When Apple released the iPhone X in late 2017, Android phone makers wasted little time embarrassing themselves with cheap imitations.
The iPhone X wasn’t the first phone with a camera cutout, but Apple made the idea fashionable, and other phone makers like Asus, LG, OnePlus, and even Google have since followed with their own notched designs. Never mind that all these imitators retain a bottom “chin” bezel that prevents the screen from reaching every corner like the iPhone X does, or that some even have larger notches than Apple’s own camera cutout. A trend is a trend, and it must be followed, even imperfectly.
The Razer Phone 2, which begins shipping next week for $799, is a refreshing change of pace. Instead of trying to trim the bezels along the top and bottom of the display, Razer has embraced them as a defining feature of its flagship gaming phone. Each bezel contains a powerful front-firing speaker, and when the phone is in landscape mode, the bezels become grips that help the position the player’s thumbs over the edges of the screen.
“Everyone’s going bezel-less. We are not,” says Min-Liang Tan, Razer’s cofounder and CEO. “We’ve got these badass bezels that give you the best experience.”
That claim might seem hackneyed coming from other companies, but Tan has a way of pulling it off. Over the last 13 years, Razer has fashioned itself as a gaming brand with a sense of style, and Tan has always been its most convincing ambassador. His standard uniform–a black V-neck and jeans–match the company’s jet-black mouses, keyboards, and laptops, and most of those products include a message from Tan welcoming customers to the “cult of Razer.”
Incidentally, Tan has been compared at least a couple of times to Steve Jobs for his appearance and stage presence, and Razer–much like Apple–has its share of detractors who feel the company built its success on nothing but slick marketing. That hasn’t stopped Razer from building a fanbase, whose gushing remarks often show up as retweets on Tan’s Twitter feed. When I mention at the start of our interview that I’m based in Cincinnati, he notes that there is “a dude out of Ohio that has my face tattooed on himself.” (The fan received a free Razer Phone in exchange for his devotion.)
Smartphones are Razer’s latest attempt to branch out from PC gaming peripherals, which still made up nearly two-thirds of the company’s $274.2 million in revenue during the first half of 2018. (The company has published its revenues since going public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange last year.) Razer also sells a line of stylish gaming laptops that now make up almost a quarter of Razer’s revenues. The remaining 12% is split between highly profitable services–mainly digital payments, game sales, and rewards programs in Southeast Asia–and the nascent phone business.
Flagship phones are a tough business, with virtually all the industry’s profits going to Apple and Samsung, but Tan is as confident in Razer’s efforts as he is in the Razer Phone 2’s bezels. He boasts that Razer had no market research showing demand for a phone aimed at gamers, but the company became interested in the idea as hit PC games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds started making the jump to smartphones.
“We don’t look at just pure data or market research, because if you look at market research, you’re not ever going to be able to innovate,” Tan says, noting that Razer took a similar approach to gaming peripherals and PCs before applying it to phones. “You’ll always be looking back at what price points shipped last quarter, and who’s growing at what pace from a historical perspective.”
Rise of the gaming phone
Tan points out that several other companies (such as Asus and Huawei) have since followed Razer into the gaming phone business, validating the company’s instincts. And with the recent launch of Fortnite on Android, these phones may be arriving at just the right time. Still, it’s unclear how many people might be willing to buy one of these phones instead of something more mainstream, like an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy.
Although Tan says the original Razer phone was a “huge critical and commercial success,” Razer’s latest earnings report indicates that the company sold no more than 24,000 phones in the first half of 2018, based on its $700 price tag and revenues of $16.5 million in the “Others” category that covers smartphones. Apple sells more iPhones in an hour.
As for critical acclaim, the original Razer Phone did earn positive reviews for its loud front-facing speakers, huge battery, and 120 Hz variable refresh display (an industry first that improves touch-screen response times). But reviewers also panned the phone’s camera, which was slow to launch and struggled with low-light scenarios. They also wished for more features like wireless charging and waterproofing.
Tan says the Razer Phone 2 will address all those complaints. The rear camera will have faster shutter speeds and a second lens with optical image stabilization to improve low-light performance, and both the front and rear cameras will allow smoother 60-fps video capture. The phone will also support wireless charging and has an IP67 rating for waterproofing and dustproofing. The display still measures 5.7 inches with 1440p resolution, but Tan says it’s 50% brighter than the original Razer Phone. The phone will also use Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 845 processor. And in a classic Razer flourish, the phone’s rear logo can now light up and change colors for different kinds of notifications.
Tan is also hoping to ship a lot more phones this time around, in part because the Razer Phone 2 will be more readily available. The original phone was only available in North America and Europe at launch, was often out of stock, and was not officially compatible with Verizon or Sprint. The Razer Phone 2 will work with all four U.S. carriers, and Tan hints at potential deals with carriers to sell the phone directly. The phone will also be available in Asia, where Razer gets about a third of its revenues.
“We’re excited, we think there’s going to be a lot of growth year-on-year between the previous phone and this phone,” Tan says.
Building an ecosystem
Razer is announcing more than just a new phone. The company will also launch a new version of its Razer Blade 15 laptop that’s thicker than the previous version, but packs an Ethernet port and dual storage drives–one speedy solid state drive, and one hard drive that can fit more games. More importantly, the new Blade starts at $1,599, which is $300 cheaper than the previous version.
A couple new accessories are on the way as well, including a $100 set of USB-C earbuds with active noise cancellation and a $150 mobile game controller with a built-in cradle for the Razer Phone 2 or other Android phones.
This isn’t exactly an ecosystem like the one you’d buy into with an iPhone. If you buy Razer’s Android phone and Razer’s Windows laptop, you’re still getting two platforms run by separate companies.
Still, Tan insists that Razer is building its own kind of ecosystem. Those pricey USB-C earbuds work just as well on the Razer Blade as they do on the Razer Phone, after all, and the light-up logo on the back of the Razer Phone 2 offers the same effects patterns as other products that support Razer’s proprietary “Chroma” lighting software. The customization options on Razer’s mobile controller are also similar to those of Razer’s console controllers, and Tan says that in the future, Razer could offer software that synchronizes some of these features across platforms.
“You get this great seamless experience without being locked into a specific software ecosystem,” he says.
And of course, you also get a bunch of gaming devices that all share the same aesthetic: Mostly black, with a splashy green serpentine logo and perhaps a touch of customizable RGB lighting. For a company that built a reputation around style at any price, perhaps that’s its own form of lock-in. Welcome to the cult.