The Razer Phone is not a good smartphone. Well, not a good $700 smartphone, at least. On paper, it competes with other Android flagships: it has a fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 8GB of RAM, a dual camera system, a high-resolution display, super loud stereo speakers, and so on. But in practice, it’s a big, clumsy phone with a terrible camera and only average battery life, despite its enormous battery capacity. On top of that, it lacks both water resistance and a headphone jack; the former a table stakes feature for phones at this price point, the latter a puzzling omission given the sheer size of the Razer Phone.
So why should you care? For one reason: the Razer Phone is the first smartphone with a super high refresh display. It has basically the same display technology found in Apple’s iPad Pro 10.5 that enables incredibly smooth interactions and scrolling. It is a glimpse at a future when all smartphones have this kind of screen refresh technology.
High screen refresh rates are most commonly desired by gamers on desktop PCs, as they afford smoother gameplay and shorter reaction times for fast-action games. On a mobile device, a high refresh rate makes your interactions silky, so scrolling through your inbox or Twitter feed doesn’t look stuttery or jumpy. The result is an interface that tracks your finger’s touch closer than ever and never stutters or skips. It’s hard to convey how much different it feels compared to a standard smartphone’s interface without just demonstrating it in person, but it feels much closer to direct manipulation of elements on the screen than any other phone. The difference between a high refresh screen and a standard one is as noticeable as the jump from the iPhone 3GS’ screen to the iPhone 4’s Retina Display.
Most mobile device displays run at a 60Hz refresh rate, which lets them redraw the content on the screen up to 60 times per second. In comparison, the Razer Phone’s default refresh rate is 90Hz and can be set to 120Hz in settings for even smoother interactions (at the cost of battery life). The Razer can do this thanks to a few factors, partly because of its high-end internals that lots of other Android phones share but also thanks to a custom display controller it developed to handle the high refresh rate.
Almost every Android app (with the exception of games, which I’ll get into in a bit) benefits from this higher refresh rate, and there’s no work to be done on the app developer’s part to enable it. The Razer can dynamically adjust its refresh from as low as 20Hz all the way up to a full 120Hz depending on what the phone is doing. If you’re just reading a static page on the screen, the refresh will scale down to save power, but as soon as your finger touches the display, it will ramp up to provide those smooth interactions. Likewise, if you’re watching a movie that’s filmed at 24 frames per second, the Razer will set its refresh rate to match, so you don’t get the “soap opera” effect commonly seen on TVs that use 120Hz rates.
Games are a little more complicated, as developers typically target a specific refresh rate and “lock” the game to it. If a game has been locked to 60Hz, it will stutter and drop a lot of frames if it’s played at 90 or 120Hz. But if the developer doesn’t lock the game to 60Hz, it can take full advantage of the Razer’s special display tech. Currently, there are about three dozen games that support 120Hz on the Razer Phone, and three of them (Gear.Club, Titanfall Assault, and World of Tanks) are preinstalled on the device out of the box. All three of those games run silky smooth and make full use of the Razer Phone’s unique technology.
Despite the immediate benefits a high refresh display brings, this first implementation by Razer comes with some big compromises. The panel in the Razer Phone is a Sharp IGZO LCD, because the display controller that enables 120Hz doesn’t yet work with OLED screens. The result is a screen that’s not as punchy or vibrant as many other phones, and it doesn’t get nearly as bright. The Razer Phone is very difficult to use outdoors because it’s screen is barely visible; meanwhile, every other phone I’ve tested in the past year, even those with LCD displays, such as the HTC U11, works outside without any issue.
But the Razer Phone does provide some exciting prospects, and it will be very interesting to see this kind of high refresh display technology in phones that make fewer compromises to get it. If that happens, then the future of smartphones is going to be pretty smooth.