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Android smartphones Reviews
15,670 Reviews

Motorola Photon 4G review

£490 inc VAT

Manufacturer: Motorola

Our Rating: We rate this 4 out of 5

The Motorola Photon 4G is a Google Android smartphone that adds support for on-device encryption to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" and support more Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, making it compliant with many organisations' security requirements. More than just a smartphone, it's a small and thin PC.

The Motorola Photon 4G can dock to a monitor and run a full desktop Firefox 4 browser in addition to the Android apps - an intriguing step from a smartphone to a post-PC device.

The Motorola Photon 4G  has a large 4.3in screen, with a whopping 16GB onboard and up to 32GB on optional MicroSD card memory.

Despite the "4G" in the name, the Motorola Photon 4G doesn't support the LTE 4G spectrum, offering instead the much less available WiMax 4G spectrum (however, only if you turn off Wi-Fi, a weird requirement). In the UK, this is a 'two bald men fighting over a comb' scenario, and 3G is the best you can hope for right now. However, LTE 4G is much more likely than WiMax to be universally available in the future.

See also: Group test: what's the best smartphone?

Motorola Photon 4G: UK release and availability

Available on contract in the US, the Motorola Photon 4G costs around £490 inc VAT SIM free from UK e-stores. It's a Sprint phone in the US, so even if you buy it rooted you may find that after the first software update it locks up. To get Photon working properly in the UK you would need to get custom ROM from XDA Devs. Root, unlock and install this ROM. If this is something you are willing to do this phone is good; otherwise, we would not recommend it. (And if you don't understand what we just said: it's not for you.)

Motorola Photon 4G: Email

In our tests of the Motorola Photon 4G , Motorola's email setup went straight to the manual settings for us to fill in, making setup relatively straightforward. The Email app has a bevy of nice additions, including direct access to Exchange's out-of-office settings, support for rich text emails (such as applying boldface and bulleted lists), the ability to save messages, and the ability to set up server-side rules for attachment forwarding to the device - none of which you'll find in the iPhone's iOS. It also provides clearer feedback when you take such actions as deleting a message.

Motorola's UI corrects several flaws previously found in the MotoBlur interface, including integrating the separate corporate and personal email apps, as well as displaying emails as black text on white rather than the hard-to-read Android smartphone standard of white text on a black background.

Unfortunately, the revised MotoBlur interface doesn't fix some earlier flaws. For example, you can't narrow your search by field, such as Subject or To, as iOS can. Previously, the Motorola UI's universal inbox provided an undifferentiated list of messages (as does iOS); now, there is no universal inbox, so you must manually switch among accounts. A better option would have been colour-coding of messages in the universal inbox, as is done in the calendar. There's also no message-threading capability in the Photon and its siblings, unlike in iOS.

Motorola Photon 4G: Calendar and contacts

The Motorola Photon 4G offers four calendar views: list (agenda), day, week and month. Moving among months is easy, and you can display multiple calendars simultaneously. The Motorola Photon 4G cannot send invitations to others as you add appointments, however; unlike the iPhone, for instance.

On the Motorola Photon 4G, the Calendar app doesn't display invitations. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email or Messaging app to add them to your calendar, but you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.

The Motorola Photon 4G has a capable Contacts app. A gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list; if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter.

You can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon). You can also designate users as favourites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list.

The Motorola Photon 4G lets you create groups in the Contacts app, and you can then email to everyone in that group by choosing the group in the address field.

Motorola Photon 4G: Applications

The app selection on the Motorola Photon 4G is mediocre: in addition to the carriers' own (subpar) apps, you get Google's nice navigation app, but no note-taking program.

Where the Motorola devices differ from other Android devices is their support for the desktop Firefox browser in the optional HD Dock. The HD Dock also lets you plug in three USB devices such as keyboards and mice and connect to an HDMI-equipped HDTV or monitor. You can then launch the Firefox 4 desktop browser (it had been Firefox 3.6 in the original Atrix) to run web apps and open websites that may not work well in Android's mobile Chrome browser, as well as run native Android apps on the big screen. Unfortunately, you get no more pixels for the Android window, just larger ones.

Another downside: The HD Dock supports only HDMI video output, which leaves out most monitors in the office and at home. (Motorola should add a MiniDisplayPort jack to the HD Dock, as VGA and DVI adapters are common.) That in turn means you can't turn the Photon or its siblings into "lite" computers on your desk, at a hotel, or other location. That's too bad, as it would let the Photon act as a Chromebook while retaining the ability to use native apps. Even on a good-quality HDTV, the text has a slight vibration, making it hard to work with for extended periods of time.

Motorola's WebTop app does a very good job of letting you navigate both the Android UI and the Firefox browser (each is in its own window on the TV or monitor) and type in apps and fields easily even if you have no USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse available. You'll want such input devices for extensive work duties, but you can go without them in a pinch. If only you could use the HD Dock with standard, higher-resolution monitors!

The HD Dock is a great idea in theory but is not practical for routine business use.

See also: Group test: what's the best Android phone?

Motorola Photon 4G: Web and Internet

The Firefox 4.0 support through the optional HD Dock is nice, giving you the regular Firefox browser plus the Adobe Flash Player running in a closed Linux environment. The browser's HTML5Test.com score of 286 (out of a maximum 450 score) is lower than current desktop browsers but demonstrates significantly better HTML5 compatibility than any mobile browser thus far. What you won't get is support for Microsoft's Silverlight rich application technology - or even support for the open source version of Silverlight called Moonlight.

But what about the native mobile Chrome browser? Surprisingly, it supports fewer HTML5 features than a stock Google Nexus One running the Android "Gingerbread" OS, with the Photon getting an HTML5Test.com score of 177 versus the Nexus One's 186. (An iPhone running iOS 4.3 scores 217.) Otherwise, the Motorola version of the Chrome browser doesn't differ from the stock Android version.

Motorola Photon 4G: Location support

The Photon 4G offers no additional capabilities to those in the stock Android OS.

Motorola Photon 4G: User interface

Motorola has corrected one defect in the stock Android UI: its use of white text on black backgrounds in settings, email lists, and other areas. Any designer knows that such text is hard to read and should be used sparingly at best. Motorola has reversed the UI's colour scheme in such cases to the much more readable white on black.

Motorola has unfortunately also changed many of the stock apps' icons, opting for cartoonish alternatives. Why does every Android smartphone seem to use a custom set of icons for the same included apps? It's very confusing.

Otherwise, the Photon 4G has the same UI pros and cons of other Android devices.

Motorola Photon 4G: Security and management

Motorola says the enhanced business capabilities in the Photon and its siblings will be standard on all of its Android smartphones. Outside of the email improvements covered earlier, most of these capabilities involve better security such as support for on-device encryption, support for VPNs, and support for more EAS policies (such as failed-attempt lockout and password histories) than the stock Android "Gingerbread" OS. Exchange's remote lock and remote wipe capabilities are also supported, as in the original Atrix.

This set of enhancements will clinch the deal for numerous organizations that have had to deny access to other Android smartphones. You won't get the same level of security as you do in iOS - which supports more EAS policies and works with PEAP-protected Wi-Fi networks - but you get enough for many businesses' legitimate requirements.

Motorola Photon 4G: Hardware

The Motorola Photon 4G is a bigger smartphone than most, to accommodate its 4.3-inch screen. But it still fits in a shirt pocket and weighs about the same as an iPhone 4. There's nothing exceptionally good or bad about its hardware apart from the very readable large screen and the limited (HDMI-only) video output. Its dual-core 1GHz ARM processor is typical these days, as is its MicroUSB jack (for charging and file transfer) and its front and rear cameras.

The MiniHDMI jack is the only unusual component in the mix. With it and the included MiniHDMI-to-HDMI cable, you can play videos on an HDTV directly from the smartphone; unlike with Firefox, no HD Dock is required. The Photon also can send videos wirelessly if you happen to have a TV that supports the DLNA standard. Unfortunately, there's no VGA support for regular TVs, projectors, and monitors, so the Photon and its siblings fall short of the iPhone for showing videos and making presentations. They're also less capable of serving as a "lite" PC when connected to a monitor and keyboard than an iPad. (Note: The iPhone requires the use of an extra-cost cable to output to HDMI or VGA, and only compatible apps can display their screens externally.)

Motorola Photon 4G Expert Verdict »

Talk time: CDMA: up to 10 hours, WCDMA: up to 9.1 hours
GSM: up to 10.4 hours
Standby time: CDMA: up to 8.3 days
WCDMA: up to 13.1 days
GSM: up to 12.2 days
WiMAX 2.5, WCDMA 850/1900/2100, CDMA 800/1900, GSM 850/900/1900, CDMA EV-DO Release A, EDGE Class 12, GPRS Class 12
3.5mm, USB 2.0 HS, HDMI, DNLA, Bluetooth, OTA, PC Sync and Corporate Sync
MMS, SMS, email (Corporate Sync, Google Mail, POP3/IMAP embedded, Push Email)
Camera: 8MP, Digital Zoom with dual LED flash, 2nd VGA imager for video chat self image capture
FM Radio Receive, AAC, AAC+, AAC+ Enhanced, AMR NB, AMR WB, MIDI, MP3, WAV, WMA v10, WMA v9
Video: 720p capture
1080p playback
16GB, up to 48GB
eCompass, aGPS with Google Maps™, Google Latitude™, Google Maps Street View
  • Overall: We give this item 8 of 10 overall

Despite its fairly pedestrian hardware design, the Photon 4G should appeal to anyone looking for an Android smartphone that stands a good chance of being allowed access to the corporate network - but you do need to be something of a propeller head to get it working consistently in the UK. The 4G WiMax capability isn't worth spending money on, given its virtual non-deployment in the UK and the basic questions about WiMax's future, but the device itself is perfectly good. If Motorola can enable VGA output on the HD Dock -- or better, on the smartphone itself -- the Photon and its siblings would have wider appeal as a "lite" business desktop for people whose work is primarily browser-based. You could literally carry your PC with you, using it as a smartphone when on the go and converting it to a Web appliance when at a desk, especially with the Photon's support of Bluetooth mice and keyboards. Yes, the iPad can be used largely in the same way, but it's not as portable as a smartphone. I didn't see any MiniHDMI-to-VGA cables available, but I noticed some MiniHDMI-to-HDMI adapters that might work if used with an HDMI-to-VGA cable. I had none of these cable hacks to try, so I can't guarantee they would work. Remember, though, that such a cable would not carry the sound, which negates playing videos but is just fine if you're using the Photon as a "lite" PC. I found the "post-PC" thinking the real appeal of the Photon. But if the company made the video-out work with standard monitors, and perhaps did not require the use of the HD Dock at all, it'd really have something compelling here.

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