capsule review

AT&T's dockable Atrix 4G: Impressive phone, but no genre-breaker

At a Glance
  • Motorola Atrix 4G (AT&T)

A lot of excitement surrounded the Motorola Atrix at the Consumer Electronics show in January. It appeared to be not just another phone, but the cornerstone of a new concept that might deliver the mobility of a smartphone and the superior usability of a laptop in a single product.

After using the Atrix itself for a day or so, I came away impressed with the phone—especially the power of its processor, the clarity of its display, its no-hard-edges design, and its compact shape. Frankly, it’s a phone I would buy.

But I’m giving low marks to the new smartphone/laptop combo device that Motorola proposes with the Atrix. I like the idea of a close bonding of the two devices, but the execution in this instance is poor.

Still, the Atrix itself is a strong addition to AT&T’s growing line up of Android phones. The phone is one of the first AT&T phones to be branded “4G”, and the connection speeds I saw from the phone, while not quite 4G-like, were much faster than the 3G speeds we’ve measured from the AT&T network in the past.

Design

The Atrix is surprisingly svelte at 0.4 inches thick. It is 2.5 inches wide and 4.6 inches tall, and weighs roughly 4.8 ounces. The front of the phone features a 4-inch qHD (Quarter High Definition) touchscreen display, with a set of physical buttons beneath the screen for menu (contextual), home, return, and search. At the top are the proximity sensor and the front-facing camera. On the right edge of the phone, you’ll find only the volume rocker; on the left bottom edge are the HDMI and USB ports. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack occupies the top edge.

The Atrix is the first phone I’ve seen that has a fingerprint recognition pad built into its back. As with many laptops, you can set up the phone to remain locked until it recognizes your unique fingerprint slide. The surface also serves as an on/off and sleep/wake button, if you choose not to use the fingerprint recognition feature. Also on the back are a 5-megapixel camera and flash, and a small speaker port at the bottom.

Docking and ‘Webtop’ Functions

Many people love the mobility of a smartphone but dislike the difficulty of performing important tasks on such a small interface. Addressing this issue, Motorola designed the Atrix to slide into a Motorola “laptop dock,” which is really just a shell containing a screen, a keyboard, speakers, and a touchpad. You cannot use the laptop unless the phone is docked in place. Part of the reason that the Atrix uses a powerful dual-core processor is so that it can run full-size apps on the enlarged user environment of the laptop screen.

When docked in its slot at the rear of the laptop, the Atrix automatically launches a Webtop app that offers a larger and more functional presentation of its content and features for the laptop’s larger screen. For instance, it can run a full-size Mozilla Firefox browser or display rich content like Flash graphics on the larger screen. Meanwhile, conveniently, the phone’s battery gets a charge from the powered laptop.

You can use the laptop to control various phone functions, as well. You can make calls that automatically use the speakerphone function, for example, and you can write and send text messages. The desktop app also provides an expansive user interface for managing tasks and reading and responding to e-mail.

Another accessory enables you to do all of these things with your desktop computer display and keyboard. The smaller “multimedia dock” connects with your monitor and keyboard via the USB ports on its back. You can plug the multimedia dock into your HDTV via an HDMI connection to play high-quality content from the phone on the big screen.

You can see a short video of the Atrix’s docking functions here.

All of this versatility sounds good, but I was disappointed when I actually used the smartphone-powered laptop. The Webtop app loaded just as described after I placed the phone in the slot at the back of the device. Unfortunately, I found navigating (via the touchpad) through the various windows and views on the Webtop interface to be awkward and unwieldy. I had trouble locating and clicking icons and other controls quickly and accurately.

The keys on the keyboard, while easier to use than the software keyboard in the phone, felt plasticky and not very solidly built. I had trouble getting my fingers to conform to the shape of the keyboard; and when I did find the right keys, my fingertips often slid off the smooth plastic surface.

I also found the HSPA+ cellular connection to be too slow for the graphics rendering demands of the large screen. When I hit the Facebook icon at the bottom of the screen, a Firefox browser launched and took me to the Facebook page, but completely loading all of the graphics on the page took perhaps 10 seconds. It would have been faster to use the Facebook mobile app on the phone.

In short, I probably couldn’t work with this Webtop environment on a daily basis.

OS and user interface

The Atrix ships with Android 2.2 (Froyo), not with the more recent Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). So the phone does not support SIM calling, near-field communications (NFC) for mobile payments, or the enhanced front-facing camera technology that Gingerbread offers. Still, Android running on the dual-core processor is a very nice (and responsive) environment to work in.

You can read a full review of Android 2.2 here.

Along with the standard Android apps, you get Vlingo (which lets you use voice commands to control functions of your phone), Live TV via the AT&T U-verse mobile app (each channel is fee-based), and AT&T Navigator (NavTeq, $9.99 per month)

The Atrix, like other Motorola smartphones, has Motoblur social media overlay software running on top of Android. The software is meant to create an orderly presentation of your social media feeds (such as Facebook updates and new tweets), as well as your Gmail messages and contacts.This part of the interface was useful for keeping me connected to and up-to-date with my circle of friends, and it was nonobtrusive to the crucial functions in Android.

Voice calling

I was impressed with the microphone, voice speaker, and voice software in the Atrix. I placed a call from a busy sidewalk at rush hour to a colleague using a land line inside the building, and she reported that my voice was loud, clear, and full-bodied, with only the slightest hint of background traffic noise. Motorola clearly put some money into using high-quality microphones for the Atrix. I suspect that some high-quality noise cancellation software is at work inside the phone, too.

On our 2-minute call, my colleague and I noticed none of the static, drop-outs, or fade normally associated with a weak cell-phone signal.

Camera

The Atrix sports a 5-megapixel camera with automatic focus and an LED flash. I was pleased with the quality of the photos I shot. The first thing I noticed was the accuracy of the auto-focus: The camera seemed to adjust quickly as I moved the lens farther away from or closer to my subject, accounting for and correcting my intentionally sloppy technique. I noticed no motion blur in the images, and the resulting photos seemed perfectly focused, with sharp colors.

The phone doesn’t have a physical button for snapping photos, but it does use the volume rocker button as a zoom in/out controller, which seemed perfectly natural (and rather ingenious) to me.

I was similarly impressed with the 720P HD video I shot with the phone. The video looked clearer and smoother than video I’ve seen shot with some smartphones that have 8-megapixel cameras, leading me to believe that a powerful processor and a high-quality display (both present here) are more important to good video than is the resolution of the lens.

I also liked the way the software organized my photos. The phone displays images in a carousel; to scroll through them, you just drag them to the left or right. Each image carries a little “i” in the bottom right corner; tap it, and all the information about the picture—location taken, time, resolution, file size, tags, and so on—appears on the screen. You can click the ‘tags’ label to add more tags to the image.

Performance

Working in tandem, the two 1GHz processor cores can achieve processing speeds of up to 2GHz. That extra power was apparent as I used the phone. The Web browser was very responsive to my movements and moved through graphics-rich Web pages smoothly and speedily. And when I used the phone to stream video via a fast Wi-Fi connection, the video ran smoothly at all times. I also noticed that I could launch new apps quickly, even when several others were already running.

Data speeds

The Atrix 4G runs on AT&T’s 3G HSPA+ network. AT&T brands the network and related devices “4G” because, the company says, the network pumps out “4G-like” speeds, including download speeds of up to 6 mbps. With the FCC-approved Ookla tool installed on the Atrix, I tested the network connection of the phone from several locations around San Francisco, and found the download speeds were consistently in the neighborhood of 2.7 mbps. Only in my tests at our offices south of Market Street were the readings lower, averaging around 1.7 mbps.

Upload speeds across all five of my testing locations averaged 0.3 mbps (300 kbps), a very 3G-like result. Of even more concern were the latency times I saw. The Ookla tool consistently measured about 300 milliseconds of network latency—the time it takes for a packet to move from the device to an online server. That’s roughly six times the latency seen in Verizon’s LTE network and about a third higher than the latency in Sprint’s WiMax network. The high latency number combined with the mediocre upload speed could hamper the smooth operation of apps like video chat and mobile gaming.

Battery life

With all of the heavy lifting that the Atrix is designed to do (shooting and playing high-definition video, running a full-size browser on a large display, multitasking, and so on), it’s a good thing that Motorola put in an extra large battery. The 1930-mAh battery, Motorola says, is good for 8.8 hours of talk time and 264 hours of standby time.

I didn’t have the time to perform a full battery test, but I charged the phone to 50 percent of battery capacity when I began testing the phone 13.5 hours ago, and the battery is 30 percent charged now. Idle time accounted for 62 percent of that usage, with the remainder (rounded to the nearest percentage point) going to the cellular radio while in standby mode (24 percent), the display (10 percent), voice calls (4 percent), and the Wi-Fi radio (2 percent).

From this information, I estimate that the battery in the Atrix would last for between 1.5 and 2 days of my normal usage, which consists of about 20 minutes of talk time, 10 minutes of Web browsing, no video viewing, and perhaps 15 minutes of e-mail work.

You can preorder the Atrix 4G for $199 with a two-year AT&T service contract starting February 13. A bundle of the Atrix 4G and the laptop dock can be had for $500, again with a two-year service contract.

[Mark Sullivan is a senior associate editor at PCWorld.]

This story, "AT&T's dockable Atrix 4G: Impressive phone, but no genre-breaker" was originally published by PCWorld.

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At a Glance
  • Motorola Atrix 4G (AT&T)

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