We think that all high-end Android smartphones should debut with Android 2.3 Gingerbread these days, and the Photon 4G does. The new firmware gives it a much improved user interface, a faster multitouch keyboard, one-touch text selection, a power manager that shuts down CPU-intensive apps, and an overall zippier experience.
As with all Android phones, the Photon 4G comes with tight integration with all of Google's apps and services, including Gmail, Google Maps with Navigation, Voice Search, Google Talk, Latitude, YouTube, and Places. Sprint also preloaded the device with a few apps like Nascar, Sprint Mobile Wallet, Sprint Music Plus, Sprint Radio, Sprint TV and Movies, Sprint Worldwide, Sprint Zone, and TeleNav GPS Navigator. Other preinstalled apps include Quickoffice, Motorola's Phone Portal, a news feed app, Rich Location, and the usual PIM tools like a calculator, a calendar, and an alarm clock. Unfortunately, unless you root the phone, most of the preinstalled apps are not removable.
The Photon 4G is one of Sprint's business-ready smartphones, which means it should handle most of your enterprise-level needs. It supports Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync so you can sync your corporate e-mail and calendar, and it promises improved data encryption in addition to the ability to remotely wipe your phone in case it gets stolen. The remote wipe feature will delete your SD card's contents as well.
World travelers will be happy to note that the Photon 4G is a dual-mode GSM/CDMA phone. It will work with the Sprint CDMA network while you're in the U.S., and it has a preloaded SIM card that'll kick the phone to GSM once you're traveling abroad. The phone is locked to Sprint while you're in the U.S., however, so you can't just swap in an AT&T or T-Mobile SIM card. It has all the usual phone functionality like a speakerphone, a vibrate mode, voice dialing, and text and multimedia messaging. It also has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and can act as a hot spot for up to eight devices. The Mobile Hotspot option does cost an additional $29.99 a month.
The Photon 4G can also play Flash video within the phone's WebKit browser. Sometimes the browser will display a warning that the video is not optimized for mobile, but the phone will still play the video regardless. We didn't experience much buffering time at all, and video quality was quite good. For non-Web videos, the Photon 4G also supports full HD 1080p video playback. There's also a handy HDMI port so you can watch your HD videos on a big-screen television--the smartphone will turn into a remote control that lets you access its multimedia gallery. The Photon 4G supports 720p video capture as well, and Motorola hopes to improve upon that with 1080p video capture in a future software update. The Photon 4G also has DLNA support so you can share your media with other DLNA-enabled devices.
The camera app on the Photon 4G has a number of settings to help you take better pictures. You can adjust the resolution and the exposure, plus you can select single-shot, multishot, or panorama mode. You can choose any of eight different scene modes: Macro, Steady Shot, Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night Portrait, and Sunset. Other settings include color effects and flash. The options are mostly the same in camcorder mode.
We were mostly pleased with the Photon 4G's photo quality. Images were sharp and vibrant most of the time, but we noticed quite a bit of noise and a slight pinkish tinge in a few shots. We did expect slightly better photo quality out of an 8-megapixel camera. Video quality was very good as well: HD videos appeared crisp, and there weren't a lot of artifacts or blurry images at 30 frames per second. The Photon 4G comes with 16GB of onboard memory, which is great for storing your media files. You also have the option of expandable memory, as the phone supports cards of up to 32GB. Even though the phone has a front-facing VGA camera, it doesn't come with any VoIP apps, so you'd have to download one on your own.
The Motorola Photon 4G has one of the better custom music players for Android. It integrates podcasts, Internet radio, FM radio, and your music library in one handy interface. It also provides Media Link software that easily ports your existing MP3 library over to the phone. We're especially impressed with the recommendation engine that's linked to the Amazon MP3 store. It'll even display lyrics if available. The Photon 4G is compatible with AAC, H.263, H.264, MP3, MPEG-4, WAV, WMA9, WMA10, eAAC+, AMR WB, WMA v10, AMR NB, AAC+, WMA v9, and MIDI video and audio formats.
If you want, you can plop down $129 for an optional dock accessory called the HD Station. It provides three USB ports and an HDMI out. The idea is that you can connect your phone to a large display, a mouse, and a keyboard, which prompts the Photon 4G to boot up in Webtop mode, similar to the Atrix 4G. This is essentially a bare-bones OS that allows PC-like functionality. It even comes with the Firefox browser ready to go. We definitely like the idea, but it's a shame that it doesn't appear to be compatible with the Atrix's laptop dock, as that seems to be a better, more integrated option. We'll add more to this portion of the review once we've spent more time with the HD Station.
We tested the Motorola Photon 4G in San Francisco using Sprint Nextel. Call quality was great. We enjoyed plenty of volume and clear voice quality on our end, and callers reported similar quality on their end. Environmental noise was sometimes an issue, however; callers definitely heard some muffled sounds in the background when we were in a cafe during the busy lunch hour, for example. However, we could still carry on a conversation just fine, so the phone did a good job of elevating our voice above the din. Speakerphone calls weren't too different from normal phone calls, except with a bit more echo on our callers' end.
Motorola Photon 4G call quality sample
We were highly impressed with the Photon's 4G speeds. Loading the mobile CNET page took just 4 seconds, and the full CNET page loaded in around 7 seconds. Using Ookla's Speedtest.net app, we averaged download speeds of around 8.72Mbps and upload speeds of around 1.27Mbps. The dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor also did its job as far as overall performance goes. As we mentioned earlier in the design section, overall navigation felt zippy and responsive.
The Motorola Photon 4G earns its spot in Sprint's high-end Android phone lineup with a blazing fast dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, dual-mode GSM/CDMA chipset, and impressive 4G speeds. We're also fans of the flip-out kickstand, and the Webtop dock functionality is a fascinating, if a bit expensive, add-on. Business users will love its enterprise-level security, and multimedia hounds will appreciate the HDMI port, DLNA support, HD video capture and playback, and custom music player. The Photon's design is a little on the bulky and plain side, but it more than makes up for it with a beautiful 4.3-inch qHD display. At $199.99 with a new two-year agreement from Sprint, we think the Photon 4G is one of the best smartphone options for Sprint customers.