Can you actually make an Android phone for gamers? Aren’t they all spec-heavy beasts of incredible processing burden? These are the questions Razer will have to answer as it introduces its first ever smartphone, appropriately titled the Razer Phone.
This device has a 5.7-inch 1440p screen — with variable refresh rate, rather like Apple’s most recent iPad Pro — and a whopping 8GB of RAM, plus 64GB of expandable storage. It also includes stereo front-facing speakers with Dolby Atmos support and a generous 4,000mAh battery powering the flagship-standard Snapdragon 835 processor. A dual 12-megapixel camera system on the back works along the same lines as Apple’s iPhone setup: one camera has an f/1.8 lens for wide shots and the other is a telephoto f/2.6 shooter. I’d say the Razer Phone was designed to appeal to spec lovers, but having handled the device extensively ahead of today’s launch, I struggle to believe that it was designed at all. I mean, just look at its characterless black-slab aluminum exterior. It’s like someone revived Brutalist architects from the 1960s and tasked them with devising the world’s blockiest phone.
Razer prides itself on selling products made “for gamers, by gamers,” and it believes the above combination of desirable internal components will offset the blandness of the Razer Phone’s looks, the bigness of its speaker-housing bezels, and the absence of its headphone jack. It’s that last element that strikes me as a major contradiction: Razer’s supposedly gamer-friendly device is lacking easy connectivity to a gamer’s most essential peripheral after the controller. Inside the Razer Phone box you’ll find a THX-certified audio dongle that lets you hook up headphones and promises 24-bit “audiophile-quality” sound, but that’s a weird compromise on a device that’s supposed to be about no-compromise gaming performance.
I simply can’t agree with Razer that this is a phone made “for gamers,” whether it was designed by such people or not. Even the gamers that like LED lights on their mouse pads, Lambo-inspired gear designs, and hexagonal PC cases don’t really want all those elements in their phones. Most people are after the same thing from a phone: the sort of slick, glamorous, and ergonomic design of a Galaxy S8 or an iPhone X. We shouldn’t excuse ugly design by saying it’s “for gamers,” even if ugly gamer designs are so numerous.
More importantly, Razer hasn’t done anything to truly elevate the Android gaming experience over its more seasoned competitors. Every current Android flagship is powered by the same Snapdragon 835 that Razer uses, OnePlus and others have already been selling 8GB phones for a while, and Razer’s software augmentations boil down to a Game Booster app that functions like a secondary settings menu. In Game Booster, you’ll be able to prioritize system resources for games, specify your desired resolution, and do a few other tweaks that mostly feel like superfluous effort. I game a lot on Android phones and I rarely feel compelled to tinker with settings; most games just work, so I’m not sure how big of a problem Razer thinks it’s solving with its phone. In terms of the UI, the software is basically stock Android Nougat 7.1.1 with Google Assistant and the premium version of the Nova Launcher preloaded. No Android 8 Oreo this year. Disappointing.
Razer will tell you that it has the best “thermals” (i.e., heat dissipation) in the business, using the metal frame of the phone as a heatsink and allowing you to play games at the highest quality for the longest time. And I’ll tell you that that’s a cool thing to have, but not a big enough reason to buy this phone over any other Android spec beast. Razer is still so very green to this phone business that it didn’t even have a dedicated gaming mode with all visual notifications disabled until I asked for one. I kid you not, it was only after I pointed out how useful that feature is on Samsung’s Galaxy S devices that Razer built it into its own Android software. This goes to show both the company’s inexperience and its willingness to learn quickly.
I do like that Razer has pushed things forward on the display front by using a Sharp IGZO panel capable of adjustable frame rates maxing out at 120Hz. That means ultra smooth animations during games and extra slow (and thus efficient) speeds for when the phone is just idling on the home screen, or you’re composing your latest tweet. The higher frame rate does make the experience of using the phone feel more fluid. This is the sort of display adaptability that should eventually become standard on all mobile devices, helping us eke out more battery life through more responsive, self-adjusting power usage. But is that enough of a leap forward to justify the Razer Phone’s existence?
The device is priced at $700 in the US (or €750 in Europe, £700 in the UK) and sold directly from Razer’s online store or Amazon.com, with a ship date of November 17th with online reservations opening today. That price tag means the Razer Phone is entering the most premium and competitive segment of the smartphone market. It’s going up against brilliantly designed pieces of hardware like the Galaxy Note 8, LG V30, HTC U11, OnePlus 5, and Huawei Mate 10 Pro. All of them have specs to match Razer’s, aside from that new screen; many of them have eliminated the bezels; and the majority also have headphone jacks. Why should you buy the Razer Phone ahead of all that great competition? Maybe Razer has a compelling answer, but after my experience with its new device, I can’t identify it.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge