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

Motorola's new $199.99 Photon Q 4G LTE offers a well-designed physical keyboard and Android 4.0, plus plenty of processing power, on Sprint.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
7 min read

It's not news that Android QWERTY sliders, once the staple of midrange and even luxury smartphones, have become few and far between. Sprint's current hot handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy S 3 and HTC Evo 4G LTE, are both card-carrying members of the massive-screen and razor-thin club. With its bright 4.3-inch screen, Android 4.0 software, speedy Snapdragon S4 processing, and a truly sweet keyboard design, the $199.99 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is the best Android typer Sprint has offered for years. If you've been holding out for a keyboard phone and don't mind waiting for Sprint's LTE network to expand, the Photon Q is for you.


Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)

The Good

The <b>Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE</b> brings a fast processor, a superb keyboard, Android 4.0, and a bright, colorful screen.

The Bad

Until Sprint LTE is more widespread, the Photon Q 4G LTE is mostly stuck with 3G data. The phone is thick and heavy, it takes disappointing pictures, and its battery isn't user-removable.

The Bottom Line

The Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is hefty, but packs modern Android power, an excellent keyboard, and LTE 4G if you're lucky.

Motorola's cool new QWERTY, the Photon Q 4G LTE (pictures)

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If you've seen the Motorola Droid 4 for Verizon up close, then the new Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE on Sprint will look very familiar. Measuring 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide and 0.54 inch thick, the Photon Q has virtually the same sizable dimensions as its Verizon cousin. At 6 ounces, the phone has considerable heft, as well, compared with the light and waferlike Android devices hitting the market.

The trade-off for the Photon Q's extra girth, though, is its wonderfully designed QWERTY keyboard, which slides out in landscape mode. With a full five rows, including a dedicated number row on top, the phone has a keyboard layout that looks identical to the physical keys gracing the Droid 4. Trust me, that's a good thing since you get all the attributes I loved on Verizon's device such as a long spacebar, and even four arrow keys. The keyboard is backlit by bright LEDs, too, which I appreciate. I also enjoyed the crisp tactile feedback, made with an audible snap, that the keys create. Just like on the Droid 4, you won't find dedicated ".com" or emoticon buttons here, but that's not a deal-breaker for me.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
The keyboard has five rows, a wide spacebar, and bright LED back-lighting. Sarah Tew/CNET

If banging out messages with the physical keyboard isn't handy, the Photon Q 4G LTE also comes with Motorola's virtual keyboard active by default. For fast, one-handed text entry, the device also features the Swype virtual keyboard, on which you draw lines through letters to string together words.

On the front of the phone is a moderately large 4.3-inch display with a 720p front-facing camera above it. The left edge of the Photon Q holds Micro-USB and HDMI ports, while the right side houses tiny volume keys, a dedicated camera button, and a flap covering a slot for a microSD card. On the back is a main 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. The back has a black, patterned surface that, while it doesn't collect fingerprints, doesn't feel as premium as the Kevlar backing sported by some of Motorola's other phones, such as the Droid Razr, Droid Razr Maxx, and Atrix HD. Another caveat is that the Photon's 1,785mAh battery is embedded and not user-removable.

The back covering is plastic, not fancy Kevlar. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Photon Q 4G LTE's 4.3-inch qHD LCD (960x540-pixel resolution) isn't the sharpest or biggest out there, but thanks to Motorola's ColorBoost technology, does get very bright. As a result it's possible to read the phone's screen outdoors in strong sunlight. Sony's Xperia P, which uses the company's WhiteMagic technology, another technique designed to pump up brightness, handles this task even better. That said, the Photon Q 4G LTE's screen, similar to the Atrix HD's, produces vibrant, lifelike colors that look more appealing than the Xperia P's, which have a greenish cast. When viewed side by side, even the HTC Evo 4G LTE's display presented colors that were a bit too red to my eyes, especially in flesh tones.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
The front-facing camera takes decent vanity shots. Brian Bennett/CNET

Software and apps
Running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE uses software one version behind Google's latest and greatest, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. That said, as a modern Android device, the Photon can tackle all your favorite Google services such as Gmail and Google +, along with connection to the Google Play stores for music, books, and movies.

Motorola also places its own subtle spin on Android, though won't ever admit that after the backlash against its once heavy-handed Motoblur user interface. Even so, this is clearly what's left of Motorola's unfortunate UI. There are two home screens to begin with, but you can add up to five additional ones for a total of seven. Just like on the Atrix HD, though, you can add blank screens or choose from templates populated with either carrier-branded software or third-party apps already living in the app tray. The good news is that the Photon Q 4G LTE is refreshingly devoid of bloatware. Of course, there is the Sprint Zone, Sprint's own app store, and there's Sprint ID, which offers themes for your handset -- many designed to primarily push Sprint services.

As a matter of fact, the phone exhibits a stronger-than-usual tie to Google products. For example, the Chrome browser is preinstalled along with Motorola's take on Android's default Web navigator. The Photon Q has another interesting power up its sleeve, something no doubt Sprint approved: the phone can link seamlessly with Google Voice and fully support the service's visual voice mail function. This is a feature blocked by many carriers, such as T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon, since I gather it competes with paid services they would like to charge you for.

Continuing in the spirit of personal choice and benevolent hacks, Motorola has gone out of its way to emphasize that the Photon Q 4G LTE has an unlocked bootloader. Essentially this means Android enthusiasts will be able to root, or in other words gain the power to install customized software on their devices. Perhaps, you don't like Sprint ID or other apps you find useless. Maybe you'd rather run pure Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Whatever your intentions, just remember that rooting your Photon Q 4G LTE still voids your phone warranty, even if Motorola provides instructions for doing so.

Like Motorola's other new phones, the Photon comes with the Smart Actions app installed. This software is designed to automate handset behavior based on the environment and time of day. For example, you can create rules for the device to suspend data syncing at night to conserve battery or automatically use Wi-Fi when at home. It sounds fine in theory but I found the feature intrusive, often telling the phone to grab Wi-Fi signals when I had intentionally disabled the radio to avoid a slow office connection.

Packing an 8-megapixel camera and LED flash, on paper the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE looks like a powerful mobile imaging device. The sensor grabs either 8MP wide-screen shots or 6MP images to match the size of the phone's screen. The Photon also is a nimble picture taker, with a quick shot-to-shot time of under a second, which feels practically instant. The phone's camera app offers a bevy of capture and scene modes such as Panorama, Multi-shot, Timer, Nightscape, and Sunset to list a few. There is a wide range of special filters too, eight in all, spanning Blackboard to Aqua.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
The camera snaps pictures quickly and has lots of settings. Sarah Tew/CNET

Unfortunately the images I snapped on the whole were dark, lacked punch, and had soft details. Indoor still-life shots were muted, fuzzy, with odd color perhaps caused by tricky fluorescent lighting.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
Still-life shots were dark and soft, with wonky color. Brian Bennett/CNET

Under low light, troublesome subjects like fast-moving kids resulted in blur and lots of color noise. Taking the phone outside didn't improve matters much, with colors still looking drab and images not as crisp as I would like from an 8-megapixel sensor. To be fair, the day was partly cloudy so sunshine was in short supply.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
Low-light shots were soft and kids hard to capture. Brian Bennett/CNET

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
Outdoors details could have been more crisp. Brian Bennett/CNET

Provided there was enough ambient light, the Photon Q 4G LTE recorded video at 1080HD resolution admirably. Motion was smooth and details were clear, while background sounds and those made by subjects were easy to hear.

Equipped with the power of a current-generation 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM, the Motorola Photon Q 4G has plenty of speed. The phone displayed agility whether opening applications or zipping through menus. Linpack benchmark scores confirmed my experience with the Photon. The device notched a high 162.3 MFLOPs in a quick 1 second running the Multi-Thread version of the test. Still, this showing wasn't enough to best the HTC Evo 4G LTE's score of 198.53 MFLOPs in 0.85 second.

While Sprint makes it difficult to forget that the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE can connect to its new LTE data network, it's just getting off the ground. For example, here in New York where I tested the Photon, the phone is limited to 3G speeds. I measured average download throughput in multiple locations to be a pedestrian 1.4Mbps. Average upload speeds were also slow, at 1Mbps.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)
Until Sprint LTE hits, you're limited to 3G in New York. Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality on Sprint's CDMA network in New York was very good. On my test calls voices sounded rich, clear, and free of distortion. The Photon Q's earpiece gets pretty loud, forcing me to dial things down a few steps to enjoy a comfortable volume. I also liked the handset's speakerphone function, which produces a generous helping of volume without buzz, especially when I flipped the device over exposing its rear speaker.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE call quality sample Listen now:

Motorola claims that the Photon Q 4G LTE's 1,785mAh battery will supply a talk time of 7.5 hours. In anecdotal tests, the phone played an HD resolution video file continuously for a lengthy 8 hours and 6 minutes. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S III managed to do the same task for 9 hours and 24 minutes. The HTC Evo 4G LTE, though, persevered longest, lasting for a full 10 hours and 13 minutes.

Just like its Verizon relative the Droid 4, the $199.99 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE provides one of the best Android smartphone typing experiences available. Other benefits are its modern Snapdragon S4 processing, bright and colorful screen, and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich software. Unless you're committed to BlackBerry, a habit I strongly urge you to kick, the Photon Q is a must-buy for physical keyboard addicts looking for their next Sprint purchase. If you're not tied to using real keys, by all means go for the feature-packed Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC Evo 4G LTE, which offer better cameras plus LTE data if you can get it.


Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE (Sprint)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7