Review by Dan Seifert on Monday August 08, 2011.
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The Motorola PHOTON 4G is your standard slab-style, all-touchscreen Android smartphone. The front is dominated by a 4.3-inch, qHD (540 x 960 pixel) touchscreen and four capacitive buttons for menu, home, back, and search. The screen is very bright and offers good viewing angles. The resolution is good, but not as sharp as one might expect a qHD display to be, thanks to the Pentile pixel layout that Motorola uses. It gets grainy when you look at the screen closeup, but most users are not likely to have an issue with it. The screen does have a slight concave curve to it that provides a nice feel when typing and swiping through homescreens on it, and the capacitive buttons were brightly lit and responded well to touch. Above the screen is a front-facing VGA camera, earpiece, light sensors, and a notification light.
The PHOTON 4G is not the smallest device on the market, but it is not terribly bulky for a device with a 4.3-inch screen. It measures 66.9mm x 126.9mm x 12.2mm (2.6in x 5.0in x 0.5in), and weighs an entirely reasonable 158g (5.6oz), likely thanks to its all-plastic construction. While not as light as some of the phones that have been coming from Samsung lately, it is certainly not as weighty as similar phones from LG or HTC.
Along the side of the PHOTON 4G one will find the micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports. The PHOTON 4G is compatible with an HD dock, much like the Motorola ATRIX 4G that was released for AT&T earlier this year. When docked in the HD dock and connected to a larger monitor or display, the PHOTON 4G will launch Motorola's Webtop interface that is akin to a full computer, with a Firefox web browser and file browsing interface. You can plug a wireless mouse and keyboard into the dock's USB ports and use the PHOTON 4G as a computer on-the-go if you like. Sprint and Motorola have not announced any plans to release a Lapdock accessory for the PHOTON 4G, which would allow it to be used as a laptop or netbook.
The backside of the phone is covered in soft-touch rubber, which gives the PHOTON 4G a fair amount of grip when it is in your hand. Also found on the back are the 8 megapixel camera and dual-LED flash. Those upgrading from a HTC EVO 4G will be pleased to see that Motorola has included a metal kickstand to prop the PHOTON 4G up for viewing pictures and videos comfortably. Underneath the rear cover you will find the battery, the microSD card slot, and the SIM card slot for international GSM networks. Sprint and Motorola do not include a microSD card with the PHOTON 4G, but there is 16GB of internal storage. The card slot supports up to 32GB microSD cards, and you do not need to remove the battery to access it.
Despite the plastic construction, the PHOTON 4G does not exhibit any creaks or loose fitting pieces. It feels well-built. There were no light-leaks from the display's backlight, either.
Motorola equipped the PHOTON 4G with a NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz. Thanks to this powerful chip, the PHOTON 4G is zippy and fast for most tasks. The built-in 1GB of application RAM proved more than enough for all tasks, save use of Motorola's Webtop application environment. The PHOTON 4G runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread with Motorola's don't-call-it-MOTOBLUR custom interface. This is a different version of Motorola's interface than we recently saw on the Motorola DROID 3 for Verizon Wireless, as it does not feature the 3D scrolling of the homescreens and some of the fancier animations in the widgets. Despite the lack of the fancier animations, the interface did cause the PHOTON 4G to slow down when paging through homescreens. The app launcher tray was fast and responsive, and most apps had no problems running, so I attribute the sluggishness to Moto's interface. Using a third-party app launcher, such as Launcher Pro or ADW EX, remedies the speed hiccups.
One of the things that I appreciate in Motorola's custom interface is the ability to dismiss notifications one at a time from the notification tray. This is something we have seen in webOS for a long time, and Apple is even implementing it in the next version of iOS, but Motorola's implementation is the first I have seen from an official Android manufacturer (not counting third-party custom ROMs, as the popular Cyanogen Mod offers this functionality in recent versions). This allows you to leave notifications in the bar that might be important and you want to be reminded of later, without clogging it up with less important alerts that you can't get rid of.
The PHOTON 4G is equipped with both Motorola's multitouch on-screen keyboard and the ubiquitous Swype keyboard. The multitouch keyboard is good, though it is not as good as I remember it being in the past. It is however, one of the best custom keyboards available from a manufacturer. Swype works as good as ever, though the version included on the PHOTON 4G is not the same as the more recent one that I used on the T-Mobile myTouch 4G Slide, so it is not quite as easy or convenient to use. You cannot update it to the newer beta versions either, since it is pre-installed from the manufacturer. You will have to wait until Sprint and Motorola issue a software update to the PHOTON 4G in order to take advantage of the goodies included in Swype 3.0.
Dan is MobileBurn.com's Editor-in-Chief. Based in Poughkeepsie in New York, Dan can be found on Twitter as @DCSeifert.