News Column

Hands On: Sprint Motorola Photon 4G Smartphone

Oct. Issue

J. Nisen -- Contributor

When the HTC Dream, the very first commercially available phone that ran the Google's Android operating system, was released Oct. 22, 2008, it was impressive in several ways—but few could have foretold how frothy the state of the modern, non-Apple smartphone would be a mere three years later. The current speed with which Android-based smartphones are hitting the market is fairly astonishing; every carrier and several phone manufacturers are teaming up in different combinations to supply the latest in convergence tech in the palm of your hand. This is a good thing: While Android phones all have something in common, there's enough variety that you can have a mobile experience that's near-customized just for you.

Case in point: Sprint's Motorola Photon 4G. The vibrancy and crispness of the 4.3-inch screen scream "entertainment." Its rounded edges, slim design, and grippy back casing are aesthetically appealing, and it is light and thin, yet still has a pleasing heft. So it's rather beautiful—but this device is even prettier when it comes to business matters.

The Kickstand

Some of the features are very simple, yet not found on all smartphones. Take the kickstand. Just a manual lever that allows the Photon to stand up on a table. This is great for multi-tasking when using speaker phone or when videoconferencing, which the Photon does via a front-facing camera. Visual voicemail, in which you can play voicemails through a touchscreen interface without dialing code after code, is a pleasure.

Some of the features are seamless and you wouldn't appreciate them unless you had another phone to compare it to. Like the dual-core processor under the hood. The Photon is just snappy. There's no lag when launching a new app, no trouble loading Web pages, instant response when you push the volume up or down. I'm still quite enamored with my current personal smartphone (which came out about a year and a half ago), but I never realized how comparatively pokey it was until I saw the Photon in action. And the microphone is quality: Several people I called in the course of testing actually commented on how great I sounded before I revealed it wasn't my usual phone. Similarly, the onboard speakers were especially sharp. On the negative side, the Wi-Fi didn't seem as speedy as on my other wireless devices; download times for large files took about 10 percent longer for some reason (anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but I noticed).

The Photon comes with the Swype app, which represents a fine, instinctive alternative for typing faster on the virtual keyboard. The main onboard camera (rear facing) is as sharp a smartphone camera as I've seen. The Sprint ID service means that users can choose from pre-selected themes to help meet their needs; for instance, the Business ID comes ready with news apps, travel apps, GPS, Documents to Go, and much more. And that data should stay safe: according to Sprint, the Photon 4G implements data encryption and security purposes, and remote device management if worse comes to worse and your phone is stolen or lost.

The Worldphone

Interestingly, the Photon is what's called a worldphone, with GSM capability, meaning this phone will work nearly everywhere.

In addition to the fine out-of-the-box package, Motorola has a "webtop" application that, when connected via the HD Multi-Media dock accessory, allows full Web browsing, access to your apps, and other phone functionality straight from an HDTV or PC monitor. In other words, your phone's functionality with the benefit of a much larger screen.

I'll admit it—I'm impressed. Impressed enough to switch carriers for this phone? Probably not. But when my contract is up, it's a tempting thought ... though by then we might already be on the Photon 2. Carriers and manufacturers are increasingly fast and furious with these Android releases.

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