On paper, there's a lot to like about Razer's sequel to their inaugural gaming phone. It's one of the most improved devices of the year, and a solid upgrade from their first effort.
But while these things are all well and good, the lustre starts to fade away once you compare the Razer Phone 2 to any other flagship around the same price.
The Razer Phone 2 arrives in Australia less than a year after the original arrived down under, and it's priced towards the lower end of this year's flagships. It's available through the Razer Store direct for $1249, with accessories ranging from $27 (for cases and a screen protector) to $169.95 (the Hammerhead USB-C noise-cancelling earbuds).
Before I get into the nitty gritty, here's the specs:
CPU: Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 845 (2.80 GHz) with Adreno 630 GPU
RAM: 8GB (LPDDR4X)
Storage: 64GB UFS, External: SIM + micro SD slot (up to 1TB)
Screen: 5.72-inch IGZO LCD 1440 x 2560, 60/90/120Hz, Wide Color Gamut
Rear Camera: Wide (f/1.75 lens with 12MP and OIS), Telephoto (f/2.6 lens with 12MP)
Front Camera: f/2.0 lens with 8MP
Sound: Dual front-firing stereo speakers with dual amplifiers, Dolby Atmos, 24-bit DAC Audio Adapter
Battery: 4000 mAh lithium-ion battery
A lot of this stuff is fairly standard for 2018. Outside of Apple and Huawei, the first manufacturers to make the 7nm jump with the new iPhones and the Mate 20/Mate 20 Pro, most Android phones are running the Snapdragon 845 and the various Qualcomm tech (like QuickCharge 4.0) that comes with it.
Razer's major point of difference, and where Razer's the phone has the most appeal, is the vapour chamber cooling and the ability to tweak CPU speeds on a game-by-game basis. Through the Razer Cortex app, you can nominate different speeds for your CPU, whether you want anti-aliasing on or off, the resolution and frame rate (the latter two of which are now standard for most Android phones). The Cortex software has five presets for every game, however, whereas normal Android options only provide three.
The Cortex store also features a range of games that work with the phone's 120Hz screen, such as Mini Metro, Gear.Club and Unkilled. It's mostly just a launcher - clicking through on any of the tiles will take you through to the download page on the Google Play Store, but it's an easy way to see quickly what
There's also a wealth of themes you can apply to the phone through the Theme Store, like the Monstercat theme above. It adjusts ringtones, settings, System UI and the Razer Launcher itself, although you can also get themes for Skullgirl, Fortnite, Tekken, and more.
For the most part, the Razer software is pretty minimalist. The only major thing you'll notice upon turning on the phone is the UI - the display and font are set to small by default, unlike most Android phones I've used this year - and the fact that the display was set to 90Hz instead out 120Hz out of the box.
The smoothness of the screen is nice. But it's the quality of the actual screen that we really need to talk about.
As a test, I got three phones together: the Razer Phone 2, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and my previous daily driver, the LG G7. I liked this three because it offers a good range of what's on the market: the LG G7 is selling for $800 right now, the Razer V2 is going for $1249, and the Mate 20 Pro is selling just shy of $1600. The situation is different if you're buying through a plan, but I'll get into that more at the end.
All three phones have a range of displays. The Mate 20 Pro has the nicest with its OLED 1440p panel, while the Razer Phone 2 uses the IGZO LCD screen. The LG G7's IPS LED was its strongest feature next to its sound quality, and ignoring the brightness boost feature (which you can't use for more than a few minutes anyway) it's still nice and bright by today's standards.
Above you'll see three comparisons between the Mate 20 Pro and the Razer Phone 2, using Animelab and Netflix. It's not as good as a comparison in person, and I've tried to use a couple of lighting instances to provide the best indication. Both phones were set to vivid colours in the Android settings as well, with the colour temperature set to default and brightness set to 100%.
It's not hard to see where the problem lies: as nice as 120Hz might be for games and general scrolling on a phone, it can't hold a candle to the actual quality of the screen. The Razer Phone 2 is duller and darker, resulting in a less appealing image. It's especially noticeable when I synced the G7, Mate 20 Pro and Razer Phone 2 to play an episode of Naruto Shippuden - which isn't even HDR content. The same test with Chef's Table revealed the same issue: even the LG G7 offered a brighter, more satisfying picture.
Given that the LG G7 has a headphone jack and costs over $400 less, that's not a great start. But then we get into the Razer Phone 2's other major problem: the camera.
Despite an update rolling out in the last week or so, the Razer camera software is still woefully inadequate compared to any other major manufacturer. There's no option to shoot in RAW. The rear camera can only shoot in 4:3 at either 12.2 megapixels or 7.7 megapixels. The front-facing camera at least has two 16:9 options, but you're still not offered any options to customise the shutter speed, ISO settings, live photos, custom temperatures for white balance, geotagging for photos, preset scenes, filters, or any of the other bells and whistles that come standard with smartphones.
Even simple things like different frame rate settings for the video aren't available: you get a choice of resolutions and that's it. It feels like a camera from the early generations of smartphones. You'd actually be better off downloading a third-party camera app, or using something like Lightroom.
I mentioned before that the maximum shots available was 12.2 megapixels. That's enough to take a reasonably nice shot in perfect conditions, but even still, it's not hard to pick out some problems.
Note: Due to image size limits in our CMS, and the fact that nobody wants to be loading up 40MB+ images just for the sake of comparison, all the shots below have been compressed. I've tried to retain as much detail from the originals as possible.
This first shot is using the Portrait mode on both phones. I had to move further back before the Razer Phone would let me take the shot at all, whereas the Huawei had no issues whatsoever.
For the purposes of testing, I also set the Huawei to take shots on standard colours, as opposed to smooth or vivid (the latter of which is the default). This is slightly different to the Vivid setting in the Android display options: vivid (and smooth) adds a heavy vignette to the shot, while oversaturating colours. The Razer Phone doesn't have any similar settings, so it made sense to keep them on the most even keel possible.
In general - and the same remains in the standard camera mode - the Mate 20 Pro has much nicer shadows, more detail on the fake leaves, and a nicer overall colour.
The same shot against the G7 reveals a similar approach: while the table looks a little nicer in the Razer shot, the G7 does a better job of getting the fake plant's colour.
The two shots look relatively close, although when zoomed in you can see some notable differences in how they handle detail in the distance.
I vastly prefer how the Razer phone handles this situation: the colour on the G7 might be nicer, but detail gets absolutely butchered outside of the focal point. That said, the G7 is $400 cheaper than the Razer Phone 2. The dynamic range is Razer's weakness here, and you see it particularly in outdoor shots when the light starts to fade.
Here's a shot of a Red Dead Redemption 2 mug, set against a fairly standard office background. The mug offers a good pop of colour against your typical off-white cabinets and the grey Sonos speaker.
The pop of red from the mug is more vibrant in the G7 and Mate 20 Pro, whereas the Razer has more of a muted output. It's worth noting that none of the phones were able to replicate the small water droplets on the outside of the mug; that's mostly done to the post-processing in each phone, which smoothed a lot of that detail out.
I made sure to disable any AI assists on the Huawei's end as well. It's impossible to take a photo without them cropping up at least once, which is entirely fine: for the most part, the Mate 20 Pro's AI suggestions work just fine. When AI gets involved, the Mate 20 Pro turns out a shot that's more similar to the G7's level of saturation.
The front-facing 8MP camera suffers from a lack of sharpness, a problem that was especially present in the original Razer Phone. That's largely fixed with the rear camera thanks to OIS, although the softness can be a nice thing against facial details.
The 4K video, however, is pretty good. It's not a resolution I'd record at often because of upload speeds - we know what Australian internet is like - but the footage was crisp and held up well in less optimal lighting conditions, more so than the still images.
I've focused a good amount on the visuals here because, if we're being honest, that's how people use their phones. Gamers take phones and watch media as much as anyone else, and having a nice bright, clean image, is genuinely more affecting on a day to day basis than having a 120Hz display. You want something you can see detail in clearly when it's bright: you want a screen where colours pop. That applies to the camera as well. Gamers aren't some special breed of consumer that is likely to ignore the camera software on their phone. If anything, you've got a higher chance that gamers will want more manual features - we're a tech savvy bunch.
It's not all doom and gloom, of course. As nice as an edge to edge screen is, those front facing speakers are handy to have when you're sitting in bed catching up on some anime, or blasting out a podcast while you toil in the kitchen. It's helpful for calls as well, although that's in the rare instances where you're dealing with rubbish reception.
Other aspects of the Razer Phone 2 are pretty good, as you'd expect given the internals. You'll get a full day's use out of the battery - I hit around 12-18% depending on how many periods of peak brightness I needed. You've got full customisation over the RGB logo on the back as well through the Chroma software. It's a Razer product, after all. IP67 water resistance and 8GB RAM out of the box are very nice to have as well.
The only problem is that these aren't category-leading features anymore.
The Snapdragon 845 is an older-gen processor. It can't support 5G. It still gets reasonably warm when playing games at full tilt (but not as much as other phones without the vapour chamber cooling have). The 8GB RAM is nice, but the camera is a genuine letdown. And with more OLED phones available - LG's V40, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the displays in Samsung and Apple phones, not to mention the OnePlus 6T if that ever makes it to Australia - the dullness of the screen is a serious worry.
And there's the storage space, too. 64GB out of the gate really isn't a lot, especially if you use all of the Razer Phone's best features (the higher-end games, which are a few GB a pop on mobiles, and lots of 4K video). There's a microSD slot for additional 1TB storage, however.
All in all, Razer's follow-up entry in the smartphone market remains a double-edged sword. And it's also a reminder of how times have changed when it comes to gamers. Gaming used to be a brand that was affordable, bang-for-your-buck, a sensible buy.
But these days, it's often closer to a compromise. And that's the prospect people face with the Razer Phone 2.
It's not the fastest phone on the market. There's the speed-binned ASUS ROG Phone and the 7nm devices from Apple and Huawei. The AMOLED screens on almost every other flagship are superior to Razer's IGZO offering; even the IPS LED was more pleasant when watching content.
The Razer Phone isn't the largest screen, and the chassis is quite chunky - which is great if you want a device that reminds you of phones past, but not so much if you have small pockets. The battery is solid, but it's not the largest on the market anymore. And while I preferred the audio quality through the USB-C to 3.5mm dongle and the 24-bit DAC, that was only compared to other phones without the headphone jack: the LG G7's 32-bit DAC with 3.5mm support is still the audiophile phone of choice, at least in the Australian market.
And the less said about the camera, the better.
It's not that gaming on the Razer Phone 2 isn't lovely - that 120Hz screen is truly a dream, especially on the few games that will exceed 60fps. But the reality is that most games don't go past that limit. And the quality of the experience on the Razer Phone is let down by the vibrance of the display.
Every piece of phrase is balanced by a point of concern. And ultimately, if you're spending $1249 outright or $90 a month on a device, you don't want to be making compromises. You want a phone that can do everything, a phone that's better in every single category across the board.
The one caveat is what happens in a few months. If retailers drop the Razer Phone 2 by a few hundred dollars, and you're happy buying a year-old flagship in 2019, rather than a 5G-capable device, the value might be markedly different.
But that's outright. If you're buying on a plan - and the Razer Phone 2 is only available on a plan through Optus - you could also get the Pixel 3 XL, Mate 20 Pro, Galaxy S9+, and iPhone XS for cheaper. Even the Galaxy Note9 is $5 less a month than the Razer Phone 2.
Could you really justify paying more for the Razer Phone 2 given the value elsewhere? I couldn't.