It’s not easy to turn heads in the mobile industry in 2018. At best, we see new handsets come out to critical acclaim but also a sense of stifled boredom. Maybe it is the best of its kind yet, but so what? Apart from the fact that it ticks every box, what does it bring to the table that’s new? Fortunately, for those of us seeking something different (if a bit quirky), Razer has decided to get into the mobile market. The gaming hardware company is now on its second generation smartphone, the Razer Phone 2, and it’s staying true to its original vision: a handset for elite mobile gamers. This puts the device in an interesting position. It’s vying to be a luxury product — so it should not only compete with the best but somehow achieve more. That’s where the 120Hz refresh rate display comes in, and the RGB light-up logo.
But the price tag is telling. While it’s certainly competing with other premium devices at $799 — like the Pixel 3, for instance — it still isn’t daring to go higher just yet. The main reason is probably that the Razer Phone has too little brand recognition (or not the right kind — when I say the name most people think it’s a reincarnation of the famous Motorola Razr), however, I think the price is appropriate in other ways, too. Firstly, because the gaming phone market is still nascent, and secondly, because Razer is still finding its footing in mobile hardware. The Razer Phone 2 is an excellent phone, but it doesn’t tick every box just yet.
120Hz still wows
Let’s start with the display since it’s the major selling point of the device. While it may seem like hyperbole, the screen’s 120Hz refresh rate is nothing short of mind-blowing. When you switch on the setting (it’s set to 90Hz by default), the display can change its image at as much as 120 frames per second. That’s twice as often as a regular smartphone. Additionally, Razer Phone 2 has 120Hz touch sampling, which allows for touch input to be captured at a much faster rate. The latest iPhones have this tech, and it plays a prominent role into how smooth interactions feel (something Apple fans love to brag about) — and that’s paired with a 60Hz display.
It’s hard to convey just how much this refresh rate elevates the overall experience when it comes to not only gaming but also simple mobile browsing. In recent years, there’s been little new mobile technology that felt like a significant, generational step forward. Bezel-less or nearly bezel-less devices come close, but that’s a divisive change, one that introduced the much-maligned notch. I feel like everyone could get behind 120Hz displays, though. Every interaction is so vastly improved, from Pokémon Go to scrolling through Twitter.
The only real downside is the fact that the display isn’t OLED (the tech just isn’t there yet), and the IGZO LCD screen is a lot dimmer and warmer than you’ll be used to if you use pretty much any other premium Android flagship. Rest assured, though, that it is significantly better than last year’s Razer Phone — around 50 percent better, in fact, going from 380 nits of brightness to 580 nits.
The display is now well within the realm of acceptability, though you may occasionally have to squint at the screen on a sunny day. But that’s a small price to pay for a display that delivers what is hands-down the most buttery smooth interaction experience I’ve ever felt.
Powering this handset is a Snapdragon 845 chipset — standard issue for 2018 flagships. It’s a strong performer, as we’ve seen with the rest of 2018’s biggest smartphones, and it comes with a Qualcomm Adreno 630 GPU, plus the gigabit LTE-capable X20 modem. There’s also 64GB of internal storage and an impressive 8GB of RAM, double what’s in the Pixel 3. Of course, many will argue that 8GB of short-term digital storage is simply unnecessary, but when it comes to a gaming phone that argument kind of goes out the window. If any device could make use of spare RAM, it’s one dedicated to 3D gaming, and if it doesn’t, well, there’s no harm in it being there.
Performance and design in practice
In my gaming experience with the phone, my longest session lasted roughly two hours. I played Lara Croft Go (an 120Hz-optimized game) non-stop during that time period, and the experience remained consistent throughout. No slowdowns and no crashes. I can’t say the same for overheating — the phone runs a bit hot during processing-intensive tasks (around 110 degrees Fahrenheit) but does stabilize at that level as you continue to game.
I can’t figure out whether this is an indictment of the phone’s new vapor chamber cooling system, or whether it’s working just as designed since the heat is fairly evenly spread across the back of the phone. It’s not uncomfortable, but it does make me a little concerned for the 4,000mAh battery — it might contribute to a quicker degradation than usual. For now, battery life is an excellent aspect of the Razer Phone 2. When I’m just doing daily phone activities like browsing, calling, and messaging, it’ll last me over a day, which is great compared to many powerhouse flagships. But gaming causes a fairly precipitous drop, as might be expected. In about two solid hours of gaming, you could lose 50 percent of charge. If the phone’s completely dormant, you’ll lose about a percent per hour.
The only real issue I had with the Razer Phone 2’s overall gaming experience is the device’s design. It is perhaps the least comfortable phone I’ve ever used, and I’ve used several Sony phones over the past few years. I will note that I have quite small hands and wrists, but even people with larger hands than mine found it large, angular, and heavy (36 grams heavier than the Pixel 3 XL, to be precise). Sure, I appreciate the 5.72-inch display, but at what cost? My pinky finger nearly broke off every time I tried to rest the phone on it. The handset is also a very dangerous device to stuff into small pants or jacket pockets considering its size and slippery glass back. All this taken together comes close to a deal-breaker for me. The design simply isn’t practical.
Speaker and RGB light delights
That’s not to say there aren’t good parts about it, though. In fact, the front-facing speakers bring us back to kid-in-a-candy-store delight. I know it may not be very sophisticated, but I love playing music and podcasts from my smartphone speakers. It’s the best way to bring audio with you around the house if you don’t have a multi-room audio system set up. It’s unpleasant when the sound quality is tinny and quiet, but I still do it. That’s how committed I am to this lifestyle. Thankfully, the Razer Phone 2 made listening to podcasts and music out loud a fantastic experience.
These speakers are so, so loud. Up to 103.3 decibels loud. You can easily hear your audio even if you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. The quality is pretty good, too. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever heard, but at mid-range volumes the Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers produced well-balanced sound with a lot of body. Even when you blast sounds at the highest possible volume (which actually kind of hurts the ears it’s so loud) — it’s only mildly tinny and the highs don’t seem blanketed. Wired headphone performance is satisfactory too, though nothing exceptional. In close comparison with the Pixel 2 using Razer’s new wired USB-C Hammerhead earbuds (there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, unfortunately), I found the Pixel 2’s audio had more depth and crispness, but in day-to-day use, I didn’t notice much of a difference.
Returning back to the external speakers for a moment — there’s one more reason I’m particularly impressed with them: Razer managed to include these two massive front-facing speakers and still offer IP67 waterproofing, which is excellent for peace of mind. Additionally, the company swapped a metal back for a glass one, allowing for wireless charging. But the most important design element, in my eyes, is the RGB light-up logo. I chose the “breathing” light-up rhythm, which immediately made the device feel like a loveable little sentient robot, an effect that’s only heightened by the fact that the lights tell you about notifications — blue for Facebook, yellow for Snapchat etc. — and alerts you when battery is low with a red light. Never have I felt more guilty about not having a charging cord. I love the RGB light-up logo so much that it almost makes up for the uncomfortable, blocky design of this mobile gaming beast. But not quite.
Camera and UI
On to the less exciting aspects of the Razer Phone 2. First off, the camera. The first Razer Phone earned itself an exceptionally bad report card when it came to the camera. The issues were many, ranging from poor dynamic range to slow focusing and capture speed to poor camera app UI. This time around, it’s a much more respectable shooter, and one has to tip their hat to Razer for at least attempting to address so many of last year’s issues. It swapped last year’s Samsung-made sensors for new ones from Sony’s IMX line, plus did some work on the software, and app UI. What we have, though, is a camera that’s just okay.
Right: Razer Phone 2. Left: Pixel 2.
It doesn’t come close to achieving the rich detail and color vibrancy you see with an excellent camera device like the Pixel 2. The photos tend to come out softer, and there’s a tendency toward blowing out light areas of a given scene. That being said, it’s not a bad overall shooter and, hey, it is a gaming phone. For what it’s worth, it has elevated the camera experience to a level that’s not a deal breaker, at least not for me — and the same probably goes for anyone who is only an intermittent mobile photographer.
As for UI, apart from a few gaming enhancements, Razer is sticking with near-stock Android, a choice that was lauded last year. Out of the box, the new handset runs Android 8.1 Oreo, though, which tempers the excitement. When I spoke to Razer, a company representative said it was committed to regular updates. So far, all we have to look at is the update schedule of the first Razer Phone, which launched in November 2017 with Android 7.1 Nougat and received Android 8.1 Oreo five months later in April. Hopefully this year the company doesn’t fall behind and maybe even manages to accelerate its pace — a premium Android smartphone is nothing if it’s not well-supported. On a positive note, the phone continues to feature the Nova Launcher Prime, which is extremely customizable and likely familiar to many Android users already — a very smart choice for a new mobile brand.
Should you buy it?
Partially, your carrier might factor into the decision. Support will likely be better than last year since Razer says Verizon customers can use the device this time around — but I wasn’t able to verify performance on Verizon’s network, partially because Razer would only guarantee that AT&T worked ahead of launch. I did try out T-Mobile as well, and it worked just fine, but Project Fi is not supported yet. In short, it’s probably best to proceed with a bit of caution; if you do purchase the Razer Phone 2, keep it in good condition so you can return it if it doesn’t work well on your network.
Does Razer do enough to stake its place in the smartphone market as a luxury gaming experience? In most ways, yes. Its 120Hz refresh rate and powerful specs make it absurdly delightful to use, and the front-facing speakers and RGB light-up logo just add to the fun. Having said that, there are a few key drawbacks, including camera and design. Razer is well on its way to being the best you can get — it’s just not quite there yet.
Don’t buy it…
If you need a great camera, you don’t care very much about gaming, and comfortable design is important to you.
If you’re looking for an amazing performance experience coupled with features you’ll be hard-pressed to find with any other flagship.