Whenever Razer is brought up, the first thought that runs through your head is probably its premium computers or expansive portfolio of gaming peripherals. What doesn't cross your mind is smartphones, even though the company jumped into the crowded waters last year.
In early 2017 Razer purchased the company Nextbit—the makers of the boxy and ambitious Robin phone—and took its smartphone design, modified it, and pushed out a rebranded phone by the end of the year.
Unfortunately, it was quickly forgotten even though it offered some innovative features like the 120Hz display and pulsing dual front-facing speakers.
The Razer Phone 2 marks the company's real attempt to breakthrough where its predecessor failed. However, the company is quickly finding out that making a breakthrough means more than just slapping on more glass to a phone.
In creating the Razer Phone 2, Razer took very incremental steps to fix the wrongs of the first generation device. It did not change the design at all other than adding a new glass back while adding a few additional features its predecessor was missing, mainly wireless charging and water resistance.
Razer says adding the glass back was part of a deliberate attempt on its part to make the Razer Phone 2 more consumer friendly as opposed to strictly aimed at the gaming demographic it is most familiar with. In that respect, I can say it succeeded because modern smartphones have glass backs and now so does the Razer Phone 2.
This paves the way for wireless charging, one of the biggest exclusions from last year's phone. But instead of just playing it safe, Razer decided to throw us a curveball and added the Razer Phone 2's most striking characteristic—a glowing logo.
It's kind of hard to put into context how crazy the Razer logo looks. A very subtle LED hue lights up the three-headed snake logo that creates a dazzling effect. Just like the rest of Razer's RGB enabled devices, the light up logo can be configured to any one of 16.9 million different color Chroma colors.
Through the Chroma settings, you can adjust the brightness of the logo to three different modes: low, medium and high. The low mode will only turn on the light for notifications and the medium and high profiles will keep the logo on permanently.
I really like that Razer pushed the boundary with the light up logo, but there is one unintended side effect of the feature: the wireless charging coil was placed uncommonly low. Most phones with wireless charging have the coil located at the center making the charging process super easy. However, that's where the light-up logo lives on the Razer Phone 2 and it leads to a design flaw that is almost impossible to ignore.
Straight up, most wireless chargers won't work with it. If you use a charger that is a stand, it won't work at all unless you place it horizontally, and if you use a regular flat charger, you'll have to angle it at just the right point to get the phone to charge. The best solution for this is buying Razer's own $100 wireless charger that also supports Chroma lighting, but at its steep price I would not recommend it even though it looks really cool.
This never stopped being an issue for me. I constantly had to move the phone just to get it to charge and on more than one occasion had the phone fall off my bed stand because I placed it too high on the charger. It was such an issue, it made me reconsider the point of having a light up logo if this was the trade off.
On another note, the Razer Phone 2 is now IP67 water and dust resistant. Accidentally dropping it in the pool won't result in a heart attack inducing shock for fear of wrecking your expensive phone. It can now survive the unexpected swim.
Aside from the glass back, not much else changed with the Razer Phone 2's exterior design. It's still very boxy with the 5.72-inch IGZO LCD display with a 2560 by 1440 resolution, Snapdragon 845 processor, 8GB of RAM, 64GB of storage with microSD expandability, side-mounted fingerprint scanner and 4,000mAh battery.
Except for the newer processor, every other spec remained the same from the first generation Razer Phone. It matches the performance of the first phone beat for beat except battery life. The 4,000mAh battery seems like plenty of juice to get through the day, but for one reason or another, the Razer Phone 2 cannot match the battery performance of its predecessor. Maybe it's the light up logo, though I kept it in the low setting.
I thought I was going to enjoy the design more given its unique shape, but there's a reason most smartphone makers are opting for the rounded edges and that's because it is infinitely more comfortable to hold. Last year's phone had the same problem yet it seems the issue has been compounded this year due to some added heft.
The glass back, light-up logo and wireless charging-capabilities adds 23g of weight to the Razer Phone 2 that comes in at 220g, making it one of the heaviest smartphones by a wide margin. Maybe I could overlook the weight and uncomfortable frame, but knowing it has the same footprint as the iPhone XS Max but you get a much smaller display (6.5-inch vs. 5.7-inch) is a difficult pill to swallow.
Where Razer did an admirable job getting out of its way was with software. Unlike Samsung and LG that think they can put a better spin on Android, Razer saved itself the work and just went with a near stock Android experience with Nova Launcher.
Save for a few changes in the color scheme to match its signature vibrant green, the rest is pure Android from the home screen to the menus. However, to my disappointment, it was only Android 8.1 and not the more recent Android 9. Razer says the update is in the works and will be rolled out as soon as possible, but out of the gate you'll be stuck with an older version of Android.
Last year, the two main selling points of the Razer Phone was its display and front-facing speakers, and while the novelty has worn off somewhat, they're still very compelling. Seeing the 120Hz refresh rate effect on the 5.7-inch display with a wide color gamut is still impressive. Pages scroll buttery smooth and swiping between screens is super fluid. I can't describe this effect in a way that will do it justice, just know that it looks amazing.
The only other mobile product that offers a high refresh rate like this is Apple's iPad Pro.
The best way to put this refresh rate to good use is through gaming. Razer has teamed up with a number of developers to create optimized games that take full advantage of the hardware. PUBG, Rival Crimson x Chaos, Marvel Future Fight and Guns of Boom are some of the games that are optimized and playing them on this display is an utter joy. The Snapdragon 845 processor handles the games without any stutter and the display delivers frames smoothly for a fantastic gaming experience.
Razer included a new custom vapor cooling system that is meant to keep the phone somewhat cool as the intensive load of games fires up the cores. Unfortunately, I still found the phone got hot under intensive workloads.
The impressive display pairs nicely with the blasting dual front-facing speakers with THX-certified amplifiers. One of the Razer Phone 2's biggest additions is the new IP67 water and dust resistance, and as such, Razer had to tweak the speaker design to still have an impressive sound profile. To my ear, the only drawback is that the speakers don't get as loud as the first generation, but I'll take the trade off.
For things like listening to music, watching YouTube videos or playing games, the Razer Phone 2 gets really loud, though it's about the same level as the iPhone XS. The thing the Razer Phone 2 has going for it is that both of its speakers fire directly at you.
Where the speakers truly shine is with Netflix and the HDR and Dolby Atmos support it takes advantage of. Listening to movies and TV shows on the Razer Phone 2 is an experience unlike any other and I can safely say no other smartphone matches it.
During my testing, I streamed Jurassic Park because of its amazing sound editing and the Razer Phone 2 did a magnificent job of sound separating from the right to the left speaker delivering all the quiet forest creaks to the intense Velociraptor shrieks. This was by far my favorite feature of the device.
Even though Razer positions the Razer Phone 2 as a media device, here's where the company talks out of both sides of its mouth. Plainly put, there's no reason why the phone shouldn't have a headphone jack if it is a true media device. I know this is where smartphones are going, but with a phone this big and this heavy, might as well stick in a headphone jack.
New cameras, same results
In Razer's mission to make a more consumer friendly phone, it paid extra attention to the new dual-camera system. The main shooter is a 12MP wide-angle camera with f/1.75 and optical image stabilization and the second is a 12MP telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom. It's a very similar set-up to its predecessor save for the addition of OIS and slightly upgraded aperture for the main lens.
Outfitted with different modes including Portrait Mode, 4K video recording and HDR support, Razer was hoping to make a camera that appealed to a wide-ranging audience. Unfortunately, it misses the mark as the improvement isn't significant enough. The pictures produced by the camera are flat and lack saturation as the image processing never quite nails a setting. It does a good job of capturing detail, but as the scene separates with different colors, some shots become too contrasted for my liking.
In the image processing, Razer made the decision to go with less punchy and saturated colors as opposed as to what you'd find in Samsung's phones and to a lesser degree iPhones, but in return you get muted pictures that fail to pop. Not much changes with low-light photography. Most photos are distorted with noise and where there is light, it's mostly overexposed to compensate for the lack of light everywhere else.
Things don't improve when you move to the front-facing 8MP camera. It has the same modes as the main camera system and it suffers from the same ailments as well. Images come out looking flat and the processing leaves a lot to be desired.
I took some photos using the Portrait Mode and the results were okay. Beside the unsatisfying colors, the blur effect on the background was kind of hit or miss. With some pictures, it perfectly cut out my silhouette but with others part of my shirt was blurred contributing to an uneven effect.
Beyond the quality of the pictures, the only place where I found performance of the Razer Phone 2 to be an issue was with the camera app. On multiple times the app crashed on me and on many other occasions it was just a stuttering mess. Razer did push out an update meant to address some of these issues and it worked somewhat on stabilizing the camera app though it did little to improve photos the camera produced.
Too many compromises
The one prevailing thought that continued to run through my mind when I was reviewing the Razer Phone 2 was that it has all the makings of a flagship device—stunning display, impressive feature array and premium build quality—but it cannot bring all that together to make a worthy device.
The only area where it excels is media consumption, but that's hardly the sole reason to buy a phone.
Where the last nail hits the coffin for the Razer Phone 2 is with its price. At $799, the Razer Phone 2 makes too many compromises to justify its expensive price tag. You're in premium smartphone territory with the likes of the Pixel 3, Galaxy S9, iPhone XS and V40, and I can't put the Razer Phone 2 over any of those devices. You're either near-perfect in this territory to stand a chance or you're left behind. Sadly, the Razer Phone 2 falls in the latter category.
If media consumption and gaming are the two main reasons you buy a phone, the Razer Phone 2 is worth taking a look at. If not, then don't even consider it because it will disappoint you.
That unfortunately leaves the Razer Phone 2 in the same place its predecessor was at last year—relegated to niche status for a few select users with the hopes that next year finally brings its breakthrough.