Atrix 4G: Great Phone, Media Center; Sub-Par Laptop

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Motorola’s Atrix 4G, arguably the talk of last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, is now available from AT&T. The smartphone, which the carrier sells for $199 with 2-year contract, $599 without, is among the first new Android devices to use both a dual core CPU and a new display resolution called qHD, or 960×540 pixels. The uniqueness doesn’t end there, however: Motorola has also created a Laptop Dock that uses the Atrix for its brains and storage, plus a standard dock to use the phone as a television set-top box or as a standalone computing device when connected to a monitor. Conceptually, it all sounds wonderful, but how does the Atrix and its modular computing system work in the real world?

A Peppy, Powerful Phone

The Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone is among the best Android devices I’ve used yet, although there are a number of similar devices arriving soon. The 4-inch display uses a new 960×540 resolution, which is the most comparable yet to Apple’s Retina Display for its iPhone 4. Images are bright and sharp as a result. The new touchscreen is paired with the Nvidia Tegra 2 chip, which provides a fast overall experience.

Tegra 2 supplies two application processors rated at 1 GHz speeds, so at a high level, the chip provides double the processing power over the 1GHz chips that powered most high-end smartphones last year. And the extra horsepower combined with Nvidia’s graphics solution is noticeable: menus open instantly in most cases, scrolling is smooth and games run silky smooth for the most part. This platform enables 720p video recording at a full 30 frames per second, and can also play back such files natively. The camera offers multiple scenes, effect settings and may be the quickest smartphone I’ve seen yet to adjust for white balance.

Originally, I was concerned that such performance would quickly chew through the phone’s battery. Indeed, in the first day of usage, the battery level appeared to drop faster than on most other phones. However, I have to chalk the first day jitters to a battery that may not have been fully charged: the Atrix has easily lasted all day since then, even with heavy usage. The large capacity 1930 mAh battery and the power-optimizations found through Nvidia’s silicon will make the Atrix a full-day device for most.

Users won’t mind carrying the Atrix 4G throughout the day, either. Motorola kept the bezel and four touch buttons on the small side, but still has room for a front camera ambiant light sensor and flashing LED for notifications. Even with a 4-inch display, the device isn’t much larger than the Apple iPhone 4 and its 3.5-inch screen. And the Atrix 4G is kept light, just under five ounces, due to a mostly plastic case and battery cover. Normally, I’d shy away from so much plastic, but the build quality feels extremely solid in my usage.

The Atrix 4G offers all of the standard connectivity options: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and assisted GPS. I live in an area with great coverage on AT&T’s GSM network, so I never experienced any dropped calls. The speakerphone also worked well in my testing on several conference calls throughout the week. The handset supports AT&T’s HSPA+ network, hence the 4G tag in the Atrix name. When using the device for mobile broadband, however, I didn’t see speeds that compete with T-Mobile’s HSPA+ offering in my region. Depending on where you live, the Atrix may deliver faster upload and download speeds. It’s difficult to tell what kind of speeds the Atrix 4G will deliver based on AT&T’s data coverage maps, as they don’t currently specify which areas offer the faster HSPA+ speeds. In my area, the best download speeds were in the 3.5 Mbps range.

Overall, the Atrix 4G is well designed and brings excellent overall performance. Motorola still includes its MotoBlur widgets for those that desire them — I don’t particularly care for them — or users can install their own widgets for social networking and other purposes. Folks looking for the latest Android device really can’t go wrong with the handset as there isn’t much to not like. But the phone is only half of the Atrix story: how does the phone work as a modular computer?

About Those Docks

The Atrix system has two docks: one for mobile computing and one for home computing and/or home entertainment. Here’s a quick video look at all of the parts to the Atrix puzzle, including the docks, wireless remote, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. You’ll also get a glimpse of the innovative power button that doubles as a fingerprint reader to unlock the device.

The Laptop Dock targets on-the-go consumers and perhaps even enterprise workers. For $499, AT&T will sell you both the Atrix 4G phone and the Laptop Dock, but without the bundled price, the dock itself costs $499. And that’s simply too much for what the dock delivers. Essentially, the phone plugs into the back of the Laptop Dock and fires up a basic web-top interface on the 11.6-inch display that provides 1366×768 resolution. There is no processor nor any storage in the dock: it simply displays data from the phone, which provides connectivity, processing power and storage.

At a conceptual level, the idea is solid. All of your data is on the phone and dock is meant to bring a full computing experience. But it falls short in a few ways. The desktop version of Mozilla’s Firefox browser, which is likely to be the main use case for the dock, is often sluggish. And the situation isn’t helped by a trackpad that doesn’t support scrolling. Instead, you have to scroll through the web using the scroll bars on the side of the browser. I opted to use the Motorola Bluetooth mouse, which has a scroll wheel, but that’s another device to carry. Web apps can be installed, much like with Google’s CR-48 netbook, but full applications aren’t supported. You can view and run Android apps from the phone on the larger display, but the dock screen isn’t touch sensitive and the apps are optimized for touch. The included file viewer app is limited, but offers a nice look at the file structure of the handset.

To be fair, the Laptop Dock powered by the Atrix 4G does work as advertised: you can surf the web all day on a larger screen. But the overall performance is sub-par, reminding me of the first netbooks I used in 2008. I used such a device nearly full time back then for mobile computing and while I could do it again, I don’t think most consumers will want to, especially at this price point. Note that the use of the dock requires AT&T’s $20 per month tethering plan as well: another barrier for most people. And there’s little benefit to carrying the laptop dock because you could just as easily carry a current netbook, which is likely cheaper, and have a full desktop operating system along with the benefits of third-party applications. The Laptop Dock is only slightly smaller and lighter than my 13-inch MacBook Air, for example, so it makes more sense for me to carry the notebook computer instead of the dock.

The entertainment dock for home use, however, is another story entirely and is something I’d purchase for $190. The price includes the Bluetooth mouse I mentioned, a Bluetooth keyboard and a remote control. This smaller dock, which can be purchased separately with the wireless remote for $130, has three USB ports, an HDMI port and a jack for speakers. Connecting a monitor to this dock and dropping the Atrix into it creates the same webtop computing experience as the Laptop Dock: performance is of course, no different since the phone is still supplying the processor, connection and storage. But as a way to get media files on a large screen HDTV, the dock is outstanding. Motorola has an effective custom application for navigating and playing back media files from the phone to the big screen, as I showed in this video demonstration.

 

Conclusion

After a week with the Atrix 4G, I’m convinced it is one of the best Android handsets currently available due to its performance, features and battery life. But there are a number of new Android handsets soon to follow that will rival the Atrix. Motorola should be commended for pushing the envelope with the different docking systems, but a netbook or other laptop is likely better for most people than the Laptop Dock in my experience. Consumers, however, looking to watch video both on a handset and an HDTV may find the smaller dock a viable replacement for a third-party set top box.

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