Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE a nice keyboard, but middling call quality

If you're looking for a smartphone with a great physical keyboard, look no further than the Motorola Photon Q.

As someone who uses his phone more often to send text messages than to make calls, I've been disappointed at the lack of phones with physical keyboards. Software keyboards are getting better every year (my favorite for Android is SwiftKey); but until I can accurately touch-type on them, I'll continue to prefer having physical buttons for typing long messages. Someone at Motorola seems to have read my thoughts, because the company's new Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE for Sprint ($200 with a new two-year contract, price as of August 8, 2012) is one of the best keyboard-equipped smartphones you can buy right now.

Design

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The Photon Q looks like a slightly chunkier version of the Motorola Photon 4G, which premiered on Sprint last year. Both phones have angled corners, though the Photon Q lacks the Photon 4G's useful kickstand. The Photon Q's angled corners make it comfortable to hold while making calls, and the phone is compact enough to fit easily into most pockets. The Photon Q is largely composed of a soft plastic that feels good to the touch, though I was hoping that the phone would be wrapped in Kevlar like the Droid Razr and the Droid Razr Maxx.

The front of the phone accommodates a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and a 4.3-inch 540-by-960-resolution display that uses the same Color Boost technology we saw on the Motorola Atrix HD. Motorola claims that Color Boost gives smartphones 50 percent more pixels than the leading smartphone offers, though the Photon Q's screen wasn't as sharp as the ones on the Samsung Galaxy S III, Atrix HD, or HTC One X. (It did look sharper and more vibrant than the screen on the Motorola Droid Bionic, however.) Like the Galaxy Nexus and the Atrix HD, the Photon Q uses Ice Cream Sandwich's virtual navigation buttons in the place of physical ones.

The back of the Photon Q holds an 8-megapixel camera and the phone's external speaker. The Photon Q uses a 1785mAh embedded battery; embedded batteries are supposed to last longer, but you can't replace the battery yourself if it ever becomes damaged or unable to hold much charge.

Along the left spine are the Photon Q's charging port and MicroHDMI port. The right spine of the phone hosts the volume rocker, a physical camera button, and a small flap covering the MicroSD card slot.

The Keyboard

The last keyboard-equipped phone I reviewed, the Motorola Droid 4, carried an above-average mobile keyboard with top-notch buttons. The Photon Q's keyboard is virtually identical to the Droid 4's. The keys are set slightly too close together for my taste, but the buttons felt great under my fingers as I typed. The only button I had a problem with was the spacebar, which emitted an audible cracking noise every time I pressed it. Though the button worked, but the sound it made was a bit unsettling.

Performance

Powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 processor with 1GB of RAM, the Photon Q handled virtually everything I threw at it without a hitch. Even when scrolling through content-heavy pages, the phone rarely slowed down perceptibly, except when the browser tried to load a high-resolution image or video. Even then, I could keep multiple apps open and running simultaneously in the background without slowing the device to a crawl.

If you're a big mobile gamer, you'll appreciate that the Photon Q can handle most games available in the Play Store. One bonus of having a physical keyboard is that some games and emulators let you map specific actions to specific keys. The arrangement isn't perfect, but it's a huge step up from having to use a virtual control pad.

Call quality over Sprint's network left a lot to be desired: Voices sounded a bit muffled, and I heard a low buzzing noise whenever someone spoke. You and your caller will be able to hear each other, but you may have to speak up a bit to make yourself heard clearly. I tested the phone in our San Francisco officean area with good reception. Since call quality varies depending on your location, you should consult coverage maps to get an idea of how good the call quality will be in your area.

The Photon Q is one of just a handful of phones that can connect to Sprint's new LTE network. Unfortunately, that network has yet to launch in San Francisco, so I couldn't test the phone's speeds on it. On Sprint's current 3G network over a strong 3G connection, the Photon Q managed an average download speeds of 0.49 megabit per second and an average upload speed of 0.86 mbps, according to my measurements using the FCC-approved Ookla Speed Test app.

Even with LTE turned on, the Photon Q held out over the better part of a day (about 5.5 hours) of normal useincluding sending text messages, downloading a few apps, and playing a game or two for several minutes at a timebefore the battery ran out of juice. We haven't yet run the Photon Q through our official PCWorld Labs suite of battery tests; when we do, we'll update this page.

The Photon Q does have an NFC chip, so you'll be able to take advantage of any software that may use that technology.

Software

The Photon Q ships with Android 4.0.4 beneath a custom Motorola overlay. I used a Motorola phone back in the days when the company relied on MotoBlur, and this new overlay is leaps and bounds better. For the most part, the operating system looks and behaves like Android Ice Cream Sandwich, with just a few tweaks.

Some app icons have little arrows next to them that you can swipe to pop up a small "quick-look" window. Depending on the app, these windows display different information. For example, swiping the Browser app icon will pop up a grid that displays your bookmarks, but swiping the Email app icon will show your inbox and identify the number of unread emails you have. The fact that Motorola Mobility (the part of the company that makes phones) is now a subsidiary of Google may have led Motorola to exercise some restraint in tricking out its overlay, but in any case I'm glad that the new overlay doesn't change the look and feel of Android too drastically.

The Photon Q comes with two preloaded Sprint apps (Sprint ID and Sprint Zone) that can't be uninstalled, but I applaud the carrier for keeping the quantity of preloaded apps to a minimum.

Entertainment

With only Sprint's snail's-pace 3G network to connect to, and without widespread LTE coverage, you probably won't be streaming many HD movies to your phone unless you live in one of the 15 areas in the United States that currently have Sprint LTE. It'll be a while before the rest of us can connect to that faster network.

If you hate "the cloud" and want to keep all of your media locally on your device, you'll probably want to invest in a MicroSD card. The Photon Q offers 8GB of built-in storage, but that fills up pretty quickly once you start downloading apps and taking pictures.

The rear speaker on the phone delivers decent sound; but for higher-quality audio, I recommend using headphones.

Camera

I wasn't particularly impressed with the photos I got from the Photon Q's 8-megapixel camera. They tended to be a bit dark, and colors looked washed out. The Photon Q's Camera app provides few extras, though the phone does have a zero-shutter-lag camera courtesy of Android 4.0. The front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera works well for video calls and is clear enough that you can use it to take a quick Facebook self-portrait.

The Photon Q can record video in 1080p, though footage looked a tad too dark. Audio pickup was slightly muffled, probably due to the location of the microphone (it's on the bottom half of the phone to the right of the keyboard).

Overall, the Photon Q's camera isn't the best I've seen, but it's adequate. Indoor photos may come out looking rather dark, so try to avoid shooting in poorly lit areas. The phone's video quality is quite good, but don't expect it to pick up every bit of audio from whatever you are recording.

Bottom Line

Though a bit on the chunky side and hampered by a mediocre camera, the Photon Q is a solid choice for anyone who wants a phone with a physical keyboard. If you're a huge texter, or if you compose a lot of email messages on your phone, this model is well worth considering. It's not perfect, but the Photon Q is currently the keyboard phone to beat.

This story, "Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE a nice keyboard, but middling call quality" was originally published by PCWorld.

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