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 contacts
Motorola'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.

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Test Center Scorecard
 
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Motorola Mobility Photon 4G877788

7.5

Good

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