Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX review

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Motorola's Droid RAZR MAXX is Verizon's other premier LTE smartphone, and the evolution of the smaller Droid RAZR. Released just a few months after its predecessor, it brings just one key upgrade to the table: better battery life. Still, it packs all the same punch as the original RAZR, and currently holds the title of Motorola's flagship smartphone.

However, it has some stiff competition to deal with. Samsung's Galaxy Nexus brings vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich to the table, and the LG Spectrum has a relatively dirt cheap price. How does the RAZR MAXX stack up with the rest of Verizon's big boys? Read on past the break to find out.

Specifications

Powering the RAZR MAXX is a fast 1.2GHz dual-core TI processor, 1GB of RAM, and LTE connectivity. The display is of the qHD variety, and carries a size of 4.3-inches and an aspect ratio of 16 x 10. Additional features include a back facing 8MP camera with 1080p video capture, HD front facing camera, 16GB of storage on an included microSD card, microHDMI out, GPS and the all important 3,300 mAh battery to keep everything running all day long.

Design

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Usually, I begin talking about a phone's design with the front of the device, but the RAZR MAXX's unique back seems to compel me to begin there. Perhaps I've used Samsung phones for too long, but the departure from the standard plastic back cover which flexes and gives phones a cheap feel is an incredibly welcome change. Kevlar coating on the back of the RAZR MAXX gives it a great in hand feel, and a unique industrial look that I quite like. Even if the appearance isn't for everyone, the solid quality feel of the casing should satisfy anyone looking for a premium piece of hardware.

Unfortunately, the sturdiness does come at a price. Unlike nearly every other Android device, you cannot remove or replace the battery of the DROID RAZR. The battery cover (if it can still be called that) is stuck to the rest of the phone and cannot be removed by the user. With the MAXX's massive fuel cell, this shouldn't be a problem in daily use, but it is still something that will make a difference to some users.

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Back to the front of the device, on the top you you will find a front facing camera and speaker grille, just as usual. As you can see, Motorola has actually made a slight design change to the grille, which actually helps to keep dirt and dust out. It's a very simple thing, but it is actually very nice that Motorola thought about it enough to provide a solution.

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On the bottom of the device, you find the four standard Android capacitive buttons as well as a Verizon branding. While the buttons are necessary for the RAZR's current version of Android, I would much rather have a device without them. Still, the tried and true configuration will work for now, and will also function fine with the Ice Cream Sandwich update.

One small oddity I noticed was the microphone's placement between the home and menu buttons. Not only is it not in the center, it is also not even centered between the buttons. I am sure Motorola had to do this in order to save space on the inside, but the seemingly random placement of a hole in the front of the device really breaks the contiguity of the glass and just looks a little odd.

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Motorola has emulated Samsung with their power button placement, as the switch is now on the right side of the device about where your thumb sits if you hold it one handed. Personally, I like this design, but I know quite a few people who are quite annoyed by it. Regardless of the positioning, the button is easy to feel without looking and tactile feedback is good, something that should be standard with all buttons.

This is not so with the volume buttons, which are altogether too small and close together. Often, I found myself pressing both buttons when trying for one, making the volume control bounce back and forth sporadically. It would have been much better if the buttons were just a bit bigger and spaced out a bit more, something that could have been afforded if they were moved to the left side of the device.

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The microUSB port, headphone jack, and HDMI port are all found on the top of the device. While I prefer the headphone jack on the bottom of my smartphones, the top microUSB port actually has a couple of advantages. It makes using the device while its charging less awkward, and allows it to to be charged standing up without a dock.

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Hiding behind a door on the bottom left of the device you will find the microSIM card as well as the microSD card, the latter of which was notably absent from the Galaxy Nexus. Both slots are easily accessible, and due to the fact that the battery can't be taken out, don't require you to shut down the device if you decide to replace them.

Display

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As mentioned before, the display on the RAZR MAXX measures 4.3-inches diagonally and has a resolution of 960 x 640. Because of the very wide 16 x 10 aspect ratio, though, the RAZR MAXX is not very wide, and is instead quite tall. While this is good for in hand feel, it does mean that while the display does technically measure 4.3-inches, it feels a bit smaller than 4.3-inch panels with more square aspect ratios, such as the HTC EVO's

Quality is still very good, and the Super AMOLED display manages to make multimedia, websites, and the OS in general look quite good. However, compared to the 720p Galaxy Nexus, the Droid RAZR does fall a bit short in terms of the display. It's not so much the resolution that's a problem, but the lower pixel density makes the PenTile matrix evident. When looking at black and white text, especially with a small font, the pixelation caused by the PenTile arrangement is painfully evident. It can also be seen in some of the notification bar icons, and throughout other places in the OS if you look closely.

Despite this problem, the MAXX's display is perfectly suitable for normal use. In normal use, it's not very noticeable and causes no problems, and there's nothing that's overtly ugly. I only notice it because I've just used Samsung's wonderful 720p Super AMOLED Plus display on the Galaxy Nexus, and the difference is noticeable enough to warrant a mention. Generally, I would say not to let the "lower" quality of the display put you off here, its just worth noting that the MAXX doesn't quite compare to 720p panels.

Camera

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Smartphone cameras can never really replace the real thing, but they do keep getting better and better. As most smartphone cameras do, the RAZR MAXX's 8MP shooter performed reasonably well in bright light, but has the same trouble as all mobile devices when things get dark. Another thing worth mentioning is that while the shutter isn't quite as fast as that of the Galaxy Nexus, it comes very, very close. There is only about a second of lag in between shots, if that. 

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In bright light, color replication seemed fairly good, and if anything images appeared a bit washed out. Still, the camera managed to perform well enough that I can't really complain, but nothing stood out to me as warranting commendation either. Overall, the camera on the RAZR MAXX is marginally better than the average smartphone camera, but isn't a huge step up.

Performance and Battery Life

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Battery life on the RAZR MAXX is great. Plain and simple. In fact, it has the best battery life of any Android device I've ever used, not to mention one with LTE. Sadly, I don't actually have a screenshot of my main test of the MAXX's battery because my computer wasn't handy at the time, but I can do my best to describe how the device was used.

Basically, on my vacation to Florida over President's Day weekend I resolved to take the MAXX out for a real world test of endurance, and subject it to one of the the hardest things on a phone's battery: sightseeing. I woke up and unplugged the smartphone at 6:45 in the morning, and was ready to begin my tour of Florida. Throughout the day, I tried to use the phone as if I weren't concerned about battery life at all, something completely against my nature as an Android user. I left 4G, GPS, and WiFi on all day, and didn't set any of Motorola's battery saving smart actions to take effect. Then, I used the device for everything from downloading maps, to taking pictures of interesting things, to navigating various locations, to browsing the internet while standing in line. After quite a long day, I went to dinner at 8:00 with only 14% battery left, hoping that the MAXX would make it back to the hotel with just a bit of charge left. Even though it went against my better judgement, I still used the phone to browse some more while waiting for a table, and even to navigate back to my hotel. Admirably, the MAXX managed to power through it all, and still had a 5% charge when I finally plugged it back in at about 10:15.

As this anecdote has hopefully served to illustrate, you can abuse the MAXX quite a lot and it will still make it through a day. In my case, it did so just barely, but I was trying to subject it to the worst possible circumstances. With lighter use and connectivity management, I wouldn't be surprised if the MAXX lasted multiple days without a recharge.

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One thing that I should mention is Motorola's own battery saving/automation application, called Smart Actions. Basically, it is a tool that combines the functionality of Juice Defender and some of Locale all into one, allowing you to set parameters that trigger certain actions. For example, I can tell the phone to go into silent mode whenever I get within a certain distance of work, or as you can see above, disable some battery hogging features when the device is not actually being used. 

I didn't notice a dramatic improvement with these actions enabled, and in fact it was sometimes quite annoying to have to wait for data to reconnect and notifications to come in when I just wanted to use the phone. After discovering it, I much preferred the built in sleep function, accessible through the power menu, which puts the display and radios to sleep, but still turns on instantly with a press of the power button.

Still, with some evolution, I can see smart actions becoming quite useful, and I applaud Motorola for adding utilities to give users better control of their phones. Smart Actions could even save you a few dollars as well, if you can use it to keep from having to purchase something like Locale.

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Benchmarking smartphones is always something of a guessing game, as odd and insignificant variables can often skew the scores in ways that don't reflect real world performance. Still, they can offer some indication of how well a smartphone works, and at least until we find a better way to measure performance are still worth including in reviews. 

The above Linpack score is pretty impressive for a stock device, considering that a highly modified and overclocked Galaxy Nexus only scores in the 70s. With a bit of tweaking, the RAZR could certainly score higher, but it is plenty fast even with the stock configuration.

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I'm slowly losing faith in Quadrant as time goes on, but again it is worth noting that the RAZR MAXX just edges out the Samsung Galaxy Nexus in the benchmarks. I'm going to have to assume that the Samsung Galaxy Tab above it is the 10.1 variety, because I can't see the original Tab scoring above these other devices.

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As we've come to expect, Verizon's LTE is very fast. Speed will, of course, vary by location, as I was only able to get about 10,000KB down in Florida. Back in Atlanta, though, the MAXX tested just as well as the Galaxy Nexus and Droid Bionic, pulling almost 30,000KB down on average. Suffice it to say that if you have good LTE coverage, the RAZR MAXX will deliver impressive download speeds that put many WiFi networks to shame.

Software

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Running on the RAZR MAXX is Motorola's Blur-skinned version of Android 2.3, which is something of a disappointment on such a new phone. Yes, it works perfectly fine, but it's nearly identical to the software we saw on the Motorola Droid Bionic. In fact, I'm going to shorten this portion of the review because you can gather most of what you need to know about the RAZR's software from the aforementioned review of the Bionic.

There are, of course, a few tweaks in the software that make it a bit different, but they are few and far between. Most of th differentiation comes with the seemingly more numerous included applications, but a few cosmetic changes on the lockscreen are also easily evident.

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The browser remains exactly the same as it was on the Bionic as far as I can tell, and is a lightly skinned version of the stock browser that supports Flash and everything else that you would expect. 

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Oddly enough, the settings menu was actually given the cosmetic face lift you see above, which while it does look a bit better than the stock settings menu, really doesn't make one bit of practical difference. I would much rather have Motorola working on the promised Ice Cream Sandwich update than these tweaks which will be worthless with Ice Cream Sandwich anyways.

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Currently, the Android version on the RAZR is still 2.3.6, a far cry from the promised 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update from Motorola. I'm sure that they will follow through, but the longer they wait the more people will become discontented with their current software. It's not necessarily that it's bad, but the software just isn't quite as good as it could be.

Final Thoughts

I feel like I have been much harder on the RAZR than I was on the Bionic. My overall feelings about this device are good, but something still seems to be lacking. The hardware and industrial design are all great, and I prefer Motorola's solid designs even to Samsung's best offerings. Performance was also quite snappy, and the phone's specifications should carry it through at least the rest of this year without any trouble. Not only that, the stellar battery performance outmatches any LTE and probably any other Android device as well.

Really, the only reason that I would hesitate to recommend the Droid RAZR MAXX is the software. Even with the less impressive display, all the rest of the hardware can go head to head with other top tier devices. MotoBlur wrapped 2.3 really can't. I keep going back to this, but I really think it's the bottom line with the MAXX: some great hardware by Motorola is being kept down by sub par software. Stock Gingerbread would be better than what we have, but what would really make the RAZR MAXX great is the promised build of Ice Cream Sandwich. 

It may not make a difference to the average smartphone buyer, but if you want to have the latest and greatest in software the MAXX might not be a good choice. All this could change when it gets the promised update, but until then I have to review it how it is. 

Nevertheless, the Droid RAZR MAXX is still a great smartphone, with powerful, fast internals and what I think is a great design. If you are willing to wait for Android 4.0, or simply aren't worried about having it, the RAZR MAXX might belong higher on your wishlist than even the Galaxy Nexus.

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Aaron Orquia

Aaron Orquia is an associate editor at Pocketables. He has been using Android and Linux since he bought his first computer years ago, and his interest in technology, software, and tweaking both to work just right has only grown stronger since then. His current gadgets include a OnePlus One, a Pebble smartwatch, and an Acer C720 Chromebook.

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