Motorola Photon 4G Review: Can this phone keep the Galaxy S 2 at bay?

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While most Motorola enthusiasts are patiently awaiting the Droid Bionic at this point, those on Sprint are waiting for the Photon 4G. The handset ships with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a high-end Android device of today but can Motorola’s latest entry dissuade potential Galaxy S 2 owners to choose it over the already massively popular handset that’s set for a US launch sometime next month?

The Good
  • The Photon 4G is up to snuff with just about any high-end Android phone available today.
  • While it's not necessarily a pretty design, the Photon sports one of the most unique designs we've seen on a handset lately.
  • NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor is a snappy beast that we've come to love.
The Bad
  • No matter how many times Motorola tweaks it, Motoblur has an inconsistent feel, isn't intuitive, and is downright ugly.
  • With the exception of the kickstand, the Photon 4G doesn't offer any standout features to separate it from the crowd.
  • While the design isn't ugly in the least bit, we wonder if Motorola knows how to make a sexy phone.

Hardware

The Photon 4G is definitely a powerhouse in the hardware department. From the 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor to it's large qHD display, the handset is definitely up there with the likes of the HTC EVO 3D but is it enough to choose the Photon over the new EVO?

The Photon ships with all of the specs you could hope for in a high-end Android device today, featuring NVIDIA's Tegra 2 dual-core processor, 4.3 inch qHD display, 8 megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, VGA front-facing camera, 16GB of on-board storage, and it's own kickstand, which is something you don't normally seen on Motorola devices. This makes the Photon the EVO 4G of Moto devices and we're just fine with that.

The face of the Photon is mostly devoured by the large 4.3 inch qHD display, leaving little room for anything else. You'll find the four capacitive Android buttons below the screen for menu, home, back, and search, and above you'll find the earpiece, front-facing camera, proximity and ambient light sensors and a notification LED, which is something I miss on my G2X.

We're going to go back to the screen for a bit here. The display itself may be qHD but you may have a hard time believing that once you look at it. Like the Droid X2, the Photon 4G shares the semi pixelated look when it comes to certain colors, which is a bit ridiculous considering how many pixels are crammed into the thing. Blacks are rendered well but once you see brighter colors, pixelization becomes noticeable. I'd say the DX2 suffers more from color saturation issues but the Photon is pretty bad at some points.

While this shouldn't be a deal-breaker for everyone, after looking at the EVO 3D (or Sensation4G) and Photon, you will notice a difference between the displays. The EVO 3D's display looks stunning, where the Photon, which has the exactly same resolution, doesn't seem nearly as crisp. At the end of the day, I'd choose Samsung's lower-resolution Super AMOLED Plus display than Motorola's version of a "qHD"display. The idea of a qHD display is to see fewer pixels. Someone should give Moto the heads up on that one.

Moving on.

The left spine of the Photon houses only the charging port and micro-HDMI port, both of which are a bit too high on the handset for our liking but that likely won't bother everyone. The right side of the handset gives you the volume rocker and dedicated camera button that are both slightly textured. It's a nice touch and we like it for the most part, but we wouldn't be upset if this wasn't present, either.

The back of the Photon 4G is where you'll find the 8 megapixel camera with dual-LED flash and that snazzy kickstand, accompanied by Motorola and Sprint brandings. Something you won't find on the Photon is the with Google branding that adorns most Android handsets today and while we'd rather see Google's logo on the back instead of another Motorola logo, the absence of one makes the handset look less cluttered. In fact, the back of the Photon looks relatively clean.

Escaping the heavy use of plastics on the front, the back of the Photon is done up in a soft-touch finish, making it feel even better in the hand.

Many people are excited to see the introduction of a kickstand on the Photon 4G, which should be helpful if you're looking to watch movies on the device. While it's not underneath the kickstand like some HTC devices, you'll find the speaker grill right below.

Design

The design of the Photon 4G is pretty interesting and it's not something you see every day. The octagonal shape doesn't necessarily hurt or help the handset as a whole but it does allow it to stand out in a room of rectangular slabs.

We're not sure if Motorola is just uninterested or just can't, but the handset-maker has never come out with an Android phone that we'd call sleek or sexy. While we understand that Verizon's Droid phones are supposed to reflect that of a machine, Moto must have been stuck in Droid-land when it was designing the Photon 4G. This isn't to say the handset looks bad in the least bit but Motorola's design team could take some notes from HTC, Samsung, and others to see what a sexy phones looks like.

Had the Photon 4G shipped with hard edges throughout, you probably wouldn't be able to distinguish it from the Verizon Droid family. It's as if the handset shipped with hard edges throughout the design and then were slightly buffed out. It's a nice mix between the two. Like we said before, it would be hard to call this phone sexy but it is one of the more unique designs we've seen and there's definitely some brownie points going to Motorola for that.

Build Quality

The Photon 4G is a rather solid device that should easily be able to handle normal wear and tear, and probably a couple of nasty drops. We're not saying you should try it out, but if you're like me and prefer your phones naked, without a case, the Photon should be able to hold it's own.

The in-hand feel of the Photon 4G is pretty nice but since it's a tad bulky, it may not be as comfortable to hold for some. Nonetheless, there's little to worry about when it comes to build quality, as the Photon is pretty solid through and through.

 

 

Software

Oh, where do we begin? The Photon ships with Motoblur, which will probably stop some people out of the gate. The software has been refined overtime but there's a couple of different versions floating around at this point and all have different levels of usability. The Photon doesn't ship with our favorite version seen on the Droid 3, and we favor the latter's version more because if we're forced to use an otherwise ugly UI, it might as well look nice in the process.

This particular version of Motoblur, save for the widgets and custom apps, looks more similar to stock Android than any previous version of the skin we've seen prior. You probably wouldn't mistake one for the other but this version of Motoblur is one of the cleanest we've seen to date. Overall, its our least favorite custom skin for Android but we're just glad it doesn't ship with the version found on handsets like the Atrix 4G and the Droid Pro.

Android is "too smart" for a lot of people as it is and Motoblur just makes things worse for the most part. While Android may never have the consistency of iOS, it's skins like Motoblur that make Android look like it's miles away than it is. First time Android users should stick with skins like HTC Sense or stock Android in our opinion.

Software qualms aside, the Motoblur is quite snappy and it does come with some useful customizations. While I kept the Motoblur widgets to a minimum, I always liked that it allows you to resize your widgets. Depending on how you've resized the widget will return different content optimized for that particular size. If you're a widget fiend like myself, you'll probably appreciate this feature.

Shipping with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, we can definitely expect the Photon to receive the Ice Cream Sandwich update at some point, which may bring Motoblur to the level it's needed to be for some time now.

There are some nice features found in Motoblur, but the cons outweigh the pros. Simply not mentioning Motoblur isn't enough to address the true mess that it can be.

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Web Browser

The Photon's web browser is pretty much your standard affair but there are tweaks from Motorola found in a couple of places.

The web browser has a built-in RSS feed reader and you can easily add a feed by tapping on the dedication soft button that's found right in between the address bar and the option to add a book mark on the top. Another nifty feature, which also looks to be taken from HTC, is that in landscape mode you can view your bookmarks in a set of thumbnails, with a 3D sliding-view.

For some reason, viewing Flash video in 720p HD was a pretty choppy experience. We've seen other devices using the Tegra 2 spit out 720p Flash video like butter, so we were scratching our heads a bit, especially when it didn't get any better when we played it back after it was fully loaded and finally stopped buffering.

Multimedia

Media apps are provided from both Motorola and Sprint. Motorola offers up a pretty basic music player and lets you choose from your music, internet radio through SHOUTcast, and FM radio.

If you're looking to buy music, then you can just hit the menu button and tap on the Music Store option to jump right into Amazon MP3. You also have access to DLNA servers so you can stream media to and from your device.

Sprint bloatware includes: Sprint Music Plus, Radio, and TV & Movies. Luckily, you can uninstall most Sprint apps if you want.

Camera

The Photon 4G features an eight megapixel camera that can record in 720p HD and takes some pretty nice shots. It gets some points taken off for the lack of 1080p HD recording but that's not going to be terribly important to everyone.

Shot to shot time is pretty exceptional and there's a multi-shot option available in the "Picture Modes" setting, as well as a panorama option.

The pictures turn out pretty decent but are a little washed out compared to the actual surrounding light when the pictures were taken. Nonetheless, I wouldn't say the handset takes bad photos.

 

outdoors, sunny, default settings

outdoors, sunny, default settings

outdoors, sunny, default settings

outdoors, sunny, default settings

 

Call Quality And Battery Life

Call quality on the Photon 4G is acceptable enough, though I find it hard to use a smartphone as a  phone at times. (texting addict) While it's not the best we've heard, the Photon 4G's call quality certainly isn't the worst and your resulsts will obviously differ depending where you are. Overall, this shouldn't be a worry of yours.

Battery life for the handset is pretty decent for a smartphone today and should give you a day of juice easily. You'll need to charge the handset daily, but that shouldn't come as a surprise to most of you.

The Final Take

The Photon 4G is a nice phone with a great feature set, this much is true. That said, Motorola fails to genuinely impress more and more. I'm not saying I'm thouroughly disappointed with the Photon 4G in the least bit but such great hardware should have at least some decent software to back it up. Motoblur has been refined over and over and is more usable than ever but that still doesn't make for a great experience.

It's sad when a handset comes out with great hardware, only to be  hindered by the software it's running on. Android is rough around the edges as it is, until Ice Cream Sandwich comes, at least, but Motoblur sends the OS back too far to be enjoyable. For me, at least.

The spec-list runs high and the handset itself performs like a champ for the most part, making this a great choice for a lot of people. Still, I'd probably take the EVO 3D over this handset if I was going to jump onto Sprint but there would be absolutely no contest between the Photon and the upcoming Galaxy S 2. If you want a sleek, sexy, powerful device, just wait until next month when the Samsung Galaxy S 2 becomes available and sit the three flagship phones next to each other. That way you'll find the right phone for you.

I'm honestly on the fence about this phone. There's a lot to love about the hardware of the handset and it definitely has an interesting design but every time I unlock the phone I'm reminded why I don't like it. Still, if you can get past Motoblur and the crap it brings, you may have found the right phone for you. That said, I'd still wait for the Galaxy S 2 before you make your final decision.

 

 

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  • Guest

    If any reviews are based on the UI (User Interface) that comes with the phone, then it’s not truly evaluating the phone’s capabilities.  With such great aftermarket launchers in the market, to replace any OEM launcher (UI), that part of any review should be left out.  Try Launcher Pro Plus, ADW, or Go Launcher to work in place of the Motorola UI and I guarantee the reviews will shed a whole different light on the Photon and Android in general.

  • Fanboy

    Reviewer Apple Iphone Fanboy he is.

  • Wazman

    I think you sound like a Apple iphone Fanboy.  And that’s a pity because apple is as close minded as you are.  I own the Photon and it works perfect as a phone, in fact the reception is the best I have ever encountered.  I also have the Galaxy S2 and it is a very pretty phone.  and it is faster than the Photon but the call quality is like all Sammy’s, they SUCK!!!!  The Sammy finds all the dead spots where the photon just skips over them and deliveres a clean perfect signal.  I don’t love Moto-Blur and that is why I run SPB 3D widget.  I have had a few friends want to trade there new rather gay looking white iphone 4s phones to me for either my Photon or my Epic Touch and I told them I wouldn’t trade my old Sanyo Katana for an iphone.  I can’t beleive there are that many people that act like Lemmings and just go out and buy the newest iphone and don’t consider that if anything happens to there prized iphone they will have to send it in for repair or drive a few hundred miles to a apple store to have it replaced.  While all I have to do is go to the many Sprint stores in my small southern town and get it fixed or replaced in 2 minutes.  Now that steve jobs is somewhere else besides here on earth, maybe apple might get there head pulled out of there butt holes and start giving back to the lemmings that made them what they are today.  Who know’s, maybe they will get there price down to a more reasonable number and they will sell more G5’s.  I actually run a $425.00 Linux computer with Fedora on it that was free like all Linux os’s with all the right hardware and it is almost 3 times faster than all my friends G5 apple puter’s and they just bow there heads in shame and actually can’t say anything.;

  • Nickaroo

    Purchased the photon last week and am regretting every dollar spent.  I think I would like to go back to EVO.  The scrolling is too sensitive. The software not as intuitive. The alerts that are marked to show when you have a new text message or voicemail do not appear.  The phone does not ring but goes straight to voicemail. Emails can not be sent out only received.  This phone is a lemon!

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