Razer Phone hands-on preview: The gamer phone
Razer brings us the Nextbit Robin's supercharged, supersized gamer-focused successor.
So Razer made an Android phone.
And not just PC maker Razer — the brand best-known for premium gaming laptops and peripherals — but also the smartphone design talent it acquired when it gobbled up Nextbit last year. Among the big names behind this phone: former HTC design lead Scott Croyle, the man responsible for the HTC One M7 and M8, and of course the Nextbit Robin. Croyle has since departed Razer to start his own design consultancy, but the team he built remains in place.
And the fruit of their labors goes public today: Meet the Razer Phone.
Even at first glance, the phone's design heritage is plain to see. This device is essentially the badass, murdered-out aluminum cousin of the Nextbit Robin. The Razer Phone, like the Robin, isn't particularly chasing svelte proportions or super-slim bezels. In keeping with Razer's target audience, the phone's design conveys power, but without the gaudiness that's seen in some gaming brands.
Though sophisticated, the Razer Phone is also kind of a tank. The 5.7-inch display is flanked by dual stereo speakers and contained in a great big, unapologetic black metal chassis. The Nextbit DNA is evident here too — again, in the speakers, but also in the proportions and how angular this phone is, as well as the placement of the fingerprint scanner on the side. Despite the overall bulk of the device, there's a pleasing symmetry to the Razer phone's hardware.
The pitch-black aluminium — decorated around the back with a sizeable Razer logo — gives it an imposing yet modern look. Like many of Razer's laptops, it means business, but it's not too over-the-top. (For an unfortunate example of the opposite, see Acer's ill-fated Predator tablet.)
Being a phone for gamers, high-end specs are a key focus: The Razer Phone is powered by a Snapdragon 835 processor, with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of storage plus microSD expansion and a 4,000mAh battery. That enormous battery capacity matches the Huawei Mate 10 — in fact, I'm not aware of any high-end phone that has this much juice to offer. Razer's also shipping the phone with QuickCharge 4+ for extra-quick refills — the first product to be announced with the latest Qualcomm charging standard.
The two front-facing speakers are fantastic — ludicrously loud, and worthy of their prominent placement. And you'd hope so, since the Razer phone is the latest Android flagship to forego the 3.5mm headphone jack. The dongle is at least THX-certified. But it's still a dongle, which is basically a bad thing. It's hard to imagine space being constrained in such a large phone.
Razer is betting on a fancy new 120Hz display to push gamers to its new handset.
The display is an impressive 5.7-inch Sharp panel at Quad HD resolution, but what's really unique about it is that it's a 120Hz panel, and that faster refresh rate — as you may have heard from iPhone X reviews — makes everything extra-smooth. Razer has developed a dynamic refresh rate technology that intelligently adjusts it down to the level required by whichever app you're using in order to save battery power. For static images and less demanding apps, it'll go lower. In games, or when scrolling through apps or feeds, it can crank all the way up to 120Hz.
Extra frames make everything look smoother and more pleasing, but obviously gaming is where this feature is expected to set the Razer Phone aside. Many games will just work at the new, higher refresh rate. But Razer says it's working with major developers to uncap frame rates and let their phone run in all its 120Hz glory. We demoed just a couple of titles on the Razer Phone during our brief time with it, and we'll take a deeper dive in our full review.
To help it push all those frames, Razer claims best-in-class thermals, using heatpipe technology adapted from its Blade series gaming laptops. Hopefully that'll improve performance endurance over time, which has generally been a weak point for phones — particularly Android phones — in graphically intensive titles.
The software's based on Android 7.1.1 Nougat, not the new Oreo, which is a little disappointing. Although Razer promises an update to 8.0 in the first quarter of 2018, you're shipping on old firmware, and that's not a great look for an enthusiast product. At least the company's offering a clean, near-stock build of the OS — with the exception of a few green accents here and there, naturally.
What's more, the stock launcher for the Razer Phone is... Nova Launcher — a specialized build of the fan-favorite home screen app, with Google Feed integration and support for the phone's high refresh rate. Out of the box, it looks pretty much like a stock Android launcher, which is fine if you weren't hoping for anything more dazzling or space-age, as we've seen from Samsung and Google in their latest home screen layouts.
The jury is mostly out on camera performance right now. We've only had a very short amount of time playing with the Razer Phone's dual cameras, mainly indoors. Either way, you get two 12-megapixel cameras, one standard, one telephoto, behind f/1.75 and f/2.4 lenses respectively. There's no OIS (optical image stabilization), which seems like an oversight for a current high-end phone — so we'll have to see how well the phone handles low-light photos in our full review. Either way, the (very) small handful of indoor samples we shot turned out pretty well.
The Razer Phone seems to get a lot right. I'm a fan of the design, despite its going against the grain of the broader high-end space. Razer hits a lot of the right cues for its target audience, with ridiculous specs, a key differentiator in the form of 120Hz support, and an enthusiast-friendly software experience.
But we'll have to give it the full review treatment before we know whether this phone's unique display and powerful hardware can make up for missing features like OIS, a headphone jack and water resistance. These three seem like odd omissions for a phone aimed at gamers and early adopters, as does the lack of Daydream VR support, considering the phone's high refresh rate. (It's likely there are some LCD-related technical hurdles still left to be overcome there.)
The Razer phone will ship later this year for $699 in the U.S., and in countries like the UK, where it's sold on carriers, Three will be the exclusive partner.
Razer has a dedicated following in the gaming space, and a solid first effort in the form of the Razer phone. Can it transform this into a foothold in the highly competitive high-end smartphone market? The brand certainly has a chance, but I'd be more confident if it could boast more up-to-date software, a stronger camera setup, and key features like water resistance.
By Alex Dobie