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Motorola Droid RAZR M review

'The new Motorola' bets smaller equals better

Motorola Droid RAZR M

Last week, Motorola held a big event to unveil the “new Motorola,” a supposed relaunch of the company after its acquisition by Google. That event didn’t do much to show us what the new Motorola is really about, but we did get a look at the latest smartphones from the manufacturer, including the new Droid RAZR M for Verizon Wireless. Motorola and Verizon positioned the RAZR M as a mid-range smartphone, but it’s more of a spiritual successor to last year’s high-end Droid RAZR. The M comes equipped with improved hardware, a speedier processor, and a low starting price of just $99.99 on-contract.

It’s hard to see Motorola’s supposed new vision in the RAZR M, as it is really just a refined version of last year’s flagship smartphone from the company. But the original RAZR did have its merits, and if Motorola was able to address some of its faults (namely with the display and battery life) in the RAZR M, we could have a solid device on our hands — with an attractive price to boot. Let’s find out.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Similar design to the RAZR, but with less bite

The Droid RAZR M should look familiar. Motorola’s been using the same design language in many of its smartphones since the Droid RAZR’s launch last year, and the RAZR M doesn’t deviate in the least. Motorola did soften the corners on the RAZR M compared to the original, giving it a similar look to the Atrix HD (which was recently launched on AT&T). Frankly, the softer corners have taken a bit of the edge out of the RAZR M’s personality, if you will, and it’s a pretty bland and boring design as a result.

The most notable difference between the RAZR M and last year’s RAZR is not the sharpness of the corners, but rather the actual size of the device. The RAZR M is small: at 2.39 inches wide, 4.82 inches tall, and 0.33 inches thick, it’s barely larger than an iPhone 4S. The RAZR M bucks the trend of massive Android smartphones and is actually a device that is comfortable to hold and use in one hand, something that can’t be said for many smartphones on the market today. But despite its lilliputian footprint, the M still features a spacious 4.3-inch display. Motorola was able to fit such a large screen on the M by practically eliminating the side bezels that surround it — Motorola has dubbed this ‘edge-to-edge’ display technology. It really offers the best of both worlds on the M: a big screen for web browsing and games, yet a phone that can still be used in one hand without performing gymnastic moves with your digits.

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As for the hardware itself, it’s notably better than we're used to seeing in this price class. The sealed body features tight seams and no loose or wobbly parts, and the six Torx screws drilled into the side of the phone give it an industrial look that evokes a solid feel. Motorola gave the M the same nanocoating on its internal components as the earlier RAZR models, providing it with a certain level of water resistance. The back features Motorola’s love-it-or-hate-it Kevlar paneling, complete with a faux carbon fiber finish, as well as a mirrored section at the top that houses the 8-megapixel camera, LED flash, and external speaker. I, for one, am a fan of the Kevlar bit, as it offers a soft-touch finish and nice feel in your hand, but I could certainly do away with the ugly mirrored panel for the camera. The right side of the phone is home to the volume rocker and power / sleep / unlock key, which nestles directly under your thumb when you hold the phone in your right hand. The opposite side features the Micro USB charging and syncing port and a flap door for the Micro SIM and microSD card slots.

The M’s display is a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED unit with qHD resolution of 960 x 540 pixels. Though this is the same resolution (and lousy PenTile subpixel layout) as found on the RAZR’s 4.3-inch display, the M’s screen is brighter and much more saturated, with greatly improved viewing angles. It’s still grainy upon close inspection, and it can’t hold a candle to the best 720p HD screens on the market, but it is an improvement over the original RAZR’s screen without a doubt. If you really want a 720p display, you might want to wait for the Droid RAZR HD, which offers a larger, 4.7-inch HD screen.

Cameras

Cameras

Images are great outdoors — indoors, not so much
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Like many of Motorola’s recent smartphones, the Droid RAZR M has an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash and 1080 HD video capability. The camera app features quick access to a variety of settings, including special modes like HDR and panoramic stitch (but no macro mode, oddly enough). The camera’s HDR mode is actually pretty effective at capturing a balanced exposure in high contrast scenes — more so than the average smartphone’s HDR, at least — and the panoramic feature lets you capture wide vista views in a series of shots that are automatically stitched together.

The app is snappy and responsive, and has tap-to-focus and continuous autofocus, making it easy to bang off a number of in-focus pictures in a row. There is a rather obnoxious shutter sound, accompanied by an annoying, simulated whine sound that I can only assume is meant to resemble a traditional flash gun recharging its capacitors (though this sound occurs whether you use the LED flash or not). It is possible to disable the shutter sound, but simply silencing the phone won’t do it — you have to go into the camera app’s menu and turn it off from there.

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Images captured are par for the course for a mid-range smartphone these days, meaning that outdoor shots look pretty good and indoor shots look pretty lousy. Upon close inspection on a computer, the images are quite noisy, and fine detail gets easily smeared by image noise and Motorola’s efforts to hide such noise. Likewise, the 1080p video looks good if there is enough ambient light available, but frame rates can drop and it can get pretty choppy whenever light levels head south. The front-facing camera offers a bright image that is good enough for video chatting, and unlike the Photon Q 4G LTE, it’s easy to frame your face with the M’s camera.

Software

Software

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The RAZR M ships with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (with a promised upgrade to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean "before the end of the year’) and Motorola’s ever-evolving user interface. Moto’s skin is one of the lightest ones from any major Android manufacturer, and most of the time it feels like you are using stock Android. But there are some differences, most notably in the way home screens are handled and the custom lock screen. The M features the same home screen system as the Atrix HD and Photon Q: by default there is only one screen set up, while a swipe to the right prompts you to add another blank page or one of three preset options. The M drops the little pop-up widgets that display recent activity in the stock app icons on the Atrix HD and Photon Q, but it adds a new quick-access settings menu available to the left of the primary home screen. This menu gives you toggles for Wi-Fi, ringer, Bluetooth, GPS, data, airplane mode, and lock settings, as well as jump to the main settings menu. It’s a different play on the settings shortcuts that most manufacturers put in the notification bar, and while it is novel, there is one big drawback over the other method: you can’t access any of these settings while in an app.

Stock Android 4.0... almost

Motorola made a point to note in its presentation last week that the RAZR M is one of the first phones to ship with Chrome for Android preinstalled and set as the default browser. Sure enough, the standard Android 4.0 browser is nowhere to be found on the RAZR M, and the only choice left is Chrome. Chrome for Android is an excellent mobile browser with very advanced syncing features, so I wouldn’t call the stock browser much of a loss. This swap is most certainly a result of Google’s influence on Motorola, and it will be interesting to see what else is changed on future Motorola devices.

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Motorola has bundled its Smart Actions app with the RAZR M, just like it had with its other recent smartphones. Smart Actions can quickly become your favorite app, as it has the ability to automate a bunch of tasks that are normally tedious. Want the phone to launch Google Music automatically when you plug in your headphones? There’s a Smart Action for that. Looking to silence your ringer and disable account syncing while you sleep? There’s a Smart Action for that, too. Smart Actions can also be triggered by location or motion of the phone, and rules can be created from scratch or you can modify one of Motorola’s presets to fit your needs. If there is one thing that I would like to add to the system, it would be the ability to set more granular parameters for triggers (such as launching the music app when I plug my headphones in OR connect my wireless Bluetooth headset), but Smart Actions will likely be sufficient for most users’ needs.

There has been a bit of a buzz lately that Verizon has gotten into bed with Amazon to pre-populate its smartphones with Amazon’s Appstore and other apps, and it appears that the M is the first smartphone to see the fruits of this partnership. Bundled on the M are all of Amazon’s apps for Android: the aforementioned Appstore, Amazon’s shopping app, the Kindle app, Amazon MP3, Audible, and even the Zappos app for buying shoes. None of these apps can be removed, but it is possible to disable them using Android 4.0’s native tools. The M is also saddled with Verizon’s own suite of apps, like the NFL Mobile app, My Verizon Mobile, VZ Navigator, and even Verizon’s Apps store (yes, there are THREE different app stores on the RAZR M). It’s not unusual to see a lot of bloatware on mid-range smartphones like the M, but there is a lot of redundant preloaded software here, and it comes off as insulting to the user.

Performance

Performance

High-end performance at a mid-range price
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Motorola will tell you that the RAZR M has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and 1GB of RAM should you ask, but it won’t divulge which particular Snapdragon is in use. Fortunately, using some third-party Android tools, we are able to discern that the processor inside the M is the same Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 SoC found in a number of other high-end smartphones, like the HTC One X for AT&T and the Samsung Galaxy S III. As we have seen with prior devices, the S4 gives the RAZR M snappy and responsive performance, and it never really feels weighed down or slow. Of course, it doesn’t quite match the smooth action of devices blessed with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and its myriad of performance enhancements, but needless to say, it is quite good — especially considering the M’s sub-$100 price tag.

Great call quality, for when you actually make calls

Call quality with the M on Verizon’s network was unsurprisingly solid, with no dropped calls and good volume in both the earpiece and speakerphone. Motorola’s strong suit has always been its call quality, and the M is no exception. Likewise, data performance on Verizon’s 4G LTE network was strong, with most tests resulting in speeds over 15Mbps down and over 10Mbps up.


Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Motorola Droid RAZR M 4,475 2,311 60fps 27fps 6,608
Samsung Galaxy S III (Sprint) 4,525 2,167 55fps 28fps 6,420
HTC Evo 4G LTE 5,070 2,335 56fps 29fps 6,612
Galaxy Nexus 2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079

Motorola has equipped the RAZR M with a 2,000mAh battery — larger than the RAZR’s 1,750mAh unit, but not quite up to the RAZR MAXX’s 3,300mAh cell. In my tests, the M was able to last through a full day of normal usage — the usual social networking, text messaging, web browsing, photo taking, and the occasional call — but not much more than that. On the Verge Battery Test, which loads a continuous cycle of websites in the browser with the screen at 65 percent brightness, the RAZR M lasted for four hours and 54 minutes. The test was performed on a 3G connection, so it would likely be lower on an LTE connection. If you are looking for a smartphone that will get you through two-plus days of use on a charge, the M isn’t it, but for everyone else, it provides acceptable battery life.

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Wrap-Up

A solid phone that could use a good dose of sex appeal

The Droid RAZR M is a solid smartphone: it features great build quality, snappy performance, fast data, comfortable dimensions, and a bright display, and it does so at price that doesn’t break the bank. It’s not without its faults, I would have really loved to seen a higher resolution display and better camera, but for the most part, there’s a lot to like here.

But at the end of the day, the RAZR M just doesn’t arouse the emotion that other smartphones do, which is exactly the same problem that earlier Motorola smartphones had. Its build, while solid, doesn’t match the fit and finish of the iPhone 4S or the HTC One X. The M lacks the wow factor and funky software tricks that smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S III offer, and though Motorola’s user interface isn’t intrusive, it’s not the same as the stock version of Android available on the Galaxy Nexus. If you want the best smartphone Motorola currently offers, you would do better with the Atrix HD, provided you can switch to AT&T. But if you are upgrading from a RAZR or RAZR Maxx from last year, and plan to stick with Verizon, the RAZR M offers a nicer display, faster processor, smaller size, and that all-important promise of an upgrade to Android 4.1, making it a suitable update to last year’s models. Of course, with the RAZR HD and RAZR HD Maxx (both of which feature 720p HD displays) expected to arrive before the end of this year, your patience may be rewarded.

GOOD STUFF

  • Solid build quality
  • Perfect size for one-handed use
  • Snappy performance

BAD STUFF

  • Loads of bloatware
  • Mediocre camera performance
  • Boring, ugly design

THE BREAKDOWN

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 5
  • Display 6
  • Camera(s) 6
  • Reception / call quality 9
  • Performance 8
  • Software 7
  • Battery life 6
  • Ecosystem 8
The Verge
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