Saturday 7 July 2018

Razer Phone

This review unit, kindly loaned by ThreeUK arrived with Android 7.1.1. and September 2017 Security Patch in place. My initial impression was WOW! this is BIG! And it is, I guess. But on reflection, I have been seeking a 'hub' solution for myself - that is a phone which is my go-to-device for everything with any others kicking around relegated to playthings or for reviews - and if it's a do-it-all, maybe it needs to be bigger.

The other aspect, which, if you're reading this I guess you will already know of me, is that it's got to sound good. The Marshall London had held the crown for too long, it's soft and hardware is long outdated with Zound Industries apparently, it would sadly seem by now, abandoning the project. So onwards then, to see if we have a worthy champion.

We will remember the NextBit Robin launched from a small StartUp a couple of years ago, which provided a blocky plastic Android phone which was very well specified, quirky, interestingly designed with a quirky cloud-storage gimmick - and at a good price. The StartUp then sold the venture to Razer and about a year on, they’ve integrated the project into their gaming pedigree and made a phone that kind of resembles the Robin but oozes with the design language of Razer and performs for gamers.

So yes, the Razer is big. It’s also heavy. It’s solid. Made of metal. More than 6” tall and wider than 3” too. It is, however, relatively thin at a third of an inch. It’s also 197g in weight. It reminds me of the BlackBerry Motion - blocky - and Nextbit Robin of course, the RazerChild! Even though it's blocky, it's crafted from a single piece of aluminium which encases itself around the back and sides, arriving at the front where a beautifully chamfered edge leads into Gorilla Glass 3 across the front. On the back is the Razor logo, centre, sizeable and proud - this one in black, though it is available in white or green, though rare. The device feels classy with a 5.7" IGZO (super-sharp, apparently) LCD with a resolution of 1440 x 2560 and that brings us to one of the two headline features of the device.

The first is the 120Hz (variable) refresh/frame rate (up to 120 frames per second) UltraMotion screen which is great for fancy gaming, apparently. It means that games pack a punch and present much more smoothly than any other phone before it. You can change this in Settings between 60, 90 and 120, but to be honest, I can't tell the difference! But then I'm not a gamer. I wouldn't call it out as a gimmick though as I'm sure that those who are into this stuff can appreciate the hike. For the rest of us, the screen is good and bright - I'm using happily at about 20% brightness indoors.

The device resolution can be switched with a toggle between 1440, 1080 and 720p. The default is 1440 and when switched most things behave except the odd App. or two. G+ strangely is one, where formatting gets thrown a bit. The battery life can be conserved by switching this down and, to my eyes, apart from the aforementioned caveat, I really can’t tell the difference - even at 720! The screen is big, of course, and follows a ratio of 16:9, not 18:9 as is the trend. That makes it feel even bigger! But it’s manageable for my hands, though using it one-handed of course is out!

The second, and reason it's in my hands, is because of the stereo front-facing speakers with dual amplifiers, true to life Cinematic Audio with Dolby Atmos enhanced sound. We’ve seen Dolby Atmos now in a number of phones and tablets and whilst I know that opinion is divided, I actually think that, to my ears, it does enhance the sound and makes it sound better than when it’s switched off. This is true of all the devices which I’ve tried it on. When you’re listening with headphones, hardware certified by THX guarantees audiophile quality sound. Yeah, look it up - I had to! ( The bottom line though is the sound, which I’ll come to. The big issue for some here though is that there’s no 3.5mm headphone socket. Personally it doesn’t bother me. I’ll carry the supplied super-dongle, but others may hold their heads in pain!

Around the device, then. On the back, top-left, is the rear camera cluster which has a 12MP f1.75 wide angle shooter along with a 12MP f2.6 of which Razer claim that one can "Smoothly transition from the f1.7 wide angle lens to 2x telephoto to frame the perfect shot". Well I've tested that against other cameras in phones here, and it's obvious that their idea of 'wide angle' is not the same as LG's or Moto's! It seems to me like the same bog-standard angle of 99% of the world's phone's cameras! It switches automatically between the lenses, the further you ‘zoom in’ by ‘pinching’ the screen to get up the on-screen slider for zoom. The shooter on the front is an 8MP f2 unit.

It seems to me that photography is not the stand-out feature that anyone buying this unit would be coming for and that the camera and shooting experience is very basic, so maybe time to get the Google Camera APK installed - but much more on that in the coming week or two from +Steve Litchfield​ of course.

Embedded into the chin and forehead are the plastic strips needed to get the phone connected along with a couple in the sides. Connectivity seems sound from all the aerials. On the right side, we find the SIM Card/MicroSD Card Tray, removed with a pokey-tool, supplied (and branded with Razer to no doubt appeal to those into gaming, Star Wars and Dr Who!) and the side-mounted fingerprint scanner strip. Thin and long, just like the Nextbit Robin's and most Sony Xperia devices. I have to say that this is my least preferred position for this function, but I guess that someone using this phone as their own would get used to it. I know that here in this Community it has its fans. Laying that aside, it's very accurate and fast in operation. I find it annoying that it has to be depressed from screen-off. I could live with it being on the side (just) but why can’t it just be touched instead of pressed, I wonder. I guess it’s to stop it being accidentally activated, but that could be said of a scanner wherever it is. You can, as an alternative, not have a lock. Or use SmartLock. Or double-tap the screen first, then you don’t have to press the button, just touch.

On the bottom is the USB-C charger/data port into which the supplied QC4+ (the first device shipped with this) power can be plugged and get the good-sized 4000mAh battery up to 85% in an hour from dead. I’ve been hammering the battery for 2 days now and it’s holding up amazingly well. As I speak at the end of day 2 there’s 75% left after all my testing and blasting! There's a microphone hole down there, too and as we sweep around to the left side of the device, we find those Nextbit Robin volume up/down buttons. Small and round, too close together, though they're perfectly placed for the left thumb, for the right-hander, holding the phone in portrait. On the top, there's just another microphone.

The Razer is equipped with a Snapdragon 835 chipset and 8GB RAM, so it flies. No slowdown anywhere that I can detect and when playing those graphics-hungry games, there’s no judders or jerks. Truly future-proofed but also up to the current task. What’s not up to the current task, however, is the measly 64GB Storage supplied. If you’re playing heavy games, you want to get all the data for quick processing into the fastest accessed memory, I would think. And that’s not via a MicroSD Card. This was a perfect opportunity to slap an Apple-style 256GB into this unit and be done with it. No need for a MicroSD Card slot at all. But they know best!

Bluetooth 4.2 is onboard with no word about 5 or Oreo bringing it along when they claim to be pushing it in 2018Q1. NFC is present of course, so Android Pay and fast pairing options are all present. The software is surprisingly very close to stock Android, which might bode well for fast updates coming along. There’s very few additional overlays. For some reason, they have, however, partnered up with Nova Launcher and that’s installed and can’t be uninstalled. It’s a signed-up and paid for version so if you’re a fan, there’s loads to play with and I guess it’s a likely tool that gamers will want to play with. I installed Google Now Launcher of course, and all’s well.

There’s a Razer Theme Store installed, most of which I can see being free to download and integrate with Nova Launcher. Again, aimed at gamers with the themes reflecting their world. There’s Game Booster, which allows the user to tweak various settings relating to individual games, save power if possible, peak performance, set DND if playing certain games etc. But that really is about it. Kudos! They’ve put their personality on some of the Icon Set, but this can be changed via Themes and of course there’s the whole Dolby Atmos thing. All in all, the whole feel of the device though is like they’ve really left it alone and trusted that users will want to do their own thing, not have their ideas thrust upon them.

So, to the elephant in the room and sounds. As I mentioned above, the speakers are mounted at each end of the screen and throw out stereo via software, intercepted and enhanced, if you wish, by the Dolby Atmos setup. It sounds fabulous for volume, depending on what’s being played, but maybe not quite so for quality. I pitched the Razer in my tests against the Marshall London and the Moto Z2 Play with JBL SoundBoost 2 attached. There’s no doubt about it that the London is beaten for volume and the JBL blows them both away for volume and bass.

The London has the edge over the Razer for depth, richness and quality, however, with no software tweaks used. But, having said that, the London has, by default, much like their headphones, been set up for a bass-orientated output (in the same way that the JBL has on the Moto). I had this argument recently on Whatever Works regarding my AKG 701 headphones against the Marshall Monitor set and the pure clean sound of the AKG 701 set was preferable to the artificial bass of the Marshalls. Stick with me here, as I’m now applying this to findings with the Razer against the others. The sound may not have the most bass, but it does feel, in the same way, cleaner and more pure. Somehow just like the reference headphones from AKG in my findings. Your mileage may vary of course and if you’re listening to rock music a lot, rather than clean jazz or classical, you might prefer more bass.

There’s 3D sound spoken about by Razer and, in the same way that I found this to be true with the JBL SoundBoost 2, Moto Z2 Play and JBL Connect software for Android, the same happens. There’s a spatial thing going on when the Razer is held at the right distance from the head which you just don’t get with the London. It’s a clever trick which kind of moves the sound around and makes it feel a bit more that just ordinary stereo. It’s not really ‘surround’ like you’d get in a multi-speaker setup, but it’s a smart step towards. When you listen to track which exploits stereo hugely, it becomes very clear. Try The Prophet’s Song by Queen!

As I said earlier, I have this in my hand for the sound, not gaming prowess - which might feel like a bit of a con to the reader here, expecting a blow-by-blow account of how it performs whilst gaming. Well, I’m sorry, but I really wouldn’t know what games to play, how to play them or how to test them with this hardware. If you want an appraisal of that, there’s plenty on YouTube. To be clear again, these are largely my thoughts on the sound reproduction. Having said that, the games that I do know how to play, like basic car-racing games and platformers, as I said earlier, I couldn’t fault. But the real test would be I guess how a huge and demanding game works over the same thing played on a lesser device. Well, from what I’ve read, it seems that it copes admirably and in some of those games which do challenge a lesser specified machine, this one blasts a way through it. As I said earlier, the screen refresh rate thing is a bit lost on me!

Do we have a new champion? Well, it's hard to say because everyone's preference will be different. For me, it's a pure clean sound. It's certainly loud. With the Dolby Atmos I can make it sound good and still be loud, not having to pay off bass with volume, so in that respect, yes. The Marshall London, even if you argue it's slightly better quality at lower volume, it's bass-orentated by design and less 'pure'. It's also pretty useless for anything much else as a SmartPhone in 2018, so maybe we should not even be having this argument any longer! Is it worth £699 (SIM Free) or £594 (from ThreeUK, PAYG - unlocked, of course)? For me, yes. It has little annoyances, but I'm here for the sound.

I’ll send this over to +Steve Litchfield​ now to see what he can squeeze out of the camera (and maybe he will try gaming too)! He will also be able to put the sound output up against the Pixel 2 XL which I was also very impressed with.

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