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The Motorola Droid RAZR M was just made available to the public, so it’s time for a review. We have played with the device since its official launch in New York last week. The overall idea of this device is to provide a compact form factor, and a relatively “large” screen (4.3″) at the same time. Of course such as size isn’t that big these days as it is possible to find 5.5″ smartphones, but again, Motorola has other phones like the Droid RAZR Maxx HD to address that market, so let’s review this phone for what it is: a push towards super-thin bezels, high-quality display and large battery capacity (2000mAh). This sounds very nice on the paper, but is it so rosy in the real world? Let’s see…

Technical highlights

Display: 4.3” qHD (960×540 pixels) Super AMOLED
Dimensions: 60.9 x 122.5 x 8.3mm, 126g
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon S4, 1.5GHz, 1GB RAM
Storage: 8GB internal storage + microSD slot
Battery capacity: 2000mAh
Cameras 8 Megapixel main camera, 1080p video recording
Official specs link

Context

We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my smartphone(s): I typically check email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and reply moderately because typing on the virtual keyboard is tedious. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all.

On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks (FB, G+), a receipts manager and random apps (<20), but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive like video editing. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful. Now you know where we’re coming from…

Industrial design

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Motorola calls the RAZR M a “full-screen phone” and the name refers to the slim edge around the screen (about 1mm thin). While not “frameless”, thin small bezel allows Motorola to come up with a very compact design, which about the size of the new iPhone (lenght and width), but with a 4.3” display.

And the design works: this Motorola is one of the most compact mid-range Android smartphones on the market, yet it features a 4.3” display which was once considered “large”, and it also has a big 2000mAh battery capacity – that’s as much as bigger phones on the market, so this is remarkable.

The phone comes in Black or White and we happen to use a white version for this particular review. The front face of the phone looks pretty nice, although the Verizon and Motorola logos do make things a bit more visually busier than we would like.

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There are visible screws on either (left/right) sides of the phone, and they are visible on purpose to reinforce the idea that the phone is “solid” (it actually feels like that). The left side hosts the microUSB port, the micro SIM card and the microSD slot. On the right side, you will find the Power and Volume controls.

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The bottom is clean, and the top of the phone only has a 3.5mm standard audio jack port. I really like that Motorola is using a Power control button that is visible, easy to “feel” with a crisp click. This is the most used physical element of the phone, so this is a big deal. I have criticized Motorola in the past for their Power controls, and I’m glad that the company eventually came around.

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In the back, the Camera module has been designed to be noticeable, and the rear speaker seems pretty robust (more about this later). Motorola has kept the Kevlar back cover design for this model, and this basically makes this phone mostly scratch-proof, especially when compared with other smartphones equipped with softer materials.

NFC: The Motorola RAZR M includes support for NFC (near field communications). This is a short-range wireless technology that allows two devices to communicate. While this is often associated with mobile payments, NFC can be used for other applications as well. I find it most practical to pair devices such as audio headsets or wireless speakers to your smartphone. Mobile payment in general is not a technological issue, but rather a business problem.

Over the past week, we’ve shown this to a number of people, and reactions were quite positive in general. Let us know what you think of this design in the comments.

Display (very good)

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The 4.3 screen AMOLED display is remarkable. Not in terms of size obviously but in terms of image quality. The color saturation and the black levels are just as you would expect from the best that AMOLED can bring. The qHD resolution is good enough most of the time, but if you read from less than 1ft away from the screen, it is possible to see the pixel structure if you have sharp eyes.

It is obvious that a 720p display would be better, but this handset is being priced up to $200 below the high-end phones, so it’s hard to complain loudly. In the end, image quality trumps sheer resolution in my opinion.

Killer apps

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Virtual keyboard: Ironically, despite having hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal, most users sill refer to text-based communication as being the “critical” application for them. That’s why you must not underestimate the importance of a virtual keyboard. The more productive you want to be, and the more likely this element may get in the way.

Users have the choice between the Motorola Keyboard or Swype. Although called Motorola Keyboard, it looks very much like a stock Android keyboard and any differences would be non-obvious. It benefits from the responsiveness improvements of Android 4.0, and even with the word suggestions, it is more responsive than Android 2.4.x keyboards. That said, I expect the Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) update to further improve this aspect of the phone.

Swype keyboard: 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.

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Email (very good): Motorola has had very good email clients for a while, and this one is no different. The typography makes emails very readable, and it is possible to perform actions on multiple items at once. This is great for email curation while on the go.

The only noticeable difference between this phone and the Atrix HD is the black background which is not as readable in direct sunlight. The reason why Motorola is using a black background is because the AMOLED display does consume more power when displaying a brighter image.

Google Maps/Navigation (awesome): It is clear that Android has the best mapping service at the moment, and Google Maps has been instrumental to provide Google with an edge on Apple’s iOS when it comes to mapping. With Google Navigation, the lead has extended even further, especially if you take into account that you can pre-load 10 miles square worth of maps to the local storage.

Navigation is slightly different of Maps in the sense that it replaces a personal navigation device (PND) completely and provides, routing , voice directions, rerouting etc… and it does it in a very smooth way. Right now, you need to pay decent money to get the equivalent functionality on iOS.

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Incoming video from a PC to the RAZR M

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Outgoing video from the RAZR M and captured on a PC (Skype)

Skype: Skype worked fairly well in general. Incoming videos from a PC where sharp and nice. While outgoing video was certainly above average when compared to other Android devices we’ve tested recently. The audio is usually good across all tested devices and this is no different. The RAZR M provides one of the best video Skype experience on Android. Compare it with the quad-core Meizu MX.

Entertainment (good+)

Video: we’ve tried our usual 1080p videos and there were absolutely no problems. All the in MP4 format and were created for desktop machines. Yet, they work flawlessly on this phone. Nothing unusual to report here.

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Gaming: I tried games like Riptide GP, and it was completely playable, although clearly no at a sustained 60 FPS frame rate like we’ve seen on more expensive phone. This is a relatively demanding game, but expect casual games like Angry Birds to stay absolutely fluid. Not a gaming beast, but still gaming-capable.

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Speaker-quality: the speaker quality is pretty good, but we’ve seen better… on bigger phones. That’s the thing. It is very hard to produce great sound with a small design because at the end of the day, you need to push some air. The smaller the chassis, and the harder it is to do so. It’s not impossible, but it gets expensive. In a quiet environment this speaker is probably OK to play games, and casually listen to music.

Imaging (decent)

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Photo:in terms of photography, the Droid RAZR M is pretty decent, but it won’t unfortunately take photos that are as good as the best out there. The Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2, iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S are example of phones that would typically perform better. I’ve uploaded some samples to our flickr account so that you can see for yourself.  In broad daylight, the RAZR M will capture good pictures, but it is challenged in low-light environment. For example, I tried taking pictures in a plane.

Video: The video recording capabilities pretty much reflect the same ups and down from the photo test. In theory the RAZR M can capture 1080p movies, and again that may be worth it in broad daylight, but in dim situations you’re probably better off with 720p.

Performance (good+)

Antutu is an overall system performance benchmark (CPU, graphics, storage), and what it shows is that overall, most recent phones land in a comparable performance footprint. This means that unless you do something very specific (like “gaming” or “downloads”), those phones should provide a similar overall performance. Note that this benchmark tends to scale with the number of cores, which is not always the case in real-world situations.

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The Droid RAZR M performs really well, ranking second among the dual-core phones that we have tested. That’s pretty good and this confirms our overall impression during the test. Number crunching is actually pretty fast.

Nenamark 2 is a test aimed at measuring the graphics processor performance. It is handy, but keep in mind that the latest games use much more complex techniques that are not represented in this test.

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The 30+ Megapixel/sec score is a bit deceiving here. Durning the test, the RAZR M scored a perfect 60FPS speed, and this basically means that the hardware maxes out the benchmark because of the relatively low screen resolution. There are simply not enough pixels to push the GPU any further.

This is not a bad thing. Basically, this means that there is extra graphics horsepower available for additional effects etc. I’m not quite sure why the gaming performance in Riptide GP isn’t better than it is, but it may be possible that some thermal limit is being enforced to prevent the phone from heating up. After playing with Riptide GP, the phone was not even warm.

SunSpider is a Javascript test that mostly measures how good the Javascript engine is. Performance jump of 100% have been witnessed after software updates, so keep in mind that this may not be a great CPU test. It also uses a single-core, so it won’t be able to differentiate much between single and multicore architectures. Also, please don’t consider it to be a “web performance” test, because it is not. Most of the perceived web performance is felt during the load time and rendering time, both of which often have nothing to do with Javascript performance.

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Despite being the latest Motorola phone, the RAZR M doesn’t seem to benefit from a more optimized JavaScript Engine. Still, it outperforms the Samsung Galaxy S3 in this test, so I don’t think that people will complain about the JavaScript performance. It’s just a little surprising.

“Perceived performance”: Synthetic benchmarks can only carry us so far. What they don’t show for example is the user experience is smooth and responsive (responsiveness is not always solved with brute-force processor power). In the end, what good is raw performance for if you can’t perceive it?

While the Droid RAZR M doesn’t provide the absolute best performance, you would only feel that when playing intensive polygonal 3D games. For the day-to-day tasks and general user interface navigation, the RAZR M is fluid and very responsive in general.

Battery life (excellent)

motorola droid razr m review 17 640x424During a typical 24hrs of use, my battery went from 100% down to 60%, which I thought was pretty impressive. To optimize the battery life, I have enabled a couple of simple rules from the Motorola Smart Actions:

1/ when in the office or at home, shut down the wireless broadband. Other phones do this as well.

2/ I’ve also activated a “no motion, no data” rule, so that if I leave my phone on a desk or something like that, it won’t sync until I pick it up again. This has been working quite transparently, and in theory those rules should help further extend the battery life.

Software is a huge part of the battery life performance, and this should not be underestimated. The best way to reduce power is still to not use the circuitry when it’s not needed. For that, Motorola has provided excellent tools that can be tailored to your own usage.

I also left the Nenamark 2 benchmark wait screen run for 60mn, and it took away about 14% of the Motorola RAZR M’s battery. I use this test to simulate a mild game’s power consumption.

Keep in mind that battery life varies a lot depending on the apps that run in the background, your network reception, your local network density and the amount of time that the: display is ON. You can always refer to the Android battery report to see what is consuming the power. Finally, keep in mind that network transactions generated by apps can appear as “Android” as it is ultimately the OS that handles those transactions.

Conclusion (very good)

Motorola has delivered what was promised in the pitch of this product. The Motorola Droid RAZR M has a compact and light design that is robust and should not shatter easily. There isn’t a whole lot of internal storage (8GB), but it is possible to expand it greatly for about $20. This phone is primarily targeted to regular users who want a no-nonsense 4G LTE Android smartphone that is small with a great battery life. For that, the Motorola Droid RAZR M is near-perfect.

Filed in Cellphones >Featured >Reviews. Read more about Android, droid, Motorola and Verizon.

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