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Motorola Photon Q hero (1024px)
Motorola Photon Q hero (1024px)

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Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

A high-end phone for keyboard lovers

Most phone manufacturers have firmly decided the on-screen keyboard is the future. A few companies, like Pantech and Samsung, still make handsets with physical keyboards, but they typically feel like throwaway devices that were built just to use spare parts from 2006. Only Motorola remains committed to the form factor, and the company continues to churn out Droid after Droid with a full, sliding QWERTY keyboard.

The Motorola Photon Q isn't a Droid, but it might as well be. Its five rows of rubber keys slide out from underneath the device's 4.3-inch display, there to comfort BlackBerry refugees and messaging phone converts. But the Photon Q isn't just a keyboard — it's actually one of Motorola's most powerful phones yet. With a 4.3-inch display, a dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, LTE connectivity on Sprint's network, and a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, it packs some real punch. How does it measure up next to the best phones on Sprint's network? And is Motorola wasting its time continuing to make phones with keyboards, or is it just ahead of the comeback? Let's see.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

If you've seen one Motorola phone, you've seen 'em all

Motorola's phone designs are nothing if not consistent. Since the original Droid, nearly every device the company has made with a physical keyboard has looked and felt the same: a chunky rectangle with slightly rounded corners. That about describes the Photon: it's a black rectangle, though its corners are more sharply angled than most. The front panel of the phone is glossy and reflective, while the slider piece underneath is a textured matte black; I'd rather the whole handset take on the matte material, but I like the dual look too.

It's a big phone, make no mistake — at 2.5 inches wide, 4.9 inches tall, and more than a half-inch thick, it feels giant in my hand. Of course, such are the necessary tradeoffs with a keyboarded phone, but it means you should make absolutely sure you're going to use the keyboard a lot before you buy the Photon Q.

The device's other trappings are fairly standard. The power button is on top of the phone, as is the headphone jack; there are Micro USB and Micro HDMI jacks on the left side, and volume buttons, a dedicated camera shutter press, and a microSD slot on the right side. I appreciate everything being easy to access, even if it does make the phone look kind of cluttered — nothing's hidden underneath the back cover, or requires you to take out the battery. The phone's front face has a silver speaker grille, with a glowing green notification LED embedded in the middle. (I turned off the LED to avoid triggering my BlackBerry-induced Pavlovian response to the glowing light, but for most people it's a nice feature.) There's a Motorola logo underneath, but with no capacitive Android buttons the phone's face still looks very minimalist. The rugged, grippy back looks like it belongs in a tool belt: there's a wide speaker grille on the bottom, an unsightly plaque with the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash, and a Motorola logo in the middle.

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A great keyboard, but it causes problems

Keyboard

There's little to differentiate the Photon Q from any other rectangular slab except its big, backlit QWERTY keyboard. It's the same one I liked on the Droid 4, and is still one of the best phone keyboards I've used. The five rows of keys are nicely spaced, and I rarely hit the wrong key even when I wasn't looking at them — I forgot how nice it is to be able to touch-type on my phone. The keys themselves are a little rubbery and stiff, but they break in a bit over time and I quickly got used to just pressing them a bit harder. I miss having a dedicated search key, but being able to search just by typing from the home screen is a nice tradeoff.

During a week of using the physical keyboard, I was surprised how much I missed the adaptive capabilities of an on-screen keyboard. Not having a .com button pop up when I was typing a URL, or having to always press two keys to insert a question mark, added more friction than I thought. I definitely type "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" faster on the Photon Q than on my iPhone (or on the Photon's on-screen keyboard), but over the course of daily use — which involves @ symbols on Twitter, lots of .com's, and more — I'd say it's pretty close to even. The biggest advantage of the physical keyboard? The arrow keys, which make editing or correcting my many errors a thousand times easier.

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The keyboard also causes some problems even when it's not in use. Whenever you tap the center icon on the screen to open the app drawer, or press any of the three on-screen Android controls, there's a slight buzz of haptic feedback to let you know something's happening. But the phone itself also moves – the gap between the two parts of the slider is just large enough to rock back and forth a bit. Between the two, the Photon seems to move a lot every time you try to hit the Home button. It's weird.

The whole construction of the phone's slider actually feels a bit unpolished. When you've slid the keyboard out, any tap on the screen moves it slightly backward, and I'd wager you could snap the two pieces apart without trying very hard. The gap between the two pieces also makes the phone wobble a little bit as you walk — I had to keep a finger pressed down on the bottom of the front panel to keep it still. The sliding mechanism itself is sturdy and reliable, but the phone's build quality as a whole takes a hit because of the attached keyboard.

Display

Display

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The fact that Motorola is still producing phones with 960 x 540 displays is fine – sure, it's the same resolution as the Droid X2 I bought more than a year ago, but it's fine. The problem is that Motorola's trying to pass the Photon Q off as a high-end phone, while simultaneously calling the Atrix HD and its 720p display "mid-range." It just doesn't add up.

That aside, the Photon Q's display isn't bad, and it's much better than the Droid 4. The LCD display is a little bit over-contrasted, partly thanks to Motorola's ColorBoost technology — it does make colors pop, and looks much better than the washed-out LCD on the Droid 4, but it's a little much for my taste. Blacks are deep and whites are true, though; that helps a lot. Text is slightly jaggy and edges are slightly soft, but only if you REALLY look for it. This is a perfectly good screen, but I've seen better.

I'd rather have 720p
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Cameras

Cameras

It's fast, but the results are nothing special
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The camera on the back of the Photon Q is fast. Really fast. Its autofocus is working constantly, so by the time you've framed your shot it's probably already in focus. There's virtually no shutter lag or processing time required — it's so fast that if I couldn't hear the shutter sound, it was sometimes tough to tell if I'd taken a picture at all.

Pictures look... fine. They're accurate enough and decently sharp from the 8-megapixel rear sensor, as long as you're in good light; in anything else, forget about it. By default, the Photon Q shoots 6-megapixel images in a widescreen aspect ratio so they look better on the phone itself — if you ever want to view your photos anywhere else, you're going to want to jump into settings and turn that off. 720p video also looks decent, without being overly impressive. The front-facing camera is, well, a front-facing camera: it's terrible for anything but video chats, and the lens is located slightly off-center, so it's a bit hard to frame your face.

Software

Software

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As we've seen with devices like the Atrix HD, Motorola's recent efforts at skinning Android 4.0 have gone surprisingly well. The company's additions to the Photon Q's operating system are almost all genuinely useful, and there are almost no changes for changes' sake. What you're using is immediately recognizable as Ice Cream Sandwich — few of the menus, fonts, or icons have been changed, and you even get the on-screen menu buttons — and it's clear that Motorola focused its efforts on apps and software.

Smart Actions — the macro-creating app that allows you to automatically silence your phone at night, or turn Bluetooth on when you arrive at your office, or launch Rdio as soon as you plug in your headphones — continues to blow my mind with its possibilities. I was able to set the Photon Q to remind me to charge it as soon as I walked into my apartment, and to turn Wi-Fi off when I left in order to conserve battery life. The app makes the Photon Q remarkably intelligent, and if you set up the right actions the phone can be longer-lasting and more productive than ever.

Smart Actions get more and more useful

I also love that you can swipe up or down on certain icons to open a pop-up showing recent activity in that app — they're like widgets that don't take up any space on your home screen. I'm usually quick to say I'd rather have stock Android over any skin, but Motorola at least makes a decent case for custom software.

You know what doesn't work very well with Android, though? A physical keyboard. For typing URLs and emails, it's nice to have, but in regular use I found I get things done faster with the keyboard put away. It's death by a thousand cuts, so to speak: there are just a million little quirks and annoyances that make it frustrating to use the phone.

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When you slide the keyboard out, the screen automatically rotates to landscape. That's reasonable enough, except that lots of third-party apps aren't designed to be used in landscape, so you wind up cocking your head to the left so you can actually see what you're typing. When you slide the keyboard back in, the screen automatically rotates back to portrait, whether you want it to or not, and it can take a few seconds to re-load everything each time it rotates. There's enough room on the 4.3-inch screen for a comfortable keyboard, and the Android keyboard is quite good now — over time, the excellent keyboard quickly became a vestigial limb that served primarily to make the Photon Q fatter and flimsier.

Android just isn't designed for sliding keyboards

One distinct advantage of using a Sprint smartphone is that there's almost no bloatware to be found. There are only two branded carrier apps, Sprint ID and Sprint Zone, plus a smattering of third-party apps — Dropbox, Netflix, Angry Birds, and a few others — that lined up surprisingly well with apps I'd have downloaded anyway. Some of the apps can be uninstalled, but you're stuck with the Sprint ones at least. The only really intrusive thing is the Motorola Privacy Policy, which puts a lock icon into your notification bar until you open, scroll through, and agree to the policy's legalspeak. Fortunately, you only have to do that once.

Performance

Performance

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The Photon Q runs a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor, which is at the absolute high end of mobile chipsets right now. The Photon Q is smooth and fast in its operation, and I had virtually no issues with using it. There are still some stutters in the OS, though, like the aforementioned screen-rotating issues, many of which are fixed in Android 4.1. Sadly, I'm left thinking the same thing Dieter wondered about the Atrix HD: just how good could the Photon Q be with Jelly Bean's buttery improvements?

Quadrant Vellamo GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p) GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p) AnTuTu
Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE 4,458 2,384 56fps 28fps 5,674
Samsung Galaxy S III (Sprint) 4,525 2,167 55fps 28fps 6,420
HTC Evo 4G LTE 5,070 2,335 56fps 29fps 6,612
Galaxy Nexus 2,002 1,065 28fps 14fps 6,079

Still, I had no major issues with the Photon Q, from gaming to multitasking to general stability. The phone does tend to get hot – you'll notice it in your pocket or your hand — but it's not enough to be a huge problem. Call quality is great, as I've come to expect from Motorola: I could hear and be heard clearly, and though the earpiece is slightly on the quiet side it's still really good. Speakerphone, on the other hand, is a disaster: if I was more than about six inches away from the phone I was totally inaudible.

Reception is solid, about what I expect from Sprint. Sadly, data speeds are also what I expect. Sprint's LTE network is rolling out slowly but surely across the US, but unless you're in one of a select number of markets you're out of luck for now. I'm not in one of those markets, and Sprint's 3G performance in New York City is pretty rough: I saw speeds hovering about 250Kbps down, though at slightly over 1Mbps upload speeds were at least a bit faster. AnandTech and others have found Sprint's LTE to be fast (if still inconsistent, even where it's available), but most customers are going to have to wait a while for it.

Basically, all I expect from my smartphone is that it get me through a full day. The Photon Q certainly does, but only a full day — if I didn't charge the device every night it was dead in the morning. My results came without LTE coverage, too; the situation may well be worse on the faster network.

The Snapdragon S4 is a good thing to see on a spec sheet
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The Photon Q 4G LTE is a very good phone, and it has a very good keyboard. That could be a perfect combination for some people, but fusing the two together causes some real problems with the phone's build quality, and its overall look and feel. Still, there's a lot to like about this handset: from Motorola's software enhancements to its solid speed and performance, the Photon Q checks nearly all the boxes.

But unless you absolutely need a physical keyboard on your phone — and reviewing this phone made me realize how comfortable I've become typing on a screen — there are much better phones on Sprint. The HTC Evo 4G LTE and the Samsung Galaxy S III are both faster, thinner, and better-looking than the Photon Q, and they're also ready for Sprint's LTE network whenever it rolls out to your neighborhood. As I've said, if you can't live without a physical keyboard, buy this phone — it's one of the best in its class. But think long and hard before you decide you can't live without one.

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