Gamer gear manufacturers rarely go for half measures.
Take the humble laptop: if you want one that plays games, expect it to weigh half a tonne, come packed with LEDs, and emblazoned with the insignia equivalent of a face tattoo. They might as well have “death to console gamers” written on the side, while they’re at it.
Gamer pro Razer hasn’t taken this approach with the Razer Phone. Thank god. It’s made for gamers, sure, but it shows that through the spec sheet, not OTT styling.
True geek-grade customisation and unique screen tech don’t come cheap though, especially if you’re saving up for your next “proper” graphics card.
GET YOUR GAME ON
Let’s deal with the most important bit first: how exactly is this a gaming phone?
It’s not like you get access to any special games, as with Nvidia’s Shield tablet. You can’t play Half-Life 2 here - just the thousands and thousands of games every other Android phone has access to.
Instead, it’s the way you see your games - courtesy of the world’s first 120Hz screen smartphone.
Y’see, most phones screens refresh at 60Hz, but the Razer Phone can reach double that rate. This lets games show double the number of frames every second, instead of squandering them on a screen that’s too slow to keep up.
There’s a reasonable argument for 120Hz refresh rates in Android itself, too, as it makes scrolling that little bit smoother. Apple even added it to the iPad Pro.
Disclaimer: I haven’t noticed a major difference, and am more than happy with how Android feels on a “normal” phone screen. The merits of a 120Hz interface while you idly scroll through your social feeds are best viewed through a slo-mo camera.
However, because the frame rate isn’t fixed, it can work both ways, dropping all the way down to 20fps to save on battery.
Let’s be blunt, though: who loves high fps more than gamers? Razer’s dedicated Game Booster app lets you choose the “frame rate” used by your games - as well as the resolution, the CPU clock speed and whether to use forced anti-aliasing or not.
It’s a neat idea, but there are a few problems. You can ask a game to run at 120fps, but that doesn’t mean the phone can hack it. Despite having a tip-top CPU, I noticed the occasional frame rate slow down in Asphalt 8 - more so than in some of the Snapdragon 630 phones I’ve used recently.
It’s a bit weird, sure, but shows Android games aren’t always super-optimised for the latest hardware. Conversely, Gear.Club works so well without any Game Booster tweaking I couldn’t really tell any difference before and after the tweaks.
A game running at a solid 60fps is going to look pretty amazing, and while Counterstrike pros may tell you 120fps improves their performance, few Android games need the same kind of twitch precision.
It’s not like this phone has an Nvidia GTX 1080, either - “just” a Snapdragon 835. Having graphics controls like a PC doesn’t make this any more a gamer phone than any other handset with this CPU.
Reducing the specs and frame rate in a game is just as interesting, mind, letting you cut down the strain on the battery. But this is faulty, too.
Changing the resolution to anything other than “native” in Asphalt 8 causes game-breaking interface issues. And asking Real Racing 3 to change any setting doesn’t seem to have any effect at all. Gear.Club seems to ignore request to chip the resolution down to 720p too (it does let you lock the frame rate to 40fps, though). Hopefully this will improve with future updates.
Come on, were you really expecting anything less than the best? The Razer phone is supposed to eat games for breakfast, and it can only do that with killer hardware.
That means you get a Snapdragon 835 and 8GB of RAM, making it one of the most potent phones around right now. Razer is bigging up its thermal management, too: the entire frame of the phone acts as a heat sink, and a heat pipe inside made from two thermal sheets should help stop things getting toasty.
In practice, that means the phone can run at higher clock speeds for longer - meaning better performance all round. It’s a difficult thing to test, especially during such a brief hands-on, but everything certainly felt snappy and responsive.
Games played flawlessly and apps opened in a split-second. Some titles have been framerate unlocked all the way to 100fps, too, so they’ll play better here than on any other smartphone.
The UltraMotion screen makes a difference here, too, with continuous scrolling apps like Twitter and Facebook feeling much smoother.
Of course, being on a stock version of Android helps, too. The Razer phone runs Android 7 Nougat, rather than Oreo, but an update is due to arrive early next year.
There are only a few pre-installed apps, including Razer’s own Gaming suite, which lets you set frame rate and resolution for individual apps. Handy if you want to squeeze in some Candy Crush without it draining your battery.
Storage & Battery life
64GB of on-board storage will leave you plenty of room for apps and games, and there’s a microSD expansion slot for adding more capacity later.
Mobile gaming can be a real battery hog, of course, but that shouldn’t be an issue here. The Razer phone is packing a 4000mAh battery, which puts it ahead of most other Android phones and well beyond the current crop of iPhones.
It’s on par with Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro, which gets exceptional battery life, so we’re expecting good things here once we get one into the office for testing.
It’s a shame you don’t get wireless charging (the tech is impossible to add to a phone with a metal chassis right now) but QuickCharge 3.0 means you should be able to top up without waiting for too long.
Having only spent a short time with the Razer phone, it’s the dual rear cameras we’re least convinced by.
Razer has gone for a twin 12MP setup, with one wide-angle lens and a second telephoto - just like you get on the iPhone 8 Plus. The main lens has an f/1.75 aperture, which should be wide enough to throw plenty of light on the sensor, while the telephoto lens makes do with f/2.6.
Both use phase-detect AF, which is one of the faster types of single autofocus, but it would have been nice to see some laser assistance here like Google’s Pixel 2.
The dual-LED flash should help when the lights get dim, although there was no mention of optical image stabilisation, so you’ll need a steady hand to get the best low-light shots..
The demo area I used the phone in was rather dark, so I could only really test it in low light, but the results weren’t especially promising. There was a lot of image blur in my test shots with most of them proving near-on unusable.
This could be due to the lack of optical image stabilisation in the Razer Phone’s dual lens camera, or subpar image processing. It’s difficult to say at this point. Given the tricky conditions this pre-release handset was dealing with, it could be that photo quality steps up a notch
A final judgment on picture quality will have to wait until a full review, but it will be interesting to see how it stacks up against the Pixel 2’s phenomenal camera - and whether Google’s camera APK can improve things further, like it does when you install it on a OnePlus 5.
RAZER PHONE INITIAL VERDICT
You don’t need to be a big mobile gamer to appreciate the Razer Phone - but it helps.
The big screen and stereo speakers make it a formidable piece of kit to hold, and the angular, industrial-looking metal design is a world away from the curves and glass of Samsung’s Galaxy S8 or the iPhone X.
It’s got all the right hardware, but then so does the OnePlus 5, and that costs considerably less than the Razer Phone’s $699.99 (RM2960) SIM-free price.
That leaves display quality and battery life as its two stand-out features - if you aren’t already sold by the company’s signature Ouroboros logo on the back. Gamers will appreciate how smooth and responsive their games feel, and die-hard Razer fans will be grateful of another piece of kit to add to their collection.
For everyone else? We’ll have to wait for a full review, when we can stack it up against its big-name rivals.