Review: The Linux-based Motorola RAZR2 V8

PureMobile sent us in the brand new Motorola handset, second generation RAZR: the Linux-based V8. One of the most sleek and most-wanted phones in the market, and we take it for a serious spin.

The RAZR2 V8 is a quad-band GSM and EDGE phone, it features two 240×320 TFT screens (one internal 2.2″ and one external touchscreen 2.0″), 512 MBs internal storage out of which 420 MBs are accessible, Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP support, a microUSB charging/data/audio port, and a 2 MP camera without flash. The V8 came with a headset, a British-style charger (PureMobile added to the package both a converter and a mini-USB Motorola-branded charger), a microUSB 2.0 data cable, CDs and manuals, and a 770 mAh Li-Ion battery.

The V8 is one of the most beautiful phones ever released. It is RAZR on steroids in terms of industrial design. It is extremely thin (11.9 mm), weighs 117 gr and feels “right” on the user’s palm with its stainless steel frame. It features volume up and volume down buttons on the left (also couple as user-profile selectors), a lock/unlock/confirm button below that, and a voice recognition/camera-shutter button on the right. Each time you click these buttons there is a vibration effect that provides tactile feedback. The external QVGA screen is a touchscreen one, but it only works as such when you are using the music player or when reading SMS. All other functions/screens shown in the external display don’t have any touchscreen support. Speaking about the screens, the internal one is very bright, and while the external one is of the same quality as the internal one, it is not so bright because it does not have its own TFT light but it piggybacks on the internal’s one. This is a good trick to save battery life, while by using the same resolution for both screens the graphics and menus don’t have to be redesigned, so it saved Motorola engineering time.

As for the internal keypad, it feels better and more rigid than previous RAZR phones. While this is a very thin phone, it has a very strong infrastructure. I can definitely “trust” the hardware to not fall apart in pieces or break. The only problematic thing I found about the hardware is that it’s getting really hot when playing music or talking for more than 10 minutes on the phone. Reception was amazing, one of the best phones we ever tested. Voice quality was good too, although the placement of the microphone was an unfortunate one: instead of placing the mic in the middle of the keypad, it’s placed on the right side of the keypad, so if you are using the phone with your left hand, there is a good chance that your fingers will cover the mic. Battery life was not too bad either, although it seems to be reducing fast if you also play music or use the EDGE network. Overall, we managed 4 hours of talk, while standby was not bad either.

The phone uses a microUSB connector, which unfortunately is not as standard as the miniUSB. If you need a new headset, or a new charger or a new data cable, well, good luck with that. It will take some time before the market is caught up to yet another kind of jack. I am unhappy about the microUSB connector mostly because the needed thickness to implement a miniUSB port in the phone does exist on the top & bottom parts.

Our version of the V8, which comes from Hong Kong, comes with a 512 MB internal flash storage, out of which 420 MB are available for usage. The American version that will be sold by T-Mobile, will have 2 GBs in it. The other three major US carriers will not be using the V8, but the V9, which is *not* Linux-based but instead it’s using Motorola’s old operating system (and it’s actually a somewhat bigger/heavier phone). Very unfortunately, there is no microSD slot on the V8 (there is on the V9), so all you get is 420 MBs of storage, and no FM radio (in case you run out of music space).

On the highlights, we found the Bluetooth 2.0 performance. It maxed out in file transfer at 95 KB/sec, it worked great with two A2DP music headphones we had around, plus a mono voice headset. Speaking about audio, the included headset is one of the best we’ve seen included with cellphones. I have smaller ears than most people so I have difficulty using earphones, but V8’s fitted fine — for the most part. Audio quality was top notch, while voice was good too: the headset has a answer/hangup big button too just like in the iPhone.

The 2MP camera is one of the better ones we’ve seen on phones, albeit without flash (sample pictures here). It has a night mode, but even without it, it performs well on low-light. A funny thing was that on the first ever boot of the phone, it would refuse to snap a picture for us, but after a reboot it never exhibited the same problem again. A cool feature is that if you open the camera application and then close the phone, you will see yourself via the camera in the external screen, like a mirror (although you unfortunately can’t snap a picture or video in this mode). The phone won’t zoom-in when on 2MP mode, but it will zoom-in up to 4x when on video or VGA/QVGA picture mode. The only bummer is, the phone is not capable of recording video in QVGA format, but instead only in QCIF one (176×144). More over, it will refuse to playback 30fps QVGA mp4 files, as it already drops frames with 15fps ones. Video performance was always very poor on Motorola’s Linux phones, either when they used to come with RealPlayer, or their current video player. The music portion of the phone offered us a better experience with MP3 and WMA, and especially with its external screen support.

Now, regarding the actual software: the phone is running on the MotoMAGX platform instead of their previous one called EZX. While EZX used exclusively a 2.4.2x kernel, the V8 uses a 2.6.10 one. When the native SDK will be released next year, there is a good chance that this phone will be supported. Problem is, you will have to wait a whole year before — and if– you get any native applications to install in it. Until then you can only install Java applications and so this phone must be called a “feature phone” rather than a true “smartphone” as of yet.

On the V8 you will find a pretty flexible file manager with a lot of options and information, a calendar, alarm, tasks, SyncML support, email, SMS, MMS, photo dialing, a good multimedia navigator, there is theme support, some pre-installed games, J2ME 2.0 support (Opera Mini 3.x, Gmail and Google Maps worked great but Opera Mini 4 beta had problems). The V8 allows you to run more than one Java application at the same time, but there is no application switcher utility. The phone’s browser is an Opera v8.50 port which worked adequately well, it had a full screen mode and it managed javascript and CSS too. There are various audio profiles to choose from too, but if you want to turn ON flight mode you need to restart the phone and choose that in the “login” screen, it won’t do it via the profiles.

While under the hood the MotoMAGX platform has changed significantly over the EZX, the actual user experience hasn’t, compared to the previous non-touchscreen Linux devices from Motorola (e.g. the Z6 or the ROKR E2). I still have the exact same problems as I had last year, and the year before that: the inaccurate battery reading, the artificial inability to boot without a SIM, the 12 clicks you need in order to turn ON/OFF Bluetooth, the low video playback performance, its inability to both vibrate and ring at the same time (this feature is actually implemented in the software, but was again artificially removed as Motorola for some reason usually does for most of its phones) and more. The only application that seems to be somewhat rewritten is the camera app.

One funny bug we noticed is that when you boot the phone, the “Options” menu in the front-screen is normal and your modified user settings have *not* loaded correctly by the phone, but if you then close the phone and the external display’s configuration data is loaded, and then you re-open the phone, your user settings are now active and the “Options” menu has now reloaded with new data (we know that because there is a typo in the second set). Finally, it is not yet a good phone to hack on with Linux, and it probably will never be as the rumor at LinuxWorld Expo had it that the API prohibits full access to the system (the native Linux apps will be somewhat restricted, just like Java apps are).

The way I see the user interface of MotoMAGX is that is lacking compared to the usability of Symbian S60. There is no copy/paste, the UI feels disconnected and not well-thought. To be honest, I think that older Motorola users who used the old Moto OS, will absolutely love the new Linux UI. Why? Because it is a definitive upgrade for them! It’s so much better than the old OS. But users who are already on Symbian S60 or on a touchscreen-based smartphone, they won’t be easily lured away no matter the good hardware looks of the V8.

Overall, this is a great upgrade for existing Motorola users, or for users who want a sleek-looking phone. Its industrial design makes justice to carry the name “RAZR”, and the software is a step-up from the previous RAZR offerings. However, while this is one big step for Motorola as they announced that 60% of their phones will be Linux-based in the future, they still need to make more steps (and quickly) to properly compete with Nokia and the other smartphone players in that market. Get it at PureMobile for $491.

Rating: 7/10


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