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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Motorola Razr review: folding flip phone flops

What is a folding screen worth?

I wish I could tell you exactly where I think the Motorola Razr went wrong, but there are too many options to choose from. It’s the first of a new generation of folding devices that open vertically into a regular phone shape instead of horizontally into a mini-tablet like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. That means Motorola had the benefit of learning from earlier missteps from the Fold and a very few other devices, but it still makes too many mistakes of its own.

The Motorola Razr is a Verizon-exclusive phone that retails for $1,499, but it has features and functionality that would barely pass as acceptable on a $250 phone. Motorola, in fact, just announced a far superior $250 phone, the Moto G Power. Of course, the Moto G doesn’t fold in half.

If the Razr didn’t fold and cost a penny over $250, I’d tell you to skip it, which means there’s really only one question to ask: how much is that folding screen worth to you?

Every smartphone is a bundle of trade-offs. Even if price is no object and you want to buy the biggest, best phone on the market, you’re still making the most obvious trade-off of all: spending a lot of money.

That is the Razr’s first major trade-off. I’m harping on the $1,500 price, but not because it’s too high for any phone. Phones are our primary computers, and many people could reasonably justify that price or something even higher for the right phone. The problem with the Razr is that it delivers so few of the things you’d expect at that — or any — price.

But you likely aren’t coming to the Razr because you care a lot about traditional ways to judge phones. The camera may be mediocre and the battery life sub-par, but it flips, damnit, and it looks like those classic Razr phones, just a little bigger.

There are also some real benefits in having a small phone that unfolds into a big one: it will fit into any pocket without poking out, for one thing. There’s also a vague sort of feeling that having a phone you can close may make it less tempting to use all the time than a regular slab. That didn’t really happen to me. Unlike my experience with the Galaxy Fold, the Razr didn’t make me feel like my relationship to the phone changed. But a folding flip phone is still pretty cool, and we shouldn’t act like there isn’t value in that.

Which is to say that the Razr does have some good things going for it. The overall look and feel of the device when closed is unique and does an excellent job of evoking the original. Even if you don’t have any fond memories of flip phones, you can still appreciate that it’s something different from the usual featureless rectangles most phones have become. There is a retro aesthetic that is genuinely appealing both in a nostalgic way and on its own merits. Plus, when closed, it’s actually thinner than the original Razr V3 from 2004.

When you open it, there is a big old chin on the bottom that presumably allows the rest of the phone to be thinner. I also think it helps with balance. This is a very tall phone: the screen is 6.2 inches, but it’s at a 21.9:9 aspect ratio. It feels too narrow for me to comfortably type on, but I think that’s something you could get used to over time. The overall build quality is solid. Sure, there’s some plastic on the back and some fairly big bezels around the screen, but in some ways, that’s part of the charm.

What you’re really here for is the hinge and the folding screen. Unfortunately, this is where we have to start talking about trade-offs again — serious ones.

The Razr’s screen is made of plastic, and it was recently one-upped by Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip, which has the first folding glass display ever. Tough break. In general, though, folding screens are so new that it’s hard to know exactly what standard to judge them by. Clearly, they require trade-offs, but which trade-offs are reasonable and which are dumb won’t be clear until we use more of them.

What I don’t like: the soft plastic is likely to pick up nicks, dings, and indentations from use — and I think fairly normal use, at that. It feels slightly more robust than the Galaxy Fold’s screen, but that may just be because it’s smaller. Motorola’s main innovation with the screen is how it constructed the hinge to minimize any creasing and allow the phone to close completely flat. There are two parts to this story.

First, the screen forms a kind of teardrop inside the hinge as it closes, bulging out into some interior space Motorola left for just that purpose. It’s very clever, and it does minimize the appearance of a crease on the phone when it’s opened up. You can see it if you look, but it’s much less prominent than you might expect.

The plastic screen looks fine but doesn’t feel good under your thumb

Here’s the trade-off: when the phone is open, it feels bad under your fingers. If you move your finger over the center of the screen with any kind of natural pressure, you can feel weird dips and bumps underneath the screen. And, well, think about how often you slide your finger over the middle of the screen as you scroll. Motorola actually put out a video that says “bumps and lumps are normal.”

Motorola also made the screen float a bit so that, as the phone closes, the bottom part of it can slide into the chin just a little. I imagine this is necessary so the screen doesn’t bunch up as it forms that teardrop shape. In that regard, it is another clever solution.

Here’s the trade-off for that, though: tapping on the bottom of the screen feels genuinely awful when the phone is fully open. It just feels loose. You can feel the screen move and hit whatever is behind it every time you tap the back button.

As for overall screen quality, I’m ambivalent. It doesn’t seem as vibrant or as bright as what you can get on a regular slab phone, but it also seems perfectly fine for most uses. Watching video is awkward because you get gigantic black bars when you go full screen. Here again, though, I have to admit that I don’t know what should count as “good enough” for a folding screen. Judged by the standards of a Galaxy S10 or iPhone 11 Pro, it looks washed-out and dim. Judged against the Galaxy Fold, it seems average.

Since we’ve talked about the hinge so much, we need to get to another trade-off. Maybe you’ve heard about it, or maybe you’ve literally heard it. The creak.

Folding phones need to minimize and control the forces that hit their screens: bending is fine, flexing and twisting are not so fine. So they have finely tuned hinges with complicated systems of interlocking gears that need to do that work. Hopefully, the hinge mechanism is also constructed so that it can be kept free of debris.

Whatever Motorola did to the Razr’s hinge seems to have achieved all of those goals, but it comes with a side effect: a creaking noise when you open and close it. You’ll hear it in the video above, and it got steadily worse over the first few days of use before settling into a consistent state of grating and awful. In a quiet room, it’s genuinely embarrassing. Any hope you might have of impressing your friends and making your enemies jealous of your flipping phone will immediately evaporate if you show it to them in a quiet environment.

Here’s Motorola’s statement on the noise:

When folding and unfolding razr, you may hear a sound, which is intrinsic to the mechanical movement of the phone. razr has undergone rigorous durability testing, and the reported sounds in no way affect the quality of the product.

I’d say the sound does affect the “quality of the product.” If you close your ears and use it, you could find it acceptable. It doesn’t let you set the hinge at any angle, and it doesn’t snap closed on its own like a classic Razr, but it works. I can open the phone with one hand, and the hinge is just loose enough to let you flick it out with a classic flip phone flourish.

But it doesn’t spark that ineffable sense of satisfaction and rightness that well-crafted physical objects can. I love the way a makeup compact snicks shut or how a luxury car door closes with a kind of airlock seal or — yes — how a classic Razr flips open.

Plus, since the fingerprint sensor is on the bottom, I find there’s yet another step I have to take to unlock the phone. Because of that, I ended up using two hands to unfold the Razr most of the time, doing my best to not listen to the sound it made when I did.

The camera is perfectly acceptable for a phone that costs around $500 in the year 2018. Unfortunately for Motorola, the Razr costs $1,500 and it is 2020 — a year in which you can buy a Pixel 3A for $399 (or less on discount) with a camera that absolutely smokes the Razr.

It’s a 16-megapixel sensor, and I was able to get decent shots in bright light or simple conditions. But I’ve been able to say that about most smartphone cameras for years now. Introduce even a little complication, like movement, shadow, or low light, and the whole thing falls apart. I had a super hard time even getting it to properly focus on faces. There is a night mode but it doesn’t do much.

One bright spot is that Motorola’s extra features are focused on fun little effects that are appropriate for this camera instead of promising perfect bokeh on portrait shots. There’s a color pop mode and a cinemagraph mode that are both kind of neat. In most cases, the effects Motorola lays on are so extremely artificial-looking that it actually works. It’s like a retro aesthetic that I find almost endearing.

So, for example, the photo in the set above is not good by any objective standard. But I think it looks cool.

We’re in the home stretch here, and it’s time to talk about software, one place where Motorola usually wins by showing restraint. That’s definitely the case here. I am super annoyed that this is running Android 9 instead of Android 10, but I do like Motorola’s subtle software enhancements. The twist and chop gestures for turning on the flashlight or camera are genuinely useful, for example.

But the main software intervention Motorola has made is to enable the outer screen, the “Peek Display.” Think of it like a big, simple smartwatch on the front of your phone. It can show you the time, and you can use it as a selfie viewfinder.

It also shows you notifications, but it does so by laying little icons out in a horizontally scrolling space at the bottom. To view them, you have to learn a custom language of taps and swipes and holds that I found unintuitive. Some do support quick reply or let you reply with voice, but generally, it’s easier just to open the phone.

The outer display is big and pretty but underutilized

Since this is a Verizon exclusive, there is Verizon junkware. A ton of it: 12 apps by my count, some of which are unnecessary Verizon subscription services that are redundant next to the free services you get built in to Android. It’s gross and annoying, especially considering how much this thing costs.

The specs are not especially good on the phone, but I’m not annoyed by too many of them. Motorola chose a midrange Snapdragon 710 processor so it could maximize battery life and thinness. For most day-to-day tasks, it’s perfectly sufficient, and it never bothered me.

Battery life, unfortunately, is barely sufficient. I could eke out a day only by forcing myself to use the phone a little less or a little differently than I usually do. Most days, I was topping off in the late afternoon to be safe. The 2,510mAh battery is simply too small. And while that means the Razr can be thin and have a second screen, the trade-off isn’t worth it. There’s no wireless charging either, but it does support fast charging via standard USB-C Power Delivery.

I don’t think a $1,500 folding phone needs to have top-flight specs. You’re paying for that fold and the novelty of it. It brings us back to that original question: how much is that novelty worth? I do think it’s worth something, utility aside. For me, it’s not so much novelty as nostalgia, though, and I get that people who have only experienced candy bar phones may not feel any emotional connection to the flip.

A compromised phone

But the Razr fails to meet even a basic level of competence when it comes to the camera and battery life. Again, if this phone didn’t fold, I wouldn’t recommend it at one-sixth of its current price.

That’s not even the most damning part of it. I could envision rationalizing all of those trade-offs away in exchange for a flip phone, maybe, but the experience of actually flipping it open and shutting it is bad. If ever there was a “you had one job” situation with a new phone, this was it.

I’ve been talking a lot about trade-offs in this review. But there’s another word for trade-off — compromise — and that’s what the Razr is: a compromised phone.

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