Motorola RAZR i

The Motorola RAZR i is arguably the first mainstream Android handset to launch with an Intel chipset inside. 

There have been some predecessors, the Orange San Diego for example, but with the RAZR i slated to launch in Europe and Latin America, it has its sights set on a much larger market than the Orange-branded handset.

The Motorola RAZR i shares many of its specs and all of its design with the Motorola RAZR M, a Qualcomm-packing alternative that launched in the US, initially under the Droid name with Verizon. 

So why the change in chipset? Doesn't this just make things more complicated for Motorola when it comes to manufacture and support? Ours isn't to reason why, ours is just to review and, well, help you decide whether this Intel-based Android smartphone meets the mark. 

Design

Motorola has pushed design to the fore in the RAZR i. Teased and then launching with the claim of an edge-to-edge display, it's not until you put the RAZR i next to the 2011 RAZR that you really appreciate what Motorola has done. Yes, the RAZR i has the same display as the Motorola RAZR, but the phone is substantially smaller.

Trimming away the fat, the phone doesn't have excessive bezel and isn't topped and tailed by additional empty space. The result is a handset that measures 60.9 x 122.5 x 8.3mm. It can't claim to be the slimmest handset around, but it's impressively compact for a phone with the 4.3-inch display. An obvious rival is the HTC One S, which is slimmer, but longer and wider.

Although the edge-to-edge claim doesn't entirely ring true, there's on only a few millimetres in it. What Motorola hasn't done, however, is make a move to reduce the gap between the touch surface and the display surface, as you'll find on the iPhone 5 or the HTC One X, so although it's impressive to see efficient use of space, that's not the end of the story.

The display sits under Corning Gorilla Glass and the back of the handset is inlaid with Kevlar woven fibre. With an aluminium frame at its core, the Motorola RAZR i not only feels solid, but should withstand some abuse. We haven't put that claim to the test specifically, but we've dropped it a few times and it's been caught in the rain and suffered no damage. Like previous Motorola devices, the RAZR i is protected with Splash Guard, so will withstand the odd splash.

In the hand the phone feels solid too. There's no sign of flex or creaking so Motorola chalks up it's first win on the build front.

If there's one aspect of the design we're not so keen on, it's the bottom edge of the display. The glass is surrounded by an aluminium frame and the edge of this is sharp, so sweeping your thumb or finger up from the bottom catches this edge.

As this is a sealed package, there's no access to the internals of the RAZR i. You can't access the 2000mAh battery, but you do get the option to add extra memory, thanks to a microSD card slot. This hides under a flap alongside the micro SIM slot.

On the top of the phone is a standard 3.5mm jack, the bundled headset is typical and easily bettered with a decent set of third party headphones. The Micro-USB lies on the left-hands side with the rest of the buttons ranging down the right.

There is a power/standby button, volume rocker and dedicated camera button on the right-hand side and that's as far as physical buttons go. 

This being an Ice Cream Sandwich device at launch, there are three touch controls across the bottom of the display. Rather than have a permanent touch area off the display, this is actually part of the display, with the digital touch icons being able to rotate to suit the orientation of the device, and disappear when viewing something full screen.

Display

The big headline for Motorola is the display. We've seen how it is tightly packed into the frame, but what about the actual performance?

The display has a resolution of 960 x 540 pixels. As this is a 4.3-inch device, this gives you a pixel density of 256ppi. That's a nice high number, but sets the RAZR i a step down from the highest resolution and density displays available on current smartphones.

This is a Super AMOLED Advanced display. Like previous AMOLED displays we've seen, it's capable of producing some lovely colours, rich and saturated, but perhaps too saturated at times. This display will give you wonderfully deep blacks, but the compromise is whites, which appear a little yellow. It isn't as accomplished as the display in the HTC One X or the iPhone 5, but it performs typically for a mid-range AMOLED display.

It offers auto-brightness, although we feel this could be a little more aggressive, as we've found ourselves manually dimming it at night and having to turn it all the way up in bright conditions. If anything, we'd like it to be a little brighter to cut through reflections in bright conditions.

Intel: A smart move?

With Motorola pushing the display, the big headline for everyone else is the Intel hardware. It lends an initial to the phone's name and it's difficult not to see the RAZR i as the flagship Intel Android phone at the time of launch. Sitting at the core is a 2.0GHz Intel Atom processor, with 1GB of RAM.

The 2.0GHz single-core processor isn't the end of the story though, as this is an Intel chip that supports Hyper-Threading, which means that the core can run multiple tasks efficiently, in a similar way to multi-core processors. This is all very well, as is benchmarking the hardware to gain empirical results, however all that really matters in the real world is performance and the price cost, both financially and practically.

The Motorola RAZR i might be the first mobile device to have a single-core processor clocked at 2.0GHz, but Intel made a point of saying that this would compete with dual core devices already in the market. That claim rings true in our experience and were it not for the branding of Intel Inside on the back of the handset, there would be little to reveal that this phone was different from any other.

In daily operation that much is true. Android runs very smoothly indeed, Ice Cream Sandwich is slick and fast in operation, even with some of Motorola's tinkering to tweak Google's mobile OS. It's not till you dig a little deeper that you see the differences. And it comes down to app compatibility.

The highest profile app that has been highlighted is Chrome. Chrome, Google's own browser, isn't compatible with the RAZR i. That's slightly amusing because one of Motorola's boasts on launching the RAZR M, the Qualcomm sibling device, was that Chrome was the default browser. Here, it won't even install. (UPDATE: Since publishing this review, Chrome has become compatible with the Motorola RAZR i.)

But that's not the only app problem that Intel brings with it. We found that Adobe Flash Player, although available through Google Play, won't install, and neither will Adobe Air. For UK users that means you won't be able to access BBC iPlayer, or the BBC Media Player designed to supplant it. ITV Player is similarly knocked out. 

 

This is perhaps a temporary problem as Flash is on the way out anyway and we're sure that developers will embrace other technologies for streaming video, as things like Netflix runs beautifully.

We're sure there are other apps that are hamstrung by the move to Intel too, but these are the most obvious that came out in our time with the phone. Hopefully this is simply a case of updating the relevant apps to ensure compatibility and as more Intel Android devices launch, the faster this should happen. Hey, one day, there might even be apps designed for Intel, as there are for Nvidia devices.

But there's a little bonus in the RAZR i too. Motorola and Intel focused on one of the core parts of the device and improved the experience of the camera, which is extremely fast to launch. We'll talk about that more in the camera section, but it's worth noting that the move to Intel isn't entirely negative.

Android 4 with a dab of Moto

Motorola used to customise its phones more heavily, but as the trend has moved towards a lighter touch, Motorola has made the smart move of letting a lot of Android's native goodness remain in place. Perhaps this has something to do with new parentage (now being owned by Google), but we spotted this trend before that acquisition started.

The Motorola RAZR i lands with Ice Cream Sandwich with a Jelly Bean update promised, but no firm date given. Moto has customised icons and but generally speaking the UI looks and feels like ICS, retaining the default styling for things like toggle switches and app styles.

 

The mainstay of Motorola's customisation is based around the home pages. Android fans will love the fact that sitting off the left of the main homepage is a settings toggle screen. Swipe the homepage to the right and you'll enter this area, giving you access to controls for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, as well as a link through to the settings menu.

It's similar to the shortcuts that you'll find on something like the Samsung Galaxy S III in the notifications area, but we prefer this approach: it's clear and easy to access, we just wish you could customise the settings available to control.

The other addition is the Circles widget. This tackles the triumvirate of time, weather and battery life in circles. It also handily will house notifications, so the latest SMS or missed call will drop into a circle so you can see it at a glance. It's a small, but delicate, touch and one that works nicely.

The other area that Motorola has tackled is automation. Called SmartActions, the idea is that you can automate particular tasks, with the phone making suggestions. Essentially these actions can be used to change typical settings to suit your environment: you might want to have a sleep mode where the phone is silenced, except for calls from your family. Or you might have  a driving mode that will automatically reply to SMS messages to let your contacts know you can't reply because you're driving.

 

These SmartActions are simple to setup and customise, making it easy to have the phone behave the way you want it to in every given situation.

Elsewhere on the software front - aside from a driving hub, which easily puts major functions at your fingertips - the phone is very much a straight Android experience. There's no provision for services like MotoCast as there was in the past: the entertainment experience is that from stock Android.

You might be disappointed to find that there's no application for streaming media from your home server, so you'll have to look to third-party apps to complete the puzzle, but you can send playback to compatible DLNA devices from the video apps directly.

The music player is reasonable though, with an in-built equaliser to adjust the audio to your preference. You get controls from the notifications area and the lock screen, which are very welcome. Video playback looks great on that display too and we found the RAZR i would happily playback full HD video in various formats without complaint.

With Chrome sadly lacking, you're left with a stock browser, although in fairness the performance is pretty solid. You get all the features you expect from an Android browser, with a little added touch, where Motorola has incorporated the current website's favicon and displays it on the browser icon.

Cameras

There are two cameras on the Motorola RAZR i, with the obligatory front-facing module for calling, and a main 8-megapixel unit on the rear. As we mentioned before, Intel and Moto have worked to make the camera a fast loader and shooter and it works.

The dedicated button on the side of the handset can be used to launch the camera app, which literally happens in a flash (pardon the pun), so you're ready to compose your shot instantly. It works from a locked phone too, restricting access to anything other than the camera app, so it isn't a security shortcut.

If you don't want that launch you can turn it off, but we like it. It's also worth pointing out that having carried the RAZR i around for a while, we haven't ever launched the camera by accident, or taken photos of the inside of our pocket.

The camera app has been modified from the stock Android, making access to a number of features nice and easy. You can add some minor effects and change a few settings, but it isn't as controllable as the camera on, say, the Sony Xperia S, which we still like a lot.

The RAZR i offers touch focusing, as well as relatively speedy continuous autofocus, but lacks the speed of HTC's prefocusing system, which snaps in much faster. Like many others, the RAZR i offers burst shooting. This will rattle off 10 shots in under a second, so you can pick out the one that captures the perfect moment.

It's a neat system, but we've had a couple of occasions where it hasn't worked perfectly cleanly and sometimes leads to a freeze, either before capture or after. Elsewhere you have an HDR mode, which seems to work pretty well.

The camera performance is good, certainly good enough for social sharing, returning nice results in good light. In low light conditions there's plenty of noise in shadows, but this is to be expected.

Video performance is similarly good. Again you get continuous autofocus, but miss out on touch focusing. It can be a little slow and as focus shifts there's an obvious pulse as it settles down, so not as slick as the best video offerings out there.

But our biggest irritation regarding the camera is the shutter noise. You can't turn it off and even when you silence the phone, it insists on still making the horrible noise. We resorted to downloading a silent camera app to avoid it, because there are times – weddings, dinners, in public toilets, whatever - when that shutter noise is inappropriate. 

Final points: Battery life, wireless connections

Motorola pushed battery life as one of the key areas at the launch of the Motorola RAZR i. Intel joined this chorus, singing from the same song sheet. It's perhaps amusing that both the RAZR i and the Qualcomm-based RAZR M both get cited as 20-hours battery in mixed use, again suggesting there's no real difference between the chipsets when it comes to efficiency.

In the real world, however, the Motorola RAZR i exhibits great staying power. With a 2000mAh battery - higher capacity than both the HTC One S and the One X too - it will easily out-last both handsets. We've found that on typical days, the Motorola RAZR i will see us through the work day and into the evening, without the battery being a worry.

If battery life is important to you, and it really should be, then Motorola is ahead of the pack with the RAZR i.

On the wireless front, we've found an oddity with Wi-Fi. The RAZR i struggled to get on with our BT HomeHub, but was happy to connect to a Wi-Fi extender on the same network, suggesting this is a problem specific to the HomeHub hardware. It's something to keep an eye on, but we found that a restart of the BT router would let us connect.

However, we've also found the GSM radio performance to be very good: the RAZR i has given us a better connection in locations that other handsets have struggled with. Often we don't comment on mobile network connections specifically, given the number of operator variables, but in this instance, the performance was certainly noteworthy.

Verdict

There are some things that the Motorola RAZR i gets very right: the design is solid, the battery performance is impressive, and the user interface hasn't veered too far from Android's goodness, but brings a few nice additions.

But then we come back to the question about the Intel hardware. Obviously, app compatibility is a concern, especially for early adopters, and muddies the waters somewhat as you have an Android device that doesn't run all Android apps. For this, we have to knock a mark off what is a great mid-range Android handset. 

But the lingering question of why still haunts us: the tried-and-tested Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset seems to offer both comparable performance, battery life and guaranteed compatibility. In this context, the move to Intel doesn't bring much to phone. 

As long as you accept that currently (and we should stress currently) there are some app limitations for the Motorola RAZR i, then you will find that this is an attractive mid-range phone.