Motorola RAZR review

4 out of 5
Dependent on contract

For

Huge screen, decent battery life in normal use, light, stylish

Against

Unwieldy, perhaps too big, not as quick as it could be, OLED screen not perfect

If nothing else, 2011 has been an exciting year for phones that aren't the iPhone. Android continues its evolution, new handsets are popping up all the time and many of them are stunning. Two of the biggest this year are the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and this, the Motorola RAZR.

It's a new design, but a really old name. But it's got form because the original RAZR sold by the boatload. Pre-iPhone, it was the phone that everyone had to have. So is the new RAZR the phone that everyone will want to be seen with, or is it just another massive Android phone?

Going for the iPhone

It's clear from the design of the RAZR that Motorola has the iPhone in its sights. Indeed, the phone has a lot of the less desirable quirks of the iPhone. For example, it uses a micro SIM, which is a massive pain for anyone who switches SIM cards a lot - phone reviewers, say - and it's got a non-removable battery too. In reality, neither of these things will put many people off buying the phone, although both are less than desirable.

On the plus side, the RAZR beats the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus in one crucial regard. It has expandable memory. There's 16GB of in-built storage, which is pretty generous, equalling that of the Nexus and there's a microSD slot too, which can add another 32GB. If you love music, then that's about as good as things get.

Something we can't quite put our finger on

The RAZR is certainly a unique looking device. It's large, which is the first thing you notice. It fits in a man's pocket well, but Pocket-lint's significant other noted it was far to big for a lady. Your mileage will vary, of course, but if you want something small, this isn't the phone for you.

And that's part of the usability problem. Like all big phones, we found it a struggle to hold the phone securely in one hand, and reach across the whole phone with our thumb. To use the phone one-handed, you really have to balance the handset on your fingers and it's a bit precarious.

The good news is that the Kevlar back is pretty good at keeping it in place. It has a softness to it that means it grips your hand well. It's certainly preferable to phones with a smooth back, like the Samsung Galaxy S or the slippery HTC Sensation XL, which lacks that extra friction. Plus, with this being a material used in body armour, it might keep you safe on the streets too. 

Around the phone you'll find various controls. The main android buttons - of which there are four - are capacitive touch and work really well. There's a standby button on the right of the device which wakes the phone, or puts it to sleep. Then, below that, there's a volume rocker switch, which is tricky to find during calls. At the top, there's Micro-USB and mini HDMI out along with a sensibly-located headphone socket.

On the left of the phone, a flap conceals the micro SIM slot and the microSD reader.

There's a camera, LED flash and speaker on the rear. This location means that watching video and listening to audio out-loud can be muffled by careless finger placement, and it's yet another phone where we needed to use our hand as a deflector to get sound from the back of the device, out to our ears - at the front.  

Call quality

An often overlooked feature of mobile phones is how they handle phone calls. We know, crazy.

On the positive side, this Motorola is actually a very comfortable phone to hold against the side of your face. The size is, somehow, just right. It's big, but it feels like a proper phone. The lip, on the rear cover, really helps you to keep a grip of it too, which adds to the experience.

On the downside, the earpiece seems to have a rattle to it, so even at modest volumes, the sound seems to distort slightly when the other person raises their voice. We didn't seem able to stop this no matter what we tried.

Back on positives though, the call quality is clear and crisp, and we had no problem hearing the people we called. What's more, the earpiece was loud enough, something we have found not to be the case on some modern handsets.

The vibration/rattle distortion of the earpice is really little more than a minor worry. It could even be limited to our review sample. Overall, there are more positives to the calling experience than negatives.

Audio quality and music

The Motorola music app is good. There is access to all your own music, via a simple user interface borrowed from the stock Android one. There are also Internet radio stations, and access to DLNA servers. There's a podcasting section too, but the selection doesn't include the Pocket-lint podcast, and thus is little value to humanity. 

Sound quality is excellent too, something neglected in several previous Motorola phones - the Milestone 2 is the worst sounding phone we've ever heard. You get EQ settings too, that make a real difference and sound great. 

MotoCast

Also included, is Motorola's MotoCast. A PC client allows you to access music from your computer, on your phone, either via Wi-Fi networks, or 3G. It works on both Windows and Macs, and the app is free. Although the app on your phone is limited to Motorola devices, you can use it on old phones too, including the original Milestone. 

This sounds like one of those very cool things that is very exciting when you first hear about it, but with data caps being quite restrictive these days we can't see it getting much use out and about. And in your house, you're likely to be near enough to your computer to just use it, instead of the phone. 

Photos and video

We've loaded the image gallery below with some images taken by the Motorola RAZR. Photos can be good, in good light. There is certainly a decent amount of detail in many of the images, with reasonably natural, if a little muted, colour.

Turn down the lights, and focusing becomes more troublesome, and you're less likely to get a well-focused shot, and much more likely to get a lot of camera shake and noise.

Video is a little disappointing, and this should be considered 1080p in name only. The quality reminds us more of a 8mm video camera from the 90s. There is that quite washed out look, and overwhelming greyness which just doesn't impress us. Highlights also blow out severely too, which gives it a further, old fashioned look.

With both video and photos you do get to use Motorola's decent camera app. There's an LED light, which can be used as either a flash or video light. You also get control over the exposure for both photos and videos. There are effects too, which are wholly pointless but might prove a diversion if you're bored.

More useful, on video, is the "audio scenes" mode, which allows you to set the sound up to suit the environment you're in. There's a wind reduction mode (quiet at the back) which aims to cut out the booming sound you get from wind outside. You can also choose how much sound you pick up from the front and rear of the camera. As a result, interviews can be balanced to include both people, but you can also opt for sound only from the front of the phone too - pointing out, toward your main subject.

Gingerbread, not Ice Cream Sandwich

Possibly the biggest faux pas of the RAZR is that it is being sold with Google's older operating system pre-installed. Most people are excited to see Ice Cream Sandwich, and are likely to be put off by the previous version running on this phone.

However, this isn't a massive deal in day-to-day life. While no one can argue that ICS brings with it a lot of advancements, and is a brilliant update to Android, Gingerbread remains an excellent operating system. The big advantage of it is that a lot of people are aware of how it works now, and where to find everything.

Of course, with Motorola Mobility having been acquired by Google, it's fair to assume that future flagship Android handsets will be made by Motorola, not HTC or Samsung. It's also quite likely that this phone will be the last major release to feature the whiff of Motorola's MotoBlur overlay.

However you feel about the OS, this is likely to be make or break for a lot of people. Bear in mind too, that although it doesn't ship with ICS, the RAZR will get it early next year. So if you must have the latest, there's not long to wait.

We also want to give a shout out to the included keyboard app too. It's awful. Really, we can't understand why handset manufacturers think they can better the stock keyboard from Gingerbread - the Ice Cream Sandwich one is great too. So download a third-party version if you want a better time of it. 

In your inbox

One of the things that Motorola offers, on this phone, is the chance to have Twitter, Facebook email (but not Gmail) and SMS messages bundled in to one place. This sounds useful, but it really isn't. One of the things that Windows Phone 7 offers, that we like, is the opportunity to merge certain messages in to one place. This means that our work and main personal email can be combined. What we do not want, is for Twitter DMs and Facebook chats to be chucked in to the mix too. 

We don't know why Gmail can't be included in the unified inbox, but given most Android users will also be Gmail users, this is infuriating and renders the whole affair pointless. 

Not quite as fast as we expected

One of the things we really were baffled by was the speed of the phone in use. We didn't feel that the RAZR was as quick as a dual-core phone should be. In fact, thinking back to the Atrix, we aren't sure it feels as fast as that phone did.

Having said that, Motorola has put another layer of, largely unnecessary, shine on the user interface. Moving reflections appear on widgets and buttons as you switch home screens and the whole interface has been tweaked to give the phone a unique look and feel. Perhaps disabling these features, switching to a different launcher would help give it a speed boost. Perhaps Ice Cream Sandwich will bring better performance too, especially if Motorola goes for a more basic Android interface.

Do make sure you use the weather live wallpaper Motorola provides though. It's a beautiful piece of design that animates based on the weather in your region. It no doubt uses power, but to see fog and rain appear in a silhouetted Forest still gives us a little thrill when we unlock the phone.

The RAZR specification is decent. There's a 1.2GHz dual core processor (It's a Cortex A9, also found in the iPhone 4S) and graphics are provided by a PowerVR SGX540. There's a generous 1GB of RAM too, which should keep things from slowing down too much. 

Battery life

Here we have some good news. In normal use, generally at one location all day, but with phone calls, text messages, web and email access and the occasional chukka on Tiny Tower, we could get a full day out of the phone. Drop the gaming, and this phone outlasts virtually every other Android handset on the market. This all assumes you don't turn on the power-draining "social" hub features.

The power source is a 1750mAh battery, which is a little above average for a mobile phone - the largest tends to be 1800mAh. Which might explain why we were not disappointed by its performance. 

Verdict

We don't usually feel confused by a phone. But the Razr offerers so much with one hand, then bats it away with the other. We like the unusual design. Motorola hasn't just "done an Apple" and built a clone phone. What it's done is thought about the style and design, and put together something that impresses from the moment you hold it.

We like the screen, although we're not crazy about AMOLED, we quickly found that it was bright, clear and detailed. The 256ppi 4.3-inch screen is not, technically, that high resolution, but it didn't look especially coarse to us, and we soon settled in to its typical AMOLED green tone. Gamers will love the vibrancy of the colours too, which are very impressive. We still think that the iPhone and HTC Sensation have the best screens on the market - the iPhone wins, because of its high resolution IPS  display - but the Razr doesn't disappoint either.

If the battery life wasn't good, we'd moan about the lack of removable power, but we don't have any major longevity issues. We hate the micro SIM, but that's just the onward march of progress.

The speed, for us, is a worry. Why do we see stuttering when returning from the menu to the home screen. The stock text message app is a little oppressive too, with its dark colours and basic layout. We suggest you check out Go SMS in the Market, if you want something more stylish and customisable.

The Motorola customisations are fine, for the most part. The messaging app for email and social networks is reasonable, but we don't like all of our interactions jumbled up in to one place, so, long-term, we wouldn't actually use it.

Many thanks to Clove, who lent us the Motorola Razr for review.