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Droid RAZR Review

Introduced in Fanfare on October 18th 2011, the Droid RAZR is a poster-child for the second generation of 4G LTE smartphones. It is much lighter and much faster than the first generation, which arrived on the market in the Spring of 2011. At the same time, Motorola has taken this opportunity to resurrect RAZR, a brand that was a hallmark of Motorola’s know-how in the 2000s. And razor-thin it is, at least in at its thinnest part, which is a mere 7.1mm thick.

But does the new Droid RAZR live up to its legendary name, and beyond its thin design, how does it behave as a modern smartphone? I have taken the Droid RAZR for a ride, and here’s my take on it.

Context

We all use our smartphones differently, that’s why I tell you what I do with them: I check my email (Microsoft Exchange), and I reply very moderately because virtual keyboards are slow to type with. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and stocks (mainly on mobile sites), but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I use a couple of social networks, and I rarely play games on the go. In the evenings, I may use my phone as a TV remote from time to time. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.

Technical highlights

Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread)
130.7 x 68.9 x 7.1mm, 127g
4.3” 540×960 Super AMOLED Advanced
Dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 1GB of RAM
1780 mAh battery
Verizon 4G LTE
HDMI, USB 2.0HS
8 MP, 1.3 MP P2P Video, LED
11.5GB user available internal memory 16 GB microSD card preinstalled
WIFI B/G/N

External Design

The Motorola Droid RAZR is a sharp departure from the company’s 2011 designs. In the past, I have often teased Motorola for building phones that were a bit bulky/chuby/thick and I have to admit that I was surprised, if not shocked, by how thin the RAZR was.

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The Droid RAZR in front of the iPhone 4

Motorola puts its thinnest point at 7.1mm, which is thinner than the Galaxy S2, which is itself about as thin as the iPhone – except for that bulge at the bottom. RAZR detractors will be quick to point out that the RAZR also has a bulge at the top, where the camera module is. However, what many people don’t know is that the bulge is actually not that thick. If you look at either the video or the photos, the RAZR’s bump in the back, is just a little thicker than the iPhone 4.

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The top also has a reason to be a bit more chubby: that’s where the USB, Micro-HDMI and USB 2.0 ports are. It is also where the external speaker is. Interestingly, the rest of the phone is probably too thin to accomodate the ports.

At 127g, the phone is lighter than the iPhone 4/4S (143g) – but it is not lighter than the Galaxy S2 and its 116g. In any case, I like the light weight and the relative thinness because it’s easy on my pants pocket.

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It would be nice if the Power and Volume buttons protruded more

On the right side, you can see the Power and Volume controls. As usual, those buttons are a bit too recessed for my taste. This is a common “mistake” in my opinion: the controls are designed visually, without prioritizing the tactile (and main) aspect of their usage.

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On the left side, a door hides the SIM card and the MicroSD flash card. Fortunately, you don’t need a tool to open it… Finally, keep in mind that the battery is not removable.

The Droid RAZR is quite wide. In my hand, it is just at the edge of being too large, so keep that in mind if you have small hands. Maybe you should check one in a store, just to be on the safe side.

Display (very good)

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This is not as good as the best Samsung displays, but still very good

While most Motorola smartphones use an LCD display, the RAZR comes with a 4.3” Super AMOLED qHD screen. As it is always the case with AMOLED, the contrast is extraordinary, with black levels that LCD displays simply can’t reach. I was surprised to see that although slightly saturated, the Droid RAZR display did not exhibit any sign of complete color aberration often found in Samsung’s phones. I have been told that it is something that can be tweaked (to a point), and that each manufacturer had its own way.

Although very nice, I can see a slight pixel pattern which remotely *looks like* pentile matrix – I’m not saying it is. Fortunately, most people won’t notice, but if you pay attention, you can see a slight moire effect. From what I can tell, this is extremely subtle here – unlike what I saw on the Moto Photon 4G which surely has a Pentile matrix. Overall, the RAZR has a great display.

Lockscreen: The lockscreen is one of the things that we see the most as we turn the phone ON and OFF, and I really that fact that you can toggle the sound, and unlock directly to the camera from there. HTC’s slide to ring is still a bit more advanced, and it would be nice if Motorola could let us unlock to email, or any other app that we want to setup. There’s enough room to fit 5 quick-access apps.

Basic functions

Call quality (excellent): while I rated the Moto Atrix 2 as “average”, I have to say that the in-call audio quality of the Droid RAZR is excellent. I think that we may have finally found a phone that can match (or beat) the sound quality of the Google Nexus S. Frankly, I’m pretty impressed here because it’s only the second time that I have found a smartphone that sounds this good during calls (tested with a 3/5 signal).

Dialing / contacts: dialing a number, or finding a contact is very easy. You can use the virtual numeric pad of course, or head into the contact list and scroll down or type a name. If you have a lot of contacts, creating a list of favorites may help quite a bit. My personal favorite on Android is the “direct dial” shortcut. Basically, you choose a contact and a number, and you create an icon on the home page. Upon pressing it, the call is directly placed. It’s the fastest way to call someone, and I use it all the time.

This Motorola phone also has a “Contact quick task” widgets that lets you select up to two actions (call, email, sms…) for any given contact.The idea is quite good, and i like it, but the actual widget takes too much surface on the home screen (4 icons worth). That’s because the widget features the photo of your contact. I believe that it could have been twice as small if it had used only the name.

Web browsing: the Android web browser does a very good job at rendering pages from “desktop-sized” websites, and of course from mobile sites as well. The dual-core processor should make web browsing a bit faster because this activity can use quite a number of processes that can be split across multiple cores. That said, this remains a mobile phone, so sites like Google Docs and other very interactive services tend to be significantly slower when compared to a computer.

Flash Support: Not surprisingly, Flash is well supported as well (version 11). This means that you have access to a world of small business and other websites that have been built with Flash. If you have never used an Android smartphone before, I need to set your expectations properly: when compared to a computer, Flash is still slow in absolute terms. Keep in mind that most Flash content has been designed for much more powerful computers, so although “it runs”, the user experience is often not as good as one might expect.

Motorola Software

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Smart Action: if home WIFI works, turns of 4G, GPS and lower the brightness

Smart Actions (awesome!) : this is one of the coolest thing that I have seen on Android: it is a set of rules that the user can set to slightly change the behavior of the phone. In its most basic form, a smart action is composed of a trigger and an action. For example, if I detect my home WIFI network, I disable the wireless data.

It is possible to add several triggers, actions, and even a time frame during which the smart action can execute. There are 11 possible triggers, 16 action and as many time frames as you want. With all of those, you can automate a number of tasks. Here is what I have setup:

1/ Charge reminder: if the battery falls below 35% in the evening (10pm-1am), the phone rings to remind me to charge it.

2/ Home power savings: if my WIFI network is detected > shut down wireless data, lower brightness to 21% (I’m indoors) and shut the GPS OFF.

3/ Hibernate: at night (1am – 7:30am), turn the background sync OFF, switch ringer to silent and vibrate, turn GPS OFF, shut down wireless data, and turn the WIFI OFF. (this will enable maximum power savings)

There are a lot of possibilities. At the moment, you can even send text messages, and I hope that emails will be possible in the future. All these rules can run at once, and if for some reason you want to bypass them, you can do so with just a single tap. This is a great feature and a potentially huge energy saver.

Motorola has made it very easy to build those actions, but they also ship 11 pre-built Smart Action that you can use in a couple of taps.

zumocast

Zumocast: Motorola, is one of the companies that really like adding software to its phones, and ZumoCast is the latest feature that Motorola has embedded in the handset. Motorola calls Zumocast your Personal Cloud, which lets you stream music, videos and share files to your Motorola phone.

It works by having a ZumoCast client run on one or more computers (PC or Mac), and from there, ZumoCast can communicate to your Atrix 2 and let you do all the things above. Because the service communicates to zumocast.com, there is no need to setup your network, it just works. Zumocast also lets you access files from a web browser if you need to.  This is an interesting addition because out of the box Android doesn’t let you do anything like this.

MotoBlur is a Motorola web service that aggregates updates from a number of social networks on Motorola’s servers. This allows the Motorola phone to pull updates from all social networks at once, instead of pulling information from each of them separately. This may save battery life, and it also allows the phone to display social network updates in a consolidated way. [MotoBlur page]

motorola webtopWebtop is Motorola’s desktop environment that turns on as soon as you connect this smartphone to a TV/monitor via HDMI. Yes, you read that right, this phone can turn into computer complete with a desktop version of Firefox (I talked about Webtop more extensively in my Motorola Atrix Review, but I basically think that it is a bit too slow for my taste). If you are using a Dock, you can even plug in a regular mouse and keyboard, which is critical to get any kind of serious work done. Google docs, webmail and other productivity sites should just work. [Webtop official page]

Obviously, this is still a smartphone, and things aren’t “PC fast”, but keep in mind that the device fits in your pockets. How you enjoy this depends on what you do. I find it OK to do emails and other text-based applications, but I would not leave my laptop home on a business trip. I love the idea, and Motorola has done a good job of pulling this off, but the concept needs more muscle to back it up.

motorola media link

Motorola Media Link: Out of the box, Android doesn’t really have much when it comes to synchronizing the files between your computer and your smartphone. Media Link is a utility (for Windows) that synchronizes media files and contacts from a computer to the phone. Music files can be synchronized from iTunes or Windows Media Player, while photos and video are simply synchronized from a directory. Contacts can come from Outlook or Windows Mail. [Media link homepage]

Killer Apps

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Virtual keyboard: it looks like Motorola has removed the Android stock keyboard and has redesigned the Motorola and the Swype keyboard with a high-contrast color palette.

In general the most important thing on a such a keyboard is the response time, which means the lag time between a key press and a response from the phone. There is always a lag time, but the smaller it is and the more “natural” you will find it to be. That’s because when we have tactile interaction with real objects, they react right away (push something, it moves).

To make the keyboard faster, I often disable the word suggestions and other optional features in the settings. You will have to experiment, but keep that in mind. The contrast between the keys and the background could be a little higher too, but I can live with it.

Swype keyboard: Swype is a much better, keyboard option. It has fortunately been pre-loaded on this phone. If you’ve never heard about Swype, it looks and can work as a regular virtual keyboard, but its real power is revealed when you slide your finger from one letter to the next to form words.

It’s very powerful because your finger doesn’t leave the surface of the screen, making the whole motion much more accurate than “tapping” on the screen. I generally find myself typing faster with swype, and even when I don’t use the sliding motion, the keyboard’s response time is noticeably better than the default virtual keyboard.

The weakness of Swype is that it relies a lot on a dictionary to get it right, so when I was trying to type “activesync”, it thought that I meant “quebec”… Swype is great for conversations, but eventually, you may have to fall back to “taps” for slang or technical keywords.

droid razr review 32

Email (excellent): Most Android phones have very decent support for email, including personal email like Yahoo, Hotmail and others, but also professional email systems like Exchange. The latter is what I’m using on a daily basis at Ubergizmo and overall, I think that Motorola nailed the email support.

The email app now has a black background, which is typical of AMOLED-based systems. The reason is that white pixels consumes (ON) much more energy than black pixels (OFF). On an LCD, the whole back-screen is lit at all times, so it doesn’t really matter. I understand the rationale, but at the same time, I would like to have the option of switching to a more readable white background, especially if I use the phone in direct sunlight.

When you open your email app, the latest emails are have already been downloaded and you don’t have to wait for the email app to download them (yay!). You may not realize it, but the iPhone 4/4S and the Galaxy S2 both download email when you open/go to the Email app. I’m not sure if that saves battery life, but this is pretty annoying when you’re checking email often. On the contrary, this phone pre-downloads the email, so it’s ready for reading right away.

Finally, Motorola has added programmable email gestures: I’ve set it up so that a swipe to the right marks an email as “read/unread”, and a left swipe moves the email to the trash. This is awesome and so much better than press&hold+tap. This is a huge time saver for those who use the smartphone to curate emails. I love the programmable email gestures!

Facebook: I use the Facebook app like most of you, but with Motorola phones, I tend to use their social networks app to keep track of my friends updates. Why? Because Motorola’s servers do most of the pulling job, and send me a big chunk of data when I needed. That’s a little faster and probably more battery-efficient than having a bunch of apps from different networks. I can like or comment Facebook updates from their app, but if I want to upload a photo, I would run the actual Facebook app.

droid razr review 34

Google Maps (excellent): As of late, I found the mapping experience to be much better on Android devices, and that certainly has to do with the fact that Google has been improving its mapping application on its own platform, while leaving other mobile OSes in the cold. It’s not a bad tactic to gain an edge, and the net result is that Android users have been getting steady improvements, while others have mostly stagnated.

First, Android users get free turn-by-turn navigation. This is a big deal as this feature can cost quite a bit of money on other platforms. Secondly, new features like “download map area” are introduced on a regular basis. This one is supposed to let you preload an area the size of a city, this is really cool. Here’s how to enable it:

1/ in Google Map, do Menu>More>Labs>enable pre-cache map area

2/ go to the map, select a place, expand the place’s options and choose “pre-chace map area”
In my case, Google Maps has pre-cached the whole city of San Francisco, and it is going to boost Google Map’s speed.

Skype (video chat unavailable, again!): I’ve bumped into this with the Motorola Atrix, Droid Bionic an now the Droid RAZR. As far as I can tell, this is a Motorola-wide issue that really needs a fix.

Aside from the video, Skype calls in audio-only mode work without any problems. I think that Motorola is aware of this issue by now, and that an update will come out, but I’m not sure how long this will take because the carriers have to test and validate any firmware. At the moment, Google talk will work with the video, so this could be a temporary replacement until Skype works again.

Photo and video capture (very good)

razr photo

Photo shot with a RAZR late in the day

razr low light

Photo shot with the RAZR in low-light conditions (dark corridor)

First of all, I have uploaded some samples on our Ubergizmo Flickr account. You can go there to look at the full-resolution

Good news, the Motorola Droid RAZR has a better camera than the previously reviewed ATRIX 2, which was just about average. In broad daylight, the Droid RAZR does well and is good enough to get very close from the Galaxy S2 and the iPhone 4S (in that order), which are both excellent camera phones.

I have noticed that the field of view of the Droid RAZR is a little narrower then the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S2, but I didn’t find this to be a problem in general – except if you like shooting wide-angle pictures, obviously.

In terms of video recording, the result was very decent: the camera can handle tricky lighting settings like having a very contrasted subject, and the color quality look good and natural. The sharpness could have been better, though. I think that it should be just fine in 720p, but I was not getting the sharpness that I expected (equal to the GS2 or i4S) in 1080p mode. This means that you may as well use 720p and save some space.

In the end, the Droid RAZR’s camera is “very good”, but shy from the “excellent” level that the iPhone 4S gets. The Galaxy S2 is somewhere in between and is sharper, but doesn’t handle the contrast disparity as well as the RAZR does.

Entertainment (very good+)

Gaming (good): when it comes to gaming, the Droid RAZR can really defend itself, but there are much faster smartphones these days when it comes to polygonal 3D. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy S2 (with the Exynos chip) scores higher than the Droid RAZR, and even if we take into account the difference in screen resolution, the GS2 would still win (to accomodate for various screen resolution, I measure the performance in Megapixel/sec). The iPhone 4S is also very fast (faster than the GS2) when it comes to polygonal 3D.

This doesn’t mean that the Droid RAZR is whimpy! There are much slower phones on the market, but I can only rate it as “good” because there are also more powerful devices.

Video playback (excellent): the video playback is excellent. I tried downloading MP4 1080p videos meant for computers, and they worked flawlessly and looked very sharp on the internal display. Unless MP4 video files come with a huge bitrate (10+Mbps?) they should work just fine. Note that you can always experience incompatibility issues, but that’s another story, and this is a known problem on all platforms.

HDMI output: It is also possible to output a movie directly to a big TV. But the HDMI output is fully utilized only in combination with the Webtop desktop environment. Note that outside of webtop, the Android environment will show up at the normal qHD resolution, which is lower than 1080p. However, some apps like the video playback *may* use a higher resolution over HDMI.

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The rear-speaker on the right

Speaker quality (excellent+): I’m impressed by the quality of the external speaker. There are very few phones that have an excellent loud speaker, and the Droid RAZR is among them, along with the Atrix, iPhone (4/4S) and LG Optimus 2X.

I think that this is the best one yet. The sound is loud, clear and even has some “depth” to it. While the Optimus 2X and the iPhone 4/4S have powerful speakers, their location on the side is a bit of a drawback. The Droid RAZR has a speaker located in the rear, but I am under the impression that some of the sound also comes from the earpiece. I can’t be 100% sure, but it does look this way.

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The photo gallery

Photo gallery: I like the Motorola photo gallery, as it shows thumbnails that are slightly larger than the standard ones in Android or iOS, but I can scroll fairly quickly and select a photo that is 3-4 positions away from the center image.

I also like its ability to also display photos from social networks (FB, Flickr…) and home server. That is a useful function because I like to offload some of my content off the phone’s storage, but still have the photo somewhere handy.

System performance

When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.

On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?

Measured performance

The Droid RAZR is a recent phone, so it does really well in the number-crunching game. It is really good at executing Javascript and at pure calculations. On the Javascript front, the RAZR is now the new king of the hill, even besting the iPhone 4S and its dual-core CPU along with the latest Javascript engine optimizations from Apple – at least, that’s what Sunspider shows. In Browsermark, the iPhone 4S manages to stay ahead and keeps a short lead.

droid razr benchmark browsermark

droid razr benchmark sunspider

Note that Browsermark & Sunspider are tests that measure the speed of Javascript, a key component for interactivity in websites. To be clear, this does not measure “how fast” pages are loading. Instead this look at how fast scripting code can execute. Javascript is used in modern websites for user interface or even complete applications/games.

droid razr benchmark linpack

In the Linpack CPU benchmark, we remove the Javascript engine factor. In that situation, the Droid RAZR is actually performing a little slower than two variants of the Galaxy S2 running with Samsung’s Exynos dual-core chip. To me, this hints at a massive Javascript engine optimization from Motorola.

droid razr benchmark nenamark 2

Nenamark 2 clearly shows that the graphics processor (GPU) in the Droid RAZR could use a bit more muscle. The Galaxy S2 has more raw graphics horsepower, but the RAZR competes with the Tegra 2-powered Optimus 2X which was the top of the line in terms of performance just early this year. For most people, this is not a huge deal, but for gamers, this means a world, and at the moment, the RAZR is probably not going to be the platform of choice to play.

Perceived Performance

Perceptually, the overall performance of this phone is great. The user interface (UI) is smooth, and Motorola had so much horse idle power that it decided to add 3D effects in the Android desktop, with lighting movements and all. I think that this slows down the UI a bit. In my opinion, Motorola should try to have a 70FPS 2D interface, rather than adding 3D and lighting effects.

LTE performance: because the Droid RAZR uses 4G LTE, I need to dedicate a paragraph on the matter. Firs of all, you should know that not all “4G” networks are equal, in fact, I consider LTE to be the only true 4G network (read: 4G networks, where are we at?). And here’s why:

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The 4G LTE Network from Verizon is simply out of this world

There you go, this pretty much says it all, the broadband speed is much (much!) faster than other “4G” networks out there (5X -10X) and the latency is lower too. The net result is a much faster web experience, wether it is on email, Maps, web browsing. It’s basically like being on WIFI all the time.

Of course, one would argue that with only 2GB or 5GB of data per month, it’s pointless to have such an awesome speed. While, I sure wish that we had more bandwidth, I disagree: I don’t really mind using the same amount of data than before, but more importantly, I don’t want to wait for the network. Today, LTE is the way to go for that. Verizon’s LTE network is the most important factor in determining perceived performance, if you take into account web usage.

In conclusion, if you remove gaming from the equation, the Droid RAZR is one of the fastest phone out there.

Battery Life (requires baby sitting)

I have been playing with the phone all day yesterday, and I can’t really say that I have been using it “normally” for now, so I’m still working on the conclusion for this chapter… However, from what I can tell, this is a phone that you will have to charge every day, and heavy users will surely want to have some way of charging it whenever they can.

4G LTE still comes with a “price to pay” in terms of battery life. At this time, there is simply no way around it, and this is something that you have to accept. If the average Android handset battery life seems already too short, this is not for you, because this phone will deplete the battery faster than a non-LTE phones.

Now, there are ways to make things better: the Motorola Smart Actions will help by disabling LTE whenever a knows WifI network is accessible (@home, @work, @friends) and that’s great. In short, you have the tools to actively manage about battery life.

With my normal usage, I expect to be able to use the Droid RAZR until the evening. If I’m traveling, or if I’m at a conference, this would be harder and I would have to carry a USB battery.

More battery life details will be published here soon, so come back or drop a comment, I’ll reply ASAP and you will be notified. My feedback to Motorola would be: make the phone a bit thicker and give it a 2000+ mAh battery. As long as you stay below or at 145g, I don’t mind. I know that a RAZR needs to be super-thin for the sake of naming (great name indeed). Maybe the CRZR will come with a crazy battery life icon smile

Message to Motorola: showing the battery life by 10% increments is not good enough.

Conclusion (very nice, but battery life needs help)

droid razr review 01

The Droid RAZR is an amazing LTE smartphone and it shows how far we’ve come: in just 6 months, we went from having bulky and heavy LTE phones to having this slim and light Motorola Droid RAZR.

In terms of speed, the Droid RAZR does well, but despite good performances, it is not the fastest Android phone. Overall, that title still goes to the Galaxy S2 line (which now includes an LTE version). I hope to have time to review the Galaxy S2 LTE soon, let me know in the comments if that’s of interest, maybe I can prioritize it.

On the other hand, Motorola has great software tweaks that include a better email experience, Smart Actions, remote file access, remote music streaming and a full Linux computer option. These are things that the Galaxy S2 simply doesn’t have out of the box.

The Droid RAZR is a great, nice-looking, 4G LTE phone, and if you are wiling to pay extra attention to the battery life, you can enjoy a phone that has a super-fast wireless access.

Links

You may be interested by these smartphones: Nokia Lumia 800 ReviewiPhone 4S ReviewAtrix 2 ReviewSamsung Galaxy Nexus SpecsSamsung Galaxy S2 ReviewDroid Bionic Review.

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