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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The 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 users
Despite 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 Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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