Motorola Atrix review: This is the start of something big

Summary:Check out the four areas where the Motorola Atrix establishes new breakthroughs in smartphone experience, and see how well Motorola's Webtop software measures up in creating a desktop-like environment.

When I first saw the Motorola Atrix at CES 2011 in January, I was pretty shocked. I didn't expect to see smartphones that could double as PCs for at least another year or two, and I certainly didn't expect Motorola -- and not Microsoft or Apple or Hewlett-Packard -- to be the first company to deliver it.

Now that I've had the opportunity to use the Motorola Atrix for a couple weeks -- including its two docking accessories -- I'm still impressed by what Motorola created. While the Atrix isn't quite ready to replace corporate or personal PCs on a large scale, the phone itself is quite impressive and Motorola's Webtop experience offers a glimpse of where the future of computing is headed.

Photo gallery

Motorola Atrix photos: The docking smartphone

Specifications

  • Carrier: AT&T Wireless
  • OS: Android 2.2.1 (Froyo) with MotoBlur UI; Motorola Webtop
  • Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 2 AP20H Dual Core
  • RAM: 1.0GB
  • Storage: 16GB internal; microSD slot (add up to 32GB)
  • Display: 4.0-inch qHD, 540x960 resolution, 240 dpi, 24-bit color
  • Battery: Lithium-ion with 1930 mAh capacity
  • Ports: Micro USB 2.0, Micro HDMI 1.3, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Weight: 4.76 ounces (135 grams)
  • Dimensions: 4.64(h) x 2.5(w) x 0.43(d) inches
  • Camera: 5MP (2592x1936), auto-focus, dual LED flash, 1.3MP (640x480) front-facing camera
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, A-GPS, e-compass, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, fingerprint scanner
  • Keyboard: Virtual QWERTY
  • Networks: UMTS 850/1900/2100, GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz, HSDPA up to 14.4 Mbps
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n; Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR; DLNA
  • Tethering: USB + mobile Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Price: $199 (with 2-year contract)

Who is it for?

The Motorola Atrix is the first smartphone with a dual core processor and one of the first to include a full 1.0GB of RAM. It has all of the horsepower needed to run the most demanding Android apps, to multitask, and to soar through multimedia. When you combine that with its Webtop capability, the Atrix is clearly a device for power users who do a lot work on their smartphones beyond just phone calls, email, and light Web surfing. More than any smartphone on the market, the Atrix is capable of replacing a secondary PC.

What problems does it solve?

For years, people have talked about the idea of a smartphone running a full PC operating system and docking to become a full-fledged computer. Bill Gates championed the idea almost a decade ago, and lots of people in the technology industry have been hinting about it the past few years as powerful ARM and Intel chips have gotten dramatically smaller and consumed far less power. Companies like Palm and Redfly toyed with the concept of the smartphone-as-PC before the technology was ready, but Motorola is the first to pull off a device that runs a smartphone OS as well as an embedded desktop OS that offers a full PC experience when docked. Another key innovation of the Atrix is the integration of a fingerprint scanner for logging in and unlocking the device.

Standout features

  • Speed to burn - The Atrix is smooth and zippy for almost any task you throw at it. A smartphone doesn't really need a full 1.0GB of RAM. The extra is there to run the Webtop in docking mode. So, when you're not docked, there's plenty of RAM to burn for multitasking. The Atrix isn't quite as snappy at opening apps and Web pages as the HTC ThunderBolt, but it doesn't suffer from the battery life challenges of the ThunderBolt either.
  • Excellent battery life - For a smartphone this powerful, I expected the Atrix to struggle in terms of its battery life. However, Motorola has shown once again that it knows how to balance speed and power in its mobile devices. The NVIDIA's Tegra 2 dual core processor also deserves a nod for battery efficiency (see why NVIDIA says multiple cores can be better for battery life). The Atrix battery easily gets through a full day, even when it's on AT&T's HSPA+ network, and the Lapdock can give it a boost by charging the docked phone even when the Lapdock is unplugged.
  • Ultra-slim form factor - Smartphones are almost like fashion now in that people prefer different styles and sizes. If you like something a little more svelte in your smartphone, then you'll like the Atrix. It is small, thin, and light -- the exact opposite of the ThunderBolt. You pay for it with a little bit smaller 4-inch screen, which is still an excellent display but not as roomy as the ThunderBolt and other 4.3-inch Android devices.
  • PC-like docking - The Atrix's docking experience uses Motorola's Webtop software, which is essentially a stripped-down, customized version of Ubuntu Linux that primarily runs a Firefox Web browser and MobileView software that pulls up the Android OS in a window on the desktop. That way, you can still answer calls and text messages from your phone while in Webtop mode, as well as open Android apps in full screen view.
  • Fingerprint scanner - Another thing to add to the list of the Atrix's breakthroughs is that it's the first major smartphone to integrate a fingerprint scanner, which the user can easily set up and which serves as a more secure method of unlocking the device than either a passcode or a pattern lock.

What's wrong?

  • Webtop feels like a beta - While I'm impressed with how good the Motorola Webtop software is, considering Motorola is a hardware company and not a software company -- and keeping in mind that this is version 1.0 of something quite new -- the Webtop still feels raw in spots. In the Lapdock, the performance can get pretty laggy, especially when running videos and Flash sites. The performance in the desktop/multimedia dock is better, but it needs to be able to support larger display sizes. In general, I felt like the Webtop experience was acceptable and workable, but it could have really used more power to make it run smoothly. With quad core mobile chips coming soon from NVIDIA and Qualcomm, this kind of software will soon have the hardware it needs to be a much more formidable product.
  • Plastic finish - For a high-end device that packs in so many innovations and breakthroughs, the Atrix feels remarkably ordinary and even a little cheap when you hold it in your hand. Its plastic casing feels a little more substantial than the Samsung Galaxy S phones, but not much.
  • Accessories are too expensive - The Lapdock for the Atrix is thin, light, sturdy, and has a very impressive look and feel with its brushed aluminum finish. However, it's just a display, keyboard, touchpad, and extended battery for the docked Atrix, and Motorola has priced it at $499 (you can get it as low as $399 by ordering online). It really shouldn't cost more than $200. The HD Multimedia Dock that you need to connect desktop peripherals to the Atrix retails for $129. Companies typically mark up accessories so that they can make more money on them than the actual devices, but with the Atrix, they've priced them way too high. Even though the Lapdock is impressive, for $400-$500 I can't recommend it.

Bottom line for business

The Motorola Atrix breaks through barriers in performance and mobile experience, and it's one of the most impressive Android devices that you'll be able to get your hands on in 2011. It combines impressive speed with excellent battery life. It packs a lot of punch into a svelte form factor. And, it introduces the first true desktop PC-like experience in a smartphone.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Atrix just for the docking experience, because you'll be likely disappointed. However, if you want a thin, highly-capable smartphone with a battery that can last all day and that can also give you a glimpse of the future of smartphone/PC convergence by serving as a replacement for a secondary PC, then the Atrix is a pretty exciting option.

The concept of the smartphone PC may still be slightly ahead of its time, but Motorola has given it a big boost with the Atrix, and the quad core mobile chips that are coming to market over the next year could give it another push forward. While I don't see this replacing primary PCs for heavy users like software engineers, IT professionals, and financial wizards, I think it could have a big impact on non-desk workers in sales, manufacturing, health care, transportation, etc.

Competitive products

Where to get more info

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Smartphones

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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