There’s a lot to like with Motorola’s Android-based Atrix smartphone, but the unique laptop docking system may not be for everyone. After testing the set up for the past couple weeks, I found the Atrix to be a snappy smartphone with few equals. But while the Atrix’s accompanying accessories easy to use and well designed, I wasn’t sure I really had a place for them between my laptop, desktop and home entertainment options.
Here’s a look at the many parts of the Atrix and what worked, what didn’t and what simply left me scratching my head.
The Atrix Smartphone
The Atrix is one of the more beautiful smartphones I’ve seen from Motorola. It’s a single piece, all black with a flexible back plate that feels good in the hand. The rest of the specs are impressive: Android 2.2 (Froyo), 4-inch touchscreen, NVIDIA Tegra dual-core 1 GHz processor, 1GB Ram, up to 48GB Storage (16GB internal, 32GB external), 5-megapixel camera, 720p video capture, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, DLNA technology and an HDMI out. Anything else you might like?
The Atrix is compatible with AT&T’s HSPA+ network, which when combined with its dual-core processor is one of the faster smartphones I’ve experienced. The phone comes with Motorola’s MotoBlur UI, which I don’t mind, aside from some completely baffling redundancy problems when setting up accounts. I like the ability to create home screen widgets for frequently used contacts and overall, Motoblur creates an easy-to-navigate environment (seven customizable home screens in all).
The Atrix features the usual four virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen (Home, Settings, Back and Search), and the touchscreen was responsive. I haven’t found a virtual keyboard that matches the iPhone’s, which perplexes me, because most Android phones have more screen real estate, which seems like it should translate to easier typing. The Atrix’s keyboard was comparable to other Android devices.
The 5-megapixel camera shot nice video and stills, but I found the gallery system for reviewing photos and clips a bit confusing. Voice quality was excellent for receiving phone calls and the phone interface is a nice implementation.
There are lots of pre-installed apps from AT&T and Motorola, but they didn’t really bother me. They’re buried back in the app catalog and there if I want them; otherwise, they can be junked. Quick Office, which comes installed, is a nice application for viewing documents and doing light editing.
I always like to see what my kids say about a review unit, and I think it’s worth noting that my 9-year-old asked more questions about how to find things on the Atrix than he did when I brought home the Samsung Captivate. Take that for what it’s worth, but I maintain that smartphone designers could learn a lot by bringing kids into the lab to test out the devices before they go to market. I don’t say that because I think kids are simple-minded; rather, I think kids display a kind of clarity of mind that designers spend years working to express through their devices.
The Multimedia Dock
There’s something comforting about the Atrix’s proprietary dock and the fact that it can sit on top of your entertainment system just waiting to charge your device or display content on your flat panel. I’d seen the demos and read the reviews, but there was admittedly a touch of magic when I hooked the smartphone up to my TV and saw the whole Atrix experience come to life.
The phone fits the dock smoothly, with no feeling that you’re forcing the phone into the connectors. The back of the dock features three USB ports, an HDMI out, auxiliary and power. There’s a slight lag while the phone’s content loads onto the screen, but once it does, the connection is seamless. If you’re in the middle of loading a page on the phone’s browser when you connect to the dock, the process will finish on the big screen.
The multimedia dock kit includes a Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and remote control. This package retails for $189, although there’s word that prices may vary depending on where you purchase the phone. The keyboard and mouse worked great to control the “webtop” experience on my TV, although there was nothing particularly special about them. The keyboard does include a few dedicated keys that perform certain functions on the phone when you have it hooked up to an external display.
The docking system is an interesting addtion, as it allows you to use the Atrix’s built-in browser as you would a browser on any desktop. You can also access your phone’s dialer, so placing calls from the TV over speakerphone is an option. All of this is interesting but perhaps the most practical part of the dock is simply its ability to play media – photos, videos, streaming content – on a larger screen.
Granted, I didn’t have the Atrix for a very long time, but in the end, the novelty of at least this portion of the system wore off. Even the kids quit asking to use the “phone computer” on the “big screen,” and opted for either one of our laptops in the house or the desktop. It seems like the psychological boundaries between TV and any other device are great, and in the end, we retreat to our TVs to escape the others. Integration between the mobile device and the TV is just a tough sell but not entirely without merit. Because the Atrix does have this feature, I’d probably invest in the dock package, as it was nice to have. It just wouldn’t be an everyday item.
The Motorola Laptop Dock is a nice piece of hardware. Motorola didn’t skimp on quality here at all. The screen is brilliant, the dock at the back folds up for easy transport, and overall it’s just an attractive machine.
But attractive and practical are two entirely different things. The Laptop Dock still has to be charged like any other device if you want to leave the wall outlet. While Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha might argue that the specs on the Atrix are comparable to what was in a PC only a few years ago, the Laptop Dock experience is still more comparable to that of a netbook than laptop.
The Laptop Dock might not make sense for someone who already has a laptop. In my short time with the Laptop Dock, I rarely deferred to it over my netbook or laptop, which only pointed to yet another barrier, which is the one that exists between our personal computers and our mobile devices. Apple is dealing with this right now, as it struggles to cut the sync cord between the iTunes and iPad and iPhone.
Motorola’s Laptop Dock is a good example of how the smartphone should interact with a laptop, but it’s also a failed attempt in that it demonstrates this by creating another device. Kevin Burden, research director of mobile devices for ABI Research, recently told me that the reason the tablet came around, in a lot of ways, is “because of the realization of what a smartphone is and what it never will be.” While innovative, to some extent I think the Motorola Laptop Dock proves that the smartphone will never replace the laptop. However, I think consumers still hunger for the day when the smartphone will more easily interact with their existing devices.
The fact that the Atrix, Laptop Dock and Multimedia Dock (kit) will cost you a combined total of $688 on contract, plus a required $20 per month tethering fee, proves my point. While innovative, the Atrix as an entire ecosystem of devices is just too expensive to justify. In my opinion, anyone who considers investing in the Atrix’s laptop dock would be just as well served by buying just the phone and putting the additional $488 towards a low-end laptop.
I don’t believe I’ve ever been more conflicted about a device. While I love the very real magic happening here, I don’t think it’s practical magic. As for the Atrix smartphone, I’d put it in the top three or four smartphones on the market right now.
Check out the video below for a quick look at how AT&T envisions users putting the Atrix to work: