|Introduction and Specifications|
|It seems like ages ago that the world first heard the now-unmistakable "DROID" sound-byte. DROID was originally billed as the anti-iPhone, pointing things out that Apple's iOS platform couldn't do, but proclaiming proudly that "DROID does". The campaign seems to have worked. To date, the brand has taken off, proving to be a rousing success for Verizon and Motorola. In fact, many people (incorrectly) refer to Android by just "DROID," similar to how many people refer to iOS as "iPhone."
Over the years, Motorola has heavily leveraged the DROID brand. The relaunch of the RAZR was also a monumental decision. Just under a year ago, we reviewed the first DROID RAZR, which shipped with Android 2.3.5, a Kevlar back and pretty impressive specifications for the time. Since then, the DROID RAZR Maxx has launched (with the Maxx HD supplanting that earlier this year). Yet, it seems that there's room for a few more models in the RAZR family.
Enter the RAZR M, which is billed as a mainstream variant that's aimed at those who walk into a Verizon Wireless store looking to spend less than $100 on a new phone. Here's a quick guided tour of the device in action, that we put together for you...
With many Android-based LTE phones listing at $299, having a $99 entry point is a pretty big deal. Perhaps most impressively, Motorola has managed to include a rather stout list of internals despite the lower MSRP. Let's take a look at what this smartphone is packing.
Just six months ago, this kind of spec sheet would easily warrant a $199 on-contract list price. Nowadays, you can obviously get more for less, and even that $99 entry price is bound to fall very shortly now that the iPhone 5 is here and the iPhone 4S has been reduced to $99, Windows Phone 8 handsets are due to land prior to the holidays, and every other Android phone maker refreshes their line-up in the hopes of securing a larger slice of the market in the all-important Q4 sales season.
Is the RAZR M bound to get lost in the shuffle? Is it potent enough to hold its own in a market full of stiff competition? And most importantly, is it worth your time and money? Find out in the pages ahead.
|Design and Hardware|
|At 4.4 ounces, the RAZR M is only 0.04 ounces lighter than the DROID RAZR that shipped last year. But still, it feels light in the hand and is reasonably solid. It's marginally heavier than the iPhone 5, but you could argue that the RAZR M is also more durable. Motorola has done a commendable job splitting the difference between rugged and light. There's Gorilla Glass on the front, and Kevlar on the rear. With complaints pouring in regarding the iPhone 5's scratchability, perhaps you can appreciate the Kevlar backing that'll stand up to abuse for much longer.
Motorola has also done an impressive job carving out a design language of its own in a world where lawyers are increasingly sensitive to copying. The entire Motorola DROID line actually has a common theme, with sharper corners, unique materials (like Kevlar), silver/black branding and a reverse tapering down the rear. In other words, the phone is thicker up top and gets slimmer as it progresses to the bottom.
At a glance, the RAZR M's design is very familiar. But Motorola has become quite good at defining itself. The build quality here is really exceptional, with even the plastics being very rigid. The entire phone feels rock solid, with the edges feeling smooth in the hand and smooth to the touch. The Kevlar back exudes confidence, preventing unwanted flexing should you have the phone in your back pocket and then suddenly sit down on a hard surface. (Yes, we've witnessed similar motions crack the screens of phones like the Galaxy Nexus.)
Purists may be disappointed that the rear Kevlar back won't pop off, meaning that the 2,000mAh battery is sealed and not user-serviceable. To Motorola's credit, sealing the back does create a more uniform flow of the design, and the rear feels entirely more sturdy because of it. Above that, there's an 8MP camera (supporting 1080p video captures) with an LED flash, and the rear branding is about what you'd expect. There's a Motorola "M" logo, a 4G LTE logo and a Verizon logo. Unfortunately, Verizon also shoved a second logo of its own on the bottom of the front lip -- we could've done without that one.
Along the edges, Motorola has taken a design risk that we genuinely appreciate. It has decided to expose the minuscule screws that hold the top and bottom casings together, and it gives the phone a somewhat industrial look that we're big fans of. It's also useful for tinkerers who enjoy taking their electronics apart to inspect their internals.
Along the bottom, there are no ports, but there's a microphone hole there on the lower lip. On the right side, there's a very substantial volume rocker (take note, competitors!), and a polished silver power button. We actually like that the power button is of a different hue than the other buttons; on the Lumia 900 for example, it's easy to confuse which button is the camera shutter release and which is the on / off switch because they look identical. The top edge is home to a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the left edge has a pop-off cover that conceals a microSIM card slot and a microSD storage expansion slot. Beneath that, there's a standard microUSB port, which we think is poorly located. If you're charging your phone and attempting to type on it, this port really impedes your ability to access the keyboard in a natural way. Having this port on the bottom or the top of the phone would have been preferred.
There's a 4.3" qHD (940x540) display in the RAZR M, which is impressive in a few ways. First, Motorola managed to fit a 4.3" display onto a phone that's just 4.82" tall. Second, it's as close to an edge-to-edge display that we've seen on a mid-range phone. Yes, it uses a PenTile display, which is technically inferior to some other sub-pixel arrangements, but there's no denying that there's a lot of screen real estate on such a (relatively) compact device.
We personally aren't all that down on PenTile, but it's worth looking at this one in the store to see if your eyes pick up on some of the displays disadvantages. To our eyes, the screen is vibrant and sharp, and the viewing angles are excellent.
It's worth noting that perhaps the biggest signal that this is a mid-range phone is the built-in storage. Only 8GB is included, so more users will certainly want to invest in a microSD card to store more apps and media than the phone itself will hold out of the box. On the plus side, at least a microSD slot is included.
Interestingly, Motorola has seen fit to drop support of the LapDock external accessory with the RAZR M. That was a big selling point with the original RAZR reissue, but obviously too few people were interested in sinking $100+ in a docking peripheral for a phone. To be fair, it's a tough proposition; with tablets saturating the market, and Ultrabooks grabbing hold as well, convincing a phone owner to use it as a computer always seemed a stretch.
This is also one of the first "mid-level" phones to ship with NFC, so that Android Beam and other tap-able apps work just fine. NFC hasn't taken off like a rocket ship, but having it onboard is a plus. It's a way to future-proof the phone a bit, and it's much appreciated. The 0.3MP front-facing camera is rather paltry, but should suffice for LTE video chatting.
|Software and User Experience|
|One of the biggest gripes lobbed at Motorola during the earlier days of their Android phone production had to do with MOTOBLUR. MOTOBLUR was Motorola's custom Android skin and it has some issues. MOTOBLUR was somewhat of a resource hog and significantly changed the look of the Android OS. We recognize that smartphone manufacturers feel that they need to customize the Android experience to some degree in order to differentiate their products from the competition, but it's clear that there's a fine line to walk. When people buy an Android phone, there are certain aspects that they expect to be similar across the board.
The RAZR M ships with Android 4.0.4, and there's only a minor skin present. In other words, Motorola has tweaked the vanilla experience that you'd get on phones like the Galaxy Nexus, but they don't go nearly as far as MOTOBLUR used to. When you boot the phone up, that iconic red DROID eye is sitting on the wallpaper, and there's a typical clock / weather / charger widget up top, but the rest is fully customizable. And honestly, the ability to customize is huge for Android. It's one area where iOS is very limited, and Motorola was wise to not really hold users back with this phone. Everything you'd want to change, you can with few exceptions.
There are oodles of widgets to choose from, and creating folders couldn't be easier. Motorola has also wisely programmed the phone to flip to a Settings menu when you swipe from right to left. This gives you one-swipe access to Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi settings, etc. It's a cool move given that users will likely need to access this menu frequently. Even the included clock / weather / charge widget is great. A swipe over each circle flips to something else (changing the clock from digital to analog, or flipping to different cities on the weather circle, for example).
One disappointment is on the lock screen. When your phone is off, and you mash the power button, you have a four-icon shortcut window. One of those unlocks the screen, but the other three cannot be changed or customized. This feels like an obvious oversight, but hopefully that'll be addressed in future updates.
Speaking of updates, you may be puzzled as to why the RAZR M is shipping with Ice Cream Sandwich instead of Jelly Bean. It's a reasonable thing to consider, particularly because Motorola -- of all companies -- should have the most direct access to Android builds given that it's now under the Google umbrella. Motorola will obviously update this phone to Android 4.1, which includes Google Now and a Project Butter code improvements, when it can. But as usual, updates generally come much slower to Verizon phones. The extra carrier layer means that plenty of additional testing is needed in labs before it's pushed to the masses, so those who place a high priority on Android updates should take note: Nexus phones are still your best bet, as they ship with vanilla Android and always get first dibs on updates. That said, even the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon is having a tough time getting Jelly Bean. It's part of the "cons" of using what's otherwise America's broadest and most complete 4G network.
One thing that's particularly important around here is bloatware. Per usual, Verizon crams a decent amount onto the RAZR M. Amazon, Kindle and Amazon MP3 are onboard, as is a specific Verizon "Apps" market, the Amazon Appstore, Audible, a Mobile Hotspot app, NFL Mobile, QuickOffice, Setup Wizard, Slacker Radio, Smart Actions, Voicemail, VZ Navigator (particularly useless given the awesomeness of Google Maps Navigation), and Zappos. It's annoying that you can't outright delete programs like VZ Navigator, which we'd never recommend using over Google's own Navigation program. Thankfully you can remove them from home panes, but it doesn't prevent them from taking up precious space on the handset's internal storage.
|General Performance and Battery Life|
RAZR M Overall Performance -Now that the specifics are out of the way, let's talk performance. The 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 processor is a great choice, and the inclusion of 1GB of RAM is another plus. While downloading a dozen apps, we were still able to flip across home screens, sort icons in folders and generally hop into and out of anything we wanted without so much as a stutter. We've come a long, long way in terms of performance for a $99 on-contract phone.
We found ourselves briefly obsessed with simply flipping through apps and multi-tasking just to prove to ourselves that the speed really was as good as it felt. When Android 4.1 arrives, it'll be even smoother thanks to Project Butter, but even as it stands we think a new "smoothness bar" has been set when it comes to $99 on-contract phones.
While the 720p display on the 4.65" panel on the Galaxy Nexus does indeed offer more pixels, having 960x540 pixels on the 4.3" panel feels like plenty for a mid-range phone. The pixel density is enough that you don't see the pixels standing out on the display, and overall, we didn't feel as if Motorola skimped on the display.
RAZR M Camera Performance -The 8MP rear camera with LED flash is actually one of the better ones in the Android universe. Quality and sharpness were above average, and the ability to take multiple shots without experiencing much shutter lag was impressive. There's also an incredible amount of options in the stock Camera app. You can adjust the scene mode, flash, exposure, and effects, while the "Modes" screen lets you select Panorama, Multi-shot, Timed shots and HDR.
One of our biggest gripes with iOS 6 was Apple's refusal to open up more advanced options in its camera app; it's great to see Motorola going against that grain and providing shooters with far more tools. It should be noted that stock images feel a tad bit flat in terms of color saturation, but inbuilt editing help pull out the colors and generally makes them "pop" without too much effort.
Even in dim lighting, the RAZR M camera held its own. The only major gripe we had was the omission of a hardware shutter button. With many Android and Windows Phone products, as well as iPhones with iOS 6, there's an option to use a dedicated shutter key or the volume rocker. But on this phone, you have to tap the screen to capture an image, which introduces a subtle but notable amount of camera shake, particularly when trying to capture an image in low lighting.
RAZR M Call Quality -As for call quality---Outstanding. We tested mobile-to-mobile calls an they were clear and loud throughout. It's also worth restating that Verizon's LTE network is great. It's easily quicker than many home broadband connections, which in turn makes it super easy to blow through your monthly data allowance. A major question, though, is how the LTE network will stand up now that the iPhone supports LTE and millions of additional devices are going to be taking advantage of it.
You may remember how the introduction of the iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4 put AT&T's 3G network in a world of hurt, particularly in major areas like New York City and San Francisco. There's little doubt that more devices on LTE will saturate those towers more and degrade performance overall for everyone, but only time will tell just how bad it gets. Hopefully, all of the major carriers have had enough time to properly ramp up for the onslaught.
RAZR M Battery Life -As for battery life, we may have stumbled upon the longest-lasting Android 4.0 smartphone at the $99 on-contract price point. No, this isn't a member of the DROID MAXX family, which is now well known for having above-average lifespans on a charge. But, the RAZR family as a whole has had pretty good battery life, and the 2,000mAh sealed Li-ion here is a very capable one.
In average use, which includes browsing the web, checking social networks, sifting through e-mails, making a few calls, navigating to a few nearby locations and just generally enjoying the spoils of having Instagram and Foursquare at our fingertips, we were able to get around 18 hours of use. Lighter, more casual users could easily get through a full day, and perhaps two full work days if you don't use an app like Navigation which keeps the display on for an extended period of time.
On a more measured note, we put the phone through our typical browser refresh test, which loads a page automatically every three minutes. Display brightness was set to 50%, while LTE was flipped on and social networks and e-mails were set to refresh every 15 to 30 minutes. As you can see in the chart above, it outperformed the excellent HTC One X, but fell short of the flagship Galaxy S III and HTC Arrive. Still, for a mid-level phone, its battery life is solid. It beats out a fair number of prior flagship phones that retailed for much more when originally launched.
|Performance Testing: CPU, Browser And Graphics|
|In addition to using the Motorola DROID RAZR M in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the handset compares to other smartphones in the same league.
In the Linpack test, the Droid RAZR M posted an impressive score, smashing flagship phones from six to nine months ago, destroying the Galaxy Nexus, and even besting the HTC One X and Galaxy S III.
In the An3DBench XL, the RAZR M was a wee bit slower than some of the other Android powerhouses. Graphically, this phone is clearly a bit underpowered than some of its rivals, but there's still plenty of oomph here. Again, it's worth pointing out that for a mid-level phone, these results are very good.
Only the excellent HTC One X and Galaxy S III phones completed the SunSpider test with quicker times, and even those two just barely beat out the RAZR M. If you're looking for bang-for-your-buck, look no further.
Once again, the mid-range RAZR M is taking down the prior kings of Android, with its score here slightly beating out the Galaxy S III and One X. The numbers speak for themselves.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|The Motorola DROID RAZR M is a phenomenal smartphone at its price point. With many huge-screen, LTE-enabled Android phones selling for $200 - $300 on-contract, having this one hit the shelves at $99 is very refreshing. It's been quite some time since we've been this impressed with an mid-range phone, and with a 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon S4, 1GB of RAM, NFC and an 8MP rear camera, there's plenty to like on the hardware side. It's also great to see a relatively compact phone getting nice specifications. Who says only huge phones can have great specs? Some people have good reason to want a smaller phone, and we seriously hope that more compact phones don't become second-class citizens in the smartphone world.
Benchmarks were also impressive given the mid-level pricing, and it's an all-around excellent thing for the Android platform to have this phone using it. Being ushered into a mobile operating system with underpowered hardware is no good for anyone, but this handset runs Android well and makes the OS shine. Multi-tasking is fluid, the camera is fast (and above average in terms of image quality), and battery life is good too.
The overall look and feel of the RAZR M is exceptional. The 4.3" screen size feels just about ideal for those who aren't ready to commit to a phablet. The qHD (960x540) display is sharp and vibrant, and the viewing angles are great. Touch response was also good, with overall system responsiveness being more than satisfactory. Motorola's design choices are also worth praising. The Kevlar back and Gorilla Glass on the front both stand to prevent accidental cracks and bruises, and the microSD expansion slot makes the paltry 8GB of inbuilt storage easier to stomach. Our only real design gripe is the positioning of the microUSB port; if you're charging the phone while trying to use it, that cable gets in the way of normal keyboard use.
Verizon Wireless' phone line-up is very competitive right now. The carrier has a multitude of options, and with the iPhone 5 available for $199, it adds an immense amount of pressure on other phones. In fact, the iPhone 4S -- still a decent smartphone -- is now priced at just $99 on-contract, and the iPhone 4 is available for free on contract. Is the RAXR M one of the best Android phones available at $99? Yes, without a doubt. The fit, finish, speed and hardware are impressive from top to bottom. But with plenty of Windows Phone 8 handsets aimed at the $99 market, as well as the iPhone 4S, it's going to be tough for the RAZR M to stand out this holiday season.
The phone offers little that isn't available elsewhere, but there's something to be said for Motorola's Android skin. The improvements they've made are very easy to feel after a day or so of use, and this phone will be easier to recommend once the Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) update eventually makes its way to the device, with a number of performance improvements along with it. For now, it's probably worth holding out to see if the RAZR M drops to free-on-contract during the usual Black Friday sales. At $99, it's easy to recommend to those who already admire Motorola's hardware. If it drops a bit lower, it becomes more of a no-brainer for anyone else wishing to get into a high-performing Android phone with LTE, without breaking the bank.