Razer Phone hands-on: Built for gamers, good enough for everyone

Razer's first phone is more than just a Robin sequel.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Razer is best known for its gaming PCs, but everyone knew what its acquisition of smartphone startup Nextbit meant: The company wanted to get into handsets too. The big question was, how does Razer, which prides itself as a gamer-first company, actually build a gamer-first phone? Few phone makers have bothered trying, and those that did — like Sony and Motorola — didn't find the success they were looking for. Razer's approach is a little different. With its new $699 Razer Phone, the company tried to balance pure power with a handful of fascinating hardware features. In doing so, Razer has built a gaming phone that you don't have to be a gamer to appreciate when it launches on November 17.

If you took a Nextbit Robin, made it bigger and draped the thing in dark anodized aluminum instead of cutesy plastic, you'd basically have the Razer Phone. That's fine by me — the Robin's design was clean and classy, and I appreciate Razer carrying on that tradition. The Razer Phone is far denser and sturdier than the original Robin, though, and thankfully it makes good use of the extra space. There's a huge 4,000mAh battery inside, and sitting above and below the screen are a pair of front-facing speakers.

In short, they're fantastic. They're about the loudest, most immersive speakers I've ever heard on a phone. For those of you who miss the days of HTC's excellent, front-facing BoomSound speakers, the Razer Phone just might be the spiritual successor you've been looking for. There's unfortunately no headphone jack here, though the included USB-C-to-headphone adapter does pack a 24-bit, THX-certified digital-to-analog converter (DAC).

Really, though, we need to talk about this screen. The Razer Phone uses a 5.7-inch IGZO LCD panel, which is plenty bright and pleasant to look at. Keep in mind, though, that the screen refreshes at a rate of 120Hz — that's the same as on an iPad Pro, and it's a first for a globally available smartphone of this caliber. Long story short, that makes everything that happens on-screen look remarkably smooth. Whether I was scrolling through Twitter or running games like Final Fantasy 15 Pocket Edition (which I did a lot of during our hands-on time), this screen left me seriously impressed. In a bid to further improve smoothness and reduce screen tearing, game developers are working to unlock the framerates in their apps when installed on the Razer Phone.

Of course, performance like this requires some high-powered silicon, and that's where the Snapdragon 835 comes in. As usual, those eight CPU cores are paired with an Adreno 540 GPU, but Razer has added 8GB of RAM to keep everything moving at a brisk pace. Combine this rock-solid performance with that super-fast screen and, well, Razer might be onto something here. Even in its unfinished form, I noticed very few instances of lag while playing the preloaded demo games, and hopefully Razer does a little more polishing prior to launch.

Even Razer's approach to customizing Android manages to impress. The phone runs a mostly clean version of Android Nougat with the Nova Prime launcher pre-loaded, giving people extensive customization options right out of the gate. Razer is also working with game developers on themes users can apply to their phones, because of course they are. There is one notable omission to the Razer Phone's software suite, though: The handy cloud backup feature that was core to the Robin experience has been left behind.

To be fair, Razer didn't get everything right here. The phone isn't IP rated for water or dust resistance, so you can't be as cavalier with it as you could be with other flagship devices. And the 12-megapixel dual camera also fails to impress; I'm told it was designed with sheer simplicity in mind, but the few test photos I took made me wish the team had focused on image quality first.

For Razer's intended audience, though, these shortcomings probably fall well short of being deal-breakers. All told, the Razer Phone is the odd niche device that you shouldn't write off just yet. It represents a serious attempt to build a serious gaming phone, and Razer gets enough right on its first try that even mainstream smartphone users may want to pay attention.