Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE Review
It is, as they say, a summer of sequels.
The last three smartphones we’ve reviewed here at Pocketnow have been based on follow-on devices, phones with names ending in suffixes indicating they’re not the first to carry their family name. Sometimes they’re straightforward, as with the Galaxy S III, and sometimes they’re more oblique, as in the case of the Atrix HD.
The new Photon falls into the latter category; it’s the second in a relatively young line, succeeding last year’s WiMAX-packing Photon 4G. And as we discussed on last week’s edition of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, this latest iteration carries on the proud tradition of absurdly long phone names. The device’s full moniker: the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE, for Sprint.
That’s quite a mouthful, but does the device live up to its buzzword-y title? Is the addition of an LTE radio and a hardware QWERTY keyboard enough to “torpedo” this Photon into prominence in 2012? Read on to see what this little packet of EM energy can do.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
The Photon Q 4G LTE isn’t going to blow any hats off with its spec sheet, but neither is it a slouch in terms of raw numbers. At its heart, a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 hums along at 1.5GHz, backed up by 1GB of RAM. The dual-core CPU is doubtless a disappointment to quad-core enthusiasts, but it has little trouble driving Android 4.0.4 at a nice clip. For additional storage, a MicroSD card slot sits under the volume keys, ready to accept cards up to 32GB in size.
The dual-core CPU also provides the LTE support necessary to keep this device’s name honest, with support included for the high-speed protocol on Sprint’s 1900MHz frequency blocks. There’s also U.S. CDMA support for Sprint’s 3G and 1xRTT networks, as well as a quad-band GSM radio with HSPA for international roaming (though an embedded SIM means you can’t just pop in your existing international SIM card and start jabbering). Rounding out the new Photon’s communications equipment is the expected WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and NFC support, along with DLNA capability.
A 4.3-inch TFT LCD display dominates the front of the device, displaying images at 540×960 resolution, at a pixel density of 256 ppi. The lack of 720p resolution will be a disappointment to some, but the display’s enhanced saturation -courtesy of Motorola’s “ColorBoost” technology- plus deeper-than-usual black reproduction more than makes up for the deficiency. Daylight visibility is fair.
None of the above would function without some juice, and the Photon Q 4G LTE packs a 1785 mAh battery under its nondescript back cover. That used to be a fairly average rating, but in today’s world of 2100 mAh-packing jumbophones like the Galaxy S III, it’s starting to seem a little anemic. Motorola doesn’t seem to think so, though; it claims the (non-removable) battery can power the device for seven and a half hours of talk time, or 220 hours of standby. More on this in a bit.
Though it’s easy to overlook, this smartphone bears the burden of living up to two brand names: the aforementioned Motorola Photon 4G from last year, and also 2005’s Motorola Q. The latter was the company’s effort to expand the original RAZR’s design lineage into the smartphone space, and one of its defining features was a sharp, well-laid-out keyboard.
Fortunately, it seems Motorola hasn’t forgotten how to design keyboards in the intervening years. Sliding open the Photon Q (a smooth action topped off by a confidence-inspiring “thunk”) reveals a robust five-row keyboard. It’s one of the best we’ve ever come across, with large, well-spaced keys brightly illuminated by white, variable-intensity LED backlighting. The key travel is just right, each button bottoming out on its contact with a satisfying “click.” The dedicated number row running along the top makes numeric entry much more convenient than other keyboards which force users to constantly use the shift key, and a dedicated caps-lock indicator lets you know if you’re unintentionally SHOUTING AT EVERYONE.
Closed, the device more closely resembles its predecessor, with Motorola’s “cut-corners” design language giving its boxy form a distinctive flair. The unit is quite thick at 13.7mm, but weighs in at a fairly average 170g; it’s not something you’ll lose in a pocket, but it also isn’t a cumbersome brick. Our unit was a study in brute-force minimalism, the casing alternating between matte and gloss black finishes, unmarred by any logos save Motorola’s branding under the earpiece/LED up top.
The capacitive buttons that graced the bottom of the display on the earlier Photon are nowhere to be found on this newer, ICS-packing model, but there are a few hardware controls studding the casing. On the right, a volume rocker shares space with a hardware camera button, rarely seen these days. The power/standby button sits atop the phone, dead-center of the casing, within easy reach of an index finger.
Like much Motorola-built hardware, the Photon Q’s substantial feel is backed up by real-life durability. The company doesn’t call the panel covering its display Gorilla Glass, but the phone’s spec sheet confirms that it is “scratch-resistant.” While it’s a bigger finger-oil attractant than other displays we’ve tested, that does little to diminish its performance, which as noted above is excellent. The device is also protected by Motorola’s “splash guard” technology, a nano-coating of protective material that supposedly renders the device impervious to H2O assault. While we didn’t test this claim during our review period, it’s nice to know it’s there.
In all, the Photon Q 4G LTE’s hardware is vintage Motorola, with an aggressively masculine, unapologetically brutal air of “get-the-job-done-itude.” Sure, we’d have liked to see something a little more inspired in the patterning on the battery cover, and maybe a little less black plastic here and there, but such subtle touches aren’t what this phone’s all about. And that’s fine.
We first encountered Motorola’s newest Android skin on the Atrix HD, and the version running on our Photon Q is virtually identical, at least in a visual sense. From our Atrix HD review:
Motorola has taken extreme steps to distance itself from its “Blur” skin of old, but ghosts of that heavy UI layer remain. Some system menus have been brightened up with colorful iconography reminiscent of Samsung’s earlier TouchWiz builds, and there’s a handy lock screen which provides quick-jump access to the phone, camera, or SMS inbox. Motorola has also built a feature called QuickView into some core apps, marked with an elevator-like up/down icon. Swiping up on any of these apps opens a preview window of activity inside the app, without actually opening it. It’s quite handy once you realize it’s there.
From the lock screen to the settings menu enhancements to the app previews, the Android version running on our Photon matches the Atrix HD’s exactly. Even the “bubbles” widget we found so handy on the Atrix is here, its flippable circular windows full of useful information.
But where, on the Atrix HD, we encountered fairly frequent slowdowns and some very unpredictable behavior, there’s little of that on the Photon Q. The UI isn’t speedy, necessarily; it’s plagued by occasional lagginess, particularly when switching to and from portrait to landscape orientation. But these hiccups are usually predictable, happening as a result of consistent actions which make them easy to anticipate.
There are other niggling deficiencies. Motorola still hasn’t set its auto-correct to an aggressive enough level out of the box, so typing takes some getting used to. Not all Android apps come with support for landscape orientation, so there’s a fair amount of rotating the device during normal usage.
That’s not Motorola’s fault, but the company still has a few shortcomings to correct when it preps its next OTA update. The most annoying, which we also remember from our time with the Atrix HD, arises when you’re using the Photon Q to listen to music through headphones, and you decide to take a picture. When the shutter sound activates, not only does the phone blast your headphones with the camera “click,” but the music you’re listening to also momentarily blares from the device’s speakerphone.
But neither that bug nor the other minor software problems are enough to give us much pause about the Photon Q. All smartphones ship with their share of niggling deficiencies, and none of the shortcomings we’ve seen are major enough to warrant a warning. Whether we have Motorola’s ever-cozier relationship with owner Google to thank, or some other factor, it’s nice to see an OEM build a lightly-skinned version of Android that works well.
Motorola has never devoted much of its marketing effort to touting the performance of its cameras, and for good reason: with occasional exceptions, the company’s smartphone shooters have never been all that good. Sadly, that’s a trend that shows no sign of abatement in the Photon Q.
The problems aren’t in the camera UI, or in raw power: the 8MP, 1080p primary shooter has plenty of spec cred. The trouble is that the optics just aren’t very good; colors often appear washed out and lifeless in pictures shot with the Photon Q. Photos taken in ideal lighting conditions turn out looking acceptable, but dimmer scenarios lead to a fuzzy gray pallor falling over everything.
The software has trouble choosing a white-balance level if there are areas of differing illumination in the viewfinder, and once again, Motorola has failed to include an HDR setting which would go a long way toward correcting this deficiency.
Finally, the hardware camera key, a feature we were so pleased to see during our unboxing, isn’t nearly as useful here as on other devices. Unlike on Windows Phones, the camera button can’t be used to wake the device from sleep. That’s not too big a deal, considering there’s a shortcut right to the camera from the lock screen, but the button also isn’t dual-stage; pressing halfway doesn’t lock focus as it does on similarly equipped devices. Really, the only purpose the camera key serves on the Photon Q is to jump to the camera app via press-and-hold (when the device is already awake), and to serve as a physical shutter key if a user doesn’t want to use the on-screen button. It’s nice to have those options, but it still feels like a halfhearted implementation.
That’s a shame, because it seems as though Motorola really put some effort into sprucing up the optical aspects of the new Photon, with its hardware button, robust main sensor resolution, and 720p video capability on the front-side camera. But without solid optics or at least some software-side optimization, we can’t recommend this camera for anything but the occasional quick snapshot. While that might’ve been acceptable a few years ago, it’s not cutting the mustard in 2012.
Things are slightly better on the video front, with an array of custom settings for mitigating background noise and manual exposure control, as well as a handful of preinstalled “Scene” modes. In good light with default settings, the 1080p video output is quite good, but it doesn’t make up for the lackluster still-photo performance.
Fortunately, things get less bumpy as we venture away from the device’s optical attributes. With its capable spec sheet, we expected the Photon Q to perform well in everyday use, and we weren’t disappointed. Aside from the UI lag we mentioned earlier, the device performed most day-to-day tasks ably, despite lower benchmarks than its Atrix HD cousin.
Motorola is pretty good at optimizing power consumption on its mobile devices (and when it’s not, it just throws a bigger power plant at the problem), so we weren’t too concerned to see that the Photon Q carried a battery rated at a fairly unremarkable 1785 mAh. And it turns out our lack of concern was justified; the Photon Q features excellent battery life.
We took the Photon Q off its charger around 10am one morning and left it alone for most of the daylight hours, letting it passively collect texts, missed calls, emails from multiple accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram notifications, and so on. Then we took it out for a long walk around town, streaming a great deal of music over 3G, taking photos and videos, navigating, reading, and spending some time underground without wireless coverage.
The device didn’t finally give up the ghost until over 14 hours off the charger– and it would have lasted longer if we hadn’t disabled our battery-saving rule in Smart Actions. As always, your mileage will vary depending on your usage, and our results would have been quite different if we’d been using LTE 4G instead of CDMA, but we’d feel comfortable recommending the Photon Q to all but the most milliamp-hungry power users.
Still, if you’re considering the Photon Q and even occasionally find yourself running out of power on your mobile phone before the day is out, remember that this device doesn’t feature a removable battery. Until the next big leap in energy technology, we always recommend that users concerned about power consumption pick up an external power pack or a few extra wall chargers.
Call Quality/Network Performance
A smartphone is only as good as the network it’s on, and that’s as true on our New England testing grounds as anywhere else. We’ve been putting the Photon Q through its paces on Sprint’s 3G EvDO network in the Greater Boston area, and frankly, our experience has been an exercise in frustration.
Despite our relative success with Sprint’s network just a few months ago while reviewing its version of the Galaxy S III, the current state of affairs is very different. Whether it’s a result of network disrepair or severe overloading, we’ve only been able to achieve truly fast speeds once, and then only during non-peak hours.
The end result has been a predictably bad experience with anything which relies on data: Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Spotify are all rendered less useful when on 3G, with the latter two proving almost completely disabled during the busier daytime hours.
This isn’t a knock against the Photon Q itself; a device can do little to help the condition of the network it’s using. It’s more a stark reminder of the urgency with which Sprint must continue its LTE build-out, and how far behind it’s already fallen in the race to a widespread 4G experience.
Fortunately, things are considerably rosier on the voice side: callers sound bright and clear through the Photon’s earpiece, and even quite nice over the device’s speakerphone (though it, like all mobile speakerphones, could stand to be a bit louder). Callers say we sound fine, and though there’s no mention in the device literature about CrystalTalk noise reduction, callers say they can’t hear background noise, even as we walk down busy streets. A stiff breeze did give us problems once with an automated voice-based banking system, but that’s the extent of the trouble we’ve had. Finally, Motorola’s warm sidetone is once again in evidence, making the Photon Q sound more like a home phone than most mobile devices.
+ Spacious, comfortable hardware keyboard
+ Solid build
+ Good battery life
+ World phone
+ Useful, light UI customizations
– UI occasionally lags
– Fair-to-middling camera quality
– Exclusive to an immature network
Pricing and Availability
The Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is available now, exclusively from Sprint. Though its full retail price is a steep $549.99, that’s on par with other devices in its class, and if you’re a new Sprint customer -or a Sprint customer eligible for upgrade discounts- that price drops to a more manageable $199.99 in exchange for a 2-year contract commitment.
With the Photon Q 4G LTE, Motorola succeeds on a few fronts. It spruces up Sprint’s unremarkable hardware-QWERTY lineup, and gives Verizon Wireless converts looking for a Droid 4-like experience reason to consider the Now Network. More important, though, it improves on the experience provided by the original Photon 4G, and goes a little way toward restoring the prestige of the venerable “Q” brand. As in Hollywood, success in the smartphone world can’t always be found by going back to the well and rebooting an old title. But if it’s done right, a successful sequel late in the game can revitalize a retired brand while lending some old-school panache to a new product.
This device might not fully deserve its “4G LTE” designation yet, but the “Photon Q” in its name is doing a great job of living up to its proud legacy. And if you’re in the market for a hardware-QWERTY-packing smartphone on Sprint, there’s nothing else we’d recommend as readily.