The Motorola Photon 4G ($199.99) is Sprint’s super-duper, top-of-the-linephone. It can even double as a nettop PC in a pinch. The Photon is one of the most powerful Android handsets you can buy today, and a shining example of what a smartphone in 2011 should be. It’s a no-brainer for our Editors’ Choice.
Motorola Photon 4G Physical Features and Call Quality
With its optional desktop dock, the Photon is a lot like Motorola’s groundbreaking Atrix 4G ($199, 4 stars) for AT&T, except it’s better. And just like the Atrix, it’s a large (2.6-by-5.0-by-0.5 inch, 5.6-ounce) candybar-style phone—there’s no physical keyboard. The body is mostly soft-touch black plastic, and it feels solid. Shiny chrome accents and beveled edges give the phone a bit of a jewel-like appearance, and the big 4.3-inch, 960-by-540-pixel touch-screen display is bright and clear. Volume and Camera buttons on the phone’s right side are oddly grooved and slightly rough, to make them easier to grip.
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Motorola Photon 4G Specifications
- Service Provider
- Operating System
- Android OS
- Screen Size
- 4.3 inches
- Screen Details
- 960-by-540 LCD capacitive touch screen
- GSM, CDMA, UMTS
- 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
- High-Speed Data
- GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA, EVDO Rev A
- Processor Speed
- 1 GHz
An excellent voice phone, I got significantly better 3G and 4G reception with the Photon than with the competing Sprint HTC EVO 3D ($199, 3 stars). The earpiece gets quite loud, and voices are clear. There’s a lot of side tone, the reflection of your own voice in your ear that prevents you from yelling. The speakerphone is loud enough to use outdoors. Transmissions sounded pretty good; when there was a lot of background noise they got a bit wobbly, though. The Photon connected effortlessly to our Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset ($129, 4.5 stars) and activated its accurate Nuance-powered voice dialing. Battery life, at 8 hours and 20 minutes of 3G talk time, was very good.
The Photon connects to Sprint’s 3G CDMA and 4G WiMAX networks, as well as to Wi-Fi and to HSPA 14.4 high-speed networks worldwide. The phone comes with a SIM card that can roam on foreign networks at high rates, but as with all Sprint world phones, its SIM card slot is unlocked, so you can use a less-expensive local SIM if you choose. You can use the Photon as both a wired modem and a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to eight devices, with the right service plan.
Motorola Photon 4G Android and App Experience
Running Android 2.3.4 with both Motorola and Sprint extensions, the Photon is built around a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. Benchmarks ran neck-and-neck with other modern dual-core phones such as Sprint’s HTC EVO 3D and Motorola’s own Droid 3 ($199, 3 stars) for Verizon. Notably, the EVO 3D’s 1.2GHz speed advantage didn’t give it much of a boost on benchmarks; the Photon beat the EVO on the Sunspider and Browsermark Web browsing benchmarks, as well as on the AnTuTu system benchmark. (The EVO scored higher on the NenaMark graphics benchmark and the Vellamo browsing benchmark.) And even though Motorola pours on the same goopy animations that dragged down the Droid 3′s performance, the Photon feels noticeably more sprightly; perhaps the Tegra 2 chipset is just better at handling the UI than the Droid 3′s TI OMAP 4430 is.
The coolest software here turns the Photon into a desktop PC. Drop the phone into the $129 desktop dock, which comes with three USB ports and an HDMI video out, attach it to a screen, mouse, and keyboard, and pow: the Photon boots up into “Webtop” mode, which is a bare-bones Linux OS running Android in an emulated window as well as a full-screen copy of Firefox 4.0.1 with Flash.
I found Webtop to work more smoothly on the Photon than on the Atrix, probably because of the newer version of Firefox. (Webtop’s Firefox benchmarked slightly faster than the built-in Android browser, too.) I surfed the Web, watched some Flash videos, played Angry Birds, and wrote a letter in Google Docs. While I could play music in the background, videos stored on the Photon were pixelated in Webtop mode; to get the best video quality, I had to stop Webtop and kick the phone into dedicated HDMI video-playback mode.