Loudest speakers on any phone • Fastest display refresh rate on any phone • Super long battery life • Fantastic gaming performance
No wireless charging • No water resistance • No headphone jack • Average cameras • Huge ‘forehead’ and ‘chin’ bezels
The Razer Phone provides the best gaming and movie experience on any phone, but at the expense of too many other features.
The Razer Phone flies in the face of every new smartphone trend. At a time when smartphone makers are shrinking bezels and adopting OLED screens with longer aspect ratios (i.e. 18:9 or 18.5:9 or 19.5:9), rallying behind wireless charging, and pouring an ungodly amount of resources into improving the cameras or AI, the Razer Phone has none of them.
Razer’s first Android-powered smartphone launched last November. I was prepared to review it at the time, but it didn’t feel complete. It ran Android 7.1 Nougat instead of Oreo, and the camera’s features were so bare-bones it might as well have not have had one.
I’ve been using the Razer Phone on and off since it came out and have found myself unable to quit it despite its intentionally old design and feature choices. I own an iPad, an iPhone X, and a 46-inch Sony HDTV, and yet I often find myself reaching for the Razer Phone to play games or watch Netflix and YouTube instead because of its incredible display and speakers.
But now that the long-awaited Android 8.1 Oreo update is finally rolling out (I’ve been using it for a few days), there’s no better time to see if the Razer Phone can really and truly complete.
Different by design
There’s no getting around the Razer Phone’s boxy design. It’s more Hummer than Porsche, and you’ll either like it or not.
I’m surrounded by new phones all the time so the squared-off aluminum unibody is a nice change compared to the now-generic glass-and-metal “sandwiches” every new phone seems to have.
Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about the Razer Phone’s sharp corners, reflective chamfered edge, and thick micro-drilled speaker grilles that screams powerful. The downside to the blocky design means it cuts into your front pockets over time; it’s not a phone that’ll play nicely with slim or even skinny jeans.
Otherwise, I think Razer’s first stab at a phone is quite handsome. It’s clearly modeled after the equally boxy Nextbit Robin (Razer acquired Nextbit in early 2017). It’s different, and it stands out. There’s no mistaking it for an iPhone.
Many of my friends and colleagues felt the design was really outdated when compared to phones like the iPhone X, Galaxy S9, or Pixel 2, which all have more curves and greater screen-to-body ratios. But again, you’ll either embrace the Razer Phone’s utilitarian design or not.
Razer touts its phone as the best mobile entertainment experience on any phone and I have to agree. The company picked components that would work really well for playing games and watching HDR videos.
That’s why you’ll find only top-of-the-line specs, usually considered overkill, inside: a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, 8GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD card), and a 4,000 mAh battery.
For playing games, watching movies, or listening to music out loud, the Razer Phone is the undisputed king. Its Dolby Atmos-certified speakers are the loudest speakers on any smartphone by a large margin. Usually loudness on smartphone speakers come at the expense of clarity and you hear noticeable distortion. While you’ll still hear some some distortion at the highest volume level, it’s less noticeable compared to what you get on other phones.
Like many flagship phones, there’s no headphone jack on the Razer Phone. Included in the box is a THX-optimized 24-bit USB-to-headphone-jack dongle. I wish I could tell you how much of a difference the dongle makes, but I misplaced it early on and have been using the dongle that came with the Pixel 2 since. You probably wouldn’t wanna use the dongle anyway, since it’s pretty large.
Besides the phenomenally loud front-facing stereo speakers, the Razer Phone’s other shining start is its 5.7-inch inch IGZO IPS LCD display. The screen doesn’t stretch edge-to-edge and it’s not an OLED panel like the ones Apple and Samsung favor so much, but I quickly forgave Razer because the 120Hz refresh rate is just stunning.
Words can’t adequately describe the “Ultramotion” technology. In a nutshell, it’s the same idea as the ProMotion tech Apple uses in its iPad Pros. Whereas typical screens are locked to a single refresh rate (usually 60Hz), the Razer Phone’s display can automatically adjust its refresh rate based on the content it’s showing.
Ultramotion means the phone’s refresh rate can go as high as 120Hz for gaming, where high and consistent frame rates are essential for smooth gameplay (especially when there are a lot of 3D objects rendered on screen). It also means the screen can dial the refresh rate down when you’re not doing anything demanding, like reading or browsing Instagram.
If you’ve ever used an iPad Pro, you’ll know that 120Hz means the difference between not being able to read text while scrolling and being able to see it. Ultramotion is not essential by any stretch, but once you use a display that’s so responsive and smooth, it’s hard to go back.
The Razer Phone’s display is superb for serious gaming.
There’s a catch to being able to appreciate 120Hz, though: Content needs to be optimized to support it. When the Razer Phone launched, only three games worked with the high refresh rate, so it was impossible to see if developers would jump on the wagon. Fast forward six months and there are now dozens and dozens of games, including highly competitive ones, that have been reworked to take advantage of the screen’s faster refresh rates.
Games I tried included the role-playing game Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition, the superhero brawler Injustice 2, the multiplayer online battle arena favorite Arena of Valor, and Vainglory. Popular games like Minecraft and Super Mario Run are on the list of supported games as well. I played many of the same games on a Galaxy S9 Plus and Pixel 2, and I saw fewer dropped frames on the Razer Phone.
Razer knows gaming and making a phone that prioritizes it above all else is one of its greatest strengths. That said, the screen was also updated to support HDR content with Dolby 5.1 surround sound on Netflix earlier this year. I’ve watched a few HDR episodes of The Crown and Stranger Things on my iPhone X before, but it wasn’t until I binged both series’ second seasons during my commutes that I truly appreciated mobile HDR.
Ship first, patch later
I’m glad the Razer Phone is now good enough to use as a daily driver, but it shouldn’t have been this way. There’s this awful idea that it’s better to ship a incomplete product first and then fix any issues with software updates afterwards, and I don’t like it.
I’m sympathetic to business considerations, but if the product isn’t 99 percent finished when it lands in customers’ hands, it shouldn’t be sold. As Essential has learned with its own PH-1 phone, it’s almost impossible to fix a bad camera if it’s bad to begin with.
If you had asked me if the Razer Phone was worth buying at launch, I would have said no. Razer’s definitely made the right moves updating its first Android phone to deliver on the original promises, but it’s still got a lot of work ahead of it.
For example, at launch, the dual 12-megapixel rear cameras and 8-megapixel front-facing camera were – to put it bluntly — trash. Software updates have improved the picture quality, but all three are still kind of mediocre.
Photos lack the kind of dynamic range from even cheaper phones like the $500 OnePlus 5T and HDR photos are still slow to process. The promised portrait mode is still nowhere to be found and how is it possible there’s no panorama mode or slow-motion or timelapse video recording? These are basic camera features phones even budget phones have.
I’m aware Razer doesn’t have the same resources as other phone makers, but these are the basics. Now, I give props to Razer for keeping is flavor of Android nearly stock (apart from some changes to a few icons) and bloatware free, but how the company keeps overlooking the camera is beyond me.
As much as I love the loud speakers and superb next-gen screen, a crappy camera is unacceptable — definitely not okay on a $700 phone. I recall a Razer spokesperson telling me while it’s great if people ditch their iPhones or Samsung Galaxy phones for the Razer Phone, they expect most owners to buy it as a secondary device for entertainment purposes.
It’s tough for a boutique smartphone maker since the audience is niche, almost by definition. Razer has nailed making a kickass phone for gaming and movies. For the next model, it must give the camera — arguably the most important part of your phone — some much-needed love.