The Motorola Atrix caused quite a stir when it was announced at CES. It was not only one of the first dual-core handsets at the time, but it is still the only smartphone that can turn into a small computer with a desktop version of Firefox and and Adobe Flash. To fully exploit its hardware and software capabilities, Motorola has devised a plan: create a multimedia dock and a very interesting laptop dock. The concept is radical, and Motorola is the first company to have an implementation that might work – but does it? Is the Motorola Atrix the smartphone that will make Netbooks obsolete? Is this a phone for you? We’ll tell you in this review.
Usage patterns are different for each of us: we all have our own ways of using devices, that’s why it is impractical to write a dogmatic review that simply says “buy/don’t buy”. I find it more useful to tell you what I do with these devices, and how they worked for me. From there, you can figure out how things will turn out for yourself.
I typically check my (Microsoft Exchange) email often, and I reply moderately because with the virtual keyboard, typing is slow. I browse the web several times a day to check news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I run apps: mainly social networks and a tiny bit of games. I don’t make many phone calls – it may add up to 10 minutes per day, if at all. This usage pattern affects both battery life and my perception of which features are important or not.
From the outside, the Motorola Atrix looks like many other high-end Android phones, and you will probably not remember it for its raw beauty. The front is clean, and most of it is black, except for the Motorola logo, the Android buttons, and the notification LED on the upper-right. The phone is much smaller than the other dual-core Android handset that I reviewed recently: the LG Optimus 2X.
The Atrix feels good in the hand (left, in my case) and I really like the fact that the power button on the back is big and accessible with either hand – oh, and that power button is also a fingerprint reader which lets you unlock the phone simply by pressing down, then swiping your index finger. I used to hate the fingerprint reader of my Vaio laptop, because it never really seemed to work as intended – but the one on the Atrix does work fairly well, and I like it better than typing the 4-digit pin.
The back has a nice looking “carbon-like” texture, but it feels a bit plasticy, probably because it is. There’s a camera with a 2-LED flash. At the bottom, the speaker is visible, although discrete – we’ll get to the sound quality shortly.
Having the USB and mini-HDMI ports on the side allows for a shorter device, but that also prevents us from holding the phone properly (with the left hand) when a cable is connected. It’s usually an issue that I have if I want to use the phone while it is charging.
qHD Display (excellent)
With a resolution of 960×540 spread over a surface of 4”, the Moto Atrix is getting really close to the iPhone 4 Retina display, which has 960×640 pixels. The user interface is very crisp, and websites and ebooks are also very sharp and readable. It’s exciting to see Android devices go beyond the traditional 800×640 resolution. The higher pixel count of 960×640 truly does make a visible difference, and it’s a big deal because you use the display *all the time*. In terms of image quality, I would say that IPS displays (iPhone 4, Optimus 2X) remain superior in terms of color rendering and viewing angle. However, I think that qHD can hold its own.
The Motorola Atrix is Unique
We review many Android smartphones, but the Motorola Atrix is unlike like any other. Motorola has made it possible to use the phone as a miniature Linux computer. Yes, the Atrix can run a full blown version of Linux that includes the desktop version of Firefox and support for the desktop version of Adobe Flash.
Laptop Dock (great idea, too pricey): it is via the laptop dock that the other Atrix personality comes alive. Upon connecting the USB and the HDMI port to the Laptop Dock craddle, the Webtop mode activates itself and you are presented with a Linux screen that contains a sub-Android window. Yes – Android continues to run on the side.
The laptop dock has a 11.6” display (WXGA 1366×768, 60Hz) with an integrated battery that effectively turns the Atrix into a laptop/netbook. As you can guess, the dock also charges the phone while you’re using it. It’s thinner than a Macbook Air, but wider, so I suspect that the volumes are comparable. The keyboard keys of the Atrix Laptop dock are smaller than those of regular laptops, so expect to spend some time getting used to it before reaching maximum typing speed (if you ever do).
In the back of the laptop dock, you have two USB ports to connect a mouse (Motorola offers a Bluetooth mouse + keyboard combo too), a USB drive, and other devices. If you’re going to use the dock seriously, I would recommend using a mouse, as the trackpad isn’t that great and does not support multi-touch scrolling – the mouse’s wheel is probably faster and more comfortable.
Thanks to the desktop version of Firefox, sites like Hulu become fully accessible. In contrast, Hulu and other sites currently reject Android devices and tablets when they detect a mobile browser. However, you can only watch videos in 360p, or 460p – at best. In both cases, the frame rate is below 30fps, and you can tell that this is a bit more than what the device is able to handle for now.
Assuming that you are working with cloud services like Google Docs, I recommend working on as few browser tabs as you can, as each tab consumes copious amounts of memory – especially relative to the phone’s amount of memory (1GB), which is comparatively low for multi-tab browsing. Apart from the smaller keyboard, working with the docked Atrix looks and feels like being on a netbook, except that performance is inferior, in my opinion. Going from one web page to another is slower, and you can feel that each web request (a page can contain dozens) seems slower than on a modern netbook, even when using WiFi.
I’m impressed that an early-2011 smartphone can perform “real computer” tasks that well, but in absolute terms, I don’t think that it can replace a netbook yet. That’s even more obvious if you take into account the price of the dock ($499, or $300 bundled with the phone), which makes the combo more expensive than scores of netbooks. The idea is great, but it might take one or two more years for smartphones to truly reach a satisfying performance level and deliver on the promise. Keep in mind that software optimization might accelerate this schedule. Software optimization is always key to performance, no matter how fast the hardware is.
Multimedia Dock: If you have a display, the multimedia dock is a less expensive proposition to turn the Atrix into a desktop computer. At $99, it is much more affordable (provided that you have an HDMI screen+keyboard). With a mini-HDMI and two USB ports in the back, you can still connect a screen, a mouse and a keyboard. Now you have an affordable, tiny Linux computer at your disposal.
Others would rather use the dock to turn the Atrix into a media player. Upon connecting, the dock asks you to choose between Webtop mode and Motorola Media Center. Opt for the second one and you get to show photos or play music and videos. There’s no iTunes equivalent for Android, but a number of online services like Amazon will let you buy digital content. You can also copy files from your PC, but there’s no guarantee that the Atrix will know how to play them back. Although Android can handle more file formats than Apple’s iOS, no handset manages to handle every single one.
If you don’t want to get the laptop dock or the multimedia dock, you can always connect the Atrix to an HDMI display with a cable. By doing so, you will get all the media player features, but the Webtop app won’t work. That’s too bad because it might come handy to use a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard on the big screen.
Dialing: As usual, dialing a number is very easy. As is the case with all Android phones, you have the choice between using the virtual numeric pad and searching for a contact. I tend to call the same numbers all the time, so I like to drop a shortcut on the home page. Unfortunately, the Atrix does not support Android’s direct-dial shortcuts (one tap calls a predefined number). Instead, it supports shortcuts to sub-sections of the Phone app, like to Recent Calls, Dialpad, Contacts and Favorites. Helpful, but not as cool as a direct-dial shortcut.
“4G” Wireless? Not at all: The Motorola Atrix is called a “4G” phone by Motorola and AT&T. It’s even in the official name: Atrix 4G. However, I would hardly call its wireless performance “4G”. In fact, the Atrix is on par with the iPhone 4 (a 3.5G device), and sometime even loses Internet speed benchmarks against the iPhone 4. Let’s face it: the Motorola Atrix gets “3G” speeds, regardless of what name AT&T gives it. At the moment, only Verizon’s 4G LTE deserves the “4G title. Check our Verizon 4G review and our HTC Thunderbolt review if you want more details.
Call Audio quality: Some have reported that the audio quality is “excellent”, but in our tests, we found it to be “good”. There are no particular problems to report, but the Atrix audio quality doesn’t match the Nexus S in our opinion. The latter remains our reference for in-call audio quality. We don’t think that the difference is big enough to warrant choosing one phone over the other (unless it’s your job to be on the phone all day), but it’s always a nice bonus to have.
Virtual Keyboard (very good): In addition to the stock Android virtual keyboard, Motorola had the great idea to include Swype, a keyboard that is based on “swiping” from one letter to the next instead of “tapping”. This usually increases typing accuracy because your fingers stays on the surface of the screen most of the time. This is my preferred method for text input, but if it’s not yours, there’s always the regular keyboard – and at the very least, you can give Swype a try.
Copy Paste: It’s sad to report that Android 2.2.1 does not support a copy/paste function which works as well as it should. Just like on the LG Optimus 2X (and many other Android phones) you can copy from edit fields, but copying from the web browser or from the email app is not possible. HTC Sense does provide a good copy/paste function for Android 2.2 users – but only on HTC phones, of course. For practical purposes, copy/paste does not exist in the Atrix: that’s how I see it. If a friend emails you a cryptic WEP 128 hexadecimal key, you’ll have to re-type it
Web Browsing (excellent)
Thanks to the dual-core processor (a Tegra 2), web browsing is nothing short of excellent. If you use WIFI, or have a very good 3.5G connection, you will instantly notice that web pages load and execute faster than on previous generation (single-core) smartphones. I personally think that this is very important because big “specs” are useless if the user can’t notice anything. In this case, the change is very obvious. However, once a page has loaded, manipulating the page (scrolling, zoom) seems faster on iOS. This is something that Google should improve upon in future updates.
Adobe Flash Support: Flash is fairly well supported on the Motorola Atrix. The phone has enough muscles to handle light Flash sites, and you won’t have any issues when going to your favorite DIY site and watch embedded videos. Games also work, but it’s hit or miss: most Flash games on the web are designed for personal computers and can require a relatively fast processor, graphics card, and often mouse+keyboard as well. Flash on mobile will continue to get better, and we’ve (finally) crossed the point where Flash support starts to be actually useful. Until now, it was a bit “symbolic” in my view.
Google Docs (works): Google has made some changes to the Google Docs site a while back and editing now works within the mobile browser. If you were frustrated in the past, things should be much better now. It’s not really the “ideal” way of working on documents, but frankly, having the option at all is fantastic, and that’s the way it should be. Plus, it’s free, so it’s hard to complain.
Accounts / Email Sync: The Motorola Atrix is powered by MotoBlur, a synchronization software from Motorola. It supports Microsoft Exchange, which is great for work email. While the first version of Blur did not support push-email, the Atrix version received emails almost as fast as my desktop machine. Overall, email support is solid, except for two things: 1/ There’s no email search. To be clear, I’m talking about the email app, not GMail. If you get a lot of emails, it can be annoying to find specific information on-the-go. 2/ Dark color scheme: when I’m indoors, I don’t mind the black background and blue titles, but outdoors it’s not very readable, and there’s no way to change it. Argh, I like the white background and black text so much…
Besides Exchange, popular email services tend to be very easy to set up on the Atrix (email+password). For more exotic services, you might have to enter things like server address etc., but in the end, email should simply work.
Email Sync over USB: “Can I sync my emails with outlook over USB?” is one of the most popular questions. The short answer is: no. Out of the box, you cannot sync your email over USB. Motorola does provide MotoHelper, a utility that should be able to import contacts, but it is fairly basic. For emails, I’ve seen apps like Sync Android with Outlook, but I have never tested any, so I cannot provide an opinion on that. If you’ve tried it, please drop a comment to tell us if it works.
Moto Blur: The Atrix 4G is one of the many phones compatible with the Blur service from Motorola. The idea behind Blur – a typical cloud service – is that the synchronization to multiple services (Facebook, Twitter, Email…) is done one a remote server. You device either checks on a regular basis or is notified when there is something new. It’s useful in several ways: First it can save battery life because your device does not have to pull data from many services. The Blur server does it. Secondly, Blur saves your info, so that if you lose your phone (or reset it), you just need to enter your Blur login to restore the previous Blur settings.
Computer Connectivity (files/content/Internet sharing)
Via USB: Upon connecting to your USB port, you have the choice of using the Motorola Atrix as a USB drive. Managing files over USB can be good or difficult. If you know how to copy data and move files around, this can make life very simple, and put you firmly in control of your content.
However, if you are not comfortable with the many file types and drives/locations/folders, or if you have a huge media collection – managing the files “by hand” instead of having a utility like iTunes can be a hassle. I have very few files to synchronize, so I’m absolutely fine with the idea of doing all this manually.
Motorola’ s MotoHelper software includes a Sync utility. It helps you synchronize your Atrix with iTunes or Windows Media Player in order to retrieve music, videos, photos or podcasts from your computer. It also assists in creating custom ringtones and wallpapers. MotoHelper is no equivalent of iTunes, but it does help a little.
No 3G USB Tethering: Interestingly, I have not seen an option to use the Motorola Atrix as a USB modem. So far, it looks like the WiFi Hotspot is your best bet. It is also my favorite.
WiFi Hotspot: Creating a hotspot is relatively easy. Head to Settings>Wireless&Networks>Mobile Hotspot and check “WiFi Hotspot”. It worked with my laptop, and this is a common feature on Android, so I don’t expect any particular issues. Keep in mind, though, that this function drains the phone’s battery much more quickly.
Photo and Video Capture (Average)
The optical performance of the Motorola Atrix is “OK”, but not great. Photos are not as grainy as the ones taken by the iPhone 4, but they are not as sharp and colorful either. The Atrix is fortunately faster to focus and snap a shot than most Android phones, but it could really use a continuous focus like the iPhone 4 has. This is one of the few points where Android is still clearly lagging behind iOS.
As for video capture, it is pretty much the same: videos are OK. The only thing that bugs me is the lack of macro capability: the phone is 8” away from an object and I can’t get it to focus. You can check out the full-size Atrix photo samples that I’ve uploaded on Flickr
The Motorola Atrix is a very snappy Android phone, and the good news is that this should be noticeable to most users. Processing in general is faster, but I found the user interface and web browsing to be particularly snappy. Expect video games to run at higher frame-rates, too. Although the Atrix uses the Tegra 2 chip, the user interface feels a little faster than the LG Optimus 2X, also powered by Tegra 2. I wish that I had a benchmark to measure this, but this is the impression that I’m getting.
Multi-core: “More cores” is better for the battery life. I know, it can be counter-intuitive, but the idea is that phones are very much optimized to do what they do most of the time: sleep. By using multiple cores to get the job done, the handset maker allows a sudden burst of power consumption, that will be offset by a quicker return to a sleep/waiting mode. It’s actually worse to wake up a bunch of components, rather than having them wait for a slow process before they can all return to sleep.
Neocore 3D benchmark (read this!): I have seen many graphics that show the Atrix losing badly to the LG Optimus 2X in the Neocore Benchmarks. As you know, both phones are powered by the same Tegra 2 at 1GHz, so we should expect similar results. The Atrix has a 1GB or RAM while the Optimus 2X has only 512MB, but that should not make a difference in Neocore. So why does the Atrix score only 55fps, while the Optimus 2X gets 74fps?
It’s simple: the explanation lies in the different screen resolutions. The Optimux 2X has a 800×480 display, that’s 384,000 pixels. The Atrix has 950×540=513,000 pixels. So, while both handsets can process the same number of pixels per second, the Atrix is slower because it has more pixels to deal with, which negatively impacts the frame-rate.
800*480 = 384000 pixels * 74 FPS = 2.8 M pixels per second
950*540 = 513000 pixels * 55 FPS = 2.8 M pixels per second
The bottom-line is that you might get lower FPS, but more details, if games use the native resolution of the Atrix. The thing that game developer should do is to allow users to chose a lower resolution to boost FPS – back in the Doom days, we used to play at 320×240 to gain FPS…
Gaming (very good): Thanks to its GeForce graphics, the Motorola Atrix is at the top of the Android gaming hardware choices that you might get. In fact, our tests have shown that the only contender is the Optimus 2X, also powered by Tegra 2. Right now, it is up to developers to step up and launch titles as nice as Infinity Blade. This hasn’t happened yet, but in the future, we should expect to see more cross-platform titles, just like it is the case on game consoles.
Speaker quality (excellent): despite its small size, the Motorola Atrix’s rear speaker packs a lot of punch. The sound is powerful and clear, making entertainment that much better. And because the speaker is black, it is not very noticeable if you glance at the device without paying attention.
Battery Life (very good)
I was pleasantly surprised by the battery life of the Motorola Atrix, which is 1.5 days with my normal use. I can basically forget to charge it one night and have a usable phone on the day after until I’m done with work. In contrast, I have to charge the Optimus 2X every night. The HTC Thunderbolt needs charging even more often…
This probably has something to do with the Battery Manager that Motorola has added. It basically reduces things like synchronization intervals, and even lets you turn off data completely at scheduled intervals. I didn’t try to customize things too much, and left it at the out of the box “Maximum battery saver”, which is what most people would do I imagine.
As a great bonus, I also found the Atrix to charge fairly quickly. I really need to measure and document this, but it was fast enough to be noticeable. Check our Android Battery Life page as it contains tips to make yours better.
The Motorola Atrix is a very powerful Android handset, one of the two fastest in the market right now. However, it is more than that: Motorola had the vision and the technical capabilities to give it a second “computer” personality. It is something that has been talked about in the industry for some time, but Motorola is the first company to create such a good implementation. It works well enough to replace a laptop for now, especially if you take the price of the laptop dock into account. The multimedia dock is a more affordable option to turn the Atrix into a computer.
Although fascinating, the success (or not) of the “computer” aspect of the phone should not influence most prospective users all that much. As a stand-alone Android smartphone, the Motorola Atrix is simply one of the best and fastest out there, and if you compare it to the Optimus 2X, it has the advantage of having a higher resolution display, a smaller form factor and a better battery life.
I hope that this review has helped you understand the pros and cons of the Motorola Atrix. If there is something that I have not covered, or if you would like to share your own opinion, please leave a comment at the bottom of this page. You can follow me on Twitter @hubertnguyen, and get the best news from this site by following us on Facebook.com/ubergizmo (click the “Like” button).
Even more reviews:
Apple: iPhone 4 Review, iPad Review, iPad 2 Review, MacBook Air Review, Macook Pro Review
BlackBerry: BlackBerry Torch Review, Blackberry 9700 Review
Windows Phone 7: HTC HD7 Review, Samsung Focus Review, HTC Surround Review