The Motorola Photon was one of our favorite Sprint phones last year. Its comfortable styling and fast processing stood in sharp contrast to many of the other phones hitting the market. But with a new year comes a new phone. In its second go round, Motorola has stuck to what worked with the Photon, while giving it one strong differentiating feature: a slide-out keyboard. So how does the Photon stack up against Sprint’s burgeoning library of 4G LTE phones? Find out below.
Look and feel
Like the original Photon, the Photon Q is a fairly Plain Jane phone, save for its lovely slide-out keyboard and origamied corners, which are cut off as if to resemble a prop from Battlestar Galactica. It has a shiny dark blue — almost black — bumpered edge, with a plastic battery cover on the back, which sadly can’t be removed. While it mostly resembles the last Photon, most of the minute changes in appearance make it look more like the new Razr phones, like the Kevlar-patterned backplate, which looks okay but feels paper thin, like a cracker.
Holding the Q is a lot like holding a phone from about two years ago. Because of the keyboard, it’s about twice as thick as newer phones like the Razr or Galaxy S3, with its overall size somewhat comparable to the original Droid — perhaps a hair thinner. The volume and camera keys are still well placed and easy to press, as is the power button, though it has gotten a bit thinner and is now in the center top of the phone, like the Razr.
Slide out the QWERTY keyboard and you’ll see that the Photon Q has a lot in common with the Droid 4. Motorola has included its top-of-the-line, five-row keyboard with backlit keys on the Photon, and boy does it look and work beautifully. It takes some time to get used to typing with an actual keyboard, but there are definite benefits in speed and accuracy. Motorola has been improving its keyboard for years now, and it’s currently the best we’ve used, even including a number row, which is often overlooked. The arrow keys also help you go back and fix errors while you’re typing. Most of all, it’s just nice to be able to type and not have a touch keyboard taking up half of the entire screen.
Like all phones, you won’t find a great speaker on the Photon Q, but it more than holds its own against other top-teir devices like the EVO 4G LTE, Galaxy Nexus, and Galaxy S3. The volume gets louder and stays clearer than Samsung’s devices especially.
Overall, we like the look and feel of the Photon Q 4G LTE. It has some bulk because of its keyboard, but the tradeoff is worth it. You won’t find a better keyboard than this anywhere, and certainly not on Sprint.
Software and operating system
Turn on the Motorola Photon Q and you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Like other recent Motorola phones (the Atrix HD comes to mind), the Q has a much more functional and colorful UI. Gone are the grays and dark blues. The Photon comes with Android 4.0 out of the box. We hope it might get an update to Android 4.1 soon, but 4.0 is plenty good for now.
Motorola has added a colorful background, a few custom icons, and a nice new home screen widget that shows battery life, weather, and time. Other than that, though, the OS is a fairly vanilla version of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which should please most users. There’s a nice feature that lets you add new home screens as you see fit, as well, though it suffers from slow animation. So if you only want or need two home screens, you won’t have to flip through five empty ones, like you might on other Android phones.
If you’ve used a smartphone before, you should have no trouble diving into the Photon Q. If you haven’t, this is a good phone to have because of how little Motorola has modified it. There are now short tutorials that show you some of the basics as you get started, like how to pull down the notification bar and other simple tasks.
Though there are a couple Sprint apps included and Motorola’s impressive Smart Actions app, the Q comes remarkably clean and free of bloatware. You can download new apps from the Google Play store, of which we have many recommendations.
Number crunchers, the Photon Q checks out, but it’s not quite top of the line. It runs a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal flash storage with a microSD slot, a 4.3-inch 540 x 960 pixel LCD screen, an 8-megapixel rear camera, and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing webcam. Bluetooth, NFC, GPS, Wi-Fi and other common functions are also present. It charges on your typical Micro USB port, which makes it compatible with nearly every other phone charger you’ve got.
We had no problems playing graphically intense games or running fancy apps on the Q. In the Quadrant benchmark test, it achieved a score of 5,000, which is the one of the highest scores we’ve seen on a phone, roughly tying the impressive score of the Galaxy S3.
Overall, while the screen doesn’t quite match the 720p resolution we’ve seen on top devices lately and there isn’t 2GB of RAM, the Q more than holds its own in processing power and storage.
Motorola’s cameras continue to improve. Like the Atrix HD, we consider the Photon 4Q to have an adequate camera, though it has some noticeable flaws.
Here are a few issues we encountered:
• In the dark, we had a tough time focusing with the flash.
• Outdoor shots of Manhattan buildings lacked vibrancy.
• Most shots were zoomed in more than other cameras, even with zoom off.
• We could not figure out a way to turn off the camera sound.
• Despite focusing intently, most shots lacked fine detail.
• Filters worked, but most were rather corny.
This go round, we mainly compared the Photon to the Galaxy S3, which does not have as good a camera as the iPhone 4S or HTC EVO 4G LTE.
Voice and Data
Voice calls on the Photon sounded average, but we did have a few dropped calls and times when the 3G data service (4G LTE isn’t enabled here in New York City) slowed to a crawl. The data issues haven’t happened for a couple days, so it may have been a Sprint issue, but it was frustrating nonetheless.
In Manhattan, we’re seeing about 1 Megabit per second download and upload speeds, which is good for 3G, but slow compared to 4G LTE networks. The Photon Q is capable of connecting to Sprint’s 4G LTE network, but rollout has been slow. If you don’t think you’re going to get LTE for some time, it might be worth investing in one of Sprint’s older WiMax phones.
The Photon Q’s battery has not been kind to me. Though it managed to hold up all right for a day, the Q does not idle well. Even when we hardly touched the phone, we found that it died roughly every two days, which is abnormally fast. Most of the battery life was eaten up by idle tasks, making us wonder if Motorola doesn’t need to fix some of its software. Something is munching on the battery and it wasn’t an app that we installed — the problem was immediate. With that said, the battery life isn’t good, but it is still usable and should last a day, so long as you don’t go crazy. Few phones have good battery life these days, but the Galaxy S3 and Droid Razr Maxx are currently the top devices in this area.
With the Photon Q 4G LTE, Motorola continues its upward trend in design and usability. The Q keeps up with competing phones in every important way and though the battery and camera still leave something to be desired, they are serviceable. Most importantly, the Photon Q is a perfect phone for anyone who wants a slide-out keyboard. For mobile typing, it doesn’t get better than this. It’s a good, different option for users on Sprint and is one of our top picks for the carrier, much like the last Photon. The Q is now available for $200 with a two-year contract.
- Fantastic keyboard
- Fast processor
- Runs Android 4.0
- Good feel and size
- 4G LTE connectivity
- Poor battery life while idling
- Camera doesn’t match up to competitors
- Poor LTE availability on Sprint
- Some call drops and data slowdowns