Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

A few weeks back, we posted some pictures and thoughts on Motorola’s upcoming RAZR V3x phone, which we think is going to be a really big deal when it releases late this year. Then we had the opportunity to play a bit more with the black current-generation RAZR V3, which has basically confirmed our earlier feelings: if Apple wants to win over phone customers, iTunes support for the RAZRs would be the way to do it.

Why? The reason’s obvious. Current-generation RAZRs are solid cellular phones, first and foremost. This simple fact is something that so many companies ignore when designing high-profile phones – all the time is spent on industrial design and “features,” but then you actually call someone and can’t have a conversation. Users in Europe don’t need to worry about this because of their cellular networks, but in the United States, the problem remains acute.

 

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

We’d call the RAZR V3 about an 8 of 10 on our reception scale, which isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. Our testing in an area on the fine edge of reception showed performance comparable to one of our reception champs, Danger’s Sidekick II, and superior reception and “tough call” behavior to Motorola’s very recent V635. The V635 we tested abruptly dropped calls, and callers on the other end said that we didn’t sound too good. But on the V3, they said we sounded great, and even when we were in bad reception areas, they typically could hear us even when we couldn’t hear them.

 

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

And then there’s the styling, and those other features. We’ll mention some of them in Read More, below.
The big draw about the RAZR line is implicit in its name: it’s amazingly thin, either closed or open. Seeing the silver and black units in photos doesn’t do them justice – holding either of them open in person and looking at the side profile is a guaranteed “marvels of technology” moment for virtually anyone, regardless of the V3’s modest added width. Seeing the metallic, blue-backlit keypad leads you to wonder how a light panel could even fit inside.

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

RAZR’s screen is abnormally large for a standard cell phone – at 2.2”, it’s larger, in fact, than the screen of a color iPod, with the same resolution – only arranged vertically rather than horizontally. Seeing how large it is when you open the phone is another one of the big surprises of the design; thicker phones routinely have much smaller and less impressive screens. This one’s well backlit, and quite beautiful.

 

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

There’s a camera built-in – only 640×480, the weak point of the V3 from a “should I buy this one or wait for the next one” perspective. Motorola’s V635 includes a superior 1.2 Megapixel camera (four times the resolution of this one), and the V3x will trump both with a 2 Megapixel camera.

 

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

But the V3’s camera does a couple of good things. It takes acceptable pictures, and it can resize and display your “desktop” image on its second color external screen. At 96×80 pixels, the screen isn’t going to be your next home television, but for a cell phone, it’s a lot nicer than the black and white caller ID-class screens of years ago. It also gives you status updates.

 

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

As is the norm with Motorola’s recent phones, the V3 supports Java applets and games, and does a more than respectable job playing back 2D titles. Games such as Gameloft/Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia titles are much better than one would expect from a cell phone, and there’s also apparently support for 3D gaming of some sort as well – I haven’t had a chance to try that out, yet.

 

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

Interface? I’d give it a 6 out of 10, which is on an absolute scale – not relative to other cell phones, which range from good (Sidekick II) to decent (Sony Ericsson) to awful (Nokia N-Gage) on interface. Aesthetics aside, the biggest problem I imagine to be likely with any iTunes phone is that Apple probably won’t have had anything to do with its software, save for the iTunes Client. If I had my way, Apple would have a team of engineers working on a complete overhaul of the phone interface, because it would be great to have a phone that’s been thoroughly rethought on usability from the ground up. Probably won’t happen, though.

On the back, you see vents for the unit’s integrated speakerphone, which is great by almost any standard both from my own experiences and reports from people on the other side of the phone. But I personally prefer to take advantage of a phone’s Bluetooth pairing capabilities if it has them. The V3 does. A shot near the top of this piece shows the unit paired with a Motorola HS820 headset, which remains one of the company’s best ones, according to most accounts I’ve read. I’ve really liked my HS820, and found it superior to earlier Bluetooth headsets I’d purchased, but haven’t given it much of a workout against newer models. An oddity of the V3’s design is that there’s no port for a wired headset; it’s either wireless or none.

Backstage: A Few Words on the Black RAZR

That means Bluetooth support will be one of the interesting things to look out for on next-generation RAZRs. They’ll definitely support at least Bluetooth 1.2, but will they go further and supporting BT2.0+EDR, the newer, better standard for Bluetooth that Apple’s building into its notebook computers these days? Hard to say. V3x is on record as supporting a Bluetooth stereo headset, but it looks like Motorola’s new-ish HT820 (not to be confused) unit isn’t a 2.0 device. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but we’re hoping for smaller Bluetooth headsets, and 2.0’s a way to make that happen.

What about music support? Early shots of the iTunes Client for Motorola phones suggest that it could run (from a software/processor standpoint) on many of the photos Motorola’s released over the past year or so. But most of these phones don’t have the storage capacity to hold many, if any songs, so they’d be good for low-fidelity ringtones only. V3 lacks a TransFlash/MicroSD slot, but V3x has one – a nice way to hold an iPod shuffle worth of songs.

After playing with the black RAZR V3, we really hope that Motorola puts its best style guns behind Apple – or vice-versa – on future iTunes-related products. We’ve said it before, but these two companies both have personnel who are capable of turning out absolutely stunning industrial designs, and when those people are hot – as they clearly were with the V3 – they’re world-beating. But the Motorola ROKR music phones we’ve seen so far have left us completely nonplussed, and we’re continuing to hope that the first iTunes phone isn’t cut from the same cloth.

Regardless, if the V3x has iTunes support, we know which phone we’re buying. And if it doesn’t, we do, too. It’s Motorola’s Q, which would be a spectacular, complete replacement for our currently trusted Danger Sidekicks, albeit a win for Microsoft, which provides the Q’s software. In either case, Motorola wins our cell phone dollars. But the big question is: will Apple?

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