First Look: Motorola's Photon 4G calls and computes

The latest smartphone announced by Sprint and Motorola comes with a base that can turn it into a desktop computer.

After a period of about two years, during which there were few Motorola phones rolled out for Sprint's mobile network, the two companies are working together with a vengeance. The Android-based Photon 4G smartphone is the first tangible result, but they've announced more than ten mobile devices will be coming before the end of the year.

The first to be shown, the Photon 4G, was announced at a press conference yesterday where I was able to try it out.

Motorola Photon 4G

The Photon 4G is conceptually similar to Motorola's Atrix 4G: equal parts phone and computing device. When the Photon is placed into its small optional HDMI dock, it's transformed into a rudimentary computer that can drive a large-screen monitor or TV as well as connect with a keyboard and mouse. However, the Photon lacks the Atrix's cool optional laptop dock that turns the phone into a notebook. This one is strictly stationary.

I found that using a keyboard and mouse made the Photon 4G much easier to navigate than using the phone's on-screen keyboard. My first impressions were that the phone works well at browsing the Web, sending emails and showing online videos while in the dock. The best part is that, even when it's docked, the Photon is still free to make and take calls.

Like the Atrix, the Photon has a tiny remote control (also optional) for doing things like adjusting the volume, starting and stopping videos and returning to the home screen. It'll come in handy when the phone is used for watching movies on a big screen.

Solid and bright

The phone feels solid, and the back has an inviting rubberized coating. At 5.6 oz., it'll be a lot to carry around, though. The Photon is not only heavier than the 4.8-oz. Atrix, but at 2.6 x 5.0 x 0.5 in., it's also larger in all dimensions. I really like the Photon's kickstand, although it takes a little work and some fingernail action to get it out of the back of the phone. When you pull the leg out, it automatically reorients the screen for landscape viewing on a table.

The phone's 4.3-inch screen is very bright and sharp. It can show 540 x 960 resolution, which matches the Atrix's screen, but the display is a generous 0.3-in. bigger. It doesn't sound like much, but you can see the difference in a less cluttered home screen and a better view of videos and games.

Like the Atrix, the Photon's display takes up almost the entire front face of the phone. Whether I was flipping tiles around or tapping on an icon, the touch screen was very responsive, although it sometimes took a second or two for the phone to catch up with what you want it to do.

Based on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), the Photon is a small step up from the Atrix's Android 2.2 (Froyo) software. It uses a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor with 1GB RAM and 16GB of flash storage. There's room for an optional 32GB storage card for a potential maximum of 48GB.

Photon 4G
When the Photon 4G is placed into its HDMI dock, it can drive a large-screen monitor or TV as well as connect with a keyboard and mouse.

For mobile shutterbugs, the Photon has both rear- and front-facing cameras. I tried them both out and found that, while the video I shot with the front-facing VGA webcam was a little shaky, the still images produced by the back-facing 8-megapixel camera (which comes equipped with a dual-LED flash) looked rich and sharp.

The Photon will operate on Sprint's WiMax-based 4G network that is up and running in nearly 100 American cities. The phone falls back to Sprint's EV-DO network in areas that don't have 4G coverage. It can also connect in Europe and Asia at slower speeds using the GSM standard.

According to company representatives, you can expect to see the Photon in stores by late summer, but at the time of announcement there was no word on pricing, service plans or accessories.

All told, the Photon 4G and convertible phones like it provide the needed flexibility to work and play wherever you might be. It's a phone when you need to make calls, but can be a minimalist computer when it's in its dock. In other words, it could be the best of both worlds.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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