Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

The future of Motorola post-acquisition may still be a mystery, but the manufacturer has managed to stay quite active over the last few weeks: it unveiled the Atrix HD, its first smartphone with an HD display and native ICS build, and there's already much anticipation around Verizon's Droid RAZR HD ahead of the holiday season. For the here and now, however, it's Sprint's turn to soak in the Moto love with the Photon Q 4G LTE. (Say it five times fast.)

Naturally, the name of the phone doesn't leave a whole lot to the imagination. As you'd expect, it's a follow-up to last year's Photon 4G that trades WiMAX for LTE and adds a full-sized QWERTY keyboard. What the name doesn't tell you, though, is that this phone costs a lofty $200 on contract, and features a qHD ColorBoost display (not to be confused with the Atrix's 720p screen, which uses the same branding). In other words, it's gotta be pretty good to have any success at that price point. How does the latest Googorola device hold up against the rest of Sprint's LTE lineup? Is it worth the premium? Follow us southward to find out.

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Motorola Photon 4G LTE review

Hardware

Sprint is one of the most brand-centric carriers in the US (with the exception, perhaps, of Verizon's ubiquitous Droid franchise), so it isn't too surprising Dan Hesse & Co. chose to keep the Photon name with its latest flagship. A quick glance at the device would seem to confirm that its overall design aesthetic is indeed similar to the original Photon 4G, a WiMAX-enabled slate phone released this time last year. Here you'll find the same diagonally cut corners, though the Q's backside looks quite different, as we'll discuss shortly.

For this year's entry to the series, the Now Network has shed the old "4G" (or "faux-G") in favor of a 1900MHz LTE radio. Additionally, this is the first LTE device on Sprint that has global roaming enabled, sporting tri-band (850 / 1900 / 2100MHz) HSPA+ 21Mbps / quad-band EDGE to help keep international travelers connected. The catch? The SIM card isn't accessible -- something we've seen on both the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC EVO 4G LTE. This means that you'll have roaming capabilities around the world, but there's no way around paying the hideous per-minute charges. If you were able to unlock the phone and swap the SIM, this could be avoided. Needless to say, you'll want to get used to finding WiFi and calling through third-party services such as Skype, Google Voice and so on.

This is Sprint's first LTE device with GSM roaming enabled.

Diving into the Photon Q's dimensions, the phone measures 126.5mm (4.98 inches) long, 66mm (2.6 inches) wide and 13.7mm (0.54 inches) thick. Realistically, this is exactly what we've come to expect from QWERTY devices -- you'll be looking for a while if you're hoping to buy an über-thin phone with a full slide-out keyboard. They're a lot harder to come by than you may realize; the thinnest device to fit these criteria is Verizon's Pantech Marauder, which registers at 12mm exactly. The Photon also weighs 6.0 ounces (170.1 grams), which, again, isn't as huge a disappointment for QWERTY fans as it is for someone thinking of switching over from a candybar touchscreen device.

At 4.3 inches, this display is the largest we've seen on a phone with a slide-out keyboard. And despite the handset's heft, we found ourselves feeling at home whenever we cradled the Photon Q -- it's narrower than the Droid 4 and the original Photon 4G (which, by the way, is only 1.5mm thinner than this year's model). What's more, the edges taper inward slightly, creating a comfortable resting place for your fingers. Indeed, we didn't mind the size of the phone at all.

DNP Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Gone is the fancy kickstand on the back. In its place you'll notice a speaker grille and an 8-megapixel camera with 1080p video capture and LED flash, all hanging out on a non-removable access plate fashioned out of textured plastic. Remember the sealed hatch in season one of "Lost"? Your memory will definitely be jogged when you start fiddling around with the Photon Q's version. Presumably, this contraption hides a 1,785mAh battery, rear speakers, camera module and embedded SIM card, none of which would be of any use to you without a serious removal effort.

Surrounding that eyesore is a layer of grippy soft plastic that may help prevent accidental drops. We'd prefer to see this same material across the whole back, although the entire body of the phone feels quite solid regardless. But for all of our criticisms of the device's rear, there's one redeeming quality which gives the phone major brownie points: no carrier logo can be found anywhere. Sprint's signature watermark isn't on the back, nor on the front -- without turning the device on, you may not even be able to tell that it's a Sprint-branded device. No matter how many times anyone tries to convince you otherwise, this is truly the way every phone and tablet should be marked.

The Photon Q 4G LTE is missing something: a Sprint logo.

Motorola's logo is still stamped on the front of the device, right next to the 1.3MP front-facing camera and below the internal speaker grille. On the left side, you'll notice the signature Webtop connection setup (read: a pair of micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports). Up top there's a 3.5mm headphone jack and a power / standby button located squarely in middle -- a compromise for the lefties who might be interested in this phone. Moving to the right side, there's a volume rocker closer to the top, a microSD slot below that and a single-stage camera shutter button at the bottom.

We were disappointed to learn that a $200 LTE device like the Photon only comes with a paltry 8GB storage built in, which translates to just over 4.5GB of user-accessible space. That doesn't leave a lot to work with, and you'll find yourself in need of a microSD card if you want enough room for high-res pics and videos, not to mention your movie or music collection.

Rounding out the spec list, the Photon Q offers NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 LE + EDR, 802.11b/g/n, DLNA connectivity and a noise-cancelling mic. We asked Motorola to confirm that the screen is covered with Gorilla Glass, but given the company's strong history with Corning -- not to mention the fact that the original Photon was scratch-resistant -- there's a strong chance Gorilla Glass is included here as well.

Display

DNP Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Like many of its competitors, Motorola is now attaching its own special brand (i.e., ColorBoost) to its new smartphone displays. But don't let the name distract you -- in reality, this particular screen uses a qHD (960 x 540) non-PenTile TFT panel which, given its 4.3-inch size, translates into a density of 256ppi. Before we even saw the display, we were already disappointed to hear about the choice in resolution. Not that it's terrible for the typical user, but these days a premium device should have 720p if it wants to be competitive.

Before we turn our attention to the viewing experience, we have one small, but important detail to nitpick. While the screen has qHD resolution, your apps will run at 888 x 540. Why? It's all courtesy of the virtual navigation bar at the bottom of the screen -- the black bar that features the back, home and multitask buttons. In this case, a grand total of 72 pixels -- which translates into 7.5 percent of the available vertical pixels on the 4.3-inch screen -- are lost as a result. (As it happens, this is the same percentage lost on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.) End of the world? Of course not. But love or hate the idea of a virtual bar, it's still costing you more real estate on the screen.

We were also leery of testing another ColorBoost display, since the one on the Atrix HD not only adds a boost of color, but it misses the mark completely and causes every photo and video to appear oversaturated. Fortunately, the Photon Q isn't quite as saturated -- in fact, the video playback experience was better than what we'd expect from a qHD display. Viewing angles are also surprisingly good, offering the ability to see the screen just shy of edge-on. The screen is also easily viewable in direct sunlight when cranked to full brightness.

Keyboard

DNP Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Anyone looking to purchase a handset in this category is willing to sacrifice thinness for the ability to type comfortably, accurately and quickly with tactile feedback. If it doesn't perform to expectations, the rest of the phone's selling points are swiftly rendered moot. Fortunately, the Photon Q holds steady, proudly flaunting one of the nicest Android slide-out keyboards we've had the opportunity to play with in recent memory. In fact, it brought back pleasant memories of our precious time with the Droid 4, also made by Motorola. The keys aren't too large or too small. They're raised, offering a decent amount of travel, and they bulge out ever-so slightly. What's more, they're reasonably spaced out so as to prevent your fingers from mashing neighboring keys -- at the same time, they're not so far apart from each other that you're slowing down your WPM rate.

This is one of the finest physical keyboards we've used on an Android device in quite some time.

We also appreciate the layout of the Photon board. Motorola has opted to use the five-row setup, which means you'll get a dedicated number row rather than being forced to become good friends with the shift key. These buttons are laid out in identical fashion to the Droid 4, again choosing to eschew the usual Android navigation keys for other useful functions.

The edge-lit keyboard utilized on the Photon Q isn't a new concept, but Motorola's added a little flourish to the functionality to make it even better: the ability to adjust the backlight brightness to your own desired level. You can also opt for automatic mode, if you prefer, which will change your keyboard's brightness to fit your current lighting. To change your preferences, you can find the adjustment options in the settings menu under Language & Input > Keyboard backlight.

DNP Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

As for the slider mechanism, it feels fluid, but not too loose. There's just the right amount of resistance when you push the slider out with your thumbs, and the automatic opener catches just about halfway to escort the keyboard the rest of the way. It feels slightly loose when we close it, but not to the point of concern.

Lastly, how fast do our free-flying fingers go when using the Photon's QWERTY? To answer this question, we downloaded a third-party app that uses a standard test to measure words per minute and we compared our results between the stock virtual keyboard (autocorrect turned off) and the physical one. We also gave our fingers a few days to become accustomed to the latter, just to make sure we were able to work out all the jitters. Our best scores were 40WPM on the QWERTY (with 92 percent accuracy) and 28WPM on the virtual keypad (with 84 percent accuracy). As a disclaimer, it's likely yours truly isn't the fastest typist out there, and we may have achieved better results with a third-party virtual keyboard like SwiftKey, but we wanted to at least demonstrate the difference between the two major input methods in terms of general speed.

Software

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Like the Atrix HD before it, the Photon Q comes loaded with Android 4.0.4. This particular build of Ice Cream Sandwich doesn't offer many surprises (click here for our full review of Moto's ICS skin), but that doesn't mean it lacks a distinct personality. After all, this is the first time we've seen the UI used on a Sprint device, and this was also our first opportunity to try it on a QWERTY phone.

When using the device in portrait mode, you likely won't see much of a difference between the Photon Q and the Atrix HD -- both offer a virtual bar of navigation buttons at the bottom and utilize the same Moto skin. It even uses the same circles widget we saw on the Atrix, which displays the time and date, customized weather preferences and battery life.

It's in landscape mode where the experience starts to feel different. You're still presented with a 4 x 4 grid for your icons and widgets, but the quick access bar shifts to the right side, while the embedded Google search bar is on the left, although it turns into a set of two buttons here instead. We also have one minor quibble: if you're on a panel other than the main home screen, sliding the keyboard in or out will not only change your orientation -- it will throw you back to the primary home panel regardless of what you had been doing prior.

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Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE screenshots



Just like the Atrix HD, several of the Photon Q's stock icons (e.g., phone, text, mail and people) have tiny up / down arrows to the right. This indicates that you can swipe up or down on the icon and a special widget will pop up. For example, the phone reveals your recent call history, the text widget shows your latest messages and the people widget opens up your favorites list. It's a clever touch, especially if you already have too many other apps and widgets clogging up your screen.

Motocast is nowhere to be found here, but Motorola is still investing heavily in its Smartactions feature -- and for good reason. Since its debut on the Droid RAZR, we've been proponents of this automation service, which lets you set up rules for certain situations and locations. What settings need to be changed when you walk into the office? How do you want your phone to behave when you plug your headphones in? What should the Photon Q be doing when it's time to go to sleep? There are plenty of scenarios to choose from, and a host of rules are applicable each time. Automation services add a splash of convenience to the daily grind, and Motorola has done a fine job implementing its own version into its flagship products.

This wouldn't be a true software section without discussing the usual US carrier bloatware that comes pre-installed. As time goes by, it turns out that this section of our review gets shorter and shorter -- Sprint committed to dramatically reducing its app count last year, and other companies have followed suit. Sprint ID, Sprint Zone, Quickoffice and Voicemail are essentially the only programs contributed by the Now Network, and only one of the four can be disabled.

Indeed, Motorola has unlocked the bootloader on the Photon Q 4G LTE.

As a side note, it's also important to point out that Motorola is allowing the Photon Q's bootloader to be unlocked (and has announced plans to do so for new devices going forward). In fact, if you're a fan of custom ROMs, the company has put up a website dedicated to teaching customers how to unlock their devices.

Camera


Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

If there's one thing we've learned about Motorola over the past year, it's that it loves consistency -- when it comes to cameras, at least. Once it started cranking out handsets with 8-megapixel sensors, it hasn't looked back. Unfortunately, it hasn't really looked forward either. Moto's been content to stick with the same 'ol set of optics as the Atrix HD and Droid RAZR before that. Heck, even the Photon's predecessor featured the same spec.

Indeed, the user interface must be part of the company's tried-and-true software, because there have been very few changes since the Atrix HD. The shutter button takes its usual spot on the right, flanked by the camcorder toggle and front-facing cam switch. On the left you'll find the gallery button with a zoom bar underneath. Along the bottom is the usual toolbar of settings, effects, scenes, modes, exposure and flash. When it's switched to the camcorder, however, the scenes section is replaced by "audio scenes," which offers wind reduction and concert settings in addition to the default stereo selection. Time lapse is also available here.

As usual, Motorola sticks to the basics when it comes to image enhancement settings. You won't find white balance, ISO, contrast, HDR, macro mode or a special night / low-light option. In fact, the Photon Q camera doesn't even offer the ability to turn off the shutter sound. It does, however, let you use the volume rocker either as a hardware shutter button or zoom in / out, though the former is rather pointless since the phone has an official button for this very purpose. Sadly, the dedicated shutter key is only single-stage, preventing you from being able to lock focus or exposure prior to taking the shot.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Simply put, the dearth of nifty photog-friendly settings makes the camera a pretty hard sale. Frankly, it's not good enough on its own -- it needs the assistance of these extra tools and enhancements in order to even be considered as a high-end imaging product. Even without a proper macro mode, for instance, our close-up shots were decent, but they didn't offer the same level of detail we're used to. The lens is capable of focusing on the first attempt if you're about 10cm away, but any objects closer than that will likely require multiple tries to focus or it simply won't do it at all.

Lowlight images didn't come out too well either. Colors appear faded when the LED flash is used. Shots taken without the flash turned out too dark and noisy and we also saw another oddity: the sensor appeared to have continued difficulty processing what little light was coming in. On multiple occasions, the viewfinder would take the background light and replace it with flashes of reds, blues and other colors -- all the while showing off even more noise than usual. We found that it was nearly impossible to take an actual picture when this occurred, as the camera app would freeze up as soon as we pressed the shutter key and wouldn't do anything until the app crashed a minute or so later. The only time we could reproduce this phenomenon was in lowlight situations (in both auto and sunset scenes); we didn't experience any similar concerns when snapping pictures in broad daylight.

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Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE sample shots



Speaking of which, we found our daytime images to be decent, but they're still nothing to write home about. Colors are slightly washed out, especially compared with samples taken with the Galaxy S III. Additionally, while tap-to-focus and continuous focus are both available, we wish Motorola had also added the opportunity to lock focus and exposure.

Overall, the rear-facing camera is an average shooter that appears unwilling to take any sort of limelight away from the Photon Q's other selling points, and quickly becomes one of the most forgettable elements of the entire experience. But what about the front-facing version? Essentially, it's more of the same -- images we took with the 1.3-megapixel camera up front actually turned out pretty well, with minimal loss in detail and color.

The Photon Q's 1080p video quality (1,920 x 1,080 at 30fps, MPEG-4 AVC profile at level 4 with a bit rate of 15Mbps) turned out to be better than our still image performance. Although the sensor delivers the same slightly washed-out colors as the stills, the motion here is incredibly fluid, while the audio (lossy AAC with a bit rate of 128Kbps) is crystal clear, thanks to that noise-cancelling mic. We didn't run into problems with continuous focus either, but fortunately you can still tap the viewfinder to retune the focus if necessary. It's not the best HD video recorder in the market, but we were still generally satisfied with it.

Performance and battery life

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The engine under the hood is a dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 processor clocked at 1.5GHz, supported by a gig of RAM and an Adreno 225 GPU. This should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed the latest LTE handsets in the US, since this particular SoC -- with its LTE-friendly silicon -- has become a commonality between all of them. Essentially, this means you should come to expect the same kind of performance that you'd witness on Sprint's premier devices like the Galaxy S III and HTC EVO 4G LTE. Here's how it holds up in the benchmark department.

Motorola Photon Q HTC EVO 4G LTE Sprint Samsung Galaxy S III
Quadrant 4,947 5,036 5,130
Vellamo 2,336 2,347 2,117
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,330 1,649 1,882
AnTuTu 6,134 6,942 6,536
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 55 56 54
CF-Bench 9,034 9,562 9,567
SunSpider: lower scores are better

As our benchmark scores suggest, the Photon Q can keep pace with Sprint's other $200 devices, and our experience certainly backs that up. We couldn't get the device to stutter, and it also didn't stumble during gaming or other intensive tasks. In fact, its graphics performance is a definite highlight: we enjoyed a lengthy Riptide session with nary a hiccup. Multitasking? No problem. Ultimately, the MSM8960 lives up to the expectations set by other devices packing the same silicon. The phone's stock browser also performs admirably -- its quickness in real life was backed up by some of the best SunSpider scores we've recorded recently. In fact, it's bested by only one other phone: the Atrix HD.

Unfortunately, we can't say the same about its battery life. With the exception of the RAZR Maxx, Motorola seems to have struggled with power management across its product lineup -- this was a pain point for the original Droid RAZR and the Atrix HD, for instance. The Photon Q's 1,785mAh battery appears to be a modest improvement, but it still isn't close to the Galaxy S III or EVO 4G LTE. Our endurance test, which entails playing a video on endless loop at half brightness and regularly-scheduled email / social media notifications in the background, lasted six hours and 18 minutes. (We also need to clarify that these tests were taken using an EVDO network, which means the battery could theoretically be closer to the RAZR and Atrix, since both devices were tested in an LTE zone.) In terms of real-world usage, a process that involves an occasional call, regular social media updates, taking a few pictures, emailing, texting and roughly 15 minutes of gaming, we made it through almost 11 hours. It will get you through a business day, but it may not be great for nocturnal types who like to go out for a night on the town.

The Photon Q's battery will get you through business hours, but probably not a night on the town afterward.

In terms of call quality, we didn't encounter any issues on EVDO. The RF remained steady throughout our tests and we didn't experience any dropped calls or degradation of quality. Again, not having LTE in our vicinity is unfortunate, as we aren't able to test quality (or network speeds, for that matter) at this point. In fact, this may be a critical point for potential Sprint customers to consider: by purchasing an LTE-capable device, you're committing yourself to horrendous EVDO speeds until the 4G service finally arrives at your town. And once you have it, if the next-gen coverage isn't up to par with your expectations, you can disable it in the settings and defer to 3G.

Diving into audio, the loudspeakers weren't challenged for decibels, so we were able to use it comfortably without having to crank the volume up to its maximum setting. Likewise, plugging in a pair of Monster headphones resulted in the same pleasant experience -- we enjoyed the music playback, which held the highs and lows with equal regard. The Photon is capable of playing MP3, M4A, FLAC, AMR, MKA, OGG, WAV, WMA and AAC+ audio formats.

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

For a device that lacks a 720p display, we were incredibly happy with the videos. We couldn't see any frame skips on 1080p selections, motion was amazingly smooth and we didn't have any concerns with audio syncing. In fact, the only annoyance we encountered was UI-based -- the virtual navigation bar disappears every time a video starts, which forces the screen to readjust to the right to make up for it. The video player is capable of recognizing MP4, H.263/264 and 3GPP, though we were unable to play WMV, MPG or MKV selections.

Let's now turn to some of the Photon's other connectivity options. WiFi works very well. When running our protagonist side-by-side with the Galaxy S III, we noticed that the Photon picked up a stronger signal on a consistent basis, though both had satisfactory results. GPS locked into position in less than five seconds, maintained an accuracy of roughly 10 feet and it easily followed us along a navigation route without any odd behavior or lost tracking signal.

Also, the handset has NFC capability, which allows you to utilize Android Beam by transferring contacts, websites, photos and other files between phones. Google Wallet is also available for download on the Photon 4G, if you intend to use your device for mobile payments.

While the Photon lacks support for MHL, it's not difficult to enable HDMI mirroring mode as long as you have the right equipment: simply plug in the proper micro-HDMI-to-HDMI cord alongside a standard micro-USB jack. Motorola will also have a one-size-fits-all HD dock accessory available, which will allow you to plug your phone or tablet into an HDTV (or HD-capable computer monitor) to watch movies, stream Netflix or mirror your device for any other purpose. We even tried gaming with the phone plugged in, which technically works fine, although it isn't practical when you need to tilt the device for steering. The dock also features a speaker out port, in case you want to use your phone's music collection for parties. (There ain't no party like a Photon Q party, after all.)

Lastly, the Photon offers Bluetooth 4.0 with LE and EDR, and it pairs flawlessly. Oddly, we noticed that files being transferred back and forth between the phone and our MacBook Pro dragged at a snail's pace when compared to the Atrix HD. While the latter device consistently pulled down average transfer speeds of 150 KB/s (maxing out at around 180), the Photon could only manage 70-80 KB/s. USB data transfers were another story; we were able to push out a 100MB file to our review unit in exactly 10 seconds.

Comparison and pricing

DNP Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Let's face it: if you're seriously considering this phone, chances are you're a self-admitted physical keyboard junkie and finding a top-notch Android device with that particular feature is nearly impossible. That's not to say there's a shortage of QWERTY phones currently available on the Now Network -- a quick look at the carrier's website indicates a total of 17 such devices are being sold, including five BlackBerrys, one Windows Phone, one Windows Mobile handset, two BrewMP feature phones and eight Android devices -- but the Photon Q 4G LTE is easily the only Android phone worthy of a second glance for power users.

The Photon Q is being sold for $200 with a two-year commitment, which puts it in the same pricing tier as the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC EVO 4G LTE. It's also more expensive than the 16GB iPhone 4S ($150), Samsung Galaxy Nexus ($100) and LG Viper 4G LTE ($80). As you can imagine, the Photon's key selling point is its keyboard; if that particular feature doesn't interest you, its battery, internal storage, display and camera would be reason enough to consider competing flagships like these.

Wrap-up

DNP Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

Unlike your typical slate -- a form factor that comes in a plethora of shapes, sizes, colors and specs -- it's much more difficult to find a suitable device that offers a full QWERTY keyboard, if you're hunting for one on the higher end. Sadly, carriers often treat phones with slide-out keyboards as second-class citizens, which means that QWERTY fans will rarely find a truly top-notch product. Indeed, the Photon Q 4G LTE is one of the best phones on the market for its form factor. It performs well and its spec sheet is quasi-respectable, but we can't call it a premier offering for Sprint (not with a straight face, anyway). At $200, this particular handset feels a bit out of place sitting next to heavyweights like the Galaxy S III and the EVO 4G LTE. Chop its price in half, and Motorola will have itself a strong contender in that price range.

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Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review: the best full QWERTY phone on Sprint's network