Saturday, 12 January 2013

A month with an Intel smartphone: Motorola RAZR i review

    It's been a month since I received my upgrade from Orange, a shiny new Motorola Razr i. I swore I'd never touch another Motorola after being caught out when they didn't upgrade my DEXT beyond Android 1.5 despite releasing version 2.1 for its American counterpart, but here I am suckered into owning another Moto.
    So why did I pick the Razr i over the competition? After all, there are a whole slew of rather good phones out there at the moment and this one might seem a little of an outsider.
    At this point most phone reviews go into a great long spiel about the minutiae of differences between  near-identical smartphones, talking about screen technologies, fractions of a millimetre in device thickness, minor screen size variations and pointless manufacturer-installed software bling. But it's a futile exercise. Within reason, pretty much all phones at a particular price point are functionally identical; one black slab these days is fairly interchangeable with another of similar specification. What matters in a phone is this: will it run my apps quickly enough and will its hardware ever let me down?  In more specific terms, is it OK for making calls, does it run a decent operating system, does it have a reasonably quick processor, and does it have a decent camera for its price? And if it satisfies those criteria and doesn't come with an outrageous price tag, that's all that needs to be said. If you want a traditional review of the Razr i then most tech sites should have one by now, meanwhile here are my impressions as a user.
    So here are the basics: Build on the Razr i is good, it feels solid with an aluminium frame, Kevlar back and Gorilla glass front. The screen is an OLED job, nice and bright with plenty of space and resolution for desktop site browsing. It's far better than my DEXT was at getting 3G signals in rural areas and it doesn't lose calls as frequently. It's not quite as good as most Nokias at conjuring signals out of nothing though. The OS is Android 4.0, thankfully without Moto's awful MotoBlur interface, and an upgrade to 4.1 is promised. As a DEXT owner that brings forth hollow laughter, but at least by the time 4.0 feels old there will be third party ROMs available for it. The camera is not as good as those on the best phones on the market but it is perfectly acceptable for the price and has a few tricks up its sleeve, of which more later.
    The Razr i's party piece and the feature that attracted me to it though is its processor. It has an Intel processor rather than the more common ARM, and it is one of the first Intel-powered phones to move forward from the Intel reference design.
    The Intel processor in the Razr i is a single core device as opposed to the the multicore configurations usually found in ARM phones. It makes up for this with a faster clock speed, at 2GHz nearly twice that of its ARM competition, and enough to run Android and its apps at a truly blistering pace.
    An Android phone with this processor faces two problems, and on how well Intel have tacked them will ride the success or failure of their push into smartphones. First, the Intel instruction set is not the same as the ARM instruction set so there might be an expectation of software incompatibilities with Android apps designed and tested on ARM devices. And second, such a high clock speed might be expected to shorten battery life as faster processors run hotter than slower ones.
    Based on a month with an Intel smartphone I think they've done a pretty good job. On software incompatibilities there has been no issue save for the unavailability of one app, BBC iPlayer. Since this depends on Flash, a dead mobile technology if ever there was one, I can forgive them for this. In fact the lack of Intel support rather proves that Flash is dead on mobile, for if it was still alive it would surely have been ported by any of the rather large parties involved.
    And on the power consumption front I think they've succeeded too. Intel have a lot of experience in their more traditional markets making silicon that adapts its clock speed and thus power consumption for portable use, and this has resulted in a phone that I need to charge every other day in general usage. Considering that it's not uncommon for smartphones to barely last a day on one charge, that's pretty damn good.
    The camera is one of the make-or-break pieces of hardware in a phone for me. In hardware terms the Razr i's sensor is not as good as some of its competition, at 8Mp it lacks the resolution of more expensive phones and its lens is nothing to shout about. But that said the hardware is perfectly acceptable, and the way it has been implemented makes it stand apart from other phones in its price bracket.
    This camera is fast. Really fast. And it has a mode in which it starts from sleep mode with a single press of the shutter button. I can wave goodbye to fiddling with an unlock sequence to take a picture, to those camera phone pictures that failed to catch fast moving subjects due to shutter lag, or that embarrassing wait while the phone saved your latest JPEG. Press the Razr i's shutter button, and that's the photo taken and saved. No messing about, on to the next one. As someone who takes a lot of camera phone pictures, that has changed the way I use my phone, it really is a point-and-shoot device.
    There's only one feature of the camera software that sticks out from the crowd; it has an HDR mode. HDR, for the uninitiated stands for High Dynamic Range, and it refers to composite photographs created from multiple shots of the same scene at different exposures to ensure that all parts of the scene are at optimum exposure.
    The trouble with HDR is that like all new toys there is a tendency to push it a little too far. Thus if you search Flickr for HDR pictures you'll find reams of startlingly garish pictures in which the photographers have turned the software up to 11 without considering whether or not it makes a better picture. Thus those three letters don't always instill confidence, they usually mean something a little painful to look at.
    The HDR mode on the Razr i is fortunately not turned up to 11. Usually it brings out the detail in shadowed areas of your scene and results in a brighter picture. Exactly what you want from a snapshot camera. However, it sometimes produces a picture with a bit too strong an HDR effect, and at other times it has problems mixing the different exposures. So I find it broadly useful, but sometimes capable of getting it wrong
    Here are some example pictures: First, an outdoor shot in bright sunlight. HDR above, no HDR below. Probably the camera at its point-and-shoot best, it may not be capturing the nuances of a professional model but as a snapshot camera it produces pictures that are bright and full of detail.

 Here the scene is a little more challenging, an overcast day and a tree against the sky. Again the HDR is the upper picture. It's done a good job with the pub, but straight away you can see in the branches of the tree that the HDR algorithm is having problems deciding which exposure to use.

 Now we're pushing the camera to the limit with a night-time shot. As expected, there is plenty of noise present in these images. However, the left-hand HDR image does manage to pull out more detail, for instance the car numberplate is legible. 

 So would I recommend the Razr i to a friend? After all the market is very crowded at that level and there are some real contenders, why buy something a little off-the-wall when you can have a Nexus 4, for example? The answer's simple. I'd recommend the Razr i to someone who wanted a quick phone with a very quick camera and had it on offer as a carrier upgrade. For someone paying up front for a phone I'd suggest they look at getting a phone with a cast-iron guarantee of receiving Android upgrades while its technology can support them.Sorry Moto, you've made a really great phone here, but I still can't forget your cavalier attitude to Android upgrades in the past.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for clearing that up, I thought HDR stood for "horrific disgusting rubbish" since as you have pointed out all the sliders are set to infinity and beyond...

    Digital is not magical and in it's standard form can have a restricted dynamic range from a single exposure. This phone is certainly better than the first digital "camera" we got our hands on!

    My old Nokia lasts over two months on a single charge, then again I hardly ever use it!