Razer Phone

Razer Phone

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Android is the world’s most popular computing platform. And yet, it’s not taken seriously by gamers. That’s not for a lack of trying on the part of hardware manufacturers. Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Ouya, to name three, all decided to plant a flag in Android gaming only to watch it blow away. Now Razer, the gamer brand of gamer brands, arrives with the Razer Phone proclaiming, “It’s time to play!”

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Razer is selling its gaming smartphones the way the company would sell a laptop: online and through big-box stores, at a high, but not unreasonable price. At $699, it costs less than a Samsung Galaxy S8, a Pixel 2 XL, or an iPhone 8 Plus. But it won’t be available through a US carrier or with a monthly payment plan, which will likely limit its appeal. And while there are some issues including a slow 4G modem and a not-so-fantastic camera, we’ve never seen a phone quite this devoted to delivering a high-end gaming experience.

Physical Design and Display

The Razer Phone is a vaguely menacing black slab. At 6.24 by 3.06 by 0.31 inches (HWD), it’s certainly not small, and you almost expect it to moan “Droid!” when it wakes up. There’s a silver Razer logo on the back that is sadly not RGB.

The 5.7-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 Sharp IGZO LCD is indeed sharp, although it isn’t terribly bright. It shoots for extreme, OLED-like levels of color saturation that make games look intense, but whites don’t blare.

The display’s special magic is in its refresh rate: This is the first 120Hz screen on any phone, ever. That means the display refreshes twice as often as the typical phone screen, which is supposed to make animation, scrolling, and games all look smoother. As I found with Apple’s iPad Pro, which also have the higher refresh rate screens, I wasn’t really feeling it. The UI felt smooth, but no smoother than other top-of-the-line phones out of the box. Avid mobile gamers will likely be more impressed.

The button layout, borrowed from the Nextbit Robin, shifts the fingerprint sensor to the power button on the side, leaving the bezels free to be gigantic speakers. The side-mounted fingerprint sensor is in a great location as it’s natural to hit and easy to use.

Razer goes a little too far in some ways, but it works, because they’re emotionally consistent ways. Take the front-facing Dolby Atmos speakers. They are the loudest front-facing speakers we’ve ever heard on the phone: They absolutely blast. But the sound distorts at the highest volume levels. You have to take it three notches down to eliminate the distortion, which is fine because it’s still frickin’ loud.

The giant speakers crowd out the headphone jack. There isn’t one. Razer includes a USB-C-to-3.5mm dongle in the box. As always, USB-C audio proves to be no standard at all. Neither HTC’s Usonic USB-C earbuds nor a generic USB-C-to-headphone converter worked with this phone in testing. Use Razer’s dongle, or better, use wireless headphones. We paired and used the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headset with no issues.

The Razer Phone isn’t water resistant and doesn’t support wireless charging, although it does support fast charging. Battery life from the chunky 4000mAh cell was excellent, with 8 hours, 6 minutes of video streaming over LTE. That’ll ensure you’re able to play heavy-duty games and still see out the day.

Call Quality and Specs

The phone is compatible with the AT&T and T-Mobile networks in the U.S., but not Sprint or Verizon. It supports all of the bands that AT&T and T-Mobile use except T-Mobile’s new rural Band 71, which is only in the LG V30 and Samsung Galaxy S8 Active right now.

High-end games prefer Wi-Fi to cellular, and so does Razer. Wi-Fi performance on this phone is up to par with the Galaxy S8. But LTE support falls far behind. Without 256QAM and 4×4 MIMO, the phone is LTE Category 9, with maximum download speeds of 450Mbps. The most recent iPhones clock in at 600Mbps, while the latest Samsung Galaxy phones can achieve a full gigabit. More importantly than raw speed, a lack of 4×4 MIMO means weaker performance in crowded or low-signal areas.

Call quality issues are due more to software tuning than the modem, though. The earpiece is quite loud, with somewhat harsh but decent sound. Transmissions through the mic maintain some background noise but put voices forward, where they should be. The speakerphone is disappointing. It’s less loud than I expected, and transmissions through the speakerphone on the T-Mobile network were downright muddy, far less distinct than transmissions through the handset mic, even from a quiet room.

With integrated Bluetooth 4.2, not 5.0, it largely means that you can’t broadcast audio to two Bluetooth devices at once. But Android gaming is a solitary pursuit, and I didn’t have connectivity or audio quality problems with the Bluetooth.

Related StorySee How We Test Cell Phones

The Razer Phone runs a relatively standard Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform, on Android 7.1.1, with an unusually high 8GB of RAM. Razer says that’s so you can switch in and out of large games without watching them restart, and that makes sense. To give an example, on the Galaxy S8 (with 4GB of RAM), if you’re playing Injustice 2, and then pop out to photos, mail, and browser, the game has to restart when you return to it. The Razer Phone keeps you in a gaming state.

Testing only starts to tell the tale of what’s really going on here. Most of our general-purpose benchmarks are the same for other leading-edge 835 devices, such as the Galaxy S8 and Moto Z2 Force. But you start to see the Razer Phone’s advantages on the gaming tests, where at resolutions of 1080p and below, the visible frame rates push about 60. No other phone can do that.

The phone has 48.8GB of internal storage free (low for a 64GB device) but there’s a MicroSD card slot that can take up to 256GB cards, and adoptable storage is enabled.

{{ZIFFIMAGE id=”152477″ notable nopopup align=”left”> See How We Test Cell Phones

Gaming on the Razer Phone

Admittedly, the Android gaming scene looks better than it used to. There are enough Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipsets and WQHD screen phones out there, that good-looking, intense games like Titanfall Assault, Injustice 2, GTA: San Andreas, and a stack of Square Enix games are now available for the platform. And yet, Android still tends to be left out of the latest gaming trends. Smaller indie publishers often don’t develop for Android because it takes a lot of work to support diverse devices, and the multiplayer gaming scene on mobile is weak in general.

Apart from all that, Razer achieves its primary goal: This phone provides a beautiful gaming experience. We played Mobius Final Fantasy, Injustice 2, Need for Speed: No Limits, Breakneck, Alto’s Adventure and all three Riptide games, among others. Especially in the driving games, the Razer Phone’s control responsiveness really shines through, neutralizing the frustration with control lag or drift I’ve seen on some other phones.

Games aren’t always perfectly smooth, and that isn’t the phone’s fault, it’s Android’s. At one point, Mobius Final Fantasy was stuttering, because the phone decided that was the right time to download and run updates for a bunch of apps.

Razer offers up a unique control panel which lets you optimize phone performance for any individual app. You can push screen resolution up or down, max out the processor, or increase the top frame rate up to 120Hz. Some games take well to this, such as the Riptide series. Some, such as Mobius Final Fantasy, really don’t like having their resolution changed.

Currently, that 120Hz mode is only supported by four games, though: Gear.Club Racing, Riptide GP (the original, not the sequels), Titanfall, and Warfair. And there you hit that problem with Android gaming again. The scattered, chaotic nature of the Android ecosystem doesn’t give you a lot of hints, tips, or guidelines as to which games will be customized for this hardware.

To take best advantage of the 120Hz, you may have to lower screen resolution. Knocking the screen resolution down to 720p gave us ridiculous frame rates on the GFXBenchmark Manhattan ES 3.0 test (we managed 100fps onscreen), which is actually impossible on other phones that are locked to 60fps. But at full WQHD+ resolution, we only saw 39fps in that test. That’s on par with other Snapdragon WQHD+ phones, showing that there isn’t any special GPU magic in here, just a new ability to change graphics settings app by app.

Camera Performance

The Razer Phone says all the right words when it comes to camera quality, but that’s clearly not the focus of this device. Camera quality falls short because of poor software choices. The phone has dual 12-megapixel cameras, the main f/1.8 and the secondary f/2.6 with 2x zoom. That’s a lot like the Galaxy Note 8 or iPhone 8 Plus. The front-facing camera is an 8-megapixel, f/2 unit.

The sensors are solid, but the software is off. Under controlled studio conditions with good lighting, photos look good. But even in our studio, low light photos got a bit soft because the phone doesn’t push its virtual ISO higher than 250, making for lower shutter speeds. We duplicated this problem outdoors on a cloudy day: The phone didn’t want to go higher than ISO 250 unless light was really low, making for blur wherever anyone was moving in the image. In super low light, it would boost the ISO.

The phone defaults to not using HDR, because when you turn HDR on, it causes a noticeable delay; one that we shouldn’t see on a Snapdragon 835 phone. Our test phone also had serious trouble with exposure judgment in outdoor images, even in HDR mode, repeatedly getting some areas of the image too dark or too light. In low light, you could tell that the camera is collecting enough light, but images were visibly noisy nonetheless. All of this could, in theory, be fixed by upgrades to the camera software.

The 8-megapixel selfie camera took a sharp, clear image of my face, but the background tended to get noisy, especially in low light.

For videos, the main camera records at up to 4K resolution, but a lack of optical image stabilization makes 4K footage quite jittery; stick to 1080p. Audio recording is spectacular, though. It’s very clear, rich, and with excellent stereo separation.

Comparisons and Conclusions

Here’s the thing: Any high-end phone can play the most popular Android games, even the fancy ones. Any Snapdragon 835 phone can play Hearthstone, or Minecraft PE, or Riptide GP or any of the Final Fantasy Games, especially if you knock the screen resolution down to 1080p.

The Razer Phone is indeed the ultimate gaming phone. But its camera issues prevent it from competing with other phones in its price range (a problem the Essential Phone also had at launch), it doesn’t keep up with the latest network capabilities, and there are a lot of very capable Android phones out there right now. We’ll recommend it if Android gaming, especially on high-end titles, is your true passion. Otherwise, get a Samsung Galaxy S8 or one of our other top-rated Android phones.

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