The Motorola Photon 4G looks like the buttoned-down cousin to the fun-lovin' EVO 3D, offering Sprint customers business-friendly features such as global roaming and Exchange ActiveSync support. But this dual-core superphone ($199) also knows how to let loose. It packs an 8-megapixel camera, a kickstand for watching flicks on the qHD screen, and plenty of graphics muscle to play 3D games between meetings. Like the Atrix 4G, the Photon 4G can also plug into an optional dock to surf the full web and play music and videos on your TV (courtesy of Motorola's webtop app). So is this the ideal smartphone for work and play?
Premium is the word that comes to mind when you pick up the Photon 4G. The Gorilla Glass display feels sturdy, and we like the unusual angled edges on this handset. A smoky chrome trim runs around the outside of the phone, while the back has a soft-touch finish that provides a sure grip.
Another nice touch is the built-in metal kickstand, which extends with a satisfying click. Add in large and textured volume controls and camera buttons on the right side, and you have one of the best-designed Android devices this year.
Despite packing a large 4.3-inch qHD display, the Photon 4G is pocket-friendly. It weighs 5.8 ounces and measures 5 x 2.6 x .48 inches. Those are the same dimensions as the HTC EVO 3D, but Motorola's device looks sleeker and is a bit lighter than HTC's (6 ounces). Beneath the Photon 4G's screen you'll find four capacitive menu buttons. The power button and headphone jack are up top.
The left side of the Photon 4G has a microUSB port and an HDMI port. You can use the latter connection to hook the phone up to a TV and enter Mirror Mode. In this mode you can see the handset's menus on the big screen in a smaller window, as well as play HD video and 3D games at full screen.
Display and Audio
The Photon 4G boasts a bright and crisp display with qHD resolution, which means 960 x 540 pixels. When we put the phone side by side with the EVO 3D and played the same soccer clip on YouTube, we noticed that the Photo 4G had wider viewing angles but that the grass looked a little greener on the EVO. When we were viewing websites, the Photon 4G's display also looked brighter and crisper. Overall, we prefer the screen on the Photon 4G, at least in 2D mode.
"Is that sound coming from a phone?" That's what I thought to myself when I heard the Photon 4G's back-mounted speaker do its thing. When we cranked the Foo Fighter's "Walk" on Slacker, it was loud enough to be heard across a medium-size office. You'll want to stay away from the max setting to avoid distortion, but overall we were impressed.
In general, we liked the touch keyboard on the Photon 4G. We could type accurately and quickly on the well-spaced layout, and we didn't mind the mild haptic buzz. What's missing is a dedicated .com key and @ key. And while we appreciate that the top row lets you long-press the letters to enter numbers, they're too almost too small to read.
Software and Interface
There's a reason Motorola has backed away from using the Motoblur branding for its interface. A lot of users just don't like it. Unfortunately, the boxy and blocky look remains. We kind of dig the swirl-of-light pattern for the default home screen background, but the icons that line the bottom of the screen are confusing. There's no visual separation between these shortcuts and anything else you place on the home screen, and the Web icon is a square instead of the usual globe/circle.
Users can populate the seven home screens with widgets, and the default choices are useful--if not very refined looking. Swipe to the left and you'll see social-networking widgets for updating your status, flicking through your updates using a Cover Flow-like interface, and viewing photos uploaded from your Facebook friends in a similar fashion. You can also resize the widgets.
Annoyingly, adding an app shortcut to a home screen takes two steps instead of the usual one. That's because the Photon 4G invites you to choose between adding to the home screen and adding that app to a group every time.
It's a matter of personal taste, but we like that Motorola gives the Settings menus a white background instead of a black one; it's just friendlier. Another plus: When you press and hold the home button, you'll see a lot more recent apps on the Photon 4G than you will on HTC phones. We just wish we could close apps from this menu.
The Photon 4G's interface works fine, but we prefer HTC's more polished and robust Sense UI, especially the way it lets you launch apps from the launch screen.
Not a fan of the stock interface on the Photon 4G? Change it. With the Sprint ID feature, you can download a themed package that includes new wallpapers, widgets, and applications. For example, we download the MTV Pack in under a minute, which bundled MTV News and MTV Twitter widgets, music apps such as Pandora and doubleTwist, and a not-so-subtle MTV Music wallpaper. Other ID Packs include Green (for living a more eco-friendly lifestyle), BodyMedia (for staying fit), and Nascar.
Once during our testing a couple of the MTV apps crashed, and we were asked to force-close them. Overall, though, we're glad Sprint has stuck with the Sprint ID concept, and more high-profile brands should be on the way soon.
Performance and Specs
The 1-GHz Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM inside the Photon 4G allowed the device to turn in pretty solid scores. On Linpack, which measures CPU performance, the handset notched a single-core score of 40.6 and a multi-threaded score (taking advantage of both cores) of 49.5. That single-threaded score is well about the average (17) and higher than the T-Mobile G2x with Tegra (34.9).
However, handsets with dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processors fared better in the multi-threaded test; the EVO 3D notched 57.9 and myTouch 4G Slide got 57.6.
Where the Photon 4G pulled ahead of the Snapdragon field was graphics. The phone reached 7,522 in the An3DBench test, compared to 7,098 for the myTouch 4G Slide and 7,188 for the EVO 3D. The Photon 4G also delivered gorgeous graphics and fast action when we fired up the Galaxy on Fire II game (downloaded from Nvidia Tegra Zone). Even when we hooked up the phone to a 55-inch Samsung TV via HDMI, the gameplay remained smooth and responsive.
In everyday use, the Photon 4G proved to be pretty swift. Most apps opened instantly, and the camera took a reasonable 3 seconds to spring into action. Our only complaint is that Motorola's zooming transition animations make the Photon feel a bit slower than it is.
The Photon 4G comes with 16GB of memory, which can be expanded to 48GB.
Messaging and Social Networking
The Photon 4G has a unique messaging portal that lets you dive into a universal inbox that aggregates everything from texts and Facebook messages to regular e-mails and Twitter direct messages. Using a little plus symbol in the top right corner, you can also compose a new message and then choose the account you'd like to use. Of course, at any time you can dive into individual accounts.
Motorola touts the Exchange support of this phone for business users. Once we added our account, the Photon 4G automatically started syncing our contacts, calendar, and e-mail. We could also easily accept meeting requests. The bundled Quickoffice app enables users to view and edit Office attachments.
Global Connectivity and Security Features
Unlike the EVO 3D, the Photon 4G is capable of making calls, accessing e-mail, and surfing the web overseas. Just bring money. Data roaming is priced at $0.16 per kilobyte in GSM countries, or a whopping $16.38 per MB. CDMA roaming is closer to sane, at about $2 per MB. The Laptopmag.com homepage is more than 1MB.
As for voice, Sprint offers the $4.99 per month Sprint Worldwide add-on for discounted voice rates while abroad. Rates range from $0.59 to $5.99 per minute.
Although companies might not be that excited by their employees racking up roaming fees, the Photon 4G's security features should give them peace of mind. The device supports data encryptio, as well as remote device and SD card wiping should the phone fall into the wrong hands.
Web Browsing and 4G Performance
With its Mobile WiMax 4G connection, the Photon 4G loaded websites at a fast clip. It took between 9 and 13 seconds for the Motorola to fully load mobile sites like CNN, Yahoo, and ESPN, while the EVO 3D took finished in a faster 6 to 10 seconds. Interestingly, the Photon 4G loaded desktop sites faster, taking just 10 seconds to render both the full versions of NYTimes.com and CNN.com, versus 16 and 14 seconds respectively for the EVO 3D.
In terms of pure throughput, the Photon 4G delivered slightly better results than the EVO 3D in the same location. On Speedtest.net we saw an average of 2.4 Mbps per second in downtown New York City versus 2.1 Mbps for the EVO. The Photon fared much better in midtown, where downloads reached 6.9 Mbps. Uploads were pretty meager, ranging from 204 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps. Our biggest issue with the Photon 4G--and all Sprint 4G phones--is that you often must manually scan and connect to the faster 4G network.
The Photon 4G's mobile hotspot capability supports up to eight Wi-Fi devices.
Sprint packs the Photon 4G with a bevy of branded apps, including Sprint ID, Sprint Mobile Wallet (for making purchases on partner sites), Sprint Music Plus, Sprint Radio, Sprint TV & Movies, and Sprint Zone (news, promotions, and tips). You'll also find a News app, QuickOffice, and Social Networking, which aggregates Facebook and Twitter updates. It's pretty skimpy, though, so you're better off downloading the dedicated apps for those services.
One app that we really like is Gallery, which Motorola has given a serious social makeover. When you open the app you'll see the latest photos from your Facebook buddies fanned out in a carousel interface. From there you can also click on Friends to browse through past albums. Also intriguing is the Rich Location app, which presents everything from local deals and events to Match.com singles based on your location.
We were happy to learn that the Photon 4G supports the Netflix app, which we downloaded from the rapidly expanding Android Market. When we started playing a Star Trek movie, it only took about 10 seconds for the flick to start, but playback wasn't as clear as on 4G LTE phones such as the LG Revolution from Verizon.
Camera and Camcorder
Equipped with an 8-MP camera, the Photon 4G captured some of the best-looking outdoor photos we've seen. A picture we took in Times Square was bursting with color, and we could make out the folds in a man's shirt from at least 20 feet away. Even when we zoomed in, the level of detail impressed.
Indoor images suffered from graininess, but engaging the flash helped some (and thankfully didn't blow out subjects). Our biggest beef with the camera is the shutter lag. It takes a second or two for the autofocus to kick in, which could cause users to miss a shot. The myTouch 4G Slide is much faster. On the plus side, you can instantly share images to Facebook using the Quick Upload feature.
The Photon 4G's 720 video blew us away. Our footage of traffic on Fifth Avenue was crisp and noise-free when we played the clip back on our 55-inch TV. Other people in the room said "whoa." Other smartphones capture up to 1080p footage, but we're not complaining.
We used the front-facing VGA camera on the Photon 4G to make video calls via the Qik app. Over 4G, the other caller said they couldn't hear us, and the picture was quite dark. We're assuming the results would be better over Wi-Fi, but Qik has never been reliable. Too bad the Photon 4G doesn't work with Google Video Chat.
HD Station and Other Accessories
The Photon 4G doesn't plug into a keyboard dock like the Atrix 4G, but it is compatible with the HD Station, a $99 accessory that lets you connect the phone to a large monitor or TV. The dock comes with a remote control for playing media stored on your phone, as well as three USB ports, so you can connect a mouse and full-size keyboard. The beauty of the HD Station is how it works with the Photon 4G's webtop application, which gives users the full Firefox desktop browser.
Using the webtop app, we loaded Hulu.com and enjoyed an episode of The Daily Show at full screen on our plasma set. This reasonably priced add-on essentially turns the phone into a nice little nettop computer. However, the remote control has limited functionality, which means you'll either need to sit next to the HD Station or invest in a wireless keyboard/mouse combo if you want to use it in your living room.
Speaking of keyboards, Motorola will be selling a Wireless Keyboard for $69.99, which has a thin design and provides access to Android apps via shortcut keys. A separate Navigation Dock for in-car use costs $59.99, and a Battery Only Charger and Battery Bundle goes for $49.99.
Call Quality and Battery Life
To test out the Photon 4G's call quality we made calls to cell phones and landlines both indoors and on busy city streets. The phone struggled to hold onto a signal inside an office building, but overall calls sounded loud and clear in both directions. When we were calling outside near traffic, the other caller said they could barely hear the noise in the background. The powerful speaker also came in handy in the car.
Motorola packs the Photon 4G with a 1700mAh battery, compared to a 1730mAh pack for the EVO 3D. The Motorola failed to finish our battery test (continuous surfing over 4G), but it had about 40 percent juice left after 4.5 hours. That would work out to a runtime of 7.5 hours. That's on a par with the EVO 3D and above the Android phone average (a little under 6 hours). We will update this review once we complete our battery test.
The Motorola Photon 4G is one powerful and versatile smartphone, boasting a first-rate industrial design, brilliant display, excellent gaming performance, and a sharp (albeit sluggish) camera. The HDMI mirroring works smoothly, and those looking for desktop-like functionality can spring for the HD Station dock. Mobile professionals will appreciate the global roaming capability--though not the cost of roaming--as well as the Exchange support and security features.
Like all Sprint 4G phones, we wish the Photon 4G would automatically connect to Mobile WiMax when in range, but at least the downloads were snappy once in 4G mode. And while we prefer the Sense interface of the HTC EVO 3D, Sprint gives you the option of customizing the look and feel of this handset with Sprint ID packs. Overall, the Photon 4G is one of our favorite Sprint phones.