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Razer Phone 2 review: it glows, but it doesn’t shine

Is a gaming phone better than a ‘regular’ phone?

Gaming phones like the new Razer Phone 2 seem to fascinate the companies that make them more than the general public. Razer really wants “gaming phones” to happen. But if you’re not sure what that means, the only way for them to convince you is to make gaming phones.

So Razer is at it again with the second iteration of its phone that’s dedicated to the idea that people want the smartphone equivalent of a high-end PC with gaming specs. Razer’s hope is that if you’re deeply involved in mobile gaming, want to stream gameplay, or think you can gain an edge in your next match from gaming-oriented hardware, investing in a phone specifically tailored for what you’re into might make sense.

What do you get in the Razer Phone 2 that justifies its $799 price tag over a phone with the same price, like the recently reviewed Google Pixel 3? A lot, actually: Dolby Stereo speakers, a fast refresh 120Hz screen with HDR content support, Chroma lighting, tons of Razer game optimizations, and a “game boost” mode that gives you extra power if you need it.

However, mobile gaming doesn’t have the same lofty requirements as PC gaming. You don’t need a massive desktop or a $2,000 laptop to play mobile games at their best settings; any other flagship smartphone will do. What Razer wants you to believe is that the Phone 2 is a great phone and the best gaming phone. But only one of those things is true.

6.5 Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Smoothest display on any current Android phone
  • Best speakers on any current Android phone
  • A light-up Chroma logo

Bad Stuff

  • Cameras are (still) a miss
  • Brick design is unwieldy
  • Gets warm playing videos / games

Since the original Razer Phone launched last year, the Razer Phone 2 has gone through a long list of improvements, but it kept its boxy design. Razer didn’t change the bezels in this year’s model. They’re everywhere! For a device with such thick top and bottom sections dedicated to the speakers, I would have hoped there would be smaller bezels framing the screen.

The Phone 2 looks and feels like a premium device, though. The rear panel is glass now, which is required for wireless charging, and its build quality is solid. Although an all-black, candy bar phone with a glass back isn’t a unique design, Razer has managed to make its take look different from everything else out there.

The device’s footprint hasn’t changed; it’s still the same large slate of aluminum and glass with as many square edges as possible. (Of course, they’re slightly rounded so they won’t cut you.)

This phone is large and slippery. You can get used to holding it, but its glass back should probably be protected by a case. Although that just makes the issue of size and ergonomics worse. On the bright side, the Razer Phone 2 doesn’t scratch as easily as the Pixel 3 XL.

There’s more to the Razer Phone 2’s backside than just glass and wireless charging. There’s also a backlit Razer logo. It supports the static, breathing, and spectrum color profiles that are available on all of Razer’s Chroma accessories. It can also be useful as a notification light when it pulses.

You can control the Chroma light’s battery consumption with the included app. There are three power modes: low (notifications only), medium (works only when the screen is on), and high (always on). I used the high power mode during most of my time with the Razer Phone 2, and I found that it didn’t dramatically drain the battery. So your decision about what to do with that light-up logo comes down to how much you like light-up logos.

I was really disappointed when I found out that I couldn’t use the Chroma app to control other Chroma-equipped devices I have at home. There is no Synapse 3 app equivalent for the Razer Phone 2. Hopefully, that will change in the future because a phone would be the ideal control hub for all of my Chroma gear.

Also, Razer representatives told me that the rear panel on an upcoming variant (with more storage) will receive a matte finish but still retain wireless charging. If you really want to avoid a slippery glass back, you should look forward to it.

The volume buttons and power / fingerprint button are in the middle on the left and right sides of the phone, respectively. They take some getting used to, but they pay off when you’re playing games in landscape mode since they’re not too close to your fingers. Also, an improvement made to the fingerprint button this year makes it more accurate on your first try. It’s much better this time around, and I’ve had no issues with it.

So those are the basics of the hardware, but the whole reason this phone exists is to be a platform for gaming. One of the first things that makes the Razer Phone 2 a “gaming phone” is its 5.7-inch 120Hz QHD screen that’s bolstered by a wide color gamut for viewing HDR content. The high refresh rate echoes PC gaming in some ways because it allows you to see more frames a second — just on a phone, not a high-end monitor. It all seems like a gimmick, but it pays off.

This is one of the smoothest displays on an Android phone. The fluidity between home screens, scrolling through webpages or Instagram, and watching content move cleanly across the screen is almost a spectacle. Colors pop, graphics are sharp, and everything on screen has ample saturation with good contrast (though not as wildly vibrant as Samsung’s displays). Pokémon Go and Fortnite have never looked better or smoother on an Android phone.

Android users who haven’t experienced a high refresh rate screen on a phone (like iOS users have with the iPad Pro) are in for a real treat. It changes how you perceive animations and graphics on the phone’s screen.

One of the big issues with last year’s Razer Phone was the display wasn’t bright enough, but that’s been fixed. It’s brighter and more usable indoors or outdoors under direct sunlight. It adapts well to indoor and outdoor light, so I haven’t strained my eyes trying to read the screen under the sun.

Razer put a nice screen in its second flagship phone, but what about the speakers? The Razer Phone 2 gets high marks here, and for some, it might be worth the trade-off of having gigantic bezels. Anything you listen to with Dolby Atmos has a clear, balanced reproduction, though it lacks a deep, bellowing bass. There’s even stereo separation, which is great for watching movies, but it’s an even bigger deal when playing games.

Playing a game of Fortnite on mobile can sometimes force you to just listen to your surrounding environment. With Dolby Atmos enabled, you can almost pick out sounds coming from different directions, increasing the sense of immersion. Compared to the Pixel 3’s speakers, the Razer Phone 2 has a better distinction between sounds, making it more tailored toward audiophiles, but it’s not better by a wide margin.

The huge speaker grilles that flank the screen might be an eyesore to some buyers, but having a rich audio experience on a phone can turn a decent mobile game into a memorable one. The Razer Phone 2 is supposed to have audio and graphics optimizations for a decently large list of mobile games. Many mobile games on Android have graphics settings, but for the most part, you can ignore them since you’ll already be playing on the highest settings.

The Razer Phone 2’s cameras haven’t improved by much. The new rear cameras are 12MP Sony sensors with f/1.75 and f/2.6 lenses. Razer also developed a new camera app that supports 4K recording (up to 30 fps), HDR, portrait modes for all three cameras, and “beauty shots.”

Unfortunately, none of this makes a real difference. The Razer Phone 2’s camera setup won’t stand up to an iPhone or Pixel camera. In most scenarios, photos come out with a flat color profile — which is fine for editing, but it lacks vibrancy and contrast. If you don’t have the best lighting, the results will be noisy, with overexposed whites and blacks that look more like grays.

The new rear cameras also struggle with low-light photography, often resulting in blurry shots. And it only gets worse with the “beauty mode.” Beauty modes that offer facial smoothing to artificially improve the appearance of your skin are nothing new, but the Razer Phone 2 takes it to another level with jaw reconstruction. If you slide the beauty filter to the max, you can watch your jawline get artificially accentuated. It’s really weird.

I’m disappointed to see Razer launching a near-stock flagship Android phone in October 2018 without Android Pie. Out of the box, the Razer Phone 2 runs Android 8.1 Oreo, and it will be updated to Android 9.0 Pie early next year, according to reps I spoke to at Razer.

On the bright side, Razer stayed true to its build of Android 8.1 by keeping it straightforward and free of excessive bloatware — mostly. Razer has retouched some apps with green accents: the Clock, Files, Calculator, and Camera apps, as well as the added Game Booster, Dolby Atmos, Theme Store, Razer Cortex (a gaming app store), and Chroma apps. Also, NovaLauncher is the default, replacing the stock Android 8.1 Oreo home screen and app drawer, but this is a benefit because Nova is a well-supported and well-loved home screen replacement.

Overall, I don’t have any serious issues with the Razer Phone 2’s software experience. A near-stock version of Android 8.1 that runs smoothly, thanks to the Snapdragon 845 and 8GB of RAM, is all you really need. And that great 120Hz display makes the whole experience feel faster, too.

I played the following games (all optimized) on the Razer Phone 2: Alto’s Odyssey, Fortnite, Pokémon Go, and Dragon Ball: Legends. On a Pixel 3, these games would have performed just fine, but on the Razer Phone 2, they’re a little more enjoyable. The audio is more distinct due to stereo separation and visuals move smoother across the screen (thanks to the high refresh rate).

To keep the phone cool during these gaming sessions, Razer added its Blade laptops’ vapor chamber cooling tech (in a smaller form factor). However, glass isn’t great at dissipating heat in general; after 30 minutes of gameplay, the center of the Razer Phone 2 can get pretty warm.

Battery life is an important checkbox for any flagship smartphone, but it’s especially important on a gaming phone. Theoretically, you’d be using the Razer Phone 2 for a lot of the same things you do on your current phone, with a couple more games in the mix.

What mobile games have in common is they require a lot more power than just browsing Twitter. Razer is aware of this, so it included a massive 4,000mAh battery, which is the same capacity as a Galaxy Note 9. In the real world, you’ll easily get through a full day’s use (with the Razer logo in rainbow mode) plus plenty of gaming. That’s great, but it’s not what really impressed me.

The best thing about the Razer Phone 2’s massive battery is it supports QuickCharge 4 Plus. If you’ve watched our video on fast charging, you know that QuickCharge 4 Plus can take a battery from 0 to 50 percent capacity in just 30 minutes. In my time with the phone, I was able to charge from 10 to 60 percent in around half an hour with the included USB-C fast charger. It’s a great feature for busy users, and it’s even more compelling than wireless charging in its current form.

Razer is also selling a $99 wireless charger alongside the Phone 2. It features Chroma RGB lighting all around the base. It’s also versatile: you can prop your phone up, lay it flat, and charge the phone in both landscape and portrait orientation. It comes with an 18W USB-C charger; it charges slower than wired charging, but it’s still considered fast charging.

However, there seem to be some quality control issues with the wireless charger. After switching between modes a few times, I’ve noticed the hinge became loose. And in case you were wondering: yes, you can charge other phones that support wireless charging. But you will usually have to do so horizontally, because the charging coils were positioned to meet with the Razer Phone 2’s, slightly beneath the backlit logo.

The Razer Phone 2 isn’t going to change the phone market, but it may change how mobile gamers look at run-of-the-mill flagship smartphones. They might want a phone that looks like it was engineered for a specific purpose. There might be a pretty small number of people who fit that bill, honestly, but Razer’s whole business is catering specifically to those types of gamers.

The Razer Phone 2 doesn’t have the camera chops to displace any of the new iPhone XS or Pixel 3 models. For a flagship phone to be taken seriously in 2018, you need a camera you can count on, and I can’t count on the Phone 2’s cameras.

What I can count on the Razer Phone 2 for is playing games, having great battery life, and light-up, colorful Chroma. And for a phone that’s primarily made for playing games, that might be enough.

Correction: Only the iPad Pro, from among Apple’s products, has a high refresh rate like the Razer Phone 2, not the iPhone X / XS as previously suggested.

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