Razer Phone 2 hands-on preview: Same game, better phone


Although flawed in execution, the original Razer Phone wasn’t hopelessly bad. It was a good idea in need of further refinement. Razer had a silky 120Hz display, but daylight visibility was so poor that outdoor use was painful. It had a dual camera system, but with photo quality that’d be embarrassing on a phone half the price. Plus it was missing table-stakes features like water resistance, and shipped on an old version of Android. Although some of the above improved with software updates, the out-of-box experience was far from ideal.

And that’s where the Razer Phone 2 aims to improve: Keeping what was great about the original (because for a first-effort smartphone they got a lot right), while addressing those major pain points.

The result of Razer’s efforts might just be the best gaming smartphone of 2018.

Razer Phone 2

If you’ve followed any of the leaks, you won’t be surprised by the basic structure of the second-gen Razer Phone. From the front and the sides… well, it’s a Razer Phone. It’s almost exactly the same size, with the same 16:9 aspect ratio, same front speaker grilles, and a very similar metal frame.

All the Razer Phone 2’s big changes can be found on the inside, or around the back.

Flip the phone over, though, and the main cosmetic changes come into focus — a new Gorilla Glass 5 rear with a redesigned camera module and glowing Razer logo. (This, by the way, is just about the only way to quickly tell a Razer Phone 1 from a Razer Phone 2.) The move to a glass-backed design also helps to enable wireless charging via Razer’s own charging dock or any other Qi-compatible pad.

This is still a humongous, beefy, powerful gaming phone. It’s big, it’s angular and it’s not even trying to be ergonomic. But like Razer’s gaming laptops, the Razer Phone 2 is designed to be something suited to everyday life, not just marathon PUBG sessions. It’s the antidote to gaming phones like the Xiaomi BlackShark or ASUS ROG Phone, that look more like props from a low-budget sci-fi movie. To put it another way, this is a gaming phone for grown-ups.

Although the external hardware mostly hasn’t changed much, the fundamentals of the Razer Phone have received some important upgrades. A quick side-by-side comparison with the first Razer Phone reveals a marked improvement, but our time with the device ahead of the phone’s launch was spent exclusively indoors.

The sizeable speakers are just as loud and bassy as before, only now Razer has figured out how to pair them with IP67 water and dust resistance. (Again, another reason to take actually take the Razer Phone 2 out of the house.) And there’s still no 3.5mm jack, but the bundled headphone dongle now boasts a 32-bit DAC for clearer wired audio when you plug in a headset.

Razer Phone 2

Besides the jump up to a Snapdragon 845 platform, the rest of the spec sheet makes for very familiar reading: It’s fuelled by a 4000mAh battery with Quick Charge 4+ wired charging. RAM stays at 8GB, and storage at 64GB with optional microSD expansion. That’s all fine, with the possible exception of the slightly stingy helping of internal storage. I can live with 64 gigs quite happily. And other brands like Google are continuing to ship 64GB as standard in their phones. But if there’s one thing that can make short work of your internal flash, it’s high-end games, and that’s precisely the focus of this phone. Considering the high price of the Razer Phone 2, 128GB would seem a more reasonable number.

The focus on incremental upgrades means that playing games, as well as regular smartphone duties, should be a familiar experience, only with a welcome performance bump. What’s more, Razer has also upgraded the cooling system with a vapor chamber to help it run at peak performance for longer.

Razer Phone 2

There’s obviously no wacky fan attachment or anything close to the array of attachments we’ve seen for the ASUS ROG Phone. But that’s all part of the balance Razer is pursuing in this product.

Of course, the Razer logo around the back glows. And of course there’s a wireless charging dock that does the same.

That said, the Razer Phone 2 is a little more playful than its predecessor, and one area where that’s evident is the eye-catching glowing Razer logo around the back.

This uses a mobile version of Razer’s Chroma software, which owners of its PCs and gaming peripherals will be familiar with. You can control the color and pattern of the glow, and use it as a notification LED as well if you want. (As a result, there’s no more front-facing notification LED under the speaker grille.) Like all of Razer’s more ostentatious features, you can balance the brightness here to minimize the battery hit of having to light up both sides of your phone at once.

Razer Phone 2

The cameras have also been a big focus of attention in the Razer Phone 2, and rightly so after the debacle of the previous generation. Razer freely admits that when the first phone launched, its camera was disappointing, and so significant engineering effort has gone into improving image quality and populating the camera app with the features we all expect from a flagship phone. The upgraded dual camera rig features a 12MP main camera with optical image stabilization, 1.4-micron pixels and an f/1.75 lens. That’s paired with a 16-megapixel 2X telephoto at f/2.6.

Improved optics combined with the Snapdragon 845’s image signal processor should provide a significant step up in photo quality.

First impressions are promising, especially considering the dismal camera performance of the original Razer Phone. But for the same reason, I’m hesitant to expect miracles from these cameras. We’ll wait until we get review units before we deliver our verdict.

Around the front, Razer is also targeting streamers, with a new front camera capable of shooting 1080p video at 60 frames per second.

When it comes to software, the Razer Phone 2 is pretty much a repeat performance of the original. That’s not a bad thing, but there is one caveat to state upfront: It runs Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box, and given the enthusiast focus of this phone it’s disappointing not to see Android 9 Pie loaded on here.

No Android Pie for now.

The other major software traits of the Razer Phone haven’t gone anywhere. The stock launcher is, once again, a special version of Nova Launcher optimized for the 120Hz display. And there’s still an abundance of theming opportunities on the Razer theme store. Besides that, it’s bone stock Android with Razer-green accents.

Gaming performance is hard to judge in the limited time we had with the Razer Phone 2 ahead of the launch. However, the device seemed speedy even when playing demanding titles like Gear Club and PUBG. How well that performance holds up over intensive play sessions remains to be seen. And Razer still faces an uphill challenge in convincing mobile game developers to support its 120Hz displays — though the company says it’s made progress over the past year, and many titles will just work at the higher refresh rates without any optimization.

Razer Phone 2

Whether there’s a mass market for gaming phones in the same way there is for gaming laptops is an open question. Nevertheless, the Razer Phone 2 is the most compelling product we’ve seen in this nascent category. It’s a refinement of the original that doesn’t abandon the core idea of a gaming phone that you can also use as a dependable daily driver. And it appears to fix the fatal flaws that prevented its predecessor from successfully straddling the flagship/gaming line.

But with a price tag of €849 ($799, £779), it could have its work cut out when pitted against more mainstream brands.

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October 10, 2018 at 06:00PM