Motorola Photon 4G hands-on

At a fanfare event in New York City, Pocket-lint was on hand to hear Sprint announce the release of two new Motorola phones running on Android: the Triumph and the Photon 4G.

Kicking off, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse and Motorola’s Sanjay Jha took the stage to outline the partnership between the two companies, mentioning their ongoing commitment to new and improved Android devices launching over the coming year. According to recent ComScore statistics, Android is the top operating system in the United States, capturing 36.4% of the market compared to Apple iOS’ 26.0%.

Therefore, Motorola and Sprint plan to launch ten smartphones and a tablet this year, including the Motorola Triumph, also announced today and sold through Sprint’s Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile prepaid brands.

But the highlight of the event was surely the Photon 4G, Sprint’s follow-up to its other 4G offering, the HTC EVO. The Photon 4G boasts top specs hand-picked from other Android offerings on the market. Think the Atrix’s dual-core Tegra 2 processor, the Droid X’s qHD display, and the EVO’s 4G WiMax speeds, making the Photon 4G a best-in-show phone for Sprint.  

The device itself is a lightweight candy bar-style smartphone with rounded edges and a 4.3-inch qHD display. Although the phone is rather lightweight, it doesn’t feel like a toy that will snap in half the second it’s dropped or manhandled.  

It has a front facing VGA camera for video chat and a back facing 8-megapixel camera for easy picture taking using a dedicated button. In fact, why doesn’t every phone have a dedicated camera button?! It makes picture taking so much easier.

The back of the handset is rubberised, which helps you hold onto it better and perhaps absorbs at least a little bit of impact if you drop it. The rear also features a kickstand, which allows the user to prop the device up for watching movies or to set it as a nightstand alarm clock. 

It runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread and houses a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor as well as 1GB of RAM, 16GB of onboard memory, and also supports an additional 32Gb SD card. Along the top of the phone are the power button and headphone jack, with a micro-USB and mini HDMI port along the left side.

There was no mention of any NFC functionality during the presentation, although when we asked a Sprint representative about it, he said it was indeed on the horizon for future Android devices in the Sprint/Motorola family. So, that's a no this time around, then.

In terms of software, Sprint made a point to highlight the Photon 4G as an enterprise phone in as much as it is a personal phone for multimedia consumption and daily use. The focus seems timely considering enterprise mobile phone leader Research in Motion has recently seen delays in new launching new BlackBerry models due to undisclosed internal problems. 

The Photon 4G has a new VPN integration and data server apps to create, which Sprint deems enterprise quality. It also comes preloaded with software like Quick Office, aggregated email apps, and a calendar app, which makes using the phone for business logical.

Although it runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the experience is less of an Android experience and more of a Motorola-inspired one. The home screen features a four-icon launcher along the bottom with the Motoblur-esque UI replacement and push-based service focused on social networking.

Unfortunately, many users have called Motoblur slow and unappealing, especially when compared to basic Android usability, and while it combines social networking widgets like Facebook, Twitter, and news tickers in one place, some users noted slowness when using Motoblur offerings as compared to other simple Android functions like watching a video or picture taking. 

With an HDMI port, the Photon 4G is designed for versatility with Motorola’s Webtop applications, which lets users use the phone with an HDMI dock accessory (sold separately) and mirror all actions on a bigger screen, including the ability to control the phone using a keyboard, mouse or a tiny remote control.

 

Loading and watching videos happened without a hitch, and scrolling through a PowerPoint presentation was simple even when mirrored on the TV screen. There is also a navigation dock accessory designed for driving, so the Photon 4G can also double as a navigation system.

Generally, when a phone launches, there are always people that feel that the manufacturer missed the mark on one part of the spec or another. With the Photon 4G, however, the majority of user reactions at the launch seemed positive, especially regarding the speed of the 4G network. And with Nvidia's Tegra 2 chip, graphics were sharp and clear.

Apps open quickly and easily without any lag, even when the phone is mirrored on another device. The main complaint came from the layered Motorola UI (Motoblur) that sits on top of the basic Android experience. The Motoblur add-on seemed to lag when compared to the lightning fast speed of the other applications.

With speed on its side and some of the top specs from other Sprint phones, the Photon 4G is the next step up from the well-received EVO and will most definitely be the front-runner on Sprint’s lineup this summer.

Both the Photon 3G and aforementioned Triumph are due to launch in the US sometime this summer, with pricing so far undisclosed. There's no word yet on whether either device will make it over to the UK.