From the moment I finished watching the Livestream of the RAZR M launch I knew I wanted to get my hands on this phone. I loved the idea of a smaller, more manageable size phone with a display that was still big enough for my man-sized fingertips. The 3.5in display on my 4th Gen iPod is genuinely difficult for me to manage. My Nexus S at 4.0in was even a bit small, especially with typing. Having owned a Galaxy S II, I knew that a 4.3in display would be my ideal minimum.

After only a few days it became obvious that Australia would not get the RAZR I. But no worry because we would get the same basic phone setup albeit with a different (better) System on Chip and 4G to boot! It would be called the RAZR M and it would be compatible with Australian 4G networks. Huzzah!

You may remember that Tia and Jason attended the Australian Motorola OnDisplay launch event on behalf of Ausdroid for the RAZR M & HD in Sydney a few months ago. Jason went on to complete an excellent Ausdroid review of the RAZR M which only served to pique my interest even more. So we managed to get a review model back in our hands with the plan to give it a brief second look over, especially with an eye to assessing it running on a fresher version of Android. While this review alludes to hardware traits, it is mainly focussed on the experiences enabled by the two different software packages.

Pros

  • Excellent contrast and brightness
  • High grade materials and construction
  • Close to Nexus interface
  • External storage card slot
  • Speedy, delay free performance
  • Respectable battery life
  • Camera UI is fast and has a timer
  • Blistering network performance

Cons

  • Text characters can lack smoothness
  • Rear of the phone isn’t attractive (though this is a personal taste thing)
  • Older version of Android — 4.1.2 is not the latest.
  • Limited 8gb of internal storage
  • Some animations are jittery
  • Non-user replaceable battery
  • Camera is unable to pull in much light

A quick overview of the phone itself

Motorola has done an excellent job with the software on the RAZR M. After using it for a few weeks on Ice Cream Sandwich I cannot recall a single app crash or issue with responsiveness. There is no noticeable latency in the system which is actually quite astounding! As I’m not a gamer I can’t speak to load times and that sort of thing but generally it performs like a champ.

The apps I use most are Falcon Pro (Twitter), Chrome, Gmail, Camera, Gallery, Instagram, Maps & Navigation, Pocket Casts, MOG, Speed Test, Calendar, Facebook, Google+, IMDB, The Verge, Text Messaging and reluctantly, the Phone. The phone is excellent, especially with HD Voice, I just don’t like phone calls ;) I’m giving a special mention to the email app which has Push notifications built in and also set up my tricky Internode account with ease.

The RAZR M is fast. It’s my opinion that Motorola has learned a secret that some of the other Manufacturers still haven’t figured out. The more fancy, flowing, spinning, etc animations you use in your interface, the more likely it is that you’ll notice dropped frames and jittery behaviour – especially when using Ice Cream Sandwich. The RAZR M’s interface is concerned with getting you to where you’re going in an instant. Where some interfaces attempt to hide a delayed response with animations, the RAZR M responds instantly. Touch the icon and the app opens. Moving through pages or screens is quick and effective.

There is some jittery behaviour which may or may not detract from the overall experience depending how fussy you are about these things. For me it is a minor annoyance but if you’re accustomed to a smooth flowing interface it may put you off. Scrolling between Home Screens and in web pages would lack the fluidity of say, a Nexus 4. The phone is perfectly responsive but some dropped frames were experienced here and there as the display changed content. This is an area where Jelly Bean can potentially improve things.

I’m making a big deal of this because I want to encourage Motorola to keep with a similar interface to that which the Android team themselves have employed on Nexus devices. HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz and other efforts are slower, more laborious interfaces for the most  part. While these companies introduce good camera, multimedia or other features I wish they would leave the interface alone. Sorry, had to get that off my chest! The point is that Motorola are doing it smarter on this front.

The other key thing to mention here is network performance. Motorola have honed their skills at making a phone that pulls in a network signal strongly, hangs on to it and extracts the maximum performance from it. I was quite shocked by some of the places where I could make a phone call, send an SMS or access the internet. In lifts and basements and other challenging places where I’d given up trying to use other phones, the RAZR M actually worked.

My thoughts on the RAZR M with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean

From the moment I was prompted that the update was available for install I experienced something different. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting it. Other phones I’d updated at various times from Manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC had not gone to such lengths. I’m talking about detailed explanations of the new features available in this update.

While I personally didn’t need most of the explanations that were on offer, I suspect many people will welcome them. A “less techie” friend of mine who also has a RAZR M was happy to know what new features he was getting and how he could access them. I suggest checking out some of the included screenshots of the “What’s New” guide to get a feel for it. The update is mostly focussed on 3 things: The new Google Now with Voice Search service, the expanded notifications and a different user interface feel. Motorola don’t call it out specifically but that different ‘feel’ to the user experience is Android’s “Project Butter” which comes with the Jelly Bean update and is also included on the RAZR M.

Google Now & Voice Search.

Because the RAZR M has the Google designed on screen buttons for Home, Back and Recently Viewed Items, accessing Google Now is easily done by swiping up from the Home button. As a user of Google Now I appreciate that they haven’t buried it somehere like Samsung and HTC have with their overblown interface tweaks. I’ll let Google themselves tell you what Google Now is:

Google Now gets you just the right information at just the right time.

It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team’s score while they’re playing. And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.

Once you opt in you simply allow the service to operate in the background. The Google Now widget is available for Home Screens if you want an “at a glance version” too. It works just as well on the RAZR M as it does on my Nexus 4 or Nexus 7.

In Jelly Bean, Google shrunk it’s knowledge graph voice search recognition service to fit on a phone! That means you don’t have to wait for your query to be understood on the server side. This is what makes Voice search faster than anything else.

Expandable Notifications

If you’ve recently taken a screenshot you can view or share it right from the expanded notification pull down. If you receive multiple messages you can expand that notification to see summary details of each message. It’s simply a matter of pinching in or out on that notification or you can use a two-finger glide motion to expand or close it. Being able to action notifications more easily is an excellent part of the update. You can also dismiss individual notifications with a horizontal swipe or dismiss all notifications by tapping the X – this however is not new to Jelly Bean but is good to know.

You can learn about all the new features of Jelly Bean for the RAZR M by simply opening the Guide Me app. This is an excellent tool for people that are less accustomed to Android. It also gives you information about features of Android that were already available prior to Jelly Bean.

Project Butter

This is a major effort by Google to address some inherent latency in the touch response of the Android system. With Project Butter the CPU ramps up to 100% whenever you touch the display so that you have. maximum power available to execute tasks. The CPU also now runs in parallel with the graphics processor and display so that there is harmony rather than the three of them colliding with each other while trying to maintain a consistent framerate. This is called triple buffering.

The framerate is now locked at 60fps using VSync timing which co-ordinates all the drawing and animation handled by the Android framework. For those who want the technical details, Vsync’s 16 millisecond heartbeat keeps the application rendering, touch events, screen composition, and display refresh in lockstep so frames don’t get ahead or behind causing jittery anr laggy behaviour.

Necessary to run Project Butter, as you would imagine, is capable hardware. Fortunately the RAZR M features a Qualcomm MSM8960 S4 System on Chip with a 1.5GHz Dual Core Krait CPU and Adreno 225 GPU with 1GB of Dual Channel RAM. Tech specs aside, in my use this configuration has no trouble driving the 960×540 resolution display and keeping it responsive.

The overall feel of the RAZR M on Jelly Bean is that it’s just as responsive as it was on Ice Cream Sandwich but it now has better fluidity (the thing it most needed) thanks to the update. While not quite as smooth as a Nexus 4 which has massive power, the RAZR M is equally as zippy in getting most of your general tasks done and dusted.

Battery & Network Performance

Battery life on Jelly Bean is about on par with Ice Cream Sandwich from a general assessment perspective. The phone gets me through the day’s usage with about 20% battery left after about 13 hours use away from the charger.

Strangely, Network performance dipped a little on 4G for a couple of weeks after the update. Perhaps coincidence? I’m not sure. I think some congestion on the Telstra network may have been the cause of this in certain areas too. It’s hard to say but generally speaking it is still super fast in most areas where 4G is available.

Motorola RAZR M

  • 4G LTE, DC-HSPA 3G
  • Android 4.1 — Jelly Bean update
  • 4.3″ 540 x 960 Super AMOLED Screen
  • 2000 mAh battery
  • 8 MP rear camera, 0.3 MP VGA front camera
  • 8GB internal storage, up to 32GB microSD
  • 60.9 x 122.5 x 8.3mm, 126 grams
  • Approx. 14.7 hours Talk Time (3G)
  • Approx. 250 hours Stamdaby Time (3G)

Conclusion

By current standards, the RAZR M is starting to show it’s age. Some folk will want a higher res display and a faster processor with more cores. Does this mean they will be getting a better phone? Not necessarily. Phones with newer processing chips aren’t really any faster because they have more work to do by having to output more pixels.

The very things that initially attracted me to the RAZR M are the same traits that differentiate it from the pack and are the reason why it is still a good choice for consumers. Namely, it is a smaller size phone with a bigger size display. It will fit in your hand and is easy to use one-handed. It has the performance to keep up to speed with whatever you’re doing and the battery efficiency to get you through an average day’s use.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed testing the RAZR M on Jelly Bean. A job well done Motorola.

Editor’s note: While I wasn’t on the review schedule for the RAZR M, once Jason had finished with it, I played with a RAZR M and set a challenge for Motorola. Convince me that the RAZR M should be my next phone, and I’d buy one. Convince me they did. Everything Geoff and Jason picked up in their respective reviews I can confirm — this thing has signal everywhere, and is no sloppy performer. The thing I loved the most is the compact size yet sizeable screen. I don’t need a 5″ monster (ha ha), but I do need a phone that’s easy to use on the run, and the RAZR M is this.

While a dated phone, the RAZR M is still a serious contender in the mid-range consumer market, and I can’t recommend it enough as a great welcome to the world of Android if you’re yet to take the plunge. — Chris Rowland, Deputy Editor

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  • Mitchell Smith

    I wish more manufacturers would cater to people who desire a slightly smaller phone, but with competitive specs. My OneX is literally the biggest I’ll ever go (honestly, even the extra 0.1″ on the S3 is too much more). I would love a 4.3″ phone as my next, but by the time my contract is up, I seriously can’t see any manufacturer making a high end phone smaller than 5″. I have rather large hands, and even I can’t use those beasts 1 handed. I can’t see why there is such a push for such large sizes.

    • Geoff Fieldew

      There’s also HTC’s One SV http://ausdroid.net/2013/01/27/htc-one-sv-review/ which Chris reviewed and liked but that’s about it. The Manufacturers really have forgotten about this category. It’s a shame because, as you say, people do want something that’s easy to handle without compromising too much on screen size.

      • Mitchell Smith

        Out of all the flagships announced this year so far, the only one I would consider is the HTC One. I am really hoping the Nexus 5 is not a Nexus 5″, because they would kill my interest in that series. Bring out more top end 4.3″/4.7″ phones please manufacturers. I really don’t want to have to swap to a mid range, or *shudders* a competitor OS.

        • Geoff Fieldew

          I may consider a 5″ phone if the bezels are small enough. The Galaxy S4 is smaller overall than the HTC One but has a 5″ display vs HTC’s 4.7. The front speakers take up too much space on the One. I guess you decide for better sound or more display.

          • vijay alapati

            +1