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Razer Phone review: Razer's first phone brings the thunder and lightning

Sadly, it's not good enough to replace them.

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Sean Hollister
seanhollister.jpg

Sean Hollister

Senior Editor / Reviews

When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.

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8 min read

Look at your phone. Swipe across its home screen. Scroll down a web page. Does it feel fast and smooth?

razer-phone
7.4

Razer Phone

The Good

The Razer Phone is the smoothest Android experience yet. It's built like a tank, and its twin Dolby-powered speakers blow away the competition.

The Bad

Big, speaker-filled bezels make for a bulky phone with no water resistance or headphone jack. No-frills camera takes iffy photos in low light, among other camera quirks.

The Bottom Line

Razer Phone sets a new bar for mobile performance (and game responsiveness) with its 120Hz screen and loud speakers, but it's not a top-tier phone in any other way.

If you said "Yes," you've probably never tried the Razer Phone.

The Razer Phone is a glimpse into the future. If you buy one today, you can experience (and brag about) a piece of technology that may appear in many phones down the road: a screen that refreshes 120 times a second. It makes using the entire phone better.

It's the difference between swiping down a blurry web page and one that has crystal-clear text you can actually read as it goes by. When I tap the screen to launch an app or interact with a game, it feels faster than any other phone I've tried. Not because the processor is faster, but because the screen shows the results quicker than other devices.

The Razer Phone is the first to offer a 120Hz screen -- competitors are generally half that speed -- and like Apple's Retina Display before pixel-dense screens were the norm, it's hard to go back once you've tried it.

But in most other ways, the Razer Phone doesn't quite feel like a $700 or £700 handset. The design, the features, battery life and especially the camera aren't on par with the latest iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel. In the US, this GSM-only phone won't work with CDMA carriers like Verizon or Sprint, and these days you can get a lot for hundreds of dollars less with phones like the OnePlus 5T.

So here are some reasons you might not buy the Razer Phone -- but also, some reasons you'll be glad if you do.

Razer's first phone has a gaming edge

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So… is it a gaming phone?

Not exactly. The Razer Phone is the first handset from gaming hardware manufacturer Razer, whose mice, keyboards, headsets and laptops you might know. But like the company's recent Razer Blade Stealth, a thin laptop without a powerful graphics card inside, the Razer Phone isn't necessarily designed for gaming. It plays all the same games you'd play on any other flagship Android phone, and you won't see better graphics here.

And yet, I'd rather play games on the Razer Phone than many other handsets. That 120Hz screen, combined with Razer's software, made for smoother, more responsive gaming sessions in a large number of the games I played. I beat my high score in Smash Hit the very first time I tried.

Plus, Razer's Game Booster app lets you set the processor max clockspeed and screen refresh rate on a per-app basis -- unlocking smoother gameplay and even fixing jagged edges with antialiasing if you like. You can't force 120Hz in every app, but many games do work.

I wouldn't say it's the best gaming phone simply because Apple's iPhones often get the latest and greatest mobile games first -- and because unlike many top-tier Android competitors, the Razer Phone doesn't support a competent VR headset like Gear VR or Daydream.

Big and awesomely loud

I think we can agree: Phone speakers generally sound terrible. Tinny, shrill, distorted and muted are words I might use. Plus, they're dreadfully easy to accidentally muffle with your hand. For most phone makers, they're clearly an afterthought.

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The Razer Phone's stereo speakers sound better than many laptops. And they get LOUD.

Josh Miller/CNET

Razer is the exception to the rule. The company designed the entire Razer Phone around a pair of stereo speakers so loud and clear, it's mind-boggling they fit into a phone.

I've listened to hours of music on these speakers, and I'm seriously impressed. While they don't defy the laws of physics -- you won't find thumping bass, because they simply can't push out that much air -- they're loud enough to fill a small room with surprisingly palatable tunes or share a movie with a friend, and crisp enough that laptop manufacturers should take notice. (This phone sounds better than about 90 percent of the laptops I've used.)

But Razer gave up an awful lot to cram those speakers into a phone. They're the reason the Razer Phone is roughly the size of an iPhone 8 Plus, with huge bezels at the top and bottom to house those speakers, and the company says they're the reason the Razer Phone isn't water-resistant and the reason it doesn't have a headphone jack, too. At a time when practically every phone maker is fitting larger screens into way smaller phones, the Razer is a big, slippery brick that makes for quite the pocket bulge.

Design: Hip to be square

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Josh Miller/CNET

That said, the Razer Phone's squared-off design didn't bug me as much as I thought it would. The black unibody aluminum enclosure is striking -- in a 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith sort of way -- and the phone's corners are smoothly rounded and pleasant to touch, not sharp. Every facet feels carefully and deliberately machined, from the delightfully clicky volume buttons to the way the SIM tray slides into the metal chassis, to the fact that Razer's signature three-headed snake logo doubles as a handy perch for my index finger.

And while it's a little weird for me to carry around a device this bulky, all that metal suggests this phone can take quite the beating. For fun, I tried twisting the phone in my hands to see if I could produce a bit of a bend -- but the anodized aluminum chassis didn't so much as flex. (YouTube personality JerryRigEverything recently showed the phone can survive quite a bit of torture.)

Aside from the phone being so big, I don't have a lot to complain about -- mostly just that it's easy to miss the fingerprint sensor/power button by touch alone. I love that they're built into the side of the phone, which make them easy to reach, but maybe one out of every three times I don't quite hit it right, and have to reposition my finger before I can log in securely. Maybe I'd get used to it in a month or two, but no luck so far.

Camera needs work

A $700 phone from a company that's never made phones ships with an iffy dual-camera array and incredibly bare-bones software. Sound familiar? That's because I'm not just describing the Razer Phone, but also the Essential Phone from Android co-founder Andy Rubin -- which keeps seeing price cuts.

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Probably the best picture I took with the Razer Phone... and it took me five tries to get one I liked.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Thankfully, the Razer Phone's camera isn't nearly as bad as the Essential Phone has been. I tested them side by side, and the Razer beats it handily in good light. Time after time, the Razer Phone captured more detail and less grainy noise. 

Plus, the Razer's second camera is a 2x optical zoom instead of a monochrome (black and white) sensor, and the zoom actually works! Pitted against an iPhone 8, the Razer Phone's telephoto lens definitely offered more detail than cropping out a similar section of a zoomed-out iPhone. Take a look:

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You'll want to click to enlarge this one -- while the 2x zoom on the Razer Phone captures more detail than the 1x on the iPhone, the iPhone cam is so good you've often gotta peep pixels to see the difference. We've enlarged things to help.

Sean Hollister/CNET

That's where the good news ends, though. The Razer Phone's camera app is slow to respond, its viewfinder choppy and my shots in low light all look pretty poor. Without optical image stabilization -- standard on most top-tier phones -- and excellent autofocus, it always took trial and error to get shots I really liked.

Razer's software also makes blues so blue and greens so green that clear sky and freshly trimmed grass look like they were shot with an oversaturated Instagram filter, and the camera's HDR feature is so broken I recommend you keep it off entirely. It takes well over a second to process each image, locking you out of the camera each time, and the results always look worse with HDR than without.

And while the optical zoom works, it's user-unfriendly as heck: You have to pinch to zoom to just the right place to activate the second camera, and the phone doesn't tell you where that is. I had to literally stick my finger in front of one camera and zoom until my finger appeared in the image. It's important, because there's a tremendous difference in quality when you get the zoom just right:

Apple's iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X have a dedicated button to hop to the right zoom level, and Razer says it plans to add one (among many other camera improvements) in software updates.

Other things you might want to know

  • Battery life: It's... not great for a phone with a giant 4,000mAh pack? We got 11 hours, 32 minutes in our standard drain test, where we run a local looping video in airplane mode. Anecdotally, I always made it to bedtime on a charge, but the battery got dangerously low on days I did a lot of 120Hz gaming. We crossed the 20-hour mark with the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active -- which also houses a 4,000mAh battery -- and we generally get 12-14 hours from an iPhone or Pixel in the same test.
  • You can set the screen's refresh rate: It's in settings, under Display. In fact, the phone ships set to 90Hz, not the 120Hz maximum. You might be able to save some battery life by locking it at 60Hz or 90Hz, but we didn't really notice a difference -- maybe because the phone also automatically adjusts refresh rate to match what you're doing.
  • Raw performance isn't anything special: The Razer Phone is one of the fastest phones we've ever tested, but know this: In benchmarks, we found it on par with other bloatware-light phones with the same Snapdragon 835 processor.
  • Speaker quality, continued: While the built-in speakers might be the best I've ever tried on a phone, they aren't as good as a dedicated Bluetooth speaker or, say, a snap-on JBL Soundboost speaker for Motorola's Moto Z modular phones. My JBL Soundboost 2 has way more bass and richer sound at the same volume.
  • Camera zoom, continued: Though the Razer Phone's optical zoom is way better than having no optical zoom at all, the iPhone 8 Plus is far better. See an example at the bottom of this section.
  • No fancy portrait mode: Or any other camera modes, really. It shoots photos and video on automatic settings, and that's it.
  • Great for nighttime reading: The Razer Phone screen can get super dim if you want. It's fantastic for reading in bed without waking up your partner.
  • No wireless charging: The Razer Phone would need a radio-transparent (glass or plastic) back to pull that off. It's aluminum, so no dice.
  • No dedicated headset jack, but... Technically, the Razer Phone comes with a headphone jack on the end of a short USB-C cable. It does not come with headphones.
  • Speakerphone and Bluetooth call issues: Weirdly, the Razer Phone's stellar speakers don't translate into an awesome speakerphone. It's kind of quiet -- and so are calls over Bluetooth. Razer says both will get fixed in a December software update. Regular phone calls are fine.
  • Camera bulge: The Razer Phone has one, but only barely. The phone lies almost perfectly flat on a table, so you probably won't notice unless you're looking for it.
  • Razer three-headed snake logo: It does not light up.
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The iPhone 8 Plus zoom is better than Razer's zoom -- and phones with OIS on the zoom lens, such as those iPhone X and Samsung Note 8, should fare even better. (Click to see 100-percent crops; "Razer Digital Zoom" is enlarged to match.)

Sean Hollister/CNET

Razer Phone specs compared to iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, Google Pixel 2 XL and OnePlus 5


Razer PhoneiPhone XSamsung Galaxy S8 PlusGoogle Pixel 2 XLOnePlus 5T
Display size, resolution 5.72-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.8-inch; 2,436x1,125 pixels6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels6-inch; 2,880x1,440 pixels6.01-inch; 2,160x1080 pixels
Pixel density 514ppi458ppi529ppi538ppi401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.2x3.1x0.31 in5.7x2.79x0.30 in6.3x2.9x0.32 in6.2x3.0x0.3 in6.15x2.95x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 158.5x77.7x8 mm143.6x70.9x7.7 mm159.5x73.4x8.1 mm157.9x76.7x7.9 mm156.1x75x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.95 oz; 197g6.14 oz; 174g6.1 oz; 173g6.17 oz; 175g5.7 oz; 162g
Mobile software Android 7.1.1 NougatiOS 11Android 7.0 NougatAndroid 8 OreoAndroid 7.1.1 Nougat
Camera Dual 12-megapixel (wide/zoom)Dual 12-megapixel12-megapixel12-megapixel16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel low-light
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel7-megapixel8-megapixel8-megapixel16-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835Apple A11 BionicOcta-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8352.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Storage 64GB64GB, 256GB64GB64GB, 128GB64GB, 128GB
RAM 8GB3GB4GB4GB6GB, 8GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TBNoneUp to 2TBNoneNone
Battery 4,000mAh2,716mAh3,500mAh3,520mAh3,300mAh
Fingerprint sensor Power buttonNone (Face ID via TrueDepth camera)BackBack coverHome button
Connector USB-CLightningUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack NoNoYesNoYes
Special features 120Hz screen, dual front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby AtmosWater resistant (IP67), wireless Qi charge compatible, TrueDepth front-facing camera adds Face ID for payments and enables front-facing AR effectsWater-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-readyGoogle Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-readyPortrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $699$999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB)AT&T: $850; Verizon: $840; T-Mobile: $850; Sprint: $850; U.S. Cellular: $785$849 (64GB), $949 (128GB)$499 (64GB), $559 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £699£999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB)£779£799 (64GB), £899 (128GB)£449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to AU$910AU$1,579 (64GB), AU$1,829 (256GB)AU$1,349AU$1,399 (64GB), AU$1,549 (128GB)Converts to AU$660(64GB), AU$740 (128GB)
razer-phone
7.4

Razer Phone

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 10Camera 7Battery 7