The Motorola / NVIDIA tag team continues to bust down doors and open up the options for strange new journeys on Android devices - desktop mode, docks galore, and the kickstand that turns your diamond-shaped Photon 4G into the world's most excellent desk clock. We've got the actual handset here, plus the HD dock, plus the car dock, all of them the standard editions you'll be purchasing in the store very soon from Motorola. If there were a predecessor to this device, it's the first dual-core device from Motorola, that being the ATRIX 4G that came out earlier this year with very similar dock accessories and very similar functionality. While it may seem like one's first inclination to compare this device to the ATRIX, we're already on a whole new landscape with more dual-cores on the market than we know what to do with. The ATRIX still sells off the shelf, especially with it's new cheaper price [$99 at AT&T today] and upgrade to Gingerbread - will the Photon add up?
This review is full of videos filmed just for this post. The first one is your humble narrator tearing open the FedEx box and getting another fabulous hands-on with the handset (we had some hands-on time back in NYC at the first announcing of this device as well.) We also get the Vehicle Dock and HD dock in the box, but we get an unboxing and first hands-on with those further down in the review. For now: get to ripping!
This device is like the jamming together (in a graceful manner) of several different devices we've seen before, taking most of the great elements from the ATRIX (for the size and the dual-core processor as well as the dock connectivity), the HTC Sensation / LG G2x for the odd and awesome curved glass front, ThunderBolt for the kickstand, and DROID 3 for the battery cover soft plastic material and new-wave Motoblur-like user interface and apps, including the awesome new camera app. This device fits easily in the adult human hand, the soft plastic back is a vast improvement over the flat plastic we saw in the old versions of the XPRT and this device, that being the ATRIX and the DROID Pro, and well-placed logos and specs galore all around the device. It's not just the PHOTON, to be sure, but we've certainly entered an age in smartphones where its fairly average seeing at least two brands and more than likely four different words or symbols printed or intended in the backs and fronts.
The dedicated physical camera button and volume button on the right side of the device are a nice chrome ribbed metal, giving your finger a place to rest when you need to pump up the music or click a few photos with your magnificent new camera software included in this new-age Motorola UI. The top of the device has both your headphone jack and smooth-metal power button while the bottom has two ports: one microHDMI, the other microUSB, both of them set precisely so that you'll be able to plug in well to all the different docks Motorola's making available to you with this release. In the front of the device you've got ambient light and proximity sensors aside your VGA webcam and tiny notification light. Quite a few devices coming out over the past few months without such a notification light has been a bit frustrating, this light here is a blessing.
The 8-megapixel camera in the back of the device is set aside two LED flash bulbs, these set slightly up from the rest of the back in a bit of a bump - well set, but with this and all the other devices that've come out over the past few months, we'd love to see a device with the whole camera setup flush with the rest of the back. The kickstand is thin, a far cry from the ultra-giant kickstand of the HTC ThunderBolt, this more than likely because when the stand is this thin, it's much more difficult to stand the device up in portrait mode - this is discouraged because once your kickstand is out, the device is forced to stay in landscape mode because of another function that makes your Widget Clock screen appear (as an option.) Being a notorious fan of the ThunderBolt, I know that portrait mode for a device helped up by a kickstand can be really helpful, especially since when the kickstand is out, the bottom of the device (aka the place where the power port / microUSB is,) is placed against the surface of whatever you've placed your device atop.
The TFT touchscreen display is massively sharp at 960x540 pixels inside 4.3-inches and is covered by everyone's favorite: Gorilla Glass. As I've mentioned before and you shouldn't be surprised if I mention again, this display continues the awesome trend of handsets having curved Gorilla Glass on the front, curved around all the edges with the entirety of the display being set just the SMALLEST amount lower than the plastic that surrounds it. Very delicately made, very nice.
Software and Performance
Beyond your normal set of lovely Google-placed apps like Gmail, Google Search, and Latitude, you'll be rocking with Files (to take a look at every one of your files in a very PC-like collection of folders,) a special Motorola Phone Portal that will help you move media files, contacts, settings, and more back and forth from your desktop computer to your phone, and Rich Location - a rather excellent app I'm surprised isn't more popular as is very quickly seeks out our GPS location and shows you a screen with items like Coffee, Yelp Restaurants, Local Events, ATMS, and Local Coupons - each of these with a number that shows how many businesses have joined the party that you can be instantly directed to via maps. Simple and fun!
Next you've got Task Manager that'll both act as another place for you to see all of your apps and easily uninstall them or add them to an auto-end list. Tasks, on the other hand, works to remind you of events you've got to know about by pushing notifications to you outside the app. Well played. Finally, Webtop Connector allows you to access webpages you've been visiting inside Webtop Mode as well as activate web-based Webtop Sessions from a list. Very simple connection to your Webtop alter-ego. We'll be doing a demo of this fabled Webtop Mode later in this review.
For now, we've gotta take a peek at some hard numbers. It's time for benchmarks, and we've got the whole big time line of them. Behold the newest super phone running the ultra-fabulous NVIDIA Tegra 2 1GHz dual-core processor in all its numbered glory:
Vehicle Dock and HD dock Hands-On
What we've got here in our first package is both the official Motorola Vehicle Dock and the official Motorola HD Dock, the video below showing you what it's like to take them out of the box as well as what comes in the boxes as well. Exciting!
Vehicle Dock in Action
The vehicle dock appears at first to just be a clamp to hold your Photon up in the dash of your car or truck, but what it does is connect you straight down to a power charge via microUSB and your cigarette lighter as well as right back up into an audio jack for your car stereo many modern car stereos have basic headphone jacks for your plug, otherwise you could always get one of those cassette tapes that have the same wire hanging out the side for your awesome retro connections. Have a look at how your Photon will function in this situation:
HD Dock [and Desktop Mode] in Action
What you'll see next is the HD Dock we've got here working with the Photon 4G in several different ways. You'll find that your options are many, that you'll be able to use your device as a basic desktop able to run Android apps on the big screen, and that the Photon 4G is your most excellent conduit for playing music, viewing your photos, and watching full HD 1080p videos via HDMI. An entertainment and productivity powerhouse indeed.
Camera and Battery
Your battery is rated at around 6 hours for watching video and 10 hours doing basic functions like email. We've found this device to last just about a day, not quite, with medium usage. Most users aiming to take this device to its fullest potential will find that they're going to want to plug it in to a power source more than once a day. Average users will want to plug this device in each night at least, with the possibility of plugging it in to your car charger being more than likely a pretty good idea as well.
Then I've got nothing but nice things to say about the camera. You've got many modes to work in and the photos are fully awesome. You'll only be able to go up to 720p resolution for recording with the camcorder, but you'll find that you like the results. The best part of the camera experience, incidentally, isn't in the camera at all, but in the gallery after the photos are taken. For more information on what you're looking at with the camera and how it'll lead you to an awesome GPS-tastic experience all day long, check out my review of the Motorola DROID 3 from just about 24 hours before this post was posted. Slightly different camera interface here, same fantastic gallery action. Now for some example media so you know what you're dealing with here:
What you've got here is a solid piece of hardware in the handset tied to some well thought out docks with software and functionality that make this the most full dual-core package on the market today. NVIDIA's Tegra 2 processor is running the show here, so you know you're in for the slickest and smoothest ride on the market - meanwhile Motorola's newest iteration of their custom user interface isn't something we're going to get rid of if we choose to root the device later on, if we can, in fact, we're impressed! Motorola's here created their greatest vision to date, complete with one of the most excellent camera / gallery combos on a handset today plus a set of nice new icons for your basic apps across the board to boot.
While it has, in reality, been difficult to find any drawbacks to using this device, there are a couple of functionality bits I'd like to bring up, and I'm sure the vast majority of our readers would agree. One example is the kickstand. When I kick out the kickstand, I'm unable to go into portrait mode. Instead of limiting the device to landscape mode when previous devices with kickstands have allowed both landscape and portrait mode I think is a mistake - more options are always better. I do, on the other hand, like that popping the kickstand out opens options for the type of homescreen you'd like to be working with - though again I'd like some of the options I get in the HD Dock mode to be here too - like gallery for if I'm setting the phone down to show the family some photos of my trip to NYC on business.
Next there's the inability to delete some apps as well as the inability to run anything other than this newest version of Motorola's user interface over Android. While I realize this option is available once you've got the device rooted, rooting still isn't recognized as a normal or pleasing thing to see by carriers - in fact they'll tell you to buzz off if you've got any problems after having done so if they find that you've done so. Because I think this device has such fantastic potential I ask again here: Motorola, lead the way, find a way to work with carriers and keep the ability to turn off your lovely (and yes I do love it) new user interface and delete apps of all sorts.
Otherwise, Motorola, well done. This device pushes the ATRIX directly out of the way and makes itself your new king of dual-cores. On the other hand, the DROID 3 gets major points for being carried by Verizon instead, plus the keyboard is slick and the DROID lineage is strong. The Photon ultimately wins for build quality, it taking the opportunity to deliver a unique Gorilla Glass screen, lovely soft back, and giant mass of options with its docks and Desktop Mode. Run, don't walk, ladies and gentlemen.