Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

When Motorola resurrected the RAZR brand last year we didn't realize that we were looking at the new face of the company. At the time, Google had yet to officially take over the handset manufacturer, it had a deep stable of less-than-impressive devices and, while it was a moderate success, the Droid RAZR didn't exactly turn the market on its head. Still, in retrospect, it only makes sense that the RAZR would once again become the standard bearer for Moto. Even if we weren't blown away by last year's model, it was a big step in the right direction for the company, a device that featured a great mix of premium styling and performance. The new RAZR HD and MAXX HD take that basic formula and attempt to address our concerns about the display and battery life, the latter of which was already handled in dramatic fashion by the RAZR MAXX. So, how do the latest caps-happy, vowel-averse handsets from Motorola stack up against last year's incarnations and the current crop of competitors? Keep on reading after the break to find out.

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Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

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Motorola

Motorola Droid RAZR HD & RAZR MAXX HD

Pros

  • Stunning build quality
  • Minimally skinned Ice Cream Sandwich
  • Epic battery life
  • Snappy performance

Cons

  • PenTile screen shows jagged edges
  • Slightly awkward feel in hand
Summary

The Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD combine unmatched battery life with top-shelf materials and rock-solid performance.

Hardware

More than anything else, the RAZR line is about design and hardware -- the HD series is no different. If anything, it ups the ante. The entire backs of the devices are wrapped in Kevlar, with a distinctive herringbone-like pattern of black and gray rectangles that give the rear of the phones a very smooth, seamless feel. Holding it naturally, that surface is interrupted only by the small Motorola logo inlay in the middle of the handset. Above that are the speaker and the 8-megapixel camera. The Droid RAZR HD finally sees Motorola bid the camera hump adieu. The design flourish made its most high-profile appearance in the Droid X and made a return in devices like the Atrix HD and original Droid RAZR. There is still a slight taper to the body, but no obvious bulge to house the sensor. At 8.4mm thin it's quite a svelte device. It may not get down to the nearly anorexic 7.1mm of the Droid RAZR, but that extra volume is put to good use by the 2,500mAh battery which, as we'll see later, stomps all over its predecessor. The MAXX HD is a hair thicker at 9.33mm and has no taper whatsoever, which allows it to fit a stunning 3,300mAh powerpack inside. That beefier battery and bumped-up storage (32GB internal versus 16GB) is all that separates the $199 RAZR HD from the $299 RAZR MAXX HD. Otherwise, they're the same exact phone.

Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

The slightly thicker body leaves room for a nice strip of aluminum around the edges and allows Motorola to spread out the various ports and buttons. The top houses only the headphone jack, a drastic change from the original Droid RAZR which also found room there for the HDMI and micro-USB ports. Those have instead been moved to the left-hand side of the handset, towards the bottom of the body, below the hidden tray for the micro-SIM and microSD cards. On the right side are both the power button and the volume rocker, which are nicely textured and depress with a satisfying amount of feedback. Up front, you'll find the requisite sensors and an HD camera for video chats and self-portraits. Sandwiched between the ear piece and Motorola logo is a long, thin notification LED that underlines the company name.

Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

The word we'd use to describe it is "dense" -- like a brick.

Combine all that with an edge-to-edge sheet of Gorilla Glass on the face and you've got a rather solid and premium-feeling device. Actually, the word we'd use to describe it is "dense" -- like a brick. It's roughly the same size and weight as the Galaxy Nexus but, subjectively, it seems heavier until you hold them both simultaneously. It's about a millimeter thinner than the Nexus but, thanks to its straight sides and almost featureless body, it feels quite a bit more awkward in the hand. The RAZR HD and MAXX HD seem just a little too big, despite being narrower than the Galaxy S III and One X. That's a shame because we love the heft and stunning build quality. Strictly from a material selection and construction standpoint, the RAZR line belongs in a class alongside HTC's One series and the iPhone -- it's just that good. But, as time wore on, the subtle inconveniences of the design became increasingly clear. It's almost as if Motorola forgot to take ergonomics into account when building the devices, making one-handed operation a bit of a chore. It was impossible to find a position that allowed this reviewer to stretch across the screen with his thumb while keeping the lock key within easy reach.

Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

One of the most welcome changes to the RAZR line is certainly the screen. Without changing the size of the handset, Motorola has gone from a 4.3-inch panel to a 4.7-inch one and bumped up the resolution from qHD to a full 1,280 x 720. Of course, being of the Super AMOLED HD variety, that means we're still looking at a PenTile layout here. That being said, it's not a bad screen at all. It can't quite compete with the stunning LCDs found on the Optimus G or the One X, but it's at least on par with the Galaxy Nexus. Colors are bright and saturated while darker areas are deep and almost light-absorbing -- perhaps unnaturally so. But jagged edges are hard to spot, viewing angles are extraordinary and it shrugs off direct sunlight as a minor inconvenience. One of the biggest surprises, however, was the speaker phone, which was loud, clear and one of the best we've heard in a long time. And you'll be able to put that speaker to good use almost anywhere on the globe since, in addition to the Verizon standard LTE and CDMA radios, the RAZR HD and MAXX HD also support GSM 850/900/1,800/1,900 and HSPA on the same bands, plus 2,100MHz.

Performance and battery life

Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

Moto has decided to make battery life its bread and butter.

While every other manufacturer is talking about innovative cameras, quad-core processors and glorified styli, Moto has decided to make battery life its bread and butter. That trend started with the Droid RAZR MAXX -- the first phone we've ever seen with what could be called an excessively large battery. The RAZR MAXX HD keeps the same 3,300mAh non-removable pack, while its slimmer sibling goes with a 2,500mAh one. That's a significant upgrade over last year's model and one that delivers a stunning amount of longevity. Under normal usage the RAZR HD sails through a full day without a hiccup, and two days is well within reach with judicious use of the screen. On our standard battery drain test (which involves looping a video with the display brightness set at 50 percent, WiFi and GPS turned on) the RAZR HD chugged along for an impressive 10 hours and 42 minutes -- that's longer than most tablets. The MAXX only takes things further, testing this reviewer's patience by refusing to die for 14 hours and four minutes. That doesn't quite match the epic longevity of the first MAXX, but it's still a nearly unheard of number. What's more, both lasted almost a full hour longer than Motorola's official figures -- that's about as pleasant a surprise as one can get.

The dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 inside is hardly cutting-edge any more, but it's more than enough to keep the phone chugging along at a healthy clip. Navigating the UI is smooth, seamless and the device hardly seems to break a sweat firing up most apps. Even relatively intensive 3D titles like Dead Space and Grand Theft Auto III hum along on the new RAZRs. We did, however, consistently encounter serious lag with the keyboard. Quite often, it would take a few seconds for the keyboard to catch up to our typing, and memory-intensive apps like Chrome only seemed to exacerbate the issue.

Droid RAZR HD & MAXX HD Motorola Droid RAZR M Galaxy S III (Verizon)
Quadrant 4,982 4,944 4,937
Vellamo 2.0 1,631 1,648 1,627
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,914 1,951 1,740
AnTuTu 6,674 6,364 6,857
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt Offscreen (fps) 13 13 13
CF-Bench 9,547 9,392 9,375
SunSpider: lower scores are better

The phones easily held their own in benchmarks and, as expected, kept pace with the glut of phones on the market with the same 1.5GHz Snapdragon internals. The SunSpider score of 1,914 is respectable, though surprisingly high considering similarly specced devices from Samsung and Moto have completed the test significantly faster in the past. Otherwise, our quantitative testing turned up no surprises. Serious powerhouses like the Galaxy Note II and the Optimus G were able to run circles around the RAZRs, but even the most demanding of users will rarely need that sort of horsepower on a regular basis. More important for the average user will be the ability to suck down data at an impressive clip and the HD didn't disappoint. We averaged about 17 Mbps down and 14 Mbps up around New York City, during a mix of on- and off-peak tests. We also found call quality to be surprisingly clear, considering the underwhelming performance of its smaller sibling the RAZR M in this area.

Camera

The camera has always been a strong suit of Motorola handsets.

We're beginning to believe that Motorola found a formula that works for capturing images way back with the Droid X and hasn't really bothered to change much since. Things have certainly gotten better, just not dramatically so. That's not to say we're disappointed with the image quality here -- far from it actually. The camera has always been a strong suit of Motorola handsets and the same is true of the new RAZR brothers. Both have an 8-megapixel sensor inside, the same as you'd find in the RAZR M, Droid RAZR, Bionic and practically every flagship Moto device dating back to 2010. While the number of pixels hasn't increased, photo clarity and saturation has. In the light of day, images captured are bright and colorful, on par with most point-and-shoots. Even indoors and under artificial light the results are still pretty good, though we'd suggest leaving the flash off unless absolutely necessary. The new camera interface also improves over past offerings with a less cluttered presentation and more responsive controls. Perhaps our favorite feature is the phone's ability to detect less-than-ideal lighting conditions and prompt you to switch to HDR mode.

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Droid RAZR HD and MAXX HD sample shots

Video quality was slightly less impressive than still photos, but it was hardly a weak point. The results were reasonably crisp and colors were well-saturated, though there was some noise detectable in the shadowy parts of the frame. Perhaps the biggest knock against the video is the lack of image stabilization. While we're not expecting Motorola to cram optical image stabilization into an already extremely dense handset (a la, the Lumia 920), some digital smoothing of our noticeable jitters would have been greatly appreciated. Audio recorded by the RAZR HD was exceptional. As you can hear in the clip above, midday traffic and a healthy breeze are reduced to a dull background hum and this reviewer's narration can be heard loud and clear over the din.

Software

Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

Outside of a brief and gaudy detour around the time of the Bionic, Motorola has dramatically improved its custom UX with each and every release. By which we mean, they've stripped away the layers and moved closer and closer to stock Android. This is the same, minimally tweaked Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0.4 to be specific) skin we've already seen on the Atrix HD and the RAZR M. Swiping to the right from the main home screen reveals the quick settings menu, which puts toggles for WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth and other commonly used options within easy reach. Swiping to the left allows you to navigate your home screens, which can number anywhere from one to seven. If you've hit the end of the road, continuing to the right presents you with a screen offering you the ability to add a new "page" or manage your existing ones. This affords you the opportunity to not only add or delete, but also rearrange pages. You can even use templates, pre-populated with widgets and shortcuts, when adding new home screens, though the selection is a little paltry with only a media and office theme offered out of the box. We can only imagine things will get even better once the highly anticipated Jelly Bean update hits later this year.

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Droid RAZR HD and MAXX HD software

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bloat onboard here and none of it is removable.

There are a few other small changes to the standard UX, including a favorites tab in the app tray, which seems a little redundant with the existence of home screens. Still, we appreciated the four-way unlock screen which puts not just the camera, but text messages and dialer only a quick swipe away. We're also excited to see the return of the vibrate shortcut -- a handy feature tossed by the wayside in the post-Gingerbread era. A more subtle tweak is the notification pull-down, which no longer hides the status bar.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bloat onboard here and none of it is removable. In addition to the usual glut of Verizon-branded wares, Kindle, Color, NFL Mobile, Modern Combat 3, Real Racing 2, and Slacker Radio all come preinstalled. It's not quite as heavy-handed as the pile of apps crammed into the RAZR M -- notably absent are Amazon's non-Kindle properties -- but we'd much prefer if there were no third-party apps on our phones fresh out of the box. See, we're big boys and girls capable of deciding which apps we want and which we don't, and until the carriers learn to leave well enough alone their relationship with customers is going to be contentious at best.

Wrap-up

Droid RAZR HD and RAZR MAXX HD review

If there was an award for "Most Improved Handset," we'd give it to the RAZR HD. With the launch of the Droid RAZR last year, Motorola set about trying to reconnect with its legacy of producing cutting-edge, high-end hardware. It was far from perfect, but it definitely put the company on the right track. The RAZR HD and MAXX HD pick up where their predecessors left off and address practically every concern you could have had about the original. Most notably the screen has gone from a 4.3-inch qHD panel to a 4.7-inch HD one, all without changing the physical dimensions of the device. The manufacturer has sacrificed some style in the name of functionality, but has somehow managed to make an already premium-feeling device feel even more like a luxury item. Truth is, outside of battery life, specs aren't what matters here. Sure, NFC and a speedy dual-core processor are nice, but as we've said before the RAZR line is all about the materials. This isn't about the 1GB of RAM or the 8-megapixel camera; it's about the sheath of Kevlar, the face of glass and the heart of aluminum. The entire device is even protected with a water-repellent coating to safeguard your investment.

If there was an award for "Most Improved Handset," we'd give it to the RAZR HD.

If you can get past the somewhat awkward, brick-like construction you'll find that the newest RAZRs are certainly worthy competitors for your smartphone dollar. That's especially true if you're tired of the countless quick-dying powerhouses that flood the market. Both offer more than adequate performance with stunning battery life. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to chew through the MAXX's battery in just a day. The only question that remains is, are these devices worth the cash? Truth be told, the MAXX would be a much more compelling product at $199 than it is at $299. The 32GB of storage and extra three hours of battery life hardly seem to warrant the $100 premium it demands over the 16GB RAZR HD. And $299 is a tough price to swallow for any phone. Still, both are more than capable of holding their own against the Galaxy S III and iPhone 5 a battle of the premium Verizon devices. And things will only get better when they're upgraded to Jelly Bean later this year.