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

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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.

The 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.

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