If there’s one phone that starts at the low end but provides the quality of higher-end devices, it’s the Droid Razr M from Motorola. It’s the best Android phone you can get if it’s your first smartphone because it does nearly everything that a smartphone should near to near-perfection.

Hardware

The Droid Razr M may start at $50 plus a two year contract (though you can find penny deals all through December), but it is no slouch when it comes to build design, quality, and components. It has a 4.3″ Super AMOLED display that provides brilliant color and light contrast, and actually is bright enough for use outdoors. The screen may feel low-resolution at 960×540, but it doesn’t show; the display feels big because the glass runs very close to the edge of the phone, one of the M’s standout features. Of course, at 4.3″ it could have a higher definition 720p display, but it isn’t necessary and the 960×540 resolution is exactly 3/4ths the size, so downscaled video looks better than other resolutions between the two sizes.

The iPhone 5 beside the Droid Razr M

The small overall size is the biggest reason for anyone to walk into a store and pick up the Razr M, but don’t let that fool you if you’re thinking of getting a bigger, “better” phone. The reality is that the Razr M has exactly the same components as higher priced devices and, in many cases, offers identical or better performance (thanks to the lower resolution display). The only area where it doesn’t directly compete with, say, the Samsung Galaxy S III aside from size is with storage capacity. The M ships with 8GB of available space, but it’s user upgradeable with MicroSD cards, so that really isn’t an issue.

As you’ll see below in our benchmark section, the Droid Razr M is a very powerful handset.

Considering the size, the Razr M feels great in the hand and in the pocket. It’s smaller and lighter than most of today’s absurdly large phones, which is a benefit for those who like that. If you’re switching from an iPhone or a dumbphone, or perhaps even an older but smaller Android device and like small phones, the Razr M is the best smartphone to upgrade to. It’s light and nimble, and the Droid-inspired kevlar back panel offers solid grip.

Furthermore the build is surprisingly small and slim. Side by side with the iPhone 5, the M is slightly shorter, and at it’s base about as thick as the 5, and only slightly wider. The power/standby buttons are very solid, though Motorola still insists on placing the MicroUSB charging port on the side instead of the bottom of the phone.

Software

Motorola’s Android overlay is one of the best, though it isn’t the fastest anymore. That title now belongs to Samsung. However, Motorola’s software is extremely helpful in many ways, and it actually accommodates users in many ways that app-based operating systems like Android and iOS typically don’t with quick-function settings, very useful built-in widgets, and most importantly, it’s very efficient.

Let’s start with the lock screen. It has four quick-function activation plus a mute switch, and of course the drop-down bar works. Sliding up, down, or left activates either the phone, text, or camera apps, or swiping right unlocks the phone. Or through the dropdown users can activate the settings menu.

The home screen includes a single widget that includes a clock (both analog and digital) that can show multiple time zones by swiping down and can set alarms. It also shows the date, a surprisingly useful feature. On the same widget another tile shows the local weather, and swiping down shows the weather in any area you select. The final tile shows battery life and text, email, and missed call notifications.

One feature I particularly like is the quick settings page. This page takes the place of an apps page and includes on/off switches for ringing, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, data, and airplane mode, while also enabling users to adjust more settings by tapping on any of those. So instead of opening the settings, clicking Wi-Fi, and then adjusting your Wi-Fi settings, this is a swipe faster, or even quicker if you just want to turn a certain function on/off.

Adding additional pages, or anything, is very easy. Motorola built in simple prompts that explain exactly what users need to do in five words or less every time. And if you forget, there are simple question marks that users can tap on that explain what it is and how to use it.

Overall the software is exceptional. I’d still like a Samsung/LG-style smartbar, but the quick settings page almost perfectly encapsulates that feature. The one problem I found with the software is the keyboard is pretty terrible, and it takes a lot of steps to activate the Swype keyboard built in, which works just fine. While the phone is small enough to type normally with one or two hands (it may be too small for some people typing two-handed), the keyboard lacks the accuracy of competing keyboards like on Sony devices or iOS. With Swype, however, that isn’t a problem.

Battery

Battery life on the Droid Razr M is exceptional. All things considered, the 2000mAh battery shouldn’t last all that long on Android 4.1. A full day, sure, but not much after that. But the M exceeds expectations significantly thanks to the extremely power-efficient software and display. In my battery test, the M lasted longer than any smartphone of it’s size by a huge margin. In fact, it did surprising well even against it’s big brother the Droid Razr HD MAXX, with a 3300mAh battery.

In everyday use I was not only pleasantly surprised by how long the phone lasted, I can absolutely recommend it for anyone who forgets to charge their phone or doesn’t want/need to charge it nightly.

Benchmarks

The Razr M is nothing to snuff at. It beats out every major device from a year ago and holds its own against today’s smartphones pretty well. The two lowest spots are in web-browsing, where it is on par with most phones today but doesn’t compete with the very top. Take a look at the benchmarks below.

The new Browsermark test scores differently than it did in the past, so I’ve only begun using it for the latest batch of test devices. However, I have a few devices that I tested before and after the change to Browsermark 2.0, and the numbers are fairly consistent. The lowest device on the chart now, the Droid Razr HD Maxx, is still on par with devices like the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III.

What is important to note is that the Droid Razr M is, as expected, a tier below what the latest iPhone 5 can muster. The iPad mini outperforms the M as well, thanks to better bandwidth on the larger but older chip.

In Sunspider the tiers are easier to spot, and the Droid Razr M is at the bottom of the third major tier. It’s on par with devices like the One X and iPad 2/mini, but it doesn’t reach the current iOS devices or the LG Optimus G. It isn’t slow, but compared to other devices it certainly is no speed demon when it comes to web browsing.

For general use, however, the Razr M is pretty spectacular, gaining higher scores than most of it’s competitors save for the Optimus G and Samsung Galaxy Note 2, both of which are far more powerful with newer quad-core processors and more advanced GPUs. It is still blatantly faster than the high-end smartphone of choice from last year, the Samsung Galaxy S II.

That, of course, show’s itself in the GL Bench test, which is the highest standard for graphics performance. The iPhone 5 tops that chart for now, but Android phones are catching up, as we noted with the LG Optimus G. The Razr M isn’t a gaming powerhouse; the older Adreno 225 GPU is fairly standard but no longer high-end. It can certainly play any game at the display’s resolution, and it will absolutely last through the next year as a game-worthy smartphone, but beyond that it’s hard to say.

Camera

Camera quality is decent. Photos taken during the day with a lot of light come out crisp and colorful. However, even with a lot of light, some colorful parts of pictures may come out fuzzy on the M’s camera. Excessive light and low-light situations are also only mediocre at best. Colors easily wash out in very bright settings, but there isn’t a solid middle-ground for brightness. For a device of this price, a good but not great camera is expected, but considering how good the rest of the phone is, this is one dark mark on an otherwise excellent device.

Conclusion

The Motorola Droid Razr M is the best low-cost phone you can buy today. It has not only excellent design and components, it’s also comfortable, light, and just as fast as high-end competitors, and in many cases even faster. It’s almost absurd that a device that retails for, at most, $50, can be better than smartphones four times the price.

At the same time, the Razr M may seem like it isn’t the best phone to get because of the price, which is uniquely inaccurate in this case. The M is an exceptional phone. The only problematic area is the camera, a sticking point for Motorola on the majority of handsets the company makes. In perfect conditions it works just fine, but otherwise…yet in every other way the M is a phone that’s both worth having and one that’ll save you a bunch of money to boot.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: The best inexpensive smartphone you can buy this year

Pros:

  • High-performance components that match some of today’s top phones
  • Excellent battery life
  • Great small, thin, light design that is good in the hand and pocket
  • Display is brilliant and sharp

Cons:

  • Default keyboard is awful; switching to Swype is challenging
  • Camera quality is mediocre










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.