It's not news that Android QWERTY sliders, once the staple of midrange and even luxury smartphones, have become few and far between. Sprint's current hot handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy S 3 and HTC Evo 4G LTE, are both card-carrying members of the massive-screen and razor-thin club. With its bright 4.3-inch screen, Android 4.0 software, speedy Snapdragon S4 processing, and a truly sweet keyboard design, the $199.99 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is the best Android typer Sprint has offered for years. If you've been holding out for a keyboard phone and don't mind waiting for Sprint's LTE network to expand, the Photon Q is for you.
If you've seen the Motorola Droid 4 for Verizon up close, then the new Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE on Sprint will look very familiar. Measuring 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide and 0.54 inch thick, the Photon Q has virtually the same sizable dimensions as its Verizon cousin. At 6 ounces, the phone has considerable heft, as well, compared with the light and waferlike Android devices hitting the market.
The trade-off for the Photon Q's extra girth, though, is its wonderfully designed QWERTY keyboard, which slides out in landscape mode. With a full five rows, including a dedicated number row on top, the phone has a keyboard layout that looks identical to the physical keys gracing the Droid 4. Trust me, that's a good thing since you get all the attributes I loved on Verizon's device such as a long spacebar, and even four arrow keys. The keyboard is backlit by bright LEDs, too, which I appreciate. I also enjoyed the crisp tactile feedback, made with an audible snap, that the keys create. Just like on the Droid 4, you won't find dedicated ".com" or emoticon buttons here, but that's not a deal-breaker for me.
If banging out messages with the physical keyboard isn't handy, the Photon Q 4G LTE also comes with Motorola's virtual keyboard active by default. For fast, one-handed text entry, the device also features the Swype virtual keyboard, on which you draw lines through letters to string together words.
On the front of the phone is a moderately large 4.3-inch display with a 720p front-facing camera above it. The left edge of the Photon Q holds Micro-USB and HDMI ports, while the right side houses tiny volume keys, a dedicated camera button, and a flap covering a slot for a microSD card. On the back is a main 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. The back has a black, patterned surface that, while it doesn't collect fingerprints, doesn't feel as premium as the Kevlar backing sported by some of Motorola's other phones, such as the Droid Razr, Droid Razr Maxx, and Atrix HD. Another caveat is that the Photon's 1,785mAh battery is embedded and not user-removable.
The Photon Q 4G LTE's 4.3-inch qHD LCD (960x540-pixel resolution) isn't the sharpest or biggest out there, but thanks to Motorola's ColorBoost technology, does get very bright. As a result it's possible to read the phone's screen outdoors in strong sunlight. Sony's Xperia P, which uses the company's WhiteMagic technology, another technique designed to pump up brightness, handles this task even better. That said, the Photon Q 4G LTE's screen, similar to the Atrix HD's, produces vibrant, lifelike colors that look more appealing than the Xperia P's, which have a greenish cast. When viewed side by side, even the HTC Evo 4G LTE's display presented colors that were a bit too red to my eyes, especially in flesh tones.
Software and apps
Running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE uses software one version behind Google's latest and greatest, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. That said, as a modern Android device, the Photon can tackle all your favorite Google services such as Gmail and Google +, along with connection to the Google Play stores for music, books, and movies.
Motorola also places its own subtle spin on Android, though won't ever admit that after the backlash against its once heavy-handed Motoblur user interface. Even so, this is clearly what's left of Motorola's unfortunate UI. There are two home screens to begin with, but you can add up to five additional ones for a total of seven. Just like on the Atrix HD, though, you can add blank screens or choose from templates populated with either carrier-branded software or third-party apps already living in the app tray. The good news is that the Photon Q 4G LTE is refreshingly devoid of bloatware. Of course, there is the Sprint Zone, Sprint's own app store, and there's Sprint ID, which offers themes for your handset -- many designed to primarily push Sprint services.
As a matter of fact, the phone exhibits a stronger-than-usual tie to Google products. For example, the Chrome browser is preinstalled along with Motorola's take on Android's default Web navigator. The Photon Q has another interesting power up its sleeve, something no doubt Sprint approved: the phone can link seamlessly with Google Voice and fully support the service's visual voice mail function. This is a feature blocked by many carriers, such as T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon, since I gather it competes with paid services they would like to charge you for.
Continuing in the spirit of personal choice and benevolent hacks, Motorola has gone out of its way to emphasize that the Photon Q 4G LTE has an unlocked bootloader. Essentially this means Android enthusiasts will be able to root, or in other words gain the power to install customized software on their devices. Perhaps, you don't like Sprint ID or other apps you find useless. Maybe you'd rather run pure Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Whatever your intentions, just remember that rooting your Photon Q 4G LTE still voids your phone warranty, even if Motorola provides instructions for doing so.