Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Family trees are monstrous wonders of genetic distillation, alternately yielding grotesque and delightful offspring. And, as is nature's wont, it's within the strongest of these "carriers" that dominant traits are passed on, ensuring a continued legacy for a specific branch marked by beauty, brains or beastliness. And so the same rings true for the RAZR lineage: a once forgotten, but now revived brand that's helping to define the new Motorola (as experienced through Verizon). Tucked safely under the protective wing of Google's guardianship, the manufacturer's embarking on a wireless renaissance and soldering that second chance at relevance to the Kevlar back of its latest Droid progeny. But as with all litters, there's bound to be one runt and here that distinction belongs to the Droid RAZR M.

Known internally as the Scorpion Mini, this ICS handset's barebones build can deceive the eye into believing it's smaller than it actually is. But really, its screen is the same 4.3-inch, qHD, Super AMOLED Advanced affair as that of the original RAZR reboot -- just without the considerable bezel. So Moto's engineers have trimmed some fat, but this cosmetic overhaul also goes below the surface. Keeping it fairly current is a gently skinned version of Ice Cream Sandwich (soon to be upgraded to Jelly Bean) that's powered by a souped-up 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 and 1GB RAM. And really, that's about as modern as the RAZR M gets. Put down on paper, that mild spec bump might not seem compelling enough, but let us tantalize you with the device's most attractive tidbit: $99 on-contract pricing. Yes, folks, this formidable Droid RAZR redux has a retail positioning ace up its sleeve, but does that alone warrant two years of Verizon's chains? Can a slimmer form factor, unchanged display and faster processor lure in the style-conscious on a budget? Or are you better off holding out for its bigger bodied (and batteried) Droid RAZR HD siblings? Stick with us as we pass judgment on Moto's little leaguer.

Motorola Droid RAZR M review

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Hardware

Even as of this writing, we're still torn on the RAZR M's fit and finish. Does it offend with extravagant styling? Nope. Does it entice with a striking design? That's another no. On the whole, the device is best categorized as inoffensive -- it's imbued with a blandness that's neither edgy, nor soft and curvy. Motorola's achieved a design that could very well wind up in your Grandma's hands, or even your hipster younger brother's. It's just not that divisive and, well, therein lies the RAZR M's obvious marketing charm.

Seen from the front, the RAZR M presents an expanse of Gorilla Glass ringed by an aluminum frame. Flanking the screen are Motorola's logo up top and Verizon's branding on the bottom. Save for a tapered chin, it's an altogether simple face, uncluttered and nondescript. Only in its white iteration does the phone convey a sense of personality. In black, it's anonymous and indistinct; a no-frills phone for the non-fussy.

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Ports and hardware keys are placed about the M's four edges with a clear rhyme and reason. Along the right side, you'll find a very solid-feeling power button and volume rocker, both of which have just enough texture so as to make them easy to find by feel. On the opposite edge is the micro-USB port -- along with micro-SIM and microSD slots, both covered by a flimsy strip of protective plastic. Flip the phone around and you'll find the most striking evidence of the phone's RAZR lineage: a smooth, Kevlar-coated back. As you'd expect, it's similar to the backing on the new RAZR HD and RAZR Maxx HD. This time, though, the Kevlar doesn't take up the whole back side; presiding over that patterned mesh is an 8-megapixel shooter capable of 1080p video capture.

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Power on the display and you'll immediately be greeted by the deep blacks, high contrast and rich saturation common with Super AMOLED Advanced panels. But don't get too close to the screen otherwise the RAZR M's glaring flaw will come to light. And, if you're anything like us, it won't be easy to un-see. Yes, just like with the original Droid RAZR, this mini-me version incorporates a PenTile display that renders all onscreen objects with jagged edges. While its inclusion likely kept production costs down, it's the one area that really holds the M back from being truly great. If you can live with that slight pixelation, then feel free to gloss over this section. This is a $99 phone, after all, and unlike similarly priced handsets with 800 x 480 resolutions, the M at least steps up to qHD. Further distracting us from that minor display misstep are some surprisingly excellent viewing angles, which help make the screen immune to glare. We tested the M outside in broad daylight and had no problem making out the screen.

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Performance and battery life

Nowadays, most LTE handsets in the US pack a Snapdragon S4 chip. To give you a fair idea of how the RAZR M stacks up, we pitted it against rivals with that exact dual-core CPU inside. But to keep this benchmark fight fair, we also made sure to select devices with a similar 4.3-inch screen size and qHD resolution: Motorola's Photon Q and HTC's Droid Incredible 4G LTE. Of the two, only Sprint's Photon Q is clocked on par with the M, which might explain its near-identical Quadrant score. The only other area where Moto's mini RAZR fell short was SunSpider, where its native Chrome browser ranked last in performance. Still, that doesn't mean it's sluggish: after all, the M otherwise made a clean sweep of its rivals, with a very slight victory in the graphics department.

Motorola Droid RAZR M HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE Motorola Photon Q
Quadrant 4,944 4,247 4,947
Vellamo 2,442 2,045 2,336
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,951 1,871 1,330
AnTuTu 6,364 6,001 6,134
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 56 56 55
CF-Bench 9,392 7,778 9,034
SunSpider: lower scores are better

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Need a daily driver that's going to get you through the day and then some? Well, please to meet the Droid RAZR M. And what a delight it is to finally test a compact phone that doesn't skimp on specs, but still manages to last through more than 24 hours of real-world use -- and that's with some heavy use of the browser, Gmail app and Twitter, mind you. It's a truly impressive feat made possible by the handset's non-removable 2,000mAh battery. Put through the rigors of our standard rundown test, which entails looping a video, the M notched exactly eight hours of life -- and that's with WiFi and GPS enabled, Twitter set to sync every 15 minutes and one push email account active. If you're sick of carrying around a spare battery and accompanying charger cable to keep your smartphone alive, you should consider this relatively petite offering to be your new daily driver.

We know smartphones don't equate much with voice service anymore, but enough of you use these devices to reach out and touch someone. And for that reason alone, we'll touch upon the RAZR M's call quality merits. In truth, that feature does seem an afterthought as nearly every caller we engaged came across with a tinny, compressed voice. It's serviceable and call volume is adequate, but by no means does the handset excel in this area.

As for the LTE waves the M's surfing along, well not much has changed there. Verizon's 4G service is pretty well-entrenched at this point in time and speeds have stabilized for the most part despite growing network congestion. Overall, we averaged 25 Mbps down / 16 Mbps up with uplink maxing out at 26 Mbps while downlink performance topped out at 17 Mbps.

Camera

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Social media types prone to photo oversharing will find much to love about the Droid RAZR M's rear 8-megapixel module. Truly, compared to most of the cameraphones we've tested, the M's sensor and native imaging software do a remarkably fine job together -- so fine, in fact, that you'll be hard-pressed to stop taking shots. Autofocus is handled exceptionally well and only occasionally did we find ourselves tapping onscreen to adjust it. What's more, the camera UI will actually prompt you to switch to HDR mode in low-light settings. Sure, this lends itself to some oversaturated, slightly unnatural images, but there is something to be said for capturing stills you wouldn't otherwise be able to attain. As you'll see in the gallery below, we collected a wide array of photos using plain Auto mode, Panorama, Portrait and even Burst Shot, and the results overwhelmingly please. Colors are vibrant, detail is crisp and the depth of field is impressive whether you're taking macro or landscape shots. Even when fully zoomed in, the resulting images were mostly clear, showcasing a tolerable level of noise.

Motorola Droid RAZR M sample shots

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You know what's also lacking noise? 1080p video captured with the M, that's what. When we shot our sample video, we were in the midst of the morning rush here in New York City and, amazingly, you can barely hear the sound of traffic rumbling by in the background. Too bad we're only talking about the audio quality. Video is a much different story, lacking any of the grace, sharpness and clarity of its still photo counterpart. Further compounding the grainy playback is a dearth of image stabilization, which riddles our short clip with noticeable jitters.

Software

When Google scooped up Motorola, some industry observers hoped the acquisition would signal the end of skinned Android on Moto handsets. That hasn't happened, but the company is moving forward with a considerably lighter touch. Nightmares of its messy and heavy-handed Blur UX are long gone, replaced by a clean font and some subtle but useful homescreen customizations. Let's address that last bit first: swipe to the right from the main screen and instead of cycling through a parade of widget- and app-cluttered screens, you instead get a quick settings menu. It's a welcome surprise the first time you encounter it, but it also takes some getting used to as you'll likely reach for the top down menu to access a shortcut for those very same menu options. The other major change Moto's made to Ice Cream Sandwich is the pane manager (accessible by swiping left), which allows the user to set themed templates replete with associated widgets and applications (e.g., Amazon, Media or Mobile Office). If you're not in the mood to muck up your simplified homescreen, well, there's nothing to worry about. Simply leave it all be and enjoy the third-party silence.

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

At the latest Droid RAZR family launch event, Motorola let the journalists in attendance demo units running Jelly Bean. It was an unfair tease. Stepped down to ICS, the user experience is understandably not quite as 60fps-smooth, as it lacks the buttered-up finesse that makes navigation on Android 4.1 a joy, but even still, the M never stutters, lags or freezes up. No matter, though, because the company's promised an upgrade should be forthcoming very soon -- heck, we saw it ourselves in person, so we're inclined to believe it'll be ready shortly.

Beyond all of that, the RAZR M pretty much runs standard-fare Android 4.0.4, and it mostly looks and feels the same way it would on a Nexus. Inside the app drawer, though, you'll find one exception: Verizon's crammed in about 18 third-party apps, none of which are uninstallable. These include Color, Facebook and NFL Mobile, to name a few. Yes, you can disable the bloat and remove it from your app drawer, but make no mistake; they're still there, hiding in the background, sucking up memory. The RAZR M's software suite also marks the bow of Amazon's own pre-installed app suite (IMDB, Appstore, Audible, Kindle, etc.), which co-exists alongside the typical GApps.

Motorola Droid RAZR M review a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlarwrapped package

Management of the M's 8GB of built-in storage is finicky since the device employs MTP for media transfer. This would normally be all well and good if it functioned as effortlessly as most other recent devices that have moved in this direction, but it doesn't. When you first plug the handset into your computer, a prompt will appear asking you to install Motorola Device Manager. The setup is simple, if you can get through it. We say this because the program failed to successfully install on one of our two test machines, despite our repeated efforts at troubleshooting. Once you overcome that hurdle, however, a window will pop up displaying the contents of your phone.

Wrap-up

Verizon might wind up with a sleeper hit on its hands.

The Droid RAZR M may not have come as a fresh surprise when it was officially announced, nor was it the wholly original product fruit many would've initially wanted the new Moto to bear, but it seems that's entirely intentional. MotoGoog isn't attempting a mobile revolution with the M. After all, it's merely a refresh of a recent refresh, the Droid RAZR, with a 4.3-inch qHD screen, dual-core S4, 2,000mAh battery and 8-megapixel rear camera. Instead, the companies have set their sights on creating a super-dependable smartphone for the everyperson -- one that's inoffensive in its design, pared down for comfort and easy to use on the software front.

Though the M didn't initially get the tech industry's blood pumping, this unassuming and well-crafted phone could prove to be the salve for many frustrated or casual smartphone users accustomed to confusing skins. Motorola's dusting of a UX positions the handset in near-Nexus territory -- and it should only get better from here on out. With Jelly Bean already on display for nosy journalists, a promise for speedy updates publicly made, a make-good trade-in program for non-upgradeable devices announced and the consistency of its day-to-day performance plus that killer battery life verified, we're finding a hard time arguing against the M as Big Red's budget device to beat. For $99 on contract you could easily snare the older and very vanilla Galaxy Nexus, but if that's your bag, it's best to hold out for the next flagship to hit later this winter. No, the Droid RAZR M isn't for the hardcore, but it is well-suited to the wise wireless customer. Which is why Verizon might wind up with a sleeper hit on its hands.

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Motorola

Motorola Droid RAZR M

Pros

  • Snappy dual-core S4 processor
  • Lightly skinned Ice Cream Sandwich
  • Exceptional camera performance
  • Long-lasting battery
  • Comfortable in-hand fit

Cons

  • PenTile display shows some jagged edges
Conclusion

Motorola's Droid RAZR M is a refresh of the best kind, packing S4 power, consistent performance and considerable battery life into an aggressively priced handset.

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Motorola Droid RAZR M review: a very good ICS handset in a small, Kevlar-wrapped package