15
Sep
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A few months ago, I reviewed the Droid X2 and came away unimpressed. Performance was mediocre despite the powerful dual core Tegra 2 CPU, and more importantly, the PenTile display used by Motorola was a step up on paper and a huge step back in practice. Fast forward a few months and I've landed a Motorola Photon 4G (slightly behind schedule thanks to a few logistics issues, but better late than never!) I'm happy to report that despite seeming like it's almost the same device inside, it's quite a different beast this time around.

At A Glance

The specs:

  • Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread) + NinjaBlur UI
  • 1 GHz Tegra 2 (dual core) CPU
  • 1 GB DDR2 RAM (twice the 512MB of RAM in the Droid X2)
  • 4.3" qHD (960 x 540) PenTile display
  • World Phone - CDMA and GSM bands
  • 4G (WiMax) support
  • 8MP camera with dual LED flash, 720p video capture
  • VGA front-facing camera
  • 16GB memory + microSD slot (empty out of the box)
  • HDMI Mirroring
  • Kickstand
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi

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The Good:

  • Smooth and responsive performance all around, including in the browser. Even with images loaded, it's buttery-smooth.
  • As with the X2, Motorola's PenTile displays can be extremely bright. Fortunately, the display is otherwise better than it was on the X2.
  • Battery life is good, especially when automatic brightness is used.
  • Great build quality - feels very solid.
  • Kickstand!
  • Motorola's custom UI is comparatively non-invasive.
  • The speakerphone is loud. Not quite as ear-shatteringly loud as the EVO 4G, but close. (Unfortunately, it's slightly tinny, but that's to be expected.)

The Bad:

  • The display still isn't great. It's certainly livable, but diagonal pixel alignment still warrants the occasional mumbled "what were they thinking."
  • Motorola's not-Blur (I'll once again call it "NinjaBlur") isn't always pretty. I'm not a fan of the dark blue theme and some of the gradients, though the widgets aren't bad visually. They also seem to be poorly coded - the device tends to stutter slightly when it encounters them on the home screens.
  • Community modification support for the Photon is limited in comparison to other (specifically, non-Motorola) devices.
  • The camera just isn't great, even by phone camera standards.

In A Sentence: A great, powerful device that can stand toe-to-toe with Sprint's other flagship phones.

You should buy it if: You're in the market for a high-end Android device on Sprint... especially if the EVO 3D has one too many D's and the Epic 4G Touch is too large.

Deep Dive

Build Quality

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I'm happy to report that nowadays, virtually every high-end device I get a chance to test has good build quality. The Photon doesn't disappoint in that respect - everything is snug and of high quality. The screen is Gorilla Glass, meaning it's nearly bulletproof. The sides are grippy plastic and the back is rubberized, so there's no fear of it slipping out of your grip. You'll find no give anywhere, and thanks to the design and weight, it just feels solid in-hand. Despite being marginally lighter than the EVO, I'd be less worried about dropping the Photon - and given just how many drops my EVO made it through undamaged, that's saying something.

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You'll find the power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top, the volume rocker and a camera button on the right, and microUSB and microHDMI ports on the left. There's a kickstand around back (a fact which is more awesome than it should be), and it feels substantially more solid than the one found on the EVO. Bonus: when you put the kickstand out, the screen comes on and goes into "Kickstand Mode," with a clock, the weather, and shortcuts to Music and Gallery.

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NinjaBlur

As I said with the X2, although I have no issue with custom manufacturer UIs fundamentally, I'm not exactly crazy about Motorola's new non-Blur UI, unofficially nicknamed NinjaBlur. It does add some functional and moderately attractive widgets to the equation while altering the stock Android color scheme, thus providing a way for Motorola to differentiate its higher-end NinjaBlur devices from its lower-end vanilla Android offerings. That said, NinjaBlur still feels like it lacks that last bit of polish. The Photon is buttery-smooth until you hit the home screen with a collection of social feed widgets, at which point it stutters a bit, even if they've all been freshly updated.

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Personally, I don't dislike NinjaBlur, but I'm not crazy about the looks or execution. I'm not counting it against the device - especially since NinjaBlur is intentionally a light reskinning in order to allow for faster Android updates - but know that, in my opinion, it is also probably my least-favorite manufacturer UI.

MotoPenTile, Take Two

As David noted with his review of the Bionic, a device also built by Motorola and using a qHD Motorola PenTile display, the company has stepped up its game in terms of the display's shortcomings. Though it still falls short of other display technologies, it's a step up from what was found on their devices as recently as a few months ago.

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Every single major complaint I had before seems to have been improved upon substantially, though from what I can tell, none have been remedied entirely. Namely, the gridlines seem to be less noticeable, as are the individual pixels. Similarly, the issues with ghosting, color reproduction, and viewing angles are all substantially better, to the extent that I'd rate all three characteristics on par with non-Moto PenTile displays.

Performance

As with the display, performance on the Photon is a big step up from that of the X2, and the major issues I had before all seem to have been addressed. I'm unsure why performance is so much better on the Photon, but I'd guess it's either because of the additional RAM (1GB vs. 512MB) or the update to Gingerbread (Android 2.3). Regardless of the reason(s), it's impressive, and for all intents and (real-world) purposes, the Photon is every bit as fast and smooth as Sprint's Samsung Galaxy S II, the Epic 4G Touch.

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Apps and games load quickly and the browser is smooth when set flash to load on demand. Even with all visual goodies enabled on full (read: non-mobile) web pages (including flash and images), it's still impressively smooth.

Camera

Ah, the only other big weakness of the Photon (aside from the screen): the camera. To say the pictures are a bit disappointing would be putting it lightly.

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If you look at the pictures full-size, you can see that colors are almost universally off, detail is lacking, and most pictures are washed out. Even amongst camera phones, it's decidedly sub-par.

Connectivity

Things seem to be pretty solid on the connectivity front. Reception, including 4G, is always solid, and calls are fantastically clear and crisp - better even than the EVO. That said, every now and then, the device seems to put 4G to sleep even when it's enabled. This is probably a battery-saving feature, but you'd think the phone was going to disable 4G, it would enable 3G. Not so. Fortunately, it's a rare enough problem not to make a fuss of it - I think I've only encountered it maybe twice in the past 8 days, and it was nearly undetectable.

Battery Life

Thanks to the potentially blindingly-bright screen on the Photon, battery life can be great or can be terrible. Automatic brightness isn't especially bright, but even with brightness turned up a bit, you can expect to get through a full day of heavy use without much concern. Crank it up higher and you'll definitely feel the pinch, though - with brightness at (a very bright) 50%, expect maybe 8 hours of moderate use before you'll need some juice. (I didn't even test it on 100% brightness because it's almost painfully bright.)

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Motorola includes some additional options in the Settings menu to allow you to stretch out the battery life a bit more. I didn't bother tweaking them because the stock settings seemed to fit my tastes pretty well, but I'd imagine that you could really stretch things out by tweaking settings.

Bloatware

On the bloatware front, there's good news and bad news. The good: some of the bloat can be uninstalled. The bad: the especially annoying stuff can't be. Frankly, the only genuinely annoying piece of bloat is Sprint Zone, which Sprint uses to send you messages in 5 categories: My Sprint, Help, My Sprint News, Suggested Apps, and Device Tips and Tricks. It pings the Sprint server at a set interval and notifies you when they've posted new content. No big deal, just disable content checks for all 5 categories, right? Nope! You must choose one of the five categories. The best you can realistically do is set the app to check for updates only once per month for your single chosen category - the minimum allowed. Not really a big deal, but annoying in principle.

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Disappearing Icons

Oddly enough, if you connect the Photon to your PC and enable USB Mass Storage, some of your icons will disappear from your home screens. In my case, it seems to be just Tegra HD (THD) games, though somehow Fruit Ninja THD is excluded from the phenomenon. Even after disconnecting (and even rebooting) the phone, they don't reappear. Presumably this is because the content for the other games is stored in the part of the memory accessed by the same Mass Storage, and both can't access it at the same time. Still, that doesn't justify permanently removing the icons.

Conclusion

I have to admit, the Photon exceeded my expectations. So much so, in fact, that I'd undoubtedly recommend it to friends and family as a great alternative to the EVO 3D or Epic 4G Touch - certainly no mean feat. It's a solid package that delivers all around, with the only notable exceptions being a somewhat sub-par (yet still adequate) screen technology, a mediocre camera, and a minor bug with icons disappearing. Frankly, none of these shortcomings are deal breakers, and most consumers probably won't ever notice them (or particularly care).

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The final verdict: it's a great phone, and if 3D is not your thing and the Epic 4G Touch is too big, you won't be disappointed with the Photon.

Aaron Gingrich
Aaron is a geek who has always had a passion for technology. When not working or writing, he can be found spending time with his family, playing a game, or watching a movie.

  • Tommy

    Good review, now Epic Touch please. :)

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      That's tomorrow.

  • http://gthing.net sam

    The 3d on the 3d is its biggest enemy. You shouldn't avoid it if "3d is not your thing" because it's still leader of the pack even if you never use 3d once, and it still performs great in every possible way.

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      Agreed - it's a fast dual-core device, and 3D is just a perk, no matter how useless. I got it for the wife, and while she didn't really care for it, now she kind of likes it for pictures.

      • VonLaserface

        Thanks for the excellent and well balanced review. So many sites seem to love or hate a device with little room for discussion.

        @Artem - I feel the same way. In the 2 months I had my 3vo I actually used the 3D maybe twice and that was just because people kept asking me to see it.
        Performance rocks, the 2D pics look amazing and the build is solid as a rock. My only complaint was the weight.
        I only parted with mine because I wanted the cash for the SGSIIE4GT release.

  • Estakin

    yeah lets get the epic touch cmon guys look at all the people with epics there still on the froyo train updates take forever and as for the 3d the phones software from HTC doesn't even support the use of both processors yet thanks to the amazing people they brought on board after the evo that phone was far to brilliant to be related to the same developers of the 3d or the Shift those 2 phones are garbage sure your phone might be as cool as my photon once you get an update but who knows when that will be and until then your proc isn't doing you much good. throw in all the video codec support the photon has and its still just unmatched to many people see processor speed and think the 3d 1.2 is going to be faster than the photon 1.0 another thing to think about is the photons 4g chip has been verified by Motorola to have a dual 4g chip set in the device making it capable of having the already available wimax 4g and supporting the upcoming LTE network sprint will have.

    photon + webtop = :)

  • Baron

    I have had a Motorola Photon for many months, hoping to have a decent upgrade from my Samsung Epic, which was a bit overwhelmed sometime. However, I was severely disappointed. The Photon is not a stable platform. The bluetooth avcrp/a2dp regularly drops, crashes and stalls. The platform in general often froze. Sprint has been terrible about supporting the device.

  • Nicole

    I just came from the sprint store where I played with four phones. BB torch, moto photon, Sam epic touch galaxy 2, and iPhone 4s. Playing with many features... Two stood out downloading apps and simple you tube video game trailer. Torch took what felt like hours to download/update. Rest were pretty quick and about the same. Now the Skyrim trailer. iPhone horrible graphics on it which I don't understand because everything else picture wise is beautiful. But I'm kinda anti-iPhone. Now Samsung I had to reload the trailer 5 times. It wouldn't ever play without pausing. Now photon never had a problem with anything. So that made my decision for me on what to choose. Now all of these phones have been played with a million times and messed up from thise whole dont know how to use them. Still i didnt get any lag or snag ups on anything from the photon. But i did from the other phones even the holy iphone. This review also helped in making a clearer decision as well.

  • Dennis

    I have a Motorola Photon and have been a LOYAL Motorola customer since my first "Bag Phone" in the "80's". BUY AMERICAN,SUPPORT AMERICA
    I upgraded from the Motorola I1 (that had its own problems and glitches) to a Photon. The Photon has a bad habbit of needing to reboot itself at the worst times ie... when you try to make a call, answer a call, send a message, receive a message or when it is just sitting on the desk. At times it will constantly reboot itself, over and over until you pull the battery.
    This is not good when you are using this product for business or need reliability in emergency.

  • Ed

    Oh Man! Dennis your post is scaring me! Especially since Sprint changed to only a 14 day return policy. After some research I decided on the Photon and just placed my order yesterday. Sounds like some of the same issues I'm having with my Palm Pre which I upgraded to after 3 straight Palm TREOs. TREOs= great Pre= disappointment. I hope I have better luck then you are having. I'll come back and post my experiences. Wish me luck!

  • nathen a

    Man, I have had the photon for atleast 5 months now and let me tell you, this phone is fantastic!!! never and I mean NEVER has it stalled rebooted glitched out! not during a call not while browsing, nothing. Sometimes I think some of you posters are working for competitors, really upsets me. the review is good and I agree about the camera being not so great but imo definitly usable with the right lighting, anyways im sorry but this phone blows away the evo 3d dud phone and as of yesterdays update which now lets you record full 1080p video puts this phone in the evo 4g LTE catagory. Call quality on the photon is superb ,speaker is great and it never drops calls. That guy with the dropping calls and rebooting issues is lying or obiviously had a faulty phone . Im sure that call quality wise, this phone still beats out the new samsung galaxy S III and new evo LTE.Motoblur interface is sleek and professional, performance is fast and always reliable. I think moto should update with ICS, put it back in the sprint stores and mop up the competition! cheers

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessie.sofen Jessie Sofen

    I've been having issues with my Photon freezing up, dropping calls, and a slow 3g connection. I don't live in a state that has 4g Sprint towers yet (come on Sprint, get on the ball!). So, having the 4g feature for me is pointless. I also find it a bit frustrating that I can't foward text messages. Even non-smart phones have that capability. I guess where you live determines the satisfaction you have with your phone. I'm only mildly satisfied with this phone.