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

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MSRP: $549.99

The Good The Motorola Photon 4G 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.

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8.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

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.

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