Motorola may well have Sprint's best 4G phone yet

 Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

(Ed. note: We've had Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G under embargo for about 16 hours now, which is great for some initial thoughts -- and we've got plenty -- but it's not really enough time for a proper full-scale review. So we're going to break things up into two parts. This one tackles hardware and initial impressions -- things that don't necessarily take more time to effectively judge.)

Oh, Moto. What is this little piece of sexy you've dropped off in front of us? OK, maybe little isn't the right word. We're looking at yet another 4.3-inch black slab smartphone in Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G. And a dual-core phone at that. With 4G Wimax data. And it's relatively light. (Or at least relatively not heavy.)

After the break: Some unabashed love for the Motorola Photon 4G -- with a little tough love tossed in for good measure.

Video first look


Youtube link for mobile viewing

Let's talk hardware. The Photon 4G is roughly the same size as the Verizon HTC Thunderbolt. It's actually a few millimeters taller. But it's also a tad thinner and lighter. And as we've been saying for phone after phone over the last six months or so, being thinner and lighter can make all the difference.

So we've got a 4.3-inch screen. The Photon's display is made of Gorilla Glass, which is pretty much the gold standard these days in smartphone ruggedness. You've got your usual capacitive buttons (menu, home, back and search, with an earpiece and front-facing VGA camera up top. There's been no attempt to hide the camera -- there's a thin silver ring around it.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

Don't overlook the design of the display (as well as the rest of the body of the phone). The corners have been chopped into sort of an emerald cut, almost looking like someone said "We have do something other than round -- that looks too much like HTC." The severity of the cut differs depending on the viewing angle. It's less attractive from the front and rear, but quite striking from the side.

There's also a bit of trickery going on with the display itself. There's a tiny little lip between the glass of the display and the body of the phone. But unlike the HTC Sensation, whose glass curves up gently into the lip in a concave fashion, the Photon's display takes a convex route. While the display is just barely below the body of the phone, creating the lip, the glass actually curves back "down," toward the rear of the phone, where it meets the casing. You get a really subtle 3D effect out of it, and it's a great little detail. The pinhole microphone is tucked into the lip at the bottom of the phone, under the capacitive buttons. Another great subtle piece of design.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

Sprint Motorola Photon 4GSprint Motorola Photon 4G

Sprint Motorola Photon 4GSprint Motorola Photon 4G

Left-hand bezel: MicroUSB and HDMI ports. Uneventful. The right-hand bezel has the volume rocker and a physical camera button. Again more attention to detail here. The buttons are plastic, with grooves cut in along the width for texture and grip. The sides of the phone are done in hard, glossy plastic.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

The groove motif is carried around the back of the phone to the metal kickstand. That's where things go a little awry. You've got the grooves on the left of the kickstand, making you think maybe that's where you pry it open. Not so much. There's a shallow trough at the bottom of the kickstand. It's obviously a speaker grille, but it's also where you slide in a fingernail to extend the kickstand. The kickstand has a nice click to it when extended, and again when it's retracted.

Opening the kickstand, you're asked whether you want to set up a special desktop-type mode, or just use your usual home screens.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

The battery cover's done in soft-touch plastic, with a cutout for the 8-megapixel camera and dual flashes. There's a bit more livery here then you're likely used to, with Motorola's batwing logo, Sprint's name and logo, and "8MP" carved beneath the camera, with "HD VIDEO" stenciled next to it. It's all a bit busy.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

Under the battery cover, which pries off from the bottom of the phone, is a 1650mAh battery. The Photon 4G's SIM card -- remember, this is a "world phone" that will work on GSM networks -- for a fee, natch -- outside the United States is tucked under a little protective flap. There's no microSD card in the box -- you're on your own for that. But it'll support up to 32GB.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

Under the hood, you've got an NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core system on a chip (that means it's rocking both the main processor as well as the graphic processor), running at 1 GHz. The Photon's got a full 1GB of RAM on board, which certainly will keep things snappy. Of course, that full 1GB is really meant for Motorola's WebTop application -- plugging the phone into a laptop dock, or desktop dock and letting it act more like a full computer.

We're not going to dive too deep into the software without spending some quality time with it. But for the most part, you're looking at what you've got on the Droid 3, with Motorola's "Don't call it Blur" customizations (on top of Android 2.3.4). The short version of that is we're actually pretty happy with them. Moto's done a lot of nice tweaks, and the CRT blink-off effect is back on the Photon.

Sprint Motorola Photon 4G

Any UI lag we thought we experienced on the Droid 3 appears to be gone on the Photon. This thing flies -- expect when you want to launch the camera app with the physical button. Here's a little tip for everybody who wants to make a smartphone with a physical camera button -- pay Microsoft whatever you have to to license what it's done with Windows Phone 7. Three seconds is too long to wait for the camera app to launch. Two seconds is too long. And the fact that sometimes it's a short wait and other times it's long is even more infuriating.

Apps on board that we'll be taking a deeper look at:

  • Phone portal -- a way to manage your phone's content from a computer, either while plugged in or over Wifi.
  • Rich Location -- sort of an alternative to Google Places.
  • Sprint Mobile Wallet -- same as what was announced for the Nexus S 4G.
  • Sprint Worldwide -- It's a world phone, and kudos to Sprint for giving a little global help
  • Webtop connector. Yeah, we'll check it out again.
  • Sprint ID. Yeah, it's Sprint ID. But it's also the first Blur phone with Sprint ID.

So that's a quick -- if a bit wordy -- look at the Sprint Motorola Photon 4G. The tl;dr version is pretty positive, too. It feels great in the hand, and so far it's pretty darn speedy. We'll have plenty more coming up, including a deeper look at the software, the camera, battery life and data speeds.

The Photon 4G goes on sale Sunday, July 31, for $199. And so far, we've seen nothing to make us think you should stay away.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our review.