Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

Saying that the Motorola Atrix is the best Android phone isn't a big deal; that throne gets usurped every few months. But even though the Atrix's accompanying laptop dock is slow and and expensive, the idea behind it is one of the first innovations in mobile technology in quite a while.

Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

Sure, the Nexus S might be the definitive Android experience because it's Google's chosen benchmark device, but the Atrix is faster and better and can Optimus Prime into a netbook. No other smartphone, Android or otherwise, can do this.

This is the feature that I think will inspire its competitors. Rather than turn your attention to your phone when something happens—as you do now—your phone is in your computer. It let's you keep our attention focused. There's zero delay and everything feels completely natural. I want to be able to dock an iPhone into a MacBook Pro, or a Windows Phone into any Windows 7 machine and have the interface there as a window. I want this thing now.

Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

The phone runs Android 2.2 with Motorola's Blur widgets on top of the interface. In short, it's not a whole lot different from any other Android device, user experience-wise. The Atrix is fast, because of its dual core processor, and getting around the UI is as smooth or smoother than the Nexus S.

When docked into the laptop dock or the multimedia dock (which needs a separate monitor, keyboard and mouse), the phone becomes a Chrome OS netbook—a computer in which you're sandboxed into a browser. The upside is that it's a desktop browser. The downside is it's Firefox 3.X, which makes doing anything mighty sluggish, especially on a mobile processor with limited RAM. Swapping in Chrome or the upcoming Firefox 4.X would potentially help.

While having a Firefox does let you do actual cloud-based tasks you can't do as well or at all on a phone, the fact that your Android phone UI is mirrored in a window is the real innovation. You can use your trackpad or mouse to click around your phone's UI, use your keyboard to type and interact with it the same way you would normally. While docked, you can still take phone calls using Bluetooth headset and send texts like normal. And keeps your phone charged.

Being built like a Samsung Galaxy S-series handset is not a bad thing, seeing as that line of phones has sold a metric asston of devices. The back is a sturdier carbon fiber, unlike the plasticky Galaxy S's, and cradles nicely in your hand in a way that previous Motorola Android phones didn't. Other than the power/fingerprint scanner button being recessed and in the top-middle of the phone (to avoid accidental presses), there's not a whole lot to say about the hardware design. It's a solid build, but nothing drastically different than what you've seen.

Using the phone UI to do multitasking actually works well. Always-present apps like IM, Twitter and Email were handled by Meebo, Twidroyd and Gmail, respectively, in their Android app versions. The UI lets you cycle through the open apps as tabs, and right clicking lets you jump directly to an app. This is the only practical way of doing multitasking in laptop mode because the limited resources makes loading different tabs for Twitter, IM and whatever else you're doing is a miserable experience. One task = OK. Many tasks = a lesson in patience.

Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

What I liked most, if it wasn't evident already, was the mirroring of your phone's display on the laptop screen at all times. If it weren't for this, you could easily just buy a netbook from 2009 and be better off.

Growl-like popups alert you to any event that happens on your phone, and the notification bar is expanded to take up the entire top of your laptop screen. Using a mouse on the touch-based screen can be awkward for gestures like swiping up to scroll a list, but overall, it's surprisingly natural.

Its eight hour battery rating (I got somewhere between six and seven, so it's close) is not bad for a netbook, and the laptop dock weighs 2.4 pounds—you know, netbookish. The screen has a decent viewing angle and the hardware never really gets hot, because none of the processing is done inside of it. That's a weird feeling. I miss being able to warm my hands on a laptop.

As for the phone itself, it's pretty standard Motorola Android fare at this point. Call quality is good, and data rates are decent, but 2500 kbps down and 300 kbps up isn't what I'd call 4G. But again, it's an impressively fast Android phone.

Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

Don't try to multitask. Think of the laptop dock as a netbook, limit yourself to netbook-appropriate tasks and you'll be fine. For example, 480p YouTube works alright, but loading 720p is like buying a monkey and expecting it to do your laundry. Adjust your expectations.

Specs
Motorola Atrix specs
Price: $200 with 2-year contract on AT&T;
Laptop dock price: $500 bundled with phone.
Dock price: $190 with Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and remote; $130 solo
Screen: 4-inch, 960x560
Processor and RAM: Dual Core 1GHZ, 1GB ram
Storage: 16GB internal
Battery: 1930 mAh (largest in class)
Camera: 5 mp stills, 720p video. LED flash. 640x480 front cam
Extras: Fingerprint scanner for unlocking

Javascript-heavy sites like New Twitter hurt. Using Meebo's web based chat and toggling back and fort between tabs wastes so much time in loading that you will give up and just do more things on the phone UI because it's faster.

The laptop dock build averages out to be a passable experience, but the 11.6-inch screen is cramped due to all the extra menus and docks and things that are persistently on your screen. The keyboard is not quite full size and gets greasy easily, but it's alright enough to type on. The trackpad isn't a complete abomination, like Google's Chrome OS beta netbooks, but it's not great either. Double tapping on the top left lets you disable it if you're using a mouse. Oh and because your phone docks into the back of the laptop, the screen can only tilt back so far, making it occasionally awkward in different positions.

It's great that you have the option of turning a phone into a laptop via a laptop dock so you can do work while commuting, but the speed limitations means you're still limited in what you can do. It's like digging a ditch with one of your arms amputated: You can get it done, but it takes forever.

As for the multimedia dock, you don't even have the excuse of being mobile for using something this slow. But it is useful as a phone charger, and if you have a spare monitor and a spare mouse + keyboard at your desk, it's decent as an extra interface for your phone, and gets your phone UI nice and big. Otherwise, I don't see a great reason for this dock in the home or in the office.

Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

The Atrix is a great phone, and if you're going to be getting an Android on AT&T, you should be getting this one. Its high resolution screen, fast dual core processor and decent battery life smells great for Android folks.

However, even at the discounted price of $300 after rebates ($500 for the bundle, with the phone being $200 solo), the laptop dock isn't a great deal for something so slow. Sure, the ability to dock, charge and use your phone on a laptop is brilliant—and a thing I want every phone manufacturer to implement—but actually using the Firefox on the dock is like using a netbook. And nobody wants a netbook. [Motorola]

Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook
Motorola Atrix Review: Great Phone, Weak Netbook

View gallery »