Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G aims to stun

Motorola is gearing up for a big second half of 2011, and the first entry aiming to stun consumers is the Photon 4G with Sprint.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

Motorola is gearing up for a big second half of 2011, and the first entry aiming to stun consumers is the Photon 4G with Sprint. (Please excuse the pun.)

The Photon 4G was first unveiled on June 9 along side the lower-end Triumph pay-as-you-go smartphone for Virgin Mobile.

[Image Gallery: Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G unboxed]

Before I continue, you should know that I'm not a regular Android user. (I admit, I'm an iPhone owner.) So, although I probably have more experience with Android phones than most iPhone owners because I write about them so much, handling the interface is still quite new for me.

So let's get started.


Here are the nitty-gritty specs. The Photon 4G is powered by a NVIDIA Tegra 2 1Ghz processor with 1GB of RAM. The phone itself comes with 16GB of onboard memory, which can be bumped up as high as 48GB when using a 32GB SD card.

The Photon is also Sprint's first international 4G device with CDMA and WiMax connectivity. But when it is a world phone, it roams on GSM. Motorola has designed the device so that users will not have to change the SIM card, and it is really hard to get at under the back hood, so hopefully that's never necessary.


Along with the SD card slot, the Photon 4G sports a few other connectivity options: the basic headphones jack up top with HDMI and micro USB ports on the side. Other buttons include the standard quartet of Android touch navigation keys on the center bottom of the device, along with the silver volume buttons and a dedicated camera button on the opposite side from the ports.

While I'll get more to the camera functionality later, the dedicated camera button didn't quite work the way I hoped it would. If you just press it in an instant and the phone isn't awake from sleep mode AND unlocked, it won't do anything. Thus, you have to hit the power button on the top of the Photon, slide the unlock icon on the display and then you can hit the camera button for an instant snapshot. Thus, not so instant after all.

As for the volume buttons, those also double for zoom in/out buttons when in camcorder mode, which works as well as it should. The only problem I had with any of the buttons (but the power and camera buttons especially) was that I had to really press down on them for the respective functions to activate. That might be helpful when they're jostling around in bags, but rather annoying for everyday use.

As for all-around dimensions, the Photon 4G is fairly light at 158 grams, and it measures 66.9 x 126.9 x 12.2mm. Your hand won't get tired from holding this smartphone.


The growing trend with smartphones seems to be that the bigger the display the better. Well, a 4.3-inch display really is the maximum it should get. It's decent enough for watching quick videos when in transit, easier on the eyes for browsing and not too large for one's pockets. (In comparison, the Samsung Infuse 4G with AT&T was just a tad too much.)

Thus, if you didn't guess it already, the Photon 4G sports at 4.3-inch qHD display, which really is just lovely to behold. The colors are incredibly crisp, and it's the closest I've seen in terms of crispness in comparison the iPhone 4's Retina Display.


Running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), Motorola has also imprinted a number of its own widgets on top for a more personalized (at least for Motorola) experience.

I've never really been a fan of when I've ever seen any kind of extra UIs on top of Android (with the exception of HTC Sense) because it usually looks cluttered. That's still the case here. However, at least on Gingerbread it is easy to get rid of icons I don't wand and add new ones to the home screen quite easily.


Let's not forget the first priority for any mobile phone: it is still a phone! Thus, call quality and clarity is key. Fortunately, this feature shines on the Photon 4G. While calling a friend from my office in downtown San Francisco on Thursday afternoon, she replied that it was the "clearest" I have ever sounded on a phone. When I asked compared to my office landline, she still said the Photon connection was clearer.

To be expected, she also said that the call quality was far better when I called on the Photon than when I call normally from my iPhone 4. When it comes to phone calls, the Photon 4G wins.


As far as the browser interface goes, this is really an Android function in general that doesn't reflect so much on Motorola as it does on Google. The intuitive browser bar is certainly helpful, and voice search is already enabled.

For connectivity, the Photon performed at lightning speed when pulling up basic browser sites like CNN.com and (naturally) ZDNet.com on both 4G and Wi-Fi. Of course, you should make sure that your area is covered by Sprint's 4G network before buying this device to truly take advantage of it.

Adding to that subject, the Photon 4G also doubles as a personal 3G/4G mobile hotspot that is capable of supporting up to eight devices on either Sprint's high-speed networks.


Following the pattern of nearly every other smartphone on the market these days, the Photon 4G sports two cameras. The rear camera is a real delight with an 8-megapixel sensor and dual LED flash. For those who are fans of video chat (I am not still), there is also the front-facing VGA camera. Both can shoot video, although obviously the rear camera is the ideal choice for actual recording.

Neither camera was that exceptional in comparison to what is already available from similarly-priced smartphones. I was also a little disappointed that there weren't that many preset functions (i.e. more than just black & white and sepia tones, among a few others) available in point-and-shoot mode.

However, there are apps for that and I couldn't complain whatsoever about the picture clarity. I'm already using my iPhone 4 in place of a point-and-shoot camera these days, and the Photon 4G certainly shoots better than Apple's smartphone.

Here's an example outside in broad daylight when the Photon 4G will snap pictures at its best. (Click on the image to view it larger.)

That photo is untouched. It's not bad and could certainly be helped out a bit in color depth with a few touches in either Picasa or iPhoto. But it's still not bad.

I took other photos inside the CBSi offices during the day, none of which required the auto-flash feature. Using the built-in GPS function, the photo was also geo-tagged to "San Francisco, California" instantly.

As for getting this photo off of the phone, there are a few options, including email, Bluetooth and a specific Gmail app. I chose to go with Gmail, and as I hadn't set up my Google Apps account for the phone yet, it took me straight through the set up process, which was done in a few clicks and taps.

However, it took forever for the Photon to finish "syncing" or whatever it was doing to take me to the actual email message screen. It must have been a few minutes. I almost gave up and went to Bluetooth, which I sampled next anyway.

But once it was in email mode, it was very simple. As for Bluetooth, I had to go back to the home screen on both the iPhone and the Photon to turn Bluetooth on. (Of course, if I was using a computer instead of the iPhone, it might have been quicker.) However, it was the Photon's fault that it took so long because I had to go back to the Settings menu and make the Photon discoverable. Or maybe that's an Android problem I didn't know about.

Either way, I couldn't get the Photon to pair with the iPhone, but the iPhone was willing to pair with the Photon. I ended up giving up on this method after about 15 minutes.


There are a few aforementioned features that help Motorola tout this as a business-friendly device. For example, the mobile hotspot and world phone capabilities. Additionally, Motorola has packed in some corporate security tools including remote wipe, pin lock and data encryption. You could always use the video chat function for video conferencing as well.

But at the end of the day, this still feels like more of a consumer device. If you're looking for a smartphone that will fit for both personal and business features, then perhaps the Photon will suit you.


If you haven't noticed with reviews of other 4G handsets released earlier this year, such as the HTC Thunderbolt, using 4G networks really deplete the battery incredibly fast.

Unfortunately, the Photon 4G isn't much different at this point. It uses a 1,700 mAh battery, and I couldn't find an exact estimate of the battery life when using 4G constantly, even after I pinged Motorola reps. But based on my use, I'd venture to say it is roughly between four and six hours when conducting mixture of phone calls and 4G browsing.

However, there are some back-up juice options, which leads us to...



Motorola has developed several products that would work well with the Photon 4G, including a wireless keyboard ($69.99) and additional battery options ($49.99).

But the two that Motorola and Sprint want consumers to know about the most are the HD Station ($99.99) and the Vehicle Navigation Dock ($59.99).

I didn't have an HDMI-enabled display nor a car to test these products out, but I did see the HD docking station in action during a demo this week. It's not much different from the one seen designed for the Motorola Atrix 4G. The big feature here is the WebTop UI, which essentially turns the Photon into a desktop computer when docked and connected to a monitor. Unless you've completely made the switch to cloud computing and only need a computer for browsing, this will not replace your PC. But it is another medium for productivity as users can open and navigate a full browser with Flash support.

However, this docking station will not fit the Atrix 4G, nor will the Atrix's dock fit the Photon as the two phones are different sizes. Thus, the docks are as well. That's too bad considering these docks cost $129, so it would be nice if it was a little more versatile. But it's very unlikely that someone would have an Atrix 4G and a Photon 4G at the same time...unless two people with these devices lived in the same household.


Of course, this review does not cover every little item and feature available on the Photon 4G. It's just the basics, but the most important ones at the very least.

Sprint and Motorola made the right decision to price this 4G device at $199.99 when it is available on Sunday, July 31. (Don't rorget about the two-year service contract with Sprint too.) There have been a few other devices this year that have tried to push the bar up to $249.99 (See: LG's Revolution and G2X), which just didn't qualify for a higher price tag.

So to answer the headline, was it stunning? Yes and no. Although this device is definitely not great enough to make me want to jump from iOS to Android (again, perhaps that's more Google's fault), it's still a great smartphone that I enjoyed. The phone call quality alone was enough to make me think I could hear properly again. Also, for the frequent business traveler, the world capabilities are also a nice perk.

I think if you like Android, you're looking for a new smartphone, and you want 4G but you're okay with a limited battery life, then the Photon 4G will make you quite happy.


Editorial standards