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Technology

The Razr's Lost Edge


1109_razr2
Editor's Rating: star rating

We want to fall in love with the Razr again. But the Razr2 suffers from the same flaws that made us break up with its predecessor

The new and improved Razr is not the cell phone that's going to save Motorola's bottom (line).

Oh, the Razr2 is a beautiful bit of engineering and design. It's even more slender and elegant than the original Razr, which three years ago took the wireless market by surprise, setting off an industrywide scramble to catch up.

Motorola (MOT) rode the original model from rags to riches and back to its current set of rags, committing the double sin of letting a hot design grow stale and then allowing a product to descend from exclusive to commonplace by cutting the price. With carrier discounts, it's now possible to get a Razr for free. How can anything free possibly be chic? Steve Jobs never would have let it happen.

Room for Improvement

The Razr made its debut in 2004, when it seemed almost laughable that The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg would waste his column reviewing a $500 handset with very basic functions at a time when phone makers were jamming multimedia features into devices costing far less. Well, you know what happened next. The Razr became an icon, even if users secretly despised the way its beautifully etched metallic keys interacted with the clunky software and screen menus.

The Razr2 plays plenty of catch-up on the multimedia front. And it's a beauty. But in the final analysis, it's as ham-handed to operate as the original.

All four of the national U.S. carriers—AT&T (T), Verizon Wireless (VZ) (VOD), Sprint Nextel (S), and Deutsche Telekom's (DT) T-Mobile—now offer the phone, which has a list price of $500, but can be had for a still-pricey $250 to $300 with contract commitments and rebates, depending on your service provider.

Touch Frustration

At just under half an inch thick, the Razr2 is ever-so-slightly thinner than the original. But it also weighs nearly an ounce more. The Razr2 offers jumps in processor speed and screen brightness, each of which is 10 times greater. In addition to the big 2.2-inch screen on the inside of this flip phone, there's an unsually large, 2-inch display outside.

And that's where the flaws begin. The bottom of the outer screen is touch-sensitive—novel in concept, but a dud on utility. When you press a quick-launch button on the side, three touch icons appear along this bottom strip: a camera, a bar of music, and a Pac-Man face for voice commands. Operating the features from the outer screen, however, isn't nearly as convenient as you'd expect.

Case in point: The lens of the 2-megapixel camera is positioned on the same surface as this outer screen, facing you, rather than on the rear of the phone. So when you launch the camera from the outer screen, you're staring at yourself rather than the object you want to photograph. If you turn it around, you can't see the screen to frame the shot, and you can't see the button to shoot the picture. The camera will stay active if you flip open the handset—where you'll find a dedicated camera button that would have been easier to use in the first place.

Primitive Controls

The quick launch for voice command works well enough for a rapid phone call. The speech recognition picks up a name or number quite accurately. But the feature falls flat for other uses like sending a text message. Sure, it lets you speak the number or name you'd like to contact via text, but then it tells you to open the handset to type in your message.

But the biggest disappointment of the three outer controls is the music player, which offers only the most primitive option for listening to songs: "Play All." That's right. There will be no browsing your collection by artist or playlist. I'm no music fiend, but I doubt any of my friends who obsessively slice and dice playlists on iPods will avail themselves of this lowbrow feature.

Some Improvements

In terms of features, there are two truly nice additions: The Razr2 features next-generation wireless data technology for speedier mobile Web browsing and over-the-air music downloads. There's also a slot for external MicroSD memory cards with up to 2 gigabytes of storage, somewhat cramped by today's standards. The version of the Razr2 offered by Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless also has a receiver to pick up GPS satellite signals for driving directions.

As with its predecessor, the software on this phone is glitchy. When I tried to download Yahoo!'s (YHOO) new mobile e-mail application, I was promptly congratulated on my phone's compatibility. But the Verizon Wireless network had incorrectly identified the Razr2 as Motorola's Q smartphone. Not surprisingly, I received an error message when I hit download.

The Razr2 worked quite well as a phone, which is something you can't say for every handset. I'm not sure whether the difference can be attributed to Motorola's newly developed Crystal Talk technology, intended to reduce noise and adjust volume automatically, but call quality was clear on both ends.

In the end, where the original Razr overcame its shortcomings with eye-catching style, the striking Razr2 isn't enough of a head-turner to get by on looks alone, especially at these prices.

Meyerson is Deputy Technology Editor for BusinessWeek.com.

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