Motorola's razr is ultimately a mixed bag

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu February 13, 2020

After a 16-year hiatus, Motorola's razr flip phone is back. This new iteration of a classic has successfully retained some of the familiar look and feel of its heyday, even after its evolution to the smartphone era. It has returned as an Android smartphone with a vertical foldable design, but the price has notably changed as well: the razr 2020 is $1,499.99.

It's safe to say Motorola is hoping the power of nostalgia is strong.

I have mixed feelings after spending the past few days with the new razr. Yes, it's unorthodox and fun to have a flip phone in 2020. Smartphone design has stagnated over the past few years, so something kitschy and new is refreshing. There's also something to be said for the compact size of the new razr. When closed, it's about half the size of an iPhone 11 Pro Max, making it much easier to fit in a shirt or pants pocket.

Yet for the price, it's hard to recommend. The razr is powered by only a Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 processor, with no wireless charging, no expandable storage and only a so-so camera. At best, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Design: It's a foldable

Motorola was able to recreate the iconic flip phone design by using a foldable design. It's similar to the Galaxy Fold, but it doesn't quite expand to the Fold's large tablet-sized display. Rather, you get a more compact build that opens to a 6.2-inch smartphone.

When opened, the razr is quite thin at 6.9 millimeters (0.27 inches). That's the same as an unfolded Galaxy Fold. A metal hinge holds the halves together and enables the folding, but beware: If you listen closely, you'll notice opening and closing the phone produces a noise that can only be described as a creak (a disconcerting property at this price point). For comparison, the Galaxy Fold uses a different technology and opens silently.

After some investigation, and a conversation with Motorola, we learned that the sound is from structural elements inside the phone moving as you open and close it. You can even feel them as bumps under the display. Motorola has stated that these properties, including the sound, are normal. We had no trouble with the hinges during our intensive testing window, but these elements of the design bear further testing to determine how the hinge and foldable screen will hold up over a longer period of time. We'll report back once we find out.

The top of the display (when unfolded) features a small earpiece and a 5-megapixel camera. There are relatively slim bezels around the side, and a chin (a curved ledge) juts out at the bottom. The top half closes flush with the chin. It's a curious design choice, but one that makes more sense when you consider that this is where Motorola located the phone's hardware and physical fingerprint sensor, as well as a single sensor to handle unlocking for both the inner and outer display.

When folded, the razr measures 14 millimeters (0.55 inches) thick. The Galaxy Fold is a bit thicker at 17.1 millimeters (0.67 inches). When the razr is closed, you get a look at its 2.7-inch external "Quick View" display, which is reminiscent of the outer display on the original razr and the smaller screen on the outside of the Galaxy Fold. Since it's an OLED and a Motorola, it has always-on functionality in its folded state that can display the time and date on that front screen.

The outer display also gives you a peek-and-pop experience for an array of apps that line the bottom of the display. You will need to unlock the phone to access these, though, and that requires a fingerprint authentication or a slide to unlock with a PIN. For instance, with Outlook or messages, you can scroll through recent notifications and even handle quick replies. Previewing such notifications or apps on the front display will have them open on the inside once you unlock. Motorola calls this a "transition" and it works a lot like continuity on iOS. It's limited in scope; only certain apps and notifications support this feature, but we'll dive into this more below.

Beneath that 2.7-inch display is the rear camera, but I'm going to call it the main one, since it has a 16-megapixel lens with a dual-LED flash. It's in line with previous Motorola cameras, but suffice to say, it's not a home run. A smartphone at this price should come with a camera that captures high-quality photos and videos, but the razr captures were consistently grainy and noisy. (More on the camera below.)

On the bottom of the device is a USB Type-C port for data transfers and charging the batteries. I write "batteries" because Motorola split the normal single cell into two. One is below the top half of the display and the other below the bottom half. When combined, they make a 2,510-mAh non-removable battery. There's no wireless charging on the razr, which is surprising for a $1,500 smartphone. The saving grace is an included 15-watt TurboPower charging wall plug, which in our testing gave a full charge in about 90 minutes.

When you flip the razr over, you'll see the textured back and a classic etched Motorola batwing logo. It provides grip, but I found myself holding the phone and keeping one finger held against the logo divot.

The right side of the razr features the power and sleep button, along with a volume rocker. They can be hard to tell apart at first. Motorola also added a minimal grip texture to the power button — a nice touch.

A core part of any foldable, of course, is the hinge. The razr's is streamlined with the overall design. When it's open, the two halves of the display cover the main hinge, giving you a single, almost seamless screen. As noted above, you can feel internal elements as slight bumps under the display, which is a bit atypical, but not distracting. I did get the sense that I could be a bit rougher and push harder on the razr than I could with the Galaxy Fold. That being said, I haven't yet tested the two foldables against each other.

Overall, it's a cool-looking device. Family members, friends and random people who saw me testing the razr stopped me to ask about it. A flip phone foldable in 2020 is an attention grabber. If you're a sucker for nostalgia, Motorola has you in its sights with the razr.

The display: Special for a fold, par for the course generally

The razr has a 6.2-inch pOLED 2142x876 display in a 21:9 ratio. It's quite long, so if you're a fan of Twitter or Instagram, you can see more of the timelines. It's bright at full blast, but you'll likely find yourself keeping it on auto-adjusting mode to conserve battery life. On a contrast scale it performs well, but it's noticeably not as dark or vibrant as comparable smartphone displays.

Display quality was subpar outdoors. The razr picks up glare from the sun, washing out the display. Also, depending on how the light hits the display, you can see a crease, or at least a dip, at the hinge. The crease is also noticeable with a solid color on the display, like in messages or the Play Store.

In our testing, we streamed "Moana" and "Frozen" from Disney+. When the razr is turned to landscape position, the chin on one side can made it a little tough to orient at first, but it ultimately was a positive experience akin to wide-screen cinema. This can be attributed to the 21:9 ratio, which elongates the viewing area. By comparison, an iPhone with Face ID or a Galaxy S10 will fill the display and potentially zoom in on the content, thereby trimming the edges. The razr will present black bars on the top, bottom and sides, depending on the size of the content. Overall, streaming, social media, productivity apps (like mail and word processing), web browsing, messaging and calls were enjoyable on the razr.

The front display is quite small, much smaller than a normal smartphone, and even smaller than the tiny front display on the Galaxy Fold. But I found that the front display on razr did more than the Fold's. Yes, it's a small 2.7-inch gOLED at just 600x800 resolution with an old-school 4:3 aspect ratio, but it lets you peek into what's pinging your phone, along with a quick glance at time and day. For the size in the folded state, it's a handy way to get surface notifications.

Lackluster camera

Other flagship devices feature cameras that rival digital single-lens reflex cameras. Take the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, for example. Those devices give you three lenses: an ultrawide, a standard wide and a telephoto lens. Through the power of those lenses, along with software and AI enhancement, you get remarkable results. The same goes for the three lenses on the Galaxy Note 10+ and the lenses on the Galaxy S10+. Even the $749 iPhone 11 takes great shots in low light that aren't grainy and offer a wide vibrancy across the color spectrum.

Motorola opted for a 16-megapixel main lens with electronic image stabilization on the razr. It's a single lens for photography and videography paired with dual-LED flash. Additionally, within the camera application, you can find several modes, including one that smoothes skin. It's similar to what other Motorola phones have featured, but many of the disappointments resulted from the actual lens. It's just not the best that could have been used here or what we've come to expect from a $1,500 smartphone in 2020.

Most of the photos we took with the razr showed some graininess, which means lower image quality. Vibrancy and lighting also caused problems. Notably, there isn't a good night photography mode on the razr. Apple, Google and Samsung all have strong night modes that deliver a usable if not excellent image, which is something to expect from a flagship phone in 2020.

One cool feature is the ability to take selfies with the front screen. Using a Moto Action, you can use a use a hand twist physical gesture to automatically open the camera app and push in the power button to snap a selfie. It's fun, and while it feels gimmicky, it's a good way to grab a quick shot from the foldable state.

You can see test shots from the razr below.

Disappointing processor performance

One of the strangest decisions is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 , which isn't a flagship-level processor.

While benchmarking scores aren't everything, with GeekBench tests (an app for iOS and Android that benchmarks the device through a series of processes), the razr fell behind most other smartphones with a 390 single-core score and a 1,487 multi-core CPU score. That said, Motorola paired that processor with a bountiful 6GB of RAM, and in our testing of everyday tasks, I didn't experience notable lag with the razr. It performed adequately with mail, Outlook, messages, Toy Story Drop, video playback and other tasks.

With gaming, while average mobile games seemed fine, I did notice lag on Fortnite and Call of Duty Mobile. Performance always varies from person to person depending how you use a smartphone, but I pushed the razr hard with calls (both audio and video), plenty of social media, and heavy use of the camera while running multiple apps. Performance-wise, it fell more in line with a midrange device — fine, but something short of zippy.

On the software side, the transitioning of applications from the outer display to the main one happens quickly, with almost no extra work by the end user. Simply select your app on the outside screen, authenticate with your fingerprint or PIN on the front, then physically open the razr to view it.

It has 128GB of storage, which you'll need to use cautiously since there's no micro SD card slot. It's a sizable amount of internal space, but for $1,500 it would have been nice to see 256GB or 512GB of internal storage. There's also no SIM card slot, since this device uses an eSIM.

You won't find voice assistant Bixby or a lot of proprietary software on the razr, and preloaded items can be removed or just not used. Pulling up from the bottom to scroll the app drawer is nice on the razr — that long 21:9 ratio comes in handy. You also have the Moto app for shortcuts and quick actions. I like the latter, especially the camera twist gesture mentioned above.

All in all, it's a clean version of Android 9 Pie with a light user interface from Motorola. Most of the preloaded applications come courtesy of Verizon, and I won't lie, Disney+ was nice to have out of the box.

Mediocre battery life

A 2510-mAh battery is smaller than what we've seen on other devices, and a smaller battery limits the amount of time you can get out of any given smartphone. Yes, Motorola includes a TurboPower charger in the box, but there's no wireless charging. I got close to eight to 10 hours out of the razr for the most part, but on days where it started dropping, I needed to plug in to recharge. In comparison, the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, S10e and Note 10+ all lasted much closer to a 14-hour day. If you are a mobile heavy user, putting in lots of calls and/or doing work with your smartphone, those extra couple of hours make a difference.

I noticed the razr got hot during setup when I was installing apps and also while charging the device — not to the point where I burned my hand, but it was noticeably warm. It also heated up during longer gaming sessions. I'd imagine that a more powerful processor and a larger battery would have fixed that issue, but that also would have resulted in a thicker razr.

Retro mode

Motorola also gave nostalgia fans one last touch in the form of a thoroughly enjoyable Easter egg or gimmick. In the quick settings pull-down menu, you can tap retro razr to see the bottom half turn into a keypad and the top into a screen surrounded by bezels, recreating the look of the razr of old. Motorola even included the old boot-up tone of earlier days. It's cool and plays to the kitschy appeal of this return of the flip phone.

Bottom line

I wanted to love the 2020 Motorola razr. Its design is exceptional, but ultimately, it feels like a compromised experience at $1,500. Unless you're absolutely enamored with the retro flip phone design, you're probably better off looking at the foldable Galaxy Z Flip, which has better hardware, at $1,380, or opting for a true powerhouse flagship smartphone that doesn't fold, such as the Galaxy Note 10+, iPhone 11 Pro Max or the forthcoming Galaxy S20. Simply put, you'll get more for your money.

The camera and hardware powering the razr are not what we've come to expect in a flagship smartphone. For most users, they are adequate, but I would have liked a more well-rounded foldable from Motorola that doesn't involve so many compromises.

I'll leave you with this: Nostalgia is strong and powerful. From that perspective, the razr is a winner. Unfortunately, from any other perspective, you can probably do better.

If you're interested in the razr, it can be ordered directly from Motorola for $1,499.99 or from Verizon with a monthly plan. Keep in mind, it's backordered through March. It's unclear whether that's due to demand or quantity.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailers' listed prices at the time of publication.