Motorola RAZR²: The RAZR² Cuts Four Ways

Motorola new centerpiece handset isn’t just one phone- it’s five. The seductively styled RAZR² comes in three different hardware configurations and five software stacks: one each for Alltel, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. I tested four of the five (all but T-Mobile's) and found all of them to be top-notch voice phones with a luxurious design. If you want to go beyond voice and into media, e-mail, or Java applications, though, your mileage will vary by carrier.

Beneath the almost identical cases, you'll find three different handholds using various cellular technologies. The V8 model for T-Mobile is based on a GSM platform: the V9 model for AT&T is built around WCDMA; and the V9m for the other guys relies on CDMA EV-DO. These distinctions affect everything from call quality (best on AT&T) to battery life (worst on AT&T by a long shot: 3.5 hours as opposed to nearly 5 on other models). T-Mobile’s V8 runs a Linux-based OS, while all the other models use Motorola's older Synergy platform.

Alltel, Sprint, and Verizon may have all picked the same hardware, but they've slapped very different software into their phones. It's kind of like getting three identical Dell PCs, but one is running XP, one Vista, and one Linux. The user experiences are dramatically different. Alltel’s UI, for example, is the fastest. Sprint has a great live streaming-video experience and is open to third party applications. Verizon's phone, by contrast, is saddled with a depressingly low-end, if easy-to-use, set of text menus.

Motorola gave all of the carriers a luxurious metal-and-glass design with a decent 240- or 500-MHz processor, aided by 100MB of onboard memory support for 2GB (though not 4GB) microSD memory cards, a 2-megapixel camera, and the biggest, most beautiful external screen I've ever seen on a flip phone. Sadly, every single carrier missed the opportunity to use the jaw-dropping display to its fullest extent.

Only Sprint lets you play video on the phone's external screen. Only Alltel allows you tarred text messages on it, while Sprint and Verizon let you use the display to trigger the camera. AT&T’s RAZR2 software in general, however, is a sad list of missed chances. There’s no video sharing and no Napster/Yahoo! DRM’d music-and the carrier dedicates in entire hard button to its lousy "cellular video" service that absolutely no one use.

In AT&T's defense, there's one triumph on its model (and on the T-Mobile model, too, which I didn't get to test): CrystalTalk. Everyone knows that cell-phone talk quality needs help, and Motorola is the first company in ages to step up to the mic, as it were, with a remedy. CrystalTalk uses the phone's microphone to monitor for surrounding noise, dynamically equalizing of the sound in the earpiece and altering its volume to punch through the rumble as best possible. Meanwhile, it pumps up your voice and tunes down the background noise in the phone's mic, so the person you're talking to hears more you and less din.

CrystalTalk works brilliantly, and the V9 is the best phone I've ever heard in terms of handling background noise. Yet CrystalTalk isn't available on the V9m models for Alltel, Sprint, or Verizon. Motorola says that's because those models already sound good enough-and yes, the Vcrizon model does sound very nice. But more noise cancellation would still be welcome.

Of course, every one of these RAZR's has its own music player with its own separate strengths. Verizon's player, for instance, is the best for basic Windows Media users, while Alltel's is perfect for experts and iTunes lovers. The carriers have their own opinion about Web browsers as well. AT&T includes the divine Opera software, and Sprint comes in second with Obigo, a real but basic browser. Alltel and Verizon unfortunately remain mired in the swamp of inefficient WAP browsers to view Web pages. E-mail options vary as well. E-mail communication is free and built in with AT&T, for-pay on Alltel and Verizon, and not even an option with Sprint. Each of these phones also takes a different approach to running third-party software. Sprint lets you run third-party java applications (though Opera Mini crashed on my test phone) white Alltel, AT&T, and Verizon all lock down their devices to different extends against programs not purchased through them.

All four models, in theory, also work as high-speed USB modems for your PC. I clocked mediocre speeds on the AT&T, Sprint and Verizon handsets-generally 500 to 600 Kbps on networks where I'm used to 700- to 800-Kbps download speeds. Verizon's, however, was the only one that came with the right random drivers, and it worked flawlessly with a USB connection.

What does this all mean? Well, in a nutshell, the RAZR² is generally the best midrange phone offered on any given carrier, as long as price is no object. You can find phones with similar specs, but not the gorgeous design, for less. The RAZR² puts Motorola back in the game in a big way, and it will be in many U.S. callers' hands this fall.

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