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Motorola Photon 4G Android Worldphone Review
Date: Nov 16, 2011
Author: Jennifer Johnson
Introduction & Specifications

There are a myriad of nice smartphones on the market today. And since we're all for choice and options around here, we like the competition we're seeing in the mobile market. If you're a Sprint customer, you've been given the choice of a few really good 4G options this year. One of those options, the Motorola Photon 4G, has all of the specs you'd want from a high-end phone.

The Photon 4G features a 1GHz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor along with 1GB of RAM and Android 2.3 "Gingerbread". Although the Photon 4G has been out for a while, it still has some compelling features that other phones don't offer. For example, the Photon 4G is the first WiMAX equipped phone from Sprint to feature global GSM roaming. If you're a fan of Motorola-branded smartphones, you may also recognize that the Photon 4G is the first 4G WiMAX phone that Motorola has produced.


Like some of Motorola's other popular phones, the Photon 4G can be used with Motorola's Webtop to expand the functionality of the phone. By placing the Photon 4G in the HD Multi-Media dock accessory and connecting it to your HDTV, the phone can become a multimedia hub, letting you watch videos or surf the web on a larger screen. Of course, this functionality isn't free; The HD Multi-Media dock accessory is sold separately for about $100.

The Photon 4G is currently available from Sprint for $199.99 with a two-year contract, which is in line with Sprint's other high-end phones that are currently available. Does the Photon 4G live up to the standard set by today's high-end 4G smartphones? Read on to find out! But first, let's take a look at the Photon 4G in action...

Motorola Photon 4G
Specifications & Features

WiMAX 2.5, WCDMA 850/1900/2100, CDMA 800/1900, GSM 850/900/1900, CDMA EV-DO Release A, EDGE Class 12, GPRS Class 12
Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
4.3-inch qHD (Quarter High Definition)
1GHz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2
16GB onboard memory, expandable up to 48GB

Talk and Standby Time
Talk time: CDMA: up to 10 hours, WCDMA: up to 9.1 hours; GSM: up to 10.4 hours
Standby time: CDMA: up to 8.3 days; WCDMA: up to 13.1 days; GSM: up to 12.2 days

2.6 x 5.0 x 0.5 inches (WxHxD)
5.6 oz
1700 mAh
3.5mm, USB 2.0 HS, HDMI, DNLA, Bluetooth
8MP with dual LED flash
front-facing VGA

FM Radio Receive, AAC, AAC+, AAC+ Enhanced, AMR NB, AMR WB, MIDI, MP3, WAV, WMA v10, WMA v9
720p capture; 1080p playback
Location Services
eCompass, aGPS with Google Maps, Google Latitude, Google Maps Street View


The Photon 4G uses the traditional candy bar form factor that is typical of many Android handsets today. A small differentiating point with the Photon 4G is that it has angled corners rather than rectangular or rounded corners as seen on many phones. The back cover has a soft rubber-like feel which makes it easy to grip.

Just below the Photon 4G's 4.3-inch qHD display, you'll find four traditional touch sensitive backlit buttons (Menu, Home, Back, Search).  The front-facing webcam is at the top of the phone to the right of the speaker grill.

Click to enlarge

At 5.6 ounces, the Photon 4G is just slightly heavier than the Droid Bionic, which we reviewed recently. Here's a better look at how the Photon 4G compares to some of today's popular phones:

Samsung Galaxy S 4G 4.2 ounces
Nexus S
4.55 ounces
Samsung Galaxy SII Epic 4G 4.6 ounces
HTC Droid Incredible
4.6 ounces
Apple iPhone 4
4.8 ounces
Apple iPhone 4S
4.9 ounces
Samsung Droid Charge
5.04 ounces
Motorola Droid Bionic 5.57 ounces
Motorola Photon 4G
5.6 ounces
6 ounces
HTC Thunderbolt
6.23 ounces

On the left side of the Photon 4G, you'll find the phone's microUSB and micro HDMI ports. The right edge of the phone houses the volume rocker and a dedicated camera button. The volume rocker and camera button are slightly raised and textured, which makes them really easy to find by touch without looking at the phone.


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You'll find a power button and headphone jack on the top edge of the phone. When you turn the Photon 4G over, you'll notice the 8MP camera along with a dual LED flash. You'll also notice the phone's kickstand which can be especially useful when you're watching movies on the phone. By removing the back cover, you'll get access to the microSD card slot, battery, and a SIM slot.

Click to enlarge

User Interface

The Photon 4G runs on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) along with Motorola's Motoblur interface. The phone also offers Sprint ID integration. Sprint ID offers various ways to customize your Android smartphone. By selecting a Sprint ID, you'll get a pre-selected group of widgets, shortcuts, wallpaper, and apps that correlate to the ID theme. For example, if you select the ESPN Sprint ID, you'll get sports-related apps and more.

You'll find seven customizable home screens on the Photon 4G. By tapping the home button from the home screen, you'll get a thumbnail view of each of the home screens.

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In addition to the four touch sensitive hardware buttons (Menu, Home, Back, and Search) found on the Photon 4G, you'll notice Motorola has placed four static icons at the base of each of the home screens. These icons provide easy access to the phone, web browser, Sprint ID, and application listing by default. The first three of these applications can be customized by pressing and holding the icon and selecting a new application to add to the Dock.

As is the case with many of today's smartphones, the Photon 4G comes with some added software that we could do without. Thankfully, Sprint and Motorola let you uninstall many of these applications without hacking the phone. Some of the preinstalled applications include NASCAR, Motorola Phone Portal, Sprint Zone, Sprint Mobile Wallet, Sprint Radio, TeleNav GPS Navigator, and more.

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Even if you don't want to remove some of the preinstalled applications, you can organize them by placing apps in groups. There are four predefined groups by default: All apps, Recent, Downloaded, and Sprint. From the upper left corner of the app screen, you can view existing groups and add new ones. To add an app to a group, simply tap the plus "+" icon in the upper right corner of the app screen near the Android Market icon. For easy access, you can place a shortcut to any of the app groups on one of your home screens.

The Photon 4G comes with both the standard Android keyboard and the SWYPE keyboard.

Click to enlarge


While using the Photon 4G for everyday tasks such as checking email, browsing the web, placing calls, etc, we felt the phone was very responsive and fast thanks to its 1GHz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM.

The Photon 4G's 4.3-inch qHD display was vibrant and colorful. Like other screens, it was somewhat difficult to view outdoors under bright sunlight but it was no worse than other phones we've tested recently. Viewing angles on the Phonon 4G's display are excellent.

Click to enlarge

When we first began testing the Photon 4G, we had some issues while placing calls. More specifically, we were unable to hear callers and they were unable to hear us. A reboot of the phone generally fixed the issue. Shortly after we discovered the issue, Motorola and Sprint issued a software update that resolved the issue. We haven't had any additional problems with call quality since the update was installed. 

As its name suggests, the Photon 4G supports 4G speeds while connected to Sprint's WiMAX network. While you're in a 4G WiMAX coverage area, you should notice an increase in browsing and download speeds. Of course, we'll run some quantitative tests on the phone to see how fast the network responds in the coming pages.

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The Photon 4G offers an 8MP camera with dual LED flash. Overall, we were satisfied with the images captured using this phone's camera. Although the images won't compare to a standalone digital camera, we felt the Photon 4G's camera did a better than average job at taking good photos.



Click to enlarge

Motorola and Sprint claim you should get up to 10 hours of talk time and up to 8.3 days of standby time from the Photon 4G while connected to Sprint's CDMA network. In our everyday usage of the phone—checking email, surfing the web, etc—the phone was able to make it through a work day (approximately 8-10 hours) without a problem. Of course, your mileage will vary depending on how you use the phone. Should you take this phone overseas and connect to a GSM network, battery life is rated at up to 10.4 hours of talk time and up to 12.2 days of standby time.

In an attempt to put a quantitative measure on the Photon 4G's battery life, we set up our own Web-surfing test. In this test, we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text. The page automatically refreshed itself every three minutes. We set the Photon 4G's display to 50% brightness and turned off Wi-Fi. When we ran this test, the Photon 4G lasted for about four hours and 15 minutes before giving up.

Performance Testing

In addition to using the Motorola Photon 4G in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the Photon 4G compares to other smartphones.

CPU testing
Android CPU testing

Graphics testing
Android graphics testing


JavaScript testing
JavaScript Android and iPhone testing



In the Linpack test, the Photon 4G struggled and posted the lowest score in our reference database.

The Photon 4G performed much better in the An3DBench and An3DBench XL tests than it did in the Linpack test. Although the phone didn't post the highest score in either test, the margin between the top score and the Photon 4G's score was small.

In the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, the Photon 4G again performed very well, coming in just a few milliseconds behind the fastest phone in the comparison.

Performance Testing - Web Browsing

Since browsing the Web is a key feature of any smartphone, we also conducted some formal speed tests to see how well the Motorola Photon 4G compares to some of today's hottest smartphones.

As you can see in our speed tests, Sprint's 4G WiMAX network isn't quite as fast as Verizon Wireless' 4G LTE network. Even so, the Photon 4G posted a respectable score on the Xtremelabs 4G test. 3G results using the Xtremelabs test were very good, coming in just behind another Sprint phone, the HTC Evo Shift.

The same story holds true for the Speedtest.net scores on the Photon 4G. Here again, we see that the phone performed well, but it never took the top spot. The Photon 4G achieved the highest score of any Sprint phone in our database on the 4G Speedtest.net benchmark.

Although these tests are designed to put a quantitative score on web browsing performance, it's important to keep in mind that network speeds can vary depending on many factors and the test results can also vary from one day to the next. Overall, we were satisfied with the real-world browsing speeds on the Photon 4G and felt the speeds were in line with other phones we've seen recently.


The Motorola Photon 4G is a good-looking phone with angled corners and a vibrant 4.3-inch qHD (Quarter High Definition) display. It also has all of the internal specs you'd expect from a high-end phone that's on the market today, including a 1GHz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor along with 1GB of RAM and Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Another key feature of the Photon 4G is its ability to operate overseas on compatible GSM networks.

Click to enlarge

We appreciate that Motorola is offering a HD Multi-Media dock accessory for the Photon 4G to expand its functionality. Although this accessory may not be quite as useful to business customers as the laptop-style dock that's currently available for the Motorola Atrix, it's still a nice option to have. There are other accessories available as well and Motorola says a Lapdock is in the works for the Photon 4G.

In terms of performance, benchmark scores were reasonable though most of the time the Photon 4G wasn't at the top of the charts. In real world use, we felt that the Photon 4G performed as well as other high-end phones we've tested recently. Thanks to a software update, the microphone issues we experienced were resolved and we had no further problems to report.

Click to enlarge

The bottom line is this: The Photon 4G is a great phone that's definitely worthy of consideration, particularly for world travelers who want a powerful Android-based device that'll work almost anywhere.



  • 1GHz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor and 1GB RAM
  • 4.3-inch qHD (Quarter High Definition) display
  • Worldwide GSM capabilities
  • Kickstand
  • Sprint's 4G network isn't quite as fast as other networks
  • Lukewarm benchmark results, but good real-world results


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