Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

3-month Review: Motorola Droid RAZR

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A lot of tech sites give you a review based on a journalist getting a phone in the post and spending a day – or if you’re lucky, a few days – playing with it, running benchmarks and battery tests, and maybe even taking it out of the office for a test drive. I thought I’d do something a bit different and give you my impressions of a device after a few months of using it every day.

Front view of the Motorola Droid RAZR

The Droid RAZR, seen from the front

I won’t lie: I was really excited when I heard that Motorola were launching another phone with the Razr brand. The original Razr was probably the phone that kick-started my love affair with technology – remember how amazingly thin it seemed in 2005? Many of Motorola’s Android phones, meanwhile, have been near-universally praised, starting with the original Droid/Milestone, which I owned and loved for over a year.

So how does the new Razr look after 3 months bumping around in my jeans pocket? The first thing I have to mention is the build quality. Yes, the screen is lovely Gorilla Glass, which has withstood drops, keys, coins and even a safety pin I tried on the corner. Yes, the back is smooth, tough Kevlar, which feels great to the touch and hasn’t got a mark on it either. But the edges are made of your basic run-of-the-mill ABS plastic, and unfortunately you can’t say the same about that.

Top right corner of the Motorola Droid RAZR, with drop/scuff damage

The ABS shell gets scuffed all too easily

This is the corner of the Razr’s plastic bezel after dropping it once or twice over the whole time I’ve owned it. You can see that even short drops from hand height onto tarmac have caused deep dings in the plastic, which look quite unsightly even now there’s been some time for the rough edges to wear off. There’s no doubt that the phone’s stainless steel core and high-quality front and back materials make it feel tough (and this is purely cosmetic damage, let’s be fair) but this feels like a corner-cutting oversight on what was supposed to be a flagship phone.

This takes us on to the phone’s major selling point – that 7.1mm thin body. It is almost unbelievably thin when you look at it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a joy to use. In fact, given its size, it becomes almost a disadvantage. Particularly when trying to use it with one hand, manoeuvering around the screen often means that you’re putting the phone in a precarious position where it could get dropped, and the distribution of the phone’s weight across a wide, flat surface increases that risk quite seriously. It can feel like manoeuvering your thumb around the surface of a playing card resting on your palm and fingers.

Side view of the Motorola Droid RAZR on top of a laptop

The RAZR's thinness can actually work against it when you're trying to use it with one hand

The squared-off edges and extra-wide bezel compared with the width of the screen don’t help, and I’ve found the rounded back and slightly narrower face of the Galaxy Nexus much easier to deal with since switching. It feels like the Motorola design team pursued svelteness at the expense of usability, which is a shame.

Speaking of usability, how about that software? One of the big features Motorola launched with the phone was Motocast, a program you can install on your PC which then allows you to pull all your photos, music and video from there to the phone over a Wifi or 3G connection.

This is a great idea in theory, but it suffers from the classic problems of proprietary phone-link software: it’s clunky and unintuitive. I tried it for a while, but quickly grew frustrated with the ugly interface of the Motorola Music app on the phone, as well as its inexplicable inability to sort tracks by their track numbers on the album when I _knew_ they were present and correct in the ID3 tags. I quickly found mysef switching back to an old favourite app of mine, the open-source Subsonic, which does pretty much the same thing as Motocast for your music collection, but a lot less obtrusively.

Already having a fallback solution in place for this feature cushioned the blow, but what really bothered me about the Razr was the call quality. I frequently found myself being asked by people to speak up mid-conversation, something that’s never happened to me when using a Motorola phone before (and I’ve owned a few). Given that Motorola can and does sell itself on its long experience and enviable patent portfolio in mobile telephony, it’s troubling that this phone wasn’t giving me the same quality as the HTC Desire Z I was using before.

Views of the lower front and lower back of the Motorola Droid RAZR, showing its microphones

Despite its two mics and Motorola knowhow, the call quality just isn't up to snuff.

The camera was just as much of a disappointment. I never found myself pulling it out to snap passing moments of interest the way I have with other Android phones I’ve owned – it just felt too unreliable. Although I managed to get occasional worthwhile shots out of it, the extremely limited number of adjustable settings in the software made it feel like these were serendipitous gifts from the camera gods, rather than the result of experimenting and repeating what worked. The strange weight distribution of the phone also worked against taking decent images – it might have been easier with a dedicated shutter button.

All of this is a shame – I really wanted to like the Razr (not least because I bought it before many of the reviews were out – once burned, twice shy!). Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those gadgets where the key features are subordinated to the questionable cause of being the biggest, the fastest, or the thinnest, no matter how transitory that title may be (and I have no doubt there will be thinner phones around, although the current standard seems to have settled around 9mm). Next time, Motorola might want to make sure that their device makes sense as an everyday phone as well as a technology showpiece.


Written by Tom Barfield

April 6, 2012 at 11:13 am

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