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Hands-on with the Razer Phone: A smartphone with a venomous bite

By Peter Chu & Koh Wanzi - 2 Nov 2017

Hands-on with the Razer Phone: A smartphone with a venomous bite

Razer Phone

So it finally happened. The Razer Phone is Razer’s first-ever smartphone, the latest addition to the company’s expanding ecosystem of gaming-oriented peripherals, systems, and software.

This focus on the gamer is fine when we’re talking about keyboards, mice, and laptops, but things start to get a little fuzzy when it comes to phones. How exactly does one make a phone for gamers, when practically every other flagship smartphone is a specifications monster?

Consider the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, whose A11 Bionic chip blows most of the competition out of the water. On the Android side of things, every Android flagship uses the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor that the Razer Phone uses, and phones like the OnePlus 5 and the special edition of the Xiaomi Mi MIX 2 already come with the 8GB of RAM that Razer is so proudly touting.

Before we go on, here’s a recap of the phone’s specifications:

  • 5.72-inch 2,560 x 1,440-pixel 120Hz IGZO LCD display
  • Snapdragon 835
  • Rear cameras: 12MP f/1.75 wide-angle, 12MP f/2.6 zoom
  • Front camera: 8MP f/2.0
  • 64GB Universal Flash Storage
  • 4,000mAh Li-ion battery
  • 158.5 x 77.7 x 8 mm
  • 197g

Razer Phone

There’s no doubt that these are flagship-level specifications, but as we've said before, they’re not exactly groundbreaking.

Nevertheless, Razer says this is a phone for gamers, by gamers, and it’s thrown in some performance tweaks to help justify that description. According to Razer, its phone can maintain higher performance frequencies for longer periods, thanks to the cooling solution that also uses the aluminum frame as a heatsink.

There’s no way for us to test that now, so until we begin to benchmark the phone, you’ll just have to take Razer’s word on that.

Razer Phone

Of course, the standout feature on the phone is its 120Hz IGZO LCD display by Sharp. This may not be the first mobile device to use a display with such a high refresh rate – some of Sharp’s own AQUOA phones and this year’s iPad Pro already do that – but Razer says it’s the first to combine that with its dynamic refresh rate technology dubbed UltraMotion. The latter is actually based on Qualcomm’s own Q-Sync, but with tweaks for tighter integration with games and the like.

Razer Phone

Today’s smartphones are generally locked to 60Hz, so a 120Hz screen represents quite a huge leap forward. We can say that the 120Hz refresh rate does make a difference, and even simple things like scrolling through settings menus and walls of text feel more fluid.

However, the difference is quite subtle, and doesn’t appear as large a jump as moving from 60Hz to 120Hz on a desktop PC. The improvement translates to games as well, but it’s difficult to say how much of a difference it’ll actually make to improve your gameplay.

You’ll also have the option to choose your preferred refresh rate. The Razer Phone ships at 90Hz by default, likely in the interest of battery life, but you’ll be able to set it to 60Hz or 120Hz if you want without needing to restart the phone.

The IGZO panel itself is quite a joy to look at and use. It’s bright, although perhaps not as bright as certain OLED screens, and colors appeared vibrant and pleasing to the eye. Having said that, the colors aren’t quite of the retina-searing intensity you get on OLED screens, and the differences are especially obvious when you look at things like the green in Google Play.

We actually prefer the Razer Phone’s slightly more muted colors, but you may feel differently. And after all the furor surrounding the blue cast on the Google Pixel 2 XL, the good news is that there’s no obvious color shift when viewing the screen from an angle.

Design-wise, the phone is reminiscent of Sony’s Xperia models, which sport a similar no-nonsense angular design. Eagle-eyed observers will also pick out similarities to the Nextbit Robin, which featured the same straight-laced aesthetic and a fingerprint sensor integrated into the power button.

Razer Phone

Nevertheless, Tom Moss, the Senior Vice President of Razer, tells us that the phone drew more inspiration from Razer’s own Blade laptops, and it’s not difficult to see the resemblance when you look at the chrome triple-headed snake logo on the back.

Razer Phone

However, compared to glamorous, glass-backed rivals like the Samsung Galaxy Note8 and iPhone X, the Razer Phone could look almost boring. But we’ve always favored metal over glass, and the aluminum body of the Razer Phone feels solid and reassuring, with a nice heft to it. This is also a rather wide phone, so it doesn't lend itself as well to single-handed use.

It’s plain compared to some of the competition, but there’s a certain elegance to its simplicity. The matte black coating also staves off fingerprints quite well, and that’s always a welcome thing to have.

That said, some people will no doubt take offense at the sizable bezels at the top and bottom of the screen, especially considering that most 2017 flagships have favored nearly bezel-free designs.

But unlike those on the Google Pixel 2, the bezels on the Razer Phone aren’t gratuitous and actually serve a functional purpose. They house the dual front-facing stereo speakers, which may ironically be one of the best features of the phone.

Razer Phone

Each speaker is powered by its own dedicated amplifier, and they’re more than capable of filling a room with your tunes. They produce rich and full-bodied sound, and may very well one of the best phone speakers out there.

There’s even support for Dolby Atmos, which provides more accurate positional audio. However, this particular implementation of Atmos is supposedly optimized for things like games, and less so for Netflix and its titles that support Atmos (these have been tuned more for home theater setups).

It’s not just the speakers that have gotten a boost however, and the Razer Phone ships with a THX-certified USB-C-to-headphone adapter. It looks like we’re discarding the 3.5mm jack with impunity now, and headphone adapters are going to be the new normal.

Razer’s adapter isn’t just a regular one though, and it also comes with a 24-bit DAC to pump better-sounding tunes to your headphones.

Razer Phone adapter

But what if you wanted to game on your headphones and keep the 4,000mAh battery juiced up at the same time? Razer hasn't seemed to have thought of that, and it seems counter-intuitive that a phone for gamers wouldn't easily allow you to plug into the wall and your headphones for long gaming sessions.

One saving grace is the inclusion of Quick Charge 4+, the first phone to do so. Razer says the phone can go from zero to 85 percent in one hour, so you should have minimal downtime.

When it comes to the camera, Razer falls short of what we’ve come to expect from flagship phones. It uses a dual-camera setup comprising a wide-angle and telephoto lens with 2x zoom, but the camera app is still quite sparse at the moment, with no manual controls or custom filters.

It’s also missing features like slow-motion recording and portrait mode, but the good thing is that these and more will be arriving in the form of software updates over the next couple of months. Razer apparently designed the camera app with ease-of-use in mind, so that partly explains how spartan it is.

Razer Phone camera

However, what the phone could really use are some image quality improvements. In the short time we’ve had with the phone so far, we’ve already become annoyed by the obvious delay between when you hit the shutter and when the phone actually takes a picture.

For instance, we’d line up a shot of an empty street and hit the shutter button, only to have the camera take its time and take a picture when a car had zoomed into the frame. This is mostly present in low-light shots, and the speed improves when you get better lighting.

Overall, image quality was mediocre, and the camera is not this phone’s strength.

To Razer’s credit, the phone ships with stock Android Nougat 7.1.1, with Android Oreo slated to arrive sometime in Q1 2018. The interface is blissfully clean, and the only skinning you get are small things like the green brightness adjustment bar in the notification shade.

Another thing I really like is the inclusion of Nova Launcher Prime by default. This is a special Razer Edition version of the launcher with a dark menu and green settings icons, but the rest of it is good’ ol Nova.

This puts plenty of customization options within reach, and you can customize grid sizes on your home screen and drawer, resize widgets and icons, and pick your transition effects.

For something simpler, there’s the Razer Theme store, which is stocked with ready-made themes for specific games. Applying a theme from here will switch out your wallpaper and skin your icons, so it’s quick way to get a new look.

All things considered, this is a decent first attempt from Razer. It falls short conspicuously on certain fronts, such as the camera. And for a phone designed expressly for gamers, it lacks a notable piece of performance hardware, such as an especially powerful chip that's a cut above what the competition is offering. But it attempts to make its case with a compelling visual and audio experience and strategic partnerships, in addition to a nice stock Android experience. 

It'll be going up against contenders like the LG V30, Samsung Galaxy Note8, and Huawei Mate 10 Pro, which means it's got a tough battle to fight. At the end of the day, it may be its surprisingly palatable price that helps it out the most.

Price and availability

The phone will cost US$699 (~RM2,954) and will be available to buy on November 17 in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, Germany, France, Denmark, and Sweden. Customers in launch countries can also reserve the phone on Razer’s website.

There’s no news on local price and availability yet, but we’ll update once we know more.