Mbps and rival your landline in raw speed, though not latency; Ookla's Speedtest app won't yet give accurate upload speeds. Speed on Rogers, which has to make do with 'just' HSPA, hovered around 5.5Mbps down and 800Kbps to 1Mbps up, which is certainly usable but not on the level of full HSPA+ or LTE.
Along with the other customizations, there are a few preloaded apps. Motorola's attempt to push into the working world is in evidence with preloaded copies of Citrix Receiver (for remote access to PCs or resources), GoToMeeting for joining into live presentations, and QuickOffice for documents. We didn't much care for the rudimentary voice control app Motorola uses beyond the stock Android app -- neither comes close to Siri on the iPhone 4S -- and the carrier apps, as always, are mostly just clutter, whether you're on Verizon or Rogers. Thankfully, Motorola and the carriers have eased up on policies around removable software, and you can either hide or outright delete some of the non-essential apps.
Of Motorola's contribution, the biggest is MotoCast. It's actually a heavily customized version of ZumoCast, an initially iOS-only remote media streaming service. It takes a very different approach to getting your local music than Apple's iTunes Match, Google Music, or similar: it uses your computer as the server and pipes music, photos, videos, and general documents without needing a go-between after signing in on both devices. Setting it up usually just involves plugging in to a computer over USB, getting an account, and making basic settings choices. Unusually for Motorola, it has surprisingly robust Mac support and, on both Macs and Windows PCs, can serve as a conduit for syncing content over USB from iTunes and other sources, not just the Internet sharing.
Where ZumoCast required that all sharing go through its own app, MotoCast is valuable in integrating shared media into the regular apps themselves. Go into the music app, and your MotoCast songs are marked with a symbol next to those on the phone itself. The gallery and file management apps break documents, photos, and videos out into their own separate sections, but they're still inside the apps. It's transparent, as you'd hope for.
Our testing did give mixed results, though, and underscore the inherent limitations of using your own computer as the host, even as it has its advantages. Music and photos load up with delay, but photo album thumbnails and whole videos take a long time to load. Collections have to sync, too, so you can't necessarily listen to a new album as soon as it's on your computer.
The main concern for us is simply having to leave a computer on and largely untouched as long as MotoCast is running. It's not just that it's not a very eco-friendly move; it also makes assumptions about your daily patterns. You're not going to leave your computer on during an entire vacation, and families with a shared computer will create problems if someone else has to log in or reboot. We'd definitely rather have MotoCast than nothing, especially as it's free, but it doesn't have the ubiquity of the Apple or Google services.
A related app, MotoPrint, is also on the Droid RAZR and does much the same thing for remote printing, although it too requires that you install an app on a computer, here on the same local network as a printer. As it's more generalized than Apple's AirPrint, it's more practical, although all the printing is confined to one app where Apple just requires that developers build in the support.
We would be remiss to go without mentioning the bittersweet inclusion of Flash Player 11. The plugin does help fill in some holes in certain websites, most often restaurants or others that still rely on the plugin as the main content. But it's now a technological dead end: Adobe has dropped mobile Flash as of 11.1, leaving the shipping Android 2.3-based implementation found on the Droid RAZR the last significant update that will ever be released. Adobe now largely agrees with Apple and has decided that HTML5 is both more efficient and more of a truly universal standard than the proprietary code of Flash.
Having Flash will give Motorola's phone a bit of an edge for compatibility, but because of Adobe's one decision, it's no longer a selling point, even if you're adamant that Flash is needed for a 'real' web. To be honest, we won't miss it much. In its final state, mobile Flash still frequently bogs down, doesn't have many touch-optimized websites to work with, and usually just ends up showing banner ads and draining the battery faster. It will be interesting to revisit the mobile web a year later and see how many pages have dropped Flash altogether.
Camera app and image quality
The Droid RAZR is following after a particularly sore point for Motorola in the camera department. The Droid Bionic, having just shipped in September, has one of the slowest cameras to start and shoot in the industry. It was bad enough that it gave Apple's Senior VP Phil Schiller a large bullseye during the iPhone 4S debut event, when he suggested that Droid Bionic users might "go get coffee" in between shots.
Thankfully, the newer phone has fixed most of this. It's not as immediate as the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy Nexus, but launching the camera from the lock screen is considerably shorter, and the shot-to-shot performance is fairly brisk. It's fast enough that you can often shoot multiple shots quickly, even without using the multi-shot mode.
The app sits in between those of Apple and Samsung in complexity. You can't set the ISO sensitivity or tune the white balance, and exposure is unusually limited to an abstracted slider, but you can tap to focus on specific points and choose scene presets that tend to favor genuinely different shooting conditions, such as macro photos. Motorola has a fairly clever implementation of a sweep panorama mode that auto-stitches photos as you pan across the scene.
When it comes to actual output, though, the camera tends to fall short. Although it's eight megapixels, the rear camera is definitely not on a par with that of the iPhone 4S, Galaxy S II, or HTC's newer crop of smartphones. It can produce detailed close-ups with soft backgrounds, and it's competent for street scenes, but its color accuracy is often poor. We saw many scenes where the colors were muted and often just didn't come close to what we really saw. Flash output was acceptable and unusually uses a two-stage blip of the light that's easier on the eyes rather than the single, prolonged burst.
The Droid RAZR was also susceptible to blurring in light where its peers would have kept focus and detail, and while it did do a good job of retaining some of the highlights in dark scenes, it wasn't quite as astute at picking up the right contrast levels and tended to underexpose. Autofocusing is a bit slow. The front camera was just strictly adequate for video chats, too, and despite the 1.3-megapixel sensor lost more detail than we'd expect. For a camera system that bulges out from and disrupts what's otherwise a very thin phone, we'd have hoped for more.
Video does fare better, with one exception. Here, colors don't seem as affected, and it handles changes in contrast well with few compression artifacts. There's an image stabilization option, that we wish was available to still photos, to cut down on the jitter. Audio is surprisingly good, too, and through an option to use one of its two microphones for noise cancelling very clearly picked up subtleties in the environment without being overwhelmed by the bluster of a windy day. The Droid RAZR's motion response, however, is noticeably sluggish. Moderate movement triggers blur that's quite visible on a large screen, and fast movement rules it out. We'd take the video from the Droid RAZR over that on the Vivid, but it's not quite reference grade.
Call quality and battery life
Motorola is largely responsible for inventing the cellphone as we know it, so it was somewhat reassuring to find that the Droid RAZR has good voice quality. Sound wasn't pristine, but it was clear without being tinny, and loud without being shrill. Your experience will vary slightly depending on whether you're using CDMA (on Verizon) or GSM and HSPA (on Rogers and most everywhere else). The speaker is fairly loud and will do a decent job for an environment with a mild amount of background noise, although we wouldn't try to compete with a noisy office.
For many, the real test of the phone's design will be its battery life. From the experiences of phones like the HTC Thunderbolt, an even thinner phone like the Droid RAZR should be out of battery within a few hours. The truth is that it's actually quite usable. Motorola's optimizations mean you can, in fact, get through a typical day of moderate use without the battery dying, although you'll be cutting it close. You'll want to plug in every day.
Slightly disconcerting, though, is how ravenous the phone can be if you do something intensive. Heavy Internet use, such as frequent Google+ photo uploads and constant Twitter checks, can drop the battery life much faster. On LTE, it's not out of the question to run out five to six hours into the day. Those on the international RAZR can get significantly more because of the less demanding HSPA chip; we got an hour or so more. Battery drain appears to come in fits and starts, and we saw the battery drop from around 40 to 50 percent to 20 within minutes of a heavy upload.
The battery, then, isn't flawless and will still raise some concerns from those who need both intensive use and long life that would want a battery swap. We're still happy that it's one of the few LTE-equipped phones that doesn't need to be recharged before you've left for home. Motorola really needs to provide an option to turn off 4G altogether, though; those who don't live in LTE coverage areas, or who only selectively need the extra speed, could claw back some extra longevity.
In isolation, the Droid RAZR is something to be proud of for Motorola. In less than a year's time, it has gone from having no 4G phones at all to having one that appears to break the laws of physics to get LTE while still being entirely usable, even preferable, as a phone. More importantly, it has character. At a time when Android phones often risk being slight variants on the same brick-with-rounded-corners design, there's no mistaking the Droid RAZR for anything else, even while you're just holding it in your hands.
It does beg the question of why Motorola soldiered on with the massively delayed Droid Bionic if it knew the Droid RAZR was coming to the same network just two months later. We don't think like some iPhone fans that having a large variety of Android devices to choose from can be too confusing, but there's variety and then there's needless differentiation. Anyone who bought a Droid Bionic in September is going to feel burnt for having picked up a thicker, slower phone, and they might remember that apparent snub when they're next eligible for phone upgrades.
What knocks the phone down most is that you simply can't consider it in isolation. The elephant in the room is, unambiguously, Samsung's Galaxy Nexus. Verizon will be carrying the LTE version of the Google flagship, and it will have not just a larger and sharper screen but possibly the deadliest weapon of all: a completely stock, Google-blessed version of Android 4.0. Galaxy Nexus users won't just get the newer OS first, they'll get updates within weeks instead of months, and they'll likely get both more updates and a longer update coverage period. That might not matter as much for features, but Motorola, HTC, Samsung, and others making custom Android interfaces regularly leave their users vulnerable to security exploits that are only patched in the builds that go out to Nexus phones.
There's also other phones to consider, both on and off Verizon. At the least, there's the Rezound, which has a visibly higher-resolution, clearer display as well as a better camera, albeit in a thicker body. If you're not locked into any one carrier, we'd consider the Galaxy S II Skyrocket or Galaxy S II LTE equivalent on AT&T and Rogers, respectively; they have lower-resolution screens, but they use better Super AMOLED Plus displays and should be faster while staying thin enough. And yes, there's the iPhone 4S, which is faster than the Droid RAZR, has a more attractive display, and takes dramatically better pictures, even if its being on 3G limits some of its potential.
Giving a truly high rating to the Droid RAZR is difficult as a result. It's a decidedly enjoyable phone to use, but everywhere you turn, there's a feature that often two or more manufacturers have done better, especially considering the $300 contract price on Verizon. Go for Motorola's phone if you love creative yet practical ergonomic design first -- and that can be sincerely important. If you want speed, a good camera, or a top-tier screen, you're best served elsewhere.