Ever-larger smartphone screens may have obviated the need for a physical keyboard for many, but plenty of consumers still like the feel of buttons underneath their thumbs. The $199 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE caters to that group, and, with its world-roaming capabilities, international travelers as well. A 1.5-GHz Qualcomm processor and Android 4.0 ensures quick, solid performance that's sure to please any fan of slider phones. But just how universal is the Photon's appeal?
With its chunky chassis, the Photon Q 4G LTE won't win any beauty contests, and it bears a strong resemblance to the Motorola Droid 4 on Verizon. The front of the phone is dominated by a 4.3-inch glossy display surrounded by an equally glossy black bezel, and the corners of are beveled, breaking up the rectangular shape.
The back plastic panel has a weave pattern that makes for an interesting texture, but feels a little cheap. On the plus side, the Photon Q is splash resistant and features a scratch-resistant screen.
Sliding the display up reveals a five row QWERTY keyboard -- which looks identical to the Droid 4 -- surrounded by matte black plastic with the same pattern as on the back.
The right side of the Photon Q has a pair of silver volume buttons and a dedicated camera button; the buttons are ridged, which makes them easy to grip and adds a little style. However, in between the buttons is a long port cover for the microSD slot, which was difficult to open, flimsy and hard to get back into place. The power button and headphone jack sit along the top, while microUSB and microHDMI ports are on the left.
Unlike the Droid 4, the Photon Q's Android buttons (Back, Home, and the Task Manager) are on the screen, not below it. As a result, users lose about a quarter inch of the display. We wish Motorola would have put these buttons below the screen instead.
The Photon Q's battery is sealed in the phone, eliminating any hopes of swapping out the battery. The rear of the handset houses an 8-megapixel camera, a chrome Motorola insignia and a thin, silver speaker grille.
Because of the slide-out keyboard, the 6-ounce, 4.98 x 2.6 x 0.54-inch Photon Q is both thicker and heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S III (4.7 ounces, 5.4 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches) and the HTC EVO 4G LTE (4.73 ounces, 5.31 x 2.72 x 0.35 inches). It is almost identical in size to the Droid 4 (5 x 2.6 x 0.5 inches), but that phone weighs 0.3 ounces more.
Display and Audio
The 4.3-inch 960 x 540-pixel display on the Photon Q impresses. Sites such as CNN.com and Kotaku were crisp, as well as the HD trailer for "Cloud Atlas." Details in the trailer were so fine we could see the black ink from a quill pen soaking into the bone-white parchment paper. However, its resolution is a bit lower than most smartphones in this price range. The Galaxy S III, for instance, has a 1280 x 720 display, as does the EVO 4G LTE.
Thanks to the ColorBoost technology, colors on the Photon Q were rich. As we watched "Cloud Atlas," our screen seemed to burst to life with lush green forests, deep blue waters and pillowy white clouds. Explosions were a cacophony of red, orange, yellow and black. Another plus were the wide viewing angles, but we did notice a small amount of pixilation along the edges of the trailer.
With a brightness of 533 lux, the Photon Q's display easily outshone the 379 lux Android phone average, as well as the competition. The EVO 4G LTE delivered 525 lux while the Galaxy S III notched 222 lux.
The single speaker strip on the phone's rear didn't fill a small room, but it came close, and delivered rich and clear dialogue during the "Cloud Atlas" trailer. The Photon Q failed to impress when it came to music. Mariah Carey's "Triumphant" track sounded anything but, with lackluster bass and hollow vocals from rappers Meek Millz and Rick Ross. Even Carey's signature high whistle note sounded distant and washed-out.
We're happy to see that the Photon Q has a keyboard that's similar to the Droid 4. The five-row QWERTY keyboard offered generous spacing and firm springy feedback. The raised black buttons are nice and big, making them easy to read. We appreciated that we could adjust the level of backlighting (in the Language & input control panel).
Users who want to jot a quick text without sliding up the display can use either the Motorola or Swype keyboard. Keys on the former are long with good spacing, and we like the ability to access alternate characters by long-pressing a button. Swype minimized the need to take our fingers of the display with smooth and accurate trace typing.
Both keyboards feature strong haptic feedback, but it's not as satisfying as the real thing.
On top of stock Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), the Photon Q uses the same skin as on the Atrix HD, which offers some time-saving features. The lock screen features a large digital clock at the top with a switch for muting and unmuting the phone. Long-pressing the lock icon in the center of the screen summons a ring with icons for Text, Phone, Camera and Unlock. Unfortunately, there's no way to customize the shortcuts.
On the Home Screen, the Circle widget displays the date/time, weather and battery life in three concentric rings. Swiping on a circle reveals additional information or settings. For example, swiping the time and date circle transforms the digital clock into an analog affair. Swiping the weather ring allowed us to add cities, and the settings menu under the battery status ring enabled us to turn off notifications for test messages, missed calls and voicemails.
The Photon Q has seven customizable homescreens, but instead of making the third screen the default screen, the Photon starts with the first screen on the left, encouraging users to swipe to the left. After the first three screens, we were prompted to create a new screen from a blank screen or a template.
Quickviews is another useful feature compatible with certain apps, such as Email, Contacts, Text and Browser. The icons for these apps have two small arrows; Swiping up or down on the icons launches a mini-window that displays information without having to open the app itself. For example, swiping on Browser displays bookmarks while the Email icon shows your latest emails.
Although the interface can be a bit jarring at first, we felt right at home after five minutes of use.
Users can also swap out skins and apps using Sprint ID packs. Accessed via the Sprint ID icon, users can download up to six packs, including the social networking-focused Socially Connected, business-oriented Professional and the music-centric MTV. Each pack comes with a number of specific apps. For example, Socially Connected comes equipped with Tweetcaster, Badoo and Powow.
The Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is powered by a 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 processor with 1GB of RAM. The device handled our real-world testing without breaking a sweat. Despite having several apps open in the background, we were able to quickly navigate between homescreen and apps. We also streamed music from Spotify Radio while playing "Grand Theft Auto 3: Anniversary Edition" without experiencing lag.
The Photon Q also performed admirably in benchmark testing, scoring 4,822 on the Benchmark CPU test, well above the 2,582 Android phone average. That was enough to top the Samsung Galaxy S III's score of 4,325. However, both devices were smoked by the HTC EVO 4G LTE (1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8960), which notched 5,450.
In terms of graphics, the Photon Q notched 7,059 on An3DBench, slightly higher than the 7,023 average. The Galaxy S III and EVO 4G LTE scored 7,266 and 7,390 respectively. During Quadrant, which measures CPU, I/O, and 3D graphics performance, the Photon Q scored 5,077. That's 2,366 points above the 2,711 average. The Evo 4G LTE scored 4,736 while the Galaxy S III notched 5,159.
The Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE comes with 8GB of onboard storage that can be expanded with up to a 32GB microSD card.
Sprint and Motorola keep the app offerings rather light, shying away from adding too many branded apps. On Motorola's end, there's the useful SmartActions, which automate a number of settings depending on certain conditions. For example, the Workout Rule starts playing your favorite playlist when headphones are plugged in. When a specified Bluetooth device is connected, the Drive Smart Rule activates, which sets the phone's ringer is set to high, and auto-replies to any incoming text messages. We could also create custom rules with our own triggers and actions.
Sprint apps include Sprint Zone, where users can check their accounts and the latest news or find a nearby store. Sprint ID allows users to swap out display wallpaper and apps using a series of ID Packs.
Other Motorola apps include Vehicle Mode, which features six large tiles (Maps, Navigation, Music, Voice Commands, Calling and Other Apps) to make phone navigation safer while driving. There's also Voice Command, but its no Siri or S Voice.
3G, 4G LTE and Web Browsing
Sprint has rolled out its 4G LTE service to 19 cities to date, which includes locations like Baltimore and Atlanta, but not San Francisco and New York. For our testing in New York City, we had to rely on Sprint's sluggish 3G network. When using Speedtest.net, the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE only mustered 380 Kbps downloads. Upload speeds were only slightly better at 830 Kbps.
Loading mobile sites wasn't too painful. The Photon Q loaded the mobile versions of CNN.com, NYTimes.com and ESPN.com in 5.6, 4.8 and 7.1 seconds respectively. Loading the full version on Laptopmag.com took a long 28.2 seconds.
The Photon Q also has built-in NFC support, so you can share content via Android Beam just by touching the phone to other NFC-enabled devices.
Camera and Camcorder
The Photon Q features an 8-MP camera. We especially like the dedicated camera button on the handset's lower right side. Pressing the button halfway focused the camera while a full press fired off the shot. Using the shutter button, we fired off a shot about every second.
Image quality leaves something to be desired, though. Photos were masked in white haze.
The electric blues, magentas and emeralds in our test shots of flowers were greatly muted. However, the details were fairly sharp, as we could see every individual petal. We could also zoom in past 150 percent on our laptop with only the slightest bit of pixelation.
The 1080p videos we recorded also looked hazy, though we were able to clearly read the numbers on the sides of passing taxis. The camera took about a second to adjust the color when we panned skyward.
Images and video taken with the 1.3MP front-facing camera were nice and sharp with a fair amount of color accuracy. Test shots of ourselves revealed a nice warm skin tone and the distinct lines of the building behind us.
The Photon Q offered decent call quality during our testing. In most cases, we heard loud, clear audio from our callers. During a few mobile calls, though, our voice echoed. Some callers reported hearing a lot of background noise as we walked down the street.
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over 3G), the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE's 1785 mAh Lithium-ion battery lasted 5 hours and 59 minutes. That's 26 minutes longer than the Android phone average. Still, the Samsung Galaxy S III lasted a whopping 7:40 and the HTC EVO 4G LTE lasted 5 hours and 36 minutes with 11 percent of battery life left. Keep in mind that this was over Sprint's 3G network; over 4G LTE, the battery life would be much shorter.
Road warriors wary of giving up the physical keyboard on their BlackBerry will have a more than suitable replacement in the $199 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE. Not only is this smartphone easy to type on, but its speedy processor, bright display and world roaming capabilities means that the Photon Q can get the job done in almost any corner of the globe.
The $199 Samsung Galaxy S III has a sexier design and more innovative features, while the HTC EVO 4G LTE has a faster camera and built-in kickstand. But if you want to enter text fast without worrying about typos, the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is a fine choice. You might just have to be patient for 4G LTE to come to your neck of the woods.