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Droid RAZR Maxx Review

The Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx has been introduced to address the single most important issue that prospect 4G LTE users are facing: battery life. Of course, this is not a new challenge, and the original RAZR 4G LTE Android smartphone already had software features that made it battery-efficient. The most important of them is Smart Actions, a set of automated rules that can automatically turn the cellular broadband OFF whenever possible, whether it is at home, at work, or at any other known WiFi location. It is also capable or shutting many power-hungry systems at night. But despite all the software improvements, the most drastic way to solve the battery life issue is still adding a bigger battery. This may sound like a “duh”, but there are costs and design considerations that Motorola has solved here. So, how does it feel to use the Motorola RAZR Maxx in the real world?

Technical Overview

Technically, the Droid RAZR Maxx shares a lot with its cousin, the Motorola RAZR. Overall, the phone shares the same hardware, and mostly the same software. I’m not aware of any critical new feature, but I would guess that routine improvements have slipped in since last November. Here’s what’s in the box:

Specifications

4.3″ qHD (960×540)
16GB of internal storage + 16GB microSD pre-installed
Dual-core, 1.2GHz processor
Android 2.3.5 (upgradable to 4.0)
Works on the Verizon CDMA and LTE networks
8 Megapixel camera with auto-focus
1080p,30FPS video capture
3300 mAh battery (!)
WiFi B/G/N, Bluetooth 2.1
130.7×68.9×8.99mm, 145g
Official home page

External design

In my previous review, I wrote: “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”, and I’m glad to see that Motorola has surpassed my expectations. let’s see how the Droid RAZR Maxx looks and feels.

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The general design looks very much like the previous Droid RAZR, and there are only few differences like the frame color, that is now clearer, or the Motorola logo which has been toned down (good move).

The thickness at the top of the phone is identical on both phones, but the rest of the Droid RAZR Maxx body is thicker to accommodate the much larger battery capacity. Interestingly, the phone feels better in the hand because it is a bit more curvaceous. The downside of having a larger phone is that it is a bit  heavier than the previous Droid RAZR, and you can feel it. That said, the Droid RAZR Maxx is comparable in weight to the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Nexus LTE, so despite the huge battery, Motorola has managed to keep the size and weight under control. Anyone who have considered using “extended batteries” would be impressed.

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The HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus can be seen in the background

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In the back the same carbon fiber cover is used to prevent scratches (and to look cool)

Battery life (awesome)

I have moved this paragraph up here because many of you have been waiting for this. Let’s cut to the chase: Motorola nailed it! With a gigantic 3300mAh battery capacity, Motorola has basically made 4G LTE a viable option, even for those who don’t want to “baby sit” the battery (most people, basically), or be anxious about it. For reference, most high-end smartphones have a 1800 mAh battery, and the average smartphone has a 1450 mAh battery. If you don’t know what mAh is, here’s the definition.

I will need to run more tests but so far, I have been using the phone since around noon, and for the past 9 hours, we have taken photos, movies, run benchmarks (sunspider, nenamark 2, Antutu), run Flash, browse the web, installed+sync new email accounts and apps, mostly but not always, over WIFI, but LTE was on the whole time.

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Investing in a 3300mAh battery will pay off for Motorola

Right now, the battery stand at 70% and we haven’t even used the Smart Actions to shut LTE off when on a known WiFi network. It is fair to say that going “brute force” on the battery did work, but I’m glad that Motorola did it *after* working so hard on the software optimizations as they magnify the sheer capacity of the battery. I sincerely hope that other manufacturers will increase battery capacity, even for HSPA+ handsets…

Overnight battery depletion test: after using the phone for a whole day of tests, I left it in sleep mode overnight with LTE and WIFI turned on. I did not use a “task killer” to kill the background apps. Results: the phone lost 14% of battery in sleep mode in 8hrs. This is somewhat consistent with the 25% that the Galaxy Nexus LTE lost overnight. If you take into account that the RAZR Maxx has nearly twice the battery capacity, this checks out. I’m running another test with WiFi-only and I will update this review later tonight (1/27).

Note: I think that by default, Motorola shows the battery life in 10% increments, but if you want to get around that, you can use the Battery Circle widget from Cédric Depoortère to show more accurate battery information.

Update: The phone eventually died out, and I took a photo of the battery utility screen so that you can check on what I’ve been doing. Note that the WIFI was OFF for a while, because I went out, and shut WIFI down and forgot to put it back on when I arrived home, which means that it was syncing over LTE during the latter part of the graph.

droid razr maxx battery usage review

Display (very good)

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No surprise here: the Droid RAZR Maxx uses the same Super AMOLED qHD (960×540) display than the previous RAZR. Of course, since then, top Android smartphones have moved to 720p (1280×720) and while 720p is crisper and better, I can’t say that qHD makes for a bad smartphone experience. It does not.

Unlike other AMOLED displays, the Droid RAZR Maxx 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 preferences.

Lock screen: although the RAZR Maxx does not come with Android 4.0 /Ice Cream Sandwich / ICS, the lock screen also lets you unlock directly to the camera. This implementation on both Motorola’s phone and the official Android 4.0 is much better than Apple’s in my opinion. On my iPhone 4S, I don’t even think of using the ‘unlock to camera’ function because one more tap is necessary.

Basic functions

Call quality (excellent):  just like the Droid RAZR, the in-call audio quality of the Droid RAZR Maxx 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. This is the third time that I have found a smartphone that sounds good enough during calls (tested with a 3/5 signal) to earn an “excellent” rating.

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.

I don’t see the “Contact quick task” widgets that was featured in the Droid RAZR. Instead, you now have access to an array of four favorites that can quickly extend to a list of 20 favorites with one swipe. It’s cool, but I usually only want a few people on speed dial, and even the “direct dial” shortcuts from Android seem gone now. I’d love to have them back.

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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. Also, I’ve tested it in the field against an AT&T iPhone 4S, and most of the time this phone will win any Internet race.

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

Motorola has been working really hard to differentiate its phone not only by hardware features (like the awesome battery), but also with software that aims at making one’s life easier. Right now, Smart Actions, MotoCast and Webtop. To be honest, Smart Actions is my favorite feature, but I’ll tell you about all of them:

Smart Actions (excellent) : Smart Actions are one of the coolest thing 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.

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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.

Motocast is a “personal” cloud software that works by installing a client application on one or several personal computers (PC or Mac). From there it gives you access to all the directories and drives (including network drives, or USB drives) that you choose to make available via Motocast. For example, if you choose to make your whole computer accessible, virtually every file can be checked, streamed or copied to your Motorola smartphone.

motocast

Media files like video can be re-encoded on the fly accommodate the available bandwidth, which means that you don’t need to convert, or otherwise pre-process anything. If you want to print documents, you can even download MotoPrint, a utility that lets you print to a networked printer from a mobile device.

In order to work, Motocast needs your computer(s) to stay on. At this point, I don’t think that Motocast can wake your computer if it is in “sleep” mode, but this is something that Motorola is working on.

Webtop 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]

webtop features left

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.

Killer Apps

Despite all the hype and the fun around new mobile apps, most users tell me that their critical apps are things like email, SMS, social networks, voice calls and mapping. That why when we try a smartphone, we always look at these “killer apps”.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Skype… works!:  After reviewing a few Motorola phones on which Skype did not work (including the Droid RAZR), the Droid RAZR Maxx breaks the “skype curse” and works rather well. I have tested the call and video call functionality, and both work very well (for a mobile). In absolute terms, I would say that audio calls are just fine and completely operational. Video calls work decently with good incoming video, and low-resolution outgoing video. Over WIFI, the framerate was relatively smooth, maybe at around 20FPS (I’m eyeballing here).

Photo and video capture

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The camera module hasn't changed since the Droid RAZR

The 8 Megapixel camera hardware in the DROID RAZR MAXX is identical to the one in the DROID RAZR, according to Motorola. The image quality is very good and provides more realistic colors than the Galaxy Nexus which is otherwise comparable in image quality and contrast. The RAZR MAXX offers a wider aspect ratio than the Galaxy Nexus and the iPhone 4S. I like it, but it is just a matter of personal preferences.

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Shot late in the day after the sun was down

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This is an interesting test to see how the camera handles bright and dark spots

Capturing images and videos yielded good results, even in dark weather conditions and the video capture was very decent in 720p. The camera user interface is easy to use and the auto-focus and shutter speed are pretty fast for a smartphone, the speed is comparable on the Galaxy Nexus. You can check the picture comparison in this article or go to our Ubergizmo Flickr account to see the images at full resolution.

System performance

In terms of system performance, the Droid RAZR Maxx is identical to the Droid RAZR. It makes sense as they have the same hardware and operating system. This means that the RAZR Maxx does very well in benchmarks, and it is clearly up there with the best modern smartphones. I have run the numbers, but because they are the same than the RAZR, here are the benchmarks again:

Measured performance

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 optimization from Apple. In Browsermark, the iPhone 4S manages to stay ahead and keeps a short lead.

razr maxx sunspider

Note that Sunspider is a test that measures the speed of JavaScript execution, 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.

razr maxx antutu

Antutu is a synthetic overall system performance test that tries to check every aspect of the system: CPU, GPU, RAM, and local storage. Again, this is not a real-world test, but it does provide interesting pointers.

razr maxx nenamark2

Nenamark 2 clearly shows that the graphics processor (GPU) in the Droid RAZR Maxx 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 idle horsepower 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 having a 70FPS 2D interface, rather than adding 3D and lighting effects. I would love to have a “minimal animations” option as well.

LTE performance: because the Droid RAZR Maxx uses 4G LTE, I need to dedicate a paragraph on the matter. First of all, 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?). Look at the photo below… even with partial connectivity (2/5 bars), we got remarkable network performance.

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LTE speed simply cannot be matched (today) by HSPA+ or WiMax

Conclusion (excellent)

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The Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx is an excellent smartphone (up from “very nice” for the Droid RAZR). Overall, both RAZR phones are very similar and but the nearly double-sized battery capacity makes the user experience much better as it removes the battery “anxiety”, and the Motorola software allows for further optimization that can extend the battery life even more. 3300 mAh: wow. Just wow.

Coming from a Galaxy Nexus LTE, I miss some aspects of Android 4.0, but in the grand scheme of things, battery life trumps Android 4.0, at least for me. A smartphone that is alive will always be superior to one that is dead. Down the road, the RAZR Maxx will also get ICS, although “when” is an unknown, and history shows that updates can take a while…

I hope that this review gave you a good sense for how it is to use the Motorola RAZR Maxx. If you still have questions, feel free to drop a comment below. I will try to address your questions as soon as I can.

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