2.10.2020 2:01 AM

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Motorola Razr review: A tragedy unfolds

With no real justification for its own design, middling performance, a mediocre camera, and an absurd price tag, the new Razr is a conceptual failure.

At this point, you know the hype surrounding Motorola's new Razr, and if you pay attention to this website or my Twitter feed at all, you probably know all about the drama surrounding the device's release. So it's with great excitement and tremendous seriousness that I approach this review.

Let me begin by saying that up until very recently, you would have found no person more excited about the release of this phone, and the reintroduction of the folding RAZR form factor. Not only did early previews of the device spark intense curiosity about what might be possible for more flexible smartphone designs, they also highly triggered my nostalgia for a simpler time, when everyone wore bootcut jeans and you could slam a phone shut to end a call. I desperately wanted this phone, and I wanted to love it when I got it.

I won't lie: the last couple of weeks of launch chaos put an end to most of that excitement. For a phone that’s retailing for a staggering $1,500, you kind of expect excellence. But between images of faulty screens, a confused release process (with some owners getting phones a week early, others not at all), and early reports of camera and performance issues, the intensity of my excitement had waned. So when I finally got the phone in my hands, my expectations had been considerably dampened. And maybe that's not a bad place to start.

So let me tell you about the new Razr.

Pretty ugly

The Razr with its folding buddies.Joshua Topolsky / Input

From a pure, industrial design standpoint, I wouldn't describe this phone as attractive. Its lines are confused; its severe, angular screen shape is off-putting; its bulbous back hinge and exposed mechanics don't scream thoughtfulness. But, strangely, it is attractive in the way a beat up vintage car can be, or the original Kindle, or your favorite pair of shoes that you've worn too much. It references something so familiar — something that feels so fundamental to modern gadgetry — that despite its ugliness, it feels weirdly beautiful too. Maybe it's just different enough to take your brain out of the expected and slide a little surprise in there. Regardless... I don't hate the way it looks.

Made of mostly plastic, the phone doesn't come off as exactly premium, but there's so much going on that's just alien to other smartphones that it really doesn't seem to matter. There are also some conceptual ideas that are well-executed, like the use of a small external screen on the back/front of the phone, used for notification management and as a selfie viewfinder. Speaking of selfies, there's only one 16-megapixel camera here, which flips accordingly with the display.

The phone also has a fingerprint reader on the bottom "chin" of the device, which is a wonderful inclusion in a world increasingly moving away from physical security elements. However, the fact that so much real estate is taken up by this component that doesn't have any further use (say, as a capacitive touch surface, as we've seen on BlackBerry and Pixel devices) is somewhat maddening. In fact, the idea that Motorola didn't utilize a capacitive surface on the chin at all for device navigation is a confusing misstep, making the very pronounced protrusion feel much more like a distraction or blockade rather than a thoughtful element.

A powerful chin.Joshua Topolsky / Input

The screen

Big bend.Joshua Topolsky / Input

Let me put this very bluntly. The screen on the Razr is gross. It ripples, it creaks, it moves when you touch it, it very visibly shows creases and bumps when the display is off. Its physicality is pronounced in a way that is simply very different than any other smartphone display on the market. It doesn't feel nice, it feels worrying. But to be clear, it's also fine. It works exactly as any other phone does. It's responsive to touch. Images and videos look crisp and clear, text is easy to read. It is a phone screen. But you're going to be surprised about the way it feels and scared about its longevity. Because of the nature of the folding display and the lack of maturity these kinds of devices naturally exhibit, this kind of wonkiness is probably going to be with us for quite some time. But I want to be clear: it's fine. It's fine!

Ride this wave.Joshua Topolsky / Input

One thing that did bug me endlessly, however: the display never unfolds to completely flat (or straight). The upper part of the phone always sits at a very slight angle, so that if it’s on a flat surface you can wobble it a bit. I desperately wanted the screen to go flat, but unless you bend the phone backwards in a worrying way, it can’t be done. Why? We may never know.

Otherwise, I actually found the display to be somewhat too small and too skinny. The keyboard feels microscopic on the screen, even when adjusting screen resolution and keyboard height (of course, maybe my monstrously large hands are the problem). Websites feel claustrophobic in the browser. Apps seem like their sides have squeezed into submission. When you add in that giant chin, the whole configuration sort of forces your hands to hover over and down into the screen, like someone slid a wrist rest under your hands while using it. You get used to it, but it's weird and uncomfortable at first.

The hinge

The hinge feels... troubling. It doesn't have a smooth action in either the open or closing direction. Even when you get beyond the threshold of having to pull or push the phone open, it doesn't seem to want to automatically open itself up, kind of softly and slowly finishing the arc of its unfolding on its own. Similarly, you can't quite snap this phone shut. It doesn't want to close quickly or cleanly; instead it kind of pushes through a motion that feels like two thin pieces of plastic rubbing together under your thumb and forefinger. Honestly, the sensation is a bit tough to explain, but it doesn't create confidence in the construction or potential longevity of the mechanism.

Nothing smooth about this.Joshua Topolsky / Input

As we've already seen, CNET had some issues with its fold tests (though Motorola has pushed back on the claims). I actually don't think the hinge is as bad as it could be, and you begin to stop worrying about it after a few hours with the phone. The feel of the fold is definitely a cause for concern, but it doesn't seem impossible to me that the hinge will last you until you're ready to upgrade, and since Motorola is offering essentially free repairs to the screen while under warranty, it shouldn't be the paramount factor in your decision to buy this phone.

Subpar snaps

A tale of two snaps. Razr on the left, iPhone 11 Pro on the right.Joshua Topolsky / Input

The camera on the Razr is aggressively mediocre. It's not the worst smartphone camera I've ever used, but it's a far cry from devices in this price range. Compared to the new iPhones or the Galaxy Note 10, it's not really even in the same category. It offers a handful of shooting modes and options to help you get the most out of it, but typically images look dull and washed out. It has enormous trouble focusing on subjects even in slightly low light (and the viewfinder performance crawls to a stuttery mess in dark rooms). I snapped a photo of a still tree in bright daylight and somehow the Razr managed to take it out of focus; this is camera 101 we're talking about.

Detail on shots taken in bright daylight don't pop compared to other devices in this class, and annoyingly, Motorola has a post-processing effect turned on by default which can help with your colors and exposure, but also will make you miss your shot entirely. On more than one occasion I watched the "processing" essentially take a frame just a second later from the one I shot, thereby replacing my intended photo with one taken just after it. If you have fast-moving kids or pets, or are trying to capture a very specific moment, I would turn it off as soon as you get the phone. You can post-process in Google Photos.

In short: you're getting a $400 smartphone camera on a $1,500 smartphone. It will not deliver the best photos you can get for this money, and none of its fun features or shooting modes make up for the shortcomings here. For a lower price tag, I could be more forgiving, but for the money you spend, you'll feel ripped off by the performance.

Cheap specs

Speaking of performance, don't expect much more than a solid, mid-range experience from the Razr. I want to note that compared to the most recent iPhones, even middle-of-the-road Androids can still feel snappier and more fluid in terms of general use, but it's clear that for more processor intensive activities, the Razr struggles to keep pace with high-end devices. I'm not going to tell you about benchmarks and 3D tests; there are great sites that will run down the raw performance of this phone.

What I can tell you is that in day-to-day use, most people will have no problem with how the Razr feels. If you're coming from iOS, in some ways you'll actually probably feel like this is an upgrade in terms of just getting things done and moving between apps — using the Razr as my daily driver made me miss having an Android phone full time. That's not to say it actually has performance that's anywhere near the current crop of iPhones (it doesn't, not by a long shot), simply that Android does some things in a way that feels faster. But on the other hand, if you're a speed junkie who is familiar with the performance of flagship Android devices like the OnePlus 7 Pro or Galaxy Note 10, you will palpably feel where this device lags. It just simply doesn't have the horsepower to go head-to-head with the best of what Samsung, Huawei, or even Google are doing right now.

Bad battery

The battery life on the Razr is... not great. If your expectation is to get through a 12-hour day without a charge, my guess is you'll be out of luck. If you don't pick up your phone too much, and you interact with the front display on the Razr instead of popping open the device and turning on the full display, you can definitely eke out more time from the battery, but when I put the phone through a typical day of what I might be doing with my iPhone, I was searching for a charger by early evening. Again, like so many other features of this phone, you are getting mid-range performance for a much higher cost. Nirave Gondhia has some great battery observations in his review at Android Central, and I found my experience to be very much on par.

You can get a day's use out of this phone if you're careful, but with some of the latest Android devices and certainly the new iPhones, I've just started getting used to being less careful, using my phone whenever I really need it, and not worrying if it'll die before the day is out. The Razr forces you to compromise — to take a step backward — and like the camera performance, the battery life highlighted the huge tradeoffs you're making for a novel design.

Good OS, bad apps

Motorola's implementation of Android is simply one of the best on the market. The company has taken essentially a stock version of Google's OS and added just enough bells and whistles that really matter. Most importantly, the company has stuck closely to Google's Material Design language, and provides an almost Pixel-like experience in the core parts of the software. Even though the Razr is running the last version of Android (9), it feels that very little is missing here. Besides offering added gesture tweaks like Moto Actions (twist the phone to open the camera, make a chopping motion to turn on the flashlight), Motorola provides detailed options like being able to activate gesture-based navigation (a superior implementation than either Google's native take or Samsung's recent stab at this), which made getting around the phone a real pleasure. Again, it's a mystery to me why this isn't the default and mapped to a capacitive fingerprint reader (thus saving screen space for content), but I have to assume Motorola was trying to cut down on added complexity here.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention a fun, yet ultimately useless addition on the Razr: retro RAZR mode, which basically turns the device into a digital version of the original RAZR, complete with T9 text input and a faux-stainless keypad. You can use the function as a launcher for real apps on the device, but I can't say I spent more than a couple of minutes fooling around with it before I wanted to go back to a real, modern-day phone.

Fun. Useless, but fun.Joshua Topolsky / Input

One sour note on the software side is the sheer amount of crap you have to uninstall or disable when you get this phone. It's been a while since I had a carrier-locked device, and the Razr ships with a staggering amount of garbage on your home screen. From Verizon's nanny-ware, to random games, Yahoo apps, and Yelp, I probably spent a solid 10 minutes clearing the junk from the device when I first got it. Not to keep harping on this point, but for $1,500 you expect the experience of your first boot to feel a little more special. After you get through the thrill of unbending this phone, you very quickly realize that you're just holding another random, crapware infused, mid-range Android phone.

Should you buy it?

The more I used the Razr, the more I wondered what the point was of its core folding functionality. Where was the phone's ability to fold down into this half-size demonstrating the value of the concept? Unsurprisingly, I came up with few answers that actually justified the idea of a folding phone of this type. The prevailing reason I could see for having a phone that folds in half in this way is that it makes the phone smaller and easier to carry. That's nice, but a somewhat inessential problem for most people. Furthermore, the folding nature of the device and difficulty of opening it quickly and with a single hand made some things I normally do with my phone more difficult. To quickly reply to a message took more time. Glancing at Twitter became a two-handed affair. Taking a picture of something besides my own face couldn't be done single-handedly.

People think the folding phone is cool. I was asked about it when I took my kid to a playground. People stared at me when I used it. Friends were impressed. That's nice for a couple of hours, as is marveling at the idea of digital display bending in half. But then you have to get on with your life, and do a bunch of stuff with the phone, and suddenly the charm of the fold seems insignificant. If the camera was stunning on the Razr, the performance up to par, and the battery life decent, I would happily recommend it to anyone in the market for a high-end Android device. But the device I tested doesn't justify its $1,500 price — not by a long shot. It's cool! I like it! But it's not a very good phone, just an okay one, and the fold doesn't make up for its shortcomings as much as I'd like to say it does. Maybe someday some company will figure out how to make this form factor into something greater than its slab brethren, but today is not that day.

If you don't really care how your phone performs and don't need to take great pictures and really want to wow people with a parlor trick, Motorola has made the perfect phone for you. For everyone else? Move on.