April 19, 2014

Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE review

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When Android first broke onto the main scene with the G1, QWERTY keyboards were all the rage. Device after device was released with a physical keyboard for several years, some good and some bad (cough Moto Backflip cough). We’ve seen a trend over the last year or twoin which QWERTY keyboards were abandoned, in favor of slimmer devices with larger screens to compensate for the lack of said keyboard. Just a quick glance at the devices of today shows this: the HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S3, and even Motorola’s latest powerhouse, the Razr HD. All these, and countless other devices lack a physical keyboard. Occasionally we hear cries to OEMs to start making those QWERTY-packing devices again, but those cries are rarely answered. Even when a QWERTY slider does break through, it’s typically mid- to low-end in terms of specs and software.

Motorola and Sprint have apparently heard these pleas, and are attempting to satisfy them with the Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE. While the name is longer than it should be (as with most recent Sprint devices), the Photon Q is sure to satisfy most users looking for that QWERTY fix. As with any device, it has its highs and lows. But after a week of usage, I found that the highs far outweigh the lows.

Upon receiving the Photon Q, nearly everyone that I spoke with had no idea what it was. Obviously Sprint hasn’t done a ton of marketing with this device, probably because it’s busy with touting the Galaxy S3 and other top shelf models. It came as no surprise to me that the Photon Q wasn’t a well-known device. but after using it for over a week, I have to say that Sprint should put more effort into advertising this thing. It surprised me in several fields, from the keyboard to Motorola’s slimmed down UI. But enough rambling, let’s get into the specs of this bad boy. The Photon Q isn’t going to compete with the top devices on the market, but it’s definitely not low-end.

  • 4.3-inch 540 x 960 TFT display
  • Android 4.0.4
  • 1.5GHz dual-core processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 8GB internal storage with a microSD card slot for memory expansion
  • 8MP rear camera with an LED flash and 1080p HD video capture
  • 1.3MP front-facing camera
  • NFC and DLNA capabilities
  • 1,785 mAh nonremovable battery
  • 5-row QWERTY keyboard

The Positives

  • Screen is a good size for the average user
  • Build quality is very good
  • Keyboard is fantastic, bottom line
  • Motorola’s UI doesn’t hinder the device
  • Very small amount of bloatware, as compared to other Motorola devices as of late
  • Preloaded with ICS, with an update to Jelly Bean coming soon
  • LTE support, which will pay off in the long run
  • Camera button. Need I say more?

The Not-so-Positives

  • Camera is very buggy, good shots rarely come on the first try
  • The rounded corners made sliding the screen somewhat awkward, which lead to several fumbles with the device

As mentioned, the pros dominate the cons of the Photon Q. Obviously for the user that doesn’t want a physical keyboard, this device isn’t even on the table. But for those keyboard junkies like myself, the Photon Q is definitely something to consider. Why? We’re about to find out.

Hardware

The build quality of the Photon Q is well above average. The soft-touch trim, texturized backing, and rounded corners make for a device that just fits well in the hand. Of course with the added weight of the keyboard, the device is a bit hefty, and thicker as well. A small price to pay for the nostalgic feeling one gets from using a QWERTY once again.

Beyond the initial look and feel of the device, Motorola has done a few things that just tie it all together. The power button, volume rocker, and camera button (yes, the Photon Q has a camera button), are all chrome-d  out. They don’t stick when pressed, and there’s a clear clicking, so the user knows the button has been pressed. It’s the little things like this that complete the aesthetics of the device.

Display

Gone are the days of smaller, 3.5-inch displays, replaced by the huge 4.7-inchers. Lots of Android users are jumping to these larger screens, but there are still quite a few that just want a smaller display without all the bells and whistles. The Photon Q delivers this perfectly with a responsive, capacitive 4.3-inch screen. It’s not spectacular, and it by no means is a direct competitor to the top displays of today. But colors are vivid, corners are sharp, and it gets the job done.

Camera

Over the past week, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the Photon Q’s 8MP camera. While I’ve been able to produce some very good photos, the camera app itself is buggy, and crashes at random. Furthermore, upon opening the app, I’m greeting with colored flashes, as if the camera is constantly changing filters from aqua to sepia and back to normal. This is even more evident when moving from a location with abundant light to a darker location. It’s unclear if this is an issue with the physical camera, or a software issue that Motorola needs to amend. Either way, the Photon Q’s camera isn’t a big selling point.

The LED flash isn’t the best, and really just adds more glare than light to a photo. As if that wasn’t enough, there is no way to disable the camera’s shutter sound. Even after turning down every volume under the sounds settings, that shutter sound is always there, and always loud.

On a brighter note, I can say that it’s genuinely nice to have a physical camera button on the device. I’ve found myself using the button almost every time I launch the camera. It’s easy, saves time, and alright, it does give me a little jolt of nostalgia. Sue me. The front-facing camera performs as well as can be expected from a 1.3MP shooter. Of course, it’s primarily used for self portraits and video chatting, so HD quality isn’t exactly a necessity.

Keyboard

It’s finally time to get into the goods of the Photon Q: that gorgeous, back-lit 5-row keyboard. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve used a physical keyboard on an Android device, so it took quite a few botched sentences for me to get back into the swing of things. But once I had adjusted to the keyboard, I can honestly say that I have never been happier with a QWERTY device. At first, the keyboard seemed somewhat cramped, with the four arrow keys and “OK” button in the bottom right corner. But after hammering out a few emails, I was addicted. There were several reasons for this, each with its own level of joy.

I’ll start with the keys themselves. The Photon Q’s keyboard is reminiscent of the T-Mobile G2, which just so happens to be the last QWERTY device I used. The keys are island-style, and not arranged to a grid, which speaks volumes to the usability of the keyboard. Motorola threw in a nice space bar that’s 4 keys wide, and centered nicely. Travel is magnificent, and I even found myself abandoning the virtual keyboard altogether, just to get more use out of the QWERTY. The keys feel solid, but still have a certain clickability that should appeal to keyboard lovers everywhere.

On top of that, the keyboard itself is somewhat raised from the body of the phone. Of course the keys themselves are raised, but it’s almost as if the keyboard is on a small platform. It’s more obvious when viewing the phone from the side, as pictured above. This brings the keyboard closer to the user’s thumbs, which just improves accuracy even more.

Motorola not only hit a home run with the keys, they went above and beyond in their attempt to make this keyboard usable. Every key is individually back-lit, so those late night Google+ updates can be made in the dark. The backlight can be turned off, although I expect most users will leave it on “Automatic,” which uses the light sensor on the front of the device to adjust the backlight brightness. This is functional on so many levels. Admittedly, I found myself playing with the backlight brightness like a kid with a new toy.

I was also impressed with the smoothness of the sliding mechanism. Motorola’s history with sticky, springless sliders (original Droid and Droid 2, anyone?) made me a bit apprehensive about a Motorola QWERTY device, but I was happy to be proven wrong. The slider feels solid, although it’s a bit awkward to slide open the keyboard. That brings me to one of the very few negatives of the Photon Q. When holding the phone, I noticed how rounded the corners are.

Rounded corners are very popular with Android devices (much to Apple’s dismay), so it only seemed natural that they would be present here. But the first time I slid the keyboard open, I nearly dropped the phone. The corners are rounded so much that they’re tapered toward the back of the device. So when trying to press the display upward to reveal the keyboard, my fingers slipped off the back, and I fumbled with the device. At first it was quite irritating, but after some experimenting, I found that the best way to slide the keyboard out is to place my fingers on the camera button and volume rockers, instead of the severely rounded corners. It’s not a huge deal, just a tad bit irksome.

Performance

The Photon Q boasts a 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor that doesn’t disappoint. I was expecting Motorola’s UI to slow down the device, as it has with past iterations of Android, but the processor actually handles it quite well. Quadrant results hovered around 4500, putting the Photon Q right up there with the HTC One X.

After some testing, I can vouch for every point of that score. Games rendered perfectly, with no lag whatsoever, and apps opened without any hesitation. Every transition was smooth and fluid, even with dozens of apps running simultaneously. I was blown away by the speed of this device. Upon further use, I noticed that Motorola has cut their UI down to the basics, which probably contributed to the performance boost.

It is called the Photon Q 4G LTE, so naturally the LTE radio will have some place in a review. Sadly, Sprint does not yet have 4G LTE service in the Birmingham area, so I was stuck with 3G. As disappointed as I was, I know that Sprint is growing its network as much and as quickly as possible, so it’s only a matter of time before more people are able to enjoy 4G speeds with a device like this. I can’t wait to see Sprint reach new markets with LTE, because we’ve certainly heard enough from Verizon about their coverage.

Battery life

The 1,785 mAh battery on the Photon Q actually served me very well this past week. I found that with what I consider to be average use (sending several emails, checking social networks, making a few phone calls), the device easily lasted a full day before needing to be plugged in.

Of course, this was all on a 3G connection. When Sprint launches LTE, battery life is sure to take a hit. I don’t foresee things changing much for average users of this device, but power users might want to explore other options.

Software

The Photon Q is running on Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, with a light Motorola skin on top. It may bother some that the device isn’t running the latest version of Android, but Motorola has promised Jelly Bean for all devices released within the last year. It’s only a matter of time before the Photon Q gets some 4.1 love. But honestly, the average user should be more than satisfied with ICS on this device. It’s fast enough, usability is great, and Motorola has left large chunks of the OS untouched.

As close to stock Android as it gets…

So it’s not 100% vanilla Android, but clearly Motorola has gone a long way in making their UI unique without sacrificing speed or putting tons of ugly colors into the OS. Motorola added some pizzazz to the lockscreen, and put some grey and black tones into a few apps, but left a large amount of ICS alone. This is something that other OEMs should aspire to do, short of using stock Android to begin with. There are ways to make a device different from the rest without completely bogging down performance, and Motorola has found this balance with the Photon Q.

There are only a few Motorola widgets preloaded, more evidence that the UI isn’t invasive. One of these widgets is simply called “Circles,” and it’s actually quite useful. Three circles display the time, weather, and battery percentage. The widget is even interactive, as users can switch between analog and digital clocks, and even get weather for multiple cities.

Bloatware (or lack thereof)

I was very happy to find that the bloatware on this device is very minuscule. Out of the box, there are only seven applications not found in stock ICS. However, several of them are actually useful, and not just memory wasters that will never be opened. Motorola included a Help Center app (above), for those new to Android, as well as their Emergency Alerts service, which warns users about impending severe weather. Of course there’s also a file manager, which is always nice to have.

Beyond these apps, we have QuickOffice, Smart Actions, Sprint iD, and Sprint Zone. Personally, I can’t see myself using any of these apps, but they’re preloaded nevertheless. So when we look at the number of apps that won’t be used, there are really only four, at least in my case. This is much better than the amount of bloatware found on other devices and carriers (I’m looking at you, Big Red).

Wrap-up

So after a week with the Photon Q, there’s very little that I don’t like. Aside from the camera bugs and the awkwardness of the rounded corners, this is one of the best devices I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing in quite some time. It’s fast, has a fantastic QWERTY keyboard, and carries the promise of Sprint LTE. On top of all that, Jelly Bean could be right around the corner, courtesy of Motorola. What more could you ask for in a $199 device?

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