Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE Review: Hands-Down The Best QWERTY Slider Phone Available On Sprint’s Network

by Roy Alugbue on
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As Sprint has launched bigger and better smartphones for 2012, it’s only natural that we see an entrant in the QWERTY arena and that’s why Sprint decided to bring its customers the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE smartphone. Now many of you are thinking wait a minute— the original Photon 4G was neither an LTE smartphone nor a phone with a slide-out keyboard. While those two points are certainly true, the 2012 refresh of the Photon Q certainly has a lot going for it. There’s a fast processor, gorgeous ColorBoost display and a pretty slick design. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt the physical keyboard is possibly one of the best keyboards on an Android phone.

The Photon Q has internals that competes quite nicely with other premium phones, but the phone is priced at a princely sum of $200. That’s certainly a far cry from Motorola’s Atrix HD which is essentially a premium smartphone priced at $100. Then again Sprint’s other QWERTY smartphones currently in its lineup are the Samsung Epic 4G that is priced at $100— despite it being a two-year old device and the Kyocera Rise smartphone priced at $20. So in essence, the Photon Q certainly has an edge over the other QWERTY devices because of the fact that well, there’s virtually no other phone to compete with in Sprint’s lineup as far as pure specs and raw power. So is Sprint’s newest Motorola toy worth the price? Join us after the break to see if the phone is indeed worth the money.

 

Design

 

 

If you checked out our initial hands-on with the device, you’ll note the overall build is a mesh of the DROID 4 and the original Photon 4G’s a unique design. The front of the device features a clear and almost metallic-like plastic along with angled diamond-cut corners that have been smoothed out a bit. A 4.3-inch screen compliments the front of the device which guessed it— features no capacitive buttons at all on the display and a simple Motorola logo at the top. To one side of the device, you’ll find the power button and headphone jack to the top, the volume rocker and wait for it— a dedicated camera button to the side. The other side has the standard microUSB and microHDMI ports. The back of the device features an interesting mesh of a softer plastic along surrounding an unusual rubbery-type texture with a subtle Motorola logo in the middle. The combination of the two makes for what is certainly a comfortable grip whether you hold the device with or without the keyboard open. Oh and one thing you won’t find on the Motorola Photon is the tasteless unnecessary Sprint logo at all. Kudos to Sprint for making the subtle, but welcomed decision.

 

 

Going forward to the keyboard, we obviously see this area as one of the focal points of the review. The keyboard is hidden under the device and is accessible by simply sliding the face of the device up. More importantly, the keyboard is well-designed as there’s nothing that feels flimsy or unsettled. When the keyboard function is engaged, you’ll know everything is secure based off of a distinct lock or “click”, courtesy of the spring mechanism. In addition, you’ll find the complete 5-row layout of the keyboard which is surrounded by more of the appealing soft rubbery material. Motorola thankfully included a dedicated top row for numbers which makes for even more simplified typing. The keys are spaced out just enough so that you won’t accidentally hit the wrong button, while being close enough so that you won’t need to overwork those thumbs of yours and do an extended reach. The keys are also raised and meticulously designed, so they don’t feel the least bit spongy or unresponsive– there’s satisfying click you get when typing that’s almost reminiscent of that on a traditional Blackberry. With the keyboard slid out combined with the unique material on the phone’s back and deceiving , you will find a rather comfortable.

 

 

You would think full keyboard underneath would make for a bulky and heavy phone, but in reality, everything is crammed into a fairly light package. The Photon Q 4G LTE is 126.5mm long and 13.7mm thick which may seem like a lot, but actually isn’t when you think about it. In fact, the device is only 1.5mm thicker than the original Photon 4G, yet squeezes in a full slide-out keyboard. With the keyboard slid out combined with the unique material on the phone’s back and surprisingly light weight, you will find a rather comfortable and worthwhile typing experience.

 

Hardware

The Photon Q 4G LTE features internals comparable to other top-level devices in Sprint’s arsenal. Right off the bat you’ll note the device features a zippy Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 dual-core processor along with 1GB of RAM. The Photon Q 4G LTE also features an 8MP camera with 1080p video recording, a 1.3MP camera with 720p video recording, NFC (which is no surprise since Sprint is a big fan of Google Wallet on its devices) and Bluetooth 4.0. You’ll note that I neglected to initially mention one major aspect of the phone’s hardware and that’s the on-board storage, which is only limited to 8GB. Actually— 8GB is a bit misleading. The true amount of available storage when the phone is first powered on is only limited to around 4.5GB. One can only wonder why Motorola keeps insisting on including such meager amounts of storage space on the internal memory of its more recent devices. Fortunately, the saving grace is there is a microSD expansion slot, so there is the ability to save lots of content on the device without too much of a concern.

 

Display

 

The Photon Q 4G LTE also features a solid display, though it’s no real competition to the displays found on the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC EVO 4G LTE. Right off the bat, you’ll notice the bright and vivid colors along with the sharp texts on the 4.3-inch screen, which is solely thanks to Motorola’s ColorBoost technology. As seen in the Motorola Atrix HD smartphone, ColorBoost is more or less an enhancement to the display found on a Motorola device, which is similar to Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology as an example. In addition, there’s no hint of pixelation on the device as we are treated to a non-Pentile display. While it’s nice an all, there is a catch– and a big one at that. The display is at a “measly” 960 x 540 resolution, meaning the device is right in qHD territory.  Fortunately, the device has fairly detailed pixel density at around 256 ppi and the device has great viewing angles, even outdoors in bright sunlight. Oh and it also helps there’s not too much of the device’s real estate being used by an overly aggressive bezel.

 

 

All in all, the 4.3-inch screen is nice, though it would have been nice to have seen a 720p screen. Then again, there are trade-offs Motorola probably needed to make considering it needed to keep the overall costs of the phone down.

 

Software

As mentioned in the Atrix HD review as well as Rob Nazarian’s walkthrough on the DROID RAZR MAXX, Motorola’s Ice Cream Sandwich rendition here is as good as good can be. Fire up the device and you’ll see the device is loaded up with Android 4.0.4, which is quickly becoming common standard among recent Android devices. On top of Android 4.0.4 is Moto’s unobtrusive Blur UI— something that is as light of a skin as possible. Users will be treated to essentially a near-stock Android experience, though there are some pretty neat notifications which offers notable enhancements over stock Android software. For starters, there are little arrows on the Browser, Phone Dialer & Contacts and Text icons that allow you to access cool widgets that show a history log of different actions taken within those apps. There’s also the nifty Circles Widget which displays the time, weather and battery life in a simple manner. Oh and let’s not forget the Smart Actions app which allows the phone to adjust itself depending on its location.

Of course no review of the software features would be complete without a report on the carrier-branded bloatware installed on the phone. In what can be described as something no less than shocking, bloatware is actually kept to an absolute minimum on the Photon Q 4G LTE. The only Sprint-branded apps preloaded are Sprint ID and Sprint Zone which each cannot be uninstalled, but at least don’t hog up the device’s space or its resources.

One quick aspect of the device’s software needs to be mentioned— and boy is this one a biggie. Thanks to Google’s heavy hand in Moto’s operations, the device is among the first to be developer-friendly, courtesy of Motorola’s simple and easy-to-use unlock bootloader tool that’s accessible via the web. This means that some of you who probably are not big fans of the original software will have an easier means to tinker and fiddle by slapping on custom ROMs at your heart’s content. This feature alone is probably one of the biggest of the Photon Q 4G LTE, despite little mention from Sprint.

 

 

Performance

The Photon Q 4G LTE has the same processor as devices like the HTC EVO 4G LTE and Samsung Galaxy S III, so it’s only fitting the Photon 4G LTE flies like Sprint’s other flagship devices. For the average Sprint customer, there is no hint of slowdown, lag or stuttered performance. Switching between screens is fluid and quick, while programs open up almost instantly. Oh and for those of you that care— multitasking is certainly a breeze with the Photon Q 4G LTE. While Sprint’s targeted customers probably don’t care about benchmarks, here are some scores we were able to achieve during our testing:

 

  • Antutu – 6,328
  • Vellamo – 2,415
  • Quadrant – 4,766

 

 

 

Simply put, the device holds its own against other devices and customers can rest comfortably knowing the phone will perform at an optimal level.

 

Battery Life

While Motorola has a solid build of the device complimented by exceptional software, its optimization of the battery life is actually better than that of the Atrix HD, but still somewhat disappointing to say the least.  The smartphone is powered by an ample 1,785mAh non-removable battery. While mostly idle, the device was fully powered for an astounding 18.5 hours! However it quickly changed when the device was actually used. When fully charged at 7:00am and moderately used at a 50% brightness level (i.e. push notifications from Twitter or Facebook, streaming music and taking some photos), the battery was completely zapped between 7:00pm to 8:00pm. This is pretty surprising because the Photon Q 4G LTE actually operates on Sprint’s 3G EV-DO network here in the New York City area. Conversely, the Atrix HD was able to achieve roughly the same operating time, yet it was used on a 4G LTE network. In an even more surprising twist, a standard rundown test had the device looping a video with maximum brightness and gave us a lackluster 5 hours and 58 minutes.

Quick sum-up: the battery life on the Photon Q 4G LTE will definitely suffice for the average user. However, Motorola has become a victim of its own success with the DROID RAZR and DROID RAZR MAXX smartphones and has now launched a second device with what is ultimately average battery life, instead of exceptional battery life.

Network Quality

Ah yes, the Photon Q 4G LTE’s x-factor. As you already know, Sprint is slowly rolling out its 4G LTE network across different markets around the country. The device is among Sprint’s first devices to utilize a true 4G LTE radio, but the reality is the majority of Sprint customers will not be able to truly enjoy a real 4G LTE experience, until additional markets go live with the enhanced network. So in the meantime, Sprint is marketing the Photon Q 4G LTE as a 4G device, when it’s operating on painfully slow 3G speeds. Testing here in the New York area was especially frustrating as not only are you on 3G speeds, but you’re on 3G speeds in a dense area. During off-peak hours (specifically between 3:00am – 6:00am), the average download/upload speeds were 1Mbps/1Mbps. However during peak hours, the speeds certainly changed for the worst as we saw an average of 700Kbps download and 900Kbps upload speeds. The worst part is how the speeds were painfully apparent when trying to stream music or even load up graphic-intensive websites on the mobile browser as there were noticeable delays. The device also acts as a hotspot, but connecting even one device to the Photon Q 4G LTE was a nightmare as some pages repeatedly timed out, despite a lack of activity from the Photon Q 4G LTE itself. Those of you looking to surf the web or do the basics like Tweet should be OK, though it’s wise to stay close to a WiFi signal, if possible.

 

 

The device’s network quality is below average— even by 3G standards, but at least it has superb call quality. Call quality was relatively clear with little or no trace of background noise.

Camera

If battery life is a slight disappointment with the Photon Q 4G LTE, then the camera is certainly the device’s Achilles’ Heel. The device features an 8MP camera, yet the camera and camera software are average at best. Here’s a case in point: Most (if not all) of the sample photos taken with the Photon Q 4G LTE were grainy, jagged and quite frankly, the images came out looking dead or painfully average. Fortunately, the camera didn’t fall victim to too much unusual color distortions that plagued the Atrix HD and actually had some decent photos, particularly in bright settings. The shutter function is nice as well, though it’s nothing compared to that found on the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC EVO 4G LTE.

 

The video recording function on the other hand is disappointing as there’s simply no detail in the videos whether recorded in 720p or full 1080p HD. The colors in the objects appear awfully faded, frames per second seems to be on the lower end since the flow of the video doesn’t flow as smoothly as that found in other devices. You can check out a sample video taken at the World Trade Center site out in New York City.

 

YouTube Preview Image

 

Accessories

The Photon Q 4G LTE also features a few impressive accessories that are optional. The first is an HD Dock which effectively allows you to mount your device and display content onto your HDTV or HD monitor. Colors have a nice zing complimented by the same impressive detail that you see on the device screen, while sound is crisp and clear too. Video looked outstanding when displayed on the HD screen, though it should be noted that the Hulu Plus app is curiously not compatible with the device at this time, so you won’t be able to see content from that app onto a bigger screen at this time. There’s also a car dock that’s available which allows you to utilize one of the Smart Actions function and utilize the device as a de facto car navigation system.

The Good

  • Outstanding QWERTY keyboard
  • Device is fairly light considering it has a full-sized keyboard hidden
  • Terrific performance
  • Near-stock Android experience
  • With moderate use, the battery life is solid but…

The Bad

  • … the battery life could have been better optimized considering the Photon Q 4G LTE was used in a 3G area
  • The device has a qHD screen, despite its competition having 720p screens
  • Average camera
  • No 4G LTE in most markets
  • $200 is a bit pricey for a slider

 

Final Thoughts

Considering Sprint currently has only 2 other sliders in its lineup with one being almost 2 years old, the Photon Q 4G LTE immediately catapults itself into the best slider available on the network. Heck, it might even be one of the best overall smartphones available on Sprint’s Now Network. It has an attractive design, is comfortable to hold, has excellent keys and a generally straightforward and simple user experience. The lack of true 4G is probably the biggest dealbreaker with the smartphone and well— $200 seems like an awful lot, especially since Motorola has a comparatively featured phone in the Atrix HD priced at only $99. So if you want a premium smartphone, but don’t care for the keyboard, then do yourself a favor and stay clear from this device and grab yourself the HTC EVO 4G LTE or Samsung Galaxy S III instead. Then again, there’s still a niche for QWERTY slider phones and between the Epic 4G Touch, Kyocera Rise and Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE, there’s no question the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE is the best option.

 

 

» See more articles by Roy Alugbue


  • JOhn
  • arturodelac

    I liked the original photon better

  • Zloswe

    Motorola Support = 0 . After razr xt910 I will never buy anything from Motorola again. Ever!!!

  • JG

    Hey writer,

    How come you don’t do that kind of review to other android brands like sony xperia? Do you really hate sony that much? Or are you being paid to be bias? We know that you love Samsung and apple. But you are being too much.

  • Adamvm

    I have the Photon, I loved it, great great phone. The Q with only 8 gigs of storage was a disappointment as was the fact that the Photon STILL hasn’t gotten ICS and the Razor phones were updated in only months after release. Poor support from Moto on that one. I went with the HTC Evo 4G LTE and I’m sure glad I did, what an awesome phone, I love it!!!

  • Mark

    I’ve had this phone since the day it came out. I can not get it to send
    or receive pics/media unless there is a wifi signal, so essentially,
    unless I’m at Starbucks or home no pics… am I just being dumb, or is
    this actually the way the phone operates?! (which would be STUPID!)

    digitaleoptionen.tumblr.com

  • Sergio

    …and I would have bought it if I could figure out how to swap out batteries for when I go on a long mountain hike.

    I’m sure that Google, Motorola and Samsung are listening; it just happens that I’m not the one that they are listening to.

    I want to upgrade my Epic 4G but I can’t find another phone that both performs better and has all of the features currently on my old phone. I don’t mind spending a few hundred. The problem is that I have to wait for a phone to actually exist before I can buy it.