Motorola Atrix 4G with laptop dock: first impressions

Summary:I have been using the Motorola Atrix 4G and laptop dock combo for a few days and offer my first impressions of the unique mobile solution. The Atrix 4G becomes a full computer in this innovative implementation.

Motorola made a splash at the CES early this year with the Atrix 4G phone running Android. The phone is a state-of-the-art handset, but what caught everyone's attention was the laptop dock option. This dock is a thin laptop shell that uses the CPU, memory, storage and connectivity of the phone to turn the dock into a mobile workstation. I have been using the Atrix 4G and laptop dock combo for a few days and offer my first impressions of the unique mobile solution.

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to have a private conversation with Dr. Sanjay Jha, CEO of Motorola. It was a great exchange of ideas about the future of the smartphone, and at one point I mentioned I felt that phones were becoming so powerful they would soon be full-fledged computers. Jha responded with a twinkle in his eye that Motorola was working on innovative mobile solutions involving the smartphone as the brain, and that I hadn't seen anything yet. Having used the Atrix 4G/laptop dock combination, I have little doubt this is what he was referring to in that conversation.

Check out the extensive photo gallery of the Motorola Atrix 4G with laptop and multimedia docks.


Image Gallery: Check out the extensive Motorola Atrix 4G photo gallery with laptop and multimedia docks.
Image Gallery: Atrix 4G
Image Gallery: Atrix 4G

Phone

The Atrix 4G handset is an Android phone running version 2.2 with the MotoBlur interface. It is the most powerful phone I have used, and stuffed with hardware components that would make any mobile enthusiast happy. The dual-core Nvidia processor drives things without lagginess, and the high-resolution display is as sharp as that on any phone currently available. The Atrix 4G is available with the laptop dock and also with a webtop dock for use as a desktop/multimedia computer.

Phone specifications:

  • CPU: Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core, 1 GHz
  • Memory: 16 GB
  • Display: 4-inch, 960x540
  • OS: Android 2.2 (Froyo)
  • Ports: microUSB, HDMI, 3.5 mm headphone
  • Cameras: 1.3 MP front, 5 MP rear
  • Dimensions: 2.5 x 4.6 x 0.4 inches, 4.75 ounces
  • Connectivity (as reviewed): WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, DLNA, GPS
  • Special software: Webtop application, Firefox (laptop mode only)

Laptop dock:

At first glance this dock is a thin laptop with a screen, keyboard and oversized trackpad. While that is a reasonable impression, the dock is a shell waiting for the phone to be plugged into the stand that unfolds from the back of the laptop. The dock has no CPU, memory, storage nor any integrated connectivity; those are all supplied by the phone when docked.

  • Display: 11.6-inch, 1366x768
  • Ports: 2-USB (for peripherals)
  • CPU, memory, storage, OS: None

Using the laptop dock »

Using the Atrix 4G with laptop dock

The concept of using the phone as the core module to power a laptop is innovative, and a solid one. The Atrix 4G handset is easily powerful enough to drive the laptop, as is quickly apparent when the phone is plugged into the laptop dock. The phone sits behind the laptop in the dock, and is blocked from view when the laptop lid is opened.

Opening the lid fires up the dock, and the bright display fires up almost immediately. The phone screen, now blocked from view, is duplicated in a window on the laptop dock and can be viewed in either portrait or landscape orientation. In addition to the phone display window, there is a thin status bar at the top of the screen that provides access to settings for the environment. At the bottom of the display is a dock similar to that of OS X, that serves as a quick launch bar for the browser.

This is a true browser environment, as the Firefox browser is the only app that can be run outside the phone display window. It is a full desktop browser, with Firefox extensions to complete the laptop illusion. It is indeed an illusion, as everything is actually running on the phone, and merely displaying on the big laptop screen. The browsing environment is rich and as capable as that on full systems. All web sites work in this browser as expected, including those using Flash, and while there may be some on the big web, I haven't encountered any sites that can't be accessed properly. Web-based email, such as Gmail, work as well in this browser as on any system.

The trackpad is large, with two buttons as expected, and drives the system like those on any laptop. There is a tiny LED in the upper left corner of the trackpad that indicates whether it is active or disabled, which can be toggled by double-clicking the LED. The trackpad operation rivals that on most notebooks, and after a brief period I was able to use it with precision. Unfortunately the trackpad is not multitouch capable, so no scrolling in the browser window using two fingers is possible. This is something Motorola would be wise to include in future versions of the system, as it would greatly facilitate the use of the browser. The scroll bar is very thin and hard to operate via the trackpad.

All aspects of phone operation are possible while docked in the laptop through the phone window and the trackpad/ keyboard. Calls can be originated and answered, as the phone operates automatically in speakerphone mode while docked. Such calls have slightly muffled audio due to the placement of the phone right behind the laptop lid.

All apps on the phone can be run while docked, but they run in the small phone window on the big display. They can be a bit difficult to control, as Android apps are designed to be run by touch which is not possible on the laptop dock. Everything can be manipulated with the trackpad and arrow keys on the keyboard with a little practice. It is nice to have complete access to apps, if not as optimal as running them with the phone in hand. There is a file manager app for working with files on the phone in a laptop windows that works well.

The performance of the laptop can be laggy at times, especially with too much running at one time. Most likely the phone gets overwhelmed with too much running, on top of driving the large display of the laptop. One quickly learns to restrict how much is running at a time, which keeps performance acceptable. This is easy to do as the browser is the only app that can be run on the laptop side of things, so limiting the number of open tabs is the way to handle it.

The only component native to the laptop dock is an integrated battery, and it provides a solid 10 hours of usage. It also charges the phone while docked, so when you grab the phone out of the dock it is fully charged and ready for business, a nice touch.

Motorola has done a nice job with the grab-and-go nature of the Atrix 4G. The laptop operating environment is persistent, so you can grab the phone and go, and when you return the laptop environment picks up where you left it. This works well and goes a long way to the perception of instant-on when the laptop is opened.

Conclusions »

Conclusions

The system is not perfect, but it is possible to leave the laptop at home on short trips and bring this combination. My experience shows it is capable to handle all of my computing needs for short trips. The performance is not as good as a full notebook, but rivals early netbooks. While the combination of the laptop dock and the Atrix 4G phone will not be optimal for everyone, it will serve many, and with good battery life. This review was written on the laptop dock.

Motorola also offers a webtop dock, a small dock to facilitate connecting to HDMI TVs. It also is designed to handle a USB keyboard and mouse, so the dock turns the phone into a desktop computer without the laptop dock. I have this dock to evaluate, but haven't tried it out yet. It also turns the Atrix into a multimedia center for the TV, complete with a nice remote control to run things. The Motorola web site hasseveral videos demonstrating this capability in action.

The Atrix 4G is available from AT&T for $199 with a 2-year contract, and the laptop dock is another $499.99. This is very expensive, but AT&T will sell you the laptop and phone at the same time for $500 with a contract, which may be more palatable for some. Whether this price is out of bounds given the utility provided is up to the individual. The operation of the Atrix and the laptop dock is surprisingly solid for a first version release; Motorola has done its work well in this regard.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Laptops, Wi-Fi

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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