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screenshot of Motorola's new Razr smartphone
screenshot of Motorola's new Razr smartphone

Why Motorola's RAZR may be better than the iPhone (for now) Add to ...

Sports fans know these moments well: The first time Djokovic beat Federer, that time Iverson broke Jordan’s ankles. Nobody’s ever going to say Iverson was a better basketball player than Jordan, but at the time, one was young and getting better quickly, the other wasn’t.

I got to thinking about this while playing with the New Motorola RAZR the other day. Years from now, nobody’s going to call this thing a more important or groundbreaking device than the iPhone, but right now, the RAZR is better. It’s the first Android phone I like and the first phone of any kind I like better than the iPhone. Most importantly, the RAZR is an important milestone in what now seems like an inevitable trend: Android phones are improving much, much faster than the iPhone, and barring patent lawsuits or a monumental screw-up, Google could do to Apple with Android what Microsoft did with Windows a couple of decades ago.

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The original Razr (I’m going to lose the stupid-looking all-caps. Sorry, Motorola) marked a rare bright spot for the cell phone industry when it first hit stores. The clamshell phone was, unlike most other phones at the time, not shaped like a brick. In a way, it foreshadowed the iPhone’s equal focus on form and function. Indeed, its only real downside was that its users seemed overwhelmingly to be corner-office A-types who trotted it out at every opportunity as a sort of status symbol. It was the BMW 7-series of phones.

The new Razr, currently in stores across Canada, isn’t a clamshell, it’s a solid, ultra-thin (thinner than the iPhone, for the most part) piece of glass on the front, and a rubbery-feeling liner all the way up the back, until a slight bump at the very top of the phone, where the camera lens sits. Motorola decided to line the back with Kevlar. You know, in case somebody tries to shoot your phone. Nonetheless, the lining acts as a bit of a design differentiator, separating the Razr from the myriad other glass panel phones out there, and making it feel tougher.

The technical specs are pretty good for a high-end smart phone. You get a 1.2-gigahertz dual-core processor and 1 gigabyte of RAM. You get a 4.3-inch screen covered in crazy-durable Gorilla Glass. You get an 8-megapixel camera that isn’t nearly as good as the one on the new iPhone.

All of that is fine, but the best parts of the Razr are hidden inside the phone. They’re the parts where Motorola decided not to over-think things, to just make everything as intuitive and easy as possible.

Take MotoCast, a piece of free software that lets you basically access anything on your home computer from your phone. It took me exactly three minutes to install MotoCast. To set up an account, the software asked me for a name, an e-mail and a password. That’s it.

(I should stress that last point. The next time you sign up for some on-line radio station or auxiliary software update, keep in mind that there’s absolutely no good reason the company on the other end of that transaction should be asking for your gender, your address, your favourite colour or any other nonsense. This die-hard quest to collect customers’ personal information has gotten way out of hand, and should be dialled down).

With MotoCast up and running on my PC and on the Razr, I chose a bunch of folders on my home computer to share, and I was ready to go. I never even had to plug my phone in to my computer. Not only could I access all kinds of files on my PC, MotoCast automatically gave me remote access to my iTunes playlists – not just the songs, the actual playlists. It didn’t ask me to build new playlists using some crappy piece of proprietary software, it didn’t just give me an unorganized dump of all my MP3s, it actually mimicked my playlists. That might just be my favourite thing about this phone. Sure, there’s software out there that can help you escape Apple’s iron grip, but Motorola’s is just so easy to use.

The company has built a bunch of accessories to take advantage of the MotoCast personal cloud. The coolest peripheral is a dummy laptop dock that lets you use the phone as a sort of mini-computer on a larger screen and with a full keyboard. You’ll have to pay extra for it, but it might just replace an actual laptop, at least for quick business trips.

The other neat feature on the new Razr is something called Smart Actions. This is a tool that lets you set up little scripts to automate various tasks. For example, it took me all of 30 seconds to set up a script that launched the music app whenever I plugged in a pair of headphones. You can also use Smart Actions to automatically set your phone to go quiet when you enter certain locations. Again, there are third-party apps that can do this sort of thing, but like the best parts of the Razr, Smart Actions is useful and ridiculously easy to use.

But before you go out and splurge a few hundred (or, with a contract, possibly a few thousand) dollars for the Razr, keep in mind it suffers from a number of pretty major flaws, both unique to the phone and to the wider Android platform.

The screen isn’t nearly as good as it should be on a high-end smart phone. The edges of certain icons look pixelated, and high-def video doesn’t look as high-def on the Razr as it does on the newest iPhone. And even though the Razr comes with a beast of a processor, some of the on-screen animations were perceptibly laggy, especially when scrolling through a long list of songs or Tweets. The on-board camera is also a disappointment, especially in less than ideal light, where it panics and starts blurring everything in sight.

Then there are the Android-wide issues, which the Razr can’t escape. The primary issue is, of course, the rate at which older Android versions are becoming obsolete. People used to mock Apple for introducing new versions of their hardware so quickly that people felt like suckers for buying the older ones. But Android’s pace makes Apple look glacial. Not only is Google coming out with new versions of the operating system every fifteen minutes (Motorola, like some other manufacturers, is trying to offset this by promising to let users upgrade to newer Android versions as they come along, at least for a little while), but newer and better Android phones are also hitting store shelves almost weekly. Why buy a Razr when you can by the new Nexus? Why buy the Nexus when you can wait for whatever Android super phones everyone trots out at the Consumer Electronics Show in January? Such are the downsides of rapid, rapid improvement.

The Razr is, in my opinion, better than the iPhone. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should run out and get it, because better Android phones are almost certainly on the way. But it does mean that manufacturers are finally starting to figure out how to make Android-based products that aren’t just pale Apple imitations.

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