Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jack of three trades, master of one: Ars reviews the Motorola Atrix 4G

Jack of three trades, master of one: Ars reviews the Motorola Atrix 4G

The Motorola Atrix 4G has a lot on its plate, given that a core part of its job description is that it must interface with other gadgets, including a webtop computer made specially for the occasion, known as the "lapdock." Like many other recent smartphones, the Atrix also has an availalbe media dock accessory that will allow it to (eventually) stream HD video in all its 1080p glory to any display that takes HDMI input or has DLNA support.

While we were very excited about the concept of a phone that could by turns wear three hats (webtop, large-scale media device, phone) it turns out that we liked the Atrix best when it was working alone, for better and for worse. We put the Atrix, the lapdock, the media dock, and all possible combinations thereof through our rigorous review process, and found that while we like—even love—the phone and the idea of the webtop, the execution of the latter isn't quite there yet.

The Motorola Atrix 4G: the best hat is the one you're comfortable in

The Atrix is one of the phones trying to reel itself in from approaching tablet sizes— the screen measures 4 inches, and has a gorgeous quarter-HD resolution of 960x540 that approaches the iPhone's retina display. The colors are bright, saturated, and make the phone pleasant to look at. In their teardown of the Atrix, iFixit also noted that the actual LCD is separable from the Gorilla Glass front panel. For the screen-shatter-prone, this means there may be impact cases where the front glass shatters but the LCD is unharmed. A panel of Gorilla Glass is cheaper to replace than the entire front assembly, as must be done with other smartphones, so that's a move of mercy.

Physical buttons are kept to an absolute minimum on the Atrix— the four standard Android buttons that sit along the bottom are part of the capacitive touchscreen, and there's a volume rocker on the right edge. The sleep/power button has a slightly unusual placement, centered where the top edge of the phone curves into the back. The location isn't as bad as it sounds, and is convenient for either index finger when you're picking it up with one hand. Unfortunately, the button is flush with the surface inside a recession and doesn't have much of a tactile response, so it can be hard to feel if you're pressing it hard enough.

In a similar vein, the phone has only two ports: a micro-USB for charging, and an HDMI port for media. The HDMI allows the Atrix to transmit power and its interface to the lapdock, which we will get to shortly, and to play audio and video on a larger screen through the media dock, which we will also get to shortly.

In the past, I've found the performance of most Android phones to be choppy when swiping between screens, scrolling, or opening apps. The Atrix is the first Android phone that doesn't annoy me with this problem—transitions in Android 2.2 Froyo are smooth, as is scrolling or swiping. The smooth and snappy feel of the phone can likely be credited to its 1GHz dual-core Cortex A9 processor and 1GB of RAM. Likewise, games are very fast and responsive, though the Web browser still seems to struggle occasionally to keep up with pinch-zooming; often, the phone acts like it has to reload the entire page just to zoom in or out.

We ran a few benchmarks in order to compare the Atrix to other models in a similar class, and the Atrix is extremely fast.

The Atrix punished other comparable phones in its Quadrant benchmarks, shown above. To be fair, the most recent generation of phones came out between a year and six months ago. But the Atrix is a harbinger of the generation of phones to come, where the most competitive will be packing dual core processors of at least 1GHz and at least 1GB of RAM. And a beautiful generation it will be.

The Atrix also soundly beat the iPhone 3GS and the Nexus One in running Sunspider. It seemed to vastly underperform when running Linpack, as shown above, a result that probably has a fair amount to do with the fact that it's still on Android 2.2.

While the modem built into the Atrix, a Qualcomm MDM6200, can support network speeds of up to 14.4Mbps, I wasn't able to get even close to that limit. Granted, I rarely saw all five reception bars present and accounted for at the top of the screen, but the area I am in is covered by AT&T's HSPA+ level network, which is a slight step up from 3G. The fastest speeds I saw out of the Atrix were 3.76Mbps down, 0.33 up (it stuck to a a 0.3Mbps upload speed regardless of reception) while at the same time and in the same location my AT&T iPhone 3GS was getting 2.10Mbps down, 0.22 up on 3G.

Call quality is great on the Atrix, even when the reception dropped down to a single bar. The external speaker, which like the sleep switch sits where the back of the phone banks into the bottom side, is fine for phone calls. As you'd expect, the sound quality you get while playing music isn't stellar, but would work in a pinch.

The preview that shows up on the LCD screen when you open the camera application won't give you the greatest confidence, but the back 5MP camera's shots actually turn out quite clear. There's no tap-to-focus, but the autofocus works quite well in non-macro situations.

The Atrix's rear-facing 5MP camera
The iPhone 3GS's 3MP camera

In the cell-phone tradition, the built-in flash is made of two LEDs that help the camera out on low-light situations, in which the camera on its own fares pretty badly. In a comparison shot, the Atrix turns out truer colors than the camera in the iPhone 3GS, and had an easier time resolving color tone to the relevant parts of the picture.

Atrix in a low-light setting with flash
The Atrix in a low-light setting, no flash

The 720p video the back camera churns out is a little grainy, but decent for a phone. To its credit, the camera adapts fairly quickly in going from light to dark shots.

A drive on a rainy day.

Moving shots look okay, but the camera has virtually no image stabilization, so whatever shakes you might have in your hands are going to make an appearance in your videos. Videos can also be taken from the front camera, though the 720p video from the back camera puts the front's VGA resolution to shame.

The front camera's resolution is pretty low, best for video chatting.

The battery has a smallish capacity, 1930 mAh, and is rated at 530 minutes of talk time on GSM and 540 minutes on WCDMA. With very light use, dealing mostly with a moderate number of message alerts, a few texts, a few pictures, and the occasional app download, the battery was down below 5 percent after one day and 30 minutes. Even with the brightness manually turned down below 25 percent, the screen occupied the largest part of the battery's efforts: 41 percent to idle time's 39 percent. This is good news and bad news: even when the screen's brightness is way down, it doesn't look dark and is still nice to look at; at the same time, it appears you only have so much control over one of the biggest battery killers.

Popping the back off the phone reveals the battery and the SIM card slot. A slot for a microSD memory card is at right angles with the SIM and can manage up to 32GB in addition to the Atrix's internal 16GB of storage.

The Atrix's Motoblur experience

The Atrix is running Android 2.2 Froyo, and sadly not the newer Gingerbread; however, as we mentioned before, it's faring pretty well with it. Like a few of the newer Android phones, the Atrix is also running Motorola's custom skin, named Motoblur. In previous versions, Motoblur was overly intrusive. That's no longer a problem, though many of the features of the skin seem a bit redundant given the capabilities of Android.

For example, one of Motoblur's big selling points is the widgets it can create for social networking services, messaging, and e-mail. While the widgets offer little preview snippets of text from new messages that are good for getting the gist of what your correspondents are saying, the phone also puts alerts for all new messages in a pulldown menu at the top of every screen. The widgets have the benefit of a preview, but you have to be on the right home screen to see them and you can only fit a few per home screen; the menubar alerts only inform you that you have a message (unless you only have a single new message, and then you do get a preview), but they're accessible with one touch from anywhere on the phone.

Motoblur lets you populate your homescreen with widgets that will update you on your latest messages

I found in using the phone that I preferred the pulldown menu, though even from here I was still routed into a Motoblur-skinned area (my e-mail run though Motoblur was white text on a black background, and my e-mail through the Android app was the opposite). This is what happens when you stubbornly set up your Google account on the phone in addition to the Motoblur account so you can handle e-mail in the independent app.

If you prefer to handle things through widgets, though, Motoblur is easy to use, and the system for placing, arranging, rearranging, and sizing widgets is very intuitive. Routing your stuff through Motoblur also has some advantages, including the ability to remote-wipe the phone via a Web interface. Some of the widget options have limited usefulness but could save you many treks through the settings menus, such as on/off toggles for airplane mode, GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi.

The Lapdock: Atrix, that webtop hat doesn't look so great on you

The Atrix's ability to dock into a thin and light webtop computer, known as the lapdock, is meant to be one of the phone's biggest selling points. A set of ports flips out from the back of the computer, and once the phone is saddled up, a window with the phone's Android interface and dock of Web applications appear on the lapdock's screen. The experience is powered entirely by the phone's hardware as the lapdock has none of its own, save a battery. While the lapdock as powered by the phone was serviceable, it doesn't follow with the great experience of the Atrix itself.

The Atrix's gateway to existence as a webtop flips out of the back of the lapdock.

The expectations for a device like the lapdock can't be much higher than for a netbook, but we found even basic functionality to be a bit rough. Scrolling through the phone interface on the lapdock was a pain: once you clicked and held on the trackpad, you could move down or up through the phone's screens; however, the cursor on the screen would also move, meaning that you can only scroll so far before you have to reposition the cursor and start over again. You also can't scroll in the lapdock's Firefox or Facebook windows the same way you can in the phone's window, and having to switch between the two methods for the same hardware can be frustrating. The trackpad in the lapdock is crying out for multitouch, especially two-finger scrolling, but the functionality just isn't there.

Users can turn the trackpad on and off by double-tapping it near an LED in the corner. We accidentally set this off numerous times, and nothing on the screen will alert you that you've shut down the trackpad. The keyboard was comfortable even though it feels shortened vertically, as if to make room for the trackpad (which is pretty large for the computer's 11.6 diagonal inch footprint).

I was able to type on the chiclet keys naturally, but there were some pretty serious delays between a keypress and a character appearing on the screen, especially when the lapdock was dealing with a larger number of open tabs. By far the most frustrating result of this came when I tried to delete text by holding down the Backspace key, as the delay always meant I deleted a few more words than I intended.

The lapdock has two USB ports sitting next to the DC jack, so I tried out an external USB mouse. It worked with the computer instantly, but the phone interface didn't quite know how to deal with the mouse's scroll wheel. At the start of a scroll, an app in the left-most column would be highlighted, and the highlight would travel down through that column of applications as I scrolled. A little weird, but better than trying to orchestrate an imitation of multitouch scroll with click-and-dragging (though this still worked with the USB mouse too, if that's your thing).

Lapdock's USB ports and DC jack.

The lapdock, self-sacrificing and generous gadget that it is, will charge the Atrix's battery from its own if the Atrix's battery is less than full, even if the lapdock isn't plugged in. The lapdock also has no headphone port to call its own, but the Atrix's headphone port is still fully functional.

One of the best aspects of the lapdock is that it interfaces with the Atrix pretty seamlessly. Nothing special needs to be done before popping the phone either in or out of the dock, and it takes only 10-15 seconds before the interface is loaded and ready to use. After closing the lapdock and leaving the phone docked, the phone pops up an option to become a digital clock face for the time being.

As for the physical aspects of the lapdock, it weighs about the same as a standard netbook at 2.4 pounds, though it is only 0.65 inches thick. Most of this weight is concentrated in the extra extension at the back of the computer where the Atrix dock station pops out and, presumably, where the battery is stashed.

The battery's life seems to be around 6-8 hours with five or six tabs open and a few apps running on the phone at a low brightness if the Atrix's battery is fully charged (there are no official battery life estimates). We wish we could track this more closely, but the battery indicator at the top of the lapdock's screen will only give you percentage figures for the phone's battery, and not the lapdock's.

In the battery menu, clicking an option for the "laptop dock battery" opens a window that directs you to push a button along the front edge of the computer below the trackpad. The button lights up a sequence of five lights to approximate for you how much battery you have left. Though this is sadly vague, you won't spend as much time worrying about the lapdock's battery as the Atrix's— when charged fully and left in standby for two days, the lapdock still lit up all five battery indicator lights.

The tiny white spot on the front is the battery indicator button.

Still, given the lapdock's $300 price tag, you would expect the performance of a baseline netbook, at least as far as Web browsing goes. The lapdock struggled to deliver that, even though all that can be asked of it is some light to moderate Web browsing. The ability to access the Atrix's interface and still be able to text or take calls is cool, but the functionality has some rough edges that would only grate on users more as time wears on and their gestures become more practiced and fluid while the lapdock remains slightly pokey.

The lapdock appears to be running a version of Gnome, which Ryan Paul will fully examine in a follow-up piece.

The media dock: the better-looking, possibly overpriced hat

In addition to the lapdock and the Atrix itself, there's also a media dock available for the Atrix. Plugging the phone into the dock makes three options pop up on the phone's screen: one for the phone to recreate the webtop experience on your display, another for it to go into entertainment center mode, and one that turns it into a widget clock.

While the webtop experience is still iffy on a large display, it looks beautiful on an HDTV. There's a bluetooth mouse and keyboard floating around for use with the media dock version of the webtop experience, but we didn't get either of these to try.

The Atrix as a webtop on the big screen

The entertainment center interface works smoothly, and allows users to browse pictures, music, and video stored on the phone. Some media app integration like Netflix or Hulu would be great here, but there's no sign of it. If that's what you're looking for, you could open such a streaming app through the webtop interface and enlarge it to take up the whole screen. The dock also came with a small remote control, which also has the four Android buttons and worked well for scrolling through the various options. The video and picture quality were great; it's unfortunate the entertainment center interface isn't more flexible.

If the entertainment center part is what you're most interested in, it bears mentioning that the experience can be replicated without the media dock itself. The Atrix comes with an HDMI-to-mini-HDMI cable, so situating the phone's charger near your monitor allows you to get the same functionality without paying for the media dock. Of course, in this setup the only way you can control the display is through the phone's screen (which turns into a graphical mockup of the buttons on the physical remote), so you aren't afforded the luxury of sitting back and relaxing as you flip through your photos, unless you have some seriously long cables you can swap in.

A 720p video playing from the Atrix

The media dock on its own is sold for $50 for a standard definition version or $90 for an HD version. It also comes as part of the Entertainment Access kit, which adds a bluetooth keyboard, mouse and the remote, for $190. Users can swap in their own Blutetooth devices, so if you have them, the only thing you're missing out on from the kit is the remote. Still, since we're not big fans of the webtop experience and that's the only interface you gain by the dock, the media accessories seem a little superfluous. That is, unless you're angling to stream Netflix from the phone window of the webtop interface; then the media dock is the way you'll have to go.

Conclusion: it's a shame no one wears hats anymore

As a standalone phone, the Atrix is at a level where phones always should have been in order to run Android. The experience is slicker and snappier than ever, and while the battery leaves something to be desired, this is definitely a great option for someone looking for an Android phone on AT&T. Unfortunately, the Atrix is held back a little bit by features it doesn't have that are still in the works, including AT&T's actual 4G network and the 1080p video that it can't yet record. AT&T is projecting that 4G won't be widespread until the end of this year, and Motorola has said they intend to push 1080p video recording capability to the Atrix in a software update in the coming months.

Recommending the phone is much easier than recommending the lapdock. Conceptually, the ability to interact with your phone using the more robust controls of a laptop is extremely appealing. But if this the best the lapdock can do with the Atrix's hardware, Motorola forced the situation by putting the entire webtop experience on the Atrix's shoulders. The Atrix is as good as phones get these days, but making it responsible for running a webtop environment in addition to its phone duties just didn't create a satisfying, usable experience. Adding in the fact that the lapdock in a bundle with the Atrix is $300, it's hard to get behind it at this stage of execution. Still, we're holding out hope for this idea, especially if the ports on a lapdock-type computer can be standardized for use across multiple phones.

Likewise, the media dock and Atrix setup is tough to recommend beyond what it can offer in terms of convenience. An HTPC is still a better permanent solution, but if you're looking to capture 1080p or 720p videos and then watch them in that resolution almost immediately, the media dock is a fine choice.

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