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.