Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX review: Verizon’s smartest smartphone is still a tough sell

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After years of trying to build a smartphone worthy of reinventing the world famous RAZR brand, Motorola finally launched a handset it deemed to be deserving of the moniker last November. The DROID RAZR was released on November 11th and was a marvel compared to the flip phone it modernized. At $500 on contract, the original RAZR touted a 176 x 220-pixel display, 5.5MB of internal storage, a VGA camera and support for data speeds up to 48Kbps. This new version of the iconic handset packed a 4.3-inch AMOLED display, a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, an 8-megapixel camera, 16GB of internal storage and blazing fast 4G LTE connectivity into a slender case only 7.1 millimeters thick. While the new RAZR was well received by consumers, a few complaints surfaced following the smartphone’s launch and poor battery life was among them. For users willing to trade the RAZR’s slim profile in exchange for a bigger battery, however, Motorola and Verizon Wireless launched the DROID RAZR MAXX earlier this month. There is no question that the MAXX version of Motorola’s sleek handset took care of battery life, but is the giant 3,300 mAh power pack enough to make Motorola’s DROID RAZR MAXX one of the best Android phones on the market?

The Inside

We reviewed the Motorola DROID RAZR three months ago and while this new version of the phone does include some hardware changes, the software is the same. Exactly the same. That realization has led a number of early adopters to experience buyer’s remorse following their RAZR purchases last year, but I’m not sure that remorse is entirely warranted. The nature of the smartphone business as it exists today involves seeing newer versions of similar smartphones launch every other month anyway. The DROID RAZR is still a fine device that should stand the test of time nicely.

A dual-core 1.2GHz processor powers the customized Motorola user interface that sits atop Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread on the DROID RAZR MAXX. Though quad-core smartphones are just around the corner now that the annual Mobile World Congress is only a week away, the dual-core chipset in this handset provides more than enough juice to multitask and navigate the UI with a minimal amount of bogging. The device is remarkably smooth compared to rival handsets, though I did experience some seemingly unavoidable stuttering when scrolling in a few apps.

Motorola’s new RAZR features 1GB of dual-channel RAM and 16GB of internal storage expandable to a total of 48GB thanks to microSDHC support. Local storage shouldn’t be much of an issue, however, because embedded 4G LTE connectivity means this smartphone can stream music, movies and TV shows as smoothly as a home Internet connection. Then again, unless you’re lucky enough to be on a grandfathered unlimited data plan, 4G makes it remarkably easy to hit Verizon Wireless’s data ceilings. So, it looks like all that storage might come in handy after all.

Of course one of the most notable items within the DROID RAZR MAXX is the humongous 3,300 mAh battery. For comparison, the original DROID RAZR includes a 1,780 mAh battery, the DROID 3 sports a 1,500 mAh battery and the iPhone 4S packs a 1,432 mAh battery. The power pack in the MAXX is bigger than the batteries found in any two of the aforementioned smartphones combined.

The Outside

The Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX’s name is a mouthful and the device itself is a handful. Despite having a now-average sized 4.3-inch display, this smartphone is nearly as tall and wide as the HTC Titan, a monster device with a 4.7-inch screen. The RAZR MAXX stands 5.16 inches tall compared to the 5.18-inch Titan, and its width comes in at 2.72 inches while the Titan is 2.78 inches wide. Because the MAXX is just 9 millimeters thin and weighs just 145 grams, however, it feels much more manageable than the Titan.

The display on the DROID RAZR MAXX is not great. Motorola bills it as a “Super AMOLED Advanced” panel and it features 540 x 960-pixel qHD resolution, but I find that colors look washed out on the screen. It doesn’t even come close to approaching the quality of Samsung’s Super AMOLED or Super AMOLED Plus displays in terms of color reproduction and brightness, and the clarity of Apple’s Retina Display puts the RAZR’s panel to shame. I even prefer the Super LCD panels in recent HTC devices to the MAXX’s screen.

Above the display on the face of this phone lies a Motorola logo and a small slot for the ear speaker, and beneath that sits a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera capable of facilitating 720p HD video chats. The four capacitive Android navigation buttons lie beneath a Verizon logo under the display, and a small hole for the handset’s primary microphone sits off-center below the buttons. Voice calls made with the RAZR MAXX were quite clear on the other party’s end, and I found the ear speaker to be about average. Audio quality gets a bit shaky at higher volumes using either the ear speaker or the speakerphone speaker.

A dedicated HDMI port and a microUSB port are centered on the top edge of the phone, and a standard 3.5-millimeter audio jack sits off to the right. The left edge of the phone is home to a microSD slot and a microSIM slot, both hidden beneath and hinged door, and the right edge contains the power/lock button as well as a volume rocker. The back of the RAZR MAXX is home to a soft-touch Kevlar panel that takes up most of the rear surface, and an 8-megapixel camera sits near the top along with an LED flash and a speaker.

The camera on this slim smartphone does not take great pictures. They are fairly clear compared to other recent Motorola phones, but I found the colors to be very washed out even when photos were taken in well-lit areas. In dim lighting, performance was not great compared to class-leading camera phones like Nokia smartphones and the iPhone 4S, but perhaps on par with some recent Samsung and HTC devices.

The Upside

The most obvious benefit of the DROID RAZR MAXX compared to similar smartphones is the battery. It is nothing short of an engineering feat that Motorola managed to pack a 3,300 mAh battery into this fantastically slim smartphone. To stress just how remarkable this accomplishment is, consider this: the battery in the RAZR MAXX is 32% larger than the battery in Samsung’s humongous Galaxy Note smartphone, which is significantly larger than the RAZR at 5.78 x 3.27 x 0.38-inches.

I have roughly 20 cell phones in my possession right now, and I have likely tested more than 100 over the past 18-24 months alone. I can’t remember the last time I used a phone with battery life that came anywhere close to approaching this handset.

Battery performance on the RAZR MAXX is much more like that of a feature phone than a smartphone. With moderate usage that included sending and receiving emails, constantly monitoring Google Reader, checking the news with News360, streaming music using Google Music or Pandora, browsing the Web, making a few phone calls each day, streaming some video using the Netflix and Sling Player apps, and checking in with Twitter far too many times to be considered healthy, the RAZR MAXX lasted nearly 2.5 days on a single charge. That’s about 60 hours. For the sake of comparison, I can’t get through 24 hours on a single charge with an iPhone 4S or with Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus with the same type of usage.

I should mention, however, that the DROID RAZR MAXX doesn’t handle Wi-Fi connectivity well at all where power management is concerned. Some phones do better than others with Wi-Fi — the iPhone, for example, lasts nearly twice as long for me on a single charge when constantly connected to a Wi-Fi network compared to when Wi-Fi is not in range. With the RAZR MAXX, it’s just the opposite.

I found that the battery drains much faster when the device is connected to Wi-Fi. Using the handset’s battery monitoring feature, I could see that Wi-Fi was always the No.1 drain on the RAZR’s battery when I left it enabled. When I disabled Wi-Fi and relied on Verizon’s 4G LTE network for connectivity, the display became the No.1 drain on the phone’s battery, as it should be.

Verizon’s 4G LTE service, I should mention, is still blistering fast. A series of speed tests using the Speedtest.net application in and around New York City topped out at just over 20Mbps down — no, that’s not a typo — and 13Mbps up, and I averaged about 15Mbps down and 11Mbps up. If you live in an area covered by Verizon’s LTE network, prepare to take full advantage of it with the RAZR MAXX.

Beyond battery life and speed, there is one feature of the RAZR MAXX in particular that makes it one of the smartest smartphones I’ve ever tested: Smart Actions.

It is borderline criminal that most smartphones on the market don’t include native functionality similar to that of Motorola’s Smart Actions. Many platforms over time — Windows Mobile, Symbian, UIQ, Android and more — have had third-party solutions that perform similar functions, but nothing I have seen even comes close to approaching Smart Actions in terms of utility and user friendliness.

In a nutshell, Smart Actions allows you to configure your MAXX to perform any number of functions automatically based on variables such as time, location and so much more. So for example, at night every day between Sunday and Thursday, my review unit from Verizon Wireless is set to disable all services that synchronize data in the background, turn my ringer to silent, disable GPS and auto-reply to every SMS I receive with “I’ll get back to you in the morning.” But it’s not just the time of day that triggers this state, I have also configured the phone to only change the aforementioned settings between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. when the display is off and when the phone is not in motion. So, if I happen to be out late one night or up early one morning, the handset’s accelerometer will detect motion and Smart Actions will not enable my “Nighttime Battery Saver” configuration.

There are tons of other scenarios where the Smart Actions app comes in handy. I have it set to automatically dim my MAXX’s display and silence all ringtones and alerts whenever the phone detects my GPS position at my local movie theater. The phone also mutes my ringers during meetings listed in my calendar, and it disables a number of battery-draining services whenever my remaining charge reaches 10%. Smart Actions includes a number of templates as well, so users new to the feature can start with some suggested configurations while they get the hang of this great capability.

Thanks to Smart Actions, the DROID RAZR MAXX is absolutely one of the smartest smartphones on the market.

The Downside

I won’t mince words here: I don’t like Motorola’s Android UI at all.

One of several benefits the Android platform has over rivals such as iOS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Phone is choice. Whereas users of each of the aforementioned operating systems will see nearly identical user experiences regardless of which handset they choose, Android fans enjoy a number of options. There are pure Google phones like the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, several HTC devices utilize the firm’s Sense UI, Samsung phones often use TouchWiz and many LG handsets feature the Optimus UI.

Motorola’s Android user interface is called MOTOBLUR, and we have seen a number of different versions of the UI over time. Personally, I haven’t cared for any of them.

The latest iteration of Motorola’s Blur UI is likely the least offensive so far, but it is also bland and extremely boring. I far prefer HTC’s Sense UI and Samsung’s TouchWiz to Motorola’s interface, which I would likely put on par with LG’s older UI. Transitions are dull and icons are anything but eye-catching, and then there is the issue of Motorola’s widgets. Plainly put, they’re ugly. Users who rely on widgets for quick access to real-time information will likely want to find a nice third-party widget pack for the MAXX.

Beyond the graphical elements in Motorola’s interface, which are of course a matter of taste, there are also UX missteps that get in the way of an otherwise decent user experience. One of many examples is the simple act of adding an application shortcut to a home screen. On most Android devices, the user finds the desired app, long-taps the app’s icon and then the icon sticks to the user’s finger as the last visited home screen pops up for placement. On the RAZR MAXX, that same long-tap on an app icon pops up a new menu where the user must choose “Add to Home” from a list of options. The app is then added to the last visited home screen in the first available slot, and the user must long-tap the icon again to move it to the desired location.

These little inconveniences are somewhat trivial on their own, but they add up to an experience that leaves much to be desired.

The Bottom Line

The DROID RAZR MAXX features solid, attractive hardware and Motorola’s Smart Actions feature makes it one of the smartest smartphones I’ve ever used. Even still, I can’t in good conscience recommend this device when Verizon Wireless offers the Samsung Galaxy Nexus at the same $299.99 price point.

The display is one of the most important hardware features of a smartphone, and now that we’re in the midst of a bigger is better trend with no end in sight, display quality is more important than it ever has been before. In this regard, the MAXX just can’t compete. Samsung’s Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy Nexus is breathtaking and competitors like Apple and HTC are inching ever closer to matching the Samsung’s stunning display quality. Motorola is not, however, and the matter is compounded by a bland user interface and a flawed user experience.

The Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX runs Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread but an update to Ice Cream Sandwich has been promised. Depending on what Motorola does with Google’s much improved Android 4.0 UI, the RAZR MAXX could be a completely different story when Motorola releases its ICS update. A sleek, slim smartphone running Android 4.0 with a 3,300 mAh battery could be a real winner, and the inevitable drop to $199.99 could make this phone too good to be true. Sadly, it may indeed be too good to be true unless Motorola decides to take its UI in a completely different direction.

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