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Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G unboxed

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. Check out the new device being unboxed.
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By Rachel King, Staff Writer on
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1 of 19 Rachel King/ZDNet

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).

(For the full review, check it out here on Between the Lines.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Photon 4G sports this nifty and useful kickstand for watching movies. It also has a special interface when extended that turns the Photon 4G into a nightstand clock, which also dims at night with the time still showing.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It's also impossible to charge the Photon correctly while the kickstand is up. 

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The docking station is complete with HDMI and USB ports for connecting to monitors as well as computer peripherals such as a mouse and keyboard. The dock also features Bluetooth if you'd prefer to use a wireless keyboard and mouse.

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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.

Both the HD Dock and the vehicle docking stations will be available once the Photon 4G rolls out on Sunday, July 31 for $199.99 with a two-year service agreement with Sprint.

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