Motorola PHOTON 4G Review

Introduction and Design

Not too long ago Motorola was teetering on the brink of viability, but along came a little green robot and the company’s fortunes have changed drastically.  Sprint’s situation isn’t quite as bleak, but its hoping that their renewed partnership with Motorola helps turn the tide for the nation’s number three carrier.  They’re kicking things off with a bang with the Motorola Photon 4G, a beastly phone with a massive spec sheet.  Some of the highlights include a 4.3” qHD display, 1GHz dual core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 8-megapixel camera with 720p video capabilities and a kickstand.  The Photon is also a world phone with support for Sprint’s WiMAX 4G.  Included accessories are light: you simply get a microUSB cable and the AC adapter.


To be honest, the Photon 4G takes a lot of its design cues from the RAZR V9m.  From the dark gunmetal housing around the 4.3” display to the soft touch feel of the battery door the Photon 4G resembles the RAZR a lot.  Being one of the most beautiful flip phones ever it is not a bad source of inspiration.  The Photon 4G is definitely its own phone though.  It is large an unapologetic, but very well constructed and comfortable to use.

You can compare the Motorola Photon 4G with many other phones using our Size Visualization Tool.

There once was a time that a 4.3” display would turn heads, but these days it has become passé.  Luckily the Photon 4G’s qHD display will still grab your attention by being brilliantly vivid, bright and crisp.  It has an above average viewing angle and we didn’t have much of an issue using it in direct light.

Motorola Photon 4G is very large, but feels well-balanced and natural in the hand.  Though angular at first sight, the back of the phone is rounded and that makes it more comfortable to hold.  The volume rocker and camera key are both ribbed, which makes them easy to find by touch and feedback is good when you activate the buttons.

Motorola not only upstaged HTC by including a kickstand on the Photon 4G, but they also included a sensor that launches the Widget Clock app, which is similar to a desk clock app.  The kickstand is very sturdy, which comes in handy.  The microUSB port is unfortunately on the left side of the phone, making it impossible to plug in when the kickstand is being used in the intended manner because it becomes the bottom.  The sturdiness of the kickstand allows the phone to be turned the other way however, an unintentional advantage to good construction.

All-in-all Motorola has done a good job with what is essentially another black slab device.  It’s hard to really differentiate yourself in an increasingly crowded market, but Motorola is letting the quality of their work stand out with the Photon 4G.

Motorola Photon 4G 360-degrees View:

Interface and Software:

When we did our unboxing of the Motorola Photon 4G we mentioned that it featured SprintID but otherwise was stock Android  (as previous SprintID devices have been.)  We jumped the gun on that though, as the Photon 4G definitely runs Motorola’s customized version of Android.  This isn’t quite Blur, but the widgets and icons are taken straight from what we’ve seen from Motorola in the past.  They have their own style for sure, love it or hate it.

There isn’t anything too different about what Motorola has done with the software.  The dock has 4 icons, 3 of which are user customizable with the fourth being the app drawer.  In there the apps can be grouped into pre-existing or customized groups.  There is also a static link to the Market while the app drawer is open.  There are seven homescreens with the familiar Motorola widgets available, and they can be viewed in a consolidated view (like we originally saw in Sense) by double tapping home.  Unfortunately there has been no customization to the notification drawer like we have seen from Samsung and HTC.

We’ve seen an effort by Sprint to reduce bloatware on phones, and not only is there very little on the Photon 4G but most of what is there is uninstallable.  Motorola has added some of their own apps like a task pad, task manager and their familiar Social Networking app.  There is a generous 2GB available for app storage.

SprintID allows the user to download alternative ID pack themes which replaces the wallpaper, installs pack-specific apps and sounds.  It isn’t a bad product for lower-level devices that play to a less tech-savvy crowd, but we have a feeling most Photon 4G buyers won’t be installing too many IDs.

The Photon usually flies through whatever you throw at it, and Quadrant Standard scores were pushing 2700 which is pretty good.  Benchmarks aren’t the be all and end all though, and every now and again it hung up, and while we can’t quite put our finger on why but it feels like the phone should be faster.   Maybe it’s just the enormous expectations from a device like this, but it isn’t as buttery smooth as we usually see from top-tier devices like this.  We’re admittedly picky though, so chances are most people won’t notice these small hiccups.

Connectivity and Internet:

The Motorola Photon 4G is one of only a handful of Android world phones, and the first available from Sprint.  Throw in 4G data speeds over Sprint’s WiMAX network and the Photon 4G is arguably the most connected phone ever made.  Other standards like Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR and GPS are along for the ride as well.

The browser is extremely quick, maybe one of the best stock browsers we have ever used.  Double tap to zoom works exactly how it should and pinching is very fluid.  We didn’t having any problems loading complex pages, and being Android it handles Flash content just fine. 

Though we didn’t have one to use, the Photon 4G supports the Motorola Webtop dock that we saw with the Atrix 4G which turns the phone into a pseudo-laptop. It is also compatible with Motorola’s HD dock.


Motorola Photon 4G’s 8-megapixel camera performed very well, especially in strong light.  Details were crisp, color reproduction was accurate. We were particularly impressed with the macro shots the Photon 4G produced.  The dual LED flash performed about as well as you can expect from a cell phone but has a tendency to wash out close subjects. Keeping with Motorola tradition the controls are very limited, but thankfully the camera produces images just fine on its own.  The camcorder does quite well also, recording at a max resolution of 720p. We would have liked seeing 1080p though.

Motorola Photon 4G Sample Video:


Motorola’s music player is a step up from the standard Android player.  It integrates your music, podcasts, internet radio and FM.  The integration is nice but unfortunately it does not work with Google Music Beta, so if you’re using that (or the Amazon MP3 store) you’ll need to use those other options.  It handled all of the various formats and sizes of movies we threw at it.  With the Tegra 2 dual core processor the Photon 4G is capable of 1080p video playback.  The Photon 4G supports DLNA, enabling you to stream all of those videos to other compatible devices around your home.  If your TV doesn’t support the wireless standard don’t worry, you can use the micro HDMI port to connect to your HDTV.


Callers were very pleased with the sound quality of the Photon 4G.  They rated us an 8.5/10 and only complained of some mild hollowness.  We felt the same way on our end, but it was far from a deal-breaker.  Voice reproduction was natural, earpiece volume was good and the speakerphone was nice and loud.  The battery is rated for 10 hours of talk time, which would be far and away the best smartphone Sprint has ever seen.  It didn’t quite make it in our testing, but at 8.6 hours it still out performs almost every other Android device out there.


The Motorola Photon 4G makes a very strong case for being the best phone in Sprint’s lineup.  It certainly has the horsepower with the Tegra 2 dual core processer, 16GB of memory and brilliant qHD display.  The 8-megapixel camera with 720p recording performed well enough to double as a point and shoot for most people.  The battery life and call quality was well above average, and overall the build quality and design is very well done.

In the end it will come down to personal preference if you’re deciding between the HTC EVO 3D.  HTC’s Sense UI again shines through as the superior UI, and in our opinion the EVO 3D felt every-so-slightly faster and smoother.  The Photon 4G has the better display (3D-less as it may be), better camera and a stronger battery.   You really can’t go wrong with either, and for many the lack of 3D may be a positive for the Photon 4G, but one way or another Motorola has delivered an excellent device to Sprint and we look forward to the fruits of their renewed partnership.

Android version: 2.3.4
Software: 45.2.1.MB855.Sprint.en.US

Motorola PHOTON 4G Video Review:

Video Thumbnail


  • Large, crisp and vibrant qHD display
  • 16GB of internal memory
  • Good call quality and battery life
  • Great camera performance


  • The Motorola UI leaves a bit to be desired
  • Awkward microUSB port placement

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