Hands-on: Motorola Razr Ice Cream Sandwich review

When the Razr came out at the end of last year, we maintained that it was a more exciting phone than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. That's mainly because the Razr is an impressive-looking device. It's rugged and stylish - we've dropped ours countless times, and it still looks nearly new - and we thought, at the time, that an update to Ice Cream Sandwich was weeks, rather than months away.

It turned out that it would be nine months before UK users would be moved from Gingerbread up to the frozen cream-based sandwich. The Razr remains a great phone, though, its looks are love them or hate them, but we're honestly big fans of its weird chin, and Kevlar back. Now though, that much-promised software has arrived, and the phone feels new again. So how good a job has Motorola done on bringing ICS to the Razr? Let's find out.

No Jelly Bean

And straight away, we find ourselves lusting after the newest Android. Make no mistake, Ice Cream Sandwich is a great step forward, in many ways, from Gingerbread. Visually, it's more stylish, the menus are a little clearer, and we love the settings area - which has been improved enormously.

But, the rub is, Jelly Bean adds some amazing features. For example, Cards, which allow the phone to give you information in a slick and well-presented fashion. Once told where you live, Jelly Bean will give you a card that always tells you how far you are from home, at driving speeds. It might sound daft, but the inclusion of traffic data into that means that people like us, who always leave late, are finally given a way to find out how long their journey home will take. It looks great too.

The Bean also brings really epic voice recognition. So good, in fact, that it gives Siri a run for its money. Google has, of course, always been pushing voice control but, like Apple, has no doubt found that people just want to use their phones that way. But we still enjoy sending text messages via voice command, it's just easier.

Motorola hasn't ruled out Jelly Bean for the Razr, but we honestly can't see it happening now. If it really takes a year for it to port Ice Cream Sandwich, then Jelly Bean would still be 10 months away, and by then we'll be in a whole new phone cycle. We're happy to be proven wrong though...

The upgrade process

The last time we did a major over-the-air update on a phone, it bricked a perfectly good Sony Ericsson. These updates are always worth doing, but they are nail-biting times too. But we're happy to say that Motorola has got this bang on the money. We were notified at about 4pm that we had the update, then just a few minutes later, the 300MB install file was downloaded. From there, the phone upacks it, and starts to apply the update. It does give you a chance to defer, if you need to use the phone, so there should be no worries about losing your contact with the world while it does its thing.

The unpacking and installing process takes a while. We'd say, from download to being back into the phone again you should allow about 30 minutes. And, obviously, make sure your phone is charged, or plugged in, when you start.

Once the install is complete, the phone optimises your apps for the new version of Android. This does, in some way, make us think we should do a full reset of the phone, to make sure everything is up-to-scratch. There might not be any scientific reason to do this, but that hasn't stopped us from giving it serious thought. One thing we did notice, was that initially the phone didn't run at all well. We needed to restart it again before the performance became what we expected. It is now very smooth, though.

The home screens

The first thing you see is the all-new layout for phones. Now, there is a permanent tray at the bottom of the screen with four quick shortcuts to access your favourite applications. The original Razr had similar, but now you get a menu button too, so rather than having to give up a slot, you get four plus the menu. Perhaps a small change, but it's also more consistent across devices.

With ICS, home screens work differently in two important ways. The first is that you can now resize widgets. This means you can stretch something to fit the whole screen, or to any other proportion that suits you. We like this a lot, although app support for it - you need higher resolution graphics - is a bit patchy.

The other change is that, by default, new app installs will automatically appear on your home screen. This is a bit of a mixed bag because it means you end up with two icons for every app. One on a home screen, and one in the app tray.

Also worthy of note is the recent and currently running apps pop-up. Press and hold home, and you'll see all the currently running apps, along with those you've recently used. This system improves upon the press-and-hold-home-button functionality, and you can dismiss apps too - which makes killing an app app a lot easier. All of this stuff runs quickly on the Razr, which we're very pleased to see, as an update that's slower is no update at all.

As you might expect, because this handset has hardware buttons, there's no need for - and Motorola has disabled - the on-screen controls. This does make for a slightly better experience in our view. While on-screen controls are fine, it's still a use of valuable screen space that we could live without quite happily.

Amazing email

We're big fans of Gmail, to be honest. But Android just makes it easier to love the service, because it integrates so well. The Gmail app continues to get better, and the included version here is by far the best yet - as you'd hope. The new layout is clean and clear, and seems to make good use of the available space on screen. This is important with phones, as screen real estate is at a premium.

Face unlock and the lock screen

It's a pretty useless feature, but being able to unlock your phone with your face is at least something to show your iPhone-owning friends that they can't do. Not that they'd probably want to.

Still, it is available here on the Razr, so we had a play, and it works well, although showing it a photo of your face is almost certainly enough to get into the phone. Still, pull a silly enough expression and that will make hacking attempts harder! Android 4 comes with lots more lock screen options, and it's well-implemented on the Razr. When you're listening to music with Play Music, the controls will appear on the lock screen. But you'll also have the option to get to the phone, camera and SMS app. It really speeds things up.

What's more, if you don't use a lock code, you can still access the notifications area when the handset is locked. This is really handy, and saves messing around unlocking when you just want to see if you've missed calls and text messages.

Data block

We've had some problems in the past hitting our network-enforced data cap accidentally. We've never really been sure how this happens, as most of the time we use Wi-Fi for such things.

But here, you can at least put data locks on and stop the device from going over a hard limit. And it's now much easier to see what applications have been munching through the data. Handy for troubleshooting, we'd say.

Chrome for Android

If you ask us, getting support for Google Chrome on Android is the single best reason to upgrade to ICS. We never minded the stock Android browser, but Chrome makes it look like a pile of nonsense.

Now, with Chrome, you get fast browsing, with far better support for tabs than before and an amazingly simple user interface. We think Chrome should be bundled here, but it isn't - download it at once when you have installed the update.

Worth it or not?

We've been waiting for this update for a long time, and now it's here we find ourselves genuinely pleased. Motorola might have taken its sweet time, but the update is smooth, and adds lots of new features to an already great phone.

Perhaps, most importantly of all though, we found the performance to be brilliant. It felt sluggish at first, but a couple of phone restarts got it going properly, and now the Razr feels like a phone that was designed for this version. We were slightly surprised by how responsive it is, but that's a good thing and it should help people fall in love with this handset all over again.

To some extent, we think the firm should probably have ignored Ice Cream Sandwich and gone directly to Jelly Bean. After all, that OS was announced a long time ago, and there are already devices running it successfully. Now the wait for the next update has started, and we have this dreadful feeling it will never come.

If you have yet to update, its well worth checking your phone's "update" option in settings if you haven't already been prompted to update. If you have, but haven't yet, please take it from us that it runs well, adds plenty and looks brilliant. It's really like having a new phone again, and it might be overdue, but we're still very pleased to have Ice Cream Sandwich.