It's not every day that a phone makes you want to put on a suit and tie. And pants. That's one of the perks of this job -- we can review any phone, at any time, and any stage of undress we see fit. And same goes for the Sprint Motorola Photon Q, we suppose. It's a mix of features that business types have been clamoring for on sprint for some time now, with features that any aspiring Android nerd demands.
And that's the Photon Q.
We'll save you a little trouble here, if you'd like. What Sprint has in the Photon Q is a 4.3-inch display, a killer 5-row keyboard and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It's it's quite the combination, especially for business types. Piqued your interest yet? Let's continue.
Perhaps the best slider keyboard ever to grace a smartphone. The Photon Q also sports strong hardware under the hood, a decent display and some of the more recent software Google and Motorola have released. World-roaming is a bonus for travelers.
Not the most svelte of smartphones, though that's not a surprise, given the physical keyboard. Doesn't have the world's greatest camera, but it should do. Awaiting an update to the latest version of Android. Sprint's network still disappoints in many locations.
If you're a business traveler who's been waiting on a new slider on Sprint, this is your phone, hands-down. Even if you're a homebody, the Photon Q is still worth a long, hard look.
Inside this review
In a world where phones constantly have to advertise thinness, the Photon Q takes a decidedly different direction, opting for a more stout stance. It's not as tall as the likes of the RAZR MAXX and the HTC One X, or the Samsung Galaxy S3. But that's a good thing, because it's a bit on the thick side, thanks to that aforementioned physical keyboard.
Let's start with the display, though. We've got a 4.3-incher here, which for a good many of us is the sweet spot. There's a pretty thick bezel on the top and bottom edges, though, almost like it should have disappearing capacitive buttons. But it doesn't. You'll find the back, home and recent apps button on the screen, as God and Google intended.
The display uses Motorola's ColorBoost feature on a TFT LCD display, and it should be good enough for 99 percent of the buying public. The qHD (540x960) resolution isn't the most dense available, but it's still good enough for most folks. Text may get a little soft around the edges, but neither is it tough on our peepers.
Our only real complaint about the display is that it seems to undergo some sort of polarization effect as the phone tilts and rotates in your hand. This varies somewhat depending on what's on the screen, and what color it is, but it's definitely noticeable. It's also something we think we'd get used to over time.
Flip the phone over and you'll see the graceful curve from the sides to the back. The rear is decidedly plastic, though the texture is nice. Do note that there's no removable battery here, so no cover to take off. You'll find the 8MP camera and flash back here, as well as the rear speaker.
The sides are fairly unremarkable, with volume rockers and a dedicated camera button on the right, microUSB and HDMI on the left, and the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack up top. Same ol' stuff, mostly, though you'll also find an external microSD card slot tucked between the camera button and volume rocker.
The keyboard, however. Oh, that keyboard. Actually, we're having flashbacks. Because what we've got here basically is the keyboard from the Motorola Droid 4 on Verizon. And that's a good thing. The keys are staggered ever so slightly. They've got just enough click to them, and the backlighting, which also escapes around the raised edges of the keys, is excellent. The facets slope up just enough to get them a bit of feel. This really is just about the best keyboard you can get these days, bar none.
And the slider mechanism is typical Moto -- it's great. Just enough force to get it open. Not so loose that you'll do it accidentally, but not so tight that you'll decide that pounding away on the screen is easier.
Under the hood
So what's powering this thing? It's got a dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 processor at 1.5 GHz. That's not the latest and greatest, but it'll do ya just fine. It's also got 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of internal storage.
As for connectivity, you've got Sprint's 3G service, which is currently undergoing a pretty major overhaul. You've also got 4G LTE connectivity, if you're in one of the few cities to currently support it. If not, well, good luck, and we suggest using that 802.11 b/g/n Wifi whenever possible.
Battery life has been decent, with the usual caveats. You've got a non-removable 1785 mAh battery. Standby time has been excellent. Your actual use time will vary, depending on whether you're using LTE, or Sprint's 3G network, or Wifi. (On the latter, the phone gets us through a business day without worry.) And here's the part where we repeat our usual Sprint caveat: Its LTE network is still pretty small, and LTE uses more battery, and Sprint's 3G network can still be spotty in places. Weak signal can equate to poor battery life, so your mileage will vary.
The other usual suspects -- NFC, GPS, Bluetooth and the like -- are all here as well.
The Photon Q is running Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, with the latest version of Motorola's custom user interface on board. Moreover, it's got on-screen back, home and recent apps buttons, as many of the kids prefer these days. (We're among that crowd.)
More interesting, however, is the way Motorola and Sprint are handling homescreens here. Instead of, say, seven homescreens, preloaded with apps and widgets, you get a single home screen. There's a slick notifications-weather-battery widget up top, just below the static Google search bar. Below that you've got shortcuts to voicemail, e-mail, the stock browser, the Google Play Store, phone dialer, people app, app drawer, text messages and the camera.
By the way, when home screen rotates when you extend the keyboard -- as we'd expect it to.
What's different is that there's only one real home screen on the phone at launch. You can't pan left. Move over to the right, however, and you're greeted with the ability to add a new homescreen -- either a blank page, or a template, though there are only two of those -- "tools and utilities," and "on the go." Still, it's a nice way to keep from cluttering up a phone. To that end, Sprint deserves credit here as well. The app drawer isn't littered with Sprint-branded applications that you might not ever use. Instead, they're tucked away inside the singular "Sprint Zone" application. It's worth checking out, though. The "Sprint ID" customizations -- basically a way of skinning the phone -- are on board, but not as in-your-face as on previous devices. They're tucked away in an app as well.
But you might have noticed something different with some of the app icons on the homescreen. (Hint: Look for the up-down arrows next to them.) These aren't any old icons, that do but one thing -- open the corresponding app. Motorola's effectively turned a number of app icons into widgets. Touch the phone dialer and slide your finger up or down, and up pops up recent call notifications. Same goes for the e-mail, browser, people and text icons. That's a slick little customization.
We're also digging the way Motorola's done its new lockscreen. There's a quick toggle switch to silence the phone. And when you grab the key with your finger to unlock the phone, you'll get options to launch the phone dialer, camera or text message app as well. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like you can change which apps appear there, a pretty major oversight.
But all in all, we're pleasantly surprised with what Motorola's done on the software side of things.
Motorola has had excellent camera applications for some time now, and that continues on the Photon Q. Buttons are maybe a bit on the small side, but they're nicely positioned, and they rotate if you rotate the camera. You've got all the usual features, such as filters and panorama mode. There's no HDR, though, which is disappointing.
By default, the still camera shoots at 6 megapixels and not the full 8 megapixels that the camera's capable of. That's standard operating procedure for Moto, so that the images take up the full widescreen display. You can change that in the camera app's settings. Video shoots at 1080p by default.
Warning: Sample images open in full resolution in a new window
The rear camera at 1080p, no wind-reduction
The rear-camera with wind-reduction turned on
The front-facing camera
We've said it already, but it's worth repeating: Kudos to Motorola and Sprint for making it relatively easy to unlock the bootloader on the Photon Q. It takes just a few minutes, and you'll see a warning every time you boot up the phone after unlocking it, but this is the way it should be done.
Other odds and ends
A few more musings from the Motorola Photon Q:
- The Chrome browser is loaded by default, alongside the more traditional Android browser.
- As usually is the case with Motorola phones, the speakerphone is loud and crisp.
- There's a notification LED smartly tucked into the earpiece grille on the front of the phone. Nicely designed.
- Plug the phone into your computer, and you'll be prompted to install some Motorola software if you want to do any sort of desktop syncing. It's pretty horrible, especially on a Mac.
- Motorola's stock keyboard leaves a lot to be desired, but Swype also is preloaded. Or you can install another one.
- Motorola's excellent Smart Actions app is on board, letting you do some serious customizing.
The bottom line
It's easy to overthink the Photon Q. But it's a pretty simple phone. You've got strong hardware, a good display, good software and an excellent keyboard. Toss in the fact that this one's a GSM-capable global traveler, and any overseas suit should be eyeing the Photon Q without hesitation.
Our only major concern remains with Sprint's network. It's slowly building out its LTE footprint, and rebuilding its 3G network as well. If you're in a coverage area that's part of the new Network Vision initiative, congrats. If not, well, here's to hoping you're on the list soon.
But that's beyond the scope of the phone. If you're looking for a slider Android phone on Sprint, the Photon Q is a no-brainer.
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