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Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint) review: Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint)

Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint)

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
10 min read


Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint)

The Good

The <b>Motorola Photon 4G</b> is an absolute powerhouse of a phone. It ships with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 4G WiMax speeds, a 4.3-inch qHD display, and a dual-mode GSM/CDMA chipset. Features include HDMI-out, DLNA support, Wi-Fi, Mobile Hotspot for up to eight devices, 720p HD video capture, 1080p HD video playback, and secure data encryption. We also like the kickstand. Call quality and overall performance were great.

The Bad

The Motorola Photon 4G has a large and bulky design, which might not be to everybody's taste. The Motoblur interface isn't for everyone, and we found Sprint ID to be an unnecessary add-on. The Webtop dock functionality is pretty cool, but it requires a $129 accessory. We expected better photo quality out of the 8-megapixel camera.

The Bottom Line

With a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 4G speeds, enterprise-level security, and world phone credentials, the Motorola Photon 4G is a top-notch Android phone for Sprint customers.

Despite their long relationship with each other, Motorola has not always had its most innovative handsets available for Sprint. Sprint mostly relied on Samsung and HTC for its higher-end offerings, while most Motorola phones on Sprint have been of the entry-level and midrange varieties. Recently, however, the companies have renewed their alliance with top-notch Android handsets like the Motorola XPRT, which is Sprint's version of the Droid Pro, and the Motorola Photon 4G.

The Photon 4G is said to be a Sprint iteration of the Atrix 4G because of similar specs (such as a dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, a 4.3-inch qHD display, 16GB onboard memory, and the Webtop application), but it's not an exact copy. A big difference is that the Photon is a dual-mode GSM/CDMA world phone, and it ships with Android 2.3 Gingerbread and an 8-megapixel camera instead of Android 2.2 and a 5-megapixel camera. The user interface is also quite different, with a refined Motoblur overlay and the integration of Sprint ID. The Photon 4G even offers a flip-out kickstand so you can use it as a desk clock or for hands-free video viewing.

As with the Atrix 4G, the Photon 4G will have a number of accessories at launch, like a Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse, an HD multimedia dock, and a car dock.

The Motorola Photon 4G is not a dainty little smartphone by any means. At 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep, the Photon 4G is even bulkier than the Atrix, which seems quite sleek in comparison. The Photon 4G's cut-off corners give the phone a decidedly more masculine look, as do the gunmetal gray border and the rippled texture of the side buttons. Its battery cover is clad in a soft-touch finish, which should improve finger grip, and adds to the device's premium feel. The Photon's overall aesthetic strikes us as rather utilitarian and plain, especially when compared with flashier competitors like the HTC Evo 3D.

The Motorola Photon 4G has a big 4.3-inch qHD display.

By far the most attractive portion of the phone is its 4.3-inch qHD display. Graphics and images pop with vibrant color, and everything looks nice and sharp. However, the 960x540-pixel resolution is not quite as sharp as it should be thanks to the arranging of subpixels on a larger display. We compared it with the iPhone's Retina Display, for example, and noticed that the iPhone looked a touch sharper. The Photon 4G's Gorilla Glass display boasts a scratch-resistant and glare-reducing coating, and indeed, we had no trouble using the phone under bright sunlight.

The touch screen is remarkably responsive. Thanks to the dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset, navigation and multitasking felt very snappy, with little to no lag in between transitions. It did feel a tiny bit slower than the T-Mobile G2x, a dual-core phone that ships without any manufacturer skins. We get the feeling that Motoblur does slow down the phone just a little bit. That said we also compared it with the other Sprint hotshot, the HTC Evo 3D, and the Photon 4G felt quicker, if only by a few milliseconds. In the end, we think most consumers will only notice that the Photon 4G is a fast and responsive handset, regardless of the competition. The Photon 4G also has pinch-to-zoom functionality, a proximity sensor, and a built-in accelerometer.

Beneath the display are the typical Android shortcuts in the form of touch-sensitive keys: menu, home, back, and search. The volume rocker is on the right spine, and so is a dedicated camera key. On the top are the power/screen lock button and 3.5mm headset jack, and the Micro-USB port and Micro-HDMI ports sit on the left. The camera and dual-LED flash are on the back. Above the display is a front-facing VGA camera next to an LED indicator.

Sprint packages the Motorola Photon 4G with an AC adapter, a USB cable, and reference material.

User interface
The Motorola Photon 4G runs Android 2.3.4 with an enhanced version of Motoblur. Fortunately, you're not forced to register with a Motoblur account as you are with the Cliq 2 and the Atrix, and the interface is not quite as intrusive as previous iterations. Still, you definitely can't miss the Motoblur influence; the default Motoblur skin invites you to add your social network accounts (Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace) to its various widgets so that it can feed status and gallery updates directly to the home screen. The widgets are resizable and you can remove them if you would rather not have your friends' updates inundating your phone. Other default widgets include connectivity shortcuts for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 4G.

You can choose to completely revamp the home screen by selecting a different Sprint ID, a concept designed by Sprint to customize the standard Android user experience. Sprint ID is essentially a preset selection of themes that consist of widgets, shortcuts, wallpaper, and apps, and Sprint has partnered with a variety of companies to come up with different Sprint ID packs. For example, a Green Sprint ID pack will populate your home screen with eco-friendly widgets, while an ESPN one will have sports-related apps. As we mentioned, the default Motorola "My ID" pack includes Motoblur widgets. If you want a much more minimalist approach, you can opt for the Clean Sprint ID pack, which strips out all the widgets and wallpapers. Personally, we didn't see too much value in Sprint ID, as it might end up bloating up your phone with unwanted widgets and apps. Still, that's a personal preference, and you can choose to ignore Sprint ID if you want.

Regardless of which Sprint ID pack you choose, you'll have seven customizable home screens. When you tap the home button while in standby mode, you will see all of your home screens in thumbnail view, which is similar to HTC's Leap screen. This way, you can quickly select your desired home screen. At the bottom row of each home screen are shortcuts to the phone dialer, the browser, the Sprint ID menu, and the main menu. The menu icons have been slightly redesigned for the Photon 4G, which adds to the phone's uniqueness.

A couple of other Motoblur interface touches include a bluish tinge to the phone dialer application, and a slight flash of blue when you've maxed out the scrolling in the main menu. The phone dialer also supports predictive dialing. You can choose between the default Android multitouch keyboard and Swype.

When you pop the kickstand out, you'll be prompted to choose between the regular home screen displayed in landscape mode and a "widget clock" interface that turns the phone into a combination desk clock and weather station.

We think that all high-end Android smartphones should debut with Android 2.3 Gingerbread these days, and the Photon 4G does. The new firmware gives it a much improved user interface, a faster multitouch keyboard, one-touch text selection, a power manager that shuts down CPU-intensive apps, and an overall zippier experience.

As with all Android phones, the Photon 4G comes with tight integration with all of Google's apps and services, including Gmail, Google Maps with Navigation, Voice Search, Google Talk, Latitude, YouTube, and Places. Sprint also preloaded the device with a few apps like Nascar, Sprint Mobile Wallet, Sprint Music Plus, Sprint Radio, Sprint TV and Movies, Sprint Worldwide, Sprint Zone, and TeleNav GPS Navigator. Other preinstalled apps include Quickoffice, Motorola's Phone Portal, a news feed app, Rich Location, and the usual PIM tools like a calculator, a calendar, and an alarm clock. Unfortunately, unless you root the phone, most of the preinstalled apps are not removable.

The Photon 4G is one of Sprint's business-ready smartphones, which means it should handle most of your enterprise-level needs. It supports Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync so you can sync your corporate e-mail and calendar, and it promises improved data encryption in addition to the ability to remotely wipe your phone in case it gets stolen. The remote wipe feature will delete your SD card's contents as well.

World travelers will be happy to note that the Photon 4G is a dual-mode GSM/CDMA phone. It will work with the Sprint CDMA network while you're in the U.S., and it has a preloaded SIM card that'll kick the phone to GSM once you're traveling abroad. The phone is locked to Sprint while you're in the U.S., however, so you can't just swap in an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card. It has all the usual phone functionality like a speakerphone, a vibrate mode, voice dialing, and text and multimedia messaging. It also has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and can act as a hot spot for up to eight devices. The Mobile Hotspot option does cost an additional $29.99 a month.

The Photon 4G can also play Flash video within the phone's WebKit browser. Sometimes the browser will display a warning that the video is not optimized for mobile, but the phone will still play the video regardless. We didn't experience much buffering time at all, and video quality was quite good. For non-Web videos, the Photon 4G also supports full HD 1080p video playback. There's also a handy HDMI port so you can watch your HD videos on a big-screen television--the smartphone will turn into a remote control that lets you access its multimedia gallery. The Photon 4G supports 720p video capture as well, and Motorola hopes to improve upon that with 1080p video capture in a future software update. The Photon 4G also has DLNA support so you can share your media with other DLNA-enabled devices.

The camera app on the Photon 4G has a number of settings to help you take better pictures. You can adjust the resolution and the exposure, plus you can select single-shot, multishot, or panorama mode. You can choose any of eight different scene modes: Macro, Steady Shot, Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night Portrait, and Sunset. Other settings include color effects and flash. The options are mostly the same in camcorder mode.

The Motorola Photon 4G takes good photos, but not great ones.

We were mostly pleased with the Photon 4G's photo quality. Images were sharp and vibrant most of the time, but we noticed quite a bit of noise and a slight pinkish tinge in a few shots. We did expect slightly better photo quality out of an 8-megapixel camera. Video quality was very good as well: HD videos appeared crisp, and there weren't a lot of artifacts or blurry images at 30 frames per second. The Photon 4G comes with 16GB of onboard memory, which is great for storing your media files. You also have the option of expandable memory, as the phone supports cards of up to 32GB. Even though the phone has a front-facing VGA camera, it doesn't come with any VoIP apps, so you'd have to download one on your own.

The Motorola Photon 4G has one of the better custom music players for Android. It integrates podcasts, Internet radio, FM radio, and your music library in one handy interface. It also provides Media Link software that easily ports your existing MP3 library over to the phone. We're especially impressed with the recommendation engine that's linked to the Amazon MP3 store. It'll even display lyrics if available. The Photon 4G is compatible with AAC, H.263, H.264, MP3, MPEG-4, WAV, WMA9, WMA10, eAAC+, AMR WB, WMA v10, AMR NB, AAC+, WMA v9, and MIDI video and audio formats.

HD Station
If you want, you can plop down $129 for an optional dock accessory called the HD Station. It provides three USB ports and an HDMI out. The idea is that you can connect your phone to a large display, a mouse, and a keyboard, which prompts the Photon 4G to boot up in Webtop mode, similar to the Atrix 4G. This is essentially a bare-bones OS that allows PC-like functionality. It even comes with the Firefox browser ready to go. We definitely like the idea, but it's a shame that it doesn't appear to be compatible with the Atrix's laptop dock, as that seems to be a better, more integrated option. We'll add more to this portion of the review once we've spent more time with the HD Station.

We tested the Motorola Photon 4G in San Francisco using Sprint Nextel. Call quality was great. We enjoyed plenty of volume and clear voice quality on our end, and callers reported similar quality on their end. Environmental noise was sometimes an issue, however; callers definitely heard some muffled sounds in the background when we were in a cafe during the busy lunch hour, for example. However, we could still carry on a conversation just fine, so the phone did a good job of elevating our voice above the din. Speakerphone calls weren't too different from normal phone calls, except with a bit more echo on our callers' end.

Motorola Photon 4G call quality sample Listen now:

We were highly impressed with the Photon's 4G speeds. Loading the mobile CNET page took just 4 seconds, and the full CNET page loaded in around 7 seconds. Using Ookla's Speedtest.net app, we averaged download speeds of around 8.72Mbps and upload speeds of around 1.27Mbps. The dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor also did its job as far as overall performance goes. As we mentioned earlier in the design section, overall navigation felt zippy and responsive.

The Motorola Photon 4G has a rated battery life of 10 hours talk time and 8.3 days standby time. According to the FCC, it has a digital SAR of 0.93 watt per kilogram.

The Motorola Photon 4G earns its spot in Sprint's high-end Android phone lineup with a blazing fast dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, dual-mode GSM/CDMA chipset, and impressive 4G speeds. We're also fans of the flip-out kickstand, and the Webtop dock functionality is a fascinating, if a bit expensive, add-on. Business users will love its enterprise-level security, and multimedia hounds will appreciate the HDMI port, DLNA support, HD video capture and playback, and custom music player. The Photon's design is a little on the bulky and plain side, but it more than makes up for it with a beautiful 4.3-inch qHD display. At $199.99 with a new two-year agreement from Sprint, we think the Photon 4G is one of the best smartphone options for Sprint customers.


Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9