(Pocket-lint) - Few phones can claim to be iconic. The Motorola Razr, however, is one such phone. It was the device to establish the flip phone as a truly memorable piece of technology. And almost 15 years after the original, the Razr phone is back for a new generation.
There's been a lot of buzz around the launch of this new Motorola. Not only does it show the company's lean towards a more premium market, it single-handedly presents some creative design ideas that others haven't successfully implemented thus far.
But is it all rose-tinted nostalgia or does the new Motorola Razr genuinely cement this flip phone as king in the world of foldables? We got our hands on the new handset at the Los Angeles launch event to see what all that fuss is about.
What's a flip phone?
- Foldable clamshell design with patented hinge mechanism
- Stainless steel and glass construction
- Fingerprint scanner in 'chin' section
- Sub-14mm thickness
If you think about any smartphone you've had in your pocket over the last decade, it'll most likely be a single-screen solution. That's a fairly logical approach to getting what you need displayed across a screen. But over the years such devices' dimensions, on account of larger screens, have enlarged to sometimes mammoth proportions.
Enter the idea of flexible displays, then, and the current offerings opt to double-down on that screen size – there's the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X – making a more tablet-like scale that folds into normal phone proportions. It doesn't really solve the expanding screen real-estate.
The Motorola Razr essentially flips that on its head (even though it's been done before): this clamshell design is effectively a half-size phone, which flips out (hence the name) into fully formed device. As it uses a POLED display (that's plastic OLED) there's no need for two screens: this is one panel, which is flexible and folds down the centre without leaving a crease (and it really doesn't – we've been eyeing it up very closely from all angles to try and catch it out).
There's a reason for that absence of a crease. Unlike the other flexible display devices, the Motorola uses a stainless steel frame that ensures a sub-flush fitting. There's also a propietary hinge mechanism that sees moving plates slide into place behind the screen, maintaining rigidity and form. As the screen is held into its place more than other flexible devices should mean it'll remain free of the dreaded crease, so the theory goes.
Motorola isn't saying how many times it has tested this folding mechanism, only that it believes two years of use from a normal user will be of no concern. That fit and a nano coating is designed to ensure the screen can't be exposed to the elements too – which is a problem Samsung found with its first Fold device – to ensure no screen blow-out occurs.
The Razr doesn't just offer the one screen, though, there's a so-called Quick Display on the front for at-a-glance notifications and interaction. Just like with the original, you can answer a call by flipping the phone open (or hanging up by flipping it shut, oh the satisfaction when on a spam call), or entertain a variety of other tasks, such as emails, music, and any of those typical Google-supported functions. See something urgent and you can seamlessly jump into the full-screen mode by flipping the Razr open.
A slight downer, however, is getting the phone open is a touch fiddly. It's not difficult, it's just not as elegant in finding a gap to slip a finger over to get it open. It closes with a satisfying snap, though. And there's no lock button or other such annoyance to get in the way – you're free to open and close this phone as you please, probably with fidget-spinner frequency.
In its closed form the Razr's 14mm thickness might sound quite hefty, but it's still perfectly pocketable. Unfold it and you won't cut that thickness down, however, as the 'chin' portion of the phone – which is reminiscent of the original device – remains in place at the base, which is where the fingerprint scanner exists.
At first we thought this chin would make the screen – which is dipped 'lower' behind it, behind the chin protrusion – would make it hard to use the on-screen Android keys or Moto's One Button Nav system. Having used it, however, it doesn't; everything feels natural and nothing gets in the way. The scanner button intentionally doesn't support gesture input either, meaning you have to revert to the screen itself.
Sure, there's some nostalgia appeal to such a design, but it's not a form factor that exists solely for that reason. This is a design that's functional, that stands out, that feels different – but not for the wrong reasons. If you loathe the idea of an additional physical motion to get to your full-screen experience then the Razr probably isn't for you. But if you're the kind of person who scratches your phone's screen to pieces then, well, think of the benefit here: the screen, folded in upon itself, is self protecting, avoiding scratches and blemishes.
Are two screens better than one?
- Main screen: 6.2-inch POLED (plastic OLED)
- 2142 x 876 pixels, 21:9 aspect ratio
- Front screen: 2.7-inch GOLED (glass OLED)
- 800 x 600 pixels, 4:3 aspect ratio
However, POLED has one inherent issue: it's plastic coated and, therefore, reflective. You might think any glass-coated screen would be just as bad, but there's a certain quality to the Razr's main display that, in strong directional light, really catches the light. It's not unforgivable, of course, it's just one fact of such devices.
The 6.2-inch panel itself is otherwise quick to activate upon opening, of ample brightness (we had to keep turning it down to try and balance out the photos you see in this very article) and the resolution isn't as low as it may read on paper.
No, the Razr's main screen doesn't have as many pixels as many flagships, but then its 21:9 aspect ratio means it's not quite as wide, so don't read into that too much: you'll get as much detail as you need, without the negative effect of rapid battery depletion that an overly resolute display would risk.
So what of the second screen on the front? Called the Quick Display, this GOLED panel (that's glass OLED, as made by Samsung) is fairly small, but perfectly clear. It's like an always-on display that brings greater possibility of interaction. You can also control which notifications show here on an app-by-app basis to ensure things don't get too busy.
When a notification does come through you can press-and-hold the applicable white icon to preview it, then swipe up to fully load it on the Quick Display, are able to run some functions (such as dismiss for email) or expand into the full screen experience by flipping the phone open (such as reply in email).
It's a really effective way to cut down on excessive notifications. Think of it like a smartwatch embedded in the front of a phone, without the need to don one on the wrist, delivering the ability to see important notifications and controls that you can respond to as you see fit.
The big question, of course, is whether there's really any need for two screens? Keeping the phone closed much of the time will assist with battery life, plus in the clamshell folded position the form-factor is small enough to squeeze into even a shirt pocket. Opening the phone doesn't really feel like a bother either, nor is it a novelty that'll get boring. It's just a functional format of Razr. And we rather like that.
Hardware spec, performance prediction
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 processor, 6GB RAM
- 2510mAh battery capacity (combined)
- 15W TurboPower fast-charge
- eSIM only, 128GB storage
With all this engineering there has to be some sort of compromise though. In the Razr that could be argued in two ways: the processor is the mid-weight Qualcomm Snapdragon 710, not the latest and greatest on the market; while the 2510mAh battery total is considerably lower-capacity than many flagships.
Thing is, there's a sense of balance about that: the smaller screen being active rather than the main will go light on the battery; the mid-weight processor shouldn't overcook things; the resolution is on the safe side; and as OLED is a pixel-by-pixel illumination system it's gentler on consumption than an LCD panel. All of this should aid the battery life rather than making it a total throw-away factor. So long as the Razr outlasts the recent Google Pixel 4 then it's on the right path.
That battery is actually comprised of two cells. The design dictates that, with one larger section in the lower 'chin' section of the phone and the other behind the upper section of the screen. Motorola spent a lot of time ensuring a logical balance point for the phone, so it doesn't feel overweight to either the top or the bottom sections once unfolded. It's well considered. However, having two cells doesn't make for any quicker charging than the norm – this is a 15W fast-charging solution.
When it comes to processing power we don't think the use of Snapdragon 710 is that big a deal either. Recently we've seen the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 use a similar processor (the 730G) without significant detriment to performance. The difference there being the Xiaomi has an ultra-resolute camera, whereas the Motorola is altogether more conservative in that department, so there's nothing on the hardware front that should see this flip phone a failure.
Given the design there's no SIM tray and, therefore, no microSD expansion either. It's eSIM only – Verizon in the US at launch, no word on whether that'll change in the future just yet – and you'll have to make do with 128GB flash storage for all your files, which is just about enough for most people.
In terms of software Motorola has stuck to its guns with the recent use of a near stock Google Android operating system. That said, with that second screen implementation, this phone obviously does things differently to a typical single-screen solution. It's addressed in the simplest of ways, though, with the dedicated Moto app offering some additional Display options and a newly created Razr Tips section to help with any anomalies you might find.
Cameras: Ace or afterthought?
- 16MP camera, f/1.7 aperture (flips to be selfie and main camera)
- 5MP internal camera (for face unlock and attentive display)
One curious specification is the Motorola Razr's somewhat diminutive camera setup. The main lens, which protrudes slightly from the body, hosts a 16-megapixel sensor. It's not that it lacks in resolution, but with the Moto One series pushing camera setups to the nth degree, it's a surprise to not see something of greater significance in the Razr, such as a 48-megapixel solution (as you'll find in a phone a third of the price).
We pressed Motorola on this specification choice and the response that the Razr is all about finding the "right balance", with the "design the first decision" due to "engineering architecture [meaning that] the hinge takes up a lot of space". A higher-resolution solution, or unit with optical stabilisation, would be physically larger and take up space – and without much of that available, we suspect it would go to increasing the battery otherwise (although the lower portion of the chin has been dedicated to an acoustic chamber for improved sound output).
The quality of the camera we can't comment upon just yet, having only used it for a couple of snaps in the demo area at the launch site. As the main camera sits on the exterior, however, it also can act as an interior camera for selfies when the phone is unfolded, making it a sort-of two-in-one solution in that regard. That said there's also a 5-megapixel internal solution, largely used for face unlock and keeping the display on (when attentive display is activated within the Moto app).
Ultimately you're not going to get the wider range of features that many current flagships offer here. There's no ultra-wide lens, no zoom lens, and not too many extra bells and whistles. You do get a Night Vision mode, though, to help along with low-light shots – something other Moto One phones have handled reasonably well in recent times.
The reimagination of the Razr some 15 years after the original isn't just a play on nostalgia, it's a fully formed flip phone with a whole host of fun and functional features.
Sure, the processor isn't the best going, the cameras aren't a particularly prominent feature, and the battery life might well be questionable (we can't say for certain just yet).
But for us the 2019 Razr is the most complete foldable phone to date, one that addresses issues with screen creases and build quality in a proper and convincing way. We'd rather pocket this over the Samsung or Huawei solutions every day of the week.
Indeed, the Razr may well be the most exciting phone to launch in 2020 – and that's before we've even entered that year. So welcome back to the big league once more, Motorola.
The Motorola Razr will be available for pre-order from 26 January 2020, priced $1499.99 (or $62.49/month on Verizon's 24 month contract) in the US, with a 4 February release date. In the UK pre-orders begin 22 January, the handset an EE exclusive (a range of plans available from £94-104/month), with a 19 February release date.
This article was originally published on 14 November 2019 and has been updated to reflect pricing information
Samsung Galaxy Fold
It doesn't flip, but it does have a true folding screen in a more tablet-like form. We think the Razr is more revolutionary in its execution though.
Huawei Mate X
You can't buy it (not yet, at least), but Huawei had the most convincing foldable phone solution... until now.