A Phone Reborn: The Motorola RAZR MAXX with Android 4.0 Review

Motorola was kind enough to send a RAZR MAXX to help us cover CES. The battery life was seriously impressive but as the handset was running Gingerbread, I was dreading reviewing it. If I had been pressed, my review would’ve been antagonistically short:

Great battery life, everything else kind of sucks.

Thankfully the MAXX now rocks ICS, and this has made all the difference. Motorola now has a premier phone in their line up. Let’s dig in!

Motorola had kind of a bumpy transition getting to the MAXX. Delays held up the Droid Bionic, and only two months after it was released, the Droid RAZR arrived. Shortly after the RAZR dropped we received the RAZR MAXX. As cell phone development can often take years, it was purely a series of unfortunate occurrences that these phones were released so close together, but customers were understandably upset about a new “premier” phone being released from Moto on a near monthly basis.

Now that Moto’s development cycle has calmed down a bit, the MAXX has been given a little time to mature.
The specs are a mix of mid range and cutting edge, appropriate as it was released at the end of last year. The MAXX is powered by a 1.2Ghz dual core Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 and 1GB of RAM, with 8GB of on-board storage that can be expanded via MicroSD (Moto helpfully includes a 16GB card). There’s an 8MP camera on back capable of 1080p video, a 1.3MP front facing shooter which shoots 720p video, and lastly, a 4.3” qHD AMOLED display that’s backed up by 3300mAh battery which is not user replaceable.

First up: the screen.
It’s good, but not great. qHD (960×540) is a tough sell in a market filling up with 720p screens. Add to that the pentile sub-pixel arrangement, and text and fine detail start to suffer a little bit. This has been less of an issue with video and gaming, but it can be noticeable with text if you hold your phone close to your face. In day to day usage it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, but sitting next to my Galaxy Nexus, the graininess was apparent.
For all of its resolution woes, the screen is bright and colorful, with that vibrant saturation that I like from AMOLED devices–and it has a noticeably higher contrast than the Galaxy Nexus; while at max brightness, blacks on the MAXX are darker than on Google’s flagship.

Build quality is fantastic. The more I hold this phone, the more I like holding it. Moto’s new diagonally sliced corner look (also featured on their tablets) is aggressive. For another “slab” it’s an edgy design ethic. I like it.
The MAXX loses the obscene thin-ness of the first Droid RAZR, though considering the size of the battery, it’s still surprisingly svelte. At its thinnest, the MAXX is almost Galaxy S II thin, and its general dimensions feel very similar to the Galaxy Nexus. That’s somewhat incredible as the MAXX contains almost twice the battery capacity of the Nexus.
The MAXX also retains the RAZR’s carbon fiber back plate, which features a pleasant soft touch matte surface, and the front is protected by Gorilla Glass. Moto also claims the phone is splash resistant (a claim I did not test), and the MAXX has proven to be a very rugged device in my care. And by “care” I mean abusive daily use…

The rear bulge houses the 8MP shooter. It’s a solid camera, but feels a little “last-gen.” It’s not the zero lag affair found on newer handsets, but it is responsive. Output is sharp and colors are well saturated, though it feels like it’s using a longer focal length. Pulling up the camera app, it always felt like I had to back up farther than I should’ve to get all of my subject in the shot, and handing the phone to my brother he immediately asked how you could zoom out, even though the camera already was fully zoomed out.
Low light shots are better than average. It wont unseat an HTC One X, but it’s phenomenally better than a Lumia 900. Output without a flash is noisy, but as the camera hits its max ISO it doesnt destroy detail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video output is very high quality. The auto focus is a little jumpy, and again, the longer focal length means you’ll be shooting a little farther away than other phones would need.

Performance is very good. It’s a night and day difference from Gingerbread, which was HEAVILY skinned, and in my opinion, laggy and stuttery. With ICS, the UI is far more fluid and performance feels faster. It’s much improved, but the occasional stutter or dropped frame is still observed while sliding homescreens or pulling open the app drawer. The Galaxy Nexus, with a higher res screen and almost identical processor, often felt just a touch smoother during these transitions.

While GB was skinned like crazy, thankfully Moto was far more reserved in delivering ICS. It’s largely the Holo UI we know and love from the Nexus, with only light skinning of the system settings and App Drawer. I MUCH prefer this to skins like Sense on the One X, which is almost a complete re-tooling of Android. That’s a personal preference of course, but I’ll always side on lower impact and simplicity.

Verizon has slathered on a lot of apps that I’ll most likely never use, but thankfully Google’s new data usage app is on board (easily found in the system settings), and you can access that info from a widget which you can keep on a homescreen. Very helpful since 1GB of data on VZW will cost you $50 on the new shared plans.

Data performance on LTE is incredible, and around LA, Hollywood, Culver City, and Studio City, I average 20Mbps downloads. Wi-Fi on my review unit was a little flaky, and I would experience signal drops while a distance from my router. My apartment’s gym is a floor below me, and diagonally through three walls. No problem for my Nokia and Nexus, but the MAXX was often 10dB lower than those two, which would usually mean the difference between a stable connection and occasionally dropping signal.

Call quality is very good and thanks to the noise reduction mic on board, I heard no complaints from people on the receiving end of my calls. The speaker is one of my favorites. It’s a toss up between the MAXX and the Lumia for which one is louder and clearer. The MAXX loses out by a hair SOLELY because it’s a rear facing speaker, but it easily trounces the anemic speaker on the Nexus. Any audio activity (speaker phone call, watching Netflix, listening to music) sounds noticeably better on the MAXX than on the Nexus.

All of the above is well and good, but the MAXX comes with one mutant feature which puts it head and shoulders above every other LTE device on the market: a ridiculously large battery. This is a feature I can wholeheartedly endorse. If you’re going to make a battery non-removeable, make it fargging huge. At almost double the size of the Nexus battery, it easily delivers almost double the run time, and it’s delicious getting almost two days of run time on 4G with moderate use. Power users should have no fears making it to bedtime, and this is the first phone I’ve used where I don’t feel the need to keep an external battery on hand.

So there it is. Moto finally has a phone worthy of being called a premier handset. Build quality is superb, the software experience is phenomenally improved, and the battery is audacious. This phone now handily trades blows with the Nexus, and which phone you buy will come down to which bullet points are most important to you.

In a more global corporate sense, Moto feels like they’ve been treading water for a while, waiting out the Google merger, trying to simplify their phone line. What I see here with the MAXX update to Android 4.04 is exciting though. If this is what they can do with a six month old handset, I can’t wait to see what will come down the pipe once Google and Moto start working together on hardware.

P.S.

So Moto, when might we see an update to Jelly Bean?

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