Motorola Droid Razr M review: A powerful phone at a nice price

Oh, hello, Moto -- it's been a while.

Motorola Droid Razr M Review

After a quiet year and a major transition, Motorola is diving back into the Android phone market and hoping to make a splash. The now-Google-owned company announced a trio of new Droid Razr devices last week, and the first of the three phones is ready to hit store shelves.

The big boys of the group -- the Droid Razr HD and Droid Razr Maxx HD -- won't launch until later this year (sometime "before the holidays," Motorola says), but the lower-end device, the Droid Razr M, goes on sale this Thursday. The phone will sell for $99 following a $50 mail-in rebate and with a new two-year contract at Verizon Wireless.

I've had a chance to spend several days using the Droid Razr M. While the phone isn't a top-of-the-line, flagship-style device -- nor is it meant to be -- it's a solid and strong-performing handset with an awful lot to like.

Motorola Droid Razr M: Great body, okay face

Motorola Droid Razr M

The Droid Razr M is relatively small by today's Android smartphone standards, measuring in at 2.4 x 4.8 in. with a thickness of 0.33 in. The Samsung Galaxy S III, for comparison, is 2.8 x 5.4 in. and 0.34 in. thick.

Having grown accustomed to larger devices (I usually use the 2.7 x 5.3 in. GSM Galaxy Nexus), the Razr M felt strangely small in my hand at first. But hey, size isn't everything: The Razr M is very comfortable to hold, so much that I frequently found myself not wanting to put it down. If you have smaller hands or just don't like the idea of lugging around a larger phone, the Razr M's compact profile could really appeal to you.

What makes the Razr M unique is that despite its small size, it has a relatively large screen: The phone's display is 4.3 in., putting it on par with the Galaxy S II (international and AT&T edition) -- a device that measures 0.2 in. longer and 0.2 in. wider. The reason is that Motorola has decreased the borders, or bezels, as they're called, in order to make the Razr M's screen take up the majority of its face.

The screen itself isn't the best around: It's a Super AMOLED Advanced display with 960 x 540 resolution, comparable to what was used on last year's original Droid Razr phone. It's bright with vivid colors, though the lower resolution makes its images less sharp than what you'll see on many current high-end devices. The display also utilizes a type of technology called PenTile, which -- particularly when combined with a lower resolution level -- can result in jagged edges and visible pixels during certain types of usage. Ultimately, if you're a serious phone enthusiast or display aficionado, you'll probably find the display disappointing. If you're a casual phone user, I doubt you'll think twice about it; I showed the Razr M to a handful of non-techie-type people, and they all actually commented that the phone's screen looked really nice.

Like the rest of Motorola's Razr line, the Droid Razr M is built with a textured Kevlar material on its back and Corning Gorilla Glass on its front. It also utilizes a water-repellent coating to help protect from your inexplicably sweaty palms and frequent grape soda spills. The end result is a phone that feels rugged and durable while still achieving a high-quality, premium look.

Motorola Droid Razr M (Back)

Motorola also went with a button-free design for the Razr M -- hallelujah! -- which provides a much better Android 4.x experience than the dated button-reliant approach other manufacturers have insisted on using with their recent devices. This alone gives the Razr M a significant advantage over other current phones when it comes to the overall user experience.

Under the hood

The Droid Razr M packs a dual-core 1.5GHz processor along with 1GB of RAM. Generally speaking, the phone performed quite well in my experience: Apps loaded quickly, even while multitasking; video played without any stutters or slowdowns; and Web browsing was smooth and speedy. I did, however, notice some occasional choppiness while swiping between home screens.

The Razr M uses a 2000 mAh battery that promises 20 hours of "mixed usage." I was able to get through a full two days of moderate usage without having to power the phone back up, even while using Verizon's 4G LTE network (yes, the Droid Razr M is a 4G phone -- I understand that quality may become "revolutionary" later this week). The Razr M's battery is not removable, which may be a downer for users who like having the option to swap the battery out.

With the Razr M, you get 8GB of internal storage, about 4.5GB of which is actually available to use. That's not much by today's standards, but the phone does have a microSD slot on its left side if you need more space. You'll have to provide your own card, though, as one isn't included with the phone.

The Razr M supports NFC for contact-free sharing and services (but good luck with Google Wallet; Verizon doesn't exactly want you to use that). It has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 0.3-megapixel lens on its front for video chat. The main camera is okay but not great, especially compared to photo-centric devices like HTC's One line of phones. The Razr M also lacks an HDMI out-port -- something its higher-end sibling phones will have.

The Motorola Droid Razr M worked fine for me when it came to voice calls (people do still make those, right?). Friends with whom I spoke sounded loud, clear, and irritated that I kept asking them how my voice sounded. Everyone reported being able to hear me fine, too, with no signs of distortion and the usual levels of sarcastic tone.

NEXT PAGE: The software and the bottom line

All right, so how 'bout that software? The Droid Razr M is no pure Google experience, but Moto's changes to the OS are actually quite mild compared to other manufacturers -- and parts of them aren't half-bad....

The software

Motorola's Droid Razr M runs a specialized version of Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS with Moto's own custom user interface -- you know, the interface formerly known as MotoBlur. As you may know, I'm generally not a fan of manufacturer-made UI modifications, but I've gotta say: Moto's changes to the software are actually quite mild compared to other manufacturers, and parts of them aren't half-bad.

The Razr M sticks pretty closely to Google's stock ICS setup, making just a handful of scattered tweaks and changes. System icons are somewhat different, for example, as are the home and back navigational icons. The settings area of the phone is reskinned to have a less subdued vibe. Icons in the Favorites tray also have titles below them, which is not the case in stock ICS.

These UI-level changes aren't really improvements; for the most part, they make the Android 4.x design a little less cohesive and appealing. They're change for the sake of change and at the expense of user experience (hmm...where have I heard that before?). The best thing about them is that they're pretty minimal and unobtrusive, particularly next to other phone-makers' misguided and over-the-top efforts.

Motorola Droid Razr M Android

The more significant -- and potentially worthwhile -- modification is the addition of a "Quick settings" screen that appears when you swipe all the way to the left on your home screen. The "Quick settings" screen has one-touch toggles to change things like your ringer setting, Wi-Fi status, and Bluetooth status. I'm not sure it's any more useful than simply having a widget with the same options, but it's an interesting idea nevertheless.

Motorola has also added in a home screen setup tool that makes it easy to get your stuff set up: By default, the Razr M has just a single panel; swiping to the right brings up a screen on which you can add additional panels -- bringing yourself up to seven total -- and also move any existing panels around or delete them entirely. 

Motorola Droid Razr M Software

Other UI changes include the addition of a "Favorites" section to the app drawer -- which otherwise sticks with the Android 4.x apps-and-widgets-all-in-one setup -- and the addition of extra options on the (unsecured) lock screen that allow you to swipe in different directions to jump to certain tasks.

Motorola Droid Razr M Changes

The Razr M features a couple of Moto-made widgets, too, including one that shows the current time, weather, and battery status of the phone in a trio of interactive and dynamic circles. The time circle changes to show you pending notifications like missed calls or messages, and you can flick it up or down to flip the circle and have it display other information. You can similarly flick the weather circle to show forecasts for multiple cities. Pretty slick, really; if this were a standalone app in the Google Play Store, I'd imagine it'd be quite popular.

Motorola Droid Razr M Widget

The potential downside to these types of customizations, of course, is the added delay in OS upgrades -- and the fact that the Razr M is shipping with the already-dated Android 4.0 OS instead of the more current Android 4.1 Jelly Bean release is a prime example of the cause for concern. Let's be honest: A phone shipping with Android 4.0 two months after the 4.1 release is a little bit embarrassing.

Motorola, for its part, promises it'll upgrade the Razr M to Jelly Bean "by the end of the year." The fact that the company's OS modifications are fairly light -- and that it's placing a new strong emphasis on upgradability following its Google acquisition -- makes me hopeful it'll stick to that word. Still, if fast and frequent OS upgrades are important to you, an unlocked Google Nexus phone is always the wisest path to take -- no question about it.

As you'd expect from a Verizon phone, the Razr M has a decent bit of bloatware -- well over a dozen apps that you probably won't want and can't uninstall from your phone (short of hacking it). Joy, oh joy, I know. The good news is that Android 4.x does allow you to disable and hide the apps, even if you can't completely remove them.

Bottom line

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Motorola's Droid Razr M is a nice little phone with a lot of good things going for it. It's not a groundbreaking or name-making device -- and it probably isn't the right choice for the hard-core enthusiast crowd who craves the absolute best technology available -- but for someone looking for a well-constructed, small-sized Android phone that's packed with power and fun to use, the Droid Razr M is an excellent option at an affordable price.

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