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The Sprint Motorola Photon 4G just came out, and Motorola presents it as being a “superphone”. Powered by an NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core system on a chip, it’s easy to understand why Motorola sees it that way. Despite having recent competition from Qualcomm, the chip still dominates many synthetic benchmarks. However, a smartphone is more than raw performance numbers: few people actually buy a smartphone based on that. Fortunately, the Photon 4G has more than just performance. Motorola gave it Webtop, a desktop-like environment that supports a full desktop Firefox browser. The Photon 4G has also been designed to be an efficient email and multimedia device. That’s great on paper, but how is it in the real world?

Technical Highlights

Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread)
4.3” 540×960 qHD display (TFT LCD)
1700mAh battery capacity
NVIDIA Tegra 2 Dual Core, 1GHz
1GB of RAM
16GB of internal storage, microSD slot
8 Megapixel Camera
5.00 x 2.63 x 0.48 inches, 158g (5.55oz)

Context

We all use our smartphones differently, that’s why I tell you what I do with them: I check my email (Microsoft Exchange), and I reply very moderately because virtual keyboards are slow to type with. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and stocks (mainly on mobile sites), but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I use a couple of social networks, and I rarely play games on the go. In the evenings, I may use my phone as a TV remote from time to time. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.

External Design

The Photon 4G is a nice looking phone that uses a new Motorola design, which looks much more modern than the recently reviewed Droid X2. On the front, you can mainly see the display glass and bezel, along with the Photon 4G metallic frame (no carrier logo, phew). This is a construction model that both Samsung and LG have used successfully. It allows phones to be very rigid, while not using an all-metal casing, which makes it possible to have lightweight devices.

However the Photon 4G is not particularly light, or thin. At 158g, the phone is a little heavy and with a 12.2mm thickness, it is significantly thicker than the thinnest Android phone: The Galaxy S2 (8.49mm). However, there’s a crowd out there that likes phones that weighs a bit more, and feels “solid” in the hand. I’m not really part of this group, but I can relate to it. Most of the time, folks who like those heavier phones point out devices like the HTC Sensation (read our HTC Sensation review).

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On the sides, you can find the USB and micro HDMI ports (left), the volume and camera shutter buttons (right) and finally, the audio port (3.5mm jack) and the power button (top). Having the micro-USB port at the upper-left makes it a bit better when using the phone while charging as the cable doesn’t really get in the way when you are holding the phone. This is good.

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The back of the phone is made of a plastic that has a “leathery” feel. The 8 Megapixel camera module is pretty obvious, along with the 2-LED flashlight (that can be used as a light for video recording too). There’s an integrated kickstand (like the “old” HTC EVO 4G) that is very convenient for watching media files, or just let the phone charge. Motorola made sure that the phone can stand on either left or right side. Smart.

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In this position, you can use the USB and HDMI ports at the top

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Display

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Just like the Motorola Atrix before it The Photon 4G has a qHD display (960×540) – this seems to be more common these days, even if high-end smartphones like the Galaxy S 2 still use a 800×480 display. On the paper, this is a definite advantage, although in the real world, I can see the subpixel pattern, and it decreases  the image quality .

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Right: this is a magnified photo, but it shows the pattern that I'm seeing

This is visible only when my eyes are closer than 15” from the display – or when I’m looking at something with small details like grass or leaves, so it’s usually not a problem unless I’m staring at something. I mention it, because other displays like the Sensation 4G or the iPhone 4 don’t exhibit this.

Other than that, the display is very nice. The color rendering seems fairly accurate (unlike most of the OLED/AMOLED displays that I have tested) and looking at beautiful images or video will be very pleasing, especially if you look straight at the screen.

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The display... in a difficult lighting environment

In today’s market the display is good, but there are better competitors out there. If you don’t mind over-saturated colors, OLED are better in contrast and saturation, while IPS displays are better in every way, but they are a rare breed. Recently, the LG Optimus 2X and the iPhone 4 were the only two phones with IPS displays that we had on hand.

Basic functions

Call audio quality: the quality of the sound during calls is very good, although I think that this had more to do with the network quality than the earpiece. The voice signal was stable and the connection seemed very solid during conversations. The sound itself was good, but just a bit muffled. The Nexus S remains the clearest of all phones in my opinion.

Dialing / contacts: dialing a number, or finding a contact is very easy. You can use the virtual numeric pad of course, or head into the contact list and scroll down or type a name. If you have a lot of contacts, creating a list of favorites may help quite a bit. My personal favorite on Android is the “direct dial” shortcut. Basically, you choose a contact and a number, and you create an icon on the home page. Upon pressing it, the call is directly placed. It’s the fastest way to call someone, and I use it all the time.

This Motorola phone also has a “Contact quick task” widgets that lets you select up to two actions (call, email, sms…) for any given contact.The idea is quite good, and i like it, but the actual widget takes too much surface on the home screen (4 icons worth). That’s because the widget features the photo of your contact. I believe that it could have been twice as small if it had used only the name.

Browsing: the Android web browser does a very good job at rendering pages from “desktop-sized” websites, and of course from mobile sites as well. The dual-core processor should make web browsing a bit faster because this activity can use quite a number of processes that can be split across multiple cores. That said, this remains a mobile phone, so sites like Google Docs and other very interactive services tend to be significantly slower when compared to a computer.

Flash Support: Not surprisingly, Flash is well supported as well (version 10.3 is preloaded). This means that you have access to a world of small business and other websites that have been built with Flash. If you have never used an Android smartphone before, I need to set your expectations properly: when compared to a computer, Flash is still slow in absolute terms. Keep in mind that most Flash content has been designed for much more powerful computers, so although “it runs”, the user experience is often not as good as one might expect.

Motorola Software

MotoBlur: The Photon 4G comes with MotoBlur, a Motorola web service that aggregates updates from a number of social networks on Motorola’s servers. This allows the Motorola phone to pull updates from all social networks at once, instead of pulling information from each of them separately. This may save battery life, and it also allows the phone to display social network updates in a consolidated way.

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I'd love to be able to not have that dark halo. In broad daylight, a dark screen is just not very readable

Lockscreen: Despite running on the same hardware, the Photon 4G lock screen has a faster response than the Droid X2. This means that I don’t have this weird moment when I wonder if I had pressed the power button properly or not. That said, Motorola is still using a dark background, which fine indoors, but not very readable in direct sunlight. It would be nice if the user could tweak this.

motorola webtop

Webtop: Webtop is Motorola’s desktop environment that turns on as soon as you connect the Photon 4G to a TV/monitor via HDMI. Yes, you read that right, this phone can turn into computer complete with a desktop version of Firefox. If you are using a Dock, you can even plug in a regular mouse and keyboard, which is critical to get any kind of serious work done. Google docs, webmail and other productivity sites should just work.

Obviously, this is still a smartphone, and things aren’t fast, but keep in mind that the device fits in your pockets. How you enjoy this depends on what you do. I find it OK to do emails and other text-based applications, but I would not leave my laptop home on a business trip. I love the idea, and Motorola has done a good job of pulling this off, but the concept needs more muscle to back it up.

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This utility could be handy

Motorola Media Link: Out of the box, Android doesn’t really have much when it comes to synchronizing the files between your computer and your smartphone. Media Link is a utility (for Windows) that synchronizes media files and contacts from a computer to the Photon 4G. Music files can be synchronized from iTunes or Windows Media Player, while photos and video are simply synchronized from a directory. Contacts can come from Outlook or Windows Mail. [Media link homepage]

Critical apps

During my discussions with all kinds of users, I have noticed that these are some of the most critical apps that users can’t go without, so I would to give you a quick shout about how they run on this phone.

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This keyboard is too slow: fast response time is critical for typing performance

Virtual keyboard (below-average): the default virtual keyboard has a simple and readable design. However, it would have been better with a bit more contrast between the background and the keys (the background is basically too light-colored). However, its weak point is the response from a key press and the visual cues that appear on screen (letter, suggested keywords).

This is key because although you probably won’t type fast enough to outpace the keyboard, the slow response may get you to focus on the previous action instead of just focusing on the next letter or word.

Keyboards on devices like the LG Optimus 3D, the iPhone 4 are faster, but today, nothing beats Windows Phone 7 in terms of keyboard responsiveness in my opinion (I tried on the Samsung Focus).

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Fortunately, there is a second option... Swype!

Swype Virtual Keyboard (very good): Swype is a much better, keyboard option. It has fortunately been pre-loaded on the Photon 4G. If you’ve never heard about Swype, it looks and can work as a regular virtual keyboard, but its real power is revealed when you slide your finger from one letter to the next to form words. It’s very powerful because your finger doesn’t leave the surface of the screen, making the whole motion much more accurate than “tapping” on the screen. I generally find myself typing faster with swype, and even when I don’t use the sliding motion, the keyboard’s response time is noticeably better than the default virtual keyboard.

The weakness of Swype is that it relies a lot on a dictionary to get it right, so when I was trying to type “activesync”, it thought that I meant “quebec”… Swype is great for conversations, but eventually, you may have to fall back to “taps” for slang or technical keywords.

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Email is top-notch and professionals will like it

Email (excellent): The Photon 4G offers a very good email experience whether it is through the Email app or via GMail. I’m using the former, to connect to a Microsoft Exchange server, and it has been working flawlessly. I particularly like:

  • The ability to multi-select emails right away, as it’s great for quick content curation. Deleting stuff in bulk also cuts down on the number of network connections, thus saving battery life.
  • The speedy email search. Believe it or not, plenty of Android phones out there don’t even have an email search function
  • The integrated email “voice search”, which can be handy
  • The high-contrast, clear, readable, email display. I consider white background and black text to be the best setup for reading email, especially in broad daylight. Some manufacturers, like Samsung, choose a black background and don’t let users switch colors.
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The social widgets let you see and interact quickly

Facebook (very good): On the Motorola Photon 4G, there are two ways of using Facebook. First, you can simply download the app, and use it like you would with any other smartphone. It works reasonably well, and gets the job done easily. It may be sometime a bit annoying when you are waiting for the notifications or messages to update, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary there.

The second way of using it, is trough the MotoBlur Social Network widget. It pulls fresh content in the background so you won’t have to wait for the refresh, and the widget content is big enough to see what’s going on, but also big enough to “like” or “reply” directly. I’m usually not a big fan of widgets, but this is actually pretty cool as you won’t have to launch yet another app to reply. On top of this, the widget doesn’t seem to be slow, or slow down the phone in a noticeable way (unlike the FB app…). Now, I’m not sure what the impact on battery life is, but in theory the MotoBlur centralized approach to notification updates should be better than anything that pulls content from many networks to the phone.

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Google Maps for Android is the kind of the hill

Maps: As of late, I found the mapping experience to be much better on Android devices, and that certainly has to do with the fact that Google has been improving its mapping application on its own platform, while leaving other mobile OSes in the cold. It’s not a bad tactic to gain an edge, and the net result is that Android users have been getting steady improvements, while others have mostly stagnated.

First, Android users get free turn-by-turn navigation. This is a big deal as this feature can cost quite a bit of money on other platforms. Secondly, new features like “download map area” are introduced on a regular basis. This one is supposed to let you preload an area the size of a city, which sounds really cool. Yet, it doesn’t work on the Photon 4G and many other phones. I’ll have to try it with the Nexus S… [keep up with the Google Mobile blog]

Skype: Skype is one of the most popular communication application, and yet, it has historically been lagging on Android. Fortunately, the past few revisions have brought long-awaited features like video calls… BUT, this particular handset does not support Skype video at the moment. Audio calls (and text chat) work fine, though. [Android Market link]

Photo and Video Capture

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Photography is evolving slowly @ Motorola

First of all, I have uploaded some photo samples to the Ubergizmo Flickr account, so check them out.

The Motorola Photon 4G is equipped with a 8 megapixel camera and dual-LED Flash. While this may sound pretty “bad ass”, the Photon is unfortunately not a killer camera phone. In broad daylight, it does fairly well – but so do most smartphones today. However, it lacks the continual focus that the iPhone has had for a while, and phones like the Sensation 4G now feature on Android.

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The panorama user interface is simply bad. Check LG's Optmus 2X for this.

Also, the panorama mode, a feature popular with Tegra-based phones, is implemented terribly. I’m not sure what happened because LG had a very good one in the Optimus 2X. This is clearly a camera application issue. Normally, the previous and next photos of a panorama should be surperimposed so that you can align them properly. This is not the case here. It is as if Motorola was only using the accelerometer (motion sensor) data to figure out when to take the next shot as the user moves. In any case, this is highly inaccurate and counter-intuitive. The other phone that does this very well is the upcoming Galaxy S 2 (review coming up), so this is quickly becoming a competitive area.

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For casual photos sharing, the Photon 4G's low-light performance is not great

Finally, the Motorola Photon 4G’s low-light capture abilities are just not good enough. I’ve compared it with the 13-months old iPhone 4, and there’s no question that the Photon 4G gets blown out of the water. We will never say it enough: higher megapixel count doesn’t matter nearly as much as low-light photography, especially when it comes to mobile phones. People share photos over the web, so smaller images are actually better (I consider 1024×768 to be “small”). There’s no point in sending a dark and fuzzy 3000×2500 pixels photo to Facebook.

It may sound harsh, but I truly believe that Motorola needs to change the camera app in a big way. People need to see what the final photo will look like before they shoot it, so doing as much real-time focusing and processing as possible is required. It’s even more frustrating because the phone has the horsepower to do it.

Entertainment / Play (Very good)

Gaming (excellent): The Motorola Photon 4G comes with one of the most powerful gaming smartphone chips, so gaming is one of the strong points of this device. If you want to check out the latest games that are optimized for this hardware platform, you can download TegraZone, an application from NVIDIA that highlights titles that run better on its chip.

Video Playback: The Photon 4G does an excellent work at decoding 1080p videos, and you can even plug the phone on a large TV to play video files in all their glory. Now, the hardest part is to find (legitimate) video content as Google does not have a video store. You may think “Youtube” or “Netflix”, but the former won’t stream 1080p content to a smartphone, and the latter does not work at this point. Don’t even mention Hulu… So, yes, the Photon 4G is great at video playback — if you can find (compatible) video content. Windows video files won’t work out of the box, but you should be able to fin apps on the Android Market that will play those back.

HDMI Output: I just mentioned the TV output, and that’s thanks to the micro HDMI port. Keep in mind that as soon as you’re connected to a display/TV, you can choose to enter a “media mode” in which the interface is optimized to play media files. It is possible to connect directly with a cable, or using the multimedia dock – the difference being that the dock has two additional full-size USB ports that are handy if you want to plug a mouse+keyboard, and the dock gives you access to Webtop, the desktop environment based on Linux.

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Despite being in the back of the phone, the speaker provides an excellent sound (for a smartphone)

Speaker Quality (excellent): I found the speaker quality to be very good. I tried playing a song with clear vocals so that I could judge the quality of the sound and -for a smartphone- this is top notch. It does as well as the best: iPhone 4, Atrix, LG Optimus 2X.

Like all smartphones, the quality of the sound is also related to the location of the speakers. Virtually every setup has pro and cons. For instance, the iPhone and Optimus 2X both have speakers located at the bottom, which give them an advantage compared to practically all phones with rear-speakers. However, when playing games in the landscape position your hand may land just on top of the speakers, which is bad. The Motorola Photon 4G does not have this issue because it is located in the back of the phone, and Motorola has managed to come up with a design that still provides good audio. If you are listening to music, orient the speaker towards you, or lay the phone down on a table, speaker facing up.

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Gallery App (very good): The gallery app is great and much better than the default Android gallery. By default, it shows you photo updates on your social networks because they tend to be more dynamic. However, your local photo gallery, online photos, and even home server (DLNA) are just one tap away.

When watching the social network photos, they are big enough so that you can tell what’s going and, and adding a comment is usually just a couple of taps away.

The local library shows both photos and movies, and if you have a lot of them, there is a media file search bar. That of course assumes that the files are named in a meaningful way, which is often not the case when coming out of the camera. HTC had introduced location-based file naming as a default scheme. Maybe that would be a good idea. At least you could search for something like “san francisco” or “london”.

System Performance (Excellent)

Overall, the Motorola Photon 4G has very good system performance. This is not surprising, given that it is powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 processor. In the chart, you will see that many handsets using this chip lead the synthetic benchmarks (Atrix, Optimus 2X, Droid X2 etc…).

When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.

On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?

photon 4g benchmarks browsermarkphoton 4g benchmarks sunspiderBrowserMark, SunSpider: BrowserMark and SunSpider are two tests that measure the speed of Javascript, a key component for interactivity in websites. To be clear, this does not measure “how fast” pages are loading. Instead this look at how fast scripting code can execute. Javascript is used in modern websites for user interface or even complete applications/games.
The Photon 4G does very well, and is very close from the best players out there. If you have been following the smartphone news, you will notice that all the four leaders in those benchmarks are using the Tegra 2 chip..

photon 4g benchmarks guimark2GUIMark 2 Flash graph test: This test measures the Adobe Flash performance. Flash is a widely used multimedia platform and you can find it virtually everywhere as advertisement, video or other forms of interactive web page module.
To put things in context, there are plenty of phones that don’t support Flash at all, so the mere fact that it works is already a good thing. Surprisingly, the Photon 4G does not do as well as other Tegra-powered phones. The reason is still a mystery to me. Even if we take into account the extra screen resolution, I would expect the Photon 4G to match the Droid X2. But yet, there is a 5 frames-per-second (FPS) difference between those two phones over repeated tests.

photon 4g benchmarks cpubenchThe CPU Benchmark tries to measure the raw number crunching performance of this smartphone. It’s not really an indicator of how good the user experience is, but it shows how much data the device could process. The Motorola Photon 4G does very well here.

photon 4g benchmarks neocoreNeoCore graphics benchmark has an interesting outcome: the Tegra-2 smartphones lose to the Qualcomm powered Sensation 4G. Some would say that NeoCore was originally developed by Qualcomm to show their graphics performance, but we’ve been using it for a while, so it’s always nice to compare the results with previous reviews. Neocore doesn’t use the latest OpenGL 2.0 features – but most Android games don’t use them either.

To conclude this section on performance, I would like to remind you that raw performance does not accurately represent the user experience of the phone. It just just a tool to measure how much stress the system can take. If you don’t use any apps that stresses the system, having more performance may not make your life any better. That is why it’s important to try understanding what you want to do with the smartphone, before getting one, if that’s possible at all…

Battery Life (Good)

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Overall, the battery life is fairly good, but not the best out there – despite the huge 1700mAh battery. Yet, for my personal usage (see context), I can get about 1.5 days of usage. That said, this will vary considerably depending on your own usage. Little things, like having a poorly optimized social network app or widget, can ruin your battery life.

I’ve measured the battery life depletion of a few typical power-hungry apps to give you an idea of what they would “cost” in terms of battery life percentage:

Gaming for 30mn: 10%
Browsing for 30mn: 10%
YouTube Movie for 30mn: 10%

I’m very surprised that 30mn of gaming would only take only 10% of battery life, but that’s the reading I got, so here it is. I’ve already seen other phones using 10% for 30mn of browsing and YouTube, so there is not surprise here. Also, I’m not sure that you could perform these activities for 300mn (or 5hrs) as those numbers would suggest (assuming that battery depletion is linear, which it often is). Here are some tips to improve your Android battery life.

Test conditions: display brightness set to 50%, no sound (for my own sanity), WiFi ON, Bluetooth OFF, GPS OFF.

Conclusion (Good++)

Overall, I would say that the Motorola Photon 4G is a “good to very good” phone, depending on what you are looking for. I found the experience to be pleasing, although a couple of things did get to me: the size and the photo quality. The size (or weight) may not be a problem for many people, but I found the Sensation 4G to have comparable (although not equal) capabilities into a smaller body.  As for the camera app and photo quality, some users may not use it as much, or care as much. That’s really up to you to decide.

But if those points don’t matter much to you, the Motorola Photon 4G is really nice to use for emails, web browsing or gaming. It’s not perfect, but it is one of the most powerful smartphones on the market today and certainly the fastest Android phone available with Sprint. If you are carrier agnostic, I would recommend looking at the Atrix (AT&T), Droid Incredible 2 (Verizon), Sensation 4G (T-Mobile) and obviously, the iPhone 4, although the next iPhone should come out next month or so…

The Photon 4G is a cool phone, but Motorola needs to kick it up a notch in terms of on industrial design, and imaging capabilities. The competition is brutal out there.

Links

Don’t miss those reviews: Galaxy S2 Review,  HTC Sensation Review, Droid Incredible 2 Review, iPhone 4 Review, Samsung Epic 4G Review, Samsung Infuse 4G Review.

Motorola Photon 4G (motorola site)

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