What's hot: Fast 1GHz dual core smartphone, innovative docking accessories.
What's not: Lapdock is terribly expensive, cameras are just OK.
Oct. 2011 Editor's Update: read our review of the Motorola Atrix 2 that replaces the Atrix.
Reviewed March 10, 2011 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Upon release, the Motorola Atrix 4G on AT&T is the highest spec Android smartphone on the market. While this garners some temporary attention, it’s fleeting since top dog smartphones hold that title at best a few months before a new model with even better specs comes along. So Motorola’s going for novelty and innovation with the Atrix: it docks and turns into a laptop of sorts. Seriously cool and definitely attention-getting. In case that’s not your thing, Moto has an HD Multimedia Dock with Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and HDMI that turns the Atrix into your home computer (of sorts) or HD TV companion.
Excellent on both counts, and Motorola knows it: they say all of their future high end Android smartphones will have this transformative capability, powered by Webtop, a lightweight Linux environment that’s also used for instant-on applications in notebooks. Innovation always comes at a price, and that means the Lapdock is keenly pricey at $500 without contract and $300 with a 2 year contract that requires AT&T’s $20/month tethering data plan. We suspect that Motorola’s hardware margins are quite high on the Lapdock (an 11.6” shell of a notebook with no CPU, RAM or GPU), and hope the price comes down once they’ve milked the early adopters. The HD Multimedia Dock is a more reasonable $189 (no contract required or offered) and it includes the Bluetooth mouse, keyboard and a remote. Motorola also offers just the HD Dock for $99.
But first, let’s look at the Motorola Atrix 4G itself: the Atrix is a very capable Android OS 2.2 Froyo phone with the less than adored Motoblur UI and social networking services. It runs on a dual Core 1GHz Tegra 2 CPU (the first smartphone to ship with the Tegra 2), and it has a higher resolution display than other Android phones: 960 x 540 pixels vs. the usual 800 x 480. It has 4G HSPA+ on AT&T’s network (not as fast as LTE 4G but potentially faster than HSDPA), a gig of RAM, dual cameras and a 4” LCD. Pretty nice for $199 with contract.
The Atrix is a good looking phone that fits nicely in hand despite its 4” display (it’s not much bigger than the iPhone 4). It’s a plastic phone though, and lacks the chic look of the Moto Droid and Droid X. The black back has a diagonal houndstooth pattern in silver and it’s not glossy or slippery. The micro HDMI and micro USB ports are together on the phone’s left side (both ports interface with the lapdock and HD Multimedia dock and basic dock) and the 3.5mm stereo jack is up top. The Atrix has a biometric fingerprint scanner, a feature we haven’t seen on a consumer handheld since the old HP iPAQs. The scanner is up top and doubles as a mechanical on/off/wake-sleep switch. Just press the scanner down until it turns the phone on or wakes it.
The micro HDMI and USB ports.
The fingerprint scanner.
AT&T and Motorola don’t include a video chat app for the front facing camera. So far Fring doesn’t work and Gtalk doesn’t yet support Froyo but the new and free Qik for Atrix does work. The main rear 5 megapixel autofocus camera takes passable shots, but the camera isn’t as good as the HTC Aspire 4G’s or the Motorola Xoom tablet’s. 720p video quality is fairly good, and the Atrix has a bright dual LED flash.
The 4”, 960 x 540 LED backlit display really packs the pixels in. The result is sharp text and good looking photos but icons and text are smaller and harder on the eyes compared to the 4” 800 x 480 Samsung Captivate and 800 x 480 HTC Inspire 4G with its 4.3” display. If you’ve grown accustomed to Samsung’s surreally color saturated Super AMOLED displays, the Atrix’s panel likely won’t wow you, but it is nonetheless a very good display. Like all high end Android smartphones, it has an ambient light sensor, an accelerometer and a proximity sensor.
In terms of horsepower, the Atrix has plenty. It’s an extremely fast phone, and it benchmarks at 2481 in Quadrant vs. 1704 for the single core Inspire 4G (that’s a really great number for a single core 1GHz CPU) and 1512 on the Dell Streak 7 tablet with a Tegra 2. The phone has a gig of RAM (that’s a lot for an Android smartphone), 1.47 gigs of application storage and 10.7 gigs of internal storage as well as a microSD card slot (no card is included).
How does it feel? Fast. No lags, no pauses and the only other phones that come close are the HTC Inspire 4G and Samsung Nexus S (the Nexus S has a single core Hummingbird but runs a clean version of Android Gingerbread). If you’re a power user who bogs down Android phones with lots of running apps, the Atrix is a fine choice. If you’re thinking of upgrading to a Captivate, yet the Atrix is faster.
The Nvidia Tegra 2 has a hardware GPU, and the phone performs well with 3D games. Thanks to the fast CPU and GPU, Adobe Flash 10.1 is actually useable and we didn’t experience any of the annoying slowdowns when playing full Flash video embedded in web pages (watch our video to see it in action).
AT&T Navigator, AT&T Family Maps and Google’s Maps, Navigation and Places are bundled. With all we found the GPS to be quick to get a fix and reliable when traveling. The speaker is loud but distorts near max volume, though it remains clear enough to be heard in a sedan.
Though we’re not fans of Motoblur and its required Blur account creation (who needs yet another account?), it doesn’t get in the way of using the Atrix 4G. Motoblur widgets can be turned off and speed isn’t impacted (it does use about 20 megs of RAM, but with a gig, who cares?). As per usual with AT&T, installation of non-Android Market apps is blocked. That means you can install apps from the Market to your heart’s content but you can’t side load apps from an SD card or from other sources such as unofficial app markets or beta sources. Those of you who are technically savvy can root the Atrix and enable installation of non-Market apps (visit XDA-developers.com for that info).
Call quality is excellent: Motorola has impressive voice and DSP technology and our calls were loud and clear on both ends. The Moto is a nominally 4G device with HSPA+ rather than LTE. T-Mobile uses HSPA+ and we’ve seen some very good numbers in bandwidth tests, but so far, despite the H+ symbol on our home screen and the supposed presence of AT&T HSPA+ in our area, we got no better than typical 3G HSDPA download speeds between 1.5 and 2.5 megs down and 300k up (though the phone has HSUPA, AT&T is currently capping upload speeds on all phones except the iPhone).
Battery life should be wonderful thanks to the 1930 mAh Lithium Ion battery since that’s a very high capacity battery for a smartphone. But we found we had to charge the Atrix nightly with moderate use. Granted, it does a bit better than the HTC Inspire that has a relatively low capacity 1230 mAh battery, but our Atrix didn’t trounce the HTC.
Here's our 22 minute Motorola Atrix video review where we cover the phone, Lapdock and HD Multimedia Dock.
The Motorola Atrix is currently the best Android smartphone on AT&T (the HTC Inspire 4G comes quite close and that’s a tight race). But its real selling point is the super-accessory options that turn the phone into something more than a phone. The Lapdock sells for an absurd $500 without contract and $300 after $100 rebate with a 2 year contract and added data tethering plan. That’s a crazy amount of money for a shell of a notebook with an 11.6” display, battery and no brains. That’s right, there’s no CPU, GPU or RAM inside. It’s a MacBook Air-thin device with a lovely design, smallish chiclet keyboard, USB ports and a sharp and acceptably bright display. It has a somewhat larger footprint than 11.6” notebooks and netbooks thanks to the extended back area that houses the swiveling phone dock.
The Atrix does all the heavy lifting; providing the computing and memory to run the Lapdock. It does this via the Webtop app on the Atrix that provides the Linux version of Firefox complete with Flash and a file manager. Dock the Atrix at the back and up comes Webtop in a fairly quick and stable manner. We applaud Motorola for getting this working so seamlessly and automatically—no geek skills necessary. The Webtop launcher at the bottom of the Lapdock’s screen (similar to the Dock at the bottom of Mac OS X) has icons for Firefox, the file manager and a handful of Android apps like contacts, the phone app and Facebook. You can run all Android apps installed on the phone on the Lapdock display either in windowed mode or stretched out.
The Lapdock has its own battery and it charges the Atrix even when not plugged in: lovely. It weighs just under 2.5 lbs., which is less than the average 11.6” ultraportable and is slimmer than an issue of Martha Stewart Magazine. The USB ports support USB host, and that means you can plug in flash drives and USB mice and keyboards. USB 3G/4G modems won’t work because there are no drivers to make them work on the Atrix and Webtop.
No doubt, this is the future of computing where our key files, social networking apps and identities and favorite web sites fit in a smartphone that only needs a keyboard and larger display to do real work. But for now, even a dual core mobile CPU isn’t smart enough to power a wide range of non-mobile apps, so we’re left with browsers and file managers—no Photoshop for you. You can indeed watch native Flash videos in YouTube and Hulu with performance that’s on par with a netbook. Frame rates aren’t great but videos are mostly watchable. Using Google Docs on the web proved quite slow, so we’d suggest you stick with the Android Quickoffice that’s pre-installed on the phone. As you can tell, we love the innovation and idea behind the Lapdock, but we wouldn’t spend more than $199 on it given what it can do.
The HD Multimedia Dock Kit
The HD Multimedia Dock Kit does the same things that the Lapdock does, but it’s designed for more stationary use. The kit includes a dock with USB ports and HDMI out, a lovely Bluetooth Moto keyboard (sold separately as well for $70), a Bluetooth mouse, charger and multimedia remote. Plug in the Atrix and you can use Webtop on your monitor or TV, or select straight multimedia out to play videos. Both sound and video route out through the HDMI port and the Atrix comes with an HDMI cable. You can plug the Atrix directly into a TV or projector for multimedia presentations and video, but it won’t run Webtop without the Lapdock or HD Multimedia Dock (though XDA Devs may find a way to enable it via a hack). The HD Dock kit isn’t a bad deal at $189 and you get a very nice Bluetooth keyboard in the deal. Motorola sells the HD Multimedia Dock separately as well, though we haven’t seen it stocked in AT&T stores as a solo item.
The Motorola Atrix 4G is one of the best phones on AT&T. It’s the first dual core 1GHz Tegra 2 phone and it’s very fast. The resolution is quite high, though it may be too high for those with poor eyes. It has a large 1930 mAh battery, dual cameras (video chat finally moves beyond the iPhone 4 on AT&T) and plenty of storage. But the real kicker is the Lapdock and HD Multimedia Dock. Though expensive, the Lapdock gives you notebook ergonomics and Adobe Flash on a larger display. It’s certainly expensive, but it sets the Atrix and future high end Motorola Android phones apart from the superphone pack.
Pro: Fast, high resolution display, fingerprint scanner, works with innovative accessories like the Lapdock.
Con: Motoblur still isn't our favorite manufacturer enhancement of Android. Rear camera takes just OK photos.
Price: $199 for Atrix with 2 year contract. $499 without contract. $499 for Lapdock ($299 with contract and tethering data plan add-on). $189 for HD Multimedia Dock kit.