Motorola Photon 4G review

It's summer, which means the usual deluge of Android handsets is upon us. The Motorola Photon 4G is Sprint's latest specimen, and follows hot on the heels of HTC's somewhat disappointing EVO 3D. Like its stablemate, it's a proper superphone with a dual-core processor, large qHD display, and of course, WiMAX. Instead of trying to wow us with a gimmicky 3D camera, it differentiates itself by being Sprint's first global phone with WiMAX, and as such supports CDMA / EV-DO for North America along with GSM / HSPA for the rest of the world. Motorola further spices things up with a dash of WebTop functionality, something it first introduced on the Atrix 4G. So, is the Photon just the smartphone flavor du jour, or does it stand out from the seasonal crowd? How does it compare to the EVO 3D and the other Android flagships? Hit the break for our full review.


The first thing you'll notice upon picking up the Photon 4G is that it's lighter and thinner than you'd expect. At 158g (5.57oz) and 12.2mm (0.48 inches) it's svelter than the EVO 3D, thanks in part to the lack of a protruding camera pod. Still, it feels like a substantial device, with build quality and materials to match. In fact, we think the Photon looks extremely handsome. Gone is the squared-off styling of Motorola's Droid series -- instead, the phone features cut-off corners, subtly curved top and bottom edges, along with lots of tasteful details. For example, the sheet of Gorilla glass that protects the 4.3-inch capacitive touchscreen sports a beveled edge and a two-tone coating that reminds us of Motorola's Milestone XT720. It's reddish black over the display and blueish grey around it -- this includes the area covering the sensors, earpiece, front-facing camera and notification light above the screen, plus the space housing the primary microphone and four capacitive buttons (menu, home, back, search) below the display. The bezel is made of a beveled hard plastic coated in a glossy gunmetal-colored lacquer that wraps around the left and right sides.

In back you'll find a full battery cover made of a black soft-touch plastic, a clearly labeled eight megapixel camera and a dual-LED flash mounted in a recessed glass pod with the same two-tone coating that's used in front, a pair of secondary microphones, a silver Motorola emblem and a speaker grill next to a shiny metal kickstand. Yes, the EVO 4G's signature pegleg is back and this time around is designed to prop up the Photon 4G on either the left or the right edge. It's also active, meaning that an app can be launched automatically when the kickstand is deployed. Sadly, there's no proper way to customize which app is started -- the only choices are the Widget Clock and the homescreen, along with a setting to disable the functionality. Peeling off the back cover reveals a 1,650mAh battery, a SIM slot for the GSM / HSPA radio and a microSD card reader to complements the 16GB of built-in storage.

A silver volume rocker and camera button (both ridged for grip) are located on the right side of the Photon 4G while a shiny power / lock key and standard headphone jack live on the top edge, and a pair of micro-HDMI and micro-USB connectors are mounted on the left side. Compared to the Atrix 4G, each connector is flipped 180 degrees and shifted toward the top of the phone, making it impossible to use the WebTop-capable Photon with any of the Atrix's docks. To make matters worse, Motorola only offers an HD dock for the Photon, with no laptop dock in sight. There's clearly no technical reason for these limitations, so we're left to assume that this decision was made solely for marketing purposes -- a sure way to earn the scorn of the tech-savvy customers most likely to be interested in purchasing this device. It's worth noting that the Atrix is the only Motorola handset currently using a different orientation for these connectors -- other than the placement, the Photon's layout matches that of the Droid X, Droid X2, Droid 3 and upcoming Droid Bionic.

Spec-wise, the Photon 4G features NVIDIA's snappy 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 SoC, a WebTop friendly 1GB of RAM, the aforementioned 16GB of internal storage and a whopping eight (!) radios: WiMAX, CDMA / EV-DO, GSM / EDGE (quadband), UMTS / HSPA (tri-band 850/1,900/2,100MHz), WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, GPS / AGPS and... FM (phew). This makes the Photon a global phone, but what's particularly interesting is that the GSM / HSPA radio is quasi unlocked -- the firmware blocks access to GSM / HSPA networks in North America, but you're free to use a local SIM in the rest of the world. Of course, it's only a matter of time before this restriction is lifted by some enterprising hacker and we can all enjoy the Photon on AT&T or Rogers, so stay tuned. A bevy of sensors rounds things off (light, proximity, orientation, accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope), along with the same gorgeous 4.3-inch qHD (960x540 pixel) TFT panel that we first saw on the Droid X2. While Motorola cheats a bit by using a PenTile display, it matters little in practice -- the screen is bright even in direct sunlight, with beautiful colors, ink-like blacks and wide viewing angles.

Call and reception quality matched Motorola's typically high standards. While we didn't get a chance to try the Photon 4G on any GSM networks, WiMAX performance was on par with what we've observed on Sprint's other 4G devices. We're still getting slightly faster speeds on the competition's HSPA+ networks here in San Francisco, with LTE eating everyone else's lunch. Audio playback sounded great in our tests and we were pleasantly surprised with the loudness and clarity of the built-in speaker. Battery life is impressive -- in our rundown test (looping video) the battery lasted five hours and 54 minutes and we managed to squeeze a full 29 hours and 57 minutes from the battery in our usage test (a light day's use with lots of idle time). Put simply, the Photon will routinely last a full day on a single charge.


The Photon 4G's eight megapixel auto-focus camera appears to be identical to the one used in the Droid X2. As such, it nixes the mechanical shutter found on the original Droid X and Milestone XT720, two handsets that can be coaxed to produce fantastic shots. While we applaud the decision to include a dedicated camera button, we're completely dumbfounded as to why Motorola chose a single detent mechanism instead of a proper dual-stage shutter key -- it's truly a case of two steps forward and one step back. Rounding up the spec list, you'll find a dual LED flash and three microphones (one on the front, two in the back). In most conditions, the Photon takes lovely pictures. Color balance and exposure are generally quite accurate, but low light performance is average at best and noise always creeps in a little too soon. While the sensor gathers plenty of information, it's just not sensitive enough -- there's no night mode and pictures shot in low light just end up looking dim even when adjusting exposure.
In terms of camera interface, the Photon 4G is neither intuitive nor particularly ergonomic and offers a rather limited number of settings. For stills, there's touch-to-focus, flash mode (auto, on, off), scenes (like sport), effects (sepia, etc...), picture modes (including panorama) and a few additional options in the menus (such as resolution and exposure). As expected, the digital zoom can be controlled by pressing the volume rocker. For video, the scenes setting changes which of the three microphones are active and how the audio is processed. One scene enables the back microphones for stereo audio, another prioritizes the front microphone for narration and a third uses one of the microphones for noise reduction –- it's all very clever. The Photon captures video in HD (720p) at a smooth 30fps with a decent amount of detail. Unfortunately, there's no auto-focus of any kind when recording videos, making closeups nigh impossible. Ultimately, this camera gets the job done, but leaves us wanting more.


We're happy to report that the Photon 4G runs the latest version of Gingerbread (Android 2.3.4) and comes with the same lightweight Motorola skin as its Droid X2 cousin. Unlike the Atrix, there is no trace of Blur or its annoying first use login screen. This is the evolution of last year's Droid X UI -- it's been refined in both appearance and performance and offers a reasonably pleasant user experience. While the Photon's skin is less pervasive than Sense, it includes a bunch of Motorola-specific widgets and apps (such as Gallery, Messaging and Music) that are designed to integrate with a variety popular social networks. In addition to seven home screens, the UI features four dock icons that can be customized just like in TouchWiz. The leftmost icon brings up the app tray, which can be organized in groups (defaults are All apps, Recent, Downloaded and Sprint). Overall there are no surprises here -- the design is pretty cohesive and everything is smooth and functional.

Speaking of performance, the Photon 4G is fast. It's almost as quick as our favorite speed demons, Samsung's Galaxy S II and HTC's EVO 3D (which are both clocked at a higher 1.2GHz). The combination of Gingerbread, 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM really shows its potential here -- everything from the UI to the web browser feels immediate and fluid. Our benchmarks reflect this, with Quadrant consistently scoring 2,300 to 2,700, Linpack (single-thread) returning 41 MFLOPS, Linpack (multi-thread) 63 MFLOPS, Nenamark 46.9fps, Nenamark2 23.4fps, Neocore 54.6fps and Sunspider finishing in a brief 4,105ms. These results clearly place the Photon near the top of the dual-core smartphone heap. The only area needing improvement is WebTop, which remains sluggish. We didn't use the feature extensively since there's no laptop dock available (being tied to our desks is so 2006), but our experience echoed what we wrote in our Atrix review -- we truly like the idea, but the execution still leaves a lot to be desired.

As you'd expect from a branded device, the Photon 4G ships with some bundled apps. Thankfully, Sprint kept clutter to a minimum, and most of the pre-installed software can be removed. In addition to the apps packaged with Motorola's UI (such as News, Social Networking, Rich Location, and Tasks) you'll find a file manager, Quickoffice (with support for editing documents), Swype, a task manager and TeleNav. While Qik Video Chat is strangely absent, there's a slick custom Car Dock app that's different from Google's -- it's normally triggered when the Photon is propped into Motorola's optional car dock, but can also be launched via Any Cut as long as the kickstand is already deployed. Sprint throws in its own apps, including NASCAR, Sprint ID, Sprint Mobile Wallet, Sprint Music Plus, Sprint Radio, Sprint TV & Movies, Sprint Worldwide and Sprint Zone (useful for managing your account). The Photon follows in the footsteps of the Droid Pro by incorporating a bunch of enterprise-grade security features (like remote wipe and data encryption) -- something that's sure to please even the most demanding IT professional.


With its stunning display, impressive battery life and solid performance, the Photon 4G comes very close to dethroning Samsung's mighty Galaxy S II as king of the Android hill. This is simultaneously Motorola's and Sprint's best handset ever -- it takes everything we praised about the Droid X2, adds WiMAX support, a global GSM / HSPA radio and WebTop capability, then wraps it up in a much sleeker package. All that's missing now is a laptop dock and a better camera -- one with a proper two-stage shutter key and 1080p video recording with continuous autofocus. For those who, like us, prefer the flexibility of GSM, have a tendency to root for the underdog and are concerned with AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile, it's the first phone compelling enough to justify a switch to Sprint. Summer is not over yet, but at $200 (on contract) the Photon is definitely the first superphone hit of the season.