In an arguably stagnant phone market an unexpected new player has emerged: Razer. Yep, the well-known gaming brand isn’t hanging up its core business, rather bringing its gaming expertise to the phone market. But in the unimaginatively named Razer Phone it has achieved a tech dichotomy.
The idea of a “phone for gamers” is both exciting and a contradiction because, really, the Android platform doesn’t have that many high-end top-tier games. This isn’t a custom PC rig in phone form, although it does bring some really interesting new ideas to that market – namely the first 120Hz display, doubling the refresh rate of any current phone on the market for ultra-smooth playback – that we’ll no doubt see appear in competitors’ models in the not-so-distant future.
If you know about phones then the recent shift to all-glass back designs and the chucking in of unwanted face recognition might not excite you – especially when considering how expensive things can get – but that’s far from the route that Razer has taken. The Razer Phone is a brickphone by today’s flagship standards, but its anodised metal shell is strikingly different to the current norm, while its Snapdragon 835 platform and 8GB RAM ensure it’s ultra-powerful.
All these features are certainly not to be sniffed at, especially given the device’s £699/$699 price point. In among recent near-£1K phones (we’re looking at you, Apple), that price point will help what is ultimately a niche phone appeal to a yet wider audience. So, does the Razer’s first phone stand a chance in the already tricky-to-break market? We’ve been using one as our day-to-day phone for a full week to find out…
Is the Razer Phone a redesigned Nextbit Robin?
- Anodised soft-touch metal body (matte black only)
- Fingerprint scanner embedded within power key (right-side facing)
- Dual front-facing speakers, Dolby Atmos certified
- THX-certified 24bit DAC included in the box
- 158.5 x 77.7 x 8mm; 197g
At first glance the Razer Phone reveals itself to be a bit of a lump. It’s not small – largely down to its 5.7-inch 16:9 ratio screen – but it’s those considerable speakers, square-looking shoulders and thicker-than-average build that make it look a bit of a beast.
Based on the Nextbit Robin – the smartphone company that Razer acquired – the Razer Phone has an air of Sony Xperia XZ Premium about it in visual terms, but its soft-touch metal body isn’t sharp like its Sony competitors, thanks to curved edges that prove comfortable. In that regard it’s certainly a considered piece of design.
Also, unlike the Sony range, the Razer Phone’s top and bottom extensive bezels aren’t there for the sheer hell of it, as this is where the considerable stereo speakers live (they’re also Dolby Atmos certified). There is a material beneath the speakers’ drilled hole metal covering, which can catch light for an almost metallic shimmer, but it’s barely noticeable unless looking up close. Besides, you won’t be looking as much as listening, for these are undoubtedly the best speakers to ever appear in a smartphone – a crown once reserved for HTC BoomSound. The Razer Phone is seriously on point when it comes to audio.
There’s also a 24bit THX-certified DAC included in the box – again, Razer acquired full THX rights back in 2016 – which clips into the USB-C port to deliver top-end audio finesse. There’s no 3.5mm jack on the phone itself, however, which is a real shame (but an increasing norm). Especially as this DAC has a little weight to it and, while dashing to catch a flight during the week, it slipped out of the socket never to be seen again… darn.
Another point to note is that there are no headphones included in the box whatsoever, which seems like an oddity. Perhaps you already have a high-end gaming headset laying about, eh?
Button placement is also a critical point. When we first saw the phone ahead of launch, we thought its left-side (facing) duo of buttons and right-side (facing) indented power button (which doubles as fingerprint scanner) were oddly placed. And they kind of are.
There are a few issues to note: they’re placed low down the handset, when naturally we’re used to buttons being a little higher to reach for – although this does keep them out of accidental press range when you’re gaming. The power button also houses the fingerprint scanner, which is a great idea that we’ve seen on many recent laptops and 2-in-1 devices. Problem is, while the scanner works really well and also depresses as a physical button, there’s no haptic feedback, barely any textual change to its touch and, therefore, it’s too easy to miss.
Furthermore – and this will sound kind of silly – in the dark it’s hard to recognise the Razer Phone front from back, top from bottom, so we’ve often picked it up and ended up mangling all the wrong buttons. It’s a kind of indistinct block. Still, we’re glad the Razer Phone doesn’t have an eyesore of sensors on its rear like the Samsung Galaxy S8 – it looks neat by comparison in that regard.
The antenna bands, placed top and bottom, are also neatly wrapped into the matte black body. And – shocker, we know – Razer hasn’t gone all-out with bright colours, keeping the Phone matte black only with chamfered edges for some extra design pomp. Although these edges need to be better finished in our opinion, because ours have already started to shed their paint from the top and bottom edges in less than a week – and we’ve not dropped the device (must stop carrying around those Brillo pads, eh?).
The embossed laser-transferred Razer logo on the rear looks great, too. Even this isn’t the classic “Razer green”, just silver/grey – well, unless you buy the strictly limited edition at launch (of which there were just 1337, which, we suspect, you’ll find almost impossible to obtain).
Why does a 120Hz screen matter?
- 5.7-inch (WQHD) 2560 x 1440p LCD panel
- Sharp-made IGZO panel, hence 120Hz refresh rate
- Adaptable frame-rate technology (works in real-time)
The real thing of wonder about the Razer Phone is its screen. No, it doesn’t have the fancier slim-body 18:9 ratio that you’ll find in some other modern flagships. But in its 5.7-inch scale 16:9 form it does bring with it a considerable trump card: a 120Hz refresh rate panel, courtesy of Sharp’s IGZO technology.
So what does this mean? Ultimately, the screen has a higher refresh rate, at up to 120 frames per second – which is double that of current smartphones – and that means things looks super smooth throughout. Well, if you activate the 120Hz refresh anyway. By default it’s set to 90Hz and can be capped at 60Hz if you want.
Cleverly, the Razer Phone has a system where it can adapt the frame-rate in real-time, too. Thanks to the company’s UltraMotion technology, the device can actively sync an app’s ongoing frames-per-second with the graphics processing unit (GPU) to avoid tearing, ghosting or any other such nasties. Even when just swiping around the operating system it’ll dip to an ultra-low frame-rate, only to then go to maximum when, say, scrolling through webpages or Twitter.
The screen isn’t perfect, however. Occasionally, from some angles, you’ll catch glimpse of a criss-cross “texture” – but nothing so considerable that it’ll get in the way of viewing. The brightness isn’t as high as some competitors, either, while the auto-brightness control system should be better at adapting to ambient conditions. The display also seems “sunken” into the device – it doesn’t almost exist within the glass like the best panels of today – which can see fingerprints almost shadow onto the content beneath.
As powerful as flagship phones can be
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform, 8GB RAM as standard
- Heat pipe and thermal layers for heat sync for “best-in-class” thermal performance
- 64GB storage, single SIM, microSD expansion (with adoptable storage)
There’s no question that the Razer Phone is powerful – but then so are lots of other flagship phones. With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform and 8GB RAM as standard, the Razer ticks the nuts ‘n’ bolts boxes to be equal best of what else you’ll find on the market.
What really sets the Razer apart from its competition is that screen. It’s not all just banter, either, as it really does knock it out of the park when it comes to fluid gaming. We played Riptide GP: Renegade and watched as the frame-rate actively switched between 120fps down to about 50fps – depending on the degree of on-screen action occurring – without any degradation to the fluidity, all in real time.
That game looks great thanks to developer support – but not all Android games are going to support higher frame-rates, while a lot of casual Android games simply don’t need it. So, as we touched upon in the intro, this is a phone with a specific and rather niche target market.
When it comes to heat, Razer claims its Phone has “best-in-class” thermal performance, thanks to an integrated heat pipe and thermal layers for heat sync. That may or may not be true – we don’t measure such things in lab conditions, because neither do real-world users – but it doesn’t mean the phone doesn’t get warm in some situations, as we’ve found over time. Still, that thicker-than-average frame does bring that obvious design benefit, and it’s never got fry-an-egg kind of hot either (unlike some comparable Sony devices).
Nova Prime over Android 7.1 Nougat software, with some extras
- Android 7.1.1 operating system with Nova Prime installed as default launcher
- Razer Theme Store and Razer Game Booster applications at launch
For day-to-day operating system stuff, the Razer Phone comes with Nova Prime installed as the default launcher – that’s the pay-for version, which comes for free – so the device looks and feels much like standard Android (which is the case, as it’s built on Nougat v7.1.1). Only the Theme store is packed with lots of gaming-specific freebies, from Tekken to Dying Light, and Titanfall Assault through to, um, Razer Breadwinner (yep, the toaster returns).
There’s little in the way of excess apps, too, with Razer Game Boost pre-installed to condition which apps are allowed to plug into all the power on tap and which aren’t – kind of like a battery saver, really. We would like more per-app controls from this, however, as when playing South Park: Phone Destroyer – even with all alerts switched off so we can just get on with the game – the screen times out and goes dark, rather than overriding and ensuring the device remains on.
Some Razer apps do double-up existing ones, though: we ended up with two Clock apps, which was annoying as different alarms went off unexpectedly. Easily fixed, but annoying.
As we’ve touched on before, what’s most impressive about the software is how silky smooth everything runs. Seeing Android in 120fps is quite something. Now, we probably shouldn’t get excited about a smooth Twitter feed scroll but, seriously, the Razer Phone makes it smoother than anything else we’ve used. So, yeah, tech geek approval there.
How long does the battery last?
- 4,000mAh non-removable battery
- USB-C for Qualcomm QuickCharge
All that power on tap does mean there’s rather a lot of strain on the battery life, however. To counteract this, Razer has squeezed in a capacious 4,000mAh cell which, on paper, sounds like it’ll last almost forever – it’s equal to what you’ll find in the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, for example.
Sadly, this Razer doesn’t last nearly long enough for a phone with such a battery. Yes, it’ll get you through a single day no worries, but in the first few days of use we were only getting around 13 hours of (fairly considerable) use – and that was with resolution and refresh rate reduced to conserve battery. Lighter use will see around 18-20 hours of use, but that’s still trumped by other phones, such as the aforementioned Huawei.
Fortunately the Razer Phone’s USB-C port means Qualcomm Quick Charge is possible for rapid top-ups – which, if you’re into non-stop gaming, you’ll certainly need. Hopefully the company will figure out some software update to extend battery life, because the IGZO panel shouldn’t be a big issue (it’s low-power consumption, that’s half the benefit of the tech).
Are the cameras any good?
- Two 12-megapixel sensors, one wide-angle f/1.75 the other a standard lens at f/2.6
- Cameras work together as one to offer lossless “smooth zoom”
- No optical image stabilisation
The last part of the Razer Phone puzzle is its camera setup. Like many high-end smartphones today it opts for a dual lens system on the rear, but it functions slightly differently to the pseudo-bokeh obsessed competition (the “let’s give you a slightly fudged soft background” brigade).
The Razer Phone sandwiches two 12-megapixel sensors side-by-side, each with a different lens: a wide-angle f/1.75 optic and a standard lens with f/2.6 optic. You can’t select between each lens manually; instead the pair are used almost as one to offer a smooth zoom feature, so when you pinch-to-zoom from the wide-angle, rather than the device having to make up fake pixels of digital zoom it can pull on the longer focal length lens for real data. It’s ultra smooth to operate, with no delay to input.
The general camera experience, however, isn’t so hot. The app is slow to load, HDR (high dynamic range) is unthinkably slow to function (and results often blurry) for a phone of this calibre, and the overall processing on shots isn’t a patch over the current competition.
It goes to show that you can source the right sensor, as Razer has, but without the imaging expertise the final results won’t match the competition. Low-light conditions, in particular, are a struggle. But then you want a gaming phone, not a camera phone, right…?
We have a sort of love-hate relationship with the Razer Phone. We love its boldness, its desire to be different, what its 120Hz panel can do for super-smooth operation throughout (not only for gaming!) and those best-ever-in-a-smartphone speakers. It’s kept us very entertained for the last week and, as we move into our next review device, we’ll kind of miss it.
But we’ve not always entertained in the right way. The Razer Phone is undeniably big, the battery life is disappointing considering its capacity, its cameras aren’t up to much at all, and while that screen is interesting it’s actually not the best looking day-to-day panel that you’ll find in a phone.
Which keeps us returing to the same conundrum: do we really need a “phone for gamers”? On the one hand the Razer Phone absoluetly can do more than its near competitors in the screen department. On the other, as a day-to-day phone, it’s a lesser device than many a current flagship.
Which, ultimately, sees this Razer sit in a special niche (quelle surprise). If the gaming side appeals – despite the limited number of truly high-end Android games – and you want a huge phone in your pocket then, go for it, it’ll be a perfect fit. At the end of the day: if there’s one game you play every sigle day on your phone and it’ll look better on this Razer then, heck, why wouldn’t you buy this phone?
For the everyman, however, there are better-looking, longer-lasting and equally as powerful devices which sack-off of the screen’s refresh rate for the sake of being better all-round devices.
The Razer Phone will go on sale from 14 November 2017, exclusive to Three in the UK, with a £699 asking price ($699 in the USA). Pre-orders are open now.
The alternatives to consider
Huawei Mate 10 Pro
With a large battery, glass design, smaller frame, slimmer 18:9 ratio screen and plenty of power (ok, so it’s Kirin, not Qualcomm), the Mate 10 Pro is one of 2017’s ultimate flagship devices. And it’s the same price as the Razer, too.