"The new Motorola starts today." That was new CEO Dennis Woodside's proclamation during the unveiling of the new RAZRs, and I think that statement gives away a little more than intended. Smartphone development takes the good part of a year, so they're implicitly admitting that these phones were made by someone else. That "someone else" being the old Motorola.

Yes, Google's deal to buy Motorola was announced a little over a year ago, but, thanks to all the regulatory bodies around the world that had to approve the deal, Google has only been in charge of Motorola for about three months. In that time they've fired 20% of the workforce, 40% of the VPs and closed a third of Motorola's offices worldwide. The whole company is being renovated, and for an entire year it was basically in a holding pattern waiting for Google to take over. This is not an ideal environment for building great products.

This is not the world changing, revolutionary Googlerola phone that is hopefully coming. There just hasn't been any time for that. The RAZR M, HD, and HD MAXX are orphaned leftovers from the old Motorola. Google had almost nothing to do with this phone, and it shows. MotoBlur is still here, there is so much crapware that it almost outnumbers the useful application count, and, oh yeah, it only runs Ice Cream Sandwich. The old Motorola created the RAZR M, and now it's Google's job to sell it.

When judged on its own merits, it's not a bad little phone, though, and it's only $100 on contract. The build quality is fantastic, it's fast, and the skin, while ugly, doesn't totally suck. That makes it one of the best budget phones you can buy.

Specifications

  • 4.3 inch, 960 x 540 Pentile AMOLED Display
  • 1.5GHz Dual-Core Snapdragon S4 MSM8960
  • Adreno 225 GPU
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8GB ROM (Unified Storage, 4GB free) with microSDHC slot
  • 2000 mAh Battery (Non-Removable)
  • 8MP Rear Camera, 0.3MP Front Camera
  • Wi-Fi A/B/G/N
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • NFC
  • Dimensions: 122.5 x 60.9 x 8.3 mm
  • Weight: 126 g
  • Android 4.0.4 with MotoBlur

The Good

  • Rock solid build quality and awesome materials. The textured aluminum ring around the screen feels great, so does the rubbery Kevlar back. You can feel the quality construction the second this thing hits your hands. The textured rim, screw heads, and power button really show attention to detail. This budget phone is built better than some other companies' flagship phones.
  • The best reception money can buy. If you don't currently have a Motorola phone, you'll get more bars, faster speeds, and better sounding calls with this.
  • Crazy-fast performance. A fast processor combined with a really low res screen means everything runs extremely well. It has the best frame rate on Google Earth I've ever seen.
  • The rear speaker is so loud, sometimes it hurts my ears. It's clear, too.

The Bad

  • The screen. It's Pentile. It's grainy. It's really, really oversaturated.
  • The skin is ugly and pointlessly change things, usually for the worse. It doesn't break anything though.

Hardware

Design & Build Quality

The design of this is out there. It's definitely evocative of the hyper-aggressive, explosion-laden DROID commercials Verizon loves so much. I can just imagine this thing back flipping off a motorcycle and stabbing someone in the face, and then that person's face exploding.

The exposed screws and matte, black trim make this thing look like it was assembled by blacksmiths with big dirty hammers. It's got a "grungy" look to it that some people will love.

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At the top we have the ugliest design feature of the phone, the silver "Motorola" rectangle trapezoid. Moto is really taking branding to a whole new level here: the most eye catching part of the phone is their word mark.

To the left of the logo is the sensor cluster, which has a really interesting window cut out - apply enough light and you can actually see the green circuit board. The circle in the left corner is the notification LED, and my wild guess is that the pill-shaped cutout houses the light and proximity sensors. The right circle is the 0.3MP front facing camera.

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The body extends up past the glass to form a protective little rim around the screen. The rim is actually aluminum (I tested it, it's conductive!) and has a cool ridge pattern engraved in it, and the same goes for the Motorola box. You can't necessarily see it with the naked eye, but it gives the rim a nice, textured feel.

Motorola should win an award for "the stealthiest earpiece ever made" - the cut out for the speaker is actually in their logo. The "T", three quarters of the "O" and half of the "R" hide the speaker. That's crazy - Moto definitely gets points for creativity. There is a downside to this approach, however - the logo always looks unevenly colored. Don't believe me? Scroll up and look. It's one of those things you can never un-see. You're welcome.

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The back has the Razr's now-signature Kevlar weave. In the right lighting, the Kevlar has just the slightest tinge of yellow, which is a bit odd looking on an all-black phone. The back is covered in a great-feeling rubbery finish that really helps you grip the phone. The camera and speaker section is done up to look like the screen: a clear glossy surface on top of a black background. That's cute. The really cool thing about the back is that there is a protective rim here, too. The back is slightly sunk into the plastic rim, meaning that it never touches the table when you put it down.

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There's not much going on on the top and bottom, just a microphone hole and headphone port.

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OK, let's get our materials straight here. See the seam in the middle of the phone? Above that is the aluminum ring that goes around the screen. Below that seam is a hard, matte plastic body. Both parts just feel awesome; even the plastic is slightly grippy.

You can see the aggressively exposed screws and the Micro USB port, which is in a terrible position. I often use my phones while plugged in, and that is right where a few fingers would normally rest. The rectangle shape isn't the volume rocker; it's a port cover for the SIM and MicroSD slots.

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On the other side we see the actual volume rocker and a power button that was lovingly engraved with a concentric circle pattern. This also gives you a good look at the wedge-shaped profile.

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At times I think this phone is trying to be ugly. The seams and screws are really in your face. The little things make all the difference, though. The concentric circle pattern on the screws really show the attention to detail Motorola has put into this.

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Moto was also nice enough to throw in a multi-color notification LED. The system itself has no way of making use of all these colors; it's strictly a power-user perk. Grab yourself a copy of Lightflow and go crazy!

Screen & Bezel

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The dreaded, low-res Pentile is back. This screen is a grainy, checkerboard mess. It you've played with any other low-res Pentile Motorola phones like the original RAZR, you know what to expect. This time though, they've bumped AMOLED's already high saturation up even higher. So now it's a hyper-saturated, grainy, checkerboard mess. Progress!

I lived with a screen like this for a few months and, while yes, it looks horrible the first few weeks, eventually you get used to it.

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I don't think Motorola understand the whole "hyper-saturated = bad" concept, just look at these packed-in wallpapers. Not only is the screen saturation off the charts; they exaggerate the problem with backgrounds like this. Dear Motorola: accurate color reproduction is a thing that people want, especially when you will be evaluating pictures and picture lighting conditions on the screen. Converting every color to its most intense form is not a good thing.

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Motorola claims this has an "edge-to-edge" screen, and, apparently, this is the phone that Bloomberg claimed would have "no bezel." Both of these claims are pure, 100% marketing hype. Check out the to-scale picture above, and tell me if that looks significant to you. Motorola has shrunk the bezel by, maybe, 25% and now they're suddenly acting like the bezel is gone. That doesn't even count the miles of bezel above and below the screen.

In reality, the bezel is nothing special. It's a modern-looking, thin design, but it doesn't jump out at you as anything significant. The black part of the glass is smaller, but the body is way thicker, so not much was accomplished here, and they still did nothing about the top and bottom. How disappointing.

Performance

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The performance all around is great. Everything is fast and smooth, even though it's only running Ice Cream Sandwich. It's shockingly fast for a budget phone. It runs Google Earth faster than anything else I've tested. Probably a combination of the fast processor and crap resolution.

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The real head-turner in the performance department is the reception. As usual, Motorola does it right. Everywhere I take it, it gets an extra bar and a faster speed test than my Verizon Galaxy Nexus. Motorola just knows what they are doing. Next time I need to tether I'll be popping my SIM in this thing.

Camera

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The camera software got a thorough skinning. Everything has even more of a "Tron" aesthetic now. The most notable change is that "Panorama" is no longer a mode next to "Camera" and "Camcorder," but a shooting mode within the Camera. That makes more sense.

I have to point out that the image thumbnail in the top right hand corner doesn't work. It doesn't display your last picture - it displays an older picture sometimes, but not the last one. Clicking on it screws up the gallery too, here the highlighted thumbnail doesn't match the main image.

Now, on to the pictures:

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Eh, not spectacular. Colors are just a huge mess. In the picture of my dog, everything has a red tint for some reason. In the leaf picture, the leaves aren't anywhere near that green. It's even worse on the actual phone screen, once the super-saturated AMOLED gets ahold of it. The pink cactus and the Yoshi picture are pretty accurate, though, so I don't know what's going on with the camera. It's just inconsistent.

MotoBlur

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Yes, the marketing department (the old, fired marketing department?) would probably prefer if I didn't refer to the skin as MotoBlur, but I'm not going to listen. I'll make you a deal Motorola, I'll stop calling it "Blur" when you do. You guys need to update your file names, or, you know, just stop skinning Android.

Functionally, MotorBlur is fine. They haven't really horribly broken anything, and they haven't killed performance - the skin is actually very light. Aesthetically, however, MotoBlur is a disaster. They arbitrarily changed everything for no reason, and every change they made was bad. It's almost like they went on a concerted effort to wipe out any trace of beauty from Ice Cream Sandwich.

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Do I even need to label these icons? The ugly ones are MotoBlur, the ones that look like they were done by a professional designer are stock Android. Moto's "People" icon (top row, center) is a particularly amazing mess. My guess is that, originally, it was just a blue square with the silhouette of a person on it. Then someone said "Hey! I've got a great idea! Let's make the blue square a folder!" and pasted on the folder page edges. No one ever bothered to recenter the person. I mean, for god's sake, his shoulder is cut off! Does anyone double check this stuff?

The camera is now a weird, deformed square with brown leather on it. The email envelope is inexplicably transparent, and it's holding a stamp, and Phone and Messaging went for the bubbly Playskool look.

Home Screen

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The home screen is all kinds of different. This is the actual layout of it when you first turn on the phone. There's the main screen, and swiping the left will reveal a "Quick settings" toggle page. This page is laid-out well enough, and tapping the text for the setting will take you to the actual settings page, which is super handy for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This is clearly inferior to notification toggles, but I guess it's better than nothing.

The one problem I have with these toggles is that they work differently than all the other toggles in Android. Sure, you tap them and they turn on and off, but everywhere else, they are also slidable. Normally, the switches will follow your finger, and you can flick them from "on" to "off." These toggles, though, are on a home screen, so, when you try to slide a toggle, the whole screen moves. It's confusing, inconsistent, and unexpected.

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The circle widget on the home screen is really fun. Each of the circles is flippable, just a swipe up or down will flip them. The digital clock flips between an analog clock and any unread texts, missed calls, or voicemails; the weather flips between cities; and the battery flips over to reveal a settings button for this widget. They're all tappable too, the clock takes you to alarms, the weather circle goes to Moto's weather app, and the battery goes to the battery usage graph in settings.

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Swiping to the right end of your home screens brings up the "Add a page" screen, which is pretty weird. There is also a button to manage pages, which will let you delete whole pages and rearrange stuff.

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The App Drawer now has some extra tabs. There's favorites, on the left side, which you can add stuff to by hitting "Add/Remove" and picking apps from a list. "Favorites," "Apps," and "Widgets" is one big continuous list, but the Play Store icon now also looks like a tab. Motorola fails a basic tenant of UI design: Things that look the same should work the same. The Play Store looks like a tab, but isn't, you expect to scroll over to it at the end of the widget list.

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Dragging an icon out of the app drawer bring up a "More options" bucket at the top of the screen. Dragging to it reveals the usual Uninstall and App Info buttons, and Share will let you send a Play Store link to someone.

Lock Screen

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The lock screen has a handy vibrate/sound switch in the top right, and they added Phone and Text to the lock screen ring. I hope you like these shortcuts, because you can't change them. The one part that makes me sad is that the center icon doesn't follow your finger around anymore - it just lifelessly stays in the middle. Everything else works and looks like you'd expect, and, thankfully, "None" is still an option.

Skinned Apps

Motorola just had to mess with the built-in apps, so here's a look at them.

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For some reason they felt Calendar need a dark header instead of a grey one. This actually looks good, but I really don't understand the rationale behind making changes like this.

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Email (not Gmail) is a hideous all-black monstrosity that looks like it was designed by a 13-year-old XDA themer. Yes, theoretically, the black on black on black means the AMOLED screen is using less power. It's not worth it.

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For some reason, the text messaging app was also darkened, but in a totally different way. The email is flat black, but this has a gradient. Messages in email are black with bold or non-bold text, for read and unread, but here they are a very dark blue and a less dark blue. Both are ugly, but I wish they would have been ugly in the same way.

In the second picture, you can see the untouched ICS keyboard and the crazy, neon text cursor.

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The same goes for people and the dialer: all black everything. Why does the dialer have a permanent over scroll glow at the bottom of it?

Crapware

Crapware wall

Here's the full app drawer. Just look at all that! The crapware almost outnumbers the regular-ware. You've got all the Amazon apps, all the Verizon apps, all the Motorola apps, and some other junk thrown in for good measure.

You can't uninstall any of these, but many of them are disableable. However, the Verizon App store, Emergency Alerts, Mobile Hotspot, and Setup Wizard are permanent. Disabling them is disabled.

The one non-standard app here that probably escapes the "crapware" designation is "Smart Actions." Imagine Tasker, but more user-friendly, and you've got a pretty good idea of what it is. It will pop up once in a while and suggest new smart action rules for you to enable. For instance, if it's night time and you turn down the volume - Smart Actions will offer to do that for you automatically. It's handy.

Battery Life

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Awesome battery life. The first picture is light usage. It shows a crazy standby mode it occasionally drops into; it uses almost no power when it decides to do this. Whether it does this or not seems to be totally random.

The second is ridiculously heavy usage, with something like 7 hours of screen-on time. It still managed to last 10+ hours. The battery is not removable, so you had better be happy with this much battery life.

Conclusion

It's not the revolutionary Google-Motorola mashup we've all been waiting for, but, when judged on its own merits, this phone is awesome. The build quality is better than many flagship devices. It's fast, and the reception and speaker are amazing. The hardware is an entirely new class of budget phone, and, while it won't get the press, I feel that this is just as game-changing as the Nexus 7 was. All other budget phones should be compared to this. This is how you do "cheap."

The software is pointlessly different and ugly, but it isn't broken. Everything works, it's fast, and, for the most part, it makes sense. This is all mostly a side effect of how little they've actually changed. This is the lightest skin out there, and probably the second best thing to stock Android.

The screen sucks, but you get used to it. It's a budget phone anyway. That's one of the first things you give up.

How is this only $100? Sure, it's small, but it's feels more premium than phones that cost twice that much. Motorola has its component cost percentages right: Spend some money on the materials. Other manufactures should take note.

If you need a budget phone, or a small phone, buy this.