atrix 2 review 04

Introduced earlier this year, the original Motorola Atrix was praised for its dual-core processor, impressive graphics performance and more importantly, its ability to turn into a full-blown Linux computer. Seven months later, here comes the Motorola Atrix 2, an improved version of the same original concept, but with newer hardware, display, and updated software.

How big of a difference is there between Atrix and Atrix 2, and most importantly, is this an Android smartphone for you? In this review, I’ll go over “killer apps” like email, Facebook, Skype, the camera capabilities and other critical aspects of the phone. Are you ready? Let’s take a look.

Context

We all use our smartphones differently, that’s why I tell you what I do with them: I check my email (Microsoft Exchange), and I reply very moderately because virtual keyboards are slow to type with. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and stocks (mainly on mobile sites), but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I use a couple of social networks, and I rarely play games on the go. In the evenings, I may use my phone as a TV remote from time to time. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.

Technical highlights

4.3” qHD LCD display (new)
Android 2.3
HSPA+ 21Mbps (new)
63.5 x 117.75 x 10.9mm
Dual-core TI OMAP4 1GHZ, 1GB of RAM
1930 mAh battery
1080p playback (requires an upcoming update)
5MP camera, 720p video capture
16GB on board storage, optional via 32GB microSD

External design

The Motorola Atrix 2 is a cleanly designed phone that has been built with the original Atrix spirit in mind. The new design keeps a 4.3” LCD display, but fortunately, one that does not use a PenTile sub-pixel grid like the Motorola Photon 4G. The screen’s image is clear and does not exhibit the moire effect from the Photon and other Motorola phones.

atrix 2 review 10

The display is better than the one on the Photon 4G and Droid 3

The display uses the same qHD resolution that is now common in the Android world. You can set it up to be really bright if you need to. In terms of contrast, this won’t beat an OLED display which has naturally excellent contrast. In terms of color quality, this is close to IPS displays used in LG and Apple phones (4, 4S) – but IPS gets better view angle, which is not a problem at all for a phone as we look at it straight on. In conclusion, this is a good display – just not the best out there.

Just below the screen, you can find the Android hardware buttons. They are backlit, so you can see them in the dark, but the light goes off to save on battery life, which makes then invisible. the backlight is controlled by the light sensor located at the top of the phone, near the earpiece, and it can take a few seconds for it to realize that the backight is needed. It would be great if Motorola could make it so the buttons are visible at all times

atrix 2 review 20

The Atrix 2 fits well in my hand, and it feels good. I wish that the Power button did protrude more than it does. It is a bit hard to “feel” it, and this is clearly a button that I use dozens of times a day.  I hope that Motorola will take that into account for future designs. The volume buttons are better, although they too could be a bit more tactile.

atrix 2 review 08

At the top, you will find the usual 3.5mm audio jack connector, and on the lower left side, the USB port and the micro-HDMI connectors can be found. I suspect that this location has been chosen to accomodate the Motorola docks and it is great for that. However, a simple USB cable gets in the way if you want to use the phone and charge/sync it at the same time.

atrix 2 review 09

The back cover is made of textured plastic which has a bit of a leathery feel. Interestingly enough the Samsung Galaxy S2, which also has a plastic back cover feels much more plastic than the Motorola design. The cover is very easy to remove if you need to access the battery or the microSD port.

atrix 2 review 02

The Atrix 2 (right) next to the Galaxy S2

atrix 2 review 03

The Atrix, and the iPhone 4S

Basic functions

Call quality (average): The sound quality during voice calls is normal and quite average when compared to most phones that I’ve tried recently, there’s nothing to report on that front. I wished that there was a good benchmark for sound quality, but there’s not. So, in my humble perception, this phone is neither worse, or better, than most phones that I had in my hands for the past 6 months.

Dialing / contacts: dialing a number, or finding a contact is very easy. You can use the virtual numeric pad of course, or head into the contact list and scroll down or type a name. If you have a lot of contacts, creating a list of favorites may help quite a bit. My personal favorite on Android is the “direct dial” shortcut. Basically, you choose a contact and a number, and you create an icon on the home page. Upon pressing it, the call is directly placed. It’s the fastest way to call someone, and I use it all the time.

This Motorola phone also has a “Contact quick task” widgets that lets you select up to two actions (call, email, sms…) for any given contact.The idea is quite good, and i like it, but the actual widget takes too much surface on the home screen (4 icons worth). That’s because the widget features the photo of your contact. I believe that it could have been twice as small if it had used only the name.

Web browsing: the Android web browser does a very good job at rendering pages from “desktop-sized” websites, and of course from mobile sites as well. The dual-core processor should make web browsing a bit faster because this activity can use quite a number of processes that can be split across multiple cores. That said, this remains a mobile phone, so sites like Google Docs and other very interactive services tend to be significantly slower when compared to a computer.

Flash Support: Not surprisingly, Flash is well supported as well (version 11 is preloaded). This means that you have access to a world of small business and other websites that have been built with Flash. If you have never used an Android smartphone before, I need to set your expectations properly: when compared to a computer, Flash is still slow in absolute terms. Keep in mind that most Flash content has been designed for much more powerful computers, so although “it runs”, the user experience is often not as good as one might expect.

Motorola Software

zumocast

Zumocast: Motorola, is one of the companies that really like adding software to its phones, and ZumoCast is the latest feature that Motorola has embedded in the Atrix 2. Motorola calls Zumocast your Personal Cloud, which lets you stream music, videos and share files to your Motorola phone.

It works by having a ZumoCast client run on one or more computers (PC or Mac), and from there, ZumoCast can communicate to your Atrix 2 and let you do all the things above. Because the service communicates to zumocast.com, there is no need to setup your network, it just works. Zumocast also lets you access files from a web browser if you need to.  This is an interesting addition because out of the box Android doesn’t let you do anything like this.

MotoBlur is a Motorola web service that aggregates updates from a number of social networks on Motorola’s servers. This allows the Motorola phone to pull updates from all social networks at once, instead of pulling information from each of them separately. This may save battery life, and it also allows the phone to display social network updates in a consolidated way. [MotoBlur page]

motorola webtop

Webtop is Motorola’s desktop environment that turns on as soon as you connect this smartphone to a TV/monitor via HDMI. Yes, you read that right, this phone can turn into computer complete with a desktop version of Firefox (I talked about Webtop more extensively in my Motorola Atrix Review, but I basically think that it is a bit too slow for my taste). If you are using a Dock, you can even plug in a regular mouse and keyboard, which is critical to get any kind of serious work done. Google docs, webmail and other productivity sites should just work.

Obviously, this is still a smartphone, and things aren’t fast, but keep in mind that the device fits in your pockets. How you enjoy this depends on what you do. I find it OK to do emails and other text-based applications, but I would not leave my laptop home on a business trip. I love the idea, and Motorola has done a good job of pulling this off, but the concept needs more muscle to back it up.

motorola media link

Motorola Media Link: Out of the box, Android doesn’t really have much when it comes to synchronizing the files between your computer and your smartphone. Media Link is a utility (for Windows) that synchronizes media files and contacts from a computer to the phone. Music files can be synchronized from iTunes or Windows Media Player, while photos and video are simply synchronized from a directory. Contacts can come from Outlook or Windows Mail. [Media link homepage]

“Killer Apps”

atrix 2 review 11

Virtual keyboard: the stock Android keyboard cover the bases and is pretty solid. In general the most important thing on a such a keyboard is the response time, which means the lag time between a key press and a response from the phone. There is always a lag time, but the smaller it is and the more “natural” you will find it to be. That’s because when we have tactile interaction with real objects, they react right away (push something, it moves).

To make the keyboard faster, I often disable the word suggestions and other optional features in the settings. You will have to experiment, but keep that in mind. The contrast between the keys and the background could be a little higher too, but I can live with it.

Swype keyboard: Swype is a much better, keyboard option. It has fortunately been pre-loaded on this phone. If you’ve never heard about Swype, it looks and can work as a regular virtual keyboard, but its real power is revealed when you slide your finger from one letter to the next to form words.

It’s very powerful because your finger doesn’t leave the surface of the screen, making the whole motion much more accurate than “tapping” on the screen. I generally find myself typing faster with swype, and even when I don’t use the sliding motion, the keyboard’s response time is noticeably better than the default virtual keyboard.

The weakness of Swype is that it relies a lot on a dictionary to get it right, so when I was trying to type “activesync”, it thought that I meant “quebec”… Swype is great for conversations, but eventually, you may have to fall back to “taps” for slang or technical keywords.

atrix 2 review 12

Email (excellent): Most Android phones have very decent support for email, including personal email like Yahoo, Hotmail and others, but also professional email systems like Exchange. The latter is what I’m using on a daily basis at Ubergizmo and overall, I think that Motorola nailed the email support.

First, when you open your email app, the latest emails are there and you don’t have to wait for the email app to download them. You may not realize it, but the iPhone 4/4S and the Galaxy S2 both download email when you open/go back to the Mail app. I’m not sure if that saves actual battery life, but this is pretty annoying when you’re checking email often.

atrix 2 review 14

Motorola's Social Networks app works very well to check on updates, comment and like

Facebook: I use the Facebook app like most of you, but with Motorola phones, I tend to use their social networks app to keep track of my friends updates. Why? Because Motorola’s servers do most of the pulling job, and send me a big chunk of data when I needed. That’s a little faster and probably more battery-efficient than having a bunch of apps from different networks. I can like or comment Facebook updates from their app, but if I want to upload a photo, I would run the actual Facebook app.

atrix 2 review 21

Google Maps (excellent): As of late, I found the mapping experience to be much better on Android devices, and that certainly has to do with the fact that Google has been improving its mapping application on its own platform, while leaving other mobile OSes in the cold. It’s not a bad tactic to gain an edge, and the net result is that Android users have been getting steady improvements, while others have mostly stagnated.

First, Android users get free turn-by-turn navigation. This is a big deal as this feature can cost quite a bit of money on other platforms. Secondly, new features like “download map area” are introduced on a regular basis. This one is supposed to let you preload an area the size of a city, this is really cool. Here’s how to enable it:

1/ in Google Map, do Menu>More>Labs>enable pre-cache map area

2/ go to the map, select a place, expand the place’s options and choose “pre-chace map area”
In my case, Google Maps has pre-cached the whole city of San Francisco, and it is going to boost Google Map’s speed.

Skype (video chat unavailable, for now): Skype works well for chat and audio calls, but for some reason, the webcams did not work. I tried both in high quality or low quality, and they stayed black despite all my efforts. The problem has also been reported by other Skype for Android users. No other news site  has reported the problem yet, but I’ve tried with more than one Atrix 2, and I’m sure that this will need fixing by Motorola. Hopefully, Motorola is already working on it.

Photo and Video Capture (average)

First of all, I would like to mention that I have taken an uploaded many (full-size) photos with the Atrix 2, and also with the Galaxy S2 (T-mobile) and the iPhone 4S for comparison. They are on our Ubergizmo Flickr account.

atrix 2 09

Photo shot with the Atrix 2

gs2 t mo 09

Photo shot with the Galaxy S2 (T-Mobile)

iphone 4s 09

Photo shot with the iPhone 4S

In terms of imaging, the Atrix 2 is pretty good in broad daylight, but it is not going to break any records. The photo quality appears superior to the original Atrix but it stays noticeably behind the Galaxy S2 (T-mobile version in this test) and the iPhone 4S in low-light conditions. I found the photo quality to be very acceptable for web-usage (Facebook, G+ etc…) if you shoot photos in good lighting conditions. Below is a good example: the photo with the plant is pretty good and I don’t think that anyone will complain about it.

In low light, the story is very different. The Atrix 2 struggles to capture a sharp and clear picture, while the Galaxy S2 (T-mobile) does much better, and the iPhone 4S does even better and is closest to what my eyes can see. This is a difficult setting, but not really much more difficult than your average party or diner, so this is a test that needs to be done. Note that the iPhone 4S is really optimized for low-light shooting, and in the plant photos, you can even see that the photo is a bit over-exposed.

atrix 2 01

Photo shot with the Atrix 2

gs2 t mo 01

Photo shot with the Galaxy S2 (T-mo)

iphone 4s 01

Photo shot with the iPhone 4S

Besides the photo quality, I also find the view angle in the Atrix 2 camera *seems* to be very narrow on the screen. I say “seem” because in reality, it captures photos that are as wide as the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S2. I suspect that Motorola zooms in a little because they use a wide-format.

The video capture leads more or less to the same observations, and at that game, the Atrix 2 is fairly decent in broad daylight – even if it struggles with high contrasts. In the video below, you can hardly see details from the asphalt, while the Galaxy S2 or the iPhone 4S do a much better job with that. That said, both the GS2 and i4S can snap sharper 1080p movies, but I have to recognize that for web purposes 720p is largely enough.

If you use the camera casually, it’s probably OK, but if you like shooting photos that are a bit elaborate, or if you are a bit picky on image quality, this may be a problem. I hope that I gave you a good insight about the imaging capabilities of the Motorola Atrix 2.

Entertainment / Play

Gaming (good): when it comes to gaming, I rated the original Atrix as “excellent” because it truly was back then. The Atrix 2 has comparable performance, however, there are much faster smartphones these days when it comes to polygonal 3D. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy S2 (with the Exynos chip) scores higher than the Atrix 2, and even if we take into account the difference in screen resolution, the GS2 would still win.

This doesn’t mean that the Atrix 2 is whimpy, far from it! There are much slower phones on the market, but I can only rate it as “good” because there are also more powerful devices now.

Video playback (excellent): the video playback is excellent. I tried downloading MP4 1080p videos meant for computers, and they worked flawlessly and looked very sharp on the internal display. Unless MP4 video files come with a huge bitrate (10+Mbps?) they should work just fine. Note that you can always experience incompatibility issues, but that’s another story, and this is a known problem on all platforms.

HDMI output: It is also possible to output a movie directly to a big TV. But the HDMI output is fully utilized only in combination with the Webtop desktop environment. Note that outside of webtop, the Android environment will show up at the normal qHD resolution, which is lower than 1080p. However, some apps like the video playback *may* use a higher resolution over HDMI.

atrix 2 review 19

The speaker design is close the the Atrix 1's, but it doesn't sound as loud

Speaker Quality: The speaker quality isn’t as good as the original Atrix (at least from what I can remember, as I don’t have the phone with me anymore). The sound is OK, especially in a calm environment, but in a louder place, the original Atrix may beat it, and phones like the iPhone 4/4S, or the LG Optimus 2X would be louder too.

atrix 2 review 13

Photo gallery: I like the photo gallery of the Atrix 2, as it shows thumbnails that are slighty larger than the standard ones in Android or iOS, but I can scroll fairly quickly and select a photo that is 3-4 positions away from the center image.

What I really likw about the Motorola photo gallery is its ability to also display photos from social networks (FB, Flickr…) and home server. That is a useful function because I like to offload some of my content off the phone’s storage, but still have the photo somewhere handy.

System performance

When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.

On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important thing. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?

The Motorola Atrix 2 is in the top tiers when it comes to most system performance aspects. however, if you are into (polygonal) 3d gaming, you must know that other phones like the Galaxy S2 are faster at running 3d games.

atrix 2 bench sunspider

atrix 2 bench browsermark

Browsermark, Sunspider: they are tests that measure the speed of Javascript, a key component for interactivity in websites. To be clear, this does not measure “how fast” pages are loading. Instead this look at how fast scripting code can execute. Javascript is used in modern websites for user interface or even complete applications/games.

As you can tell, the Atrix does fairly well, and it is very close to leading smartphones. The iPhone 4S score, which is “off the charts” is very interesting for two reasons: first, it is very high. Secondly, you can notice that the iPhone 4 got a huge boost in speed when going from iOS 4 to iOS 5. This means that software has more to do with Javascript performance than raw hardware strenght.

atrix 2 bench cpu bench

The CPU Benchmark tries to measure the raw number crunching performance of this smartphone. It’s not really an indicator of how good the user experience is, but it shows how much data the device could process.

With the dual-core OMAP 4, the Atrix 2 does fairly well, and it is faster than the original Atrix, although not by much. Looking at the graph, you can tell that there is a steady progress in terms of CPU performance…

atrix 2 bench nenamark2

NenaMark 2 is a graphics benchmark which stresses the graphics processor. Among Android phones, the Galaxy S2 currently rules, but the Apple A5 chip is even faster at 3d graphics. The Atrix 2′s performance is reasonable, but unlike the Atrix 1 which was a gaming smartphone 7 months ago, the Atrix 2 is simply not the fastest Android gaming smartphone out there.

Perceived Performance

Although it is faster than the original Atrix, the Atrix 2 feels mostly the same when it comes to speed. I think that the display, network and software improvements are more important than raw speed in this case. The Atrix 2 does well, the bad is that it’s not the fastest hardware out there.

Battery Life

atrix 2 review 16

With a 1735mAh battery, i would expect the Atrix 2 to perform similarly to the original Atrix, which is 1.5 days, with my particular usage described in the “context” paragraph at the beginning. I haven’t had time to test the battery life in “normal conditions” because I keep over using it with tests and benchmarks, but the phone doesn’t look like it’s abusing the battery.

Conclusion (good)

atrix 2 review 05

I would consider the Motorola Atrix 2 to be a replacement of the original Motorola Atrix in AT&T’s line-up, but I would not upgrade from an Atrix to an Atrix 2. They are very close from one another, but the second edition is obviously better in a few important areas: display, network technology and updates Motorola software. Within the AT&T line-up, the only real contender would be the Samsung Galaxy S2 and here’s what I recommend:

The Atrix 2 has the best Android email function, and it is probably more enterprise friendly than the Samsung Galaxy S2 so, to me, that would be the determining factor if you had to choose an Android phone with AT&T. This phone has a much better email experience than the Galaxy S2.

On the other hand the Galaxy S2 has higher graphics performance, which  is better for games and entertainment. The S2’s different form factor may also attract a another crowd.

If you don’t mind looking beyond AT&T, Verizon is going to feature the Motorola Droid RAZR, which is certainly the most exciting Motorola phone of 2011, and it comes out in a few weeks, so patience may be the name of the game here.

Links

Don’t miss those reviews: iPhone 4S ReviewSamsung Galaxy S2 ReviewHTC Wildfire S ReviewPhoton 4G ReviewHTC Sensation ReviewDroid Incredible 2 ReviewiPhone 4 ReviewSamsung Epic 4G ReviewSamsung Infuse 4G Review.

Filed in Cellphones >Featured >Reviews. Read more about atrix, Motorola and review.

User Comments