REVIEWED: Motorola's Photon 4G - The best Android smartphone yet

The Photon 4G, Atrix 4G, and Droid 3 add essential corporate capabilities to Android, but the post-PC dock remains unfinished

There's new hope for Android aficionados who want IT to let them use their preferred mobile OS for work, thanks to Motorola Mobility's four business-oriented smartphones: the Photon 4G and Xpert for Sprint, Atrix 4G for AT&T Wireless, and Droid 3 for Verizon Wireless. Motorola has filled in several deficiencies of the Android operating system that keep many IT organizations from allowing its use. For example, the new Motorola devices add support for on-device encryption to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" and support more Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, so they're now compliant with many organizations' security requirements.

You might remember the Motorola Atrix 4G, a smartphone released earlier this year that can dock to a monitor and run a full desktop Firefox 4 browser in addition to the Android apps -- an intriguing step to a post-PC device. Motorola has essentially taken that device and made versions for Sprint and Verizon, while implementing the current "Gingerbread" Android version and enhancing some of the Motorola software.

[ Find out how well the Atrix performs as a "lite" PC when docked to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. | See all of InfoWorld's mobile deathmatch comparisons and personalize the scores to your needs. | Compare the security and management capabilities of iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, and more in InfoWorld's Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF report. ]

The four smartphones are variations of each other, with a few key differences being: The Droid 3 has a slideout keyboard, the Xpert has a BlackBerry Bold-style embedded keyboard, and the Atrix and Photon have only onscreen keyboards. The Photon also has a larger screen: 4.3 inches versus 4.0 inches on the Atrix and Droid 3 and 3.1 inches on the Xpert. Finally, the Xpert has much less storage capacity: 2GB plus 2GB on an included MicroSD card, versus 16GB onboard and up to 32GB on optional MicroSD cards for the other devices.

Despite the "4G" in the Atrix and Photon names, neither Motorola Android device supports the LTE 4G spectrum, though the Photon does support the much less available WiMax 4G spectrum (however, only if you turn off Wi-Fi, a weird requirement). Unfortunately, there was no WiMax signal available in downtown San Francisco where I work or in central San Francisco where I live, so I couldn't test it.

Given how similar the Photon, Droid 3, and Xpert are to the Atrix 4G smartphone that InfoWorld has previously reviewed, I won't repeat that review's details here. Instead, here's what's new or different. For this review, I tested the Photon 4G.

Email, calendars, and contactsMotorola's email setup doesn't have the same issues I experienced with the original Atrix 4G in detecting email settings. Instead of guessing wrong, as the Atrix often did, the Photon 4G is more likely to go straight to the manual settings for you to fill in. The Email app has a bevy of nice additions, including direct access to Exchange's out-of-office settings, support for rich text emails (such as applying boldface and bulleted lists), the ability to save messages, and the ability to set up server-side rules for attachment forwarding to the device -- none of which you'll find in the iPhone's iOS. It also provides clearer feedback when you take such actions as deleting a message.

Motorola's UI corrects several flaws in the original Atrix's MotoBlur interface, including integrating the previously separate corporate and personal email apps, as well as displaying emails as black text on white rather than the hard-to-read Android smartphone standard of white text on a black background. Unfortunately, the revised MotoBlur interface doesn't fix some earlier flaws. For example, you can't narrow your search by field, such as Subject or To, as iOS can. Previously, the Motorola UI's universal inbox provided an undifferentiated list of messages (as does iOS); now, there is no universal inbox, so you must manually switch among accounts. A better option would have been color-coding of messages in the universal inbox, as is done in the calendar. There's also no message-threading capability in the Photon and its siblings, unlike in iOS.

The Contacts and Calendars apps are unchanged from the original Atrix.

ApplicationsThe app selection on the Photon 4G has not changed meaningfully since the original Atrix. In addition to the carriers' own (subpar) apps, you get Google's nice navigation app, but no note-taking program.

Where the Motorola devices differ from other Android devices -- and continue an innovation introduced in the original Atrix -- is their support for the desktop Firefox browser in the optional ($100) HD Dock. The HD Dock also lets you plug in three USB devices such as keyboards and mice and connect to an HDMI-equipped HDTV or monitor. You can then launch the Firefox 4 desktop browser (it had been Firefox 3.6 in the original Atrix) to run Web apps and open websites that may not work well in Android's mobile Chrome browser, as well as run native Android apps on the big screen. Unfortunately, you get no more pixels for the Android window, just larger ones.

Another downside: The HD Dock supports only HDMI video output, which leaves out most monitors in the office and at home. (Motorola should add a MiniDisplayPort jack to the HD Dock, as VGA and DVI adapters are common.) That in turn means you can't turn the Photon or its siblings into "lite" computers on your desk, at a hotel, or other location. That's too bad, as it would let the Photon act as a Chromebook while retaining the ability to use native apps. Even on a good-quality HDTV, the text has a slight vibration, making it hard to work with for extended periods of time.

Motorola's WebTop app does a very good job of letting you navigate both the Android UI and the Firefox browser (each is in its own window on the TV or monitor) and type in apps and fields easily even if you have no USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse available. You'll want such input devices for extensive work duties, but you can go without them in a pinch. If only you could use the HD Dock with standard, higher-resolution monitors!

The HD Dock is a great idea in theory but is not practical for routine business use.

Web and InternetThe Firefox 4.0 support through the optional HD Dock is nice, giving you the regular Firefox browser plus the Adobe Flash Player running in a closed Linux environment. The browser's HTML5Test.com score of 286 (out of a maximum 450 score) is lower than current desktop browsers but demonstrates significantly better HTML5 compatibility than any mobile browser thus far. What you won't get is support for Microsoft's Silverlight rich application technology -- or even support for the open source version of Silverlight called Moonlight.

But what about the native mobile Chrome browser? Surprisingly, it supports fewer HTML5 features than a stock Google Nexus One running the Android "Gingerbread" OS, with the Photon getting an HTML5Test.com score of 177 versus the Nexus One's 186. (An iPhone running iOS 4.3 scores 217.) Otherwise, the Motorola version of the Chrome browser doesn't differ from the stock Android version.

Location supportThe Photon 4G offers no additional capabilities to those in the stock Android OS.

User interfaceMotorola has corrected one defect in the stock Android UI: its use of white text on black backgrounds in settings, email lists, and other areas. Any designer knows that such text is hard to read and should be used sparingly at best. Motorola has reversed the UI's color scheme in such cases to the much more readable white on black.

Motorola has unfortunately also changed many of the stock apps' icons, opting for cartoonish alternatives. Why does every Android smartphone seem to use a custom set of icons for the same included apps? It's very confusing.

Otherwise, the Photon 4G has the same UI pros and cons of other Android devices.

Security and managementMotorola says the enhanced business capabilities in the Photon and its siblings will be standard on all of its Android smartphones. Outside of the email improvements covered earlier, most of these capabilities involve better security such as support for on-device encryption, support for VPNs, and support for more EAS policies (such as failed-attempt lockout and password histories) than the stock Android "Gingerbread" OS. Exchange's remote lock and remote wipe capabilities are also supported, as in the original Atrix.

This set of enhancements will clinch the deal for numerous organizations that have had to deny access to other Android smartphones. You won't get the same level of security as you do in iOS -- which supports more EAS policies and works with PEAP-protected Wi-Fi networks -- but you get enough for many businesses' legitimate requirements.

HardwareThe Photon is a bigger smartphone than most, to accommodate its 4.3-inch screen. But it still fits in a shirt pocket and weighs about the same as an iPhone 4. There's nothing exceptionally good or bad about its hardware apart from the very readable large screen and the limited (HDMI-only) video output. Its dual-core 1GHz ARM processor is typical these days, as is its MicroUSB jack (for charging and file transfer) and its front and rear cameras.

The MiniHDMI jack is the only unusual component in the mix. With it and the included MiniHDMI-to-HDMI cable, you can play videos on an HDTV directly from the smartphone; unlike with Firefox, no HD Dock is required. The Photon also can send videos wirelessly if you happen to have a TV that supports the DLNA standard. Unfortunately, there's no VGA support for regular TVs, projectors, and monitors, so the Photon and its siblings fall short of the iPhone for showing videos and making presentations. They're also less capable of serving as a "lite" PC when connected to a monitor and keyboard than an iPad. (Note: The iPhone requires the use of an extra-cost cable to output to HDMI or VGA, and only compatible apps can display their screens externally.)

The Photon 4G costs $550 without a contract or $200 with a two-year contract with Sprint -- typical pricing for a decent smartphone.

All in all, a competent option for business usersDespite its fairly pedestrian hardware design, the Photon 4G should appeal to anyone looking for an Android smartphone that stands a good chance of being allowed access to the corporate network. The 4G WiMax capability isn't worth spending money on, given its narrow deployment and the basic questions about WiMax's future, but the device itself is perfectly good. However, if you can't stand the idea of not having a physical keyboard, consider the Droid 3 instead, which runs on Verizon's network.

If Motorola can enable VGA output on the HD Dock -- or better, on the smartphone itself -- the Photon and its siblings would have wider appeal as a "lite" business desktop for people whose work is primarily browser-based. You could literally carry your PC with you, using it as a smartphone when on the go and converting it to a Web appliance when at a desk, especially with the Photon's support of Bluetooth mice and keyboards. Yes, the iPad can be used largely in the same way, but it's not as portable as a smartphone. I didn't see any MiniHDMI-to-VGA cables available, but I noticed some MiniHDMI-to-HDMI adapters that might work if used with an HDMI-to-VGA cable. I had none of these cable hacks to try, so I can't guarantee they would work. Remember, though, that such a cable would not carry the sound, which negates playing videos but is just fine if you're using the Photon as a "lite" PC.

I found the "post-PC" thinking the real appeal of the original Atrix, and I'm glad Motorola is sticking with it. But if the company made the video-out work with standard monitors, and perhaps did not require the use of the HD Dock at all, it'd really have something compelling here. Although I'm comfortable recommending Motorola's Android smartphones for business users who don't want an iPhone, I'm disappointed that Motorola hasn't advanced its post-PC technology in the half year since the original Atrix debuted. The Atrix hinted at what was possible, but the expanded lineup doesn't take the next step.

This story, "Motorola's Photon 4G: The best Android smartphone yet," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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