Razer Phone review: A tough sell, even if it’s great for gamers

5

Razer is mostly known for its gaming hardware, so it was a little surprising when the company acquired phone-maker Nextbit earlier this year. Eleven months later, and it finally revealed the results of that acquisition: The Razer Phone. Just like the rest of Razer’s lineup, the company’s first smartphone was built with gaming in mind. Even so, the Razer Phone has features that would please non-gamers too. Whether it’s worth $700, however, is another question.

Hardware

At first glance, the Razer Phone looks like a larger, sturdier version of the Nextbit Robin, except that instead of plastic, the Razer is wrapped in anodized aluminum. I have to admit, however, that I was not immediately impressed with the Razer Phone’s design. It just looks like a boring black slab that doesn’t appear remarkably different from other Android handsets.

Measuring 6.24 inches long by 3.06 inches wide by 0.32 inch thick and weighing 6.95 ounces, it’s also sort of hefty. It was pretty hard to use one-handed with my small hands. What’s more, the Razer Phone has straight sides and sharp corners all the way around, which can dig into your hands. Still, the all-aluminum body does give the phone a premium feel, which can’t be said about the Robin.

Like the Robin, the Razer Phone has a power button on the right side that doubles as the fingerprint sensor. It worked well in my tests, and I was able to wake the phone with a slight touch. Sitting right above the power button is a slot for both the SIM and a microSD card. On the left side are two volume buttons, while the front-facing 8-megapixel camera sits above the display. On the back of the phone is a 12-megapixel dual-lens camera; one wide-angle lens with a f/1.7 aperture and a f/2.6 telephoto zoom lens. There’s a dual-tone LED flash next to the camera as well.

On the bottom is a lone USB-C port, and — just like the latest iPhones and Pixels — the Razer Phone does not have a headphone jack. Instead, it comes with a USB-C-to-headphone adapter that packs a 24-bit THX-certified digital-to-analog converter. Or, of course, you could just use a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Internal specs include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, an Adreno 540 GPU, 8GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and support for up to 2TB microSD cards.

Display and sound

If you’re going to boast that your phone is “made for gamers,” then the display had better deliver. Thankfully, for Razer, it certainly does. The screen is an absolutely gorgeous Sharp IGZO 5.7-inch QHD (1440 x 2560) IPS edge-to-edge display, with bright, rich colors and brilliant detail. What’s even more impressive is that the screen refreshes at rates as high as 120Hz, which is really unheard of in a globally available smartphone like this one — it’s the same refresh rate found on the iPad Pro and a Japan-only Sharp Aquos R Compact.

What this translates to is a wonderfully smooth gameplay experience, which is especially useful in action-packed titles like Titanfall Assault or Final Fantasy XV. Not all games can take advantage of the 120Hz refresh rate — most developers cap their games’ FPS in order to support all displays — but Razer is working with select devs to optimize their games for its display. Developers for games such as Shadowgun, Arena of Valor and Final Fantasy XV are already on board. Thankfully, you don’t need to be gamer to appreciate this higher-than-usual refresh rate: sifting through apps and scrolling down long webpages look smoother and more natural than on other devices. Once you see this super-fast refresh rate in action, you’ll wish it was the smartphone standard rather than the exception.

That’s not to say the screen itself is perfect, though. While it’s perfectly usable (and playable) indoors, the display is, unfortunately, hard to see in bright daylight. I often had to shield the screen with my hand just to check my notifications, and trust me, that’s not a great way to live.

Sandwiching the display on the top and bottom are two front-facing speakers, which are probably the best speakers I’ve heard on a smartphone. Each has its own amplifier and, as the phone is tuned with Dolby Atmos for Mobile, there’s hardly any distortion or crackling — even at high volumes. In short, the audio is loud, immersive and an absolute treat when playing games, watching shows on Netflix or just playing your favorite tunes on Spotify.

Software

The Razer Phone ships with Android 7.1 (Nougat) and though the UI is fairly clean, it does ship with the Nova Prime launcher preloaded. A favorite among Android users, the Prime launcher lets you customize everything from the look and feel of the desktop to mapping gestures to a variety of different functions. For example, you can map it so that swiping up will expand notifications, or so that double-tapping triggers Google Assistant. Of course, if you’d rather have vanilla Android, you can always remove the launcher. Razer is confident that it’ll get Android 8.0 (Oreo) in early 2018.

On top of that, Razer is also working with several game publishers to create custom themes that you can download from the Razer Theme Store. You’ll have to create a Razer ID account for this, but once you do, you can download and apply whichever gaming-inspired theme you fancy.

One preloaded app that I particularly like is called Game Booster. This app lets you customize the frame rate, resolution and processor clock speed for each individual game, which is great if you’d rather not make global changes that affect the entire phone. For example, if you want your games running at 120, you can set that accordingly, while leaving the rest of the phone at a lower refresh rate to conserve battery. The app also has a couple of automated adjustments. There’s Power Save mode, which automatically downscales settings to save battery, and Performance mode, which maxes out all the settings for the best gameplay experience possible.

When you do optimize the game for performance, the results are pretty great. I played a few graphically-rich games like Alto’s Adventure and Titanfall Assault and was very pleased with the rich colors and sharp detail. To be fair, they were very good even without the optimizations, but the higher resolution and increased refresh rate made them look that much smoother and sharper.

A word of caution: If you were expecting the cloud-backup solution that Nextbit’s Robin was known for, you won’t find that here. Instead of the phone offloading unused apps like Nextbit did, you’ll just have to store them the old-fashioned way — on local storage. Thankfully, the Razer Phone’s sizable 64GB of space (and up to 2TB of additional storage via microSD card) should be good enough for most people. As for documents and photos, you can store them in the cloud, thanks to Google Photos and Google Drive, just like any other Android phone.

Camera

The Razer Phone’s built-in camera is very basic, with the ability to toggle flash, HDR and a few extra features like a visual grid and a timer, but not much else. I appreciated the tap-to-focus ability, but that’s standard for most phones these days. Shutter speeds feel a touch slow, and if you do decide to use HDR, it’s even slower, with a delay of one to two seconds. You can quickly launch the camera by double-pressing the power key, and holding down the shutter button will take photos in burst mode. That’s really it.

The front-facing 8-megapixel camera takes decent selfies, with bright colors and sharp detail, but there was nothing that made me prefer it over other selfie cams. As for the photo quality of the rear camera, the results were OK but not great. Pictures taken in daylight were plenty sharp, but colors were a bit muted and weren’t as rich as I would like. Low-light photos were hit or miss as well — some looked acceptable given the right lighting conditions, but the ones that were less adequately lit looked fuzzy and noisy. As far as cameras go, you can do much, much better.

On the one hand, it’s really no surprise the camera is in the shape that it’s in. This is Razer’s first phone, and as we’ve seen with devices like the Essential PH-1, it’s very difficult for a team without loads of experience to nail a smartphone camera on their first try. That said, the Razer Phone’s camera falls well short of what we expected from a device that costs this much — I’m pretty sure gamers like to take nice photos, too. For what it’s worth, Razer has acknowledged these camera issues and it says it’s working on updates to improve the experience. We’ll see how things change once those updates are released, but for now, merely OK photos are the best you can hope for.

Performance and battery life

As mentioned earlier, the Razer Phone ships with a Qualcomm 835 Snapdragon processor as well as an Adreno 540 GPU and 8GB of RAM. I spent most of my time with the Razer Phone checking email, looking at Twitter, watching YouTube videos and playing games, with a lot of multitasking in between. For the most part, I had no noticeable issues with lag or slowdown. There were a few occasions when apps crashed during gameplay, but that didn’t happen often.

I was particularly impressed with the Razer Phone’s 4,000 mAh battery. During moderate use peppered with several intense gaming sessions, the phone easily lasted a day and a half between charges. I should note here that I used the phone under default settings, where the screen refreshes at 90hz and then changes depending on whether a higher frame rate game is running. The phone does get a little hot if you’re playing a particularly action-intensive game — Titanfall Assault, for example — but it cools down quickly. The Phone also comes with Qualcomm QuickCharge tech that lets it charge from zero to around 85% in just under an hour.

The competition

Due to the Razer Phone’s price, I thought it fair to compare it to phones of a similar price range. The Essential, for example, initially sold for around $700 (it’s since dropped to $500, however) and has a 5.7-inch QHD screen too. It doesn’t have the same refresh rate as the Razer, but that display is nothing to sneeze at, either. Yet, the Essential falters when it comes to its speakers and doesn’t do well when it comes to photo quality.

When compared to other Android flagships, the Razer Phone holds its own in terms of price and battery life. The Pixel 2 is $649 while the Pixel 2 XL is $849, and both also promise a pretty impressive battery life, each lasting more than a day with average use. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus up the ante with Super AMOLED “Infinity Displays” that wrap all the way around, with a design language that is far sexier than the Razer’s blocky look. The Samsungs also have great battery life, with the S8 Plus lasting around two days on average. But you’ll have to pay for that, as the S8 and S8 Plus are $750 and $850 each.

Wrap-up

Razer definitely nailed the “phone for gamers” ethos, with its beautiful display, buttery smooth performance and ear-tingling speakers. Its performance as a regular ol’ phone isn’t too bad either, as those same qualities are great for other fun activities like watching videos and listening to tunes. Plus, battery life is stellar, which is great news for gamers and non-gamers alike. That said, if you wanted a stylish phone with a good camera and a display that works great outdoors, we’d advise you to look elsewhere. For those who care about gaming above all else, though, Razer has your back yet again.