Where can I possibly begin? The Motorola Photon 4G‘s internal specs read like the dreams of a hopeless gadgetmonger. 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 processor. 1 GB of RAM. 16 GB of internal storage, and room for more via it’s microSD slot. 4G, world roaming, USB Host, HDMI out, 8 MP camera, even an FM radio. What more could you ask for? Not much, for sure.
That’s not to say the Photon is perfect, but most of what you could call it’s faults are more the result of software than hardware. There are times that it doesn’t zip as fast as it should, something I suspect is thanks to Motorola’s customizations, and can be ironed out.
Nevertheless, it boasts a spectacular Quadrant Standard benchmark score of around 2550. This is a touch below the 2660 of the Motorola Droid X2, but far in excess even of the dual-core Droid 3, and enough to blow away all the single core devices. In comparison, the HTC Evo 3D, one of Sprint’s other flagship phones, only scores around 1840.
And the day-to-day use doesn’t disappoint either. It has its little hiccups, as any smartphone does, but for the most part it’s a very admirable example of Android. It’s a powerhouse, and it’s one which is fairly user friendly, even for someone like me who usually prefers a physical keyboard.
Good memory, good features, and speed. Lots of speed. Enough for gaming, for media, even for playing back HD movies on the big screen.
And to complement all that speed, it has a communications suite that consists of… Well pretty much everything, really. The Photon features EV-DO and WiMAX for use on Sprint’s 3G and 4G networks. GSM 2G and 3G support for international roaming. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and even receive-only features like FM radio and GPS. I’m surprised they didn’t include an option for smoke signals, or possibly telegraph. The only options the Photon doesn’t have are the ones no one is actually using yet, like Near Field Communication. Nothing you’ll miss, in other words.
Of course any time you strain the limits of tech, there’s downsides, in this case in the form of battery drain. Like many 4G technologies, Sprint’s WiMAX eats power, and leaving it enabled kicks the Photon’s battery life down from “very decent” on 3G to “plug it in whenever you can” on 4G. It’s no doubt partly for this reason that it’s made deliberately very easy for the user to switch off 4G, either just when they’re not using it, or to leave it off entirely. I won’t tell you to ignore the 4G capabilities, but it’s definitely worth weighing the battery power against the extra speed, and turning the latter on only when you need it.
The Photon isn’t a particularly productivity-oriented device — but that doesn’t prevent it from having some very useful options in that regard. There is of course the basics, such as a copy of Quickoffice, the de facto office suite for Android. But there’s also some very interesting implications of the Photon’s dock system for business users.
Most notably, with the Photon sporting both HDMI and USB Host (albeit the latter only through the dock), there exists the possibility to use the Photon as a kind of mobile terminal. Dock it at home or the office to connect to a big screen, keyboard, and go to town typing or doing presentation on a big screen via HDMI. Undock it, and carry all your files with you. The “pocketable terminal” idea has been done before, of course, even recently by Motorola. And it’s usually failed, because it doesn’t work for a majority of users. But for those it does work for, the Photon is better suited to this use than almost any other smartphone on the market.
One of the Photon’s big selling points on the entertainment front is the availability of a multimedia dock for it. The “HD Station” as Motorola calls it lets you slide the Photon in, and gives you one click docking to a number of other ports. Power in, 3.5mm audio-out, HDMI out, and three — yes, three — full size USB Host ports, suitable for connecting things like hard drives, flash drives, or even keyboards.
It also features a remote (no, I’m not joking) that lets you control music and video playback on the Photon from a good distance away. Just the thing if you want to integrate your smartphone into your home entertainment system.
And why not? The Photon makes an admirable multimedia jukebox. HD video playback, gigs of music, not to mention you can view your own photos and videos right on the TV, when you’re not using it to surf the web. And if you couple that with adding a big hard drive attached to the dock, you have basically a very tiny Home Theater PC, with all the streaming capabilities that implies. Pandora anyone? Last.fm? How about Netflix live in your living room, all from the same device?
So as you can imagine, the HD Station dock is a pretty big selling point. And in fact, the PR team who sent us our Photon for review were nice enough to include one of the media docks for it, so I’ve had a chance to play with it while reviewing this handset. However, because the HD Station dock is emphatically not a standard accessory of the Photon but is instead sold separately, most of my commentary on it is going to be reserved for another article. The dock may be an interesting accessory, but at $100, it’s not reasonable to assume that all or even most people who buy the Photon are also going to shell out the cash for the dock. The phone alone has to sell itself.
It’s capable of 720P output, which is one of the few places where I have complaint about the Photon’s specs. It would be nice if it featured full 1080P output, particularly since that resolution would mesh far better with the 960 x 540 screen, exactly one quarter of 1080P. (Hence the term, “qHD”.) It’s not unreasonable, particularly given that the Droid X2 (also made by Motorola) features 1080P output. Maybe Motorola’ll be able to do this in a software update.
There’s not a lot unusual to say about the Photon’s camera. At 8 megapixels, it provides wonderful stills and video both. I did notice that the Photon seemed to focus more quickly than average for other phones I’ve used, which made it particularly nice when capturing photos at close range or in less than perfect lighting.
With a 1700 mAh battery, the Photon has power to spare. And frankly, it needs it. Using the phone on Sprint’s 4G network is absolutely brutal on the battery. 3G power consumption is vastly better, allowing the phone to demonstrate something more like the longevity you’d expect out of such a big battery, which is likely one reason why Motorola made it so easy to switch off 4G and run solely on the 3G net. Frankly I would recommend that any time you don’t need 4G speed, since it’s a major difference in consumption.