Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone + PC

Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone + PC

Summary: The idea of a smartphone that could also be a desktop PC has been around for years, but Motorola surprised us at CES 2011 by delivering the first product that brings that idea to life.


Over the past couple years when people have asked me for a prediction of a cool technology that's coming in the future, my favorite scenario has been to pull out a smartphone and say, "You see this little device? Pretty soon it's going to be powerful enough to not only be your phone but to also your computer. When you sit down at your desk, you'll set the phone on a wireless dock/charger (like the Palm Touchstone) that will be connected to a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You'll have access to all of your personal apps, data, and preferences at any desk that has dock. There will even be docking laptop shells where you slide in your phone to dock it the way you used to slide in a DVD. It will be the end of 80% of all personal PCs."

This wasn't an original idea of mine, just my spin it. People in the tech industry have been talking about this idea for years. I can remember Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates saying that this would likely be the way the developing world would eventually join the PC revolution. That was about a decade ago.

I had no idea how that we were so close to this idea becoming a reality.

I certainly didn't expect to see it at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. So, you can imagine my surprise when at Motorola's press conference on Wednesday, the company trotted out the Atrix 4G (above), a new dual core smartphone that contains an extra surprise: a piece of "Webtop" software that allows it to function like a full PC when connected in one of three docking modes:

  1. Desktop PC mode with keyboard, mouse, and display
  2. TV mode with a remote
  3. Laptop mode, with a special laptop-like dock

The other surprise is that it actually works remarkably well, at least in the demos and the little bit of hands-on time that I got with the product. It doesn't have the wireless dock/charger that I was hoping for and the laptop docking placement is bit awkward, but the Atrix is a viable product that an average user could figure out relatively easily and use to handle most of their computer work and play. It's not without its challenges -- which we'll talk more about in a second --but this is a landmark product that is likely to spawn lots of copycats and a shift in computing that could be even more significant than the current shift that's happening with tablets.

How does it work?

In addition to the Android OS that powers the Atrix, it has an extra little piece of software inside that Motorola calls the "Webtop" (an amalgam of Web + desktop). This is essentially a little OS that launches when the Atrix is placed on its side and docked via its USB and HDMI ports into one of its two docks -- the desktop/multimedia dock or the laptop dock. It's not a full OS with a bunch of its own apps, but primarily a Firefox Web browser and a desktop environment for your Android apps.

Because it's small and light, it also feels surprisingly fast. No doubt, that's due in part to the fact that it's running a dual core NVIDIA Tegra2 CPU, but software itself feels pretty efficient and well-designed. The UI looks like a simplified combo of Mac and Windows.

The big question I had was what happens to your phone while it's docked? Can you still answer calls? Can you access your data and apps on the phone? The way Motorola has handled this is to give the phone its own Window and a shortcut on the launch bar at the bottom of the screen. Whenever you click the phone icon the software window appears with Atrix home screen. From there, you can anything you normally do with the phone, including making calls (using the speakerphone or a Bluetooth headset). You can also open Android apps from the phone Window and click a button to send them out to the desktop environment in full screen. If the apps have a landscape mode, then this works especially well because then it truly fills the screen. The mouse actions simply take the place of touch gestures in the UI.

The two photos below provide a look at the Atrix in its two PC docking modes as well as a peek at the Webtop UI. In the second photo, notice the phone window on the left that has the Atrix home screen.

Here is the Motorola Atrix in its desktop/multimedia dock. Photo credit: Jason Hiner | TechRepublic

Here is the Motorola Atrix in its laptop dock. Photo credit: Jason Hiner | TechRepublic

Is it time?

After I was convinced that the Atrix is real and functional, my next question was whether the market was ready for the product? Are there users who would be willing to dump their desktop or laptop and use this as a primary computing device? Judging by the fact that a lot of people tend to have a much more personal attachment to their smartphones than their PCs and keep a lot of their most important data on their smartphones, I think the answer is probably affirmative -- at least for people who do most of their stuff in a Web browser when they use a PC.

There are still some significant questions and challenges with the Atrix, such as how well will it be able to print and will you be able to attach an external digital camera or memory card to pull in pictures and data? I'm sure the software will be a work-in-progress. But , so far it looks better than I would have expected for a first generation attempt at this idea of smartphone-PC convergence.

I think we would have naturally expected to see something like this from Microsoft or Apple, but both of them have likely shied away from the idea in fear of cannibalizing some of their PC cash cows. Hats off to Motorola for having the vision to get there first and producing what appears to be a solid first effort at the concept.

However, the other big problem with the Atrix specifically is that it is exclusively locked to AT&T in the US market, and we're all aware of the problems that AT&T has had in the US because of the data overload caused by the iPhone. That will limit the appeal of the Atrix. If this device was running on Verizon's new 4G LTE network, it would be a lot more appealing. Of course, we can expect that Motorola will eventually bring the Webtop concept to other phones on additional carriers in the future.

My other small beef with the Atrix is that the design of the phone itself is nothing special. It has a lot of plastic and has a generic design similar to the Samsung Galaxy S phones. For a phone that packs so much power on the inside, I would have liked to have seen a higher-end design on the outside.

Still, I see the Motorola Atrix as the most important new product coming out of CES 2011. This could very well be the watershed product that we look back on a decade from now as the one that started a revolution in the way we think about and use our computing devices. I still see the HTC Thunderbolt as the best smartphone coming out of CES because of its superior design and breakneck LTE 4G speeds. The Thunderbolt will have a bigger impact on 2011, but the Atrix will have a much bigger impact on 2015.

See the video below for a 4.5-minute demo of the Atrix that I recorded at Motorola's CES booth. You can also watch a larger version of the demo on YouTube.

This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

Topics: Telcos, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Smartphones

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  • Sea change

    Excellent ... I hadn't seen the device.<br><br>M$ making Windows work on ARM, the NVIDIA ARM CPU + GPU alliance, the ATRIX, the CHROME OS whatsit ... are all signs that this has been a landmark CES ... and not the damp squib or tablet-fest many have opined.<br><br>The WINTEL era looks like its about to be transformed ... and M$ and INTEL need to get their skates on!
    • I think that cheap all-in-on computers with dual core ARM, and ChromeOS or

      similar will be a big hit as well. We will see package-on-package systems with system-on-chip layered under 2GB RAM and 32 GB FLASH. Looks like one chip that is the whole computer.
      • This is a game changer

        With Citrix VM machine, it just makes it wonderful, imagine the possibilities.

        Now if we can get lower cost for 4G then it would make fiber irrelevant for the consumer though huge for the provider. Something that is very doable.

        Question is, how much do Telcos want to overtake Cable companies. If they are owned by them, this will never happen.
  • A great device, but, would like to see generic docks that have HDMI USB,

    so that other phones and other form factors like tablets can be docked. In the future, a dual core Arm system-on-a-chip will be so cheap that all monitors will come with ChromeOS or similar desktop, but, still great to be able to plug in YOUR environment. Google should create a standard desktop GUI to ride shotgun with Android when docked.
  • I think the answer is No Thanks.

    I see no reason to condemn myself to an inferior computing experience. I KNOW what I want, and have got it all in my desktop, which scores 10/10. A tablet scores 0/10. This new Motrola Atrix scores about 3/10 for being a crappy desktop.
    • Actually, the masses are beginning to see that the inferior computing

      experience is Windows. The adoption of iPad by the masses should have been a clue for you. But, as the masses are exposed to other computing experiences than Windows, they will be pleasantly surprised. Not everyone is a Windows propeller head.
      • RE: Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone PC

        @DonnieBoy <br><br>It would be much more believeable if you actually had an iPad or had even used one. Truth is it's an expensive toy adopted by the fashion conscious with more money than sense. Yes I tested one and used it for a week and was totally underwhelmed.<br><br>Go on Donnie, I dare you - buy one.
  • so...

    let me get this straight, when you travel you still need to carry around kind of a laptop (without the processor but with almost the same size and weight) and only get a web browser on the laptop screen when you plug your smartphone in, so you won't have any of the benefits of having a computer with you but all the disadvantages.

    same goes for you at home. you have an empty shell of a computer on your desk and when you plug in your smartphone, all you will get is a web browser and some smartphone apps on your big screen but not a real computer.

    what were the use cases of that "game changer" again?
    banned from zdnet
    • RE: Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone PC

      @banned from zdnet
      Because in reality, you just need the dock and a rollout keyboard as it can be used on television monitors as well.
    • RE: Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone PC

      @banned from zdnet:

      Right, you'd only need your mobile phone and the docking laptop. This concept could work well with cloud computing --- so all you'd really need is a web browser to access files, applications, contacts, schedules, etc. Complicated simplicity.
  • RE: Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone PC

    As well as a webtop with Firefox, you can launch Citrix.

    This allows office workers to remotely access their Windows desktop. If the phone & laptop dock is not much more expensive than a similar phone I can see this being big.
  • Wired Cradle?

    Why can't I just keep my cell in my pocket at all times... and wirelessly connect to my desktop mouse, keyboard, and screen? No cables. No docking station. Nothing. Anytime I walk to another computer... everything instantly appears just like it was on my prior computer.
    • RE: Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone PC

      This is definitely the logical next step. Also, future generations of this kind of system will have proper full-featured operating systems, too. You can already put Ubuntu on a Netbook, and have all the computing power of a full-sized desktop. The computerphone is not so different.
    • Well, there are USB-VGA adaptors, so, since there is wireless USB, this

      would all be possible with current hardware technology and a layer of software. Not sure why they decided to do HDMI to connect the monitor, or how good it would work with USB in comparison.
  • RE: Breakthrough device of CES 2011: Motorola Atrix = Phone PC

    The Atrix truly is amazing and most certainly is the future! I can't wait to try one out.
  • re: Motorola Atrix

    I'll stick with my Cricket Smartphone with no contract :)
    Can't see why anyone would be tied into a 2 year contract with the likes of AT&T.
  • What the Palm Foleo had to be

    But now it's dead
  • Thanks You!!

    This will really help me when I'm working in remote places with clients who want to sell gold jewelry. Thank you Moto!!!!
  • This is like the holy grail of computing

    Being able to cary your computer in your pocket and when you get home or the office, you just dock it and presto, everything's there. Only problem is the technology isn't there yet. In other words, mobile CPU's powerful enough to perform all tasks that a desktop can. Also those mobile CPU's have have to be power efficient as well.
    Then let's talk about storage capacity.
    All in all an interesting concept, but a concept nonetheless.
    • Well, as you can get 32 GB microSD, I think the storage issue can be

      resolved. Also, for the masses that do not do CAD, video editing, etc, the dual core Arm is already more than powerful enough. When we get to quad-core Arm, there will be even fewer things you can not do with a very small, very compact, very inexpensive device like a cell phone, if you can connect a large screen and keyboard.<br><br>Microsoft figured this out a little late as they are just now porting "full" Windows to Arm.