Razer isn’t the first company to give the whole gamer-friendly phone thing a go: the Nokia N-Gage and Sony’s Xperia Play both tried, and well, failed. Miserably.
The thing is, neither of those big-name brands has their finger on the pulse of what players really want. If anyone has a chance, it’s the folks at Razer - makers of multi-coloured peripherals, sponsors of streamers, organisers of tournaments and general gaming supremos.
After picking up Kickstarter darlings Nextbit back in January, we finally got a first look at what this team is capable of at this week’s unveiling. And from a company so ingrained in PC gaming, you’d better believe some of that knowledge has made its way into its phone hardware.
DESIGN & BUILD
Take one look at the Razer Phone and you can see the shared design language - it wouldn’t look out of place next to a Blade laptop, or any one of the company’s mice, keyboards or headsets.
That being said, the whole thing looks incredibly restrained for a company with a well-known fetish for multicolour LEDs. Almost a bit too restrained, really.
It’s square and angular, much like its spiritual predecessor, the Nextbit Robin. In a year that most other companies have moved to glass construction, 18:9 screens and skinny bezels, the Razer phone feels undeniably old school.
Made entirely from metal, it’s cool to the touch but also huge in the hand. Speakers straddle the screen, making it even larger than its 5.7in screen suggests, but it makes sense when held horizontally. Games fill the whole screen, without your palms blocking your view.
There’s a fingerprint sensor at the side, much like Sony’s Xperia XZ1. I think this is an excellent location, as it’s always within reach and doesn’t distract from the monolithic back panel, like rear-facing fingerprint scanners do on the LG V30 or Google Pixel 2.
It feels tough and sturdy, as you’d expect from an all-metal phone, and dropping it won’t lead to a smashed back panel, but it’s not as easy on the eye as Samsung’s and LG’s latest.
SCREEN & SOUND
It’s the 5.7in, 2560x1440 display that really makes the Razer phone stand out. Not because it’s got a fancy 18:9 aspect ratio, or because it’s using OLED tech - because it doesn’t have either of those things.
Nope, the big deal here is UltraMotion, an adaptive display refresh technology that has more in common with big gaming monitors than smartphones.
Right now, all phones use 60Hz panels, which refresh 60 times a second, even if you’re looking at a static image. UltraMotion goes up to 120Hz, so double the number of frames - but only when you need it. On still images, the refresh rate can drop all the way down to 20fps, saving battery in the process.
For action-packed games and fast-moving video, though, the frame rate jumps up and things look much smoother. Scrolling through menus, web pages and apps all benefit too. There’s no jerkiness or stutter, just perfectly smooth swipes and scrolls.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the iPad Pro 10.5 already does something similar. Apple calls it ProMotion, and it works brilliantly.
Beyond smooth scrolling, the Razer Phone’s display is an impressive sight to behold. Contrast isn’t quite on par with an AMOLED panel, but this is still a bright, sharp affair with exactly the kind of colour accuracy you’d expect from a flagship phone.
The luminous wetsuits and rolling waves of Riptide GP: Renegade look as good as we’ve seen them. So much so that we momentarily daydreamed away from the phone’s presentation while trying to speed into first place.
While the stereo speakers that flank this display pump out a tremulous sound - far louder than your standard iPhone - they didn’t seem blessed with a great amount of finesse. Even the Razer Phone is better than most of its rivals for audio, you’ll still want to don a pair of headphones to get the best possible sound from your games.
Since there’s no headphone adaptor with this handset, you’ll have to use the bundled USB-C dongle if you want to plug in a pair of wired headphones.
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 (S$950) 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.