Razer Phone Preview: Brute Force and Piercing Volume

“Watch, listen, play” is the opening shot of Razer’s pitch for this, the eponymous Razer Phone. We’ve seen a number of phones aimed at gamers in the past, usually with gimmicky extra controls or savage compromises, but the Razer Phone only has one – which I’ll come to in a moment. I’ve been playing with the very first retail Razer Phone in the UK, exclusively handled by the popular Three network (who also sell it on pay-as-you-go*, don’t worry).

* in fact, none of the Three phones are ever ‘locked’ to a network, which is worth noting!

Unboxing the Razer Phone

What you need to know is that this is arguably the highest specified Android phone in the world at the moment. A Snapdragon 835 chipset, 8GB RAM, 4000mAh battery, 64GB storage plus microSD, a 5.7” QHD wide colour gamut display with refresh rate that goes up to 120Hz for compatible games – as the Razer CEO put it at the launch, 120Hz is ‘insane’.

Razer Phone

Of course, there’s limited game content that can use this refresh rate yet – just Arena of Valour, Final Fantasy 15, Gear Club and Ultra Hunt, all of which are bundled in full versions with the Razer Phone. But this is what you call future proofing a screen. The refresh rate is actually varied by app and according to need, apparently – it’s certainly super-smooth to my eyes, for general Android use. It’s also synced to the GPU, in a system dubbed ‘ultramotion’. 

Razer Phone

The display tech used is IPS LCD, mind you, not AMOLED, so there’s a natural dullness to the screen when compared to the latest iPhone X or the Samsung Galaxy flagships. Not a showstopper, but the backlight didn’t seem to go as high as I expected and it’s possible that this is limited in software and that it can be tweaked in an update to allow for a brighter display that pops a bit more.

Razer Phone

Of special interest to me was the speaker system, stereo front facing and with ‘dedicated amplifiers’ for each component, with added Dolby Atmos processing. The idea is to provide cinematic sound for video content and for games and it works really well. The raw speakers themselves are solid without being especially loud, but the optional (it’s ‘on’ out of the box) Dolby Atmos enhancements dramatically improve both volume and EQ. There are half a dozen Dolby Atmos presets provided, but you can tweak the EQ and processing to suit your own ears and save the results as a custom preset.

Razer Phone

Is this the loudest phone ever? Probably. With the Atmos enhancements enabled, it’s much louder than anything else I own (including the Marshall London), though there’s a bit too much shimmery top end for my liking and not enough bass – but that might just mean that I need to spend more time with the Atmos settings, and that will happen in a full review in the near future.

Razer Phone dongle

The compromise I mentioned above is that there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack in the Razer Phone, which I think is an odd move for a ‘phone for gamers’, headsets traditionally being so much a part of a gamer’s world. Instead audio is output digitally via USB Type C and a dongle is supplied in the box with a high quality (24-bit) DAC, into which you then plug in your favourite headphones. Or you go wireless. It’s tough to beat up Razer too much for leaping on the dongle bandwagon here, especially since they’ve made an effort with component quality. Worth noting if you’re an avid 3.5mm jack junkie though.

Razer Phone buttons

Control positioning is good on this somewhat blocky phone – to avoid accidental presses while using the Razer Phone in landscape mode – its natural orientation – the volume and power buttons are all centralised. The former are domed and positive in action – the latter is flush but does include a fingerprint sensor (see, Apple, it can be done!) and this works brilliantly.

Razer Phone sensor

In terms of materials, it’s a matt black aluminium chassis with antenna lines tastefully wrapped around the top and bottom edges – and yes, no other colours are offered, why would a gamer want any other colour than black?! There’s a Three UK variant with green logo and that’s your lot! The speaker grilles are plastic, probably for RF reasons, and the NFC aerial is around the camera island on the back of the phone.

Razer Phone camera

Speaking of which… the Razer Phone won’t match other flagships like the Google Pixels for imaging, but it’s no slouch either. A dual 12MP Samsung-sensored camera arrangement includes a genuine 2x telephoto lens, just as on the Galaxy Note 8. Apertures are f/1.8 and f/2.6, with just phase detection autofocus and no OIS on either or laser auto-focus, meaning that all this is a distinct step down from the cutting edge.

Here are some sample photos, along with 1:1 crops and comments – note in particular a huge usability oddity in terms of zoom utilisation:

Unzoomed photo
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, decently crisp given the poor winter light.
The same scene, but zoomed in using the basic UI
The same scene, but zoomed in using the basic UI – there’s no ‘2x’ control, so it’s a case of zooming in with multi-touch and then optionally with an on-screen slider, though there’s no detent or indication of the switch from optical to digital zoom (after 2x)
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing that our zoom has gone beyond the 2x lens and digital artefacts are showing up. Hopefully Razer can put in a better Camera UI for zoom functions.
Bokeh shot
1:1 crop from the photo above
Decent natural bokeh here – who needs artificial software tricks?

The interface is kept simple, with a licensed copy of Nova Prime providing a stock-ish Android 7.1.1 interface, plus a Themes store absolutely packed with custom Razer and game-related themes – a different look for your Razer Phone every single day?

An upgrade to Android 8 (Oreo) is planned for Q1 2018, though I’ll bet there’s lots to do in terms of drivers for the special screen and audio hardware – this is no trivial rollout!

Razer back

Battery life will be good in normal use, though even that massive 4000mAh will take a pounding if you crank up the screen and processor for media and gaming a lot. So, it really depends on why you want a Razer Phone! Charging is via Qualcomm Quick Charge 4+. The plus bit refers to the integration of Dual Charge circuits, Intelligent Thermal Balancing, and Advanced Safety Features – apparently. Safer, and 30% more efficient than Quick Charge 4.0, anyway. I did say that this was the highest specced Android phone in the world and this is one of those aspects.

Yes, it’s big, it’s black, it’s heavy and it’s cold metal. In fact, it’s typical Razer – no frills high end hardware, and it’s how we love the company.

Thanks to Three UK

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